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Livin’ in London

KoreAm Journal, Feature, Story and photographs by David Yi Posted: Jul 19, 2008

Su Jung Pae doesn’t like her weight these days. After a few of her mother’s choice comments, the 23-year-old decided to cut out just about every carbohydrate from her diet, including her favorite dish, jajangmyun.

“My mum is so Korean,” she says. “She tells me every time she sees me that I’m getting fatter.”

So today at her favorite Chinese-Korean restaurant in New Malden, while others in her party happily slurp their noodles heavily saturated in black bean sauce, she apathetically scoops a bland spoonful of sundubu into her mouth, sans the rice.

Just outside, as the sun unabashedly shines its rays onto the world below, a 30-something woman sits on a bench, delicately eating her kimbap while reading The Korea Times. A group of girls scurry out of a PC bang while speaking loudly in Korean about what they saw on the hit MBC TV show “Moo Han Do Jeon.” Housewives carrying heavy bags hurriedly walk home from shopping at Seoul Plaza to begin preparing lunch as the Friday afternoon hustle begins.

It’s just another spring day in a neighborhood where the street is bustling with an eclectic mix of hair salons, noraebangs and restaurants.

This is London.

The Korean Embassy estimates that there are now more than 24,000 Koreans residing in the U.K., about 21,000 who live in London. Of the latter number, 8,000 live in the town New Malden. Known as London’s Koreatown, it is home to the largest Korean community in all of Europe. While it’s nowhere as massive as the Koreatowns of Los Angeles or Flushing — not even Chicago or Atlanta — it’s a place where Korean culture is alive and flourishing.

Pae’s parents moved to London in 1983, two years before she was born, and settled in New Malden. Back then, New Malden was hardly a Korean community. When Pae was younger, she only knew of one or two Korean stores. It was not until the mid-90s that New Malden became the Korean hub that it is today.

James Grayson, a professor specializing in Korean Studies at the University of Sheffield, says most of the Korean population arrived in New Malden during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and that immigrants are continuing to settle in droves. “It’s almost like Korean immigration in the United States during the 1960s,” Grayson says. “It’s something to look out for.”

No one quite knows for sure why Koreans settled in New Malden, which many view as a unique, if not random city to build an immigrant community around. One theory is that New Malden housing was cheaper than neighboring Wimbledon, where highly-esteemed Korean ambassadors once lived. Another theory is that the community used to be home to many Japanese immigrants, which made the area more comforting to first-time Korean immigrants who knew nothing about London. Yet a third theory is that the area was first settled by two prominent Koreans who set up a business, and the word quickly spread around London that the area was a hotspot for immigration.

Whatever the reason, Koreans are here to stay. I spent a day in New Malden to find out what life is like in the U.K. Here’s what I discovered:

Korean Brits …

- Come for schooling
With the American dollar dwindling and the U.K. more lenient about handing out visas to students than the U.S. (though it’s still a strenuous process), London has become a practical destination for immigrants to study English. A study conducted by Think London, London’s official foreign direct investment agency, found that South Korea is the fourth most important international student market for London’s higher education. The study also found that this trend of Koreans coming into London is growing, with a nearly 80-percent increase in the number of South Korean students in the past seven years.

One such student is He Kyoung Lee, 32, who initially wanted to study in the United States (“Everyone wants to go to the U.S.”), but ultimately chose London because of its easier visa application process. Lee now studies English at Hampton University. “I’m glad I came. I do like it here because there is a Korean community.”

- Experience ignorance
The Korean Cultural Centre, located in the heart of central London, opened in February after the South Korean government found that only 2 percent of those surveyed in London knew about Korean culture. The center was created to promote understanding between Korea and the U.K. through cultural and educational activities. However, though the center has been met with some success, Asian culture in general is still more foreign to residents of the U.K. than most other cultures, and ignorance is still very alive and present.

“Just a few minutes ago on the bus, someone yelled at me for being Chinese,” says Ahrem Park, a 1.5-generation Korean British who graduated from the University of College London. “I mean, yeah, he was drunk, but it still shows the backwards mentality of people.”

Sini Kye, who has lived in London since 1999, says that that while he has experienced a handful of racist situations, things have gotten better over the years. “Now that they see more Asian faces, we’re more accepted,” says Kye, 22. “Everyone is so used to so many different people, people just embrace it more than anything.”

- Stick with other Asians
Kye says that a lot of cultural misunderstandings that take place between the English and Asians come from the fact that both groups rarely mingle together. “Asians just naturally exclude themselves from going to places where there aren’t more Asians,” he said. “If the place isn’t Asian enough and more of a British style, it can get quite boring.”

So instead of going to a pub, or English bar, Kye hangs out at Korean bars and noraebangs throughout Central London, like Korean hotspot BTR (Be The Reds.) The place is one of the most popular in Central London, attracting many college-aged Koreans.

Park, who is also a 1.5-generation Korean, agrees that Koreans tend to stick with Koreans or other Asians. “Being with Koreans is just more fun,” Park says. “I don’t really have fun with English people.”

- Go to church
Most Koreans in London are Protestant Christian. Churches in the U.S. have historically been places where Korean immigrants went to for social support and it’s no different in London. There are around 30 Korean churches scattered throughout the greater London area, from Central London to Kingston. Services are held strictly in Korean, unlike in the States where there are English ministries. Even the university-aged fellowships hold services in the native tongue.

King’s Cross Church, one of the first Korean churches in London, formed on December 21, 1980. Today, the church has more than 200 members, a strong youth group and a university-aged fellowship.

“A lot of Korean Christians in London speak Korean fluently because of church,” says Soyang Kim, 19, a second-generation Korean British. “I think [church] is a great way to meet other Koreans and keep in touch with my Korean side.”

- Deal with issues of identity
Pae also attends King’s Cross Church and feels that Korean is the language of choice because Korean British still have close attachments to their cultural roots. “When I think of myself, I do think of myself as more Korean than British, even if I was born here,” she says. “I’m a Korean living in England.”

But like many who have close ties to both their ethnicity and nationality, it’s sometimes difficult for Pae to strike a perfect balance between the two and fit in. Much of the time, Pae feels she is too Korean for the English, or too English for a lot of Koreans. Though most of her friends are Korean, it’s difficult to get close to those who cannot speak English fluently.

“I mean, I can be conversational in Korean, but getting past that and getting deeper is what’s difficult for me,” she says.

What’s difficult for Pae today is finishing her pot of sundubu, where the rice sits alone in its silver bowl, growing colder by the minute. So when I ask her for her rice to mix in with the bean sauce left from the jajangmeon, she eagerly hands it to me.

“Oh, I already feel a connection with you,” she says, smiling. “I do that too. Well, whenever I eat jajangmeon.”

She tells me that she’s on her way to work at an after-school Korean hakwon (English school), and when I thank her for her time, she smiles, and quickly says, “That’s all right.”

“In London, ‘you’re welcome’ is too formal and awkward,” she explains. After a few more explanations, she asks me a simple question that I cannot refuse.

“Where’s about you off to,” she asks mischievously. “Want to get some ice cream?”

It’s at this moment that I realize that though she may work at a Korean hakwon, have a mother who epitomizes the nagging Korean mother, live in London’s Koreatown and proclaim herself to be very Korean, right now, it’s clear to me that she’s so British.

A fact that her British accented Korean, H&M shirt, and subtle sarcasm cannot deny.

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