Annandale’s Korean community: a unique cultural enclave in suburban Virginia
| By Mark Sakamoto |
Kay Kim tidies a rack of muted fall-colored cardigans, turning a few hangers to face in the proper direction. The glass door jingles as it swings open, and Kim pauses to politely greet a customer, a man looking to buy a scarf for his wife. She directs him to the right wall, where rows of neatly folded scarves lie on three wooden shelves, before returning to tending to her store.
“I don’t think I could run a business like this anywhere else,” said Kim, the impeccably dressed proprietor of CeCi Total Fashion in Annandale, Va. “The Korean community here is just so strong. So many people come to this store through personal connections, from hearing about it from members of our church, that kind of recommendation.”
This simple form of grassroots marketing based on word-of-mouth has led to the rapid expansion of Korean businesses and organizations in Annandale. Interestingly, the Korean community seems to have resisted joining existing structures like the local chamber of commerce, preferring instead to advertise in publications such as local Korean newspapers or the Giant Directory of Korean-owned businesses in the region.
A mid-Atlantic spin on the Koreatowns found in Los Angeles and New York City, Annandale represents a distinctly new kind of immigrant enclave: a self-sufficient, distinctly suburban, place of cultural exchange and transition.
CeCi draws an almost exclusively Korean clientele, perhaps because of the signs in the windows, which advertise the store’s wares and current sales in Hangul. Many of the patrons are delighted to find clothes that fit well off-the-rack, according to Kay, who sources the vast majority of the attire she sells directly from suppliers in Seoul. This adds considerably to the price tags, but CeCi patrons are happy to pay the premium.
“They know that they are paying for quality,” Kim said. “And they feel good shopping at a small store. Koreans go to H Mart because it is convenient, and they can get kimchi and all kinds of food. But they come here because they like that it is a local Korean business and they can support the community this way.”
“Yes, it’s a source of pride for us – that our community has managed to do all this on our own.” Kim said. “And maybe just a little bit of Korean stubbornness, too.”
At Bandi Books, a familiy faces unique challenges
At Bandi Books, print media is far from going out of fashion, even in the golden age of e-readers. The bookstore, located in its own small, remarkably square concrete building on Markham Street off Little River Turnpike, has been selling books and a variety of Korean media in Annandale for nearly 15 years.
“Bandi Books, it is in three U.S. states, as well as Korea,” said Young-hee Lee, mother of Dong-hyun Lee, who helps run the bookstore, a branch of OPES Inc. “It is very satisfying, that even in America, Koreans can visit neighborhood bookstores as they do back home.”
The Seoul-based franchise has locations across Seoul, and three stores here in the United States in Los Angeles, New York and Annandale. Additionally, all of the American locations offer to ship any books not stocked stateside from their South Korean locations, for a nominal fee.
“It is a good thing for Koreans to read Korean books, even in America,” said Lee, the 73-year-old matriarch of the Lee family. “Of course, children will learn English in school, and even halmeoni – grandmother like me – must know some to live here.”
Although Annandale’s Bandi Books opened in 1996, Lee’s American experience began many years ago. In 1985, Lee and her husband moved to briefly to the Washington, D.C., area from Suwon, a large city in Gyeonggi-do, the province of Korea that surrounds the capital city, Seoul. Her husband held a temporary position at the Korean consulate, and although the two returned to Korea less than three years later, Lee was determined to return.
“There were not many Korean businesses, or Korean people,” Lee said. “But America, in Korea, we call miguk – this stands for beautiful country. It is where many Koreans want to go, to make their own path.”
In 1995, a mere two years before South Korea was swept into the disastrous Asian financial crisis, Lee got her wish. Although she had been widowed early due to a tragic car accident, she and her only son, Dong-hyun, had managed to acquire enough money through savings and loans to finance a secure move to the U.S.
Better yet, Dong-hyun’s businesses contacts had word that a Korean bookstore was set to open in Annandale, the first of its kind. He was offered a role in the franchise on the condition that he fund a portion of the startup costs out-of-pocket.
The rest, clearly, is history. On a normal weekday, Bandi Books attracts a steady stream of customers, about eight or nine at any given time. Customers, mostly middle-aged and seniors, browse stacks of well-organized books, DVDs and CDs.
Lee’s son, Dong-hyun, handles inventory and accounting along with his wife. Lee’s American-born granddaughter Mi-young runs the register and is the sole full-time floor employee. As for Lee, she refers to herself as retired, but can be found in the store almost every day, helping patrons find books or just making conversation with regular customers, many of whom she knows by name. She has found over the years that running a bookstore involves much more than stocking books.
“There are many bookstores in Korea, really on every street,” Lee said. “Koreans will go and buy a book to read at cafés, or give as gift. But here in America, people come here and say, ‘I need to learn English for my job.’ Or they will say they don’t remember how to speak Korean, and want their children to learn how to speak.”
These challenges encapsulate the role played by Korean business owners and operators across Annandale, and perhaps even across America. Bookstores and other “familiar” institutions can serve as cultural transition points for new immigrants, as well as Korean-Americans looking to reconnect with their family roots. For Lee, it is a desire she understands well.
“When we were in America for the first time, many things were new and unfamiliar,” Lee said. “Even after many years, I still feel confused sometimes about America. My son, he has become an American citizen now. But he will always be Korean.”
Annandale’s Korean business community – looking in and out
Annandale’s Korean community is many things. To an outsider looking in, it may seem insular, alien, or even inexorable. Why would a group of immigrants willingly move to a new country only to recreate so many aspects of their home country? Along a brief stretch of Annandale’s Little River Turnpike, one can find not only Korean restaurants and grocery stores, but also Korean travel agencies, violin dealers, and Internet cafés.
For many other immigrant groups, coming to the U.S. historically meant some level of assimilation, some loss of ethnic culture into the proverbial “melting pot.” This often reflected in food – for example, in how American Chinese cuisine barely resembles much of the food served in restaurants in China, having adapted itself to suit Western palates.
In Annandale, however, incredibly authentic Korean restaurants are the norm at neighborhood favorites like Yechon and Honey Pig. On top of that, restaurants like Choon Hwa Won serve Korean-style Chinese food only, and are also very popular among the Korean community. Jjajangmyeon, a uniquely Korean take on the Chinese noodle dish zhajiangmien, adds a sweet hint of caramel to the original savory black bean sauce, and remains a perennial comfort food favorite much like spaghetti here in the West. Not only are Korean immigrants in Annandale bringing authentic, unchanged Korean cuisine to the United States, in certain cases they also importing specifically Korean takes on other ethnic foods.
And it doesn’t stop there. In other East Coast cities with large Asian populations, popular ethnic businesses often include only restaurants and grocery stores. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20.6 percent of Rockville, Md.’s population identifies as Asian alone, and 34.5 percent of the population is foreign-born. And yet, this high concentration of Asian immigrants has resulted primarily only in a cluster of restaurants and supermarkets near Rockville Town Center.
In Annandale, one figure is similar – 24.6 percent identify as Asian only. Yet, a staggering 26.4 percent of business firms are Asian-owned, according to census data. This means that families may own and run multiple businesses, and Koreans and other Asians that live elsewhere commute to their businesses in Annandale.
This is evident simply by walking or driving down Annandale’s main drag. At certain points, almost every sign is written in Korean, and even incredibly niché stores and establishments draw steady business.
From Korean fashion boutiques, college-prep cram schools, traditional medicine apothecaries, and even pool halls only equipped for a certain variant of pocketless sagu (four ball) play, business owners seem determined to import as much of Korean culture into Annandale as possible.
Some, like longtime resident Bruce Griffiths, appreciate the change. “It’s really part of the spice that makes life in suburbs bearable,” said Griffiths, who works as part-time as chiropractor in Annandale. “I think it’s great that their community is growing so fast. I don’t see how people can complain about them – they’ve got the capital to start their own businesses and they’re obviously successful if they’re still around. It’s not like they don’t pay taxes.”
The Korean immigrant community has succeeded in establishing a large Koreatown in Annandale, one that is “self-sustaining” in a very real sense. What this means is that it is not as dependent on tourism or otherwise non-Korean patronage for its continued existence, as other ethnic Chinatowns, Koreatowns, or Japantowns may be.
Accordingly, it is entirely possible for new immigrants to get jobs at any one of Annandale’s many Korean businesses, interact with an almost exclusively Korean clientele at that job, patronize other Korean businesses only, and even raise children in a very culturally Korean way.
This is a different reality than many other immigrant groups have historically faced. There have always been cultural immigrant “enclaves,” but Annandale seems to be a special case – an organically grown “bubble” of Korean culture transplanted into suburban Virginia.
Forty-one percent of Annandale residents are foreign-born, reveals census data from 2007 to 2011. But although immigrants will continue to take up root in Annandale in the years to come, the more telling phenomenon may be the fate and cultural rootedness of the second and third generations of Korean-Americans. Attorney Sang-hoon Kim is one of them.
For Annandale lawyer, Korean community comes first
Just off the Beltway, at the law offices of Moon, Park & Associates, a nearly all-Korean cadre of attorneys and paralegals works tirelessly for the Washington metropolitan area’s Korean community. The general practice law firm handles a wide array of legal cases, but the vast majority of them involve business/corporate law, immigration law, and real estate law.
“The law here in America can be incredibly difficult to understand, especially for new immigrants that are unfamiliar with English, much less the legal system,” said Sang-hoon Kim, a junior associate attorney at the practice. “A lot of the work that we do involves simply consulting or guiding clients through this system, not litigation.”
Kim, a second-generation Korean-American, was born and raised in Brooklyn, and received his law degree from the New York University School of Law. After spending two years doing paralegal duties for a small firm in Queens, Kim found himself wanting to do more meaningful work.
“It sounds cliché, but I wanted to do more than review business contracts and resolve tenant disputes for the rest of my life,” Kim said. “It was a career move and a personal decision to move down to Virginia. I knew that there was a large Korean community there, but I had always felt disconnected from the ‘immigrant experience’ in New York. I grew up with friends from all different races and ethnic backgrounds.”
At Moon, Park & Associates, Kim found himself dealing with not only new immigrants and visa and green card issues, but also with those immigrants who wanted to establish businesses. Although his skills and experience from his prior firm were still relevant, he had to quickly adjust to a different environment.
“When I interacted with clients back in New York, I was mister or sir, and my relationships were very cordial and limited,” said Kim, who turns 31 this year. “Now, when I walk into the dry cleaners or a restaurant I’m a regular at, its ‘Lawyer Kim!’”
It was difficult to get used to, Kim said, “until I realized that professionalism doesn’t mean I can’t be friendly. I realized that I didn’t have to distance myself from the community to do my job.”
For new immigrants as well as many Korean-Americans who have been here for generations, hiring a Korean law firm is a no-brainer. Traditions like gyae – an informal communal Korean money lending system that allows for “crowdfunding” of everything from home down payments to new cars to business startup costs – may be entirely unfamiliar to even the most educated business lawyers. Lawyers with Korean backgrounds thus act as both legal and cultural brokers for clients facing a multitude of issues.
“I came here because I wanted to help the Korean community,” Kim said. “I had an outsider mindset of, I can use my knowledge to help them. But in my three years here I’ve become a part of the community. There’s a real sense of belonging.”
All Korean businesses are welcome to become members of the Annandale Chamber of Commerce. All they need do is apply at http://www.annandalechamber.com.
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