James Koh’s journey from South Korea to America started with images in black and white. “It was less than 20 years after the end of the Korean War and still very tough times in Korea,” says his son, Andrew Ko (who dropped the h from his name), of Ashburn, Va. “My father watched American movies on a black-and-white TV and thought life in the United States was utopian.”
In 1968, Koh sought utopia in El Paso, Tex., where his sister lived with her American husband. Two years later, his wife, Nancy, joined him. “If you want freedom, what countries do you live in?” says James. “This was number one—the American dream.” If America was the dream, South Korea circa 1970 was a harsh reality. Jobs were scarce, incomes were low, and credit was nonexistent. Families saved for decades to buy a house or put their children through college—if their children got that far in Korea’s intensely competitive educational system. A conformist culture discouraged creativity. Upward mobility depended on family and connections.
But Korean values—including a relentless work ethic, a prodigious ability to save and a single-minded commitment to education—proved to be ideal qualities for success in America. “Forty hours a week doesn’t apply to Korean Americans—more like 60 or 70,” says Joseph Kwak, an accountant whose family immigrated to Northern Virginia in the mid 1980s. Korean money clubs—groups of friends and relatives who pool resources and lend each other money—help finance the small businesses for which Koreans are known. Hagwons, rigorous after-school tutoring programs, enable Korean-American students to win slots at some of the nation’s top universities.
In the Washington, D.C., area, which has the third-largest Korean population in the country (behind Los Angeles and New York), the Korean presence is felt most in Annandale, Va. Storefronts bear Korean calligraphy; restaurants serve up bulgogi and karaoke; and supermarkets stock the aisles with vats of marinated beef and tubs of kimchi. A magnet for Korean immigrants in the 1970s, this thriving area epitomizes the synergy between American opportunity and Korean initiative, says Michael Kwon, of the Korean-American Association of Virginia. “People longed for life in America. When they came here, they were determined to succeed.”
In El Paso, James Koh followed a parallel trajectory, working three part-time jobs while earning a degree in engineering. He and Nancy, with infant son Andrew, moved to the D.C. area for the plentiful jobs. “It was not easy to get a job in Texas,” says Nancy. “Everyone was speaking Spanish. We did not fit.” They landed in Gaithersburg, Md., where both worked at an electronics company, he as an engineer and she on the assembly line. “For one year, I do not take any days off, not even Sundays,” says Nancy. “I worked straight through.”
Nancy eventually used savings and a loan from a money club to buy a liquor store. James remained an engineer and used his days off to spell his wife. Nancy’s mother emigrated from Korea to help care for Andrew and his brother, Steven. The Kohs scrimped until they could afford to move to Potomac, Md., home to some of the country’s best schools. Education was the priority. “I was raised to be an American, to blend in but to compete ferociously when it came to grades,” says Andrew.
Now the general manager of Partners in Learning, an education program at Microsoft, Andrew and his Korean-born wife, Mi Joung, have similar academic goals for their children—Kaylen, 11; Anderson, 4; and Ayden, 1—but with an American twist. “Culturally, Koreans try to be quiet,” says Andrew. “They think: Don’t rock the boat. I want Kaylen to do well at school, but I want her to seek her interests. I want her to be a model citizen, but I don’t want her to be quiet. I want her to experience all of what it means to be in the United States.”
For Nancy and James Koh (both now retired), what it means to be in the U.S. is just this: “I love that in this country, we have good opportunity to do what we want,” says Nancy. “If you work hard, save money—opportunity is right there. My husband said about this country, ‘If you don’t have money, nobody gives you a piece of bread. But if you save money, you can settle like the people here.’ I love that.”