Dr. Minjin Kim is an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Nursing. She is the principal investigator of the UC Storytelling for Health Advocacy, Research and Education (SHARE) project. Since 2020 at UMass Chan Medical School, Dr. Kim has also spearheaded a project focused on the experiences of Asian, Latinx and international students, aimed at achieving health equity through storytelling interventions. She currently lives in Cincinnati, and was born and raised in Korea before immigrating to the United States at the age of 17.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Minjin and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on March 2, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Minjin Kim (MK): So, my name is Minjin Kim. I’m an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, College of Nursing. My research is focusing on addressing and reducing health disparities, and also promoting health and disease prevention, particularly for cancer prevention. I use storytelling as an intervention in my research to enhance health communication for underserved populations who have diverse backgrounds.
Ruth Chang (RC): So, in the first part of the interview, I’m interested in yourself. Where were you born?
MK: I was born in South Korea, and I moved to the United States when I was 17, in my junior year of high school. I moved here by myself without my family, and I was actually the first immigrant in my family.
RC: What was that like?
MK: Telling the stories about my experience, you can see that there was a transition from adolescence into adulthood in the U.S. For me, it was challenging. When I first moved to the United States, I quickly recognized that one of the biggest challenges is mastering English. But adapting to the culture wasn’t as difficult as learning English for me. As time went on, there were some challenges and struggles that came to me. I was asking myself about my cultural identity. My cultural identity, I found, was more complicated than other people. So, I asked a question to myself: “Should I follow Korean culture or American culture?” Well, when I’m in Korea in the community, people think that I’m very Americanized. But when I’m in America and I’m with Americans, they always see me as a foreigner, someone who’s from another country who has an accent. I couldn’t find where I feel a sense of belonging. As time went on, I think I struggled with my cultural identity, even though I [initially] felt that adapting culture was easier.
RC: Where were you at when you first immigrated?
MK: So I moved to Colorado.
RC: Was Colorado pretty much a white community?
MK: It’s pretty [much] like [a] white community. Also, there are a lot of immigrants and second generations. I only have one Korean friend in high school, that was it. I didn’t have a lot of Korean friends [at] that time. Yeah — I was by myself at the time. Then a year later, my brother followed me. But, we lived [with] different host families. So we only got to see each other at the school. So, we were in the situation: “We have to learn English.” Because if we live together, we won’t be able to learn English. So that was the purpose from our parents: “Okay, you guys need to live in different places.”
RC: I spoke with some people who found they had to make friends with different minority groups because they didn’t have any one of the same ethnic backgrounds. But that was one way they adapted and found belonging. Did you feel that way?
MK: So I didn’t feel that way in Colorado. The question that I started asking myself about my cultural identity was actually later on. It was during my graduate program. So, I didn’t ask that question a lot before. I’m just thinking of myself, “I’m Korean throughout.” Then when I become more exposed to American culture, then I begin to ask myself, “Where am I at? I feel like I’m in between, I’m struggling with these two cultures. Should I follow my Korean culture, [or] should I follow this?” Especially I find that this conflict exists especially in academia when I do professional work. During my Ph.D. program, I think that was the time that I actually asked myself about who I am, my cultural identity.
There is just one time that I felt like I belonged somewhere in the U.S. for the first time. That was when I was doing my Ph.D. at UMass Boston. I had an opportunity to teach Asian American cultural health practice and Asian women in the U.S. And it was through the Asian American studies program, and the program has a special place in my heart because they’re a very unique program. They truly celebrate diversity, and also promote inclusion. Their environment is very open, welcoming and with different cultures, and their students feel like they [are not] judged by others. Instead, they’re encouraged to be themselves and [were helped] to find their identity. So, through that program, actually, I asked that question to myself and tried to figure out about my cultural identity through the program, because of that safe, welcoming, open environment.
RC: Do you feel purposeful, like you’re finding a place to go on during that period of time?
MK: Yes, definitely. I felt that. That was, I was truly to be myself during that time. Also seeing the students building their confidence in who they are through the program. So, I observed that and experienced that, and I appreciate that more.
I thought at that time: “This is the essence of home.” In the home you can be whatever you want to be, you can be yourself, truly be yourself without worrying about judgment. You can feel the sense of belonging — that’s the essence of home. They truly provide that environment so that I could be myself and also ask those questions about the complexity of my cultural identity. So, I appreciate that program.
Before that, I always identified that I’m a bicultural person. But that program invited me to open my eyes to learn about other cultures and accept other cultures, appreciate other cultures. And now I proudly identify myself: I’m a multicultural person, and I’m a 1.5-generation Korean immigrant, and now I see my cultural identity is my strength. It’s also a valuable asset for me.
RC: What are some of the stages that you went through? And can you help us understand what’s the difference between the first-generation immigrant and the 1.5 generation?
MK: So, 1.5-generation is usually a common term used by Korean immigrants, in the context of Korean immigrants, but it can apply to other immigrant groups. So 1.5 generation is often seen as being between the first generation, who were born in the new country, and the second generation, who were born and raised entirely in the new country. So the 1.5-generation have a unique perspective and experiences; they try to navigate between two cultures and identities. That’s how I and also [other] researchers define what 1.5-generation [is].
RC: What are some of the differences experientially?
MK: So, I think we can talk about [differences that are] acculturation related. Because the first-generation, they’re often more mature. They moved to the new country when they’re more mature, so they’re more culturally-related to their original country. But the second generation is different; they’re exposed to the culture through their family and the community where they live. So, they have a different acculturation process. But the 1.5-generation, they moved to a new country when they were children or teenagers. They adapt very quickly [at first,] and later on, they can struggle about their cultural identity.
RC: What are challenges to being in this “in-between”?
MK: There are challenges. There is one time that I thought being a 1.5-generation is a weakness. But I see that as a strength now. You can struggle by this non-identity being in-between, [where] you don’t feel you belong to this generation or the other generation. Finding where you can fit in can be very challenging. But on the other hand, it means that you can go this side and the other side, you can just mingle with both sides. So if you’re open-minded to learning about the other generation, then I think that’s a good thing.
RC: And there’s also a lot of conversation about mental health. I wonder if identifying generations that are “in-between” has raised any questions or discussions on the topic?
MK: Yeah, not only mental health — there are some differences in the healthcare utilization rates and health risk behavior among first-generation, 1.5-generation and second-generation [individuals]. So, maybe I can tell you a little bit about this book. This book is called the 1.5-generation Korean Diaspora.
One of the chapters by Dr. Sou Hyun Jang looked at how 1.5-generation Korean Americans are different from first-generation and second-generation and other Asian groups like Filipino, Chinese and Vietnamese in terms of healthcare utilization rates. She found that 1.5 Korean generation dipped down in between the first-generation and second-generation. Especially, their healthcare utilization was lower than the first-generation but higher than the second-generation when it was compared with other Asian subgroups. Their rates were lower than other groups, except the Vietnamese group.
There’s another chapter that Dr. Chris Hahm at Boston University and myself contributed, we looked at the difference between the 1.5-generation, and second-generation Korean young women, and we looked at the health risk behaviors and healthcare utilization. We also looked at the acculturation characters— how the acculturation comes into their health risk behaviors. It was very interesting that when the group is more acculturated, health risk behavior increased. Specifically, those who are less acculturated [in the] 1.5-generation group were less likely to use condoms and test for HIV and STIs. They were generally lower with the healthcare utilization, but then also they had a high risk for binge drinking, comparatively high compared to other groups.
So, there are many areas that we can observe about the differences, and mental health comes in as a very important factor that we have to look at because of intergenerational conflict between the parents and the children. Because of the generational and cultural differences, they often create this unspeakable conflict in between them. It creates psychological distress. So, there are many other studies that talk about this intergenerational conflict and how it leads to psychological distress. But we have to actually look at health care utilization, too. Because AAPI has real barriers to mental healthcare access. I had actually had a separate Asian students who came to me. They want to seek for mental health services but their parents don’t encourage them to go to mental health care service. That’s because they believe that depression is just sadness: “You will overcome that, just focus on study and you will be okay. Just don’t [get] distracted by anything. Just focus on your success.” So that’s the kind of [thought] typical Asian parents have in mind, trying to guide their children in that way, whereas the children want to seek for some help. So, there’s a lot of areas we have to work out when it comes to mental health.
RC: What are some additional healthcare statistics and differences that you observed that might be interesting or surprising?
MK: I can give you an example from my cancer-related study. So, I do research on HPV and HPV-associated cancer in cancer prevention studies using storytelling. When you look at the national data of incidences of cervical cancer, for example, Asian/AAPI women have a lower incidence of cervical cancer rates compared to other groups. But that’s not the true data. Because when you look at the Asian subgroups — Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong — they have a high incidence of cervical cancer, but [studies] collect all of the data together saying, “This is the representative data of AAPI”; [they don’t take into account that] Asian AAPIs have more than 50 subgroups. They’re coming from different cultures, different countries and have different social demographics. So we cannot say that this data is representing the AAPI if they’re not including other subgroups. Then we have a lot of challenges in data disparities. We focus on health disparity, but we have data disparities, too. But there are not many researchers trying to focus on the subgroups. There is limited funding to focus on AAPI subgroups. So these are quite big challenges for the researchers.
RC: Is that one of the reasons why you decided to do your storytelling approach?
MK: Yes. Thank you for that question. So, the reason why I tried to use storytelling is I think that is culturally appropriate. And also, storytelling is a way to capture cultural meaning and their lifestyle experiences, and their language too. So, I’m talking about the Asian American Studies Program. Again, that’s the time that I actually learned about the storytelling approach; I was able to create my own personal story by using digital stories and by reflecting my own experiences. The students were also reflecting on their own historical background and story. There was a power of sharing and telling stories, and through their reflection, I thought, “Why don’t I use that for health-related projects, research projects?” And that’s how I started to use storytelling. It’s the best way to capture people’s stories and their experiences to understand [them] better.
Oftentimes, Asian American Pacific Islanders experience silence because of the pressures and stigma, and maybe because of their immigration status. There’s so many factors that cause them to be silent because of who they are, and because of their culture that they came from. But storytelling was a wonderful way to break that. I don’t want to say break, but communicate through their assignments. I think another reason why I want to raise the importance of understanding the Asian American subgroups is because if you’re doing some project or trying to do some program for AAPIs, you have to consider so many diverse factors. That’s what I’m trying to do when I look at subgroups of AAPI and to try to produce education programs based on that.
RC: Even recently, there’s a lot of incoming Bhutanese refugees and — I think you’re right — there’s a data disparity. We don’t know enough about these new subgroups in America. And I think most of the time, healthcare providers aren’t really aware. It’s like you said, there’s this idea that “Because you’re all Asian, you’re all fine.”
MK: So one story that maybe I can share with you is that we had a research participant, and I asked her about the reason why she hasn’t received the HPV vaccine. And she says her doctors told her that she doesn’t need to get the vaccine because she’s an Asian woman. I think the healthcare provider was following the national data, which was showing that an AAPI woman has a low incidence of cervical cancer. Maybe that’s why the doctor told her that Asian women are less prone to cervical cancer and she doesn’t need to get the vaccine. So the physicians don’t know about the diversity — I don’t want to say all physicians. But the health care providers need to be mindful of the diversity of AAPI subgroups and different cultures in assuming what this national data is representing, and what that really means.
RC: For you personally, what does it mean to be Asian in America or Asian in Ohio? Because I think those two things are a little bit different. What does it mean to be Asian in a place like the Midwestern city of Cincinnati?
MK: I’m still trying to find a sense of belonging in Cincinnati, not because I’m Asian. Well maybe that, too, because there’s a small Asian population in Ohio. The total Asian population in the U.S. is more than 6%, and I think Massachusetts is maybe 7%. But here [in Ohio] is 3%. You can really see the differences in how Asian population is smaller in Ohio. And Cincinnati is smaller still. Maybe because of my ethnic background, maybe I’m struggling with the sense of belonging. Even where I work we don’t have that Asian representation much in the College of Nursing and the university itself… Somehow I think I need to stop trying to find that sense of belonging. But I think I need to be the person who creates the space, so that other people can find a sense of belonging. So, I think that’s what I want to do in Cincinnati.