Mount St. Mary's College - Cultural Fluency
Mount Saint Mary's College

Center for Cultural Fluency

Korean Americans

History & Current Issues

A small number of Koreans immigrated to the United States in the early years of the twentieth century to work on Hawaiian sugar plantations. The difficult working conditions on the plantations motivated some Korean Americans to move to the mainland where many continued in agricultural work. Their numbers were so limited that they were a fairly dispersed group, not gathering in enclaves as other immigrants have. On the mainland, they experienced the same kinds of discrimination that other Asian groups encountered including being prohibited from attending school with whites in San Francisco, being unable to intermarry with whites (California Anti-Miscegenation Law, 1901) and being unable to own land in California (1913 Alien Land Law). The years from 1910-1940, when Japan occupied Korean, were particularly difficult for many Korean Americans as they thought of themselves more as exiles than immigrants and felt they were without a country. Immigration quotas kept the number of Korean immigrants relatively low through the 1950's when most of the immigrants were Korean War brides, orphans, or students.

In 1965, the Immigration Act abolished the quota system that had restricted the numbers of Asians allowed to enter the United States. Large numbers of Koreans, including some from the North that have come via South Korea, have been immigrating ever since, putting Korea in the top five countries of origin of immigrants to the United States since 1975. The reasons for immigration are many including the desire for increased freedom, especially for women, and the hope for better economic opportunities. In South Korea, which is roughly the size of Maine and has a population density second only to Bangladesh, there is an oversupply of college graduates including many engineers, nurses, and doctors.

Today there are almost a million Korean Americans. They have continued their early patterns of not being as concentrated as other Asian groups in particular locations. Currently 44% live in the West, 23% in the Northeast, 19% in the South, and 14% in the Midwest. The state with the largest population is California with 33% of the total; New York is second with 12%. Even in California the population is scattered with only 20% of the Koreans in Southern California living in Koreatown, Los Angeles. Koreatown is located about five miles west of City Hall and is roughly bounded by Beverly Boulevard and Pico Boulevard to the north and south and Hoover and Crenshaw on the east and west. Because of the changing demographics in Los Angeles, 68% of the people living within these boundaries are Latinos, but Koreans are the predominant business owners, and the area serves as a cultural, business and social center for Korean Americans.

As a group, Korean immigrants are highly educated though language and cultural barriers have meant many have not been able to work in the fields in which they were trained. Instead, using networking and kye rotating credit associations, many have turned to starting their own small businesses. The willingness to sacrifice for the future by working extremely long hours and not taking vacations has helped build many highly successful enterprises.

Nationally now Korean Americans own 20% of all dry-cleaning businesses. In Southern California they own 45% of liquor stores, 46% of small grocery markets, and 45% of one-hour photo shops. A study done of green groceries on a segment of Broadway in Manhattan, New York found that Koreans owned 75% of the groceries, and 78% of the owners had college degrees.

Church has been important community center, particularly for the il se, first generation. It is a gathering place where one can feel comfortable, talk in Korean, and make kye associations. Members of later generations are not as likely to feel such strong church connections, partly because they are less fluent in the language, but also because of cultural differences such as less emphasis on the Confucian respect for authority and acquiescence to patriarchal hierarchy.

Korean Americans are so aware of the cultural differences across generations that they not only have special words to describe the first and second generations, il se and i se respectively, but also have given a name for the generation that was born in Korea and moved here before they were teenagers. This group is called il chom o se or generation 1.5. As would be expected difficulties with identity issues are particularly common with this generation.


Ko, Tanya Hyonhye. Generation One Point Five. 1993 . Esprit Book. ISBN 8-85500-01-5.

Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. 1989. Penguin. ISBN 0-316-83109-3.

Yu, Eui-Young. The Korean American Community In Donald N. Clark (Ed.). Korea. 1993. Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-8770-1. Briefing, 1993: Festival of Korea

Current Issues

The Korean community is still recovering from the burning of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King verdicts. Because many Korean markets and businesses were located in those areas of the inner city (South Central and Koreatown) where much of the destruction occurred, Koreans suffered a disproportionate share of the total property damage, by some estimates 50% of the total loss city-wide. During the tragic conflagration, referred to in the community as sa-i-ku, meaning April 29, there was little police and fire protection available. Many Koreans were left to defend their property on their own. There is resentment about the lack of assistance as well as the desperate portrayal of the store owners by the media. Frustration continues as to date 40% of the Korean businesses lost have not been able to reopen. The Korean businesses that are open continue to be vulnerable to high rates of crime, violence, and interethnic tension.


Hwangbo, Kay. "Human Dramas in The Their Own Voices." LA Times, 4/29/96, p.1,2 .

Yu, Eui-Young. The Korean American Community. In Donald N. Clark (Ed.). Korea. 1993. Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-8770-1. Briefing, 1993: Festival of Korea

Cultural Connections

Korean American Museum
temporarily closed
Los Angeles, CA 90010
213.388.4229 fax 213.381.1288 
This museum focuses on both Korean and Korean American issues and culture. There are interesting rotating exhibits and special events. The museum is reaching out to the various generations of Korean Americans with lively programs such as the reading and book signing event they sponsored publicizing the publication of East to America.

Korean Cultural Center
5505 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
323.936.7141 fax 323.936.5712
Opened in 1980, The Korean Cultural Center offers programs which introduce Korean culture, society, history, and arts to the American public. The museum is the official link between the United States and Korea in the field of culture and includes a book and video library as well as a museum. The journal, Korean Culture, is published quarterly by the Center.

Pacific Asia Museum
46 North Robles Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101
626.449.2742 fax 626.449.2454
The Pacific Asia Museum "preserves, presents and interprets to the public the arts and cultures of the Pacific and Asian peoples." Located in an interesting building that is a replica of a Chinese Treasure House with a lovely courtyard garden, the museum galleries are complimented by its research library and excellent book store. Family free days on the third Saturday of the month offer free programs for children and families. In the past, the Korean Celebration included workshops in fan making, chima chogoi pagi (paper folding), and kite making, and traditional food was served. Information about lectures, authors evenings, classes, and collection outreach is available to museum members through the newsletter. This is a good museum to join if you are interested in the broad spectrum of Asian cultures.

UCLA Asian American Studies Center
University of California, Los Angeles
3230 Campbell Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095
The Center develops curricula, offers graduate degree programs, sponsors symposia, and maintains a reading room.

Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates of Southern California
3465 West 8th Street, 2nd. floor
Los Angeles, CA 90005
213.738.9050 fax. 213.738-9919
A resource for finding out about Korean American employment realities.

Korean Youth and Community Center
680 South Wilton Place
Los Angeles, CA 90005
A community leader in providing programs for youth and families.


Koreatown Plaza
928 South Western Ave.
Los Angeles, Ca. 90006

One easy way to step into the Korean community in Los Angeles is via the Koreatown Plaza, located on the corner of 9th Street and Western Ave. The modern enclosed mall with 80 specialty shops and parking garage seems like a mall that could be found anywhere in the U.S., but one quickly notices it is different. Most signs are in Korean, and most people are speaking Korean. What a treat! All the people we spoke to in English welcomed our interest and were more than happy to answer our questions.Koreatown Plaza

Pick up a map of the plaza at one of the centrally located kiosks and enjoy a few hours of discovery. If you arrive hungry or work up an appetite, you can find plenty of Korean food options in the food court on the first floor. Most of the eateries have pictures so you can make your selection visually. Large bowls of delicious noodle soups and dumplings are served by several vendors. Here's your chance to sample some kimchi, the spicy pickled cabbage that compliments Korean meals.

The mall has over 80 shops. The ABC Plaza is an appliance and electronics store with an extensive selection of rice cookers, and table top bar-be-que grills. On the first floor, the Korea Book Center has children's books written in English and Korean. A few adult books are in English including some of the most recent popular books published by Korean Americans. (See Professional Development-Culture Specific References-Korean American for recommendations.) We recommend finishing your visit at The Plaza Market so you can do your grocery shopping at the same time. The fruit and vegetable selections are outstanding, and include some Asian specialties as well as magnificent gift fruit boxes. (Did you know the nectarine, a cross between a peach and a plum, was developed by a Korean American?) The wall of kimchi jars, mountains of short ribs, aisles of noodles and 25 pound bags of rice offer some other indications of Korean food preferences. The frozen dumplings make tasty snacks or a light dinner and a package of ginger cookies is a must. Finally, if you ever need an idea for something easy to bring to a pot luck, try the high quality, attractive kim bop (sushi) sold here. The Plaza Market is expensive but authentic.

Journey Directions:

From the 10 Freeway, exit north on Western Blvd. which is 4 exits west of downtown LA. Travel several miles north. Turn right on 9th St. and into the parking structure on your right.




  • Clark, Donald N. (Ed.). Korea Briefing, 1993: Festival of Korea. 1993. Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-8770-1.

    Published by the Asia Society, this collection of nine essays by leading Korean and Korean American authorities is readable and at the same time highly informative and scholarly. The map, glossary, and chronology provide geographic and historic detail while the essays focus on a broad range of contemporary topics including Korean economics, politics, literature, dance, and music. U. S. and Korean perceptions and policies toward each other are highlighted, and there is an outstanding chapter about the Korean American Community by Eui-Young Yu. Suggested readings for further study are made by each contributor.

  • Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. 1989. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0-316-83109-3

    This fascinating history of Asian Americans combines traditional research with oral biographies and includes material and perspectives not previously found in our textbooks. Several chapters are devoted exclusively to the experience of Korean Americans.


  • Kang, K. Connie. Home Was the Land of Morning Calm: A Saga of a Korean-American Family. 1995. Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0-201-62684-5.

    This is a well-written and researched autobiography by a woman who is currently a reporter for the Los Angeles Times covering Asian American affairs. Ms. Kang immigrated here in 1961 and has much to say about the personal struggles she has faced trying to reconcile two vastly different cultures and the personal struggles she has faced trying to reconcile them. There are entire worlds that the media does not portray and the American mainstream rushes past. It is this kind of story that the author, as a reporter, yearns to dig out so that we may have a better understanding of the diverse mix of peoples that is America.

  • Kim, Elaine H. and Eui-Young Yu. East to America: Korean American Life Stories. 1996. New Press. ISBN 1-56584-297-9.

    This recently published collection of thirty-eight oral biographies of contemporary Korean Americans provides a rich portrait of this diverse community. Anna Deavere Smith, in her foreword, suggests that by spanning generations, social classes, and a wide variety of experiences, this collection provides those outside the community with the opportunity to reevaluate stereotypes. One of our favorite selections is the chapter by Im Jung Kwuon who is on the Center of Cultural Fluency advisory council. The collection would be an excellent vehicle for stimulating discussion among Korean American students about their personal experiences. Includes a brief overview of Korean and Korean American history.

  • Lee, Helie. Still Life with Rice: A Young American Woman Discovers the Life and Legacy of Her Korean Grandmother. 1996. Scribner. ISBN 0-684-80270-8.

    This is the story of a woman, born and raised in North Korea during the Japanese occupation, who endured many hardships. She fled with her family to Manchuria then to South Korea during the Korean War and finally to America to be reunited with her family. Her Americanized granddaughter uncovers her life story, and in the process, finds her own identity as a second generation Korean American.

  • Lee, Mary Paik. Quiet Odyssey: A Pioneer Korean Woman in America. 1990. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-96969-5.

    Mrs. Lee describes her life as a Korean American "pioneer," one of the comparatively small group of Korean immigrants whose families came to work on the Hawaiian sugar plantations at the beginning of this century. She later moved to California, and her book describes her life in the agricultural and mining communities there and the hardships of raising an Asian American family in a prejudiced society. Interesting discussion in appendix of historical verification done by editor Suheng Chan.


  • Lee, Chang-Rae. Native Speaker. 1995. Riverhead. ISBN 1-57322-001-9

    Hard to put down. This book has been heralded as the Korean American literary equivalent of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. It is as powerful and honest, but not as daunting to read. If you only have time for one book now, you won't be disappointed if you choose this one.

  • Kim, Ronyoung. Clay Walls. 1987. University of Washington Press. ISBN 0-295-96927-X.

    Kim tells the story of Korean immigrants to Los Angeles prior to World War II interweaving the themes of Korean culture and nationalism and the racism of an American culture unfamiliar with Koreans. This book depicts a life full' of trials and hardships which a Korean family must overcome to survive and educate its children. The first generation of Korean Americans slowly but surely lays down its roots for the generations to come.


  • Ko, Tanya Hyonhye. Generation One Point Five. 1993. Esprit Book. ISBN 8-85500-01-5.

    Who am I? asks Ms. Ko. The author, who was born in South Korea in 1964 and immigrated to the United States in 1982, is part of the il-chom-o-se, or 1.5 generation. This highly personal collection of poems describes Ms. Ko's personal pain as she feels torn between her Korean and American identities and confesses she can feel neither fully Korean or fully American. All poems written in both Korean and English. Accessible and poignantly written, these poems could serve as both catalysts and models for student discussion and poetry about the immigrant experience.