Cultural Awareness Project: Counseling Korean Americans Essay


The Korean American population is one of the fastest growing and the third largest of all Asian immigration in the U.S. Like other immigrant groups, Korean Americans are subject to the stresses of relocation, language barriers, marginalization, cultural and ethnic clashes, racism and discrimination. Because of cultural values and unfamiliarity, Korean Americans underutilize mental health services unless forced to or as a last resort. Lack of appropriate cross-cultural training for counselors add to premature therapy termination. The counselor wishing to provide culturally sensitive therapy must gain practical and methodological knowledge of the diverse cultural landscape in his neighborhood.

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Cultural Awareness Project:

Counseling Korean Americans



Asian Americans are the third largest racial group in the U.S., increasing to 12.1 million in the 2004 American Community Survey (2004).  Korean Americans alone account for 1.5 million and of that, 15% live in the greater New York metropolitan area.

The passage of the 1965 Amendment to the Immigration and Naturalization Service Act of 1955 (Public Law 89-236,79 Stat. 911) opened the gates to greater Korean immigration, especially for entire families. Most arrived as adults with children, settling in metropolitan areas, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.  Population growth rates increased 35% from 1990 to 2000 (American Community Survey Asians 2004 [Electronic Version], 2004). Among all Asian populations, the poverty rate among Korean Americans is among the highest, though nearly 50% had bachelor’s degree or higher. Only 20% of Korean families spoke  English  at home, nearly 50% spoke Korean exclusively, knowing English “less than very well” (2004).  Most Korean households consisted of Korean-born parents and American –born children, reflecting different levels of acculturation. More than 75% of Korean women work full time jobs (Kim B.-L. ;., 2005).

Characteristics and Concerns

As mentioned, the trend is for Korean Americans to immigrate as a family unit. Though generally well educated, many must take labor-intensive or blue-collar jobs. This, plus language difficulties can create stress (Chang, 1997). Women must take outside work for the first time in their lives. Because of their immigration and minority status, Korean Americans suffer high levels of divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse and juvenile delinquency (Kim,Y.S.E.,2005).

Korean immigrants experience stresses due to relocation including culture conflicts, communication problems, and experiences of discrimination and racism, especially among women (Chang, 1997).  However, Korean Americans underutilize mental health services, due   to unfamiliarity with the system but also to conflict between cultural values and to the counseling process; mere contact with a therapist can be conceived as a disgrace to the family (Atkinson, 1989). Indeed, compared to other Asian populations, Koreans may have higher levels of depression and psychotic symptoms due to their relative newness in the country (Leong, 2001). Korean Americans often seek treatment as a last resort, or from a mandatory order from schools, courts or other social service agencies (Kim B.-L. ;., 2005)

Cross-Cultural Counseling and Universal Diverse Orientation

Cross-cultural counseling can be defined as a counselor of one culture working with a client of another culture. The differences between the two parties can involve problem solving strategies, values and affect management. The client can be hampered by levels of acculturation, age, socioeconomic status, language proficiency, availability of social networks, educational level or foreign versus native birth (Kim B.-L. ;., 2005).

Sue et al (1992) has identified a series of competencies for future counselors: counselor awareness of his own values and biases, knowledge of his own heritage and how it cam impact the counseling experience, having the tools to advance his own skills, awareness of the client’s worldview and how to properly apply it and to learn and be aware of the application of culturally appropriate interventions (Sue, 1992).

Though not directly associated with the above article, the concepts of Universal Diverse Orientation (UDO), emotional intelligence and empathy are key ingredients of the counseling experience. UDO  aids in empathizing with culturally different clients, allowing for openness of other cultural perspectives. Empathy is the cognitive and emotional ability of adopting the feelings and actions of the culturally diverse client, and is viewed as a primary goal in counselor training (Miville, 2006). Emotional intelligence is also the ability to perceive the client’s emotional state and to interact appropriately (Miville, 2006). These learned techniques are essential for successful multi-cultural interventions.

The Korean American Population

   Family Structure

            A hallmark of the Korean society is family hierarchy by gender, age, generation and class. The father is the head of the household, followed by the wife and the children in age order (Kim B. A., 2001). Respect for elders and allegiance to parents are quite central (Kim B. A., 2001)  While immigration, acculturation and the birth of native children loosened some of these ties, the influence of hierarchy remains and should be seriously appreciated in the therapeutic experience (Kim B.-L. ;., 2005).  It is imperative to meet with the entire family at the outset of counseling, if one is expected to arrive at a correct diagnosis. The exclusion of relevant family members can result in failure because the family can sabotage the  counseling process (Kim,Y.S.E.,2005). Related to respect for elders, is a respect for authority figures, due to the belief that they have extensive learning in their field and should be heeded (Kim B. A., 2001).

In Korean families there is a delineation between who is “in” and “out”. Jip-an means   “within the house,” defining values, membership and traditions.  Ka-moon  means “family gate” and refers to the family standing in the community, and to what the family considers private. Since Koreans attach a high degree of shame to problems, information and revelation can be highly selective and hard to discern (Kim B.-L. ;., 2005).

Male superiority is the norm in Korean families and in the community, though the role of the wife in less acculturated families is that of obedient assistant. The need for the wife to work outside the home is a cause of stress, shame, loss of face and marital problems (Chang, 1997). Given male superiority, couples are inexperienced in conflict resolution, with problems seen as a matter of right or wrong, with one partner winning out (Kim B.-L. ;., 2005).

Male children are traditionally quite important to the family, though not as much with greater acculturation. The self-esteem of the family is  bound up with the academic success of the children, and immigrant parents who feel undervalued by American culture insist even more strongly that they excel. With children being born and raised in American culture, parents feel that they are losing them to toe outside world. While they might demand academic excellence, parents might resist their children from participating in extracurricular activities, at the same time expecting them to be popular in school. The clash between tradition and American culture is also a source of family stress, as the children adopt to the new culture quicker than their parents. Children may see their Korean identity as inferior as they acculturate, yet must maintain traditional outlooks at home (Chang, 1997).

Church attendance is important in Korean American families, with membership between 70-80% and providing important social support, acculturation and ethno- cultural identity (Kim B.-L. ;., 2005).

Discrimination and Stereotyping

While there might be greater acceptance of minorities in present times, to be a racial minority in a stratified society is still a source of stress. The increased numbers of Asian immigrants are  perceived as an economic threat, as the events in Koreatown during the 1992 Los Angeles riots could suggest (Kuo, 1995).

In  a study of perceived discrimination and coping behaviors, Noh (2003) reported that 40% of surveyed Korean families experienced some form of discrimination including insults, being called names or treated rudely. Nearly 25% reported being threatened, and less than 10% were hit or roughly handled (Noh, 2003).

Stereotypes of Korean Americans have focused on looks, being,  excluding outsiders, all study-no play, racially prejudiced, submissive, wanna-be Americans, or inferior (Oyserman, 1997). Given the emphasis on academic achievement, other stereotypes have included “genius,” “nerdy,” or “competitive” (Oyserman, 1997).

A term frequently attributed to Korean Americans, and broadly to all Asian American populations is “model minority.” As a definition of self-esteem, an immigrant group achieves a degree of economic success by means of hard work and academic achievement (Porter, 1993). But rather than being viewed as model Americans, they remain a racial minority. It could be argued the term is   an ideal to strive for, or is a means to keep the group out of mainstream American society (Oyserman, 1997). Some might partially accept the term as respect for Korean American’s general success in life, although they might not reach socioeconomic levels that Americans might. Others might reject the concept as just another stereotype, or a way of associating upward mobility with “whiteness” (Low, 2004).

Cultural Influences

Culture is the filter that an individual’s thinking, emotions and behavior passes through. It is imperative for the counselor to understand and have empathy for the client’s cultural values in order to effect therapeutic change. Depending on the level of acculturation, the following factors may wax or wane in importance. As mentioned, the Korean American’s self worth is closely knit to the functioning and achievements of the family. As the individual succeeds, so does the family. Accordingly, failure begets familial shame or loss  of face (Kim B. L., 2005). Filial piety or allegiance to parents is highly respected and manifests itself in respect, devotion, obedience, honor or sacrifice by the children for the parents, but also to elder family members. This loyalty can also be family-wide, extending into other interpersonal relationships if the need arises (Kim,Y.S.E.,2003).

The Confucian concept of interpersonal harmony or “middle position” is a self-control value in which patience, moderation and being well-mannered is valued. While this can be misinterpreted as lacking leadership or creativity, it is considered an ability to control one’s emotions and blend with the group than to stand out with any kind of unacceptable behavior. Mental health problems are likewise dealt with through emotional moderation and controlling dark thoughts. Modesty is also expected in one’s achievements, to acknowledge the efforts of the group and not to call attention to oneself (Kim,Y.S.E.,2003) (Kim B. A., 2001).

Affect and Values

While modesty and self-effacement are considered cultural virtues, Korean Americans are expressive, though tempered with respect. Several Korean terms are described below which moderate social relationships.  Jeong has no English translation and expresses an attention to the things that give a person comfort and well-being, like empathy, compassion or tenderness. A person’s humanity is bound up in his jeong, and a Korean client will seek to find it in his therapist, which could be best described as his human qualities. A therapist can engage his client in small talk or even discussing the weather or if he easily found the office (Kim B.-L. &., 2005).

Hahn, or learned helplessness,  is a pervasive mixture of regret and heartache felt by an abused or oppressed client, for which there is no way to correct the wrong.  It is best expressed by imagining what life might have been like during Japanese occupation in World War 2, or living through the Korean War. This condition is recognized as a Culture Bound Syndrome in the DSM-IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) as hwa-byung, seen mainly in middle-aged Korean women. It is a somatic disorder derived from the cultural restraint of emotional expression manifesting itself in physical complaints from chronic indigestion to hypothyroidism. Hwabyung links problems with bodily distress to avoid expressing them through the stigma of psychological symptoms (Leong, 2001).

Noon-chi, meaning “measuring with the eyes” is the ability of perceiving external cues in order to choose an inoffensive or appropriate response. Newly arrived immigrants would have trouble in social situations that have different cues, and their noon-chi skills would be of little help. In counseling, the therapist must acknowledge the client’s unease and  his respect for him as a human being (Kim B.-L. ;., 2005).

Boon-soo is knowing one’s place. In a hierarchal society it is imperative to know one’s place and not to exceed that status. In a counseling setting, the client might have a low sense of status simply by his presence in a therapist’s office, which the therapist must treat in a manner similar to noon-chi.  Chae-myun is saving face, common to many Asian cultures, and must be respected in counseling. Just as a family collectively shares in a family member’s success, so does it share the shame of failure. Chae-myun must be preserved by avoiding criticisms or indifference (Kim B.-L. &., 2005).

In conclusion, the most salient concepts of Korean American ethnic identity formation are family connectedness, pride in traditions, awareness of discrimination and achievement as it relates to family/group success. These factors are based on the importance of the family, the immigrant sensitivity of negative stereotyping and discrimination and the need to individually achieve for positive group identity (Oyserman, 1997).

Counseling Korean Americans

Causal Factors

Korean Americans face stressors from the immigration experience that include relocation, identity confusion, communication problems, and the experiences of discrimination, racism and oppression. Acculturation, which are the changes experienced by contact with the behaviors, values and identities of another culture, while rejecting the parent culture is a major source of stress.  There are three steps to acculturation, assimilation in which the old culture is rejected in favor of the new, resistance is the effort to preserve the old values, and biculturalism in which the individual is able to adopt and accommodate aspects of the old and new culture (Chang, 1997) (Kim E. B., 2004). Since acculturation levels are variable, Y.S.E. Kim (20030 identify five types of Korean American families: Type I is the wholly traditional family, recently immigrated, living among their own and interacting little with mainstream society. Type II is the partially acculturated family, with the children caught between the new culture and the old, perhaps with the wife ahead of the husband due to her need to shop and run the household. Children at this stage would seek help dealing with the conflicts between parents and their more traditional values. Type III is bicultural, with American-born children, adroitly balancing both cultures, and Type IV is the American family, entirely native-born and Type V is the interracial family in which highly educated Korean Americans tend to approve of interracial marriage (Kim,Y.S.E.,2003). Many of the cross-cultural counseling suggestions below are best applied to the first two types, as acculturation would be a primary stressor.

Immigrants face uncertain working conditions, low pay and  unskilled positions. Women are likely to work as well, while still having to manage the house, cook and raise children. The most relevant issues are depression, marital and parent-child conflicts, isolation and somatic complaints (Chang, 1997).

The strong familial urge for academic excellence can sometimes be the cause of stress, as parents may have unreasonable demands placed upon their children. Despite the pressure to excel, there is rarely parental help or supervision. Children are sometimes placed in conflicting positions, as they are expected to be popular in school, but are not encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities (or anything not directly related to getting good grades). More acculturated children often clash with traditional parent’s unquestionable authority. American values of assertiveness and expressiveness are at odds with Korean values of modesty and group identity (Kim, Y.S.E., 2003).

Barriers to Counseling

Korean Americans underuse mental health services for several reasons. The specter of shame and disgrace to the family, as well as talking to a stranger are frequently mentioned. Other barriers are, language barriers, values, lack of knowledge  and therapist bias (Chang, 1997). Often, counseling is sought as a last resort, or if ordered by a court, school or other agency (Kim,Y.S.E.,2003).  In general, the greater the degree of acculturation, the attitude towards counseling is more positive (Leong, 2001).

Given the shame of admitting to mental pathology, many Korean Americans tend to attribute their problems through somatic complaints and seek medical doctors (Atkinson, 1989). Less acculturated immigrants may seek the help of shamans before physicians. However primitive this might seem, given the group orientation of Koreans, the shaman might well attribute the problem of the individual to be rooted in poor family relationships, which the counselor might well diagnose in counseling sessions (Kim,Y.S.E.,2005).

Korean immigrants value the integrity of the group over the individual, and the psychotherapeutic process tends to function upon the open and often emotional communication of the client. Since information tends to remain within the “family gate,” the process can be difficult (Leong, 2001).

Practical and Methodological Considerations

Hierarchy, family privacy, traditional values and the immigration experience are just a few of the challenges in counseling Korean Americans. The following are both practical and professional suggestions for the counseling situation.

It is important to assess the levels of acculturation of all members of the family as well as their immigration history to help determine inter-familial stress. If language skills are apparent, a translator might be needed. Hiring a translator might be more expensive but guarantees unbiased dialogue. Many families appoint a child as “family broker,” for dealing with the outside world. While this might be an economic solution, the child might filter or withhold information that the family might consider shameful ( this role reversal in a hierarchal family might be a stressor in itself).  To establish jeong, the counselor could engage in small talk and be sensitive to the client’s discomfort and sense of shame (Kim E. B., 2004) (Kim B.-L. &., 2005).  Family hierarchy and paternal authority may figure in the counselor’s credibility based on his gender, age, degree or length of service. Likewise, the counselor must acknowledge the husband as head of household, but if grandparents are present, their elder status (Kim E. B., 2004). Conversely, the counselor should refrain from stating the family is the cause of the problem, such as mother-daughter conflicts until the family is ready to acknowledge its existence (Kim Y. , 2005). It might be the ultimate aim of the counselor to focus on family structure, but should that be a long-term process, the client might not have the time or expense. The counselor should focus on the most  urgent crisis, seeking behavioral change rather than affect or insight (Kim,Y.S.E.,2005). Solution-focused therapy would allow the counselor  to direct the session in a manner congruent to the hierarchical structure of the family (Kim E. B., 2004)  The counselor can meet separately with family members, acting as an advocate to both sides in family conflicts and allowing the family to resolve the crisis without undermining the authority of the father (Kim E. B., 2004).

Since it is more acceptable to have physical rather than emotional problems, the counselor should acknowledge somatic complaints. This tendency among less acculturated clients highlights the minimizing and indirectness in communicating emotional problems (Chang, 1997).

 Acculturation has been mentioned often as a factor in the counseling process, so it might be useful to assess the importance of acculturation in Korean American clients. The Suinn-Lew Asian Self-Identity Acculturation Scale could help determine the degree cultural values would clash with Western mental health therapies. This questionnaire format seeks to assess language level and usage, ethnic interactions, ethnic identity and cultural behaviors. A score of 1 would be interpreted as Asian identified, 3 as bicultural and 5 as assimilated (Suinn, 1987).


Early in this paper the author mentioned the concepts of empathy and Universal Diverse Orientation as key concepts in becoming aware of the differences and similarities among people, and of being able to adopt the viewpoints of others and imagine their feelings and actions (Miville, 2006).  These are fine concepts, but ones that require more than academic exercises to develop. Being closer to the beginning than the end of the path towards a degree in mental health counseling, it is clear that these will be skills best honed through hours of face-to-face counseling. Coursework in diversity issues are a reminder of the richness of various cultures that can enhance one’s own. They are also a reminder of what the future counselor must be aware of in order to be an effective practitioner.

This project was especially interesting as prior to taking this course, Korean Americans were merely a growing population in his community, supplemented with anecdotal tales of culture clash from the fire, police and first aid members whom he knows in town. His children made friends with Korean classmates and came home with stories of their friends and their families. This paper served to illuminate both the richness and the problems of this immigrant group, and the author’s own biases and ignorance.. Should this author practice counseling in this area, he would have to learn more about Korean Americans, and it is hoped he could enter into dialogues with Korean services in the area, including the neighboring church. It would be a learning experience for both cultures.


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