World-renowned chef, author and Emmy winning television personality Anthony Bourdain visits Los Angeles' Koreatown in the next episode of "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," airing Sunday, April 21, at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the show on Twitter and Facebook. This story ran in 2011, and we're sharing it again as Bourdain explores the role of food in the Korean community.
Sitting over a steaming bowl of bibimbap, Helen Kim Ho recalled her father's cardinal rule when it came to food.
"He didn't feel like he'd had a good meal unless it made him sweat," Ho said as she held a chunk of the mixed rice between chopsticks over her bowl and waited for it to cool.
Piping hot dishes with an extra spicy kick are staples of Korean cuisine that transport the first-generation Korean American to her parents' kitchen. While her heart may be linked to the traditions of her family, her palate has been tempered by nearly a lifetime in the United States.
"I love Korean food but I feel just as much at home with American food," said Ho, whose family moved to the United States when she was three.
Travis Kim, a used car dealer who moved to the United States as a college student 20 years ago, said he used to be more tolerant of the high temperature of Korean cuisine. Nowadays, he needs a serving of ice to back up a bowl of soup or cup of barley tea.
"I guess my tastes have adjusted after living here so long," he said.
As president of the Korean-American Chamber of Commerce, Kim has a unique perspective on food's ability to bridge generational and cultural divides. It lets immigrants share a piece of their homeland with their children as well as non-Koreans, he explained.
As "New Koreatown" continues to grow within the majority white Gwinnett County, Korean outreach organizations have seen their role expand, Kim said. It's no longer enough for the Chamber or the Korean-American Association of Greater Atlanta to provide English classes, legal consultation or voter registration services. The bigger focus is bridging the gap between the Korean-American community and mainstream America.
There is reluctance among older Korean-Americans, who see their weak English proficiency as a barrier to participation in mainstream American civic life, claims Baik Kyu Kim, a supermarket owner and president of the Georgia Korean Grocers Association. They look to the next generation to represent them.
"They came here and they can't speak English, that's why they're afraid to get into the mainstream. They say to the younger generation, we brought you here, we support you, give you a good education, now it's your turn to lead, become involved in politics."
Ho is trying to do her part as executive director of the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, which is currently focusing its efforts on preventing Georgia's new immigration law from taking effect.
A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction last month temporarily blocking key provisions of HB 87, which aims to crack down on illegal immigration, while allowing other parts of the law to move forward.
The blocked provisions allow police to inquire about immigration status when questioning suspects in certain criminal investigations. They also would punish people who, during the commission of a crime, knowingly transport or harbor illegal immigrants. A part of the law that took effect July 1 is a provision that workers convicted of using fake identification to get jobs could be sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined $250,000.
Policies like HB 87 create a climate of distrust toward the immigrant community that complicates efforts to bridge the gap, Ho believes.
"We still have a long way to go to achieve the kind of cultural sensitivity that would help us understand each other better and appreciate our differences. Laws like these don't encourage cultural sensitivity, they create fear and suspicion," said Ho, whose group is a plaintiff in a lawsuit to halt HB 87 from taking effect.
She acknowledges that the language barrier is a major sticking point for both sides.
"We try to tell people that it's never too late, but it's hard to convince someone who has been speaking their native language most of their life," she explained. "To learn a language as an adult, it doesn't happen as fast as people want and it's not entirely realistic."
Drawn by the warm climate, affordable cost of living and shared religious values, Koreans began arriving in metro Atlanta in the 1960s. Their numbers have been steadily increasing ever since, building up to a boom after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. According to 2010 Census figures, Gwinnett County's Korean population grew from 9,298 to 22,001 in the last decade, but the Korean-American Association of Greater Atlanta puts the 2010 figure closer to 80,000, based on a complex methodology involving searches of phone books and county records.
The same wary attitude among Korean-Americans toward civic involvement extends to Census participation, especially with the older generation, said Jay Eun, president of the Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta.
Otherwise, Korean-Americans love the South for the same reasons lifelong Southerners do: short winters and Sundays off to spend time with their families. It also makes liquor store ownership especially appealing, he said, in a state where the sale of alcohol is banned on Sunday.
"It's the Southern hospitality. I think that's what makes us want to live here," said Jay Eun, president of the Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta. "Koreans are very family-oriented people - we value family, just as they do here in the South. Also, the Bible Belt - the religious atmosphere of the South - is very appealing. We are a very religious people. That's why we have a lot of churches and every Sunday we get together with our families in celebration."
Their presence in metro Atlanta first became apparent along Buford Highway, a long stretch of cookie cutter strip malls and shopping plazas that has become Atlanta's main destination for ethnic dining. As the size and influence of the Korean-American community grew, they expanded to neighboring Gwinnett County in search of the American dream: lower property taxes, better public schools and tidy subdivisions. They set up businesses and offices in gleaming new cookie cutter strip malls and shopping plazas, often anchored by outsized grocery stores, that bear an uncanny resemblance to most other commercial centers in Georgia except for the signs in Korean.
Businesses such as banks, realtors and loan offices cater specifically to the Korean community, but many non-Koreans patronize the beauty salons, karaoke bars, restaurants and supermarkets, including the "super grocery markets" such as H-Mart and ASSI, in search of bargains on food, karaoke, and spa treatments.
For most non-Koreans, their first introduction to Korean culture is through food. This being the South, that encounter will most likely be Korean BBQ - an introduction that can be somewhat misleading, considering the Korean diet consists largely of fish and vegetables, said Michael Park, vice president of the Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta.
"Meat is for special occasions. Korean BBQ is popular, but something you might only go to once a week, maybe on a Sunday or after church," explained Park, who was born and raised in South Carolina.
Evidence of a more typical Korean dining experience was scattered around the table at Seo-Ra-Bul, in tiny bowls of brightly colored vegetables and condiments known as banchan.
"Non-Koreans get nervous sometimes when they see all the food - they think it will cost a lot but Korean restaurants are very generous with banchan. They refill for free," said Kim, the supermarket owner.
The meal ended just as it began - with a steaming bowl of soup. This one, dwenjang chige, was a fermented soybean soup of tofu made and fish stock, two more staples of Korean cuisine that leave a smooth, sweet flavor in the mouth.
The table grew silent as everyone concentrated on their soup, sipping and blowing, sipping and blowing.
"I could never eat these hot dishes as fast as my father," said Ho.
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