When Sekyong Hong first laid eyes on Rudy Castillo in the Koreatown grocery store where they worked, she figured he was like most other non-Koreans who couldn't understand her language, customs and people.
Still, she admitted to herself, "He was very handsome."
Dating him was out of the question, Hong thought. What would her father think? He accepted only Korean boyfriends.
But Castillo wasn't like most non-Koreans in Koreatown. Along with his job training at the Korean store, the Mexican-born stockroom clerk acquired another skill shared by a handful of Latinos in Koreatown. And when the time was right, he used it to break the ice with Hong and melt the cold shoulder the attractive cashier was showing him.
Leaning close, Castillo spoke to her in fluent Korean, one of the world's more difficult languages, which he had picked up by memorizing prices on canned goods, names on sacks of rice and phrases uttered by supervisors, customers and voices on the radio during the three years he had worked at the Korean grocery.
"I could not believe what I was hearing," said Hong, who married Castillo 1 1/2 years ago with her father's reluctant blessing. "It was surprising."
Her surprise would undoubtedly be shared by a great many Angelenos who are blithely unaware of Los Angeles' Koreatown, where a remarkable mix of Latino and Asian cultures is occurring.
It is a community where a Latino stock clerk might sing along with the radio in perfect Korean, where dozens of Korean immigrant merchants learn Spanish before English, and where young immigrants born half a world apart secretly admire each other and, sometimes, fall in love. It is a community dominated by Korean businesses but where the majority of the residents are Latino.
'Two Invisible Communities'
Strangely, in a city swarming with researchers and media, Koreatown's dynamic melting pot has been largely overlooked.
"No one has written about it," said Jeannette Diaz-Veizades, a professor at Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco who co-wrote a study of the Koreatown and Pico-Union neighborhoods with Edward Chang, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside.
"It's two invisible communities trying to struggle by," Diaz-Veizades said. "It's not a blatant conflict like blacks and Koreans. [Latinos and Koreans] are both immigrant, politically marginalized communities."
But they are communities that may not stay on the city's fringes for long. Taking paths that intersect, both are seeking a larger role in shaping Los Angeles' future through politics.
According to the study and other informed observers, the communities share similarities that, over time, will allow them to work together.
"You have the Korean community, the Central American community and the Mexican community. All have the experience of being immigrant," said Angela Sanbrano, director of the Central American Resource Center, a social service agency in Pico-Union. "You need to be an immigrant to understand what being an immigrant is like. That brings the two groups together in understanding each other more."
Both Latino and Korean immigrants rely heavily on their children to translate English. Recalling her childhood, one Guatemalan woman said the pressure to decode letters concerning her family's loans and bills, and to do her homework without help, "was unreal."
Some Latinos and Koreans believe that their commonalities go even deeper, the study said. In interviews, Koreans spoke of similar physical characteristics with Latinos, including skin hue and raven-colored hair that women in both groups traditionally wear long.
"It's funny that some Koreans say we look the same," said Diaz-Veizades, a Latina. "There's more of a sense of perceived similarity that might come from living together. The other thing is there's a different expectation of immigrant groups than African Americans who've been living here a long time."
Korean American professor Chang speaks like a man who has stumbled upon a strange new world.
Growing Relationship Despite Tensions
"I don't know what it is," he said. "For Koreans, it's easier to speak Spanish than English. There's less tension in terms of cultural differences, and the fact that they both don't speak English fluently, so there's no inferiority complex. If you were to hire an African American, he would speak the language better than you do.
"But I don't think there's a strong interaction between the [Latino and Korean] communities yet," Chang said. "It's going to take time."
In fact, what is significant about Diaz-Veizades and Chang's study is that it describes a relationship that is developing despite tension and mutual misunderstanding.
Castillo and Hong say their experience confirms that observation. As they stroll the sidewalks winding past Koreatown's decaying Normandy-style apartment buildings, Latinos pay them no attention, Castillo said. But the Koreans they pass often bend toward each other and whisper.