Where Latinos Speak Korean


Se habla español in LA’s Koreatown. Photo by Hunhee.

Multiculturalism is usually framed in terms of the relationship between immigrants and a “host society.” But what about the relationship between immigrants themselves? In Los Angeles’ sprawling Koreatown, a growing population of Latino immigrants is leading to a cultural and linguistic exchange that is unprecedented in recent American history.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal describes the trend: “At the Galleria, a large Korean supermarket here, store manager Yoonah Yoon greets Hispanic cashiers and bag boys each morning with a hearty ‘buenos dias’—‘good morning’ in Spanish. The Latino workers, who make up more than half the store’s 162 employees, answer him with the equivalent greeting in Korean: ‘Ahn-nyung-hah-seh-yo.'”

Korean immigrants began settling along Wilshire Boulevard in the 1960s, gradually establishing a vast Korean neighbourhood that eventually became the epicentre of the world’s largest Korean community outside of Asia. Eventually, most of the neighbourhood’s Korean residents decamped for other neighbourhoods and suburbs around Los Angeles, motivated in no small part by the 1992 riots that targeted Korean-owned businesses above all. Over the course of the 1990s, Koreatown became home to a new wave of immigrants from Mexico and Central America.

Despite the area’s changing demographics, Koreatown remained the most important hub of commerce and culture for the Los Angeles Korean community. In fact, in recent years, Korean investment in the neighbourhood has increased, including the construction in 2001 of a $40-million Korean spa and a new Korean shopping mall.

That’s where things get interesting. Many of these Korean businesses draw their employees (and, in some cases, customers) from the surrounding area’s largely Latino population. The relationship is such that many Koreans business owners are learning Spanish—and many Latino workers are learning Korean.

“These days, English isn’t the second language of choice anymore for some immigrants settling in the U.S. In the city that is home to the country’s largest foreign-born population, many Spanish- and Korean-speaking immigrants are choosing to learn each other’s language before they tackle English,” explains the Journal.

To meet soaring demand for Spanish proficiency, Korean churches, community centers and language schools are offering both introductory and advanced classes — usually for a nominal fee. Korean-language newspapers also carry ads for Spanish-language classes and tutors by the dozens. “Grow Your Business!” says one pitch. “Free Introductory Spanish Class!” promises another. One ad mentions that Korean children are welcome, too.

More than a courtesy, the language exchange is born out of economic necessity. Korean immigrants here often open liquor stores, garment factories and other small businesses that don’t necessarily require English language skills to run them. Their employees, by and large, consist of another group of recent immigrants who don’t speak English — mostly Mexicans and Central Americans. The upshot: Many Korean business owners figure it’s more urgent to learn Spanish than it is to master English.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Koreans are learning Spanish. After all, there are now more Spanish-speakers in Los Angeles than English-speakers; and even if hispanophones generally have lower incomes and social status than anglophones, their influence is growing as new generations of Latin Americans establish themselves in LA. What is truly remarkable, however, is that many Latino residents of Koreatown are actually learning Korean.

Typically, Koreans who enroll in language classes are interested in learning conversational Spanish relevant to their trade. Hispanics generally pick up Korean—whose characters and grammar are especially tough to master—on the job. Even so, Latino workers here have come to see the benefits of tackling the language.

Among the Mexican workers at the Galleria grocery is Rúben Hernandez. In three years he has risen from an apron-wearing bag boy to a necktie-sporting front manager, thanks to picking up Korean informally from his colleagues and friends. The 30-year-old immigrant also speaks English. But, because he spends the day dealing with Koreans, “I think I speak Korean just as well as English now,” he says.

Many Korean customers, particularly elderly women like Soo Park, seek out Mr. Hernandez, who always greets her in Korean as he breaks into a wide grin that exposes his metal braces. The other day, Mrs. Park approached the Mexican employee to double-check the price she had paid for a bundle of large, deep-green sesame leaves. After their exchange in Korean, she noted in broken English: “I like him. He helps me with everything. He gives me good service.”

At a checkout line, Aron Hernandez, no relation to the other Mr. Hernandez, recited in Korean the name of each item he shoved into plastic bags: cabbage (“bae-chu”), strawberries (“dahlkee”), rice (“sahl”). When a customer asked him a question in Korean, he approached a supervisor and asked her to “please check the receipt”—in Korean.

Since he both lives and works in Koreatown, he says, “I couldn’t help but learn some Korean.” As for English, he says he could do with more practice — though he repeats the phrase “please check the receipt,” this time in English, to prove he has mastered some phrases in the tongue of his adopted country.

What I find most exciting about the above passage is that it is Korean, not English, that seems to be the language of success for many Latino workers in Koreatown. This linguistic blending is leading to other examples of cultural fusion. One blogger reports that kimchee is popular with Latinos and, “on the food shelves of the Korean grocery markets, Korean items like kim sit alongside tortillas, tofu next to Mexican cheese.”

This might be an extremely localized phenomenon, but it speaks to the potential of multiculturalism—and I’m referring to the literal definition of the word, not the various political and philosophical interpretations of it—to foster new and previously inconceivable cultural exchanges.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday June 04 2007at 11:06 am , filed under Demographics, Society and Culture, United States and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

3 Responses to “Where Latinos Speak Korean”

  • A somewhat related article appeared in the New York Times earlier this week.

    In Queens, Classes in Mandarin Are Also Lessons in Adaptation
    Published: May 28, 2007

    Something extraordinary happened to Maria Farren of Flushing, Queens, on a recent trip to the grocery store. From the familiar background chatter of people speaking Chinese, a syllable leapt out from nowhere. It was not that she understood the word — she didn’t — but the sound was familiar. That was enough of a surprise that she paused in mid-aisle.

    “It’s just a din of noise,” Ms. Farren said, “and all of a sudden you recognize something.”

    So on a rainy Wednesday evening, she was back in the basement room of the Queens housing project where two dozen adults gather every week to learn Mandarin. The free classes at the James A. Bland Houses draw a motley assortment of students; the current session includes an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, a black woman who grew up in the housing project and the practical-minded daughter of Hungarian immigrants.

    They have in common these two attributes: They have lived in Flushing since before it was Asian, and they have decided that the time has come to adapt.

    “Kind of like, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,’ ” said Ms. Farren, whose Italian-American relatives cannot fathom why she hasn’t left for New Jersey.

    Pitched battles have been fought over language in Flushing, whose white ethnic population has receded as Korean and Chinese immigrants have arrived. In the late 1980s, when City Councilwoman Julia Harrison proposed a bill requiring businesses to post signs in English, a public divide seemed to open: On one side were the waves of Asian newcomers; on the other, longtime residents who felt displaced and alienated.

    But Man-Li Kuo Lin’s weekly Mandarin class — arranged by Ms. Harrison’s successor, Councilman John C. Liu — provides a different view of Flushing. Ms. Lin’s students filter in after finishing a day’s work as paramedics or elementary school teachers. They set up chairs under pipes labeled “hot kitchen/bath” and “chilled water supply,” which are periodically traversed by mice. Some eat supper discreetly out of paper bags. Then they stumble, with boisterous good humor, over the basics of Mandarin grammar.

    In the center of the front row, every Wednesday, sits an old man with a freckled scalp and a frizz of white hair. This is Frank Sygal, 85, a retired stockbroker whose enthusiasm in pursuit of Mandarin amazes and amuses his classmates.

    His first question of the night during one recent class, delivered in the accent of his native Poland, was followed rapidly by several dozen follow-ups: “Why do you say two words for ‘bladder’? I have one bladder! For one bladder it’s two words? What is word for state of Israel? What is word for ‘oral surgeon’? If I go to study medicine in China, what do they teach me?”

    “Nobody taught you in Poland to speak Chinese,” Mr. Sygal said.

    Mr. Sygal grew up outside Krakow and lost his parents on an August day in 1942 when German soldiers rounded up Jews, stripped off their jewelry and machine-gunned them. His facility with languages helped him survive: He spoke Russian with the Russian soldiers, Ukrainian with the Ukrainians and German with the Germans, reserving Hebrew for private spaces. Once he arrived in New York in 1949, there were two more languages to learn — English and Spanish.

    Now, at 85, he has embarked on his last great linguistic effort. His progress has been maddeningly slow; at one point, Mr. Sygal approached “dozens” of Chinese people, he said, in a fruitless attempt to translate the word “ka-ching,” a term he had seen in a headline in The New York Post and assumed to be Chinese. He hopes that he will be able to carry on a conversation in Mandarin by the time he is 95.

    “If I be around,” he said, “I be able to speak.”

    To his left was Cathy Stenger, driven to this class by the stubborn silence in her building’s elevator. She bought an apartment in a Flushing co-op in 1986 and has since seen 90 percent of the units go to Korean and Chinese families. She has a mute bond with a woman from the sixth floor, who embraces her every time they meet, and with an elderly man who soulfully grabs her hand.

    “The fact of the matter is, I can’t talk to them,” said Ms. Stenger, 65, whose parents immigrated from Hungary.

    Her interest is not casual. Her co-op board is threatened by a breakaway group of Asian tenants, she said, who are challenging bylaws about subletting or dividing units. A downstairs neighbor manufactures medicinal herbs, and though the woman added ventilation after Ms. Stenger complained, the scent sometimes wafts up through her radiator connections. And when gas leaked into a hallway recently, Ms. Stenger said, one of the neighbors hesitated to call 911 because she was afraid that she would be charged for the service.

    Still, none of the changes have made her consider leaving Flushing.

    “A lot of my friends it bothers,” she said. “My friends moved.”

    The Mandarin classes, now in their second 10-week session, were the brainchild of Donald Henton, 73, a retired city bus driver who has lived in Flushing since 1968.

    Mr. Henton asked Councilman Liu to sponsor the lessons last year during a community meeting at which most of the comments were made in Mandarin. He feels a responsibility for the classes’ success; on Tuesday nights, he calls 40 people just to remind them to come.

    There have been moments of disappointment for Mr. Henton, who expected the classes to be standing-room-only. He has met cold shoulders among his own neighbors in the Bland Houses, where 78 percent of the tenants are black or Hispanic. On a sunny afternoon in the housing project’s courtyard, Robert Winston, whose family moved to New York from Jamaica, responded to the idea of studying Mandarin with a long belly laugh. Anita Garcia, whose parents moved from Puerto Rico, practically spat.

    “I was born here,” said Ms. Garcia, who is 44. “Why should I learn their language?”

    For years, tenants in the Bland Houses have worried that they would be priced out of an increasingly crowded and prosperous neighborhood. From the bench where he sits with his friends, Mr. Winston said, he can see both the Asian-dominated playgrounds and the basketball court used by the Bland Houses’ old guard.

    Mr. Henton, a longtime supporter of Councilman Liu, agreed that big changes are coming. It’s time to adjust, he tells people at Bland Houses. But only one of his neighbors is attending the second session of Mandarin classes, he said, even after he slipped 400 fliers advertising the lessons under tenants’ doors.

    “You know what they say? They didn’t get it,” he said.

    Still, students return week after week. At break time, Ms. Lin leads them — a clumsy, giggling corps de ballet — in dance sequences from Chinese opera. A vivacious woman who volunteers her services, she peppers the class with small revelations: Under Chinese etiquette, when you sneeze, a person will pretend he or she did not hear you; Chinese people will not ask or answer the question “How are you” for fear of hearing or prompting a lie; the fourth of the tones used in Mandarin — known as the “high falling” sound — is so difficult that if you say it too many times, as she put it, “you will feel hungry.”

    After six lessons, the students have begun to come to class with stories of progress: words overheard on the subway, characters recognized on signs. Dolores Morris, who has lived next door to a Chinese family for a year and a half, finally approached her “lovely neighbor.”

    Affection has grown between the two families, despite the language barrier. The neighbors take out the Morrises’ garbage to save her husband, who is 75, the physical strain, and they send their daughter to the Morrises’ door with steaming plates of food. Ms. Morris, 63, decided to begin Chinese lessons as a surprise. After a few lessons, she “took a big deep breath” and went up to her neighbor in the back yard.

    Nervously, she repeated the Mandarin phrase she had learned — “I am learning to speak Chinese” — and proudly showed her textbook to her neighbor, who looked surprised and disappeared inside. Though Mandarin is the dominant dialect in Flushing, the woman’s daughter emerged from the house and explained that her mother never learned to read or speak it; a native of Fujian province, she only spoke Fuzhounese, the dialect spoken in the city of Fuzhou and its region.

    Ms. Morris laughed, telling the story. She said she has no immediate plans to begin studying Fuzhounese.

    As it stands, when the neighbors bring gifts of food, “I’ll point to my mouth and rub my stomach and smile,” she said. “We’ll probably keep doing that.”

  • […] Even though Korean Americans are the largest ethnic group populating Koreatown, a large Hispanic population is also represented, with many of the Korean businesses hiring its Hispanic residents. This multiculturalism has caused a growth in Koreans who speak Spanish, and an increase in Hispanics who have learned Korean. […]

  • mark says:

    there is further hybridization when it comes to the street cuiaine. Since no two city departments have the same configuration for Koreatown, the blending of ethnic enclaves is actually quite common, making it part and parcel for why it’s such an exciting place to live.

    In recent years, many of the Central American or Southern Mexican immigrants actually speak Spanish as a second language, mixing it up even more –and the Korean or Spanish reggaeton the teens listen to will render your dictionary useless (but as long as it has a good beat to dance to…)