A Conversation with Heejung Park

The associate professor of psychology talks about her research on the ways culture affects wellbeing.

Can you describe in broad strokes what your research is about?

I focus on how culture shapes human development. Humans develop in a cultural context, so to understand them you can’t remove them from their surroundings. We need to understand how culture influences everything about human development, including wellbeing, but also cognition, the way we interact with one another, our cultural values, what we prioritize when we are faced with multiple demands or dilemmas in social and family situations.

When I study culture, I emphasize how rich and multi-layered it is in any human experience. It’s not just about how particular racial groups suffer under challenging situations. I ask students to think about their culture and how they are affected by it, regardless of their racial background or other cultural factors. When we think about culture, we also need to think about migration within a country, especially in countries that are going through a lot of reorganization and social change.

Your research challenges some common stereotypes. Can you talk about that?

We cannot just say, “Asians are like this, white people are like this.” We need to ask, for example, “How are the experiences of Asian Americans similar or different from Asians and why?” They tend to be grouped together even though their values, identities, and experiences may be quite different. One of my current research projects focuses on Asian and Asian-American experiences during the pandemic, highlighting not only their racial discrimination experiences, but also their values, their wellbeing.

Another line of my work is examining immigrants in an Asian context. One major project I have going on looks at immigrants and multicultural families in South Korea. In psychology, South Korea and other East Asian countries have been overused as a collectivistic culture that represents the context of Asian people. That used to be a new and important idea to understanding cultural variability in human experience, but now we are almost stereotyping Asian people as collectivistic. And we assume a lot of things about individuals and groups based on their race or ethnicity.

So, I travel to countries in Asia that are going through a lot of social change and are actually welcoming immigrants from neighboring nations. How do immigrant families in these contexts fare? That is one way to understand human development and human resilience. My intent is to understand families, adolescents, and children who go through a lot of adjustments and challenging situations. How do many of them develop positive values and wellbeing? What can we learn from them about human resilience?

I try to take the strength model rather than the deficit model, because we already know a lot about the challenges presented to these migrant families. In my current project in South Korea, I'm studying children and mothers from what’s called a multicultural family dynamic. This is an interesting group that we really know little about. The mothers are immigrants from a non-Korean context. They come to South Korea for a variety of reasons, but typically they marry a Korean husband, and their offspring is half Korean. So, they are nationally Korean, but ethnically half Korean. This is a new way to understand how immigrant families fare and to understand South Korean culture. It’s also an example of how mixed cultural families can function well, despite the obvious challenges that they will face due to societal discrimination, language barriers, and cultural barriers

I know that your family moved from South Korea to the United States when you were a teenager and settled in Minnesota. Can you talk about that experience and how that influenced you.

There is a very robust connection there. When I first came to the U.S., I came to Indiana as a foreign exchange student. While I was still in Indiana, my family ended up moving to Minnesota. So, I went from being an international student in Indiana, living with a wonderful host family, to Minnesota, where I became an immigrant and experienced a change in my status.

Identity is something that I study and think deeply about in my work, and I would say the navigation of my identity as a teenager has really shaped my thinking. The whole process of naturalization, even obtaining permanent residency, was not an easy process, so as a young adolescent not knowing where my official identity stood from the government's perspective was quite challenging.

During that period, my family was really meaningful to me and we became closer to one another. Back in Korea, we were very busy. We lived in a very urban environment and we rarely saw each other or ate together as a family because my dad had a business and my mom was a working woman. So contrary to how people thought of Asian culture at that time, it wasn't very collectivistic. We were quite individualistic in our lifestyle. However, family still was really important. So, all these things help me to think deeply about what do we mean by collectivism? What do we mean by individualism?

My rural Minnesota town seemed very collectivistic. People were all connected and in my high school. My graduating class was about 100 students, and not many wanted to go outside of Minnesota for college. Many of my friends were happy to find a partner and raise a family in their young adulthood.

The fact that my family developed closer family ties was not because we were Asian, but because we had immigrated.

In graduate school, I tried to dissect different factors that shape us to be collectivist, to value families. Is it because you are coming from a particular racial background that holds a strong sense of collectivism or is it because immigration is a challenging experience that brings people together? You need to survive as a unit. Or is it because you are in a low socioeconomic status setting. Even though we were quite successful in Korea, the town that we moved to in Minnesota was a pretty poor town and people seemed to be more collectivistic in that kind of setting. When you are farming, when you are really helping each other, when you're connected through kinship, collectivistic values are fostered.

Your work expanded to include the study of sleep as a correlate of wellbeing. How did that come about?

Nowadays a lot of people are interested in sleep psychology, but when I was in graduate school, that was quite new. We were introduced to this device called an actigraph watch that measures movements to study sleep in a more objective way. Measurement is a big deal in psychology research. Another really attractive part of studying sleep using actigraphs was that I could bring the tool to my participants. I recently finished collecting the data from the multicultural families in South Korea and it's amazing to see that data.

As a scholar, I so appreciate Bryn Mawr’s emphasis on doing meaningful work. Another project that I’ve done at Bryn Mawr is studying North Korean refugee youth who have settled in South Korea. This was one of the most meaningful work I have done and giving voice to these youth was amazing. At Bryn Mawr, my work and scholarly identity are valued and respected. In many ways I think this is a unique place to be, and one where I can receive the kind of support I need in order to study important yet understudied populations who need a voice.