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Minority Within a Minority

Russian-speaking former Soviet Koreans find it hard fitting into Korean American community

December 21, 2003|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

Many of the immigrants say they are grateful for the moral and spiritual support they have received from Rafikova's church, and they are gradually overcoming the trauma of their earlier, grueling lives.

"It's a great place to make friends and to feel included," said Irina Tyan, 43, who arrived here with her 18-year-old son in October and was reunited with her husband and 14-year-old daughter, who had come two years earlier.

"The church has helped [Russian Koreans] to become closer," she added. "Here, things are better than in Uzbekistan. Life was difficult there."

The church "gives me comfort. If it wasn't here, I don't know who I would mix with," said Lubov Nyu, 48. She arrived in Los Angeles in June with her 18-year-old son and joined her husband. Their 25-year-old daughter was not granted a U.S. visa and remains home alone in Uzbekistan.

Penetrating the greater Korean American society has been a challenge, many Russian Koreans said. Although the former Soviet citizens have preserved some aspects of Korean culture -- traditional wedding ceremonies, the custom of showing undivided respect to elders and the art of making Korean pastries and other delicacies -- many differences divide the two communities.

Russian Koreans tend to be more expressive, emotional and Western in their mannerisms and behavior than members of the older generation of Korean Americans, who appear more insular and reserved, and as a result often come across as standoffish and impatient with outsiders, Rafikova said.

"They are often surprised to see us," Nyu said. "Sometimes they don't know where Uzbekistan is."

But the main obstacle to Russian Koreans' gaining smooth access to the Korean American community has been their lack of knowledge of the Korean language, pastor Kim said.

Mapiya Yun, who arrived from the Uzbek city of Samarkand a year ago to join her daughter in Los Angeles, said being able to speak some Korean has helped her fit in. She is encouraging other Russian-speaking newcomers to study Korean to forge better ties with Korean Americans.

"If we have their language, we could work for them," said Yun, 53, a former nurse whose main pastime these days is baby-sitting her 4-year-old grandson. "It is beneficial for the process of doing business."

John Lie, chairman of the Center for Korean Studies at UC Berkeley, said it was not surprising that those considered to be "nonstandard" Koreans generally found it difficult to integrate into Korean American society.

"There's a strong strand of hyper-nationalism among Korean Americans who presume that they are homogeneous and essentially similar," Lie said. "Hence, those who deviate from the common-sense norm often find it difficult to feel welcome, or part of the larger community."

In the 1990s, the children of Korean immigrants who initially had settled in Latin America and therefore spoke Spanish or Portuguese also had difficulty assimilating into Korean American social circles.

Chinese Koreans have fared slightly better because many of them speak Korean, said Francis Hur, secretary general of the Korean Federation of Los Angeles.

Hur said that his group would gladly embrace Russian Koreans and offer them assistance, but that their presence in the city was little known.

"We didn't even know they existed in Los Angeles," said Hur, whose umbrella organization is a clearinghouse for service providers that can assist Koreans.

"No one knows about them," Hur added. "If we could expose them, it would be a hot issue. Of course, we are going to welcome them. Of course, they can be part of our community."

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