An interview with Dr. Richard Lee, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota
By Alexandra Nam and Corinne Kodama, University of Illinois at Chicago AARCConnections
In April, the Asian American Studies Lecture Series at the University of Illinois-Chicago featured Dr. Richard Lee, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Lee’s work focuses on cultural socialization of minority populations, and he has studied international adoption, acculturation and Asian American families, and ethnic identity.
What first sparked your interest in your work?
The first reason I got interested in this is that I was very interested in Korean diaspora and the psychological implications of it. And internationally adopted children really represent a diaspora of a population. The second reason I got interested in this project was that I had some clients who were adopted from Korea and I was really struck by the unique issues and developments trying to figure out what it means to be both adopted as well as Korean and raised in a white family. The third aspect of this is being in Minnesota, it’s estimated that almost half the population in Minnesota is adopted, and up to ten percent of the Korean population.
What is the most significant conflict between a parent and child when there is a transition to young adulthood?
I think the biggest challenge that any parent and child is going to experience in the transition to adulthood is the “letting go.” For example, in the U.S., when a child goes off to college, that’s sort of a symbolic moment when parents are really letting go of a child and granting them more autonomy, independence and so on and a child then begins to establish their identity as an individual apart from the family. Asian parents’ expectations of when autonomy and independence occur often does not coincide with that, so they expect that the child will be very connected with the family and defer their own autonomy to fulfill family obligations. But of course the child, having grown up in the American culture, will not be as welcoming to that. There’s a different challenge for adopted children when they’re transitioning in adulthood and that’s really beginning to negotiate being an ethnic American and not having the tight-knit ethnic community from where you may have come from. So the biggest challenge when they go to college is their racial phenotype, but other people don’t know that.
What is the most important lesson you have learned regarding the mental health of refugees?
What amazes me the most is the natural resilience of people. Life as an immigrant is tough, but the challenges as a refugee are even greater, and it’s amazing how well people are able to adapt to this new environment: jobs, schools, etc., having to learn a whole new set of rules and lifestyle. Now that said, refugees oftentimes experience and have to deal with a lot of loneliness and isolation, and all the other types of acculturation stresses and experiences, except—magnified.
This article originally appeared in AARCConnections, the newsletter of the Asian American Resource & Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and is posted here by permission. Please do not reprint without seeking its permission. Corinne Maekawa Kodama is Associate Director of the AARCC and editor of AARCConnections. Alexandra Nam is AARC Student Outreach Coordinator, and a recent UIC Chapter Advisor and Midwest Regional Coordinator of the non-profit group Liberty in North Korea (LiNK).