Memories of hardship and survival are revived as Soo Dong Chong, 83, a Korean immigrant, talks about her past while she completes her citizenship application. She signs the form, reaches for a zippered purse tucked under her sweater and hands over the $95 processing fee.
“I should have done this years ago,” she says in Korean to Aaron Jin, a 21-year-old immigrant himself and a staffer at the Korean American Coalition, a nonprofit community agency in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.
Had there been someone like Jin--bilingual, bicultural, a bridge for the Korean community--when Chong came to Los Angeles 20 years ago, she would have become naturalized a lot sooner, she says. But then there weren’t voices representing Koreans in matters of education and employment, housing and health, political participation and immigration. There weren’t any organizations with the word “Korean” in them, no community-based groups that could help her feel less alienated by language and culture from the mainstream.
“There weren’t any 1.5ers,” Chong says, smiling at Jin, then standing to bow before she leaves.
Jin is a “1.5er,” a Korean-born immigrant caught between the first and second generations of Koreans in America. They are members of the generation of young adults, typically in their 20s and 30s, who immigrated to the U.S. as children. And now, because they have been educated here, speak English, are savvy to all things American--and are all grown up--they have become champions for their community.
Much like the term Chicano was created by Mexican Americans who wished to affirm a unique identity, 1.5ers coined their new appellation.
The group, according to many, seemed to have galvanized after the 1992 riots, speaking up at City Hall on behalf of their parents who were trying to reorganize after their businesses were devastated. Again, when the Northridge earthquake struck in 1994, 1.5ers reached out to Korean communities in need of assistance, narrowing the gap between their people and the mainstream.
With their law degrees and doctorates, their beepers and cell phones, 1.5ers have become grass-roots advocates. They run political campaigns and host talk radio programs. They inform the young and the elderly about city, county and state governments, the health system, the legal system. They are involved in their family’s businesses and in neighborhood revitalization. And they are participants in the power games that determine the destiny of more than 400,000 Koreans in Los Angeles County.
Charles Kim and other 1.5ers recognized the unique interests of the group when they founded the Korean American Coalition in 1983.
“The 1.5 generation is a generation of intellect, of passion,” he says. “We have charged ourselves with the mission that ‘Hey, the community needs us; Los Angeles needs us; America needs us. We are not an artificial generation. We’re a transitional generation, a bridge generation.”
The 40-year-old community organizer says there’s no denying that the major gaps between older Korean immigrants and the mainstream society are language and culture, the latter weighing in more heavily “because culture dictates how you behave, how you speak, how you lead your life.”
Kim, KAC’s executive director, was 28 when he realized he was a 1.5er; he was participating in a UCLA-sponsored panel discussion about problems in the Korean community.
“ ‘Yes, we have a lot of problems but we also have a solution,’ ” he recalls telling the audience. “ ‘The solution is the 1.5 generation.’ ”
Thinking back, he explains that the 1.5 generation--with one foot in Korea and the other in the United States--"can communicate with the mainstream community and the Korean community. We understand Korean culture and Western culture.
“Back then a serious gap existed between the Korean community and the mainstream. Nobody even knew we had a Korean community in Los Angeles,” he says of the city’s Koreatown that began forming in about 1970 after immigration laws loosened in 1965. Today, Koreans, like other immigrant groups, live throughout the county, no longer concentrated in just one neighborhood.
Kim, who also presents a weekly radio commentary on Korean issues, immigrated to the United States as a teenager, became naturalized in 1976 and later served in the U.S. Army. He is married with three children--and always on the go.
Whether it’s working behind the scenes or at the forefront of various issues, Kim says he and other 1.5ers are paving a new path for future generations--a road his parents found filled with detours.
“Whatever is the hot issue in the Korean community, whatever’s going on in Washington or Sacramento that affects us, we let our people know,” he says.
Last year, the coalition organized the first Korean American luncheon with City Council members and staffers to promote the Korean American community. It sponsored two government contract seminars for Korean-owned businesses. The coalition also conducts monthly community forums on issues such as affirmative action and welfare and immigration reform. And, concerned with grooming leaders, the coalition annually sponsors a national leadership conference and regularly meets with a young leadership council, the majority of whom are 1.5ers, to discuss Korean issues.
To date, the coalition has registered more than 70% of all Korean Americans eligible to vote in Southern California. Last year, nearly 3,000 Koreans applied for citizenship through the coalition’s citizenship assistance program.
Eui-Young Yu, 58, a sociology professor at Cal State L.A., says the 1.5 generation is a national phenomenon: “They are all over the country taking a leadership role.” But he adds that the generation is a “sociological concept” because 1.5ers are first-generation immigrants.
Still, he says, “When talking about culture and language, the 1.5 generation falls in the middle because they came here before they formed any kind of identity as a Korean. Culturally, they are not fully Korean or American. They are in betweeners.”
Unlike their parents, 1.5ers are Americanized, he says. Their Korean roots make many of them more attached to Korean culture than some in the second generation. And the 1.5ers are bilingual.
And that poses positives and negatives for the group, says Yu, who was 25 when he immigrated to the United States in 1963.
“The 1.5 generation can be effective because they are bilingual and bicultural. But there is a large number who lack the knowledge of both languages, lack understanding of either culture. They exist in a cultural vacuum, not efficient in either culture.”
Often, that subgroup of 1.5ers is referred to by the Korean media as the “lost generation,” Yu says.
He says some second-generation Koreans born in the United States don’t speak Korean or very little and cannot communicate with their parents because in the majority of Korean households, English-only was stressed so those children wouldn’t have to struggle later as adults.
“In a large portion of the Los Angeles community this has happened,” Yu says, adding that 1.5ers clung to the Korean language and culture while learning another.
“The older generation is now recognizing this language problem because they see their own limits without knowing English and the limits on their children not knowing Korean. In that sense they see how the 1.5 generation has advantages by being bilingual.”
In fact, many 1.5ers know so well the advantages of being bilingual that they send their children to Korean language schools, which are increasingly popular in Los Angeles.
Yu looks to the 1.5ers as heroes in the Korean community, many of whom are public leaders, attorneys and are taking over their family’s businesses.
Scott Choe, 27, is an example. Choe was 5 years old when his parents and a younger brother emigrated from Seoul to Hawaii and then Los Angeles in 1979.
A student at USC, where he is majoring in accounting and finance, Choe says he has been taking a hands-on role in his father’s dry-cleaning shop in Silver Lake the last few years.
“When my dad came to L.A., he was very limited with his English and he still is. But I was with him. I was his little 1.5 interpreter. As I grew up I began to grasp the business more and more. Then I started to help him out, and lately, I’m there every day, a grown-up 1.5er.”
Whenever there’s a business problem that needs to be worked out, Choe is by his dad, Byung Ik Choe.
So is Scott Choe’s wife, Janice, also 27, who will transfer from Los Angeles Community College to USC next semester to major in education. Janice was 12 years old when her family immigrated and, like her husband, was a young interpreter for her parents.
“Right now there is a big gap between the first generation and the mainstream and even a bigger gap between the first and second generations,” she says, explaining that the first generation concentrated on making money, not on learning English, and the second generation made learning the American culture as their first priority.
“As a result I have seen many families where they cannot communicate, which is why the 1.5 generation senses the urgency to bridge those gaps. We are on both sides of the cultural fence,” she says.
Michelle Park-Steel, a political fund-raiser, board member for various nonprofit agencies and a weekly radio talk show host, says that as a 1.5er, she understands what the first generation went through as well as what the second generation is experiencing.
“My mother worked hard and suffered for me and my two younger sisters. Some members of the second generation don’t understand that kind of suffering and sacrifice,” says the 40-year-old controller for her husband’s law office. “They don’t know what it’s like to not speak English and have to survive in a new country. All they know is that the first generation is really proud of them because they speak perfect English.”
But Park-Steel, who graduated with a business administration degree from Pepperdine University, says, “It’s often difficult for the second generation to communicate their feelings and what they are thinking to their parents because of the language barrier. I can be a connection for both generations.”
As the only Korean American of 15 commissioners serving on the county’s Children and Family Service Commission, she is working to link her community with others, including African Americans and Latinos. Park-Steel resigned from the Airport Commission last year after City Council members criticized her stands for affirmative action.
Erica Kim, a 31-year-old attorney, also says she has a “big responsibility as a 1.5 role model.”
Kim was 8 years old when her family came from Korea to California. A graduate of Cornell University and UCLA School of Law, she is a regular contributor to a Korean monthly magazine about political issues called Win and the author of “Always Korean,” an autobiography written in Korean and published last October in Korea.
In the book, she touches on what it’s like to be a 1.5 Korean American woman.
“I think it’s important for people to realize that 1.5 Korean Americans or any similar immigrants are American,” she says. “We are always [treated as] inherently foreign because of the fact that we don’t have white faces.”
A board member for the Korean American Chamber of Commerce and frequent speaker, Kim says her generation’s role is to “continue to be more outspoken about our rights and understand the system so our community is not robbed by society. Many of the first generation still stay in their little holes, work until their bodies fall apart without knowing what more they could and should have and how to exercise that right.
“As 1.5ers, we need to educate and show second and succeeding generations why it’s important to pull them to the next step, push them forward without forgetting the past. Nobody else but the 1.5ers can play that role.”