January 20, 2011


Where Did the Korean Greengrocers Go?: The entrepreneurs who nourished New York have moved up and out. (Laura Vanderkam, Winter 2011, City Journal)

More fundamentally, there’s the Korean narrative in America. As Americans debate immigration policy yet again, Korean-Americans have shown exactly how immigration should work, vaulting several rungs up the U.S. economic ladder in one generation. Duke professor Jacob Vigdor’s 2008 report for the Manhattan Institute, “Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States,” found Koreans economically indistinguishable from native-born Americans. The children of Korean immigrants aren’t manning cash registers late at night; they’re in lines of work that pay more and that their parents see as higher-status.

Ron Kim’s parents never even asked him to work at their stores. “It was only when I volunteered my time,” he says. His job was to focus on academics and athletics, and he landed enough scholarships to attend Hamilton College and play football there. He now works for the executive branch of New York’s state government. This “education-is-everything ethic,” as Patricia Lee puts it, pervades Korean immigrant culture. Lee arrived from South Korea in 1976, and when she was growing up, “I didn’t spend any time in the kitchen,” she says. Her family “didn’t want me to do anything except schoolwork. My job was to be a good student. That’s sort of how Korean kids were raised, with parents saying they’ll do anything for you to be successful at school. In Korea, it’s like a virtue to be up all night studying. Whatever you need, your parents will support you.”

Outsiders marvel at stories of Korean “cram schools” in the U.S., where young children spend afternoons and weekends studying. But there is a big payoff. While Korean-Americans are a small percentage of New York City’s population, they regularly make up more than 10 percent of the enrollment at Stuyvesant, one of the city’s elite high schools. The high expectations continue through college. “Koreans want to be able to tell friends and folks back home that ‘my children went to Ivy League schools,’ ” says Oak Atkinson, who came to New York City in the late 1970s. She attended Colgate; her sister went to Cornell. When her father returned to Korea to visit friends, there was no question which college’s sweatshirt he would wear there.

Parents push the professions—law, engineering, medicine—hard. “Becoming a doctor is very important” to Koreans, Pyong Gap Min notes, just as in other Asian-American communities. Asians make up 4 percent of the American population but about 20 percent of graduating medical students. The parental preference for secure professional employment is reflected in Koreans’ falling self-employment rates. Min’s analysis of the New York and New Jersey census data for 2000 revealed that while 27.7 percent of Korean immigrants were self-employed in 1999, just 5.1 percent of the next generation was—less than half the rate for the region’s American-born whites (10.9 percent).

Plenty of Korean-Americans still own businesses, but they, too, demonstrate upward mobility. More recent immigrants tend to run nail salons: like grocery stores, they require little capital to start, but they cater to a more upscale clientele than the groceries do and aren’t expected to stay open around the clock. After Seo Jun and Sunhee Kim left the grocery business, they joined some relatives to open several nail salons and spas.

Other Korean greengrocers have become chains themselves. A Korean businessman who owns 14 grocery stores donated $200,000 anonymously to fund Min’s Research Center for Korean Community at Queens College. The national H Mart chain began as Han Ah Reum in Queens in 1982 and now has 34 locations around the country, including a small store in Manhattan’s Koreatown, packed with Asian staples like soup stock, dried anchovies, and sweet rice cakes.

Another option for the greengrocers is aiming at a higher-end demographic than their forerunners did. Charlie Khim and his brothers now own several Khim’s Millennium Markets in Brooklyn, offering organic and natural foods. A visit to the flagship store on Driggs Avenue reveals aisles wide enough for a shopping cart. But “I’ve never seen anyone in there with a cart, stocking up for the week,” reports Amanda Bauman, a Brooklyn resident who visits Khim’s frequently for lunch at the vast salad bar: the prices are too high. The clientele is mostly “hipsters and new parents,” Bauman says, who might spring for Green Sprouts’ BPA-free toddler cups ($8.99), a bottle of lavender body wash ($12.99), or a carton of Rice Dream drink. Still, Khim works seven days a week, sometimes for 15 hours at a stretch. “I don’t want my son or daughter working like this,” he says. He wouldn’t mind if they ran businesses (“They can do whatever they want”), but he doesn’t want them running his business.

One summer day, business owner Angela Jia Kim’s baby daughter is hanging out in her store, just as Ron Kim used to linger in East of Eden Market. But far from napping in the corner while her mom tends the till, little Sienna Lucy has come to organic skin-care store Om Aroma for some pampering—namely, a baby massage class, which Angela is participating in with several other moms and their tots. During busy times, Kim, a former concert pianist, does pitch in at the store (featured product: a $129 three-step skin-care regimen involving white truffle and caviar extract). But she has hired enough workers that she doesn’t have to be there 15 hours a day. “They make me look lazy,” she says of Korean-American entrepreneurs before her, but “they were doing it to survive. I’m doing it to build a brand. It’s a very different mentality.” Hers is a more confident, well-financed approach to entrepreneurship—one born of feeling economically and culturally secure in America.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 20, 2011 6:46 AM
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