Latino and Korean Immigrants in Koreatown, NYC

Korean words (left) and their Spanish translation (right) written by Jose, 25, Mexican immigrant worker in Koreatown. Photo courtesy Karen Velasquez

Korean words (left) and their Spanish translation (right) written by Jose, 25, Mexican immigrant worker in Koreatown. Photo courtesy Karen Velasquez

Surviving in New York City presents several unique challenges to new immigrants. For example, many undocumented Latino immigrants perform demanding jobs in a variety of ethnic businesses that require knowledge of languages other than English or Spanish. In recent years, Latinos—especially from Mexico and Central America-have settled in places like Queens County, New York City, the country’s most ethnically diverse county, where an estimated 138 languages are spoken. Over the past two years, I have carried out fieldwork in Queens to understand the experiences of Latino immigrants in this culturally and linguistically heterogeneous environment.

My research has focused on Korean businesses that rely on large numbers of Latino workers every year (Min 2011). In Flushing, Queens, Koreans have established an array of businesses, including supermarkets, restaurants, hair salons, and the like, in what has become known as “Koreatown” or “K-Town.” Unlike the K-Town in Manhattan, Flushing K-Town has a labor supply in very close proximity. Two subway stops west of Flushing K-Town is Corona where over 75% of the population is Latino. Korean employers connect with local employment agencies that send Latinos over to Flushing to perform a variety of jobs. Most of the demand is for Latino male workers, who are expected to perform physical labor viewed by Korean employers as unfit for women (who work in other Korean businesses like laundromats, garment shops, or nail salons). My fieldwork centers on the experiences of Latino males in K-Town who often work over 60 hours a week in Korean stores, especially markets and restaurants.

While tensions between these groups have existed in the US, Smith (2005) has called the relationship between Latinos employees and Korean employers (or other groups, like Greeks who hire Latino immigrants) a kind of “fictive co-ethnicity,” or mutually beneficial relationships that allow immigrants to succeed in the US despite certain challenges, such as having undocumented status. I have learned that relations with Korean employers can range from supportive to exploitative. For Latinos, employee benefits, level of comfort, and sense of belonging in the workplace depend largely on how these two groups communicate. In K-Town, so much at work for Latinos hinges on language.

When a new Latino employee, usually a male under 35 from el campo (the countryside) of Mexico or Central America,arrives for his first day of work in a Korean store, “culture shock” usually sets in. Korean stores in K-Town cater primarily to first, 1.5, and second Korean generation immigrants who usually speak Korean together, and these businesses sell an abundance of Korean products rarely packaged with English labels, much less Spanish. Latinos, who may come from bilingual or multi-lingual homes (Spanish and indigenous languages of Latin America), face immediate language barriers in their Korean workplaces. Often, interaction between Koreans and Latinos incorporates multiple languages. For example, Gabriel, a Guatemalan immigrant who has worked in K-Town for over three years, explains:

Cuando quiero hablar con ellos, mezclo los cuatro idiomas…Ellos también aprenden Español. Y yo también aprendo de ellos. A intercambiar lenguajes.(When I want to speak with them [Koreans] I mix the four languages [Spanish, English, Korean, and Kaqchiqel, his native Mayan language of Guatemala] And they also learn Spanish. And I also learn from them. To exchange languages)

Another important feature of adapting to a Korean workplace is learning rules for Korean honorifics—words, expressions and gestures that convey respect and indicate awareness of social hierarchies. Gabriel explains:

Ellos respetan mucho lo que es un jefe. Una persona de mayor edad. Lo saludan. Inclinan la cabeza. Por ejemplo, el manager. Si uno dice este es un manager, todos lo respetan. El otro que entre no puede pasar…tiene que obedecer las reglas. Porque tiene más tiempo es más bueno. (Koreans respect their bosses, and persons who are older. They will greet him and bow their head. For example, a manager. If you say, this person is a manager, everyone will respect him. A newcomer can’t just get ahead…he has to obey the rules. Because a manager has more experience and is a better worker)

These rules are essential for workers to earn the respect and trust of Korean employers and staff, particular among older generations of Koreans who are considered more traditional in their adherence to honorifics.

Alberto, a Mexican immigrant who has worked for Korean employers in K-Town for nearly ten years, is very comfortable speaking Korean. He married his Korean coworker, a waitress who emigrated from Korea while in her early 20s, and the couple now has a young daughter who is learning Korean, Spanish, and English at home. Alberto explained how gestures are an important part of communicating awareness of social hierarchies: “Por ejemplo si usted es mayor que yo, si yo le sirvo agua…la cerveza, yo la tengo que tener con las dos manos(For example, if you [a Korean person] are older than me…if I serve you water, a beer, I have to hold it with both hands [while serving]).”

Alberto and I also discussed how Latino immigrants learn Korean words at the workplace. Pointing to my field notebook, I show Alberto an example of a widely use Korean word: “kenchana” which means “it’s okay.” Alberto points out that the word in my notebook is incorrect because it is missing “yo” (요) at the end, which should be added to indicate respect toward Koreans: “Kenchana-YO es el respeto que uno les tiene. Todo, siempre que usted va pronunciar es YO. Es el respeto que usted le va a tener.” (Kenchana-YO is the respect one has for them [Koreans]…everything, always you are to pronounce YO. It’s the respect you will have for them.)

Jose, a Mexican immigrant who has worked in a Korean supermarket for 5 years, has learned various words and phrases in Korean, and often serves as a translator for Latino newcomers. During one of our conversations, I ask Jose to write down some words he uses at work (see image).

In this list, Jose practices an informal style of “Korean Romanization,” using Spanish sounds and the Latin alphabet to write Korean. Through frequent contact with Korean speakers he feels comfortable communicating using his Spanish variety of Korean. Like many language learners, memorizing and writing down the pronunciation of words in a foreign language is very useful practice—in many contexts it may be more helpful than learning spelling and grammar first. Several Latinos in my study also demonstrate the ability to read or write words in Hangul, the Korean alphabet, when it is needed for their jobs, without ever enrolling in a formal Korean language class (eg, waiters, busboys or cooks who read menus, food tickets and other signs in Korean).

Blommaert (2010) has discussed the “multilingual repertoires” that have emerged in “globalized neighborhoods” where immigrants from around the world frequently interact. Some of these repertoires may appear “fragmented” or “truncated” because they combine “highly specific ‘bits’” of language and literacy varieties that may not be easily transferred to contexts beyond the workplace. In general, these repertoires are considered inferior, invalid codes because they deviate from idealized standards of language use. However, Blommaert suggests that these multilingual repertoires or language resources do achieve local validity, and researchers should focus on how speakers acquire these language competencies. Incorporating Hymes (1974, 1996) “ethnography of speaking” approach into a “sociolinguistics of globalization,” Blommaert connects global migration patterns to local situations in which migrants are confronted with communicative requirements that “stretch their repertoires and complex patterns of shifting and mixing occur.” Language competencies are “co-occuring” and develop through collaboration; in K-Town, Latinos and Koreans cooperate in the linguistic work required to feel understood and respected.

Overall, Latinos understand that communication is a key strategy in negotiating their positions in the workplace. Unfortunately not all Latino employees receive fair treatment or the opportunity to engage with Koreans in informal ways, such as joking, banter, or affectionate gestures that can lead to positive work relations, friendships or romances. Blommaert also states that language resources are often unevenly distributed as a result of unequal access to highly valued language resources. For example, Latinos who work in kitchens or storage rooms may be isolated from interactions with Koreans. Therefore, their ability to develop multilingual linguistic repertoires and competencies is limited and their power is usually restricted. This can be a source of tension and frustration, particularly when Latinos are not given the same pay raises or promotion opportunities as Korean coworkers. These inequalities can result in a silencing of Latino’s voices; in other situations, the linguistic resources Latinos bring to the US (native indigenous languages) are so infrequently used that they go unrecognized at the workplace. These sociolinguistic phenomena all deserve closer inspection.

Yet many immigrants do find innovative ways to transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries, even within the constraints of workplaces and society. The prevailing stereotype of Latino immigrants in the US who washes dishes, stock shelves or sweep floors, is that they are uneducated and their work is unskilled. However, Latino immigrants in K-Town are deeply involved in intricate webs of informal education as they collaborate with their coworkers to develop multilingual repertoires and adapt to difficult work environments. In cities and towns across the United States, ethnically diverse and multilingual workplaces are increasingly common. Careful analysis of these spaces enables us to understand how immigrants transform and improve their work and living conditions in the US while using language in unexpected ways that challenge our assumptions about what counts as competent language and legitimate forms of language education.

Karen Velasquez is an anthropology and education PhD student at Teachers College Columbia University and adjunct professor of cultural anthropology at Fordham University. She is currently conducting dissertation research on workplace education and language learning among Latino and Korean immigrants in Koreatown, NYC.

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