About the author - Jenna Park is a college student, Class 2023, at University of San Diego. She was a recipient of ACA Scholarship for this research project. Jenna was interested in the history of the thriving mini Koreantown (K-Town) in San Diego. This is her story based on her research and interviews of business owners in the Convoy District.
About the Program - This story is part of a research series aimed to document the history of Asian immigrants in business. This program is in collaboration with Dr. Yi Sun, Professor of History Department, University of San Diego. Dr. Sun advises the student interns in topic selection, interview preparation, and final research paper and presentation. ACA is deeply grateful to Dr. Sun for her dedication to this program and her care for the API community.
Jenna also received guidance from Dr. David Miller, who directs the internship program in the History Department, USD.
In history, South Koreans have faced issues of false promises of a better life in America. But when America failed to provide food, shelter, and work, Korean people took it up for themselves to create their own lives. Instead of waiting around for something better to come along, Korean people developed a sense of community amongst themselves and fulfilled the promises of a better life on their own terms. Koreatown is used to describe areas that are filled with Korean culture and populated by Korean communities. Manhattan’s and New York City’s are the more well known spaces for Korean hotspots, but in the lively city of San Diego, Convoy also has its own mini K-town as well and offers its residents a taste of Korea. Although Korean food and music has been on the rise internationally, Korean communities offer so much more to not only its own people but also to non-Korean people as well. They have their own churches, barbershops, karaoke spots, markets, banks., and so much more. Although they may not be physically in South Korea, Korean residents have brought a piece of their own home and heritage to Convoy. It is their home away from home. South Korea has so much more to offer than just their Korean music, dramas, and their corn dogs. The history and culture is rich with stories of individuals that have made a new life in America. These establishments that I had the privilege to interview are prime examples of that. Instead of grouping Korean people as one, it is essential to achieve an understanding of the individuals as well. Through this project, I aim to give those residents the opportunity to share their stories and journeys of bringing a part of South Korea to
Convoy and Korean Community: Historical Significance
Before diving into the story behind these Korean business owners, the history of Convoy and the Korean community should be addressed. Korean-populated areas are sometimes referred to as Koreatown or K-town, like in Los Angeles and New York. Korean culture has been on an increase worldwide, which has been coined the term 한류 wave, or Korean wave (K-wave). This can be seen through the popularity of their food, music, entertainment, skincare, and other industries. Some may even say that the main reason is because of their music, K-POP. South Korea recognizes this as well and this is something that they have addressed because although all able-bodied men are supposed to serve in the military, they waived a popular K-POP boy group, Bangtan Boys (BTS) this requirement. Therefore, everybody acknowledges that Korean culture has been making a significant impact on diversity.
The first Korean people immigrated to the United States in the 19th century. While under the control of Japan, about 7,400 Koreans were recruited to the United States to equip the demands of labor on the Hawaiian sugar plantations. “We Have No Country to Return To. We are a conquered people… We must struggle in exile” was written in an editorial in the 신한민보, the San Francisco Korean language newsletter (Lee, 2015). Instead of being granted the promises of land and riches that were made, the Korean laborers were mistreated inhumanely. Other Koreans who immigrated to the United States were picture brides. Picture brides were young Korean women, who were mostly from poor rural families, that were matched with men in the United States and Hawaii (Lee, 2015). The women were shown photographs, however they had been tricked with older and staged pictures. Not only were they lied to about the appearance of these Western men, but they were deceived about the new free life that they would be given if they married the men. However, once some of the Korean immigrants became financially stable, thanks to their education and skills, they moved to the mainland. In the late 19th century, US missionaries began missionary work of converting Koreans to Christianity and due to this,
Koreans who were converted immigrated to the United States and formed Christian communities (Kang, 2013). Korean church groups began forming in Los Angeles to assist each other in life like helping each other with English and these meeting spots became Korean churches, which became cultural centers. Once Korea gained independence from Japan, this began the second wave of Korean immigration to the United States. The United States designated $60 million to support Korean students to pursue an education in their country and if they did they would be guaranteed jobs after graduation (Kaijo, 2015). After the 1965 Immigration Act abolished immigration quotas, the Korean population in the United States increased significantly.
Thanks to this, many Korean Americans are able to live their lives in the United States while still indulging in their culture and not having to erase their identities. Dr. Byong-Mok Kim, a pulmonary specialist that moved to San Diego in 1972 when asked about the Korean community when he moved said that there wasn’t one. (Stephens, 2000). However, for the few Koreans in San Diego liked it there because it was a good place to work and to raise their children. However, nowadays, San Diego has its own Asian hub with a K-town in Convoy. Although Convoy is the closest thing to a K-town, it is very different from the ones in other popular cities. The K-towns in popular cities are very crowded and mostly have Korean businesses and establishments, hence the name K-town. However, for Convoy, this is not the case because although it may be close to a K-town, it still contains many other Asian establishments as well. Not one ethnicity can claim Convoy as their own or their own ‘town’ because there is a diverse population of Asian businesses that come together as a community.
Taegukgi Korean BBQ & The Korean Rose (태극기 & 무궁화)
Korean barbeque and bubble tea are two of the most popular items in Korea, however its popularity has reached the other side of the country as well. There are a number of different Korean barbeque restaurants and bubble tea shops across the United States and a good amount of them are located in Convoy, San Diego. One of these locations are Taegukgi Korean BBQ and The Korean Rose, which are located in Clairemont Mesa. Both of these establishments are owned by the same people and are family-owned businesses. Although the restaurant was started up by the parents, Mama and Papa Lee, Grace and Annie, the daughters, have recently taken more responsibility as their parents are getting older. While Mama and Papa Lee were born in
Incheon, South Korea, Grace and Annie were born in San Diego in the late 1980s. Taegukgi and The Korean Rose were established in 2013 and Grace and Annie are now in their 30s, spending time in both San Diego and Arizona and managing both locations of their establishments. For the interview, I had the opportunity to speak with Grace and Annie about their experience of owning a business in Convoy and what it’s like to be a Korean American living in San Diego.
Taegukgi KBBQ & The Korean Rose: Historical Background of Family and Business
When asked about why their parents immigrated the family to the US, they mentioned that during the time that their parents were living in South Korea, which was around the mid 1980s, there was a lack of economic opportunities for them. In addition to that, their parents were planning on having children as well, but there weren’t decent educational opportunities for them either. Their parents also did not want them living in a place that had such high standards and expectations. Grace and Annie, thanks to their parents, were able to escape the stress and anxiety they most likely would’ve dealt with if they had stayed in South Korea. Due to the great wave of Asian immigration, there began to be a growth in the Asian population in the United States, so even though they would be leaving their Korean community at home, they would still have a sense of community in San Diego, California. Since the Lee family had been living in San Diego for some time before opening their establishments, they were able to watch Convoy grow into an Asian hub and then become a part of it themselves. Although they may have been born in Southern California, Korean blood runs through them and customer service is always a top priority for them as they provide their customers with top quality ingredients. They think of Taegukgi and The Korean Rose as their home and they pride themselves in making their customers feel like family when they walk in and out of their establishments.
Taegukgi KBBQ & The Korean Rose: Cultural Background of Business
Although Taegukgi may be a Korean restaurant, they strive to open their doors to all customers, not just Korean people. For Korean customers, they would like them to think of Taegugki as a place of their second home. By providing authentic Korean barbeque and side dishes, they want to remind their Korean customers to never let go of their culture even if they are constantly surrounded by American culture and ideals. They understand that when living in a completely different country with different values, it is easy to lose grip of one’s identity and heritage. Taegukgi’s owners would like to reel their Korean customers back into their culture whenever they feel that they have lost touch with themselves and their identity. As for their nonKorean customers, Taegukgi offers them an experience of trying and exploring different cultures and foods. Taegukgi prides itself in serving all kinds of customers, regardless of their racial and even sexual identities. They like to think of their customers as their own family members and try to ensure that every customer feels like they are in a family-friendly environment.
Taegukgi, when translated to English, means the Korean flag. This explains the several Korean flags that are decorated inside and outside of the restaurant. In addition to the flags, inside of the restaurant there are paintings of flags and writings of the wall that are relevant to the significance of the Korean flag. The paintings are all different types of the Korean flags that existed in the distinct time periods and the writings explain the significance of the symbols on the Korean flag. As for the Korean Rose, the name of the bubble tea shop is also relevant to the owners’ Korean pride. The flower that can be seen both inside and outside of the restaurant is the mugunghwa (무궁화) or the hibiscus syriacus, which is the national flower of South Korea. Both pieces of decorations in Taegukgi and The Korean Rose are a way for the Lee family to show off their heritage and share their culture with their customers and the residents of San Diego.
Taegukgi & The Korean Rose: Convoy Community
With Convoy being a hotspot for a number of Asian foods, it is important for businesses to try and stand out or have something that makes them different from the other establishments. Not only is Convoy popular for Asian food, but it is extremely populated with Korean barbecue restaurants. One of the things that Grace and Annie mentioned that makes Taegukgi stand out is The Korean Rose, which is part of the reason for why they opened the bubble tea shop right next door. They offer customers a discount at The Korean Rose after they have dined at Taegukgi. Drinking bubble tea is almost a tradition after eating Korean barbecue, so this gives their customers the whole experience of eating Korean food when they come to this specific Korean barbecue restaurant. In addition to that, another element of these establishments that make them stand out from the others is that they also hold KPOP events for KPOP fans of San Diego.
Another aspect that makes them distinct from other Korean hotspots is the type of environment that they have in the restaurant. Taegukgi ensures that everyone will feel welcome at their restaurant because they encourage their employees to create personal connections with their customers. Thanks to this, Taegukgi has a number of regulars that come to their restaurant, even to celebrate special occasions like their birthdays and marriages. Some days, Taegukgi is a family-friendly restaurant where people can come dine in and quietly enjoy a meal while listening to the sizzling of the meat on the grill. Other days, Taegukgi is described as a nightclub by their regulars as a place where the music is booming throughout the restaurant and the employees maneuver around the restaurant as if they are dancing. In Korea, it is extremely common for people to enjoy a meal by themselves and this is proven through seating arrangements of one in all Korean restaurants. Taegukgi encourages this tradition by being one of the few Korean barbecue restaurants that allows parties of one dine in as well because they’d like to get rid of the stigma that eating alone is shameful or embarrassing.
Another aspect of Taegukgi that makes them distinct from other restaurants is that they pride themselves in the fact that some of the supplies used are directly from South Korea. The Lee family will take time to travel to Korea to obtain their materials. In order to provide an authentic experience of Korean barbecue, they use grills, exhaust vent pipes, and other essentials from Korea. Some other items like their meats and side dish ingredients, since they are unable to bring food on the plane, are obtained from the Korean market next door to them.
Overall, as much as the Lee family provides for Convoy and its Asian American community, Convoy also serves a purpose to them as well. For Grace and Annie, San Diego has always been home to them, but for Mama and Papa Lee, it is still their second home while Korea remains their first. Although they may not physically be inhabiting South Korea, their first home, they have found a way to bring that piece of home with them to Convoy and share it with the rest of the community.
Taegukgi KBBQ & The Korean Rose: Current Challenges
Due to the pandemic, many establishments and their owners have had to face obstacles and Taegukgi is one of them. Besides having to shut down business for a long period of time, there are also other COVID-related issues that the Lee family had to deal with. Korean barbecue is not the most COVID-friendly experience due to the use of utensils when cooking the meat and the layout of the restaurant has customers sitting quite close to each other. In order to keep customers of different groups six feet apart, they would have to skip tables which would not let them accept as many customers as they used to. This would lead to them losing business because customers weren’t willing to wait the two hours to be seated for a meal. In addition to this, they experienced a shortage of workers because their employees were also dealing with getting sick with COVID and their own personal issues.
Other problems they have dealt with are the increasing price of ingredients and the food shortage. This resulted in Taegukgi having to increase their All You Can Eat prices. Taegukgi used to be well known for being a cheaper option for Korean barbecue in the Convoy community, however because of COVID, it was difficult for the Lee family to keep these prices and still keep the business running. Also, like mentioned before, Taegukgi prides themselves in supplying their materials straight from Korea, so the travel ban and quarantine requirements made it extremely difficult for them to continue this. In order to maintain their reputation of being authentic to their Korean heritage, they had to shut down the restaurant for the time being.
Even though the Lee family was dealing with enough problems as is, they unfortunately had to deal with rude and racist customers once business opened up again. For Grace and Annie, this was easier for them to handle because they spoke fluent English. However, Mama and Papa Lee are not 100% fluent in speaking in English so dealing with certain customers was not the most pleasant experience for them. This is the reason why Grace and Annie are more hands-on with working in the restaurant and their parents have decided to work behind the scenes. Grace and Annie did not like the sight of their parents being insulted or having to hear about it, so they chose it would be best if they started being on the front lines.
Jin Music Studio (진노래방) & Dokdo Sushi & Karaoke (독도 노래방)
Karaoke is also an important part of Korea’s culture when it comes to entertainment. In South Korea, regardless of what part of the country, there is bound to be a karaoke spot. Some people even have karaoke machines in their own homes because of how popular they are. This popularity of karaoke has also spread across the United States and there are also quite a few in
Convoy as well. There are two karaoke places located in Kearny Mesa in the same plaza called
Jin Karaoke and Dokdo Karaoke, both owned by an elderly couple Geunyoung Jin and Kyungmi
Jin. In the 1950s, Mrs. Jin and Mr. Jin were both born in Jecheon, the countryside of South Korea. They immigrated to San Diego in 1986 with the dream of providing a better life for their son, Kibum. Later in 1996, Jin Karaoke was established first as the oldest karaoke in San Diego. Once Jin was up and running, the owners also opened up Dokdo Sushi and Karaoke as not only a karaoke place, but also a sushi restaurant in 2005.
Jin Music Studio & Dokdo Karaoke: Historical Background of Family and Business
Before immigrating to San Diego, Mrs. Jin and Mr. Jin grew up in Jecheon their whole lives. They first met in high school and got married soon after. Mr. Jin, in order to take care of the family, worked by driving trucks and would barely have time to see his wife and son. Mrs. Jin mostly stayed at home to look after their son, but would also help out at her parents’ restaurant when she had the time. Mrs. Jin described Mr. Jin as a sweet and generous man, but also a gullible man. She explained to me that because of his kindness, Mr. Jin was often taken advantage of and was scammed of their money several times. After years of living like this and struggling to make ends meet, in 1984, they had the opportunity to visit Mrs. Jin’s sister and her family in San Diego. The main thing that stood out to Mrs. Jin in San Diego was the Korean church that her sister took her to and the community that they had made there. Religion was a significant help to Mrs. Jin whenever she and her family had troubles. To see that even in another country, she could worship God with other fellow Korean Christians, she was touched. After much conversation with Mr. Jin they packed up all their belongings and moved to San Diego. To explain the creation of Jin Karaoke, Mr. Jin told me their story of how even in dark times, what helped them stay hopeful was music. There was always a song that could describe their struggles and bring them feelings of reassurance. They wanted to share their culture and their love for music and started Jin Karaoke.
Jin Music Studio & Dokdo Karaoke: Cultural Background of Business
For the many years that Jin and Dokdo have been open, they strive to welcome all sorts of people to their business. Karaoke is a key part of Korean culture, but Mr. Jin and Mrs. Jin acknowledge that people of many other cultures enjoy karaoke and consider it a part of their culture as well. Their karaoke system includes music from all over Asia, like Korea, China, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, and a few others. Even for people who have not grown up with karaoke in their homes, Jin and Dokdo offers the opportunity to relish in the karaoke culture and includes American Pop music in their song choices.
As for their cultural decorations, this mostly applies to Dokdo Karaoke & Sushi. Dokdo is named after Dokdo Island, which has been the center of a diplomatic dispute between South Korea and Japan. When a customer walks into Dokdo, particularly the restaurant side of the establishment, they will notice Japanese decorations and traditional paintings on their walls. The history goes back more than 300 years, even when Korea was still under Japanese rule. In 1905,
Japan declared it a terra nullius (uninhabited island) and annexed it into its territory, but because Korea was a Japanese colony at the time, they could not protest. On August 15, 1945, Korea was liberated from Japanese ruling, and the Korean government allowed scholars to do academic research on Dokdo. In January 1952, Korean president Lee Seung-man proclaimed a presidential declaration on the dominion over the coastal sea and involved Dokdo with the peace line. To this day, there is still an argument between Korea and Japan and even among the Korean community, especially the eldery, about who Dokdo belongs to. As for why Mr. Jin and Mrs. Jin decided to call their restaurant and karaoke business Dokdo, they explained that the Japanese population in San Diego at the time was quite large. To some, naming a Korean business Dokdo may seem like it is a way to declare it as their own, but their intention was to show peace. They had no malintention when naming their business Dokdo and wanted to show their Japanese counterparts that they meant no harm.
As for the layout of Jin and Dokdo’s karaoke, it is the opposite of American karaoke bars.
American karaoke places are public and typically only have one karaoke machine. They allow customers to sign up for a waitlist and request a song to sing in front of the rest of the customers. In Jin and Dokdo karaoke, and many other Korean karaokes, customers are able to request a private karaoke room. Customers can come in with several of their friends and have a whole karaoke room to themselves and sing all the songs they want. In Korea, it’s a great way to create friendships, love, or even helpful work connections.
Jin Music Studio & Dokdo Karaoke: Convoy Community
When I first went to ask for an interview from Mr. Jin and Mrs. Jin, one of the first questions that I wanted to ask was how the business was when there was another karaoke place right next to them. That was when I found out that both Jin and Dokdo were theirs. As for the competition in Convoy, they explained to me that there wasn’t too much and that if there was, they hadn’t really noticed because there are not many other karaoke places. The other two that they could remember were the Carriage House, which is an American karaoke business in the same plaza as theirs, and Melody Karaoke, which is a Chinese karaoke place in another plaza in Convoy. They said that they didn’t mind the friendly competition because each place offered a unique experience to their customers. The other karaoke place that was in the same plaza as them had burned down a few years ago and were unsure if they would ever open up those buildings again. They mentioned that what makes them stand out is their relationships with their regular customers. I have seen and experienced first-hand the countless friendships that Mr. Jin, Mrs. Jin, and their employees have cultivated with the customers. They are not afraid to stay open later for their customers or even offer free food and drinks.
The karaoke machines that are used in Jin and Dokdo are from South Korea, which explains why the language setting and the remote is in Korean. For customers who cannot read or understand Korean, there is a translation of the remote taped to the wall in each karaoke room.
As for the food and drinks, they receive their products and ingredients from the Korean markets, Hmart and Zion Market. They talk about how convenient it is to have Korean markets just a couple of minutes away from them. One of the things that Mr. Jin and Mrs. Jin were worried about, living in a country that wasn’t home to them, was not having access to Korean food or ingredients. Luckily enough, they were able to watch Korean markets and the Korean community in Convoy grow so that they would be able to enjoy their Korean food and now share it with the rest of the Convoy community.
Mr. Jin and Mrs. Jin have lived in San Diego for many years and still go back to South Korea to visit their family and friends. As time goes by, they said that they do not go back as often as they used to because they are getting older and traveling for long periods of time can be draining. Jecheon, South Korea is a fairly small town and is very different from the environment in San Diego. Although they have been in San Diego for some time and met people that are like family to them, Jecheon will always be their first home. They miss some of the perks of living in a small town, but they see similarities to San Diego, especially in the Convoy community. Although by size, San Diego is larger than Jecheon, because the Korean community is so tight knit, it is quite similar to living in a small town. There are students that come to Jin and Dokdo that they treat like their children and there are other Korean business owners or even their fellow church goers that they view as family as well. Due to the language barrier, it has become crucial for Mr. Jin and Mrs. Jin to seek out their fellow Korean people and create friendships with them.
Jin Music Studio & Dokdo Karaoke: Current Challenges
Mr. Jin and Mrs. Jin talked to me about how difficult the pandemic was for them and the business. Karaoke is not the most COVID-friendly activity because it is in a closed-off space and customers would be using the same microphones as previous customers. Even if taken with precaution, it would not be safe to go to a karaoke place. They had also mentioned that they lost a large amount of customers even after lockdown had been lifted due to reasons they were unsure about. Their suspicions were that karaoke is not COVID-friendly and that Jin and Dokdo are Asian businesses. The look on their faces when they were talking about the second reason was heartbreaking. They had seen the news of Asian hate crimes, specifically to the elderly and were in fear that they were next. Due to this, they were afraid to stay out late and keep their business open until late so they cut down their hours to close earlier. Mr. Jin and Mrs. Jin experienced feeling like they were disappointing their customers for not being able to stay open late, but they wanted to put their safety first in order to provide their services. They had even considered going back to Korea for some time. However, due to their son starting school again at San Diego State University for his Masters and the strict COVID guidelines for traveling in Korea, they decided to stay in San Diego.
Oftentimes, late at night and when people are drinking, there is bound to be tension and conflict with customers. Sometimes they would have customers that came from Carriage House come to Jin or Dokdo because Carriage House closed earlier than them. There were instances when Jin or Dokdo would be busy and not have rooms for those customers. Some of these customers would become angry and aggressive with them and start trouble, talking about
COVID and making racist comments towards them. Sometimes when they didn’t have another
English-speaking employee with them, they would struggle with trying to converse with them and calm them down. Luckily, when their other customers would see this, they would intervene because they were regulars and sometimes were Asian people themselves. Mr. Jin and Mrs. Jin are grateful to have customers who would stand up for them, but also are disappointed in what the world and humanity had become.
Thang Thang (학교 종이 땡땡땡)
Pojang-macha (포장마차) or pocha (포차) for short is a popular establishment in Korea that people 20 and up. It is a common way for people to spend time with others or on their own after school, work, or just to hang out. Pochas in Korea often serve bar food, comfort food, and alcohol like soju and beer typically in a small tented spot on the busy streets. These bright orange tents that light up in the Korean city stand out and attract many customers. These tents are not very common in the United States, so instead of tents, Korean-American pocha owners have found their own unique way to provide the same service under different circumstances. An example of this is Thang Thang, which is owned by Seong-cheol Kang, who goes by Boss or Sajangnim (사장님) by his employees. Boss was born in 1969 in Anyang, South Korea. In 1995, married Gongshim Kim and moved to San Diego in 2000. Together they opened Thang Thang in 2014, but nowadays, Boss looks after the business on his own.
Thang Thang: Historical Background of Family and Business
Before starting his life in San Diego, Boss was born in Anyang, Korea and spent time working as a high school teacher where he met his wife Gongshim. As much as they loved teaching and working with students, they both did not have the desire to have their own children. However, even with both of their income, they were struggling to make ends meet. A few of their peers were talking about starting a new life in the United States and this was an idea that became appealing to Boss and his wife. After taking it into consideration for some months, in 2000, they decided to follow in the footsteps of other Korean people and immigrated to the United States. Before and once they arrived in San Diego, they struggled with deciding how they were going to make money. They did not think that their teaching career back in Korea would be beneficial to them in San Diego because they were not fluent in Korean. Boss and his wife talked about a time when they both applied to work at a liquor store as one of their last resorts. However, the store only got back to his wife and they both were uncomfortable with only his wife working there, so they declined the offer. They maintained contact with the other friends that moved to the United States, so they reached out to them to receive some advice about how they have been managing life. A couple that they had asked for advice mentioned that they had started a laundromat, so they took their advice and used up their savings to invest in a laundromat.
After about 10 years of business, Boss and his wife started experiencing a loss of income and customers. They explained that although there were still a handful of customers that used laundromats, compared to when they first started running, there was a significant decline in the amount of customers. They decided that they should start thinking of other business ideas and then they remembered that the Convoy community has been booming with new Asian restaurants and establishments. After doing some scoping around Convoy and their ‘competition,’ they decided to open Thang Thang in 2014.
Thang Thang: Cultural Background of Business
Thang Thang opens its doors to all sorts of customers to come and enjoy their food and drinks with their friends and family. For families interested in Korean cuisine, they can come and choose from the wide variety on their menu. For friends of the drinking age, they can also come and eat their delicious Korean foods, but also enjoy their Korean alcohol from soju, beer, and even fun mixed fruit bowls inspired by the bars in Korea. Drinking is one of the most popular pastimes in Korea and different from the United States, they have bars that are open until the sun comes up. Whether it’s to have some fun or relieve stress, drinking is one of the ways that Korean people do them.
The name of the restaurant, Thang Thang, is actually short for 학교 종이 땡땡땡, which translates to ‘the school bells are ringing.’ Thang Thang is the sound of the school bells, so for short, they started calling the restaurant Thang Thang. When a customer walks into the restaurant, one of the things that they’ll notice is the chalkboards that they have on the walls. On the chalkboards, customers are able to draw and write whatever they’d like and add a different element to eating and drinking at Thang Thang. This is to resemble the chalkboards they have in the classrooms in Korea and give Boss and his wife a sense of reminiscence to their life and their jobs as teachers.
Thang Thang: Convoy Community
With the growth of the Asian hub in Convoy, competition is bound to happen. I spoke with Boss about how he felt about this growth and how it affected his business. Boss mentioned a few other Korean pochas in Convoy and the owners of those businesses as well. He said that every now and then, he and the owners will get together and have drinks at Thang Thang or their establishments. Boss does not see his competition as his rivals, but more so people that encourage him to keep working hard and growing his business. Boss described to me that the other pochas and Thang Thang may be similar in concept and food/drink items, but the atmosphere is quite different in each pocha. Thang Thang may be a place to drink alcohol, but it is more casual and quieter than the other pochas. Another pocha he mentioned plays loud music like EDM, rap, and pop. Thang Thang plays music as well, but most of the time it is KPOP and the music is mostly playing in the background, whereas the other pocha is similar to a club vibe. Therefore, even if they are all pochas with Korean food and alcohol, they all offer different environments to their customers. Depending on what kind of atmosphere they want to eat and drink in, they can choose between Thang Thang and the other pochas.
When asked about where Thang Thang received their products and ingredients from, he said the same thing as the other establishments. Having access to Korean markets right down the street is something convenient that all of these business owners have been expressing. Boss said that he never would have imagined that he would be able to eat and share Korean food in the United States and that it is part of the reason that he is proud to be Korean. Even in a completely different country, Boss described, Korean culture has been spreading incredibly fast and it has been great for his business.
Boss and I also spoke about his sense of community in Convoy. As mentioned before,
Boss and other Korean pocha owners have get-togethers like they would if they were in Korea. Them not living in Korea does not restrict them from indulging in activities and having fun with other people who have a similar story. Boss talked about how lonely he was when he first moved to the United States. The only other person he knew was his wife, but even she had the same feelings of loneliness. Even when they were in the laundromat business, they found life in the United States quite lonely and unlike the other business owners, Boss and his wife are not religious. Therefore, finding community wasn’t something that came straight to them. However, when they opened Thang Thang and they were able to befriend other Korean restaurant owners, they found that sense of community with them. Boss also acknowledged his regular customers as his sense of community as well. He describes the environment with his employees and his customers as a family. Because they do not have children of their own, they treat their employees and some of the younger regular customers as their own kids. Although it wasn’t easy for Boss and his wife to adjust to life in San Diego, with some time, they were able to make something for themselves and find a community that welcomed them.
Thang Thang: Current ChallengesWhen I mentioned the struggles that Boss and his wife had faced during the pandemic, Boss became teary-eyed and I started feeling very because I had brought up a topic that was very hard for him to talk about. Although it was a difficult subject for Boss, he opened up to me about how his wife became very sick when she got COVID. Gongshim was already facing health issues, so when the pandemic hit, they tried everything in their power to not get sick.
Unfortunately, even with the precautions taken, Gongshim tested positive for COVID. She ended up in the hospital and in addition to their other health bills, now they had hospital bills to pay. In addition to her being sick, the news about Asian hate was also another fear for them. Boss described Gongshim as a very generous, but vulnerable woman. With her health issues, Boss feared that something may happen to her if she was out alone in public during the rise of Asian hate crimes. Boss explained that this is why Gongshim no longer helps with working at Thang Thang because he doesn’t want to put her under any physical strain and the stress and fear of something happening to his wife was straining on him as well.
As for Boss’s business during the pandemic, because of everything that was happening at home, Boss was under loads of stress and anxiety. He was always concerned about something happening to his wife or to Thang Thang because of the loss of business and also a loss in employees. When his employees began receiving stimulus checks, they saw less of a reason to continue working during the pandemic and quit their jobs at Thang Thang. Boss holds no resentment towards them, however, it did cause him trouble at work because his wife was no longer helping and more than half of his employees had quit or were sick with COVID. There were days after the lockdown that he would have to stay closed or close even earlier than wanted because of the workers shortage. Luckily, things started looking up for Boss and his business once vaccines were out because more people were willing to work and his anxiety of his wife’s health was slightly put at ease.
ConclusionEveryone holds a different definition for the word ‘home.’ The definitions can be influenced by the several social institutions that surround people and their community. If a social institution is not serving a certain group of people, their definition of home could be negative. If a social institution is benefitting the group, then their definition could be positive. Even home and the people in the home as a social institution can alter one’s definition of home. Speaking with the Taegukgi and The Korean Rose, Jin and Dokdo Karaoke, and Thang Thang owners embodied the differing definitions of home perfectly. Although they were all born and raised in South Korea, they planted a new seed in San Diego and created a second home for themselves. However, credit is also due to the Korean community that had already existed or was beginning to grow because without them. All of the owners expressed that it was thanks to the Korean community that they were able to grow their business and experience a new sense of home. Whether it was church, customers, employees, the Korean markets, or even simply other Korean people, it was also thanks to them that San Diego became their second home.
These experiences highlight the importance of maintaining culture, but also being open to sharing culture as well. Sharing their culture is something that the owners are doing through their business, their food, their music, and traditions. Due to their ability to maintain their Korean culture and to spread it with others, their definitions of home in San Diego are optimistic. All three business owners moved to the United States because the social institutions in Korea were not catering to them and their needs. They decided to take matters into their own hands and address their needs. They all saw an opportunity to reshape their definitions of home and they executed that through their own skills in addition to some help from their community and resources. In times of struggle, it can be felt that it is easiest to turn to those that are familiar with the same experiences. This is why Korean communities stick so close together because no one would completely understand their journeys other than another Korean American, possibly from the same generation as well. This is why so many Korean Americans turn to churches because not only could they be dealing with similar issues or have dealt with them, but they also reach for hope from the same source.
Taegukgi and the Korean Rose, Jin and Dokdo Karaoke, and Thang Thang brought into light significant factors of a Korean community and how they relish in their second homes. They also addressed the issues that come when their community is being attacked and killed due to being Asian. Whether it’s to celebrate or to mourn, Korean Americans do them together, along with other Asians. No one should be able to destroy someone’s sense of community and home. The Convoy Korean community has been standing strong and will continue to with the help of people like Grace and Annie Lee, their parents, Mama and Papa Lee, Mr. and Mrs. Jin, and Boss and Gongshim.
Hong, Ashley (2021). "Korean Fusion: Consuming a Globalized Korea Through Food and
Music" (2021). Honors Theses. 566. https://digitalcommons.bucknell.edu/honors_theses/566
Kaijo, Charles (2015). “Contested Spaces: Capturing the Cultural Layers of Koreatown, Los
Angeles.” PhD Thesis, California State University, Northridge. https://scholarworks.calstate.edu/concern/theses/5h73pz62k?locale=es
Kang, Kristy H. A. (2013). “The Seoul of Los Angeles: Contested Identities and
Transnationalism in Immigrant Space.” ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Ph.D., United States -California: University of Southern California.
Lee, Erika (2015). “The Making of Asian America: A History”
Stephens, M. G. (2000). “San Diego's Koreatown on Convoy Street.” San Diego Reader.