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Changes and Conflicts: Korean Immigrant Families In New York

Pyong Gap Min - Queens College of CUNY

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Chapter 2: The Korean Community in New York

Although Korean immigration has a history of nearly one hundred years, the vast majority of pre-1965 Korean immigrants were concentrated in Hawaii and the West Coast states, particularly California. Over the last thirty years, a large proportion of Korean immigrants have flocked to New York City and several suburban counties surrounding the city, including Suffolk, Nassau, Bergen, and Westchester Counties. As a result, the New York-New Jersey area has become the home to about 150,000 Koreans, making it the second largest Korean population center in this country, following Southern California. Residentially, Koreans in New York are heavily concentrated in Flushing, establishing another Koreatown in the downtown Flushing area. Economically, they have a near monopoly in produce retail, dry cleaning, and several other types of small businesses. Socially, Koreans in New York maintain strong ethnic networks, represented by churches, ethnic media, and alumni associations.

Contemporary Migration

Korean migration to the United States dates from the beginning of this century, when about 7,200 Korean laborers came to Hawaii between 1903 and 1905 to work on the sugar plantations there (Patterson 1987). Although Hawaiian plantation owners needed more Korean workers, in 1905 the Japanese government forced the Korean government to stop sending more laborers to Hawaii. In that year, Korea had become Japan's protectorate as a result of Japan's victory in the Russo-Japanese War, giving Japan the ability to influence Korean government policy.

Before U.S. legislation in the early 1920s barred Korean immigration completely, approximately 2,000 additional Koreans moved to Hawaii and the West Coast states. In the period between 1906 and 1924, the vast majority of Korean immigrants were "picture brides" of the pioneer immigrants in Hawaii or political refugees engaged in the anti-Japanese movement in Korea. Although the earlier Korean labor migrants on the West Coast intended to go back to Korea when they made enough money, most of them and their picture brides remained in the United States permanently. However, the majority of political refugees went back to their home country when Korea became independent of Japanese colonization in 1945.

As a result of the Korean War in 1950, the United States became heavily involved in South Korea as a close military, political, and economic ally. The linkages between the two countries helped to stimulate a new wave of immigration to the United States. About 15,000 Koreans moved to the United States between 1950 and 1964. Most were Korean orphans who had been adopted by American citizens, or Korean women who had married U.S. servicemen stationed in South Korea. A growing number of Korean children adopted by American citizens and internationally married Korean women left for the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.

Altogether fewer than 50,000 Koreans lived in the United States in 1960. The number of Korean immigrants accelerated with the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. Annual Korean immigration, only a few thousands in the 1960s, rapidly increased in the early 1970s. More than 30,000 Koreans immigrated to the United States annually between 1976 and 1990, constituting the third largest immigrant group during the period, following Mexicans and Filipinos.

As economic migrants, Koreans were largely motivated to come to the United States by the prospect of obtaining a higher standard of living than in their home country. Many Koreans also moved to give their children better opportunities for education, particularly for college education (Kim and Min 1992; Min 1995a; Yoon 1993). By the 1990s, when South Korea had achieved great economic prosperity, better educational opportunities may well have been more important than pure economic motives for many Korean immigrants. Of continued importance, too, are the military, political, and economic linkages between the United States and South Korea and the consequent American cultural influence in South Korea.

Peaking in 1987, when nearly 36,000 Koreans came to the United States, Korean immigration has gradually decreased to approximately 16,000 in 1994. This recent reduction is a result of great improvements in economic and political conditions in South Korea and better information there about the difficulties that most Korean immigrants have had in the United States. In the 1970s, when there was a huge gap in living standards between the United States and South Korea, the vast majority of Korean immigrants were from the middle class and upper-middle class. However, few middle-class Koreans are now motivated to emigrate from South Korea, where per capita income reached the $10,000 mark in 1995. In fact, the expanding South Korean economy has recently attracted many Koreans who completed their professional education in the United States, including second-generation Korean Americans. Politically, in 1987 a civilian government based on a popular election replaced the military government that had pushed many Korean intellectuals out of the country. Also, the fear of another war in the Korean peninsula has been substantially reduced as North Korea is struggling for survival in the wake of the breakdown of the former Soviet Union and other communist governments.

The influx of Korean immigrants over the last quarter century has led to an enormous growth in the Korean population here. The 1990 census counted approximately 800,000 Koreans in the United States, with the U.S. born making up 28 percent. Considering a significant underestimation by the 1990 census and increases since then, the population of Korean ancestry is likely to be approximately 1.2 million as of 1996. In 1990, the Korean population accounted for 12 percent of approximately 7.3 million Asian Americans, but the proportion is likely to be lower in the future. Korean immigration has been decreasing, while the immigration flow from other Asian countries has greatly increased in the 1990s.

Recent Korean immigrants generally represent the middle-class strata of the Korean population. The 1990 census indicated that 34 percent of Korean immigrants who were twenty-five or older had completed four years of college and that 80 percent had completed high school (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1993b: 84). In contrast, 20 percent of the U.S. population had received a college education and 75 percent had completed high school (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1993b: 72). Moreover, recent Korean immigrants far surpass the educational level of the general population in Korea. The 1990 Korean census indicated that only 14 percent of Korean adults had completed four years of college education (Korean Women's Development Institute 1994: 70).

Consistent with their high educational level, most recent Korean immigrants held professional and white-collar jobs before they emigrated. Nearly half of the Korean respondents in a Chicago study indicated that their pre-immigrant occupations had been professional, administrative, managerial, or technical, whereas only 7 percent said they had held blue-collar jobs in Korea (Hurh and Kim 1988). A survey of Korean immigrants in the Los Angeles-Orange County area showed similarly high pre-immigrant occupational backgrounds. Fifty-four percent of the respondents who were working in Korea just before they left had held professional, administrative, executive, and managerial jobs, and only 4 percent had been employed in blue-collar occupations (Min 1989).

Recent Korean immigrants are also characterized by their urban background. Approximately 1,800 prospective Korean immigrants were interviewed in 1986 at the U.S. Consulate in Seoul at the time of their visa interview. Though only a quarter of the entire Korean population lives in the capital city, more than half of the respondents in this predeparture survey reported that they resided in Seoul (Park et al. 1990: 31). The survey also indicated that more than three-fourths lived in the five largest cities in Korea at the time of their interview. While many residents in Seoul and other large Korean cities originally came from rural areas, they quickly became familiar with the Korean urban life style before departing for the United States.

Recent Korean immigrants are also a select group in terms of their religious background. Although only about 25 percent of all Koreans are affiliated with Christian churches in South Korea (Park and Cho 1994), most Korean immigrants practiced Christianity in Korea. For example, in a survey of a 1986 group of Korean immigrants conducted in Seoul (Park et al. 1990: 60), 54 percent of the respondents reported that they were affiliated with Protestant (41.6%) or Catholic (12.3%) churches. Another survey, conducted in Chicago, indicated that 53 percent of Korean immigrants had been Christians in Korea (Hurh and Kim 1990). Korean immigrants have been drawn largely from the urban, middle-class segment of the Korean population, in which Christianity is practiced heavily. This contributes to a disproportionate representation of Christians among Korean immigrants. Also, Korean Christians are more likely than Buddhists, Confucians, or those not affiliated with a religion to move to the United States where it is easier to practice their religion.

Settlement in New York

In the pre-1965 era, Koreans were heavily concentrated in the West Coast and almost invisible in New York. The number of Koreans was so small in 1960 that the census did not classify them separately. An informal source indicates that there then were no more than 400 Koreans in New York and that the majority were Korean students who planned to return to Korea after completion of their study (The Korean Association of New York 1985: 54).

However, a large proportion of post-1965 Korean immigrants settled in New York City and several suburban counties surrounding the city, including Bergen, Westchester, and Suffolk Counties. In 1990, 12 percent of all Korean Americans were settled in New York state, a substantial increase from 9.6 percent in 1980. Another 5 percent of Korean Americans were settled in New Jersey, which marked a 200 percent growth rate in the Korean population between 1980 and 1990. Together, the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area is home to approximately 150,000 Korean Americans. In the 1960s, the New York-New Jersey area, with an expanding medical industry, needed many medical professionals. The demand for medical professionals in the area attracted many Korean and other Asian (Indian and Filipino in particular) medical professionals immediately after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 (I. Kim 1981: 155-156; Rosenthal 1995). By the early 1980s, many Korean medical and other occupational immigrants in New York had become naturalized citizens so that they were able to invite their relatives for permanent residence.

While Manhattan was the center of the Korean community in New York before 1965, Queens has attracted the most post-1965 Korean immigrants; 70 percent of the city's Korean population lives in the borough of Queens. Koreans in Queens are heavily concentrated in Flushing, which has gone through a radical ethnic change in the last two decades from a predominantly white area to a multiethnic community. Queens in general and Flushing in particular have attracted many Chinese, Indian, and other Asian immigrants, including Koreans, in the post-1965 era. In 1990, nearly a quarter of the population in Community District 7, which combines Flushing, Whitestone, and College Point, was composed of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans. The share of the Asian population in the district as of 1996 is likely to be over 30 percent. In 1996, two Koreans and a Chinese were elected as members of the nine-member school board in the 25th School District encompassing Flushing, Whitestone, and College Point.

Since the early 1980s, Koreatown has been in formation in downtown Flushing. Flushing Koreatown covers approximately twenty blocks east of downtown Flushing where Koreans are heavily clustered. Although not comparable to Koreatown in Los Angeles, Flushing Koreatown has all the elements of a traditional ethnic neighborhood. In addition to being New York City Koreans' residential center, it has hundreds of Korean stores with Korean language signs. Korean businesses in Flushing Koreatown include restaurants, grocery stores, barber shops, beauty salons, bakeries, dental/medical offices, law offices, accounting firms, insurance, real estate and travel agencies. These businesses depend almost entirely on Korean customers. Since Korean businesses in Flushing are heavily concentrated on Union Street between Northern Boulevard and 38th Avenue, the area is called the Union Korean Business District ("Union Hanin Sanga"). Korean restaurants in the Flushing area are in such intense competition that prices for Korean food there are lower than in Seoul.

Like other ethnic neighborhoods, Flushing Koreatown is New York Koreans' social and cultural center as well. Two dozen Korean social service agencies are located there. They include the Korean YMCA, YWCA, the Korean Youth Service Center, the Korean Family Counseling Center, the Korean Senior Citizens Society, the Korean Small Business Service Center, and the Korean Association of Flushing. Approximately seventy Korean Christian congregations have been established in the Flushing area. Every week, several Korean ethnic meetings are held at Korean offices and Korean restaurants in Flushing. Also, many Korean families who live outside as well as in Flushing hold various ceremonies at Koreatown restaurants. Flushing Koreatown has dozens of Korean lodging houses that provide visitors from Korea with rooms and food.

Koreans in Bergen County are most visible in the Fort Lee downtown area. As of November 1996, about 3,500 Korean students were enrolled in four elementary, one junior, and one senior high school in Fort Lee, accounting for 30 percent of the area's students (The Sae Gae Times, 1996b). Approximately one hundred Korean businesses with Korean language signs are clustered in a Fort Lee downtown area. Also, there are a Korean language school and several other Korean ethnic organizations in the Fort Lee area. Koreans consider the Fort Lee Korean enclave New York's "suburban Koreatown" comparable to the Monterey Park Chinatown in Los Angeles. Palisades, not far from Fort Lee, also has attracted a large number of Koreans during recent years. Many Korean restaurants, drinking places, and other ethnic stores catering to Korean customers have mushroomed in the Palisades downtown area. They usually display large Korean language signs and use English signs too small for American residents to read. The non-Korean residents in Palisades and neighboring cities have shown their resentment against Koreans' failure to use English signs and their late night commercial activities by initiating and supporting new ordinances requiring businesses to have English signs as large as native language signs and to close at midnight.

Concentration in Small Businesses

American citizens in Los Angeles, New York, and other major cities cannot pass their downtown areas without encountering Korean-owned stores. Not only African American residents but also the American public in general are familiar with Koreans' commercial activities in many African American neighborhoods, as the mainstream media have publicized conflicts between Korean merchants and African American customers. The visibility of Korean-owned stores and the media publicity of Korean-African American conflicts have led the American public to perceive Korean immigrants as a trading minority.

Census and survey data show that the perception of Korean immigrants as highly entrepreneurial is based on reality. For example, 1990 census data indicate that 34.5 percent of foreign-born Koreans in Los Angeles were self-employed (Light and Roach 1996). Korean immigrants showed the highest self-employment rate among all minority and immigrant groups in Los Angeles. Census data undercount the self-employment rate of Koreans as well as of the general population. My 1986 survey showed that 45 percent of Korean immigrants in Los Angeles and Orange Counties were self-employed (Min 1996: 48). A survey conducted in New York City revealed an even higher self-employment rate-over 50 percent (Min 1996: 48). Since another 30 percent of Korean immigrants work for Korean-owned businesses, the vast majority of the Korean work force is segregated in the Korean subeconomy either as business owners or as employees of co-ethnic businesses. The economic segregation of Korean immigrants has important implications for their family lives as well as for their intergroup relations and community structure.

Researchers on immigrant and ethnic entrepreneurship agree that disadvantages in gaining employment in the general labor market push immigrants and minority members to self-employment in small business, but that only those groups with ethnic and class resources for entrepreneurship develop a high level of ethnic business (Light and Rosenstein 1995, Chapter 5; Min 1987; Waldinger et al 1990). Korean immigrants fit this picture. Although they are, as a group, highly educated, with many Korean immigrant men having college degrees, they come to America with distinct labor market disadvantages, namely a lack of fluency in English and unfamiliarity with American customs. Indian and Filipino professional immigrants who spoke English in their home countries and were more exposed to Western educational systems are more successful than Korean professional immigrants in being able to practice their occupations in this country (Min 1986-87). Still, Koreans' labor market disadvantages alone cannot explain their high self-employment rate. Their economic advantages in the form of business capital and managerial experience and their strong ethnic ties (to be discussed later in this chapter) help them establish and operate businesses. Although many immigrants from mainland China and many Vietnamese refugees are motivated to start small businesses that involve long hours of work, they do not have the kinds of resources that Koreans bring with them.

Because Korean immigrants in the 1970s came to the United States neither expecting to, nor prepared to, start their own businesses, it took them several years before they established businesses. More recently, this has changed. Korean immigrants now come here better prepared to set up businesses. For one thing, they are well informed in Korea that self-employment in small business is the only alternative for most Korean immigrants. In fact, a survey of prospective Korean immigrants conducted in Seoul in 1986 showed that recent Korean immigrants usually expect to run a small business in the United States (Park et al 1990: 86). Recent immigrants also often bring enough money with them to establish their own businesses. Once they arrive here, they easily acquire business information and training by working in Korean-owned enterprises. For example, Byung Ho Choi, who came to Flushing in June 1994, started his produce retail business within six months of immigration. Although his brother, an accountant, lived in Los Angeles, he chose to come to Flushing because he could easily get business training and information from a produce retail store run by his high school friend. After working five months at his friend's store, he bought a produce store in Woodside from a Korean owner for $180,000. He used a downpayment of $60,000-$45,000 from his condominium sale in Seoul and $15,000 from a private loan from his high school friend.

Major Korean Businesses in New York

Korean immigrants' commercial activities in New York are limited to several types of labor-intensive small businesses, most of which are not attractive to native-born Americans. Green groceries are probably the best-known Korean business in New York. Korean immigrants are able to start produce stores with small amounts of money, since the cash turnaround is very quick. They are ready to work long hours and have access to the cheap labor needed to operate produce stores. Many Koreans bought produce stores from retiring Jewish and Italian American owners in Queens and Manhattan beginning in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Koreans opened up produce stores in nearly every neighborhood in New York City, including low-income African American neighborhoods. More Korean produce stores are located in low-income African American neighborhoods than in white middle-class areas. Several Korean-owned produce stores in Harlem, Jamaica and Brooklyn's Flatbush area were the targets of long-term boycotts. By now there are approximately 2,000 Korean-owned produce stores in New York, controlling about 60 percent of independent produce stores in the city.

Trade businesses dealing in wigs, handbags, clothing, and other fashion items make up another major type of Korean business in New York. Most of the merchandise of this sort is imported from South Korea and other Asian countries. Korean immigrants have advantages in establishing and operating retail stores dealing in Asian-imported items in terms of getting credit and business information. The New York Korean community has over 500 Korean importers who distribute Asian-imported manufactured goods largely to Korean wholesalers and retailers all over the country (Min 1996: 55-56).

About 400 Korean import businesses in New York are located in Manhattan's Broadway Korean Business District, a rectangular, ten-block area from 24th Street to 34th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The intersection of 32nd Street and Broadway is considered its center. Also located in this Broadway area are a number of Korean restaurants, Korean professional businesses such as law and accounting firms, travel agencies, and gift shops that serve mainly Korean wholesalers and importers. There is also one Korean-owned motel in this district, mainly serving tourists from Korea and other parts of the United States. The Korean Businessmen's Association, the association of Korean importers in the Broadway Korean Business District, lobbied the New York City government to post a Koreatown sign in the area. As a result, in October 1995, the city named the district "Koreatown" and posted official signs at the intersection between 32nd Street and Broadway.

Dry cleaning service is another major Korean business in New York, as well as in other Korean communities. There are approximately 1,500 Korean-owned dry cleaners in New York. Korean immigrants are attracted to the dry cleaning business partly because it is suitable as a family business involving the husband and the wife. Korean-owned dry cleaning shops are usually located in white, middle-class neighborhoods. Like other small businesses in New York, the dry cleaning industry was controlled by Jewish and Italian Americans before the 1970s. In that decade, Koreans in New York began to buy dry cleaning stores from these white ethnics in predominantly white middle-class areas. Since 1980s, many Koreans have bought or newly opened dry cleaning stores all over the city.

Koreans in New York also control the nail salon business. They concentrate in the manicure business for the same reasons as earlier immigrants: the unimportance of language skills, the small amount of start-up capital necessary, and the lack of required professional skills. Koreans can rent the second, or basement, floor of a building to open a nail salon. Korean women initially began nail salons, but Korean men have entered this business in large numbers over the last several years, as the business has been touted as a source of profit for Korean immigrants. A Korean male owner often has several nail salons and hires Korean women as managers to run the business. As the number of Korean-owned nail salons rose dramatically during the 1980s, the price for a manicure in New York City fell to such an extent that low-income women can now afford to have the service.

Tight Community Organization

If Korean immigrants stand out because of their concentration in small business, their community is also noteworthy on account of its tight organization. In the Korean community, there are far more ethnic organizations in proportion to population size than in any other Asian ethnic community. The Korean community in the New York metropolitan area has more ethnic associations than either the Chinese or the Indian community, although its population is only about 30 percent of the Chinese population and 70 percent of the Indian population. In a survey conducted in Queens, New York in 1996, 82 percent of Korean immigrants were affiliated with one or more ethnic organization in comparison to 18 percent of the Chinese and 54 percent of the Indian immigrants.

As previously noted, over half of Korean immigrants were affiliated with a Protestant or Catholic church in Korea. Even Korean immigrants who were Buddhists or not affiliated with any religion in Korea often attend a Korean church in the United States for fellowship and other practical purposes (Min 1992b). Survey studies conducted in major Korean communities indicate that more than 70 percent of Korean immigrants attend a Korean church at least once a week (Hurh and Kim 1990; Min 1989; Min and Chen 1997). Historically, ethnic churches have played a role in sustaining ethnicity for new immigrant groups (Fenton 1988; Tomasi and Engel 1970: 186; Warner and Srole 1945: 160). The active participation of Korean immigrants in Korean churches helps them maintain their regular social interactions (Min 1992b). In fact, Korean immigrants are more actively involved in ethnic networks than Chinese or Indian immigrants mainly because the vast majority of them regularly participate in ethnic churches. Korean immigrant churches usually have an hour-long fellowship after the service, during which members exchange greetings and enjoy talks with refreshments offered. Many Korean churches in New York provide a full lunch after the Sunday service. Churches also help Korean immigrants maintain their cultural traditions by providing Korean language programs for children and by celebrating traditional Korean holidays with Korean foods (Min 1992b).

Korean immigrants are a homogeneous group in term of culture, language, and historical experiences. Group homogeneity and lack of diversity provide the cultural basis for Korean ethnic identity and solidarity (Min 1991). Korean immigrants' group homogeneity may be even more important for their ethnic attachment than Korean religious congregations themselves. Indeed, because of their group homogeneity, the vast majority of Korean immigrants are drawn to Korean congregations. Although 85 percent of Filipino immigrants are Catholics, most participate in American Catholic congregations rather than Filipino ethnic congregations (Pido 1986). It seems that Filipino immigrants, marked by in-group diversity and internal divisions, consider participation in an ethnic congregation far less important than Korean immigrants do.

Korean immigrants speak a single language. This monolingual background gives Korean immigrants a big advantage over other multilingual groups, such as Indians and Filipinos, in maintaining ethnic attachment. Korean immigrants, all of whom can speak, read, and write the Korean language fluently, depend mainly on the Korean-language ethnic media-dailies, TV, and radio programs-for news, information, and leisure activities. Their almost exclusive dependence on the ethnic media, in turn, has strengthened their ties to the ethnic community and the home country. With advances in technology and communication, immigrants in New York hear same-day news broadcasts from Korea, watch new Korean movies and TV programs on videotapes, and can travel by air to Korea within fifteen hours. The distance between Seoul and American cities has become much shorter. The Korean ethnic media are extremely influential in maintaining Korean cultural traditions and identity, especially because Koreans use only one language. In contrast, since Indian and Filipino immigrants use several dialects, English is used in their ethnic media.

Research has shown that people who work in the ethnic economy are more actively involved in ethnic networks than those in the general economy (Bonacich and Modell 1980; Fugita and O'Brien 1991; Reitz 1980). Thus, immigrant and minority groups that have developed an extensive ethnic economy exhibit stronger ethnic attachment than those groups with fewer members working in ethnic businesses. The vast majority of Korean immigrant workers are in the Korean ethnic economy, either as business owners or as employees of Korean-owned businesses. The segregation of Korean immigrants at the workplace facilitates the preservation of their Korean cultural traditions and social interactions with co-ethnics (Min 1991), although it hinders their assimilation into American society. Most Korean immigrants work with family members, or at least co-ethnics, speaking the Korean language and practicing Korean customs during work hours. Koreans segregated at the workplace have little opportunity to make friends with non-Korean residents. Indeed, during off-duty hours, they maintain social interactions mainly with co-ethnics.

Korean immigrants' concentration in small business has also strengthened their ethnic solidarity. As noted, many Korean immigrants engage in middleman businesses such as grocery, green grocery, and liquor stores, that connect large corporations with low-income minority customers. Historically, middleman merchants suffered boycotts, riots, and other forms of hostility (Turner and Bonacich 1980; Eitzen 1971; Zenner 1991). Korean merchants in African American neighborhoods have experienced various forms of rejection and hostility (Min 1996).The victimization of Korean merchants due to their middleman economic role climaxed in the 1992 Los Angeles riots during which 2,300 Korean-owned stores in South Central Los Angeles and Koreatown were destroyed. Hostility against Korean merchants in African American neighborhoods, in turn, has contributed to Korean ethnic solidarity. For example, during the 1990-91 boycott of two Korea stores in New York, many Koreans as well as Korean merchants in the city participated in fund-raising campaigns, collecting approximately $150,000 to help the "victims of African American racism against Koreans." Also, dissatisfied with Mayor David Dinkin's "lukewarm" effort to terminate the boycott, the Korean community organized a demonstration in front of City Hall that drew approximately 7,000 Koreans.

Economic interests bring Koreans into conflict with white suppliers and white landlords, and with government agencies that regulate small businesses. Establishing trade associations, Koreans have used collective strategies to protect their economic interests from these powerful forces. For example, since the early 1970s the Korean Produce Association of New York has organized several boycotts of white wholesalers to try to put an end to discriminatory practices and to improve overrall services to Korean merchants. The Korean Small Business Service Center and several other Korean trade associations in New York have been active in lobbying administrators and politicians to moderate regulations of small businesses. In their efforts to resolve business-related intergroup conflicts and negotiate with government agencies to protect their economic interests, Korean trade associations and business leaders have exercised a great deal of influence and power in the Korean community.In terms of membership, budget, and organizational activities, Korean trade associations are far more powerful than Korean professional associations (Min 1996).

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