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A Nation Within a Nation: Korean Americans in New York City

Andrew Yoon and Thomas Ahn


     We focused our studies on the Korean American communities in Manhattan and Queens. The Korean population in Manhattan is concentrated between 32nd Street and 34th Street and 6th Avenue and Park Avenue. This area is commonly referred to as "Korea Town". "Korea Town" is mostly a commercial district with many Korean restaurants, entertainment centers, food stores, and just about everything else found in a typical mall. We also studied the Korean American community in Queens, more specifically Flushing. The Korean American population is primarily located between Union Street and Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue and Northern Boulevard. Here, the area seems to be composed of a concentrated commercial zone surrounded by a residential zone. The residential zone is dispersed throughout the Flushing area.

Primary Language

     In both communities, Korean, Chinese, English, and Spanish can be heard on the streets. The dominate language spoken in both communities, however, is Korean. On the streets and in the businesses, it is the language heard most frequently. Korean is the primary language because many of the business owners, employees, and residents are immigrants from South Korea since North Korea banned their citizens from leaving the country. One employee at the Empire Korea restaurant located on 32nd Street summarized the usage of language in "Korea Town" by saying, "I don't think that this area would change much if no one spoke any other language besides Korean." This statement proved to be very convincing as at first we tried to communicate with just English but quickly realized that it was very difficult to communicate with the business owners, and especially the residents and shoppers. We tried to use English because our fluency in Korean is sub-par. We were afraid of the scorn we would receive from older Korean Americans. Unfortunately, we were unable to communicate in solely English and were forced to use a combination of Korean and English. Some of the adults did seem to look down upon us for not speaking Korean fluently, but then there were others who tried to make it easier for us by speaking some English as well. We figured the adults looked down upon us because they thought we were losing touch with our heritage, which is considered by many Koreans to be ignorant.


     Though we could not find any high schools near the areas, residents of both communities told us that the high schools around the area are public schools; therefore, they are taught in English. "Korea Town" is more of a commercial district, so as we talk about education we will focus on Flushing. According to two students we talked to a majority of the Korean American students do not take ESL classes. They said that most of the Korean Americans in their high school, Flushing High School, were born in America or came to America at an early age. Nonetheless, they said that ESL classes are readily available because there are a significant number of immigrant students and many of them are Korean. There are approximately 49,088 Koreans living in Queens, and approximately 23% of the population that has the eligible age to attend elementary school to high school.

Governmental Services

     In both communities, in fact in most major cities, many accommodations are made by government agencies for native Korean speakers. At the Department of Motor Vehicles, Korean is one of the languages that the written test can be taken in. Also, there are Korean organizations that collect social security checks from the government and distribute them to the elderly citizens. That way if the elderly have any questions, they can contact the Korean organization and speak to a Korean-speaking operator.

Medical Services

     In both communities Korean American private practitioners are available. Doctors, dentists, and pharmacists have business signs that have both Korean and English on them. Many Korean American residents prefer to go to these private practitioners rather than to go to large hospitals that may or may not have interpreters available. Large hospitals, though, do tend to have interpreters or doctors who can speak English as well as Korean. This is according to Doctor Ahn of Rusk Institute at the New York University Medical Center.


     There are numerous churches in Flushing that are owned by Korean Americans and have services in Korean. Services for religions ranging from various branches of Catholicism to various branches of Protestantism are available in Korean. Many of these churches also have services available in English. For example, the Messiah Korean American Lutheran Church in Flushing and the New Joy Fellowship Church on 33rd Street in Manhattan have services in both Korean and English. Most churches have their youth group services only in English, though. This is due to the fact that most Korean American children now have at least some sense of the English language because they are better able to assimilate into the American society.

Public Services

     Many organizations are set up to help the Korean Americans live comfortably in America while at the same time keeping in touch with their culture. For instance, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, Inc. focuses on civil rights, education, and community advocacy for Korean Americans. The Korean American Family Service Center offers support for abused women and children. Plus, many universities have Korean clubs, such as New York University's Korean Students Association and Korean International Students Organization. These clubs give Korean Americans a place to go to interact with fellow Korean Americans and to learn and experience Korean traditions.


     There are many businesses in "Korea Town" and Flushing that target Koreans. In "Korea Town," there are approximately 15 Korean restaurants, 1 Korean grocery store, 1 Korean bookstore, 5 Korean fast food restaurants, 8 Korean cafes, 10 Korean bar/clubs, 8 karaoke bars, 4 Korean hair salons, a few Korean clothing/accessory stores and a few other necessity stores. In the commercial region of Flushing, there is an even larger number of these types of businesses. Many of the restaurants employ Spanish-speaking workers because of the easy accessibility to them. Particularly in Flushing, many Spanish speakers live within a close proximity of the Korean Americans and their businesses. The Korean Americans know this and take it into account. A few stores we saw had not only Korean and English on their street signs, but Spanish as well. Some of the stores even had Spanish names, such as one mattress store that had "El Mundo" written in both Korean and Spanish. To make sure that it was not Spanish people who owned the store we went inside. We found several Spanish-speaking workers and only a few Korean Americans workers giving the Spanish-speaking workers instructions. This led us to believe that the Korean Americans owned the store.


     There are many Korean periodicals available. Most are imported from South Korea, but still many are printed in New York City. These periodicals range from newspapers to magazines touching on various topics like politics, sports, entertainment, and daily news. Besides written publications, there are television stations that broadcast Korean programs. Most of the programs are aired from South Korea, but some are broadcasted in New York City. The programs that are broadcasted from New York City not only deal with issues in South Korea, but also with the issues in Korean communities in America, such as in Los Angeles and in New York City. Programs from both South Korea and America also provide entertainment for Koreans who want to keep in touch with their culture. Korean dramas, Korean music videos, Korean game shows, and Korean talk shows are commonly seen on television on the international channel or the New York Korean television channel. If one cannot catch these programs on cable television, Korean video stores are abundant in "Korea Town" and Flushing.

Personal Interview

     One girl that we did happen to meet who lives in "Korea Town" is Jessica Hae Mee Lee. She goes to Parson's School of Design, a division of New School University. Due to Parson's lack of dormitory space, she did not receive housing from the school. Thus, was forced to room with her older cousin who lives on 35th Street. I, Andrew, met Jessica at an Asian fellowship event. I began to talk to her because she attended high school in an area not too far away from where I attended mine. We talked that night and I got to know her a little better. Luckily, I had the chance to meet up with her and ask her a few questions. She moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania from South Korea when she was in 8th grade. She said that her first year in an American school was tough and the fact that no one could pronounce her name did not help. Her official name, the name she writes on standardized tests for example, is Hae Mee Lee. She adopted the name Jessica so that people would not have a difficult time pronouncing her name or an excuse to make fun of her. Even though she has a complete grasp of the English language, she feels more comfortable speaking Korean rather than English. She says it feels more natural for her to speak Korean. She said that she even tends to think in Korean. She is actually happy that she did not get housing because she enjoys living so close to "Korea Town". She likes the fact that she can walk a block or two and get Korean groceries or Korean CD's. She likes the area so much that she wants stay with her cousin for her remaining years in college rather than reapplying for school housing.


     In our opinion, the Korean American community is not fully assimilated; however, they are not fully congregated as in Chinatown. In the Korean American communities, other nationalities and languages are abundant. Many businesses employ African Americans and Hispanics. Most of the Korean Americans we talked to use code switching as a form of linguistic practice. They speak in their native tongues at home and with fellow Koreans and use English at work or when necessary. It seems that the younger Korean Americans are assimilating more to America than are the generations before them. This is probably because most of the older Korean Americans finished their schooling in South Korea, whereas many of the younger Korean Americans are attending at least a few years of school in America. If the younger Korean Americans continue to quickly assimilate into "white" society we predict that a few generations down, most Korean Americans will have a full understanding of the English language. This does not mean that the Korean American communities will disappear though. For the most part Korean Americans, like people from other nationalities, will want to retain parts of their culture and living in close parameters makes it easier to do so.

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