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A sign in L.A.'s Koreatown
Photo by Tiffany Owens
A sign in L.A.'s Koreatown

Easing into America

Citywalk | L.A.’s Koreatown offers immigrants the comforts of home while they build a new life in the United States

While politicians construct immigration plans in Washington streets, many immigrants are constructing new lives for themselves on city streets. WORLD’s Tiffany Owens is visiting neighborhoods in four major cities where immigrants live—Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Atlanta—and seeing how settling into blocks with shared culture and language makes transitioning to life in America easier. The downside is that living and working in immigrant neighborhoods can stump assimilation and make it harder to learn English. Tiffany will eventually make some policy recommendations, but right now she’s concentrating on observing and showing you what she sees.

Los Angeles’ Koreatown stretches more than two dozen blocks east of downtown, a bustling tetris of strip malls, Karaoke joints, and beauty salons. Billboards arch overhead, offering in Korean everything from banking deals to cell phones to Quarter Pounders at McDonald’s. 

“These weren’t here when I was in high school,” said Isaac Kim, 34, pointing upwards towards a massive shopping center and a fancy pillar welcoming visitors to the neighborhood in shiny gold letters. He crossed the street alongside young couples with children, teens in leggings and t-shirts, and short, elderly women with sun-blocking parasols craned above their heads.  

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Kim came to America with his family as a toddler, after his father accepted an offer to pastor an immigrant church in Los Angeles. Assimilation wasn’t too difficult for his family. He recalled his parents insisting on more academic studying than extracurricular activities and refusing to buy every child individual yearbooks, but the fact that his mother spoke English made the transition easier. 

He got his first real sense of culture shock when he left L.A. to attend seminary in Korea. The differences were stunning. He came across blatant racial prejudice and an environment less friendly to open speech. At first it was awkward, but he loved it. Ultimately, the experience helped him understand what it’s like for Koreans coming to America. 

Now, he understands the shock many Korean immigrants feel when coming from a subdued, collectivist culture into America’s outspoken, individualistic one. After seeing Korea’s tightly-knit family culture that suffocates personal privacy, he also understands why many immigrants are motivated by the desire for economic opportunity, but also for personal anonymity. 

That was one reason Clare Hyun, 35, came to America three years ago. “I was tired of Korea,” she said in broken English. There, she said she felt pressure to follow the rules.“In America, you’re free.” Two sisters who run an interior design store inside a Korean mall, echoed that idea. Back home, they said they would feel enormous pressure to marry. 

For Eugene Cho, 34, that sense of freedom meant leaving her job as a secretary and opening a café. She flurries around in a pink tunic, black pants, and brown sandals, taking orders, brewing coffee, and processing payments at the cash register. She pauses here and there to chat in Korean with regulars.  

Cho came from Korea to the U.S. with her family when she was 15. She graduated high school, finished college, then worked as a secretary for her father’s business and as a preschool teacher. After eight years, inspired by how she saw coffee shops encourage friendships and meaningful conversations, she left her job and sub-let a coffee shop that was going out of business. It became Café Avec. 

The menu caters to both Koreans and Americans: Kimchi Fried Rice is listed just a few items away from Spaghetti on the menu. Cho said lattes are popular but so is Korean-style citrus iced tea. 

Cho’s café isn't just about food: “I saw how people came to coffee shops to talk about life problems,” she explained in Korean. Cho, who became a Christian in high school, decided she wanted to open a café where evangelism could happen. She got the idea when a coffee shop owner eavesdropped on her conversation with a friend about God, then interrupted to ask questions about the gospel.  

Since opening, she’s been able to reconnect with old friends, point interested customers to local churches, and even share the gospel on occasion. Some customers are difficult to handle—they come in drunk or treat her rudely. Others complain about the Christian music, so she mixes it up. But even when the music is low, Cho keeps her own silent prayers on high and fresh-brewed espresso on the counter.

Tiffany Owens
Tiffany Owens

Tiffany is a correspondent for WORLD News Group.

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