By Samantha Henry
The Associated Press
NEWARK (AP) — Korean immigrants across the United States celebrated a milestone this month, marking more than 100 years since their predecessors first arrived in America to work in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii.
In events from New York to Los Angeles, Koreans observed Jan. 13 — designated in 2003 as Korean American Day by the U.S. Congress — with celebrations and reflections on their changing diaspora.
“We must attract and retain the second generation, who are doing wonderful things to spread Korean culture,” said Yong Hwa-ha, the president of the Korean American Association of Greater New York (KAAGNY). “We also need to work with other ethnic communities and build bridges.”
Preserving Korean culture among an American-born generation, while branching out beyond once-insular immigrant organizations into mainstream politics ,has slowly transformed the Korean community in America, according to Professor Pyong Gap-min of Queens College of the City University of New York, which recently inaugurated a new Korean studies center.
“Politically, they are active,” Pyong said. “Beyond politics, they have to keep making more effort to know their neighbors.”
Those efforts have taken different forms, as Koreans remake organizations that were once largely social-service community groups for newcomers into more powerful business associations that are branching out into the mainstream.
In Palisades Park, N.J., a town about 15 minutes outside Manhattan that has seen a huge influx of Koreans over the past decade, Koreans now hold several elected positions on municipal boards and are active in local politics and civic groups.
In Los Angeles, where Korean business owners suffered more than $400 million in damages during the 1992 riots, and in New York City, where boycotts of Korean-owned stores in 1990 strained relations between Koreans and Blacks, efforts have been made to improve interactions between the two groups.
In the wake of the Los Angeles riots, Korean store owners received training and advice on how to better engage with Black customers and be more outgoing and friendly, while in New York, Korean groups like KAAGNY have made it a point to involve Black leaders in major Korean events, including this year’s Jan. 13 gala celebration in Manhattan.
Recent U.S. Census figures show about 1 million Koreans are in the United States — the near majority of them from South Korea — and more than half of the Korean population are concentrated in California, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia.
Korean consular officials say the number is closer to 2 million — including Korean Americans — making it the largest Korean diaspora outside the Asian nation.
Ambassador Kim Young-mok, the New York-based consul general of the Republic of Korea, said the growing financial, political, and organizational clout of Koreans living abroad has contributed to a change in the Korean government’s attitude toward a once-ignored constituency.
“Korea is rising to the world’s 10th largest economy, and we have become aware that our connection with overseas Koreans adds momentum for growth between the homeland and overseas Koreans,” Kim said. “We are taking note of the role of these big communities.” ♦