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Author of the Month: Barbara Kim

Published: August 1, 2014

Caring Across Generations: The Linked Lives of Korean-American Families

Barbara Kim, Professor, Asian and Asian American Studies

Published this year by New York University Press, the 256-page Caring Across Generations by Kim and co-author Grace Yoo of San Francisco State University explores how earlier experiences helping immigrant parents navigate American society have prepared Korean-American adult children for negotiating cultural practices their parents may expect them to adhere to. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 137 second- and 1.5-generation Korean Americans who have come of age in the U.S., Kim studied their childhood experiences and their provision of care for ill and aging parents. A study of the intersection between immigration and aging, Caring Across Generations provides a new look at the linked lives of immigrant families at a life stage underexplored in the literature. “We were interested in how the Asian American community deals with aging as the first cohorts of those who arrived in large numbers after 1965 are entering old age,” explained Kim, a member of the university since 2001. “Even as millions of baby boomers turn 65, there has been little attention paid to baby boomer immigrants. What happens to the children’s desire or expectations to take care of parents? What types of institutional support are available for them if Asian Americans and the broader American society believe that Asian-American families ‘take care of their own’? Our goal was to study the intersection of race, immigration, culture and aging.” Yoo and Kim open the book with a discussion of the participants’ relationship with their parents growing up and the different types of work, such as cultural and language brokering, than they did as children of immigrants. The authors look at the different ways children of immigrants try to give back to their parents. “When they see their parents struggle economically and socially, they realize this is how they can replay them,” said Kim. “It is a form of tangible and emotional labor.” The study also explores how the second generation re-thinks cultural practices in middle adulthood. “When they are in adolescence and young adulthood, many go through a stage where they and their parents ignore cultural celebrations because they are too busy,” she said of the caretaker generation. “But as the first generation ages and the third generation is born, they revitalize some of those celebrations, such as holidays and milestone birthdays. For example, they plan their 60th and 70th birthdays for their parents. When they have children, they celebrate first birthday parties. We look at how the second generation transmits and redefines cultural life for the third generation, paying attention to the intersections of gender, class and the transnational South Korean influence on the Korean-American community, especially in Los Angeles.” The heart of the study discusses how Korean-American adult children care for their parents, and the ways in which actual caring practices contradict “Korean” values that the respondents were taught about filial obligations and

Author of the Month-Neil Hultgren

culture. For example, most respondents grew up hearing from their parents that it was the eldest son (and the eldest daughter-in-law)’s responsibility to take care of parents in old age. However, in middle adulthood, the daughters tended to provide care coordination and care giving for both in-laws (for married respondents) and parents, and provided greater help for their own parents. The book concludes with a discussion of how daughters and sons deal with illness and passing of their parents. “They find themselves advocating for their parents in the larger health care system,” she said. “They had to be real advocates and sometimes from hundreds of miles away, for their non-white immigrant parents who were often limited English proficient and trying to navigate through this bureaucracy.” Kim feels Caring Across Generations defies the cultural stereotypes of Asian Americans and filial piety, as well as those of Americans who “ignore” their parents. “That is not the case,” she said. “Studies have found that in the U.S., 80 percent of senior care is given by a family member, friend or neighbor across racial and ethnic groups. However, it is the non-white, largely immigrant portion of the aging population that is growing fastest. What programs and policies are focusing on these groups? Taking care of older adults in the U.S. cannot be just a private, cultural matter. That is something we need to focus on.” Kim earned her B.A. in sociology from Pomona College and her M.A. and Ph.D. in 2001 from the University of Michigan.