DOI: 10.1111/j.1573-7861.2007.00013.x

Constructing Transnational Identities without Leaving Home: Korean Immigrant Women’s Cognitive Border-crossing

Keumjae Park

Literature on contemporary immigrants suggests that increasing volume of transnational practices foster identity construction across borders, thereby disjoining geographical space and social space in which identities are constructed and negotiated. While studies pay increasing attention to the linkage between transnational organizing of economic and political activities and that of identities, relatively less attention has been given to transnational identity construction of immigrant groups without high level of transnational-ism. This essay documents the identity dynamics among less mobile immigrants, who, albeit their immobility, negotiate their identities transnationally by way of various identity practices to imagine themselves as members of multiple communities across national and cultural boundaries. Based on thirty in-depth interviews with first generation Korean immigrant women, the author examines mechanisms of identity organizing which simultaneously indicate a gradual adaptation to the U.S. society and resistance to assimilation.

KEY WORDS: identity; immigrant women; Korean women; transnational identity.


Immigrantspostmigration identity processes had been considered primarily from the perspective of assimilation theory (e.g., Park and Burgess, 1924; Gordon, 1964) for the better part of the twentieth century; however, for the past decades, this approach has been replaced by new paradigms

Department of Sociology, William Paterson University, 300 Pompton Road, Wayne, New Jersey 07470; e-mail:


0884-8971/06/0300-0031/0 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

that focus on multi-local and multi-cultural identity construction among immigrants. Among these new approaches are ‘‘transnational perspectives,’which posit that migration is not an event that comes to a completion, but on-going processes in which migrants engage in life patterns and social relationships linking their settlements in the United States and their communities of origin through routinized economic, social, and cultural connections (Basch et al., 1994; Glick Schiller et al., 1992; Guarnizo and Smith, 1998; Levitt, 1999, 2001). From this perspective, field research (e.g., Fouron and Glick Schiller, 2001; Glick Schiller et al., 1992; Glick Schiller and Fouron, 1998) has documented that many immigrants to the

construct their multiple identities within ‘‘transnational social fields’by simultaneously taking upon roles and obligations in both the host and the sending communities and by mobilizing discursive resources from the social and cultural contexts of both societies. Many immigrants to the
reportedly live in extensive flows of ‘‘social remittances’(Levitt, 1999), which simultaneously shape the migrantslives as well as the changes in the sending communities.

While such transnational identity organizing represents a significant and growing pattern of postmigration experiences for certain immigrants, not all immigrants are living within intimately organized transnational social relationships (Guarnizo et al., 2003; Popkin, 1999; Portes et al., 1999). Some immigrants are less mobile than others and live in relatively localized contexts of their settlements in the United States because their mobility may be limited by restrictive immigration policies, by geographical and economic distances to the sending communities, or by high costs of travel. Although these less mobile immigrants are not embedded in transnational exchanges, obligations, and social relationships in the same way that those with higher mobility are, they still display flexible and multi-cultural identity organizing by pulling together identity constructs and cultural repertoires drawn from both the sending and the host societies (e.g., Lamont et al., 2002; Popkin, 1999). This suggests that transnational identity construction occurs among migrants who are not embedded in well-established transnational social fields and community building; however, the mechanisms by which they do so are not as clearly specified by existing studies. In this context, this paper considers identity dynamics among first generation Korean immigrant women who do not live in extensive transnationalism. While their daily lives are organized without high level of transnational exchanges, the ways in which they define their social locations and identities often transgress geographical boundaries, as their sense of belonging stretches over several imagined communities (Anderson, 1991) in the United States and beyond. This ‘‘cognitive border-crossing’by immigrants allows them to fluidly organize multiple reference groups and sustain multi-layered allegiance to both the United States and South Korea without leaving the local contexts of their daily lives.


The study of immigrantsidentities in general can be grouped into two types. Some studies focus primarily on how immigrants perceive themselves within the U.S. contexts. They do not question, but bracket out immigrantslives before the migration, and focus on the degree to which immigrants identify, or do not identify with memberships in American society, often using ethnic and racial identity categories as measures. For instance, survey studies (e.g., Rumbaut, 1996; Woldemikael, 1989) typically examine which identity labels such as ‘‘American,’‘‘Haitian,’or ‘‘Asian-American,’respondents identify themselves with. However, the identity categories respondents check out in surveys remain one-dimensional because they simply point to ethnic and or national identification without considering the interplay with other identities such as gender, class, and sexualities. Moreover, the one-dimensional studies cannot address the specific meanings by which immigrants interpret these terms. The other, more recent, studies are critical of the one-dimensional analysts, as well as of the tendency to leave out premigration experiences. Hence, they consider the sociocultural ‘‘baggage’immigrants bring with them, and try to assess the ways in which the history and social structures of the immigrantscommunities of origin shape the way immigrants understand and interact with social forces they encounter in the United States (e.g., Burns, 1999; Charles, 1992; Levitt, 2001; Waters, 1999). In doing so, they emphasize the workings of intersecting systems of social inequality in identity construction and highlight identities in contexts by focusing on the interactive processes between individualsidentity practices and macro identity dynamics in society.

In addition, in recent years, there have been growing efforts to theorize questions of immigrantsidentities within the framework of transnationalism, thus to document and elaborate ‘‘transnational’identity construction processes. While studies on transnational identity construction are diverse in their theoretical and methodological approaches, they commonly point to bi-(or multi-) local organizing, as well as multilayered and fluid interpretations of identities among many immigrants who had ‘‘their feet in two societies’(Chaney, 1979:209). For example, Gonzalez (1988) documented that many Garifunas who have become U.S. citizens, still think of themselves of as members of two nations. Waters (1999):44–93, 140–191) analyzed problematic meanings of racial and class identities of West Indian immigrants to the Untied States, complicated by different race classification systems of the sending countries and the United States (also see Bashi-Bobb, 2001). Hence, the research suggests that the identities of immigrants cannot be captured by traditional definitions of identity constructs such as nation, ethnicity, and culture as fixed and exclusively bounded categories. This new perspective no doubt presents a critical challenge to the mainstream view on immigrants, which hitherto has posited the United States as the primary and exclusive context of immigrant identities (Sutton, 1992:231).

According to the research, transnational identities have various dimensions and are organized diversely. Sometimes transnational identities are anchored in familial obligations and expectations within transnational families (e.g., Erel, 2002; van Dijk, 2002), while other times they are constructed in the contexts of multi-national production work and labor relations (e.g., Goldin, 1999). Transnational identities also emerge in immigrantsinvolvements in transnational projects to build institutions and develop communities. For instance, Dominicans migrants who live as members of ‘‘transnational communities,’formed by mutually influencing exchanges of values, materials, and behaviors between the sending and the host communities, simultaneously take upon multiple ‘‘roles and identities that divided their attachments between their home an host countries’(Levitt, 2001:202). Similarly, Smith (1998) observed that Ticuanenses immigrants in New York are involved in transnational institutional building connecting communities across borders, and claim their transnational memberships by participating in and contributing to public projects in their hometowns in Mexico. For these migrants, their lives and identities are continuously carried out and organized in ‘‘transnational social fields’(Glick Schiller et al., 1992) as they are on a daily basis involved in decision-makings and transferring of economic and social remittances to their home communities. These migrantsinvolvements in transnational families and communities as absentee citizens are often expected by those who remain back home, and the social remittances the migrants send on a sustained basis become an integral part of these communitiesdevelopments as well as of the remaining family memberssurvival (Levitt, 2001). Transnational identities may also be solidified by political mobilizations. For instance, Haitian immigrants not only engage in extensive transnational practices with their family and communities back home, but also they are mobilized politically by Haitian government as part of their nation-state, whereby the migrant citizens of Haiti become an active constituency of the ‘‘deterritorialized state’(Glick Schiller and Fouron, 1998). Such patterns of transnational identity construction are documented increasingly by field research on such immigrant groups as Caribbeans, Mexicans, and some Chinese immigrants (e.g., Louie, 2004; Nonini and Ong, 1997; Ong, 1999), indicating that transnationalism has become a routine way of life for these groups whom some authors call ‘‘transmigrants,’(Glick Schiller et al., 1992) referring to their high mobility across borders.

Several recent works have expanded theories of transnational identity construction by articulating in particular the linkage between transnationalism and production of ethnic and class identities within settlement communities in the United States. For instance, in his study of Kanjobal Mayan immigrants to California, Popkin (1999) documented the emergence of new forms of ethnic identity among Kanjobal Mayan immigrants that are the products of several institutional forces: transnational politics of Guatemalan state, church, and Pan-Mayan movements in addition to the conditions of the U.S. society. Popkin suggested that the emergence of a reactive ethnicity (Portes and Rumbaut, 1996) in settlements in California, grounded in specific Kanjobal Mayan cultural and religious traditions, is shaped by changing religious and cultural contexts in Kanjobal Mayan immigrantscommunities in Mexico as well as these immigrantson-going transnational linkages to home. Popkin’s analysis thus explores how institutional processes outside the United States can shape local identity dynamics, suggesting an extension of the concept, transnational identity.

In similar vein, Kearney (2000) discusses the question of power in transnational identity processes in his study of Oaxacan immigrants. In his analysis, Kearney distinguishes two different meanings embedded in the term ‘‘transnational.’One points to the simultaneous occupancy in multiple locations crossing national borders, while the second sense refers to the ‘‘political, social, and cultural practices, whereby citizens of a nation-state construct social forms and identities that in part escape from the cultural and political hegemony of their nation-states’(Kearney, 2000:174). Kearney thus argues that transnational identity represents a subversive space whereby immigrants resist the inscription into the hegemonic structures of nation-states. As such, migrants from the indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico to the U.S. occupy a unique space, according to Kearney, that are ‘‘different both from the national space of Mexico and the United States’(Ibid 175), and form a strong sense of Oaxacan indigenous ethnic identity constructed through relations of power and difference with regard to both nationshegemonic contexts. Both Popkin’s and Kearney’s studies illustrate that transnational identity processes not only challenge the linkage between geographical space and social space, but also are involved in the dynamics production of power and difference in the contexts of several institutions and nations. As such, the study of transnational identity processes is creating a theoretical space to reconceptualize and elaborate social groups, communities, geographical units, and identity dynamics within interpenetrating local and transnational processes.

While diverse global processes and technological developments by and large promote transnational practices in general, immigrant groups maintain varying degree of transnational practices (Portes et al., 1999). Some transmigrants organize their daily lives and communities by making on-going economic and social connections to their communities back home, other immigrants live in relatively localized contexts of the host society once they settle down. I am referring to those immigrants whose financial, political, and social involvements in their communities of origin are limited and whose social networks in the sending communities are no longer strong and active, even if they maintain some communication with and emotional ties to their sending countries. Korean immigrants are the group I study here. The question I ask is, what type of identity organizing they engage in, and in what ways, ‘‘transnational’dimension are also embedded in their identity construction. This paper explores this question by examining identity practices among a sample of Korean immigrant women. I focus on the ways in which dynamics involved in their multidimensional identity construction processes dislodge geographical space and social space in order to create ‘‘imagined communities’beyond their settlements in the United States. In doing so, I specify diverse manners in which different immigrant groups engage in and interact with transnational spaces and expand the concept of transitional identity building.


This essay is based on research on Korean immigrant women’s post-migration identity renegotiation processes. I conducted in-depth interviews between February, 2003 and September, 2004 with 30 immigrant women from South Korea who now reside in the larger New York Metropolitan area. I used the snowball sampling technique in order to take advantage of my access to Korean immigrant social networks. I started by interviewing two immigrants whom I knew either myself or through a family member, and then asked them to refer me to others who may be interested in being interviewed about their immigration stories. 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. I often specifically asked people to refer me to a person with a particular biographical profile, for example, ‘‘a recent immigrant living in working to lower income area’or ‘‘someone who works outside the Korean ethnic economy.’

The sample of 30 women recruited in this manner displayed diversity in age, jobs, and length of residency in the United States. The respondentsages were between 32 and 80 with the median age of 42. Median length of residency in the United States was 11 years. The sample had higher proportion (60%) of college and postgraduate education than Korean immigrant women in general (36%; Esterchild and McDaniel, 1998). Eight women had a high school education (26.7%). Only one respondent had less than a high school education. Twenty respondents disclosed their family income. The median for self-reported annual income was $35,000. All of the college educated women reported to have been middle class in Korea premigration. Their postmigration class statuses were somewhat 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 statuses based on a number of other things than their current income level such as level of education (i.e., college education), premigration class location, or unreported asset income (such as properties or regular remittances from Korea). Nineteen women lived in NJ and eleven lived in NY. The occupational distribution for the sample was the following: small entrepreneurs (46.7%), wage-workers (23.3%), homemakers (20%), and retirees from small businesses (10%). Most women were married (83.3%). Four women had been divorced, of whom one recently remarried. One retired elderly woman was a widow.

My questions to the interviewees generally covered five areas: immigration processes (i.e., motives, channels, initial settlement, and initial perceptions of U.S. society), work history, present life daily routines, social ties (i.e., family, friends, and support system), and transnational practices.


Korean immigrants are among the major post-1965 immigrant groups to the United States. As many ethnographic studies have documented, immigrants from South Korea come from urban and professional backgrounds and typically take the path to small entrepreneurship after they arrive in the U.S (Bonacich, 1980; Kim, 1981; Light and Bonacich, 1988; Min, 1996). No research to date has indicated high level of transnational-ism among Korean immigrants. Korean immigrantstravels back and forth to South Korea are likely to be limited because of the geographical distance, relatively high costs of travel, and their concentration in small businesses that require long and demanding work schedules. Transnational connections among the participants in my study were limited to phone calls and on-line contacts such as e-mails. Most of the respondents in my sample made trips back home no more than once in every few years, and some visited only once in over a decade of their residency in the United States. None of the participants sent routine monetary remittances to South Korea to support remaining family members, though some would occasionally send small amount of money as birthday or holiday gifts. None in my sample participated in political activities in Korea, nor contributed to community developments in Korea. Hence, the participants in my study were not involved in daily exchanges of remittances, social obligations, values, and cultural patterns with their communities in South Korea in the ways transmigrants from Central and South America reportedly are. The most recognizable transnational practices among the interviewees were subscriptions to Korean mass media, as most of them routinely spent hours per week watching Korean TV shows and Internet news. The interviewed women generally viewed the United States as the primary contexts of their lives and considered moving back to Korea as unfeasible.

Despite their localized life patterns, the routine practices by which the respondents pulled together different identity constructs multi-culturally to assert or downplay certain aspects of their identities were far from being locally confined. Rather, the participants in this study displayed a set of identity practices that allowed them to construct a sense of membership to multiple ‘‘imagined communities,’including the South Korean society back home, the larger U.S. society, Korean immigrant communities in the United States and the Korean Diasporas outside the U.S. Thus, they transgressed geographical boundaries of the settlement communities in the United States not by way of their travels and social activities, but through identity practices that enabled them to construct multiple ‘‘communities of the mind’(Chayko, 2002: 2:39–41) organized in a sociomental space (Chayko, 2002; Zerubavel, 1993:397–398). Chayko uses the term ‘‘sociomental space’to conceptualize a space in our minds where interpersonal social bonds are formed sometimes without face-to-face contacts. The term thus captures the idea that human activities occurring in mind are not individual, but social. This type of cognitive bonds are crucial in imagining oneself as belonging to groups that are not necessarily one’s immediate social networks. As such, by perceiving themselves as simultaneous members of these multiple groups, my informants situated their complex identities in a malleable cognitive space beyond the boundaries of one nation, or one cultural setting. A number of different identity strategies were instrumental for my respondents to construct their multi-faceted postmigration class and national identities. Below are two of the examples of such strategic identity practices: use of identity markers and reference groups, and flexible definitions of citizenship.

Strategic Uses of Identity Markers and Shifting Reference Groups

During the interviews, I asked the respondents about how they perceived their statuses pre-and postmigration. In assessing their statuses in a society, the respondents used several standards to evaluate their social standings. I found that the standards often shifted, and furthermore they were closely linked to the way the women reflected upon particular reference groups. The interviewed women invoked different status markers to perceive and express their identities, and they often mobilized identity markers that would link them to more privileged social groups in society. The participants variously called upon different lines of social demarcation and identity to express their perceived social locations in different contexts. For instance, when asked about how they felt about their status or social standing after migration, several women gave rather complicated answers. Jayoung who holds two masters degrees from Korea spoke of her status in the United States as follows:

I am probably lower class, economically speaking. But intellectually, I am as good as any American. I am lower class economically, and, as I have mentioned before, based on the fact that I can never become part of the mainstream. I mean, because we are outsiders (51-year-old office worker, 4 years in the U.S.).

The narratives expressed multi-dimensional identities that were more complex than can be captured by a simplistic approach to class as status based on economic power. While she conceded that her current income and social marginalization put her in the lower social strata, she clearly cited her education as independent status marker that would put her on equal footing with ‘‘Americans.’Like Jayoung, many college-educated interviewees strongly emphasized their education to assert their middle-class status regardless of current income level. The interviewees were more likely to mobilize their college education as the most important status marker when their current income was perceived to be less than middle-class category. Obviously, this approach is linked to the saliency of education and the social prestige associated with college education in Korean culture. Numerous discussions on education were found in the data.

Sora: Koreans, even those who have completed just a high school education, are still smarter than ordinary Americans because the curriculum is harder [in Korea]. And Koreans are generally smart. So, Koreans are at least middle class when they come here. It is just that they do not speak the language, but language is not that important, is it?

KP: But new immigrants think language is important, do not they?

Sora: That is true. But the standard of living in Korea is pretty high. Anyone who comes here should be middle class or above, considering their education and so on. Koreans are good (40-year-old mortgage broker, 15 years in the U.S.).

I think Koreans are mostly middle class. For example, most of us send kids to college, and very few Korean people are on welfare. But Koreans, except for a few in very difficult situations, can earn their living if they do not mind hard labor. For this reason, Koreans can be considered middle class. Well, some wage workers may think they are lower class, and there may be some people who are unemployed for personal reasons, but considering education and so on, would not they be middle class? Considering all these, we are a higher class. We are just underrating ourselves because of English (48-years-old nail salon worker, 23 years in the United States).

As evidenced in these narratives, various issues such as education, income, and fluency in culture (especially in language) affected the ways in which Korean immigrant women defined their class identities. While it is also the case in the United States that class identification involves more than income, my respondents had the tendency to more forcefully mobilize education as an independent status marker, clearly separated from income and language fluency. Since the vast majority of Korean immigrants take economic and occupational downward mobility upon migration (Min, 1996; Park, 1997), the mobilization of college education as crucial class identity marker independent of income can be interpreted as strategic move to assert more advantageous identities and to overcome an assignment into disadvantageous statuses in the United States contexts.

This complex interpretation of class identities by my respondents was also closely linked to the multiple and shifting reference groups that they had. During my interviews, I deliberately suggested no particular reference group when I asked the women about how they perceived their overall statuses or social rank. Most informants did not ask back whom they were supposed to compare themselves with, but spoke on the basis of an assumed reference group or groups. Three different contexts surfaced as salient reference groups to whom my respondents turn in order to continuously evaluate their relative ranks: other Korean immigrants, ‘‘Americans’in general, and or their peers in South Korea. For some people, one of these reference groups appeared to be a lot more important than others. For instance, nine of the 18 women (50%) to whom I asked about social standing ( jiwee) gave an answer exclusively in comparison with other Korean immigrants. For instance:

KP: What do you think is your social standing [ jiwee] in U.S.?

Ahyoung: Middle.

KP: Are you thinking of income?

Ahyoung: No, just that I am relatively fluent in English among Koreans, and my economic status is not too bad, compared to [Korean] people at my agefor these various reasons (32-year-old store owner, 13 years in the U.S.).

Here, my question indicated the larger U.S. society, but the respondent chose to compare herself only to other Korean immigrants. Several other women also instantly referred to the Korean immigrant community, when I asked about their relative standing.

Jungae: I have never thought about it [ jiwee] much, because I believe we [Koreans] are all the same. We all get paid exactly as much as we work. But I notice that immigrants and sojourners hold different values (44-year-old store owner, 23 years in the U.S.).

KP: Have you ever thought about your status, and if you have, how would you rank yourself in this society?

Jungae: Among Americans? Not among Americans? Among Koreans?

KP: Whom do you consider?

Jungae: We do not have relationships with Americans, do we? I want to [compare myself with them], but I can not because I do not socialize with them. (37-year-old office worker, 3 years in the U.S.).

While these women assumed that their socioeconomic status was evaluated relative to other Korean immigrants, another group of women (33%) referred to general U.S. society when being asked of their social standing. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, these women were the ones who made the clearest distinctions between their income-based class, and educational attainment.

We are close to being the lower class. But I talked with other [Korean] moms the other day about how we should be considered as being at a higher level than other American mothers in this school. The only problem is that we cannot speak the language. The levels of education and intellect among these people are very low. School curriculum is easy. I think Koreans are at a higher level. So, I do not feel that my status is low in this sense, but I am lower class, money wise (33-year-old stay-at-home mother, 18 months in the U.S.).

I do not think we are any less than them [Americans]. I think we are middle to upper–middle class among Americans; that is, based on our intellectual level, cultural sophistication, and knowledge. We are not any lower [than average Americans], but we are just not fluent in the language (38-year-old piano teacher, 3 years in the U.S.).

Thus, when the larger United States society was considered, they were likely to more strongly assert their college education, so as to make claims to middle-class status based on education. By doing so, the interviewed women attempted to construct more empowered postmigration class identities within the U.S. contexts.

Though smaller in numbers (10%), some considered their peers in South Korea as a reference group, despite an understanding that migration was now irreversible. For these people, a comparison of their prosperity (or sometimes lack thereof) with those of their friends relatives in South Korea sometimes assured them of the benefits of migration, however, in other times, reaffirmed their overall social demotion due to migration. For example, Taeran explained how her husband thought of his peers in Korea:

My husband has seven or eight friends whom he used to hang out with. Among them, my husband had been the first one to find a job in advertising. Two or three friends followed into the field afterwards. Of these people, one very successful friend is now in charge of a division in a very large advertising firm. Other friends in smaller firms typically manage a department. There are a few who own their own firms. I can see my husband think about these people in Korea, and imagine what [rank] he might have achieved by now, if he had stayed in Seoul. He does not say it, but I can get a glimpse of what he thinks (40-year-old human resources worker, 12 years in the U.S.).

As illustrated in this excerpt, projecting oneself against an imagined timeline, along which one’s own generation cohort in Korea is presumably making socioeconomic advances constituted a crucial part of these immigrantstransnational identity construction. In this dynamics, the peers in Korea were imagined to be continuously making upward mobility with progression of age, and immigrants interpreted and evaluated their relative social standing in the U.S. in comparison with that of reference groups in Korea.

However, it is also worthwhile to note that most participants did not think exclusively about one group at all times. Rather, different reference groups appeared at different points in the narratives, indicating fluid shifts in these women’s ‘‘significant others.’Some respondents fluidly switched reference groups as they attempted to articulate their class, race, and gender identities, but others were more clearly conscious of the co-existing multiple reference groups. For example, when I asked about her overall status, Hee asked back what reference group I had in mind:

KP: What do you think your overall status is in the United States?

Hee: Is the standard American people, or Koreans?

KP: Whom do you consider most often?

Hee: I do not know many American people. Within the U.S., among Korean immigrants, within this county, I think I am at least middle class. Higher may beI am about three on scale of five [as the highest].

KP: What are the standards? Income?

Hee: I consider economic issues and education.

KP: Do you mean your college education?

Hee: I have no inferiority complex whatsoever with regard to education. In terms of education, I feel [I am] above middle. But education may not be that important. I also value practical skills. My husband’s boss, for example, went to N university [a second tier university in South Korea], but he is very capable and very smart.

KP: Some people tell me that Koreans are less than middle class because we are minority here.

Hee: I disagree. I talk to a lot of Americans because I speak relatively better English [than other Korean immigrants]. When I talk to my neighbors, I realize that, economically, I am not any worse off than they are. I know the average income of this neighborhood. I think I am middle-middle class at least. Perhaps, on a scale of [1 to] 10, [I am] about six? Among Korean immigrants only, I may be at about seven on a scale of 10. In terms of education, I may be eight (37-year-old on-line business owner, 6 years in the U.S.).

This respondent’s accounts demonstrate how relative social standing was measured in a great complexity against precisely defined, multiple reference groups. Thus, simultaneously confronted with shifting reference groups, she was unable to define her location in one simple term.

The shifting reference groups and strategic uses of identity markers such as education were crucial in explaining multi-layered postmigration identities of the respondents. In other words, Korean women produced complex class and ethnic identities through situational identity practices and anchor them in several ‘‘communities in mind’(Chayko, 2002). I would like to call them ‘‘strategic’imagined communities, in the sense that immigrant women would call upon different significant others in order to assert or downplay certain identities and status markers. ‘‘Strategic imagined communities’refer to the multi-dimensional reference communities that the interviewees constructed in a cognitive space to mobilize more advantageous identities and perceived statuses. These communities point to a sociomental space, transgressing geographical, and cultural boundaries of the settlement communities, wherein less mobile Korean immigrants yet organize their multi-national multi-cultural identities fluidly by shifting, hopping across, moving in and out of the several reference groups to which they perceive themselves as simultaneously belonging. I interpret that the fluid application of these multiple communities represents immigrant women’s agency to cope with the unfamiliar forces of race and class identity classification systems in the United States, which they encountered after migration. By moving strategically between these multiple communities, Korean women practiced cognitive ‘‘border-crossings,’which enabled them to selectively and gradually adapt to identity classification systems of the United States, rather than immediately having to completely reconfigure their identities.

Flexible Definitions of Citizenship and National Identities

Another dimension of the respondentstransnational identity organizing involved their relationships to citizenship and national identities. The respondentsnarratives suggested their unspoken understanding that belonging to a nation had layered definitions and that citizenship and national identities could mean different things in different situations. The interviewees often displayed subtle differentiation in describing their identification with nations. For instance, they would call Korea ‘‘my own country,’while the U.S. was typically referred to as ‘‘where I will live my life,’or as ‘‘the scene site of my life.’Though both expressions in Korean commonly carry a sense of affiliation with the nations, the first expression signals more emphatic ties to the nation. The second expressions do not connote national identification, but they implicate no less significance than the emotional allegiance. Hence, the different nuances of these words indicated that these women’s relationships to the two nations were defined differently with varying degree of passion and utilitarian concerns. The following excerpts illustrate this differentiation:

....I read Korean newspapers. I learn about U.S. news through Korean media. I am much interested in Korean news. I also follow U.S. news, but I confirm them through Korean media since I am not sure [of my English] [laughs]. I think I am interested in reports on Korean politics. About the U.S., I am most interested in economic news. When I look at reports about war and politics, it is because they are related to economy. Economy is related to my business. So, I do not consider this as my country, but only am interested in how to make a living here [laughs] (48-year-old store owner, 5 years in the U.S.).

Both things in the U.S. and situations in Korea matter to me. I think things in the

U.S. are more important to me, but I do not know more about them [than I know about Korean current affairs]. I learn about them [current affairs in the U.S.] through translated news in Korean media (32-year-old store owner, 13 years in the U.S.).

Sungok: I follow Korean news closely through TV. There is a news segment in the Korean broadcast. I pay attention to economic news, big accidents, and things like that. I feel they matter to me mostly because of business. I get a feel for current state of the society by looking at how busy or slow my business is. Mostly so. They [economy and politics] are related to my livelihood and my daily life. Otherwise, not big [a deal] (43-year-old store owner, 15 years in the U.S.).

These accounts suggest that, while Korean immigrant women maintained stronger emotional ties to South Korea, they also acknowledged that they had more stakes in the U.S. society. This made them to pay closer attention to the U.S. society, especially to economic issues that had more direct impacts on their jobs.

As evidenced by the participantsconcerns for economic issues in the host society, many of them took somewhat utilitarian approach to their belonging to the U.S. This attitude was more clearly demonstrated when it came to the issue of naturalization. Especially after the reform of immigration laws in 1996, which restricted social security benefits for green card holders, many permanent residents have been encouraged to be naturalized. Utilitarian interests in citizenship were evident in several respondentsnarratives.

People around me say that there used to be no inconvenience even if you only have a green card. However, things are now different; we need citizenships. I have seen people who once were content with a green card apply for citizenships nowadays. I intend to do so, too. There are several concerns. For example, I myself never drive after drinking, but if a green card holder, not a U.S. citizen, gets caught on drunk driving, s he can get deported. If we travel overseas, citizens get through airports in no time, but green card holders have to wait in line. It is inconvenient. Some people do not like the idea of giving up Korean citizenship, but I am not a patriot [laugh]. So, if it is a necessity here, I will do so (33-year-old stay-at-home mother, 18 months in the U.S.).

Upon being naturalized, Korean immigrants must relinquish their South Korean citizenship because South Korean government does not grant dual citizenship. However, the emotional loyalty to Korea among naturalized Korean immigrants often remained unchanged after they had become formally ‘‘Americans.’Thus, those who had obtained, or were considering naturalization for utilitarian reasons did not change their national identification with Korea, calling themselves ‘‘Korean,’and South Korea ‘‘my country.’Because Korea has been considered as mono-ethnic country throughout its history, Korean ethnicity and nationality are often understood to be one among South Koreans. Hence, identification with Korean ethnicity is conflated with Korean national identity, contributing to the continuing identification with Korean nationality among naturalized Korean immigrants to the United States.

Thus, the ethnic national identification, ‘‘Korean,’also had layered meanings. My respondents almost univocally understood themselves as ‘‘Korean.’All women in this study, except for one woman who migrated at the age of sixteen, identified themselves simply as ‘‘Korean.’Fourteen of these women have lived in the U.S. for over 10 years and had an understanding that the United States was their home and that they would not return to South Korea. Among them, eight women were naturalized citizens. However, regardless of their decision to stay in the United States for the rest of their lives, they defined themselves by the Korean nationality.

I am Korean. I do not think myself as immigrant. I am not an American yet [laugh]. I think my child may be 70 percent Korean and about 30 percent American. But I am just Korean [laugh] (37-year-old on-line business owner, 6 years in the U.S.).

The labels ‘‘Korean’and ‘‘Korean-American’casually refer to one’s ethnic, cultural, and or national identities in the United States. For ‘‘native’white population, the term often remains unproblematic, and ‘‘optional’(Waters, 1996). For immigrants and people of color, these terms may imply more complex meanings. According to Park (1999) there are at least three dimensions at work in ethnic labels. There is the ethnic dimension in which blood ties and or places of birth take precedence in its definition. Then there is the dimension of cultural identification, which is related to familiarity to a particular culture. The terms also indicate national identification. What becomes problematic for immigrants is that the three layers of meanings are sometimes incongruent with one another, and not a perfect t to describe their identities. Hence, being ‘‘Korean’for these women had layered meanings that simultaneously pointed to several issues, including ethnic roots, cultural in fluency, ambivalent national allegiance, along with a feeling of belonging to the ethnic communities. At the same time, identifying with Korean ethnicity and not with a hyphenated identity reflected an awareness of their marginal status and cultural incompetence in the U.S. society. Thus, imagining to belong to the home country where they social ranks were perceived to have been higher served as a method of resistance for the respondents to becoming marginalized members of the U.S. society.


In this paper, I documented empirical patterns of Korean immigrant women’s organizing of identity markers, multiple reference groups, and flexible and situational definitions of national identities. For instance, the assertion of specific status markers such as education challenged and resisted Korean immigrant women’s assignment into a lower class identity based on income and occupational prestige. Also, a strategic organizing of shifting reference groups and interpretive frames helped immigrant women to develop an unspoken understanding of malleable identity constructs. Korean immigrant women constructed postmigration identities by pulling together cultural repertoires, identity constructs and reference groups from more than one culture, community, and nation. While they do not live in ‘‘transnational social fields,’the respondents engaged in identity practices, which involved interesting cognitive dynamics other than streamlined pathways to assimilation to the U.S. society. The strategic assertion of advantageous premigration identities (e.g., college education), mobilizing multiple reference groups within and without the U.S. contexts, multilayered understanding of citizenship, and national identity, all exemplify Korean women’s boundary-crossing practices that are occurring in a sociomental space in the absence of sustained exchanges of social and economic remittances with the sending communities. The patterns identified in this paper also suggest that the different identity strategies, which sustained and coordinated multiple frames of reference, were not naturally occurring, nor coincidental. In fact, these behaviors appeared to be strategic and effective, even if not so obviously conscious and calculative, in coping with the downward mobility and abrupt discontinuities in life patterns and social ties experienced by former middle-class Korean immigrants. Hence, the identity practices documented in this study represent their agency to come to terms with an assignment into new class, ethnic and national identity categories postmigration. To put it differently, these identity practices are part of women’s survival strategies in the multiple communities which have become the contexts of their lives. My data suggest that postmigration identity construction did not occur in a seamless amalgamation, nor in hybridization, of multiple identities. Rather, identities were constructed by way of strategic organizing and selective usages of identity discourses, and reference groups. I maintain that these micro identity practices are organized within the dialectic interplay between structural forces and agency that resist them.


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