Not your model minority: Korean Canadians in 2018

Updated: Nov 10, 2018

On November 3, hundreds of Korean-Canadians came together to talk about our place in the Canadian society.

"Know Your Place" Conference

On November 3, 2018, KPWA & KCSF convened a conference called 'Know Your Place,' a thoughtful forum to challenge ideas about what it means to “participate” in the mainstream Canadian society as a Korean-Canadian and to explore the concept of “social capital” and whether it's lacking in our community.

The goal of the discussion was to mobilize community members toward a critical examination and awareness of our “place” in the broader Canadian society, and of an individual’s “place” as a Korean-Canadian. The room was filled with mostly 1.5 and 2nd generation Koreans and was live-streamed nationally.

Reading the speakers' list was a breath of minty fresh air. Different from traditional Korean meet-ups I've been to, this conference intentionally curated speakers from diverse backgrounds - not just the umma-or-appa- approved doctors and lawyers. Amongst the speakers and audience were storytellers, actors, activists, non-profit founder, authors, sociology academics, and more.

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee aka Appa from Kim's Convenience!

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Award winning actor, writer, comedian and dad. He plays “Appa” on Kim’s Convenience.

Rick Byun, Former Queen’s Park staffer and Communications Consultant

Ann K.Choi, Award winning and first Korean-Canadian novelist; Author of Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety

Suki Choi, Founder of Autism in Mind, a charity dedicated to support children with Autism

Ann Kim, York U Associate Professor whose work focuses on the immigrant and ethnic integration process

Hanna Sung, TVO journalist. Co-host of Colour Code: A podcast about race. Formerly worked at Globe and Mail, CBC, and MuchMusic.

Rosel Kim, inclusive leader and lawyer, DiverseCity fellow, and writer for various publications


As a Korean growing up not wanting to be Korean and increasingly distancing myself from the Korean (church) community, it was a surreal moment for me to be surrounded by many Koreans who felt the same way growing up. I teared up when hilarious and brilliant writer Ann Choi ended her story by re-introducing herself with her Korean name. It reminded me of my transition from Sylvia to Shilbee.

Each of us are unique individuals, yes.

But there are distinct experiences and stories that we share as 1.5/2nd generation Korean-Canadians. For one: either we know someone or our mom and/or dad ran a convenience store. It's a story we can relate too. You should have heard the number of times Paul aka appa from Convenience Store got claps. For many (im)migrants, it's their only way to make a living, selling low margin chips and surviving off selling cigarettes and lottery. We also share our Koreanness. Our skin means we have a relationship to the Korean identity in one way or another. So what does it mean to be Korean and Canadian?

There were so many nuggets of wisdom and inspirational stories from the speakers. Know your self to know your place (Rick Byun). One small act of kindness can plant a seed to grow a garden (Suki Choi). People need connection to survive and thrive (Ann Kim).

Ann Kim explains social capital and why we need social connection

While I'm unable to capture the full spectrum of ideas, thoughts, feelings that came up, here are some insights that I gleaned from the conference with personal reflections. Note these insights are filtered through my lived experience/biases.

  • Korean Canadians have come a long way! There are many Koreans doing incredible things in different industries. Case in point: speakers list.

  • It's difficult to mobilize Korean Canadians for collective action - there are many reasons for this but a common thing that came up was how many of us didn't want to be Korean growing up.

  • Good news is that kids today are hella proud of their Korean heritage. Gangnam style might have something to do with that.

  • Diversifying our workplace is a journey and we're far from where we should be. It'll take everybody (employers and employees) to create the systemic change that's required. This topic was a contentious one with varying opinions.

  • There's fear of losing language and not being able to communicate and meaningfully connect with our parent(s). Language (and cultural) barriers can put more burden on siblings that can speak Korean, show up in inter-racial relationships when people marry and/or have children with non-Korean partners, and in our understanding of self and identity.

  • Model minority narrative (Asians as hard-working, successful, and submissive) in Canada has been used politically to pit racial groups against one another and justify racial hierarchy. Koreans have both benefitted and been disadvantaged by this myth. We have to proactively challenge this narrative, understand our responsibilities as settlers on land with colonial legacy with Indigenous peoples, critically examine our privileges and disadvantages as Korean Canadians and challenge systemic barriers that affect different communities not just our own.

  • While many Koreans have been quite successful, both our median income and educational attainment are below that of median levels for Canadians. By focusing on just successes, we overlook social issues that currently affect our communities like domestic violence, alcoholism, poverty, mental health, seniors issues, racism and discrimination, and etc.

  • Some of us bravely acknowledged that we lack confidence. My personal reflections on this is that when we lack media representation (we grew up with nerdy Asian side-kicks, never the sexy protagonist for example) and leaders at work and in society don't look like us, we lack role-models. Furthermore, Asian men are considered to be least desirable race based on online dating site research whereas Asian women are exoticized. Shaped largely by media and mainstream culture, our desirability is largely tied to our skin, which in turn, can be tied to our confidence. On top of that, bullet point 2 shows that many Korean Canadians tried to shed our Koreanness, further dizzying our understanding who we are as individuals, as Korean, and as Canadians. Times are changing (Kim's Convenience, yaya!) but these deep-seated insecurities develop over generations and can take some time to excavate and root out.

  • Two people in the circle I facilitated mentioned how the conference was like therapy. For me, this showed the power of convening and conversations. It can be healing to be seen and heard.

  • I'm curious what the conversation would be like if we have more first generation, international students, North Koreans, mixed-race, adopted Koreans, and folks who identify as Korean and with diverse intersecting identities (LGBTQ, socioeconomic backgrounds, abilities etc) in the room.

I facilitated a conversation on relationships: What makes them healthy? How do we strengthen relationships in our different social groups based on these factors?

Know Who You Are to Know Your Place

When I first heard the title "Know Your Place" I scratched my head. I wanted to challenge societal ideas that dictate what my place should be - whether it's glass or bamboo ceiling.

But after the conference, I realized the framing of knowing "your place" means also to create it. Create the place where you belong. If there are barriers? Name them and work with your community to break them down.

And to do that, first get to know and fall in love with who you are.

#identity #koreancanadian #notyourmodelminority

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