This post is about 로스앤젤레스 코리아타운 (Los Angeles Koreatown). Technically, LA is east of Korea, but Koreans have flocked here with the same “go west” California dream that has brought dissatisfied folk for more than a century (think of characters in John Steinbeck novels). Today LA is the capital of the third Korea, West Korea. Almost 200,000 Koreans live here. Not far from famous LA locales like Beverly Hills and Hollywood, Korea Town is the first stopping point for many new Korean immigrants to America. Over time, many subsequently migrate to Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, or at least Orange County.
Walk through the streets of Koreatown LA, and you might actually think that you are in a Korean area of Mexico City. Amongst the pedestrians, I saw more people who appeared to be of an Hispanic background than Korean. I love the signs which show the Korean word, and underneath the Spanish, without any English in sight.
Perhaps, Koreans in America are drawn to L.A. because it is the nearest place in North America to Korea, or so wrote Choe In-Ho in the novella Deep Blue Night.The Koreans I have known in L.A. seem to like the idea of the Pacific Ocean, and gazing out, no doubt imagining Korea on the other side. We visited the Redondo Beach pier and I saw multiple Korean restaurants and lots of Koreans there, as well as pelicans and seagulls.
Koreatown L.A. does its best to offer what Korea can, with the added bonus of sunny weather. For a lot of North Americans, L.A.’s freeways are a traffic nightmare, but after living in Seoul for a number of years I actually think L.A.’s traffic is comparatively light.
In fact, the Koreans I know here really take to the L.A. automotive lifestyle, only walking from parking space to store.
In terms of signs, many are familiar. There are meat restaurants (고기집), norebangs (노래방), jimjilbangs (찜질방), PC bangs (PC 방), and tabangs (다방).
The name Kim dominates here. There is Kim’s Supermarket, Kim’s Transmissions, and Kim’s Tires. Out of the several thousand photos I have taken of signs in Korea, I do not recall any establishments named Kim.
If you find yourself in a Korea Town eatery, a 10-15% tip is standard, unlike tip-free Korea. You may also want to try the L.A. Galbi, a short rib beef dish, not commonly found in Korea.
Nearly anything that can be bought in a Korean supermarket can be bought for a comparable price. There are boxes of Korean apples, grapes, and other fruit, the whole range of Korean canned tuna products, and all kinds of Korean alcohol. There are even giant billboards for various soju companies and Hite Beer, along with billboards for whiskey (I have read that Korea is the biggest importer of whiskey amongst Asian countries).
While munching on a tasty Korean apple, you’ll definitely want to kick back on the sofa with some Korean dramas or TV. While a Korean channel is available, there are several video stores which in unbelievably are stocked with shelves of white-label home-dubbed VHS tapes of all the latest and greatest Korean TV.
With its old mostly 2-story buildings and diverse ethnic groups, Koreatown LA reminds me a little of Seoul’s Itaewon (이태원) neighborhood, an area near a U.S. military base frequented mostly by non-Koreans. The Gangnam (강남) area of Seoul is infinitely more shiny, with new and tall glass skyscrapers. I have also heard it said that K-Town L.A. looks like Seoul from the 1980s.
If you lose your sense of where you are, you’ll know your in L.A. and not Korea by the graffiti, the random mattresses on the sidewalks, and the palm trees.