- Caught in the Middle: Korean Communities in New York and Los Angeles, and: The Korean American Dream: Immigrants and Small Business in New York City, and: On My Own: Korean Businesses and Race Relations in America
Celebrated as immigrant entrepreneurs or vilified as racist exploiters, the national debate on the 1992 Los Angeles riots queried the role of Korean American merchants. Why were so many of them self-employed? Why did some African Americans in Los Angeles target them? Although the spotlight of the mass media has long faded, scholars of Korean America have persisted in illuminating these and other questions about Korean Americans, their businesses, and their inter-ethnic relations.
In-Jin Yoon’s book is the broadest in scope among the three books under review. Systematically researched and rigorously analyzed, On My Own—the title refers to both the independence and the isolation of Korean American immigrants—opens with a superb chapter on Korean immigration to the U.S. Wielding a variety of data sources on Korean American businesses in Chicago and Los Angeles, Yoon argues that: “class, family, and ethnicity are the foundations of Korean immigrant entrepreneurship.” (p. 169) In contrast to other ethnic groups, Korean Americans tend to be better educated, rely on modern ethnic institutions (such as business associations and churches) rather than traditional [End Page 193] social relations (such as kinship), benefit from South Korean-U.S. economic ties, and operate in both ethnic and non-ethnic markets.
Pyong Gap Min contributes an impressive tour d’horizon of Korean American businesses and business associations in New York and Los Angeles. Ranging from grocery and liquor stores to dry cleaning and garment manufacturing, he categorizes Korean American business owners as a “middleman” minority. An excellent by-product of his theoretical perspective is a very illuminating chapter on suppliers, landlords, and government agencies with whom Korean Americans must deal. Rather than the usual attention to low-income, minority customers, Min alerts us to consider predominantly white corporations and capitalists. In general, Caught in the Middle is very informative about Korean American communities in Los Angeles and New York.
Min’s scrupulously researched and trenchantly argued book suffers, however, from his excessive adherence to the middleman minority perspective. Although he succeeds in achieving his objective—“to show how Korean immigrants’ middleman economic role has enhanced their ethnic solidarity” (p. 4)—the concept unduly leads him, for example, to elide some of the factors that Yoon discusses in accounting for Korean American businesses.
Kyeyoung Park accentuates choice, rather than constraint, in making sense of Korean American entrepreneurship. Her principal theme is the ideology of anjông (establishment, stability, security) and how Korean immigrants articulate it to realize their American dream. The search for security, according to Park, results in the preponderant preference for small business activities, which “are a symbol, perhaps the key symbol of Korean American identity and success.” (p. 206) Given that in South Korea, small business is neither a preferred path for success nor a particularly stable pursuit, Park’s stress on anjông seems misplaced. For many, the Korean American dream is about getting into prestigious universities and getting professional jobs. Furthermore, Min and Yoon are right to stress constraints, such as linguistic, that propel Korean Americans to seek small business ownership over blue-collar employment.
What is of particular value in The Korean American Dream is, however, the perceptive analysis of Korean immigrant family and gender relations. The combined effect of the egalitarian gender ideology in the U.S. plus immigrant women’s central role in business transforms traditional patriarchal gender relations among Korean immigrant families. Here Park uses oral history and ethnographic data to good effect, and her attention to the immigrants’ South Korean background and to the importance of Christianity is most welcome...