By Jean Wong
Northwest Asian Weekly
Among the cities in Washington with a large Korean American community presence, Shoreline stands out. Having had three Korean American elected officials, two of them women, Shoreline is a beacon for local Korean Americans aspiring to enter the state’s political scene. It is also a thriving hub for local Korean American businesses, and it has started building bridges with Korea both past and present.
Already underway, the Korean American Oral History Project seeks to put Shoreline Korean Americans back in touch with their roots.
According to 2010 Census data, Korean Americans comprise 0.5 percent of the total U.S. population, and it breaks down as follows: 62,374 in Washington state, 28,298 or 1.5 percent in King County, 11,945 or 1.5 percent in Pierce County, and 11,870 or 1.7 percent in Snohomish County.
Roots and global reach
President of Shoreline Community College (SCC), Lee Lambert, is busy building connections with Shoreline’s sister city in Korea, Boryeong. The city’s sisterhood with Boryeong, commonly known as Daecheon, has been growing strong for nearly eight years.
Lee Mozena, founder and principal of Zenith Diversity, is putting together the Korean American Oral History Project, a multi-year project focused on collecting an oral history of Korean Americans, beginning with Shoreline’s numerous elected officials and business leaders.
Zenith Diversity is a company that fosters cross-cultural communication, as well as multicultural promotion and publicity, with a focus on how business and economic development improve when new groups are engaged.
Mozena’s project will be executed with the assistance of Shoreline’s college students, city departments, and the Historical Museum, along with Korean civic, cultural, and professional organizations. The project aims to eventually include Lakewood and Tacoma, which also have a large Korean American presence. Though initially Mozena’s specialty was Muslim Americans, she has since gotten interested in Korean Americans, working with several departments in Shoreline and Seattle to improve “dominant culture engagement with ‘emerging majority’ groups.”
Mozena compares the Korean American and Arab American communities, “Like many groups with fairly clearly defined culture and language, the resulting silo affect has positives and negatives. There are many similarities [between the Korean American and Muslim/Arab American] communities — except the former is predominantly Christianity — a hallmark of mainstream American culture.”
Changes, good changes
Lambert, over his six and a half years of working at SCC, has witnessed several notable developments in the local Korean American community. “I have seen John Chang elected to City Council, Cindy [Ryu] elected Mayor; Korean involvement in public sector life has developed significantly — this evolution is a positive sign for our community and especially the college becoming more diverse. About 49 to 51 percent claim majority culture.”
Lambert notes that most Korean American businesses in Shoreline are in the service industry, mostly restaurants and strip malls. “Shoreline is home to many Korean American small businesses that are home-based, and the college supports them in making business plans and marketing. Both Hyundai and Kia offer training programs for continuing education at the college for incumbent workers.”
“The Ajou-Shoreline partnership has provided a rich opportunity for our faculty, staff, and students at SCC,” Pollie McCloskey, assistant director of International Education at the college, said recently to Shoreline Patch.com, “Not only does the exchange program provide an opportunity for the visiting Ajou students to learn from our automotive and ESL instructors, but it provides an opportunity for our automotive students, faculty, and staff to learn more about Ajou, the city of Boryeong, and the Korean culture through this partnership.”
Lambert, whose mother is Korean, was inspired to develop the partnership between Ajou Motor College and SCC in 2006, while on a trade mission with the governor. Lambert met with Ajou President Soo-Hun Lee, and signed a Memorandum of Understanding for Academic Interchange, which promoted the exchange of students and faculty between the schools. Now, a group of Ajou students come over to SCC every year for two weeks in the summer to participate in the combined automotive and ESL/American culture program designed specifically for them. However, Lambert notes with a hint of regret that only one group of SCC students has been able to go to Ajou.
Referencing a 2007 Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program report, Lambert said, “According to past studies, only 20 percent of Americans hold a passport; when we study abroad, we typically go to Western European countries. As Americans, we’re isolationists. We don’t think we need to go to other places — we know it all!”
Lambert has high hopes for the continuing partnership — most notably that more SCC students will be able to go to Korea. It’s not just their fear of leaving the country — many SCC students work full-time in addition to studying, and they cannot afford to go to Korea for two weeks. Lambert believes that “a broader base of community support will be necessary to provide scholarships to allow this to happen.”
American Dream fulfilled
Democratic State Representative of the 32nd Legislative District and former Mayor of Shoreline, Cindy Ryu is a shining example of a Korean American immigrant success story. She came to Seattle more than 41 years ago from South Korea. She wanted to pursue the American Dream. And thanks to her unfailing work ethic, she was able to have both a family and a successful career.
Ryu holds an MBA from the University of Washington and, in 2008, was the first female Korean American to be elected mayor. In 2010, she became the first Korean American woman to be elected to Washington’s House of Representatives, adding to the litany of firsts she has achieved. As well as being a political firecracker, Ryu is also a successful business owner who has served as the president of the Shoreline Chamber of Commerce.
Ryu spoke of her own experience in achieving the American Dream and acknowledges the sacrifices her parents made to ensure that her and her three brothers received a good education. Ryu added that thanks to Washington’s public education system, not only did they receive an excellent education, but each gained success as a doctor, senior executive, and Boeing engineer. She concludes, “I still believe it is possible for us all to dream and achieve the American Dream.”
She is a self-proclaimed “passionate advocate” for each individual’s opportunity to succeed, whether in commerce or politics, “Everyone who works hard deserves a fair chance to succeed. … I have personally experienced the truth that America is the land of the free and the land of opportunity.”
Ryu shared with us her theory on why Shoreline has become an oasis for the Korean American community. “Usually, [we tend to settle] around family and friends, which also means church and grocery stores. … My husband and I chose to stay in and near Shoreline — where he and his parents settled in 1976 and where we got married 28 years ago.”
Though she encourages Korean Americans to succeed in Washington’s political scene, she offered a caveat in a 2008 interview with Horizons magazine, that despite her success in politics as a Korean American woman, people of color still face challenges and barriers, “In both the Democratic and Republican parties in Washington state, persons of color mostly do not participate at the grassroots, local, or state levels. Even with its history with an Asian governor, politics here is still a white person’s world.”
Matthew Benuska, Secretary-Treasurer of the Korean American Historical Society (KAHS), notes that he can at best offer an educated guess as to why there are so many Korean American elected officials and businesses from Shoreline.
“There really haven’t been very many studies on Koreans in the Pacific Northwest, much less Shoreline. … Most Koreans arrived after the 1965 immigration reform act. Tacoma/Lakewood is more obvious, because of the Army base, and the fact that many of the first Korean emigrants (pre-1960s) to that area would have been spouses of service men. They may have then invited their families to immigrate, and the families would likely have settled in the same area. Shoreline likely was settled as an affordable “suburb” of Seattle during the late 1960s, early 1970s, that was relatively close to the University of Washington.”
Lambert’s theory is that “Koreans are entrepreneurial, and Shoreline is just a bunch of small businesses along the Aurora corridor, so it attracts Koreans to set up businesses and grow. Shoreline also has a great educational system, and Koreans place high value on education.”
Lambert also commented on what distinguishes the Korean American elected officials from Shoreline from others. “Cindy [Ryu] really engages the community, beyond just the Korean community. In order to build roots in the broader community, she went door-to-door. … She knows the values of hard work, loyalty, has an undying devotion to America, which is true of lots of Korean Americans.” ♦
Jean Wong can be reached at email@example.com.