I referenced Steven Yeun’s appearance on WTF already but this was the most interesting part to me, let me transcribe it:

“I remember when I was in high school and middle school I would meet New York Koreans and I would meet L.A. Koreans and they were like super scary to me. (laughs) Because they were freer in a way that I couldn’t understand… not only were they seemingly more imposing, in just their style and their stature, but they were just living a little bit more free. Like L.A. Asians could have a community that looks so much like a place that you know you feel like an insider. Whereas for me I was a perpetual outsider in Michigan. I could feel it in my church, which is like 400 people deep at most, but then the minute you step outside you just shrink to the matrix of the thing. It wasn’t even per se that I was being pushed down, it was more like my parents as non-English speaking immigrants, they were my model on how to navigate reality and they weren’t going out shaking hands, hanging out, going to parties. They were just putting their head down, quiet, doing work. Staying within their boundaries, their community.”

Man. This is just a brief discussion but there’s so much there, and I resonate with it so much, both the part about feeling like a perpetual outsider growing up (and only fully comfortable at my Korean-American church) and in being mystified by L.A. Koreans for the exact reasons he explains. There’s a part of the Korean-American experience that’s weirdly universal, it’s almost strange how common it is. But then there’s a part that’s really different based on where you grew up, because there are distinct cultures of Korean-Americans from different parts of the country.

Digression. My interdisciplinary college major was 1/4 linguistics and for one of my classes we studied African-American Vernacular English (some call it Ebonics, though that term is controversial). Some people think it’s purely slang, but when you study it, it has legit and consistent rules of grammar, vocabulary, and accents that differ from standard American English; it’s a real dialect. But what was most interesting to me is that AAVE has near-uniformity of grammar around the country – there’s not really a bunch of AAVEs, there’s a single AAVE. I don’t understand how that happens. Most dialects are geographical, which makes sense, a group of people in an area talk a certain way and it gets amplified and changed through time. But how does a dialect become universal across a country, but within only a subgroup?

But that same thing happens with the Korean-American experience a bit too, there are aspects that feel universal across the entire country. Like I think most Korean-Americans who watch Minari resonate with really specific aspects of the story even though that story (Koreans going to Arkansas) is unusual. It’s the influence of the Korean culture, navigating America, being the type of personality that would take the risk to leave a country and go to another one and the stubbornness and hustle that implies – kind of universal in the Korean-American experience.

I think though I didn’t realize how different Koreans from other parts of the country are until my family moved from San Jose to Houston. The Koreans there just struck me as different. It’s hard to explain exactly what it was. In San Jose there were a decent number of Koreans but not a ton; enough that there always at least a few around but I always felt like a minority (that outsider thing Yeun talks about). The population felt… normal for lack of a better word. My friends’ parents were engineers and small business owners; I can’t recall any other common profession. I didn’t know a single doctor or lawyer (that I can remember). Houston felt really different; there were a lot more non-engineering professionals, especially doctors, which was new for me. I figured it takes a reason for a Korean to end up in Texas so more of the people who end up there will have specific reasons to be there, like hospitals for doctors. That changes the feel of the people. They just acted different also. Part of it was a tinge of Southern hospitality. They also struck me as being a little more comfortable with white America, maybe because there were fewer Koreans there so they had to navigate the dominant white Texas culture more directly? I’m doing a terrible job of explaining it, and people might see things differently than me, but the bottom line is, they felt different.

In college I met a bunch of Korean-Americans from other places, the midwest, and a ton from L.A, and they all felt slightly different also, even with that underpinning of commonality. Like Yeun, I was really struck by the L.A. Koreans. It’s exactly like he says, they were imposing, and felt freer in being Korean in a way I couldn’t relate. In ways it seemed they didn’t feel like a minority in the way I did. But there were other things too that were just different. My college church was dominated by L.A. Koreans and it really felt like diving into a strange culture.

There’s one very specific thing about L.A. Koreans that took me a while to understand. In NorCal, I think it takes a while before you’re chummy with someone. It’s not that you’re unfriendly, but you develop a friendship, then once you’re friends, you can be chummy. SoCal Koreans would universally act buddy-buddy with you almost immediately after meeting you. I didn’t get that, it felt fake. I’ve told this story before, but the 2nd time I ever saw Eddie, it was on the way to our first frosh dorm meeting, and he comes up to me and flicks me affectionately on the shoulder and goes “what’s up man!” And my thought was like, who is this guy? We just met, we’re not friends, why’s he acting so chummy? Church was dominated by L.A. Koreans and everyone was like that and it was bewildering to me, people acting like we’re friends when we’re not (yet). What I eventually came to understand is that it’s just a cultural thing – in NorCal we become friends then act like buds; in SoCal people act like buds as a method of becoming friends. It’s not that it’s fake, it’s that it’s a method of becoming closer. Once I understood that and embraced it, it changed everything, and I made a lot of good friends.

Anyway, it’s just interesting to me how Korean-Americans in different parts of the country have different characteristics, and in ways that are distinct from the cultures of those areas in general.

1 thought on “Korean-Americans From Different Parts Of The Country Are Different

  1. I have this theory that the actual numbers matter. Have a friend who grew up in the Midwest. She was one of two Asians in a whole high school. She’s a lot more assimilated.

    In the bay area, I remember starting off with like 10% Asians in elementary school, of which 99% were Taiwanese Americans. By the end of high school it was like 35%. Still mostly Taiwanese Americans, parent mainly in tech. Technically, we were a minority but as a socio economic ethnic combo, we were probably the most populous. The desire/pressure to assimilate into white bay area culture really changed as that happened.

    I remember wanting to fit in so badly in 2nd grade, wishing we wore the same clothes, ate the same foods, had the same kind of house as my white friends. By HS, I was thinking this is just as good, maybe better. There was a confidence that emerged, knowing so many ppl had a similar experience. College in the UC systems reinforced that even more.

    Not sure it’s a percentage thing but some sort of minimum critical mass of absolute number of ppl

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