Caring Across Generations

Family Ties

In a groundbreaking new book, Asian American studies professors Grace Yoo and Barbara Kim explore how the adult children of Korean immigrants are dealing with the challenges of caring for their aging parents.


Perhaps it’s apt that a rich and complex new book about the closely linked lives of the Korean American family was sparked by the intimate bond shared by its authors. The 20-year friendship between Asian American studies scholars Grace Yoo, a professor at San Francisco State University, and Barbara Kim, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, spans just about the entire length of their careers—dating back to an Asian American academic conference both attended as students in the 1990s. Kim recalls spotting Yoo, of all places, on the dance floor at a conference reception and thinking, “She has a lot of energy!”

For the record, Yoo said she honestly does not remember the dancing part, but does remember that she and Kim immediately formed a bond around their shared commitment to addressing hate crimes that were occurring on some college campuses at the time and more generally in advancing Asian American studies.

“We were among the few Korean American women at the time who wanted to be advocates around these issues,” said Yoo.

Twenty years later, the scholars strive to be advocates around another important and timely Asian American issue, with the release of their new book, Caring Across Generations: The Linked Lives of Korean American Families. The groundbreaking book, for the first time, gives voice to the vastly unknown experiences of 1.5- and second-generation Korean Americans as they negotiate the complexities involved in caring for their elderly parents. It’s an issue that interests the women as Asian American studies professors and sociologists, but also reflects their own stage in life as 40-something Korean Americans with aging immigrant parents.

Yoo, born in Los Angeles, and Kim, who came to the U.S. at age 7, have parents who were largely self-employed during their working years. The women used to joke with each other, “We are our parents’ retirement plans.” But underlying that joke were profoundly serious questions that a number of other Korean Americans of their generation were commonly facing, as their parents—part of the largest cohort of post-1965 Korean American immigrants—were dealing with declining health, financial needs and even the sensitive issues of dying and death.

So the sociologists and friends embarked in 2006 on this collaborative study, and the resulting book is based on an archive of in-depth interviews with 137 second and 1.5-generation Korean Americans from California. The authors took the time to talk to KoreAm about their research findings and to share what they hoped to accomplish with this research.

kim yoo libraryIn a new book, Caring Across Generations, Asian American studies scholars Barbara Kim, left, and Grace Yoo have given voice to the experiences of 1.5- and second-generation Korean Americans negotiating the complexities involved in caring for their elderly parents.

This book is the result of a sociological study, but it emerged from a deeply personal place for the two of you. Could you talk more about that?

Barbara Kim: We began this project while each of us was working on other studies that involved Asian American family issues, such as how Asian American and other women of color navigate cancer and find support, or Korean immigrant entrepreneurs and health insurance and retirement savings practices.

We also observed with our own families and friends how we were all transitioning to another life stage: parents were retiring and some were getting sick; the 1.5 and second generations were finding, or getting a lot of pressure to find, partners and/or having children. …. We realized that Korean Americans were changing based on age and life stage. While we discussed these issues with friends and colleagues, no one to our knowledge had written about it from our perspectives. It may be a reflection of how Korean Americans, due to their particular immigration history, did not have this critical mass of aging immigrants and their adult children until recently.

Then, in the course of writing this book, various issues emerged to make the project particularly relevant and poignant.

Grace Yoo: I had to deal with the passings of my in-laws and then had to deal with my father, then 74 years old, being diagnosed with kidney failure. My dad was given six months to live, but, thanks to the care and advocacy of my mother, sisters and myself, he has since adjusted to dialysis and is living in Southern California. He’s 81 years old.

BK: Meanwhile, I got married and had one parent and one in-law diagnosed with dementia. As we finished the project, I was learning to manage my own parent’s care and future along with my other family members, while observing how my husband and his sisters found help and negotiated my in-law’s care.

How did you choose the subjects you included in this book?

BK: We looked for [adult] Korean American women and men with immigrant parents. These children were either born in the U.S.—second-generation—or came before the age of 13 and considered themselves 1.5-generation, with one parent aged 55 or older. Most of our participants had parents in their 60s and 70s. We limited our geographic scope to those living in the greater Los Angeles or San Francisco Bay areas, since that’s where we are based. We recruited through snowball sampling and through announcements in Korean American organizations and social networks.

Many of the challenges faced by the subjects in the book—1.5- and second-generation Korean Americans feeling overwhelmed in caring for their aging parents, while also working and raising their own children—may sound quite universal for anyone in the so-called sandwich generation. What would you say is different, or perhaps unique, about the Korean American experience of these issues?

GY: For Korean Americans, caring [for their immigrant parents] has been a lifelong endeavor. This form of caring starts as a child and evolves in young and middle adulthood. Caring as a child has meant everything from getting good grades in order to make their parents happy, to doing cultural and language interpreting for immigrant parents, such as filling out business forms or accompanying their parents to doctors’ offices. [As they grow older, it] includes thinking about parental dreams and expectations regarding one’s career and even marital choices. When parents get ill, the children of immigrants play an even larger role in navigating health care and making sure parents are treated with respect and are heard in the health care setting.

The uniqueness of this experience, though, is not limited to Korean Americans. Children of immigrants of many varied backgrounds may experience this kind of “care work” [responsibility] over a lifetime as they straddle language, culture and worlds for their parents, but also navigate the structural constraints immigrants face, including everyday racism.

BK: I think what makes it especially relevant to the Korean American experience is that our book revisits the post-1965 immigration experience, decades later, to see how that first cohort of immigrants have fared. That post-1965 [generation] lived through a lot of political turmoil and poverty in Korea. We had many studies on Korean immigrant experiences published in the 1970s through the 1990s, usually about work, entrepreneurship, gender roles, cultural, linguistic and structural challenges, and intergenerational relations.

What happened to those immigrants as they aged? Were they able to save up for retirement? What do their “golden years” and needs look like, from the perspectives of their adult children? We were also interested in looking at what happened to all those kids who talked about academic and educational pressures from their parents, in terms of life after trying to get into the “right college.”


One Korean American in your book, Patrick, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer during his senior year of college, he spent the year caring for her and his parents’ small business, and ends up, after a year, feeling resentment for his caregiving burden and guilt due to this resentment. How can Korean Americans negotiate all this?

GY: I think it’s just part of what Korean Americans must contend with. There is going to be some ambivalence about trying to care [for a parent] and trying to live your life. It’s not going to be perfect.

However, the positive is that children of immigrants throughout their lives have been doing this and in some sense might be better equipped to deal with anticipated caring that their parents might need—something that the children of non-immigrants might not face until a parent is hospitalized or seriously ill. Children of Korean immigrants might have already anticipated what this may mean. The real issue is where they are at in their lives. Are their children young? Are they single? Do they live nearby?

BK: There are many different kinds of intergenerational relationships, and many children did the best they can with their parents, by themselves or with the help of siblings or spouses. They would call and visit parents, drive and accompany them to the doctor’s office, take care of bills, mediate between parents who don’t get along with each other … Many of the people we spoke with had a strong sense of responsibility to take care of their parents, to give back for the lives they built in the U.S. as immigrants.

However, parents and children do not always get along, either; they get exasperated and angry at each other. They disagree and fight. Some may not have the financial means or time to take care of their parents. Some had to address abusive relationships in the past. Therefore, many [told us they] created boundaries. For some, that meant maintaining some residential distance. For others, it was to get each sibling to contribute in his/her best way and balancing responsibilities, so one person did not get overwhelmed. Others focused on parents’ needs and then took a break, sometimes for weeks, months or longer, to take care of their own needs, so that they did not have to do it all, all the time.

You talk about how Korean Americans, culturally, often see caring for their elderly parents as a personal issue, versus a societal one. Why might this be a problem?

BK: In terms of caregiving, many Asian Americans see the caregiving responsibility for elder family members as an important cultural value. Partly due to this, we found that other studies and surveys show that Asian Americans, especially immigrant families, are believed to “take care of their own” elders at home. So it is seen as a private matter. However, this may not actually reflect real preferences and situations.

First-generation parents may not necessarily want to live with their children; it also may not be possible. For example, many of our San Francisco Bay Area respondents moved there from somewhere else, and their parents live hundreds or thousands of miles away, and are rooted in their own social networks and lives. Many increasingly rely on paid caregiving—similar to child care—and need additional help.

The U.S., South Korea and other nations across the world are grappling with the economic, political and social ramifications of an aging society, so aging is not a private matter. Older adults need social safety nets, health care, affordable housing and day-to-day support, such as rides, meals, etc. Caregivers need financial, social and psychological support. Korean Americans can join others to help create social, economic and health policies to take care of older adults and those who care for them.

What were some findings that were surprising to you?

BK: I don’t know if it is surprising, but it was reassuring for the participants to report that their relationships with their parents improved or deepened as they grew older. Also, it was not necessarily surprising, but interesting to note that most of our participants were taught that Korean sons, especially the eldest sons, were supposed to be the ones responsible for their parents in old age, but very few practiced it in their lives. The elder or eldest tended to coordinate. Women tended to step in as daughters first, and sometimes as the daughters-in-law. Siblings worked together to share responsibilities and tasks. Men tended to feel financially responsible, but often relied on their sisters and/or wives for keeping contact with their parents, making plans, providing tangible care.

caring parentsThe authors (center) with their respective parents. Yoo and Kim were both researching Asian American family issues when they realized, through discussions with friends and colleagues, that no one had written a perspective on how Korean Americans were changing based on age and life stage.

Churches have long played an important role in the Korean American community, but there seemed to be a suggestion at the end of the book that they could do more to address some of these pressing social issues around caring for our elder parents. Could you talk more about this?

GY: Historically, Korean churches have been a place for support. My parents attend a Korean immigrant church, and I grew up in one. I am so grateful to the Korean immigrant church my parents attend. My parents feel seen and heard. But, rather than focusing on what white, conservative mainstream churches have focused on, like trying to ban same-sex marriages—which I feel is antithetical to what Christianity is all about—Korean American churches need to address more social justice issues within and outside our community.

Health care access and the uninsured have been large problems in the Korean immigrant community. We have people in our community who have not had health insurance for all the years they have been living in the U.S. who are getting diagnosed with advanced health issues like stage IV pancreatic cancer or are dealing with serious complications of Type II diabetes. Praying is a wonderful thing, but it needs to be combined with tangible and informational support.

I’d love to see Korean churches working across generations in making and delivering Korean meals to homebound seniors or those in nursing homes. Or what about grief support groups for members who have experienced a loss or a caregiving support group for those who are caring for someone chronically ill? Churches can do more especially if congregations are working together with the 1.5 and second generations to meet the needs of this growing elderly population.

What impact do you hope this book will have?

BK: It’s important to remind ourselves that we are not in this alone. The older adult population in the U.S. continues to grow, and it is the nonwhite population—Latinos, Asian Americans, African Americans—that will really explode in this age group by 2050. So, it’s important to see how this racial, ethnic and language diversity will be addressed.

For example, Chinese and Japanese American communities in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles have older adult retirement homes and assisted living facilities that have bilingual staff and health workers and have particular foods and programming that cater to this population. Can you imagine Korean immigrant elders—especially those who lived in places like the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco areas and continue to be more comfortable with Korean language and culture—in retirement homes and assisted living facilities that do not serve Korean food or do not have Korean-speaking staff? We see a growing need like this in Korean American and other communities who have largely arrived after 1965, for both the older first-generation and the 1.5- and second-generation adult children.

GY: I would hope this book gives the children of Korean immigrants an opportunity to see the heroic work that they have done lifelong. Often this work is so invisible. Because it is invisible, they may fail to see their own resilience and their own need to care for themselves. I hope this book allows children of immigrants to give themselves permission to think about themselves and their own dreams. Children of Korean immigrant dreams can be so tied to their own parents’ dreams and wishes. I hope this book can help children of Korean immigrant disentangle.

What were some of the responses from the participants after they read the book?

BK: The responses have been very positive. The most common responses are that they don’t feel alone knowing that others are struggling and negotiating their “sandwich generation” responsibilities, and that we are telling their story. One participant’s mother asked if our work would be translated into Korean, so that the first generation could read and understand their children’ lives and generation.

GY: I have had a spectrum of individuals read this book. All children of immigrants can relate to the care work that such children have done over a lifetime. We have put words to that experience. I was doing a book reading at Columbia University, and students whose parents immigrated from Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic could also relate to our findings.

Will the experiences of future KA generations be different?

GY: The 1.5- and second-generation Korean American experience is unique to this generation. We are the “dream” generation—immigrant parents put their hopes and dreams onto us. The next generation doesn’t need to fulfill another generation’s dreams, but just their own. In some sense, this is a privilege. The ability to not think about another generation. The third generation has privilege. They can just be.

KoreAm invites readers to submit questions to the authors about their research findings, as well as to share their own stories and comments on this topic of elder care in the Korean American community. Kim and Yoo’s answers will be posted later this week. To submit questions or comments, please email us at or tweet us @KoreAm with the hashtag #FamilyTies.  

Margaret Rhee is an Institute of American Cultures Visiting Researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. As a graduate student, she was research assistant for the Korean American family research project led by Grace Yoo and Barbara Kim. As a poet, Rhee is currently co-editing an anthology of Korean American poetry for Tupelo Press, and her new media art projects include the Kimchi Poetry Machine.


This article was published in the June/July 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June/July issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).


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