Jai Ryu sees one of his duties as trying to bridge gaps that separate Korean immigrants from their neighbors, trying to defuse the type of tensions that provided flash points in the recent riots in Los Angeles.
Dr. Ryu, 50, is a special assistant to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. A native of Korea who has been in the United States since 1964, Dr. Ryu is chairman of the sociology department at Loyola College, where he has taught since 1978. He began working for the mayor's office in 1988, helping to prepare the city's populace for the 1990 census.
QUESTION: How many Koreans are living in Baltimore?
ANSWER: We do not have the complete breakdown from the last census, but in the city of Baltimore it looks like there are 8-to-9,000 Asians. So a rough estimate, a ballpark figure, is that there are 5,000 Koreans. And if you count those who live in the suburbs but spend two-thirds of every 24 hours in the city working, the numbers are a lot higher.
Most of them work in small stores -- groceries, carryouts, laundries -- or auto-related businesses -- service stations, body shops. And there are others who provide services to these people, CPAs, lawyers, people who help them fill out forms in English.
But they really are not that visible. Many of them live upstairs from their establishments. They work long hours. After dark, they don't move around much in their neighborhoods. And there is no real Koreatown, though one is starting to develop on Charles street north of North Avenue.
But, like most Koreatowns, it is a business area, a place to go for groceries, other services, socializing, not a residential area. Koreans are much more individualistic than other Asians.
Nationally, they are much more dispersed over the country than other Orientals, and that's true in the Baltimore area as well. That's also due to the fact that most of them immigrated fairly recently when discrimination in housing was not as big a problem.
Q.: Are there tensions between the city's Korean merchants and their clientele?
A.: Yes, certainly there are. A lot of it is simply due to language. If there were some measure of how dissimilar languages are, English and Korean would be so far apart that, for most people, they are unreachable, especially if you are not that highly educated and you came here at a relatively advanced age, which most of these immigrants did.
So consequently, when the children of the first-generation immigrants, who speak adequate or good English, are minding the store, there are very little of the problems you have with their parents, the 50-year-olds, who came here when they were 40 or 45, who not only have trouble with the language, but also unconsciously have a way of looking at the world, the only way they have ever known, that can never be changed.
Q.: So there are cultural problems, too?
A.: Yes, much of it age-related. Among their African-American neighbors, the Korean merchants have very little problem with the older people. It's the young people they have difficulties with.
In the culture of the Orient, it is so important for elders to be respected, for the young to be polite and so on. Many of the Koreans deny that this still affects them, that they know they don't live in Korea any longer, but it's in their blood. I even find that for me, after all these years, it's still hard to get used to that difference.
Then there are the stereotypes that people have of Asians. Orientals are generally depicted as reserved, taciturn, quiet. That actually is more applicable to the Japanese and Chinese. Koreans tend to be much more direct and blunt, more easily given to outbursts of anger. We have been called the Irish of the East.
So sometimes the Korean merchants will burst out at what they see as insolent behavior, cursing it in an accent that, of course, the kids turn around and make fun of.
But our general tendency, as we look for solutions to these problems, is to think in cultural or psychological terms, and not look to a structural, or institutional, economic analysis. There is definitely a cultural problem. The two cultures are radically different.
But it is the economic conditions that cause these problems to be defined in more confrontational ways. Confucius has a saying, that the big people are all different, but they get along well, while the small people are all the same, but fight all the time. To a great extent in modern times, one cannot become very big if you are poor.
Q.: But isn't there a widespread belief that many, if not most, of these Korean merchants are rich and that they got that way exploiting their poor neighbors?
A.: That is a tremendous myth. Many of them are in business only because they have no choice. They can't sell their stores because there are no buyers, but they are barely making enough money to put food on the table. Business is bad.
One thing that tends to reinforce that myth is that these Koreans spend 15 to 16 hours a day in their stores. They have no hobbies. They hardly watch television. So there is very little outlet for them to keep up their sense of dignity, of self-worth.
Q.: Another economic story you hear is that Koreans work together to ensure that they all have money, something that leads to conspiracy theories. Is there anything to that?
A.: There is a Korean term, kye. If you wrote the English word contract out in Chinese characters, it would come close to it. A kye is a typical way that a Korean gets the use of a chunk of money that he otherwise would have no access to.
It works like this: A group gets together and each agrees to contribute a certain amount of money per month. A small kye would be like $50 a month, most would be about $200, with big merchants it might be $1,000 or $2,000. They then take turns taking the money. So, if you have 10 people contributing $200, someone will get $2,000 to use that month. It's like a loan with no interest that you pay back by putting money into the kye each month.
What happens is that when the people get together to put their money in, it's a real social function, a big party. Whoever's turn it is to walk away with the money treats everyone else. People use the kye to size each other up. Relationships are established, people learn who they can trust. So it has a cultural function, but it also helps people who have no credit, no real collateral, who otherwise could not borrow any money. I think this will only last for the first-generation immigrants, the second generation will go to banks like everyone else.