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The 1.5 Solution : They came here as children, growing up with one foot in Korea and one in America. Now, this generation has a mission: To solve the problems of its community.

January 12, 1996|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.

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