Transnational Identities

Though dominated by Latino immigrants who make up the largest residential population, Koreatown is an extraordinarily diverse community whose residents come from around the globe, including Korea, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Peru.1  Before 1965, most of the Asians in the United States were from Japan, mainland China, and the Philippines, but since then immigration from Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, India and other parts of Asia have significantly increased. These newer Asian immigrants, combined with the Latin American immigrants who make up the fastest growing minority group in Los Angeles, comprise the residents of Koreatown.  Of these, more than 70 percent are foreign born with 62 percent from Latin America and 22 percent from Korea.2 This indicates that despite its name, Koreatown is ethnically heterogeneous with Koreans comprising a minority population.  With such a shifting diversity in the cultures that form its ethnic makeup, it is impossible to view Koreatown through a single lens of national identity.

Even so, Koreatown in Los Angeles is commonly imagined and described as an extension of Seoul.  In their book exploring Korean American identity after the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, Nancy Abelmann and John Lie observe that Koreatown is “a major symbolic destination of Korean immigration to the United States.  The portable homelands that immigrants carry in their minds have been materially re-created near downtown Los Angeles.  Newcomers find that Koreatown in Los Angeles is in part a simulacrum of Seoul in Southern California…”3 Contributing to this symbolic representation of Seoul in Los Angeles is the cultural and economic exchange between the two cities that has resulted in the recent redevelopment of Koreatown as a space for transnational consumer and business practice, and the fostering of collaboration between media industries in the two cities.  For the wealthier class of mobile Koreans, Koreatown is an extension of contemporary Seoul and a foothold in the American economy.  But to its poor and working class inhabitants, this space is experienced very differently and imagined on a more local, not global register.  Koreatown is symbolic, not only for Koreans in Korea, but also for Koreans who have immigrated from other Korean diasporic communities including Brazil and China.  Combining these subjectivities along with others that characterize the diversity of Los Angeles creates distinctively complex dimensions to the understanding of Koreatown and the Korean transnational community. 

What is unique about Los Angeles’s Koreatown is the way in which the mix of differing histories, cultures, class identifications, and ethnicity contribute to the impossibility of essentializing this ethnic enclave. My project asserts that though the exchange between Seoul and Los Angeles is often based on promoting national identity by extending the consumption, culture, and industry of Korea within the United States, this exchange has not resulted in creating a more cohesive and homogenous Korean American identity or community in Los Angeles but rather, has magnified the economic polarization and differences in class and ethnicity that reveal a more complex portrait of Koreatown and its transnational community.  It is within these local transnational communities that the construction of cultural identity is in a constant state of flux.

Koreatown is largely understood as transnational in that its cultural and economic flows move between the U.S. and South Korea.  However, Koreatown’s network of nationalisms is incredibly diverse, consisting not only of Korean, but others including Mexican, El Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Filipino and Bangladeshi.  These sub-communities within Koreatown interact daily with each other, constituting the spatial practices that create the economic and cultural backbone of the community.  Together, these characteristics combine to make Koreatown an ethnic enclave in which the assumption of internal homogeneity is radically destabilized–a place in which the configuration of transnationalism is extended to include relationships in-between differing local community nationalisms, and thereby, reconfiguring transnational to be understood on a local rather than entirely global register

  1. Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, Koreatown on the Edge: Immigrant Dreams and Realities in One of Los Angeles’ Poorest Communities (Los Angeles, CA: Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, 2005). 

  2. Kyeyoung Park and Jessica Kim, “The Contested Nexus of Los Angeles Koreatown: Capital Restructuring, Gentrification, and Displacement,” Amerasia Journal 34:3 (2008): 127-150. 

  3. Nancy Abelmann and John Lie, Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press: 1995), 85.