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Korean-Americans Focus More on Adopted Home

Mira Pak is concerned about the Korean economic crisis, but the Korea-born, Santa Monica, Calif., English teacher says the daily ebb and flow of events in South Korea are not a defining part of her life.

Ms. Pak says she moves comfortably in both Korean and American cultural settings, but that "for the most part, I have to do my daily living and that has nothing to do with whether I'm Korean or American or anything else."

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In many ways, Pak embodies a growing trend among Korean-Americans: The younger generation is losing touch with the ancestral homeland. It's a common story among American immigrant communities, but one that has been brought into particularly sharp focus recently by Korean-Americans' varying levels of interest and involvement in the current economic crisis and the recent presidential election in South Korea. The discrepancy helps to illumine one of America's youngest and most dynamic minorities as it seeks to weave itself further into the national fabric.

"The Korean-American community was interested in the election and deeply involved in it," says Chae-Jin Lee, a professor at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California. "There was intense interest by the first generation, much less by the '1.5' [a term for the generation born in Korea but reared and educated in the US], and still much less by the second generation."

If Korean affairs seem to preoccupy the younger generations less and less, say Korean Americans, that simply reflects their increasing mainstreaming in American society as many branch out, entering the professions and businesses with less ethnically focused customer bases.

ESTIMATES put the Korean-American community at as many as 1 million to 2 million people, despite a drop-off in Korean immigration from its high point during the 1970s and '80s. Experts say that between 250,000 and 750,000 live in southern California alone, with sizable Korean populations also living in New York, Chicago, and other large urban centers.

Yet there was almost no Korean immigration to speak of until legal reforms in 1965 opened the gates. The timing was fortunate. Koreans not only arrived during the height of the civil rights movement, but they also were from a country closely tied to American strategic interests. For these reasons, experts say they were largely spared the immigrant-bashing visited on earlier Chinese and Japanese newcomers.

"I believe that a large number of first-generation Koreans feel that American society has been good to them," says Professor Lee. "Many of them came to the United States to seek new opportunities, and many found new opportunities."

Finding opportunity has always been a key part of Koreans' efforts to integrate into American culture. Those who immigrated after 1965 were generally well-educated and familiar to some degree with Western institutions - risk-takers who often bought small businesses with capital raised from fellow immigrants in groups based on Korean high school affiliation.

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"Obviously, with this small capital you cannot afford to buy a liquor store in Beverly Hills," says Youngbin Kim, director of the Korean American Family Center in Los Angeles. "You can only afford a small store in Watts."

But here in Watts and South Central Los Angeles the immigrants' tight focus on their economic goals, combined with a tradition of doing business with little personal interaction with customers, enraged African-American residents by what they perceived as lack of respect and community involvement by Koreans taking profits out of their struggling neighborhoods.

These tensions boiled over with tragic consequences during the 1992 riots spurred by the Rodney King trial, when "Korean businesses were identified and burned to the ground," says Celes King III, state chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality.

Subsequent efforts on both sides have helped ease tensions. In fact, the African-American community is now supporting the protest against the arrest in Seoul of a Los Angeles-based Korean-American radio reporter on charges that he had defamed a Korean corporation.

Signs like these are vital to progress, Mr. King says. "If [our] country is going to survive at all, it has to survive on the ability of groups being able to interact."

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