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Renewing the Heart's Ties

Shopping in Koreatown is a weekly ritual that keeps people in touch with their identity and heritage.

September 27, 1996|K. CONNIE KANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To motorists whizzing by on Olympic Boulevard, Koreatown may seem like just another nondescript inner-city strip of shops, restaurants and bars.

But to many of the 75 million ethnic Koreans around the world, Los Angeles' Koreatown is well-known and a very special place: It's the capital of Koreans in America.

Despite Koreatown's sometimes tawdry appearance and high crime rate, Koreans enjoy coming here because it gives them a sense of belonging.

I'm hooked on Koreatown, too, even though its face, unlike Little Tokyo's, defies my sense of aesthetics.

My week feels incomplete without at least one trip to Koreatown--grocery shopping at Hannam, a popular supermarket at Olympic and Berendo, and partaking of a bowl of seafood stew at one of more than a score of restaurants in the immediate vicinity. Koreans were born to eat!

Lingering over the seafood stew while listening to songs that cry out for home and mother on a Korean radio station, I realize how fortunate I am to live in Los Angeles.

The ambience reminds me not only of my roots as a hyphenated American, but also of how far Asians have come in this country.

I've lived long enough to remember the days before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, when there were so few Koreans that whenever I ran into one, I felt as if I had found a long-lost relative.

Today, with 1 million ethnic Koreans in the United States--nearly half in Southern California--I don't jump up and down with joy at the sight of another Korean. Still, there's nothing quite like having a Koreatown to renew the ties of my heart and soul to my heritage.

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Unlike Little Tokyo, tidy and contained, Koreatown spills out many blocks from Vermont Avenue to Crenshaw Boulevard and from Beverly Boulevard to Pico Boulevard.

Who can miss the riotous signs in the Korean script hangul going every which way?

The heart of Koreatown is Olympic and Vermont, with three mini-malls packed with shops and the Hannam market around the corner.

Saturday afternoons are especially lively at Hannam because non-shoppers like to congregate there too.

Evangelists from Korean churches are out in force, passing out leaflets and urging passersby to come to their churches on Sunday.

"Have you been saved?" they ask, handing out leaflets promising "an eternal life."

Sometimes religious folks share the space in front of the market with community activists registering voters or raising money for this cause or that.

While people come and go, proselytizers are there every Saturday, come what may.

To step inside Hannam supermarket on a Sunday afternoon is a lesson on sensibilities--a reminder that humans are alike and different at the same time.

While absent-mindedly pushing a cart, I'm interrupted by a shove from behind. A tiny, elderly woman, hurrying toward the mound of succulent Korean melons on sale for 99 cents a pound, is the culprit in this attack.

She does not apologize. Among Koreans, an unintentional push or a shove in a crowded place neither demands apology nor warrants forgiveness. It is understood that no harm is meant.

As I push my cart out of the store and head toward the parking lot, a security guard directs me as if I were a vehicle. He motions me to come toward him, while keeping another motorist at bay.

"I'm not a motorist," I'm tempted to say. But I'm relishing the scene too much to interrupt.

So I follow his direction, with my cart containing succulent Korean pears and meaty jujubes, delicate lotus roots and fragrant sesame leaves, and pine needle rice cakes.

This is the way it is when you're shopping for food in Koreatown, I tell myself as I head home with a warm sense of satisfaction. This is a new Los Angeles, where even routine grocery shopping can be a rewarding cultural experience.

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