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Seoul man

October 22, 2006|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Seoul — BACK HOME IN L.A., I have an intense, unrequited relationship with Korean culture. As a proud resident of Koreatown, I frequent the neighborhood's Korean restaurants and bars and, on occasion, even its karaoke rooms. For the last couple of years, I've been one of the few "gentile" members of a snooty Korean spa. So, when friends and family heard I was visiting Seoul, they teased me that I was returning to my ancestral homeland.

Still, I had no idea Seoul would feel so familiar. After all, suburban Monterey Park, the Chinese capital of America, bears little resemblance to Beijing, and Huntington Park, the city in the U.S. with the highest percentage of Mexican-born residents, is more reminiscent of Middle America than Guadalajara.

But, as it turns out, K-town is a highly condensed -- if slightly shabbier -- version of this thriving, hyper-urban, traffic-choked metropolis. Here, as in Koreatown, the women are fashionistas, the drivers are aggressive and parents put serious pressure on their kids to succeed in school. And did I mention, there are bars and saunas everywhere you look? Home sweet home.

For years, good-government types chided ethically challenged former L.A. City Council member Nate Holden for helping Korean businessmen and campaign donors turn K-town into a party district, with the city's highest number of liquor licenses per capita. I'm here to tell you that Nate "I Built Koreatown" Holden was merely being culturally sensitive. According to a recent study, South Korea is the fourth-largest distilled-liquor consumer in the world. In its rigidly hierarchical society, it's clear that drinking is the great equalizer and a national pastime.

But if Korean immigrants built a living homage to their homeland in Los Angeles, I was curious whether the influence went both ways. Heck, maybe I'd find an L.A.-town somewhere in Seoul.

No such luck. Other than a cosmetics ad featuring Pomona-born Jessica Alba standing in front of Disney Hall, I saw "L.A." mostly used as a snappy title for businesses. While wandering the city, I came across L.A. Realty, L.A. Karaoke and an L.A. restaurant that specialized in Vietnamese soup. Even Hollywood's influence is limited here, thanks to a protectionist quota that requires theaters to screen domestic movies 73 days a year.

I did find a Seoul-branch of BCD Tofu House, a restaurant chain founded on Vermont Avenue a decade ago. There I ordered "L.A. Kalbi," which is essentially traditional Korean barbecue ribs that are sliced thinner than usual. A Seoul beef importer later told me that the style of cut originated with Korean immigrants in Los Angeles and was then introduced back into Korea. She added that she thought Korean barbecue was tastier in L.A. than in Seoul. "That's because American beef is better," she said.

Of course, the Seoulites I talked to were well aware of the large Korean population in L.A., but I didn't sense any great affinity for our fair city. Some have vacationed in Los Angeles. But much to my surprise, a Korean-language Los Angeles travel guide I consulted only had a small entry for Koreatown -- bigger than the paragraph on Westwood but not as extensive as the item on Hollywood.

As it happens, Korean attitudes toward their brethren abroad are a tad ambivalent. In this highly competitive society, one sociologist at Seoul National University told me, emigrants are sometimes looked down on as family members who couldn't cut the mustard back home.

Seoul resident Esther Kim, 23, who lived in Southern California until she was 11, told me that the essential difference between Seoul and Koreatown was that the former is geared to the future and the latter has its eye on the past.

"Koreatown is like Seoul back in the day," Kim said. "There, people are trying to preserve their culture. But in Seoul, everyone is busy trying to catch up with the world."

Ultimately, however, it's the Korean elites who are most connected to Los Angeles, but that's not because it's a home away from home. Last Monday afternoon, I sat in on a seminar in the main ballroom of the Grand Intercontinental Hotel, where 700 prospective buyers showed up to hear a sales pitch for condominiums that will be built only a few blocks from my apartment in K-town. There was my neighborhood, in the form of a 20-foot architectural sketch on display behind the dais. According to one executive of the development firm, 60% of the units will be sold in Korea to investors who have no intention of moving to L.A.

Indeed, over the last several years, wealthy South Koreans have been investing heavily in property and businesses abroad, particularly in places with large Korean populations. Not only has the money drain hurt the South Korean economy, it has inflated prices in Koreatown. Between 2001 and 2004, Korean investment was largely responsible for the doubling of home prices in Koreatown.

I came to Seoul to explore its cultural connections with L.A., and the most significant thing I learned is this: In a globalized world, in which capital moves faster than people, I may be forever condemned to be a renter.

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