Why Policies Matter in Immigrant Inclusion: The Role of Language, Culture, and Politics in Shaping Access to Mental Health Services for First Generation Korean-Canadian Immigrant Mothers

My mother (center), sister (right), and myself (left) in a school family portrait from 2009.

My mother immigrated to Vancouver with her two daughters in 2009. We were a typical kirogi gajok (“wild geese” family), a cultural term that depicts the relatively recent transnational family structure in which the father works in Korea while the mother emigrates with her children. Particularly among first generation Korean immigrant mothers like my own, high levels of mental health issues are common (Choi et al., 2009). However, a U.S.-based study reveals that 88% of surveyed Asian immigrants with a serious mental illness have not received professional treatment (Jang et al., 2019).

This article will analyze economic, cultural, ideological, and political structures that culminate to shape gendered burden and hinder access to effective mental health services for Korean first generation immigrant mothers in Metro Vancouver.

How Transnational Family Structures Have Been Normalized Through Canada’s Immigration Policies

Migrants are active, strategy-oriented agents rather than passive subjects under structural forces; however, the gendered division of migration strategies is shaped by hegemonic gender roles and immigration policies. Kirogi gajok is the product of parents taking on this gendered family project in the pursuit of English education abroad, thus acting as agents of globalization while leveraging transnational capital to enhance their children’s competitiveness in the global market (Lee & Johnstone, 2016).

Through this structural process, split family dynamics have become a culturally accepted norm and model standard for Korean households in their strategic mobilization of capital across nations. The White settler colonial state has been founded upon a reliance on these transnational families, with a history of permitting selective entry only for “desirable” immigrants (Boyko, 2008).

Chinese Immigration Act, 1885

The Chinese Head Tax is a representative example of how racial capitalism has influenced gendered migratory structures throughout history (Dirks, 2006). In 1884, the Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration reported that Chinese (masculine) labour had significantly benefited the Canadian economy; thus, the commission called for a “restriction”, rather than an exclusionary ban, on Chinese immigration to Canada (Chan, 2016). The Chinese Immigration Act, with its imposition of the Chinese Head Tax and selective additional tax on Chinese wives and children, made evident the gender divide in “desirable” (source of labour or capital) and “undesirable” (cause for state expenditure) immigrants as deemed by the Canadian government. The result of this policy was an increase in split transnational families and its normalization as an economic strategy by the nation state (Boyko, 2008).

Gendered Structures of Education Migration

Canada’s modern immigration system grants education migrants with a student visa and requires that minors are accompanied by a parent (Government of Canada, 2021). Therefore, in conforming to cultural gender roles and the normalized transnational family structure, the Korean mother accompanies her children in their immigration to Canada while the father remains employed in Korea. In this process, Canada accumulates capital through the migrant mother’s consumption in the education market and saves state expenditures on welfare programs that she is ineligible for under temporary visitor status. In capitalist terms, the Korean mother within a transnational split family is thus deemed as a “desirable” immigrant.

Such policies are often interpreted as macroeconomic strategies but rarely as pathways of marginalization and gender inequity that trickle down to impact immigrant families. These policies form family dynamics that especially harm the immigrant mother who faces intensified gendered burden as a single parent. When combined with ideological structures, the result is worsened mental health outcomes with an absence of help-seeking behaviours.

The Role of Cultural, Ideological, and Religious Subjectivities

Migrant Mother, Jack of All Trades

Confucian values have historically shaped patriarchal household dynamics and gender roles within Korean families. Seo and colleagues (2020) discuss the “wise mother and good wife” (WMGW) ideology that has evolved into an oppressive double burden for the transnational Korean woman. Kirogi mothers spearhead the immigration process and fulfill filial caregiving roles as a single mother (Lee & Johnstone, 2016).

Despite emotional burden from their gendered obligations, the Confucian “self-sacrificing, soft-spoken, and submissive” feminine adage suppresses outward emotional expression among Korean immigrant women who are pressured to prioritize household reputation over self-interest (Seo et al., 2020). Since emotional suppression is culturally reinforced and normalized, these women may not perceive themselves as being in need of psychological assistance in the first place (Delara, 2016). Conforming to such ideology predisposes Korean immigrant women to poor mental health outcomes as they face various distressors, including acculturation and racism (Seo et al., 2020).

The Church as a Second Family

Korean immigrant women tend to seek emotional support and health-related advice through kin relations rather than mental health professionals, reflective of Korean familism and exclusive formations of trust within kinship structures (Kim et al., 2015). Such kinship-based emotional support is unavailable for Korean immigrant mothers within the kirogi gajok family structure. Thus, many Korean immigrant mothers perceive their Korean-Canadian church community as their primary source of linguistically and culturally supportive social network(Choi et al., 2014). On the other hand, religious subjectivities can influence immigrant women’s decision to avoid biomedical or professional treatment (Delara, 2016). Immigrant women may underuse mental health services due to religious frames of thought and rely on ethnic spiritual group leaders and informal support systems to meet their emotional needs (Delara, 2016).

Access and Representation in Mental Health Services

Language- and Culture-Specific Services

The federal government sends major transfers to provincial or territorial governments who then determine delivery and resource allocation in mental health services (Office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, 2020). Settlement and integration services are provided by municipality-based non-profit agencies. A select few of these agencies (eg. S.U.C.C.E.S.S.) provide language-specific counselling services for Korean immigrant women. Some agencies (eg. MOSAIC) offer counselling services that are unavailable in Korean or require a third-party interpreter. As these services are generalized counseling services, they fail to meet the specific mental health needs of patients. Other agencies have Korean social workers on staff who refer clients to registered clinical counsellors.

Upon running a filtered search for Korean-speaking registered psychologists, two results show on CounsellingBC and one result shows on the BC Psychological Association Directory. Such lack of Korean or Korean-speaking therapists may be rooted in the Confucian ideological structure of family honour that prescribes prestige to professions other than psychology. On the federal and provincial level, the Government of Canada and HealthLink BC do not offer any mental health resources, directories, or search engines that are reliably translated in Korean.

Lack of appropriate linguistic communication prevents the establishment of rapport with the service provider and casts a significant barrier to understanding bureaucratic structures, procedures, and functions of Canadian mental health services (Delara, 2016). Korean immigrant women do not often seek professional support services due to their lack of English language proficiency and the ethnic, cultural, and linguistic mismatch with their service provider (Seo et al., 2020). In addition, the presence of a third party interpreter can invoke mistrust and fear of their confidential matters being shared with the greater community (Delara, 2016).

Assimilate or Suffer: Exposing Roots of Racial Alienation

Such lack of representation of and community connections to Korean-speaking service providers and Korean-translated resources means that Korean immigrant mothers are expected to become fluent in English as a precondition to accessing adequate mental health services. Many Korean immigrant mothers carry multiple commitments that leave little room for self-care or accessing a language learning program (Choi et al., 2014). Ironically, while there is a lack of linguistically and culturally accessible mental health services, there is a multitude of English learning programs provided by non-profit organizations.

Canadian multiculturalism offers racialized immigrants with inclusion and access to capital only once they have assimilated and successfully molded themselves into its bilingual framework. Immigrant mental health is often measured by an immigrant’s level of success in such acculturation or assimilation, thus supporting Canada’s neoliberal political attitude in framing immigrant well-being as an individual responsibility. Canada’s racial alienation persists after its branding as a multicultural nation to form its national agenda for immigrant integration — one based on assimilation to the hegemonic culture rather than multicultural inclusivity.

Creating Social Margins: The “Othering” of Racialized Immigrants Through Canada’s Language Policies

As globalization accelerated and immigration to Canada increased in flow, discrimination based on race and ethnicity became less explicit. Rather, it became more implicitly articulated — now, through language.

Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1963

Amidst growing Quebecois nationalism, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was appointed with a mandate to explore issues related to the languages and cultures of the “two founding races” of Canada, the English and French (Laing & Cooper, 2019). This exclusionary mandate sparked objections from Canada’s largest ethno-cultural groups who disagreed with the commission’s premise of an officially bilingual and bicultural country (Laing & Cooper, 2019). With the expansion of the mandate to report on the cultural contributions of other ethnic groups, a report was published calling for an end to biculturalism and for the integration, not assimilation, of ethnic groups into Canadian society.

However, the commission upheld the importance of official bilingualism in relieving linguistic tensions within the nation (Laing & Cooper, 2019). As such, the Official Languages Act (1969) was passed to legally establish the requirement of all federal institutions to serve Canadians in either English or French (Laurendeau, 2006). This marked the institutionalization of bilingualism throughout Canadian government structures, later shaping (in)access to important resources for non-English and non-French ethnic groups.

Canadian Multiculturalism Act, 1988

The shift in political discourse from assimilation of immigrants to integration led to the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (CMA). This Act was the first one of its kind on a global scale in recognizing multiculturalism as a fundamental characteristic of national identity (Berry, 2020). Though it promoted “full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins… [and] the elimination of any barrier to that participation”, the Act simultaneously called for the “strengthening [of] the status and use of the official languages of Canada” (Government of Canada, 1985).

Since its institution, the Act has been used as a blanket representation of Canada’s inclusiveness of cultural diversity. By instituting an ostensibly progressive policy that vaguely promotes the preservation of ethnic cultures and languages, the federal government successfully shirked this responsibility relegated it to the private sphere (Vessey, 2013). The government’s repeated reinforcement of official bilingualism and its neoliberal agenda renders many Korean immigrant mothers both linguistically lost in navigating Canadian systems as well as the figure of blame for their unsuccessful assimilation. The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and the CMA both served to stabilize the coherent status of the entitled English- and French-speaking European settler populations and to solidify the “fragmented” status of the non-entitled ethnic groups (Vessey, 2013).

Canada’s multiculturalism within a bilingual framework has shaped language as a proxy for race and established a cultural hierarchy, rather than a mosaic, that systemically marginalizes non-English and non-French immigrant settlers (Yeoman, 2015). Though the CMA superficially promotes integration and unity in diversity, its real function is to uphold White settler hegemony at the expense of immigrant exclusion and suffering. The CMA actively marginalizes racialized immigrant groups through its hollowness and superficiality.

Policy Recommendations to Advance Access for Korean-Canadian Immigrant Mothers

Through political processes of normalizing transnational family structures and removing responsibility for cultural inclusion from the state, Canada has created an oppressive societal system in which Korean-Canadian immigrant mothers are stranded with multiple burdens. Upon immigration to Canada via a systemically imposed “splitting” of the family, Korean mothers are unable to seek efficient support in mental health care due to the linguistic inaccessibility of government resources and services. Linguistic injustice is thoroughly ingrained throughout the system via a century’s worth of policies, hindering equitable access to mental health services.

There is an established community of more than twenty thousand first generation Korean immigrant women residing in Metro Vancouver (Statistics Canada, 2016). In order to meet the needs of this growing population, immigrant mental health must be perceived by Canadian governments as a public responsibility. The following are a series of policy recommendations to enhance equitable access to mental health services for Korean immigrant mothers:

#1: Launch a cooperative partnership between federal, provincial, and municipal institutions specifically dedicated to mental health support for Asian immigrant mothers. The federal and provincial governments must recognize the gendered burden carried by this demographic and launch collaborations with municipal agencies on double-pronged approaches that address both 1) cultural, ideological, and religious obstacles to accessing mental health care, and 2) the provision of language- and culture-specific mental health services.

#2: Appoint a federal commission on language justice and the experiences of Asian-Canadian immigrants. This commission must be qualitatively driven, administered by culturally competent researchers, with interviews conducted and interpreted by native speakers.

#3: Recognize and actively redress the emptiness of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. The CMA is a tool for the silent perpetuation of systemic discrimination against first generation Asian-Canadian immigrants. The Act must be amended to include a more robust commitment to genuine multiculturalism in accordance to the findings of the aforementioned commission.

#4: Launch federal and provincial funding for the translation of government resources on mental health services. The lack of accurately translated government resources on mental well-being is an act of withholding information that is critical to immigrant health. The federal government must provide funding for manual translation of all relevant websites and print material and ensure the distribution of these resources throughout settlement agencies.

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