Awe, Gratitude, Fear: Conflicting Emotions for Korean-Americans in the Era of Trump

The fight over immigration, however, is of little interest to many older Korean immigrants who arrived in the United States decades ago. Instead, they have been captivated by the momentous developments in their native country, after three detainees were released by North Korea this week.

“This is more than stopping nuclear proliferation for us — it is very personal,” said Ellen Ahn, the executive director of Korean Community Services, based in Buena Park. Ms. Ahn’s mother, who was a refugee from North Korea in the 1950s, walked south for days to escape the country when she was 9 years old. Ms. Ahn said she grew up hearing stories of her grandfather being captured by the North Korean Army. “It’s really recent history for our families, all of those kinds of memories are etched in our collective family consciousness.”

Like many of her friends, she stayed up all night watching the Korean-language news on the meeting last month between the leaders of North and South Korea. She texted her 73-year-old mother at 2 a.m. to see if she was watching. “She told me she was in her 12th hour and had been crying the entire time.”

The next morning, her parents went out to celebrate by eating Pyongyang-style cold noodles — the kind the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, brought to a banquet during the meeting with President Moon Jae-in.

“To see what is happening is joyous and dramatic,” she added. Ms. Ahn said that fissures between the generations over the Trump administration are not just over issues like immigration; they are also about language. Younger Koreans raised in America rely on English-language media, while older generations voraciously consume news directly from South Korean sources. “People have divided energies,” she said.

Korean-American citizens have historically not been a politically active voting block: Nationally, about 46 percent of eligible voters nationally cast a ballot in 2016, compared with 61 percent among adult citizens overall. This year, though, their vote could be crucial in several competitive congressional races in Orange County.

Statewide, roughly 54 percent of Koreans self-identify as Democrats, according to the National Asian-American Survey, far more reliably liberal than immigrants from China and Vietnam. Nationally, 75 percent of Koreans voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to the same survey.

John Kim, who leads the Korean Federation of Orange County, said he voted for Mr. Trump in part because he believed his business background would help him solve intractable problems, like the Korean conflict.

“I supported him because he said he would do something,” Mr. Kim said. “He is honest and he is doing what he said he would do. He does not stand for nonsense. So to see this now, it is a relief.”

But among critics, anger toward Mr. Trump runs deep. Some view his past comments as racist, pointing to an incident earlier this year when he asked a Korean-American intelligence official, “Where are you from?” When she said she was from New York, he pressed to know where “your people” are from, suggesting the “pretty Korean lady” should negotiate with North Korea.

After Mr. Trump’s pre-dawn news conference on the tarmac, Korean-American leaders all over the country were struggling with how to rectify the White House’s paradoxical positions.


At the Source OC in Buena Park, a bustling business district in Orange County, Calif., that serves as a kind of suburban Koreatown. More than 325,000 Koreans live in Southern California, with about a third in Orange County.

Rozette Rago for The New York Times

“We see there are various, blatant contradictions in his general attitude and disposition,” said John Park, 44, the executive director of the MinKwon Center for Community Action, the leading Korean-American activist group in New York.

“In terms of North and South Korea, we do care about family unification; that’s something we’ve been hoping for, for a long time,” Mr. Park said. But, he added, “They are O.K. with splitting up families. They are really doubling down on that position, which is horrifying and inhumane to us.”

Even among those who support negotiations with North Korea, some Korean-Americans say they are skeptical the Trump administration will play a crucial role. Jung-woo Kim, who moved to Fullerton from South Korea when he was 15 and regularly speaks to friends there, said that it was Mr. Moon, the South Korean president, who deserved credit for the recent shifts.

“If you want to have peace, it’s Korean people’s work to do,” said Mr. Kim, who now works for the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium. “Whatever he is doing is not about helping our people. He thinks he deserves the Nobel Prize.”

Mr. Kim is among the activists who hope the fight over immigration will play a key role in the midterm congressional races in Orange County, where Democrats are trying win several seats. Local political experts say Korean voters in the county are evenly split, with about a third each registering as Republican and Democrats and the remainder choosing neither party.

Earlier this year, dozens of people gathered outside Representative Mimi Walters’s district office, urging her to do more to create a path to citizenship. Since Mr. Trump’s election, the activists have focused their ire on Ms. Walters, along with other Republicans in Orange County who are facing tough re-election bids this year.

“They haven’t done very much for us, even though there are so many people here impacted,” said Erica Kim, who has lived in Orange County for years and now works as a parent organizer at the Korean Resource Center. “My daughter thinks she is American. My friends, they want to do something to help her. I tell them: The only way we can change anything is vote and get people who are elected to listen.”

Continue reading the main story

Asian Restaurant Named Yellow Fever Sets Off a Debate About Language and Race

Yellow fever is traditionally known as a virus transmitted by mosquitoes, but the phrase is also used to describe a sexual fetish for Asian women, often by white men.

“This is not about taking down someone who is obviously putting a lot of energy into building their business and owning their dreams,” Ms. Yang said. “But when a restaurateur chooses to use a joke at the expense of Asian-Americans, I would hope they would consider the consequences on how they represent us — especially if they’re going to have a larger platform partnering with Whole Foods.”

For centuries, entrepreneurial Asians have leveraged the power of American racism to their advantage, said Mark Padoongpatt, an associate professor of Asian and Asian-American Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

In the mid-1800s, the “Siamese twins,” Chang and Eng Bunker, marketed themselves as exotic and of the Orient. Anna May Wong, considered one of the first Chinese-American movie stars, built her career largely by taking on the stereotypical roles Hollywood reserved for her.

More recently, though, Asian-Americans have deliberately sought to reclaim and then recast some of the most timeworn tropes.

Last year, the Asian-American band the Slants won a yearslong battle that ended up before the United States Supreme Court, affirming their right to trademark the name, which draws on a demeaning stereotype about the shape of Asian eyes. And the television show “Fresh Off the Boat,” and the memoir off which it is based, have sought to explore and dispel the misconceptions the title breeds.

As critics of Yellow Fever have pointed out, those cases involved art of a different kind. While food can be expressive, critics said the restaurant appears to be making little effort to challenge ideas about how Asian women are viewed sexually.

“I do think it’s great to see an Asian-American woman start a successful business, and partnering with Whole Foods is probably a big benefit to her,” said Karin Wang, a vice president with the Los Angeles branch of the civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

But she added: “As an Asian-American woman, I look at the term, and it’s either a terrible disease you get in tropical countries or it’s an offensive concept of white men pursuing Asian women based purely on their race. I don’t know what’s worth reclaiming about that.”

In interviews, Kelly Kim, Yellow Fever’s executive chef and co-founder, has said that she was drawn to the name because it was memorable and that she and her husband, Michael, were trying to reappropriate it to mean something less pejorative.

A media kit for the restaurant said, “Yellow Fever … yeah, we really said that.” The kit said the name was attention-getting but that “we choose to embrace the term and reinterpret it positively for ourselves.”

In a statement on Saturday, Ms. Kim added, “Yellow Fever celebrates all things Asian: the food, the culture and the people, and our menu reflects that featuring cuisine from Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, Thailand and Hawaii.”


Yellow Fever was founded by the Korean-American chef Kelly Kim, left, and serves Asian-style rice bowls.

via Instagram

Dr. Padoongpatt said the Kims’ statements hint at a more troubling issue: It is not that they do not know how loaded the phrase is — it is that they know and do not care.

“We want to be able to say, ‘Just educate yourself,’” he said. “But not caring is much more aggressive. It’s much more explicit, and basically mocking.”

Ms. Yang targeted some of her ire at Whole Foods for implicitly endorsing the restaurant’s name.

“The Whole Foods executives, of all of the different independent restaurants based in Southern California, chose Yellow Fever to represent Long Beach, which has so many Asian-Americans, so many southeast Asians, so many Filipinos — it kind of baffles me,” she said. “The moment you get a corporate partnership with Whole Foods, that’s a bigger platform.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Ms. Kim said she had discussed the restaurant’s name with Whole Foods, but could not recall how the issue was raised.

Whole Foods, which lists Yellow Fever as a “friend” of its store in Long Beach, Calif., did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

The restaurant’s name has probably been a net positive for Whole Foods and for the Kims from a publicity and marketing perspective, said Susan S. Harmeling, an associate professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California.

Dr. Harmeling, who is also an expert in business ethics, noted that it is difficult for a restaurant to break through — especially in a county like Los Angeles.

“She knew exactly what she was doing,” she said of Ms. Kim.

Continue reading the main story