Wednesday, March 16, 2005

my Koreatown

The Marmot points to a Washington Post article about Annandale, Virginia, which is only minutes away from my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia. The subject: the burgeoning Koreatown in Annandale.

It's no big secret that there's a large and thriving Korean presence in the DC-Metro area; our family's been plugged into that community for years. My mother has served on a couple Korean-American Wives' Clubs' boards, including a stressful stint as president of one.

Our community is funny. The wives' clubs are dominated largely by women married to rich white Americans (for the record, my family's anything but rich, but yeah, mah dad be white). Some of these women look the part of the aristocrat with no substance or character to back it up, but others are genuinely nice people. My own association with these clubs has been largely with the wives; the husbands, most of whom are ex-military or ex-diplomat and don't speak much Korean, tend to stand in the background and smile a lot. I had the chance to emcee a Christmas party in late 2003 (see here); that was sort of fun.

Aside from the wives' clubs, there's the rest of the Korean community. Annandale is definitely the place to go if you're looking for Korean products and services. There's a Lotte store filled with items you'd find in a Korean grocery, as well as items you might find in Korean markets and department stores. There are specialty stores, hair salons, laundromats, norae-bang (song rooms, a bit like karaoke), restaurants of all different sorts (some Americanized, some not), Korean-style bakeries like Paris Baguette and Le Matin de Paris-- you name it, it's in Annandale. The big differences between Annandale and Seoul are that (1) you need a car to get around, and (2) the store staffers and restaurant drink servers are likely to be Hispanic, with the Koreans in the managerial positions. It's the old American immigrant story, playing itself out as it always does. Something like that story is playing out here in Korea, as more minorities pour in, looking for the opportunity to make money.

While in the States, I never took an interest in how the non-Korean community looked upon Koreatown. The impression I've gotten from non-Korean friends who visit there on rare occasion is that they enjoy the place. I don't know any more than that. The article says there's some soul-searching going on about the identity and significance of Koreatown; I prefer not to get too cosmic about it. Now is Korea's time; eventually, other ethnicities will move in and Koreatown will be quaint and old-school.

Koreana dots the Northern Virginia landscape. My people are in Alexandria, Annandale, McLean, Bethesda, and some parts of DC. Korean churches abound; it's often the case that Koreans are sharing churches with mostly-Western congregations, using the same property but having separate, Korean-language services. I have mixed feelings about this. I don't want to leave non-English-speakers out in the cold, but I'm also something of a typical American assimilationist and hope that people who come to America will learn some level of English and plug themselves into the larger community.

But the history of immigration shows that assimilation is a process crossing generations. The heart of an ethnic community, composed of those first-generation arrivals, usually keeps its old-world feel, while the next generation straddles the old and new worlds. The generation after that is the one that's most assimilated into mainstream American culture, however we choose to define that term.

I've enjoyed my own trips into Koreatown. My favorite restaurant is Joong Hwa Weon, a resto that serves all sorts of different Korean foods, but does Chinese food as well. In fact, it's the only Korean restaurant I've seen that categorizes its menu honestly, by using the labels "Korean-style Chinese food" and "Chinese food." Order from the first category, and you're likely to get jjajang-myeon or jjam-bbong; order from the second, and it'll be your typical fried-chunks-in-thick-sweet-sauce dish familiar to American college students everywhere*.

For my part, I wish all of Koreatown continued success, and am happy to see it imparting a certain ethnic flavor to that part of NoVA. If I have only one recommendation, it's that Korean food in America be cheaper. It doesn't have to go down to the level of Chinese fast food, but right now the prices hover uncomfortably close to the same range as Thai food, which makes going out for Korean something of a chore. One notable exception in Annandale is the Il Mee (Jung) buffet chain, which offers a $10 lunch special of all-you-can-eat meat. During the Atkins Diet craze of a couple years back, the chain has getting crazy business, and as far as I know, it's still pretty popular. But aside from that complaint, I hope Koreatown grows and flourishes and prospers for years to come. If you're in the area and curious, go give Koreatown a visit.

*To be fair, this should probably be called "American-style Chinese food." Then again, I have no idea whether the Chinese in China actually eat food like that.


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