Fri, Jan

Korean-Americans: Major Financial and Cultural Impact on Los Angeles

WHO ARE THE REAL ANGELINOS? (An ongoing series)-A welcome addition to our family of nations in Los Angeles is the influence the Korean-Americans have had on our socio-economic-political development.  Today’s column is another installment of the ongoing series, “Who Are the Real Angelinos?” 

If we live in Los Angeles, we are all familiar with Koreatown.  Its 2.7 square miles is the most densely populated district in Los Angeles County.  Half of the residents are Latinos while a third are of Asian descent. 

Within or adjacent to Koreatown are a number of important places, such as the Seoul Peace International Park, a shopping center, the Korean Education Center, and the Koreatown Workers’ Alliance. 

Significantly for those of us who lived through the repeated nightmares of the ‘60s are “the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, built on the property of the former Ambassador Hotel where Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968” [right before our TV eyes).  These schools promote the kind of education that not only Korean-Americans but all Americans hold to be so valuable. 

There are also law schools, such as the International Pacific Law School; Southwestern Law School (one of whose professors wrote the seminal book, Apartheid in America), and the Loyola Law School “which abuts the vibrant Koreatown, with its eclectic selection of restaurants and shops that dot Olympic boulevard and its arteries.” 

Perhaps uniquely but also part of a natural cultural evolution, customers will see many Korean-American-owned restaurants and grocery stores employing Korean-speaking Latinos and, just as often, the Korean employees speaking Spanish with the Spanish-speaking patrons.  Visitors of all stripes can enjoy the varied Mexican foods infused with Korean flavors (yum). 

Furthermore, the Wilshire-Western train (photo above) brings thousands of students, workers, and shoppers to and from Koreatown, a transportation hub that makes access so much easier. 

This bustling neighborhood has grown exponentially as South Korean investors have provided more than one billion dollars for state-of-the-art construction in the district, resulting in ever-expanding economic growth there—thus producing ongoing benefits that tumble over into the rest of the City. 

In 1992 KIWA (the Korean Immigrant Worker Alliance) was created.  Its mission is “to build the power of immigrant workers and residents and to organize grassroots leadership to transform workplaces and communities in Koreatown and beyond”—working with both Koreans and Latinos in the process.  It proclaims that “in a City torn with racism, poverty, and inequality” KIWA’s goal is to end worker exploitation [of all low-wage laborers] which includes wage theft, the lack of paid sick leave, sub-standard working conditions, and workers earning less than a livable wage. 

KIWA allies itself with a variety of other worker organizations (such as CLUE and LAANE)—all of whose goals are to reverse unacceptable conditions in the workplace. 

As with other ethnic groups, there have been several waves of Korean immigration.  In most cases, those who came here were attracted to the larger cities where more opportunities have been available. 

These movements began during the early 1900s (photo) but were later discouraged by our own government after World War II, except for its willingness to receive Korean women, particularly those with a nursing background.  In fact, such emigration was also discouraged by the South Korean government and forbidden by the government in the North.  Nevertheless, many were still able to find their way to America, albeit through a circuitous route. 

American immigration laws favored more educated Korean émigrés, and in the ‘60s this thinking expanded to allow more doctors and scientists—both male and female.  These newcomers often worked at under-staffed hospitals or corporations which specialized in advanced technologies. 

Today, the more recent Korean immigrants and their children and grandchildren are looking for a permanent residence here (unlike the many who planned to return to their native land after working in America for a period of time).  A goodly number of the professional array of Korean-Americans have gravitated to the suburbs where they are eager to work, make a comfortable living, seek out a range of entertainment--all with less emphasis on adhering to the traditional customs and practices of their ethnic heritage. 

The Korean culture today “incorporates aspects of Chinese, (East) Indian, Japanese, and Western culture.”  At the same time, it continues to take pride in its own literature, art, music, and way of life. 

Each year the Korean Festival and Parade highlights many colorful and impressive cultural traditions, an event that should not be missed.  In addition, there is the annual Earth Day/Car Free Day Festival (every April 22) sponsored by the Wilshire Center Business Improvement District.  What a wonderful example of the kind of leadership that promotes an exchange of ethnic awareness and contributions! 

There is an understandable conflict between the older and newer generations.  Many first- and second-generation Korean-Americans are dismayed by what they see as a pulling away by their progeny from many of the traditions.  For them, incorporating their cherished heritage which preserves the Korean identity and the importance of the Confucian values with which they were brought up is a necessary part of life—“the principle of placing elders, family, and community before the individual.”  

Thus, the current generation of Koreans faces an obvious quandary—wanting to adhere to the traditional Korean values but also desiring to assimilate into American society and adopt its traditions and ideas that are often so different from what their parents and grandparents are used to. 

Of great significance is the more enlightened way many Korean-Americans think of their women.  More and more are working outside the home as professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business owners. 

Notwithstanding many progressive views, there is a dark side.  Many professional women coming here from Korea are faced with a language barrier and wind up working as garment workers or store clerks, clearly outside  their areas of expertise.  This kind of discrimination, of course, is also found among other ethnic communities.  Lest we forget, there is still a glass ceiling and a wage differential that need to be overcome—not only for Korean-American women but for all women. 

Typical of other groups that have immigrated to America, Korean-Americans have experienced prejudice, rejection, and often humiliating confrontations—all based on their ethnicity.  What these immigrants suffered often came as a result of the obnoxious stereotyping created by some of our favorite writers, such as Jack London who wrote an article entitled “The Yellow Peril.”  A column by a different author spoke of the “utter worthlessness” of the Korean. 

Many so-called American workers feared the competition for jobs that the intrusion of Korean and other Asian laborers would present (think of the Jim Crow period affecting freed Blacks or even today’s resistance toward the Latino immigrants).  It is not surprising how much bias was produced and acted upon by these images and discussions. 

Asians as a whole were segregated in restaurants and movie theaters (ring a bell?).  In California, there were white gangs that continually attacked this ethnic group and there were laws that “supported anti-Asian attitudes.”  Asian-American children could not attend schools with white students and there were early laws preventing property ownership, and for 30 years even banned Asian immigration altogether. 

The 1992 Los Angeles (Rodney King) Riots led many Blacks to destroy the very Korean small businesses which flourished in their neighborhoods after larger corporate companies had abandoned them earlier—often leaving ghost towns behind.  The Black population often directed its pent-up anger toward the Korean community even though their resentments and frustrations were rooted in other entities which were truly the ones responsible for their mistreatment. 

One thing that eventually emerged from all this chaos is LA’s Korean Youth and Community Center whose purpose is to try to address and resolve these matters which have produced so much conflict. 

Because of what these immigrants (male and female) experienced upon reaching American shores, many newcomers were distrustful of any government and therefore did not participate in the political process.  They isolated themselves in tightly knit Korean communities. 

In recent years, however, the kind of negative thinking described and the laws have evolved.  Many grassroot organizations are encouraging active participation in the broader community which includes voting and running for office.  There is even a Black-Korean Alliance to work on inter-ethnic understanding and cooperation. 

Today many attitudes have changed dramatically.  In fact, the Korean-American Coalition has encouraged community participation through education and such activities as the National College Leadership Conference.  Established in 1983, the Coalition’s goal is “to promote the civic concerns, civil rights, and community affairs of the Korean-American community through education, community organizing, leadership development, and coalition-building with diverse communities.”  

A number of civic activists have emerged:  Jay Kim is a former Republican Congressmember from California and Michelle Park Steel has served on the Cal State Board of Equalization, a place that served as a springboard for Betty Yee (Chinese-American) who is now our California State Controller).  

The Korean American Political Conference & the Next Generation Leadership Forum has met yearly during which it has used a number of speakers to offer insights about political possibilities for the Korean-American.  These leaders have included the following:  Congressmembers Judy Chu, Michelle Park Steel, and Mark Takano; Charlie Woo from the Center for Asian-Americans United for Self-Empowerment; and Paul Song from the Courage Campaign. 

Beyond politics, there is so much more about the Korean-American culture with which we should become familiar.  Traditional Korean art embraces simple forms, subdued colors, humor, and natural images.  The love of art is reflected in the many shops and studios in Koreatown.  In fact, that area has been officially designated a graphics district. 

The music reflects Confucian rituals, court music, Buddhist chants, and folk themes.  On the other hand, many contemporary Korean composers are being influenced by Western classical music.  Some composers, such as Jin Hi Kim, are advancing a variety of improvisational music—something that is a draw for a broad range of audiences. 

It is has always been very important to Korean-Americans for their children to appreciate their history so that many parents send their offspring to Korean schools, culture camps, and Saturday schools.  The latter of which I visited with some of my teaching colleagues—all of us in awe at what these young people were able to accomplish (often offering advanced mathematical solutions, thought out in their minds alone and not relying on calculators or other technologies). 

Another lovely ritual, which most Korean-Americans follow, is the fabulous celebration of a baby’s first birthday (I had the honor of attending a friend’s daughter’s celebration for which I wrote and presented a poem in her honor).  This tradition evolved out of difficult times when far too many Korean children did not live long enough to see their first birthday.  The time-honored observance centers around the child who wears a traditional and very colorful Korean costume and is seated among rice cakes, cookies, and fruits while the ceremony is being conducted.  Attendees present the child with a variety of objects, each of which represents a possible career path—whichever the one-year-old touches first is “believed” to indicate which career will be pursued later on in life, touching a pen might evolve into journalism. 

During this celebration, traditional Korean foods are the fare of the day.  The servings are highly seasoned with such ingredients as garlic, ginger (love them both), red or black peppers, scallions, and sesame seeds and oil (yum).  There are also barley and noodles as well as red meat (a type reserved for special occasions). 

Interestingly enough, on an everyday basis, there are no foods common to a specific meal of the day.  Thus, breakfast, lunch, and dinner may serve many of the same foods.  Kimchi (a spicy Korean pickle eaten as a dessert) is a national dish eaten at virtually every meal.  Potato soup, dumplings, filled deep-fried wontons (yummy), and stir-fry and wok-prepared foods are very common and eaten with gusto. 

There are several other occasions very dear to the Korean heart.  “Following Buddhist and Confucian traditions, Koreans [here and in Korea] begin the New Year with an elaborate three-day celebration called Sol.  Family members dress in traditional clothing--often a long, pleated skirt and a short jacket for females, and for men, long white overcoats and colorful silk trousers.  Homage is paid to the elderly.  Throughout, there are feasts, remarkably designed kites for flying contests, board games, and many other rituals, some of which meant to ward off evil spirits. 

The first full moon of the year marks an ancient worship day.  Torches are lit throughout the night with fire crackers exploding in the background, also to scare away the evil spirits. 

In autumn, Chusok commemorates the Thanksgiving Harvest (common to many cultures).  Other holidays generally celebrated are Buddha’s birthday, Korean Memorial Day, Fathers’ Day, South Korean Constitution Day, Easter, and Christmas. 

Today, Korean-Americans are found in a broad range of professions:  union activity; government; the military; film, video, television, theatre, and music.  They are industrialists and farmers.  In fact, Kim Ho developed a new fruit, the nectarine, by crossing the peach with the plum (bet you didn’t know that!). 

Below is a list of just some of the incredible people who have influenced our lives in any number of ways:

  • In art and design, we find Frank Cho, artistfor Spiderman and The New Avengers.
  • Sung Won Sohn is former president of the LA Hanmi Bank, vice-chair at Forever 21, and current Professor of Economics at Cal State University, Channel Island.
  • Kristen Kish is season 10’s winner of the Top Chef competition.
  • Ben Baller is a world-renowned jeweler and an actor.  Other entertainers include John Cho of the Kumar movies and television’s Sleepy HollowMargaret Cho (not related) is a stand-up comedian.
  • Tim Kang (photo) stars on The MentalistRandall Park is a prominent actor in the (shall we say controversial) The Interview and has also starred in Neighbors; Curb Your Enthusiasm; and the new television sit-com, Fresh off the Boat.
  • Lisa Kim is an important journalist for NBC; Alino Cho, for CNN; and Liz Cho (not related), for ABC.
  • In sports, we all recognize the names of Michelle Wie (golfer), Simon Cho (Olympic speed skater), Eugene Chung (NFL player), and Kevin Kim (tennis).
  • Special recognition must be given to Daniel Choi, a U. S. Army Officer who was instrumental in overturning the dreadful “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy enacted during the Clinton years.  He continues to play a significant role as a gay-rights activist.  Kudos to him!!
  • Significantly, Philip Jaisohn is not only the first Korean to obtain U. S. citizenship but also the first Korean-American to receive an American medical degree. 

The above can only offer a slice of the many influences the Korean community has had on the development of Los Angeles as well as on the nation as a whole.  We would be so much better served if we take the time to visit Korean historical sites here, patronize their restaurants and art studios, purchase their hand-made jewelry, and attend the enchanting festivals that transpire throughout the year.