‘‘I Can Provide for My Children’’: Korean Immigrant Women’s Changing Perspectives on Work Outside the Home

Keumjae Park

Published online: 21 May 2008

Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Abstract Whether immigrant women’s introduction to paid labor empowers them with greater autonomy or exacerbates their oppression has been debated variously in the scholarship on gender and migration. In this paper, the author examines Korean immigrant women’s perspectives on work outside the home after migration. Based on in-depth interview data, the paper emphasizes Korean women’s own interpretations of work and motherhood, and highlights the ways in which they define and redefine work in relation to other aspects of their post-migration experiences. The analysis finds that income producing work is not empowering in and of itself, but contingent upon other post-migration challenges such as economic downward mobility and women’s changed roles as working mothers. Furthermore, women’s perception of work fluctuates over time. The findings suggest that paid work should not be simply interpreted as an empowering change, but the linkage between work and other aspects of immigrant women’s post-migration realities needs to be more closely examined.

Keywords Immigrant women Women’s work Women’s identity Korean women Immigrant women’s mothering Women’s agency


The study of gender and migration has established that gender relations in immigrant families are likely to be reconfigured through migration and settlement processes [ 10 ], and that multi-faceted changes occur to women migrants’ life experiences as a result of this process. Of the issues most often discussed by students of immigration is whether migration brings liberating changes to women or exacerbates their oppression. One of the key debates in this is the interpretation of

K. Park (&) William Paterson University, 300 Pompton Rd., Wayne, NJ, USA e-mail: parkk4@wpunj.edu


women’s post-migration labor force participation and their changed statuses as working women. In the past, the scholarship had been somewhat polarized between studies (e.g., [ 9 , 16 ]) emphasizing women’s increased bargaining power vis-a`-vis their spouses as a result of income production, and those who focus on immigrant women’s disadvantaged labor market location and the continuing patriarchal ideologies within immigrant communities (e.g., [ 4 , 5 , 12 ]). More recently, a growing critique [ 6 , 7 ] has argued that we need to address simultaneous forces of empowerment and disempowerment as an integral reality of immigrant women under multiple systems of inequality.

The effort to conceptualize immigrant women’s multi-layered experiences in its complexity calls for more nuanced studies on women’s diverse experiences; however, scholars are still struggling to identify ways to theorize and develop research questions to understand more holistically the contradictory forces around immigrant women’s work. One way of handling this challenge has been an analytic separation of different dimensions of women’s experiences such as income, labor market location, roles in the family, participation in ethnic community and analyzing changes in each of these dimensions (e.g., [ 29 ]). While useful in highlighting specific aspects of women’s multi-dimensional experiences, this separatist approach produces some theoretical dilemmas, including artificial truncation of women’s lives and monolithic interpretation of some of the key themes such as work, income, and family ideologies. Furthermore, women’s active involvement in constructing and reacting to various empowering and disempowering realities has been often overlooked, rendering women as victims rather than agents of change in their own life course plans.

In order to remedy the shortcomings of the separatist analysis, this paper focuses on the relations among various domains of women’s lived experiences, as expressed in women’s own narratives of immigration stories. I highlight in particular how women link together, rather than separate, different dimensions of post-migration challenges in order to make sense of and strategize about their new lives in the United States. Using in-depth interview data collected from thirty first-generation Korean immigrant women, I examine their multi-layered and shifting definitions of work and motherhood. The analysis finds that women’s interpretations of work, income, and roles in the family are intimately connected and hinge upon one another, and that women weave together conflicting forces of empowerment and disempowerment into inter-connected realities by exercising agency through interpretation.

Migration and Women’s Dis/Empowerment

A sizable volume of research has debated in the past decade or so whether paid labor empowers immigrant women with greater autonomy. What has come out of the discussion is a growing recognition about simultaneous operation of disempowering and empowering forces that shape immigrant women’s lives. According to this new way of thinking, many of the changes immigrant women face after migration entail both empowering and disempowering elements [ 6 , 7 , 20 , 26 , 29 , 30 ]. For instance, while paid work may allow immigrant women to gain greater


economic independence from men, the needs for income simultaneously make women more dependent on their paid work and therefore prevent them from protesting unsafe and unlawful working conditions in their jobs [ 26 ]. Foner [ 7 ] argued that while wage labor may give immigrant women better bargaining power in decision-making and housework sharing, it fails to change much in traditional gender ideologies and role patterns that still lock immigrant women into subordinate domestic responsibilities. In these studies, the seeming contradiction between empowering and disempowering forces is conceptualized as a fundamental reality for women. In line with this view is Feree’s caution [ 6 ] against imposing monolithic frameworks that assume consistency in working women’s lives which may be, in reality, fundamentally inconsistent.

Indeed, the cultural and structural changes immigrant women experience through their daily lives during settlement processes are often paradoxical and dis/ empowering. I am using the term dis/empowerment to emphasize the coexistence of conflicting forces which empower them in certain ways but exacerbate their oppression in other ways. As the above authors (i.e., [ 6 , 7 , 26 ]) argue, complex elements of empowerment and disempowerment are not mutually exclusive, but concomitantly integrated into immigrant women’s multi-faceted post-migration experiences. The challenge then is how to theorize and analyze the dynamics of dis/ empowerment as lived realities, and move beyond merely juxtaposing conflicting conditions befalling immigrant women. The method of analytic separation is useful in highlighting immigrant women’s multi-dimensional realities, but the findings in separatist analyses often do not go much beyond what has been already known in existing literature. For instance, Parrado and Flipen’s large scale study of Mexican women [ 29 ] found that aside from increased employment opportunities and economic autonomy, migration tends to reinforce women’s subordinate status in most other areas, as evidenced by a higher compliance with traditional gender roles among Mexican immigrant women.

What is missing in this type of analysis is how dis/empowerment in different dimensions of life interplay with each other, and how women experience such interplay as lived realities. The crux of the theoretical dilemma here is two-fold. One is that the analytic separation of different dimensions of women’s experiences frequently leads to an artificial split of women’s lived realities which may be in fact experienced as connected, albeit conflicting at times. The second problem is that the analytic separation is often followed by standardized and essentialized interpretations of key theoretical themes, thereby simply juxtaposing empowerment and disempowerment as parallel forces. For example, income is interpreted as an empowering factor, and traditional gender ideologies in the family are defined as a disempowering force. Less often questioned in the literature is whether income production is indeed interpreted by immigrant women as empowering, or traditional gender dynamics in the family are experienced by women as uniformly disempowering.

I propose that one way to address this challenge is to recognize that the dis/ empowering dualism is a lived reality, embedded in women’s daily routines in work and the family. The crucial piece often missing in existing studies is the idea that immigrant women are the agents in charge of their own everyday realities.


In carrying out their everyday lives circumscribed by conflicting forces, women construct their own interpretations of dis/empowering conditions and organize meanings strategically to lay out paths to adaptation into the new society. Thus, as lived realities, income-producing work and women’s roles in the family are unlikely to be perceived by women as disparate realities; rather, these facets are likely to be experienced as repeated and somewhat continuous everyday practices. In the daily construction of their experiences, immigrant women create their own ‘‘definitions of situations’’ [ 31 ], and it is through their own multi-cultural perspectives that women interpret work, family, and motherhood as empowering or disempowering realities. For example, income from work outside the home is most often conceptualized as an improvement, or source of empowerment by scholars; however, newly immigrant women who are adhering to traditional ideals of mother as full-time caregiver may not feel that their income offsets their compromised roles or decreased autonomy as mothers. For these women, their attitudes about their paid work are fundamentally ambivalent, and cannot be clearly separated from their reduced presence in and influence on their children’s lives and on the family dynamics. Hence, simultaneous dis/empowerment is not an external force that entraps women, but is a flexible reality negotiated through women’s relations to their changing locations within social structures. In this sense, women’s agency is involved in the construction of dis/empowerment for immigrant women.

To highlight this proposition, I examine a sample of Korean immigrant women, focusing on their narratives about work, the family, and their changing class locations through immigration. My analysis adds the following theoretical insights to the existing dialogues on immigrant women’s work. First, empowerment is not inherent in immigrant women’s work, but rather interpretations of work are contingent upon other factors such as class identities and women’s perception of ideal motherhood, and are constantly negotiated and renegotiated by women themselves. Second, women continue to produce and adjust their interpretations of work throughout settlement processes by linking and relating, rather than separating, pre-migration identities, gender ideologies, and post-migration economic conditions and life trajectories. Third, in this sense, immigrant women are active agents in constructing their own realities and these interpretive practices are crucial in negotiating their new identities in the host society.


Between February 2003 and September 2004, I conducted in-depth interviews with 30 immigrant women from South Korea who now reside in the greater New York Metropolitan area. I used the snowball sampling technique to recruit respondents. In order to maximize the heterogeneity of the sample, I chose not to interview more than two people referred by one person, and also considered a few biographical variables in selecting interviewees, such as class/income, job, age, marital status, and years of residency in the United States. Sometimes, I specifically asked interviewees whether they knew a person with a particular biographical profile, for example, ‘‘a recent immigrant living in working to low-income area,’’ or ‘‘someone


who works outside the Korean ethnic economy.’’ The sample of 30 women obtained in this way displayed diversity in age, jobs, and length of residency in the United States. Some of the demographic characteristics of the sample are summarized in Appendix A. In order to protect the respondents’ identities, pseudonyms are used.

The sample was, overall, highly educated, with 60% of the sample with college education. All of the college-educated women claimed middle class backgrounds pre-migration either as professionals themselves or as wives of professional white collar men. Their post-migration class status was more complex. Though the sample was a mixed group in terms of their self-reported income, the vast majority of the sample self-identified with middle to upper middle class, based on a number of other things such as level of education, pre-migration class statuses, or additional asset and income source in Korea (e.g., properties, rent income, and regular remittances from family in Korea). I collected information on five basic areas: immigration processes (i.e., motives, channels, initial settlement, initial perceptions of U.S. society), work history, present life/daily routines, social ties (i.e., family, friends, and support system), and transnational practices. Interviews were conducted at places which the respondents chose such as coffee shops, respondents’ homes, or their businesses.

Korean Women’s Work in the Ethnic Economy

South Korea has been one of the major immigrant-sending countries to the United States since the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act. Korean immigrants largely come from urban middle class backgrounds [ 23 ], and are highly educated. According to Census 2000, 43.8% of Koreans in the United States of 25 years and older have Bachelor’s degrees or higher [ 32 ]. However, upon migration, Korean immigrants tend to experience downward class mobility, as their credentials and job experiences are not readily transferred into marketable qualifications in the U.S. labor market. In order to overcome their labor market disadvantages, Korean immigrants have turned to small entrepreneurships, and have had visible economic success as a group through this venue [23 ]. As a result, many begin to make upward class mobility within the first generation of immigration [ 17 ]. This economic aspect of their settlement processes has been at the center of research interests for the past two decades, and studies [ 13 , 24 , 27 ] have identified women as important contributors to the ethnic economy.

However, it is only in recent years that women’s roles in Korean entrepreneur-ships began to receive closer attention by scholars. Some ethnographic studies (e.g., [ 11 , 18 ]) have highlighted different aspects of women’s work experiences such as women’s claims of ownerships and experiences of gender and race in service work, while others have focused on Korean women’s mothering practices (e.g., [ 15 , 21 ]). These works have broadened our understanding on Korean women’s extensive involvement in ethnic economy and how that affects relations within the family, however few studies have explicitly examined the interpretive mechanisms by which these women perceive their challenging experiences in different domains


and piece together the polarizing forces into inter-connected realities. In addition, relatively little attention has been paid to women’s changing definitions of, and relationships to, work and motherhood, as they make their ways to an economic stability and acculturation. Thus, my discussions below extend existing discussions on Korean women’s understanding of work and motherhood.

Negotiating Definitions of Work

Studies on immigrant women most often associate positive meanings to women’s income-generating capacities through employment outside the home, however, the ways in which Korean immigrant women in this study interpreted their work were far from monolithic. For my respondents, work was neither empowering nor disempowering by definition, but rather had malleable meanings which hinged upon several issues including economic downward mobility, cultural perception of service work, and childcare. Depending upon how women perceived the connections between work and these issues, their attitudes about work fluctuated.

In my sample, about half of the 20 respondents who had migrated as married women begun to participate in work outside the home for the first time after migration. Most of these women have had continuous work history since immigrating. At the time of the interview, these respondents generally expressed that they have come to appreciate the opportunities to work and developed positive identities as working women, however, this appreciation only came in time for the majority of the respondents. Many women instead admitted that they had reacted to work with varying degrees of reluctance and ambivalence at least in the first years in the United States. They cited a few reasons for this perception. First, for those with children, work was a necessity, and not a choice; mothers would rather stay home with children who needed great support in making transitions into a new culture, but they were forced to work for income. Thus, many women viewed work as a direct sign of economic downward mobility which immigration had brought to them, and as a demotion in status relative to their pre-migration statuses as middle class, stay-at-home mothers. Second, all of the respondents’ first jobs in the U.S. were low status jobs such as cashier, entry-level office work, and manicurist; these jobs are not associated with high education and women with college education would only reluctantly take these jobs. The struggle with this apparent downward occupational mobility was more pronounced among the seven women who had held professional jobs pre-migration. However, I also observed a gradual change in women’s perspectives throughout their stories, and reflecting the changes, there were fluctuations in their interpretations of work over time.

Miran’s changing attitudes about work outside the home represent a typical shift in perspectives. Miran is a woman in her late 50s, who has made the transition from being middle class staying-at-home mother to a small entrepreneur after migration. When she first arrived in the United States, she was very much reluctant to go to work leaving her young daughter with a babysitter, however in her 30 years in the United States, she has experienced a change in her perspective on women’s work. She now finds her work fulfilling and productive.


At first, I did not work, because I strongly believed that kids should be taken care of by their own mother. My husband originally had come with a plan to go to graduate school, but what can you do? He had to feed his family. He worked at a company [at first] and I was able to stay home... but in 1974, we came to New York and started a wig business in a Black neighborhood. So, I started to work with him. I left my kids to a babysitter. I had no choice. Luckily, I had a great babysitter, and my older daughter took good care of her younger brother...

I think I had been somewhat ignorant and naive [Before coming to the United States]. I had known very little of the world outside my home. But now, I want to make my own living. I would like to continue to work until I get very old. I feel a great joy when I realize, ‘‘oh, I was capable of doing this kind of work!’’ These days, when I visit Korea, I know that I am not crazy about Korean society. I would not have liked it there [had I stayed]. My friends in Korea do nothing. When I meet them, all they talk about is how they enjoy going to gyms, and saunas. That’s their lifestyles. But I cannot identify with them. Even if that kind of lifestyle symbolizes their wealthy statuses, oh, I could not live like that. After a few days, I find myself really wanting to come back home. I want to work as long as I can. I don’t think about an early retirement.

Like this woman, many women’s narratives illustrated shifting perceptions on paid work over time, with varying degree of dis/empowerment associated with their identity as working mothers. The meaning of work was, then, something that women in my sample had to renegotiate over time. Issues such as downward mobility, status of work, and role as mothers interplayed with each other to frame the ambivalent definition of work.

Downward Mobility and Work

As is the case with many other groups of immigrant women, the majority of Korean immigrant women engaged in paid work for the first time after migration. A typical married Korean immigrant woman is likely to have at least a high school education and to have been a stay-at-home mother of a middle class family [ 25 ]. Studies [ 14 , 22 ] have linked married women’s labor force participation to Korean immigrant men’s occupational downward mobility due to immigration. According to these studies, Korean men’s reduced earning power forces married women to seek employment outside the home for the first time after migration. This was the case with 10 women in my study. Because they began to work in order to compensate for the husbands’ reduced income, the family’s economic downward mobility directly impacted these women’s interpretation of paid work. As a result, many of the women, even those who eventually came to appreciate the opportunity to become income producers, had been often ambivalent about their work, and even reluctant at the beginning of their settlement processes. For example:

I didn’t work [at first]. I refused to work. It hurts my pride to tell you this story. I was told that, in America, women had to help out [economically].


They say women also have to pitch in. But I thought, based on my Korean values, men were supposed to be the breadwinners, and women were supposed to take care of the home by spending the money wisely. I thought only the professional women who want self-accomplishment would hold onto their jobs after marriage. That was how I thought. But when I came [to the United States], my in-law family pressured me to work. I felt that they did it for financial reasons. I began to wonder if they only view me as an additional income source. It hurt my pride a lot. I had a strong feeling of repulsion about working just because I needed money.

This woman eventually decided to work. She began to work as a waitress at a Korean restaurant because she had heard that the pay was relatively good due to generous tips. She felt the work was physically hard and often humiliating, and moreover there was a tension among waitresses over splitting tips. She reluctantly kept working for a few months, but quit the job because her infant son became injured by a small accident while being taken care of by a babysitter. While the money was substantial for her, she decided that it was not worthwhile if she could not properly care for her child. Instead of working, she opted for receiving financial help from her affluent parents in Korea, allowing her to maintain the traditional role of stay-at-home mother. For this respondent, paid labor was a symbol of her downward mobility and her husband’s inability to support his family, rather than an opportunity.

While women generally understood that their income was essential in sustaining the family, bringing in income was not immediately and readily perceived as empowerment as illustrated in the case above. There are additional reasons why earning income was not readily and uniformly received as empowerment by women. In general, immigrant women’s income is most often directly used to cover basic living expenses such as food, housing, and car payment for the family, allowing little extra buying power beyond necessities. It is simply hard to feel empowered when your paychecks are instantly used to barely keep the family afloat above poverty. In addition, in Korean ethnic economy, men are typically paid with the consideration of ‘‘family wage’’ while women are not, and therefore a married woman’s wage is likely to remain lower than her husband’s, allowing him to be still perceived as the primary breadwinner. In case a woman manages a family business with her husband, the business is mostly likely to be under his name, turning the wife into an unpaid family worker and diminishing her claims of economic contribution [ 18 ].

In another example, Hyun, a mother of two daughters then aged 9 and 10, resisted going to work for nearly 3 years. Because her husband’s income was not enough to cover living expenses during this period, they had to dig into their savings. When the savings were nearly depleted, the Lees decided that they needed to go into a small business. Her husband purchased a newly started wholesale business and this time, Hyun had to help him. She remembered how difficult it was to engage in sales in order to make money.

His income was cut deep and it was a hard reality. I agonized over it. I

understood that we couldn’t make it just with his income, but at the same time,


I wanted him to be able to take care of everything, like he used to. But I knew

he couldn’t...

Money was important then, because we were broke. The new business we had started did not generate any profit. So, money was very tight. The fact that I was selling this item to make money, not as some kind of promotion, but to do the sales with the urgency to make living...it was so humiliating.

Her memories about her first work in the United States are thus framed mostly by economic difficulties, guilt for her children, and her sympathy for her husband who experienced a significant status loss. This was hardly an empowering experience for her. In time, she and her husband were able to recover from the initial setbacks, and eventually achieve economic stability, owning a retail business and a home in a New Jersey suburb. She now accepts her work as given; though she would like less hours of work (Her family operates a retail store which is open 7 days a week), she would not want to stay home.

As Hyun’s case illustrates, one of the important factors which affect women’s interpretation of work appeared to be its economic rewards. Being forced to work for pay, many Korean women initially associated their work with the family’s financial difficulties. However, as work becomes a taken-for-granted reality, immigrant women tend to develop more positive and accepting perspectives on their employment. Furthermore, economic rewards increased as Korean families typically moved up to owning small businesses after saving initial start-up capital. Clearly, business ownership, which allowed the women greater income and autonomy, paralleled the respondents’ changing perspectives on work. Thus, there were overwhelmingly more positive accounts of current work, despite long hours and physical fatigue, among women who had longer than 10 years of residency in the United States and owned their own businesses (N = 7).

Perception of Service Jobs

Another issue which shaped Korean immigrant women’s interpretation of work was their perception of work in service industry. Korean women typically work within the Korean ethnic economy either as employees or as co-owners of retail businesses. For instance, Min’s study [ 25 ] found that 75% of Korean immigrants worked in small business settings within Korean ethnic economy. Likewise, most respondents in this study started their first jobs at retail businesses such as fruit and vegetable stores, drycleaners, and nail salons. The jobs in these settings are perceived as physical and unskilled labor by Koreans, which negatively affected women’s perception of their work. Korean culture traditionally gives higher values to white-collar jobs which are associated with college education. Blue collar and service work are generally devalued regardless of the pay levels, because they do not require advanced education. Small scale retail businesses, the lifeline of a predominant majority of Korean immigrants in the United States, are also not highly regarded in Korean culture. Hence, the jobs available for newly immigrant Korean women would be the type of jobs which educated women would have been ashamed of taking in Korea.


Thus, work in Korean ethnic business was not readily considered as an empowerment by many of the respondents, and instead was often described with a somewhat self-denigrating term, ‘‘mak-il,’’ which meant unskilled or low status physical labor that did not require education. For example:

It [working for the first time] was physically hard.... I was not used to work. I got married right after college. I never had had a job before marriage. After immigrating, I had to work under someone else’s management. This also bothered me. The work was merely mak-il [physical labor]. In addition, I did not like being bossed around by someone else.... (Sungok, 15 years in the U.S.)

I know a few women who work at nail salons. I’ve heard them saying how degrading it is to work at a job which involved washing foreign women’s feet and so on. You know, those who come to the U.S. are usually educated women and have middle class backgrounds. But because of the language barrier, they had to work at nail salons washing someone else’s feet...I know that some of them feel extremely humiliated by it. (Jungae, 3 years in the U.S.)

This negative perception of service work was influenced by both traditional Korean values and the women’s pre-migration class identities. Thus, newer immigrants and women who had held professional jobs in Korea were most likely to struggle with the devalued work statuses after migration. Some women dealt with this sense of social demotion by treating their jobs as ‘‘temporary’’ even though they had worked in the same job for years. Others told me that their work did not represent who they were and instead emphasized other aspects of their identities such as being a Christian, being a mother (of academically successful children), or a graduate of a prestigious college in Korea. Business ownerships were also perceived to offset somewhat, though not entirely, the lower statuses of retail work; even though women would engage in the same sales and service work as the owners/ operators of their businesses, they were likely to be conscious of their elevated statuses as owners vis-a`-vis employees.

Thus, these various issues simultaneously framed the interviewed women’s attitudes about their work and income, producing ambivalent and fluid interpretations. Most importantly, downward mobility, income, job statuses, and relative earning power are all inseparable from women’s interpretation of work as empowering or disempowering. This points to the need to understand dis/ empowerment as complex processes linking, rather than separating, different aspects of women’s pre-migration and post-migration experiences. In the case of Korean women in this study, income producing work in what were perceived as low status jobs was interpreted as the flip side of their downward class mobility. However, at the same time, most the respondents considered their lower income statuses as temporary and a necessary part of the settlement process, while dreaming that, one day, they will be one of the Korean immigration success stories through small entrepreneurships. In this sense, women’s income production, albeit insignificant and far from empowering at first, was still viewed as a deposit toward an upwardly mobile trajectory which later becomes a crucial framework for empowering interpretation of their work.


Work and Shifting Definitions of Mother Roles

The trajectory of upward mobility is a key organizing framework for Korean immigrants’ understanding of life in the United States [ 27 ]. This was also a key mediator in linking work and motherhood in my data. The respondents’ emotions to and interpretations of paid work were intimately connected to their definition of ideal mothers. Being a mother was the single most important identity among the majority of my sample; 61% of the respondents picked ‘‘mother’’ as the most important identity label they associated with themselves. Given this, the ways in which women viewed work as empowering or disempowering were closely related to how these women defined motherhood, and how they perceived their work as contributing to or distracting them from fulfilling their versions of the ideal mother. In Korean culture, women’s roles as mothers are highly valued and sanctified, as the culture considers children, rather than the couple, as the center of marriage and the family [ 19 ]. In addition, the extremely competitive educational environment of contemporary South Korean society demands mothers’ extensive involvement in children’s academic progress. For this reason, a mother’s role as round-the-clock supporter, education coach, and supervisor is strongly emphasized. Hence, women’s employment, unless they have a professional career, is often considered as not beneficial for children’s upbringing [ 28 ]. As a result, many middle class women whose husbands earn enough income to sustain the family opt not to work but dedicate themselves to child-rearing. This was largely the mindset with which the interviewed women arrived in the United States.

The new demands of work after migration, therefore, initially were perceived to be in conflict with their devotion to mother roles. Not surprisingly, many respondents felt torn between these two forces, seeing their work as undermining their motherly dedication to children. Thus, the reluctance to work outside-thehome discussed above also was closely connected to their perception of mother role as round-the-clock caretaker. When facing the need to leave children for work, the respondents made careful decisions on whether the economic returns outweighed what would be compromised in benefits for the children. Thus, women with female relatives who could take care of children were overwhelmingly more likely to embrace work and perceive work as opportunities, while women without in-family childcare arrangements frequently experienced work as a compromise in mothering and recalled more negative emotions toward work. Sungok’s experiences illustrate typical struggles and negotiations many mothers in the sample went through. She had been a happily-staying-at-home mother before migration. But only weeks after she arrived in the U.S., she had to go to work at a nail salon. She described how difficult it was for her to go to work leaving her children behind.

It was really hard to go to work leaving my children behind. I would bring them to a babysitter who was an old Korean lady living across the apartment building. My 4-year-old son was a bit mature, but my daughter was only one. In Korea, all she knew was mommy. She used to be with me all day long. Being separated from me was very difficult for her. She would cry, and I


struggled to turn my back to go to work. Every single day was like that. It was very tough on me. I cried too.

This was a heart-breaking experience of disempowerment as a mother for Sungok. She confessed that she did not like the work for this reason, and did not seem to remember if she appreciated at all the income she was bringing home.

Similarly, Injung, who had migrated for ‘‘children’s education,’’ reflected on how heart-broken she felt when she was unable to be there for her kids in the first 4 years in the United States. As soon as her financial situation improved, she cut back her work hours; she was only working during the school hours at the time of the interview.

Even though my kids don’t say it in so many words these days, it is very important that I can help them, and I can be there for them when they come home. I have wanted to do this for a long time. Now, after 4 years [of full-time work], I am able to do this. In America, we are told not to send kids to school if they don’t seem well, and if they get sick at school, the school would call to tell me to take them home. Before [I cut my work hours], I was completely torn when one of my children got sick. I couldn’t leave my sick child home alone, nor send her/him to school knowing [about] the illness. We used to have only one car and my husband and I worked at two different places. At that time, neither of us was easily excused from work in the middle of the day to pick up a sick child at school. It was so difficult to endure. I would tell my children not to call me even if they get sick at school. It was so hard.

These two women’s accounts and others in the study epitomize how disempowering immigrant women can feel as mothers when they are separated from their children by long work hours. Interestingly, for most of the interviewed women, this conflicting feeling about work did not last forever. Rather, many reoriented their cultural values and adapted to their new circumstances as working mothers. This shift was obviously supported by the local subculture of Korean community where women’s labor participation is most often taken for granted to expedite economic stability. As newly immigrant women are assimilated to the ethnic community where mothers’ employment is the norm, their perspectives on work outside the home and their definition of what it means to be good parents in the context of immigration also shifted.

According to my data, the key issue which mediated the changing perspectives was the imperative of upward mobility. In my study, the majority of the respondents expressed overall status loss or downward mobility as the defining event of their immigration experiences. They, however, believed that what they had lost by immigrating would be compensated for by children’s access to better opportunities in the United States. In other words, the respondents’ own disempowerment and sacrifices were believed to be necessary for the children whose life would be better off, being raised in America. Hence, the family’s upward mobility to afford the children’s top notch education soon became the logical imperative, and the responsibilities as mother/parent would soon overlap working for the family’s financial stability. As such, a theme of ‘‘vicarious achievement’’ through the second


generation’s accomplishments was evident in many of the narratives I collected. Illustrating this point was the statement by Kyungjoo, a relatively recent immigrant:

I have several friends who envy me and want to come to the United States. But I would tell them that there are good things and bad things. I tell them coming to the United States might be good for children, but parents would have to give up their ways of life...My American dream is for my kids to go to good schools, good high schools and good colleges, good ones, even if they may not be the best of the best, and to have professional careers which they will enjoy and be happy with. I don’t have a big dream. But people tell me that it is a big dream [laughs].

Likewise, another woman, Yoonmee, expressed her ‘‘dreams’’ about her son’s future:

I would swear that I won’t bet everything on my kids, however I subconsciously wish that my children would live differently than I did. I think networking through schools and communities is very important in this country just as it is in Korea. I tell my son, and also say in my prayer, to become a leader. By this, I mean going into the mainstream, rather than simply making lots of money.

Thus, the interviewed women often projected their children’s future success onto their current disempowerment as immigrants and mothers; the ultimate empowerment for the parents, then, is none other than achieving their ‘‘American Dream’’ by the second generation. From this perspective, the mothers were determined to push themselves to provide for their children’s better life in the best ways they could, most often through their dedication to work and financial stability. Many perceived that acquiring financial stability and being able to raise children in good school systems were crucial for children’s upward mobility in the United States. Here, their disempowerment as the traditional mother—i.e., the stay-at-home caretaker and academic supervisor—is being replaced by the new parental imperative of financial support which is perceived to be essential for improving children’s life chances in the United States.

Thus, several women in my study explicitly expressed conscious awareness of their contribution to provide for their children, whether they earned separate paychecks or co-operated a family business. Ironically, these women found empowerment as mothers through their work by redefining themselves as providing mothers. Okhee’s life story, for instance, illustrate this shift. She came to the United States in the 1970s with her husband who had been a teacher in Korea. Upon arrival, he took a job at a factory in Pennsylvania. At first, Okhee did not have a plan to work, however after only a month in the U.S., her husband suffered a debilitating foot injury which immediately kept him out of work. His medical expenses were paid by his employer, but his wage was not. In an instant, Okhee became the breadwinner supporting her family in the U.S. as well as two children remaining in Korea. For the next few years, she worked at factories, volunteering for overtime work on weekends, in order to support her transnational family until her husband was finally well enough to go back to work. She told me that the biggest change


migration brought to her life was the mental and physical strength she developed by becoming the provider for her family. Thus, ‘‘providing’’ for the family replaced her long-held ideals of nurturing traditional mother, and work became a crucial part of her identity as mother. Similarly, for many of the respondents, working hard to achieve economic stability became a central component of being immigrant parents. In this context, many of the respondents found empowerment in otherwise exhausting work. Work outside the home was thus accepted by the women as an alternative to the traditional mothering such as being there to greet children from school, helping with school work, and making home-made snacks and so on. Hence, by linking their work to their renegotiated roles as mothers and to ‘‘vicarious empowerment’’ through children, the respondents displayed agency in creating new positive meanings for work within the contexts of immigrant family.

Conclusions: Women’s Agency and Negotiation of Meanings

My analysis of Korean immigrant women’s experiences and interpretations of paid work supports that income producing work, changing class statuses, mothering, and children’s future are experienced as connected, and the interpretation of one shapes and is shaped by the others. Korean women’s complex relationships to work revealed that work involved multi-layered, dis/empowering meanings for Korean immigrant women, but in time, it has come to be viewed as generally positive. The shift from reluctance and disempowerment to general acceptance and positive meanings of work was mediated by women’s redefinition of paid work, class statuses, and motherhood as well as their acculturation into ethnic culture and the particular socioeconomic circumstances of Korean immigrant communities. As such, the definition of work was not simply empowering nor disempowering in and of itself, but constructed and reconstructed through women’s endeavors to create meanings of their lives in the contexts of immigration. My data show that Korean immigrant women’s attitudes on work and motherhood were directed by their redefined life goals in the U.S. contexts, especially in relation to their ‘‘American Dream’’ which was more closely tied to the second generations’ projected integration, rather than their own, into the mainstream U.S. society. The shifting definitions of work and ideal motherhood also indicate that women are active agents of change, rather than victims, in post-migration adaptations. I argue that interpretation was an important mechanism through which women grappled with, and made sense of their new realities and their new identities as immigrant mothers.

The transition from more negative perceptions of work into positive and more empowering ones also reflect the reconciliation of work and mother roles which had been perceived as antithetical to each other at the beginning of the settlement process but later became understood as inseparable. This merging of the dual roles is consistent with the pattern which feminist scholarships have found in the lives of poor women and women of color (e.g., [ 2 , 3 , 8 ]). While theories based on middle class women’s experiences often conceptualize work and family as competing frameworks that divide women’s time, energy, and priority (e.g., [ 1 ]), the struggle for the survival of the family has been the central element of women’s devotion as


mothers among working class and women of color. Likewise, Korean women in time reconciled their devotion to work and to family, and this was mediated by the imperative of upward mobility. The findings of this paper caution against one-dimensional interpretations of women’s experiences in paid work and family. For immigrant women whose work is essential not only for the family’s survival, but also for the better future of children, their devotion to work is likely to be perceived as compensating, rather than competing, with their motherly devotions. In this sense, this paper adds to the existing literature on women of color and their experiences with work and the family.

Appendix A

Demographic characteristics of the respondents

Namea Age Occupation Education
Heejung 37 Small Business College
Jungsun 39 Store Clerk College
Nayoung 42 Small Business High School
Hyojin 48 Small Business College
Minjae 62 Small Business Middle School
Injung 43 Small Business College
Jungae 37 Store Clerk College
Jina 44 Small Business High School
Hyun 51 Small Business MA
Wonjung 35 Homemaker High School
Kooyeon 38 Homemaker Some College
Jayoung 51 Office Manager MA
Ahyoung 32 Small Business 2-year College
Imsook 33 Homemaker College
Kyungjoo 33 Homemaker College
Sookhee 65 Retiree High School
Jisook 38 Homemaker College
Yoonmee 38 Homemaker College
Eunseo 48 Manicurist High School
Sunjoo 63 Retiree High School
Sungok 43 Small Business College
Moonyoung 48 Small Business College
Taeran 40 Office worker College
Dukhee 48 Manicurist High School
Sora 40 Office worker College
Sanghee 51 Small Business High School
Okkyung 80 Small Business College
Shinja 67 Retiree High School


Appendix continued

Namea Age Occupation Education
Sun 34 Realtor College
Miran 58 Small Business College

a All names are pseudonyms


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Author Biography

Keumjae Park is an assistant professor of sociology at William Paterson University. Her research focuses on gender, migration, and various forms of social organization across national borders, including transnational family and community building.