Monday, March 2, 2009

Honk if you like Korean businesses!

I found this little tidbit in the local (Orange County) paper today. One "Dave Crow of Huntington Beach" asked the Orange County Register's traffic columnist:
Q. "Little Saigon," "Korean District" – more and more road signs are appearing on the 22 Freeway that seem to indicate we are no longer in the U.S. Who approves these road signs? What is the point? And who pays for these signs? American taxpayers?
Traffic is a big deal in Southern California, so naturally all the papers have traffic columnists. Dave Crow asks an interesting question that is pregnant with subtext. Despite living in a multi-cultural society like the United States with ethnic enclaves being a part of the national fabric for centuries, Dave Crow feels he's "no longer in the U.S." when he sees places in OC like Westminster's Little Saigon (touted as the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam) and Garden Grove's Koreatown that no one officially calls Koreatown even though it's a Koreatown.


And then there's his apparent assumption that the people who would benefit from these signs (i.e., the merchants of Little Saigon and de facto Koreatown) are not "American," or at least not "American taxpayers." If not, then just what the hell are they?

Jim Radcliffe, who writes the OCR's "Honk" column, was diplomatic in his response but shows his clear disagreement with Jim Dave Crow:
A. Honk likes 'em, Dave, so he knows where to pull off of the 22 to find a Lee's (Vietnamese) Sandwiches. But, alas, you didn't ask for his thoughts, did you?

To get your info, Honk chatted with Caltrans spokesman Allen Shahood, who said that usually a civic group asks for such things, then it is considered by Caltrans and, if approved, the sign's sponsor picks up the tab.

Not sure how many peeps find the signs un-American, Dave, but such freeway signs, which tell motorists how to get to ethnic communities, are as common as SigAlerts.

Shahood said Caltrans wants the signs to be simple. And, of course, the agency has to guard against a freeway becoming choked with too many signs so that motorists actually can read them.

A large sign might set back the sponsor about 500 won or dong – er, Honk means bucks.
Good on you, Mr Radcliffe. Why should these be un-American? For that matter, why should these signs be seen as being only for the benefit of Vietnamese-Americans or Korean-Americans? It's showing everybody where to go for Lee's Sandwiches or a good Korean barbecue. Maybe OC residents on a tight budget can use the signs to find an affordable Korean supermarket

To be fair, though, I have sympathy for Dave Crow's sentiments, but only up to a point. The language of medium for California and the rest of the United States is English, and it is not a good thing if those who speak only English are made to feel like strangers in their own communities because of signs put up by merchants. Although the freeway signs Dave Crow is complaining about are in English, the communities he's griping about use a great deal of Korean, Vietnamese, and even Chinese in their signage. 

Because of that I support efforts to require that public signs (e.g., on businesses, etc.) place English as dominant or equal to whatever other language the sign might be in. At the very least, signs intended for the public should not be exclusively in a language other than English.

I happen to know that 여행사 means "travel agency" and 순두부 means "tofu stew," but Mr Crow may not. And that means he will not venture into those places and instead will feel isolated from his own surroundings. Shopping centers with signs like this one from the staged Korean shopping plaza in CSI will only lead to ethnic stratification, and that's good for no one. 


[left: Actress Helena Hồng Ngọc of "Little Saigon's Love Story." Helena Ngoc popped up in my Google image search for one of the ethnic neighborhood signs off the Garden Grove Freeway, which turned up nothing. Trust me, we're all better off this way.]

But that's only one side of the issue. Even if all the Korean-run businesses up and down Garden Grove Boulevard or all the Vietnamese-run businesses along Bolsa Avenue were to put up bilingual signs, would Mr Crow ever venture into one? Or would he simply grumble to himself as he drives past, saying this doesn't feel like America anymore? 

If it's the latter, then he's the one with the problem. Open your eyes, Mr Crow. There's a world of cool experiences out there. Go to Little Saigon and get some dimsum (they'll provide forks if you need it) or Vietnamese coffee (it's got quite a kick). Go to a noraebang (look for these characters: 노래방) and belt out some Beatles tunes (start with "All You Need Is Love"). Go get some hearty meat dishes with copious vegetables. Orange County is an ethnically rich place, and it's sad if you don't enjoy it. And even sadder if it keeps you locked inside your house and car. 

(By the way, here's a Los Angeles Times article from 2007 talking about plans to make Orange County's Little Saigon more like New York City, with lofts and what-not above the shops.)

UPDATE:
I have linked this post to several places (including here and here) where there has been a discussion about Koreans using 외국인 (oégugin, 外國人; a counterpart but not equivalent of the Japanese gaijin), a word often simplistically translated as "foreigner," even when outside Korea when most others would perceive the Koreans as "foreigners." 

I linked this post because I think it is a clear example of how an ethnicity- or race-based us-versus-them attitude is by no means an exclusive Korean trait. Unfortunately, it's quite universal, but most people who are in the ethnic or racial majority of their home country have probably had little chance to experience that kind of thing first hand in their home country (this is known as "racial transparency"). As I wrote at Brian's:
Sometimes it sucks to be a minority. And no matter where you're from, I'm pretty sure minorities there don't have a rosy time all the time with the "majority" population there. Even in the United States, millions upon millions of Asian-Americans are still seen as different and not even fully American by some Whites (and Blacks).
Nevertheless (and perhaps I'm naïve), but I hope that the "Jim Radcliffes" of America outnumber the "Dave Crows" (and my apologies to Mr Dave Crow if it seems I'm picking on him for this view, which he may in fact feel I've misinterpreted).

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15 comments:

  1. I found Vietnamese coffee brutal when I went there in January. I tried some my first afternoon, and swore to avoid it thereafter. My girlfriend and I tried all different kinds of drinks at the cafes: she kept getting really good stuff, but I kept getting cups of that coffee.

    Attitudes like the writer are what make me find places like Korea more foreigner-friendly than the glorious "melting pot" I call home. I don't know how I feel about regulations on the language of signage, though. What strikes me about Korea is that Koreans themselves are using a foreign language (English) so prominently on signs and products, at the expense of comprehension. Matter of fact it's a status symbol, isn't it?

    I still think it'd be cool to walk into a Korean restaurant back home and order in Korean, and even chat up the workers there. But with my luck they'd all be Japanese or Vietnamese anyway.

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  2. Brian wrote:
    I found Vietnamese coffee brutal when I went there in January. I tried some my first afternoon, and swore to avoid it thereafter. My girlfriend and I tried all different kinds of drinks at the cafes: she kept getting really good stuff, but I kept getting cups of that coffee.

    One of my rituals when I'm back in OC is going with my best friend and his wife (whose parents are from Vietnam) to get dim sum at either Furiwa or Dragon Palace (?) in Little Saigon. After loading up on pork shumai, we wobble over to a bakery next door to get that Vietnamese coffee.

    I like the weird after taste and the grittiness of it. It gives me a kick that lasts all day. In some ways it reminds me of the formula for instant coffee that was available in vending machines and at tabang back when I was younger (like when I was a teen), though there is no connection there, except that Koreans did naeng•k'ŏ•p'i (ice coffee), like Southeast Asians, long before it ever caught on in the US.

    I ordered "ice coffee" once at an OC restaurant that didn't have it on the menu and whose staff had never heard of it (circa 1995?) and they took regular coffee and dumped ice in it, resulting in lukewarm diluted coffee. Blech.

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  3. Brian wrote:
    Attitudes like the writer are what make me find places like Korea more foreigner-friendly than the glorious "melting pot" I call home.

    Yeah, I could see someone thinking like that. I get pegged as an apologist for Korea by the Korea bashers, when all I'm doing is providing perspective that first-time-in-their-lives minorities might not have.

    I don't know if I see the guy in OC as being a sign that Korea is more foreigner-friendly (though you may possibly be right, depending on the area), but I do know he's a sign that the xenophobia that Westerners complain about in Korea is much more universal than many realize.

    I don't know how I feel about regulations on the language of signage, though.

    It's actually a big issue of pride and place for many Asian communities, at least in California. "Why should we bend to the majority that often treats us badly?" is one line of thought. On the other side is the group that thinks a little compromise and accommodation is a good way to build bridges and reduce the potential for tension. Frankly, I'm with that group, much to the chagrin of some activist friends and family.

    It's interesting to note, however, that the issue among non-Asians comes up (or at least seems to come up) more often with languages that don't employ a Roman alphabet. Thus, there are fewer complaints about signage in Tagalog or even Vietnamese than Korean, Chinese, Thai, etc.

    What strikes me about Korea is that Koreans themselves are using a foreign language (English) so prominently on signs and products, at the expense of comprehension. Matter of fact it's a status symbol, isn't it?

    Part of it is status symbol. But a lot of it is that English (or in some cases Romanized Japanese words) allow the proprietor to escape Korean rigidity and colloquialness. English opens up whole new words of potential names, including invented things. Newly invented Korean-based words run a greater risk of being rejected as silly, whereas the same in English can be thought of as hip. Like the guy who first started adding "izzle" to the middizzle or endizzle of every wordizzle.

    I can't believe I just did that.

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  4. Brian wrote:
    I still think it'd be cool to walk into a Korean restaurant back home and order in Korean, and even chat up the workers there. But with my luck they'd all be Japanese or Vietnamese anyway.

    Where is back home? In Orange County (and most of California, I guess), you probably wouldn't get much of a look. My friends and family of varying degrees of Asian-lookingness go into Korean restaurants and order and usually don't get a second glance. When I go into Korean restaurants I usually start to order in English and will only switch to Korean if it's clear that the wait staff didn't understand me. That's usually greeted with relief, as there seem to be a new wave of very recent immigrants where we live.

    Here in Honolulu, I will just talk in whatever language the staff first uses with me, although I might tend toward Korean as the meal drags on. If I'm with non-Koreans, I'll discreetly ask the wait staff in Korean what things at their restaurant tend to be preferred by customers less familiar with Korean food.

    Oh, and if your hometown is anything like OC, it's more likely that the staff and/or owners at the Vietnamese or Japanese restaurant are Korean than for the staff at a Korean restaurant being Vietnamese or Japanese. In fact, the "Pho" restaurant in the picture above is a Korean-owned "Vietnamese noodle" shop.

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  5. Shorter Dave Crow:

    Hey, you ethnics! Get out off my lawn!

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  6. Ha ha! I was in class when I read that and I almost lost it.

    If I had cojones the size of beach balls, I would make that into a bumper sticker (an ironic/sarcastic one along the lines of "Diversity, Shmiversity
    ") and put it on the back of my car. Or maybe a t-shirt with a curmudgeonly old coot standing there with a garden hose, shaking his fist.

    I feel bad for this Dave Crow, who may see all this nasty stuff we write about him if he ever Googles himself. If he's over sixty or something, I can be a bit forgiving or at least more understanding, much as I am with the older ajŏshi in Korea who say/do some stupid things out of ignorance or conservative values from yesteryear that were drilled into them. After all, my own mother occasionally refers to Negroes, though she doesn't mind living next to them.

    On the other hand, if Dave Crow is someone forty-something or younger, then this view is quite intolerable.

    I don't think this double-standard is so unusual. I remember one of my UCI professors (a Chinese-American) tell of being called a "Chinaman" when he was in the Midwest somewhere back in the 1970s or 1980s. My prof said he let it go because it was some old guy, probably born around the turn of the century, and he didn't seem to mean it in a bad way.

    But, said my professor, if the guy had been my prof's age (thirties or forties back then), he probably would have decked him.

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  7. This is an issue up in NorCal as well. IIRC San Jose is in the middle of a fight over naming a "Little Saigon" district. San Jose prides itself on its blandness, so the name was dumbed-down to something like "Vietnamese Business District", and the hardcore Vietnamese refugees went nuts. I don't really understand why the name was changed.

    Santa Clara also rejected naming its Koreatown "Koreatown". Again I can find no reason. This is probably the largest Koreatown in CA outside of LA.

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  8. KWillets wrote:
    This is an issue up in NorCal as well. IIRC San Jose is in the middle of a fight over naming a "Little Saigon" district.

    Ha ha... Are you sure it's not because of something like the "Surf City USA" lawsuit between Huntington Beach (in Southern California) and a Santa Cruz shop (in Northern California) over who had the rights to the moniker?

    Maybe San Jose is afraid of being sued by Westminster! ;)

    San Jose prides itself on its blandness, so the name was dumbed-down to something like "Vietnamese Business District", and the hardcore Vietnamese refugees went nuts. I don't really understand why the name was changed.

    If the name "Little Saigon" had been established but the city tried to force the change, I'd be upset, too. Heck, I'm upset that the Kim Daejung government changed the Romanization system on us.

    Santa Clara also rejected naming its Koreatown "Koreatown". Again I can find no reason. This is probably the largest Koreatown in CA outside of LA.

    Sadly, I can conjecture a reason in both cases: city leaders don't want their city associated with what they consider a lower-class or even third-world country.

    "Saigon" not only fails to elicit positive associations for many Americans, but it underscores some very bad history for a lot of people. Voluntarily associating ones city with that might seem like a bad thing to the non-Asian (or at least non-Vietnamese) public.

    "Korea" is not much better, of course. Samsung? LG? Hyundai? Aren't those made in Japan?

    Of course, I'm not endorsing this view, just explaining it. And I could be way off. Maybe they don't want to set a precedent where every little ethnic community gets recognition, not matter how small. Maybe some people legitimately fear a kind of Balkanization.

    But really, I can't help but think it's a bit of Dave Crowism going on up there.

    San Jose is a huge city... they can handle designating some ethnic enclaves without altering their brand name too much. Westminster and Santa Clara, though, are more strongly affected by the labels. In Orange County, Westminster is synonymous with Little Saigon and Garden Grove is synonymous with Koreatown.

    Yeah, they may not like it, but guess what? Those Korean businesses are thriving and bringing in loads of tax money.

    In fact, when people (and let's be fair, it's far and away mostly White people) complain about "Koreans taking over the shopping center," they should take a good long look at their own Dave Crow prejudices and then take a look at what was in such-and-such shopping center before it was "taken over." In most cases what was there was a bunch of failing businesses (or else how were they bought out?).

    I can think of one shopping center in an affluent Korean area that became a "Korean shopping center" over the course of about five years. One by one, Korean businesses went in and set up shop in the places where other people were going out of business. An arts supply shop became a noodle restaurant. A no-name drug store became a large Korean supermarket. A district bank became a Korea-affiliated bank, etc.

    When the Korean stores reached critical mass, they pooled money together and added a second level to part of the shopping center, expanding it by five businesses. In contrast, when it was not "Korean," the shopping center had around 20% vacancy.

    This shopping center has revitalized the area, and plenty of non-Koreans go there. It has increased the tax base and added to the eating and shopping opportunities of the local neighborhood.

    But some people will look at that and just think "This isn't America anymore," or "the Koreans are taking over."

    Sheesh.

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  9. Someday, I'll learn how to write short responses.

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  10. Hmm, I'm pretty sure I left a comment here yesterday. Anyway, the comment I thought I made was about non-Koreans working in Korean restaurants. I mentioned it b/c about two years ago there was an article in the Chosun Ilbo lamenting that Korean restaurants overseas (New York, I think) weren't being owned and operated by Koreans; even worse, the food was being fused with other Asian foods, or being CONfused with other dishes.

    In the case of my (half-Korean) ex and her sister and friend, they had to work in a family member's Japanese restaurant even though they weren't Japanese (or Korean). It was popular among Koreans in the area b/c it was owned by a Korean, but walking in there trying to order in Japanese or Korean wouldn't have worked any more than walking in to Lotteria and ordering french fries in English. (Okay, I"ll grant it works sometimes, but you get the point.)

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  11. Ah, and "back home" is Pittsburgh, though I guess what holds true there is true in many places in the US w/o many ethnic Asian neighborhoods. Lots of German, Austrian, Polish, Italian immigrants, but most of the Asians here didn't come until they decided to go to university here.

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  12. I wonder if Mr Crow or anyone else who complains would have a problem with immigrant neighborhoods such as "Little Italy". Just a thought.

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  13. sarkis wrote:
    I wonder if Mr Crow or anyone else who complains would have a problem with immigrant neighborhoods such as "Little Italy". Just a thought.

    Maybe, but I don't think there's enough "data" to tell from that comment. Rather than being a racist against non-Whites, Mr Crow may simply be someone who feels threatened hearing/seeing languages other than English in his 'hood, hence the feeling of being a stranger in one's own home.

    Mr Hood may have been one of those people who, at the turn of the last century, looked at all the southern and eastern Europeans flocking to America's big cities and thought it was the end of the world.

    Of course, that would merely make him xenophobic.

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  14. One of the underlying themes of this post is that not just a few Americans talk/think/behave much like the worst of the xenophobic folks found in Korea.

    That and a concurrent discussion at the Marmot's Hole about the "find a hot Asian girl" ad that's frequently up has reminded me of this post from June 2006, which was sparked by a V-Dare post bemoaning interracial depictions in network TV:

    The point was not just to hurl a pie in the face of morals and good taste but also of white racial and cultural identity. The message of the ad was that white women are eager to have sex with black men, that they should be eager, and that black men should take them up on it.

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  15. As far as the "Little Italy" point, 100+ years ago the concerns were indeed over whether Italian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants could ever be real Americans. Now we know the answer, but that doesn't stop anyone from worrying over whether Mexicans or Muslims can do the same.

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