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Asian Americans in Kansas

Mal-SoonAsian immigrants to Kansas have increased in numbers in recent years.  Since the 1980s, many Vietnamese, Laotians, and  Cambodians have come to southwest Kansas to work in the meat-packing plants in Garden City and Dodge City.  The number of Asian immigrants has also grown in the major Kansas cities.  They continue to follow their cultural traditions such as Vietnamese New Year's celebrations as well as adapting to the local culture. More than 60,000 persons of Asian descent were identified in the 2010 U.S. Census.

The following experiences of an immigrant from Korea provide details about her dramatic cultural change.

Mal-Soon Sauerman shares a common concern with other immigrants who have settled in Topeka over the years. How does a family blend the cultural traditions of their ancestors with American and Kansas traditions?

For Mal-Soon, who is of Asian descent, making connections between Korean and American traditions is essential in helping her two sons to understand their heritage. Mal-Soon's family is among a growing Asian American population in Kansas. Since 1965, when immigration laws were relaxed, more and more families have moved to Kansas from places such as the Philippines, China, Korea, India, and Vietnam.

Sauerman also shares a connection with a growing number of families who are adopting Asian children. She was born in Seoul, South Korea and adopted by an American couple living at an Army base in Japan. She received her Korean name from a nun in the orphanage; the name means "most gentle." Her American family selected the name Elana Maye, which she used for 30 years.

The family returned to the United States when Mal-Soon was about two and moved between Army bases at a time when there were few other Asian Americans in the U.S.

"At that time, children and neighbors were always staring at my family," Sauerman said. "My adopted parents are Caucasians who adopted a Caucasian girl, a Chinese girl, and then me. It was very awkward to explain why I was different from my sisters and my parents. Every time I looked into the mirror I knew there was a part that was lost. It was not until I embraced my culture that I was able to fill some of the missing pieces." As an adult, Mal-Soon continues to learn more about that person in the mirror. While there are no formal organizations in the area to join, she has been able to connect with families and churches that share her Korean heritage.

"My parents didn't know much of my [Asian] culture," Sauerman said. "As I grew up and started having my own family, it was then that I wanted my heritage. I wanted my children to be proud of where they came from. For the past five years, I have reacquainted myself with Korean culture. My life has been one of self-discovery and a passion for my heritage."

Sauerman also has begun to share her Asian heritage with others. After receiving a civil engineering degree, she decided to return to school to complete a degree in education. While attending Washburn University, Sauerman has volunteered in local school classrooms.

"One of the reasons I like to go to school is to show the reality of Asian culture," Sauerman said. "I ask teachers to share with the children books on Asian culture before I come. It is interesting how much we've changed through the textbooks. It is interesting to read those books and see the stereotypes and to break those stereotypes."

Mal-Soon and her two sons have begun to explore the differences between American and Korean culture. On a family visit to Colorado, they found many Asian American businesses, including a grocery store with Asian products.

"My children walked in and they said 'Mom, this is so potent. It smells like salt and fish in here,'" Sauerman recalled. "We went down each aisle and they were amazed by it. The simplicity of it-two or three choices of each product and that was it. 'That's all they have there?' For my nine-year-old it was culture shock!"

They also visited an Asian clothing store, where Mal-Soon purchased a traditional Korean dress.

"In our culture, the elderly women dress you," Sauerman said. "There is no shame in taking off your clothes in front of an elderly woman. My son said, 'Mom, they dress you? They're not going to dress me!' The woman in this Korean dress shop knew exactly what size I was. She didn't have to measure me!"

With the increasing number of Asian adoptions in the United States, Sauerman is pleased to see that racism is not as prevalent. What troubles her most is the perspective on adopted children. She feels that parents don't make a qualification when speaking of birth children, and they should offer the same respect to adopted children.

"When a family adopts a child, they must make it private for the child," Sauerman said. "It's a one-time process-it's not a lifetime process. When we adopt we love all our children, we shouldn't label. You hear the parents talk about how they adopted these children from different countries. I think children often lose their voice in adoption. As a nation, we are accepting, but we haven't lost our mindset about adoption."

Sauerman is thankful that her children aren't facing the same stereotypes of the past and she hopes they will understand and take pride in both American and Korean cultures.

"I have taught my children, you can choose whatever heritage you want, but you need to understand both," Sauerman said. "You need to defend both, you need to be proud of both. I owe it to my children to give them their heritage."

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. In the 2000 census, Asian Americans in Kansas numbered 46,000; in Shawnee County there were 1,679.

Entry: Asian Americans in Kansas

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2011

Date Modified: May 2021

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.