Demystifying Korean Culture for the Masses

One of Koreatown's popular 24-hour restaurants lights up the city at midnight. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

In 21st century America, Korean culture is emerging into the mainstream: Many Americans watch televisions or talk on cellphones made by Samsung. K-Pop singing group Girls' Generation performs on "The Late Show with David Letterman." L.A. Clippers star Blake Griffin sells Kia automobiles -- by doing a slam dunk over one. You can easily find bulgogi (Well, "Bool Kogi" at least) at your nearest Trader Joe's. In six years, the world will look to the city of Peyongchang as it hosts the 2018 Winter Olympics. And this just in: The hottest Internet meme du jour is a music video that has people dancing "Gangnam Style."

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Yet at the same time, Korean culture remains a mystery to most Americans. Business signs written in hangul are indecipherable, much less pronounceable, to most non-Koreans. Most westerners' Korean vocabularies rarely go beyond "annyong haseyo." And for any first-timers eating at a Korean BBQ restaurant, the puzzled look on their faces when presented with the "appetizers" they did not order is a fairly common one.

Unless you grew up with Koreans, traveled to South Korea, or claim a person of Korean heritage as a significant other or close friend, there aren't many opportunities to learn about Korean (and Korean American, as well) culture. The book "Korean Culture For Dummies" hasn't been written yet, so where are the cultural brokers to help people understand?

There are a few examples out there. Los Angeles, boasting the largest number of Koreans (Over 108,000) outside of the Land of the Morning Calm is at the forefront of Korean cultural accessibility in the U.S., and its Koreatown district is the obvious gateway. A Koreatown Twitter account tweets frequently on Korean vocabulary lessons, K-Pop artists, jokes about ajuma (a certain middle-aged Korean female stereotype) drivers, as well as local business endorsements, and live reports on street crimes in the community.

Not as irreverent are various individuals who have become ambassadors of Korean culture, such as writer and food blogger Namju Cho, who leads foodie tours of K-Town for community arts organization L.A. Commons as a docent in their "Trekking L.A." series of neighborhood excursions (Full disclosure: This writer also leads L.A. Commons food and history tours, covering East Hollywood).

Cho, who has been writing her NJ Eats blog since 2007, posts about all kinds of cuisines and restaurants. But her most prolific subject is Korean food.

"My friends and family have always asked me for restaurant recommendations, and it dawned on me that I could have one centralized place for all my reviews for their reference," she said.

For Cho's upcoming tours on September 15 and 22, she plans to lead up to 15 guests each day on a food tour of 6th Street, sampling lesser-known examples of the Korean food spectrum from Southeastern Korean cuisine to patbingsu (shaved ice desserts) to nengmeyun (cold noodle dishes).

"There's a curiosity to learn about Korean food beyond just galbi, kimchi, and bibimbap," said Cho.

She goes on to reveal that the vastness of Korean food surprises even herself, especially after discovering new dishes whenever she visits Korea.

"I love sharing things about Korean food that non-Koreans simply don't know about because it isn't easily accessible," she added.

Cho described popular misconceptions about Korean culture: "Very little is known about Korean culture other than some food items, K-Pop, and K-Dramas to begin with, I think. But if I had to pick the biggest misperception, it would be that Korean culture is just like Japanese or Chinese culture. I think people find them hard to distinguish. While there are similarities, our language, food and traditions are obviously all very different," she said.

"Another unintentionally comical one is when people ask me whether I'm from North or South Korea," she continued. "If they knew anything about our contemporary history of division and war, they would know that it'd be impossible for someone my age to be from North Korea unless I had defected -- and that would make me a pretty big deal! But the funny part is when someone asks that question as if to imply, 'See how knowledgeable I am about your peeps.'"

Korean hangul characters fill up a mini-mall sign along Olympic Boulevard in L.A.'s Koreatown. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Like many Americans from ethnic diasporas, navigating between their two cultures can be a responsibility, a duty, an art form, and for some, perhaps a distraction. But Cho sees it as a joy.

"I like the idea of serving as a bridge between Korean and non-Korean cultures because I have the multi-cultural background where I speak both Korean and English fluently and have an understanding of each perspective," she said.

As evidenced every day in eateries across multicultural Southern California, to paraphrase the old adage, the way to a person's mind is through their stomach. We need more cultural brokers like Cho to provide the road map.

About the Author

Elson Trinidad is the Managing Editor of KCET's 50th Anniversary website and writes the "Transpacific Routes" and "Concrete and Chaparral" columns on KCET's blogs.
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