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Before BTS or KBBQ, Korean Culture in America Has Been Concealed Amongst Xenophobia and Racism

Koreatown street scene Olympic & Harvard, Los Angeles. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Whenever I think of my grandpa (or Halabouji in Korean), I immediately recall my time spent with him in Koreatown when I was in middle school. Every other Sunday afternoon, we’d drive through the chaotic avenues of Koreatown Los Angeles (KTLA) as he lectured me on why I should never ride a motorcycle. We’d go to acupuncture and after that, we always went to a small stand in a shopping mall. There, he’d treat me to a plate of rice cakes smothered in a spicy-sweet sauce called tteokbokki.

As we conversate, there’s always been a language barrier. Yet, the wisdom and stories that he passes down to me always resonate with a certain part of my heart.

In modern culture, South Korea has built up a cultural presence. Whether it be in celebrity culture with K-Pop groups such as Blackpink and BTS, or in the food scene with phenomenons like Korean barbeque, South Korea’s influence is undeniable. However, groups such as BTS have only recently risen to prominence. 

This begs the question- Where has Korean culture been this entire time? 

Along with places like Taiwan and Singapore, South Korea is considered one of the four Asian Tiger Economies. This means that, although it’s a first-world country, it has just recently undergone massive transformations in its culture, infrastructure, and economy.

But that’s not the whole story. On top of its lack of cultural and economic growth before the 21st Century, Korean culture in America has overcome mass xenophobia and bloody riots.

Koreatown Los Angeles was formed in 1905 by railroad workers and agricultural laborers immigrating from Korea for a fresh start. However, Korean immigrants were soon met with waves of racism. 

For instance, the government implemented the National Origins Act of 1924. Similar to the well-known Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882, this limited the number of Asian and Middle-Eastern immigrants coming to America. 

But, it’s widely accepted that the discrimination faced by Korean-Americans reached its peak in 1992 with the Rodney King Riots. On March 2 of 1991, a bystander posted a video of an African-American man named Rodney King being beaten by a group of white police officers. And as the video spread across the internet, hundreds of Angelinos were enraged.

So how does this involve Koreatown? 

Although police and government officials scrambled to stop riots in other areas, KTLA was neglected. Many Korean-Americans had to arm themselves with pistols and bats, ready to do what was necessary to defend their businesses and storefronts from mobs and rioters. The riots only lasted for around a week, but the consequences of KTLA’s abandonment were more than 2,000 Korean-owned businesses being destroyed, an estimated $400 million in damages, and a shattered community.

Present-day, it’s easy to see Korean culture as something polished, trendy, and fascinating. But amidst the family-owned tofu houses and the contemporary shopping centers, the streets of Koreatown are adorned with homeless individuals selling whatever they can, and businesses with shattered glass windows. In many ways, the effects of racism are still very present.

Korean culture is beautiful. However, its true value is only uncovered when one acknowledges how Korean-Americans have fought for over a century to reach this point of influence. That’s where the true culture presides.

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