How much is your ethnicity worth? In hard cash. Dollars and cents. How much do you think you can get for it?
When we talk about race in America, we speak in terms of power and strife. When we bring up ethnicity, we focus on the gushy stuff -- pride and the sense of belonging that strong cultural identities create. Think of those quaint, exotics-on-display "isn't diversity great?" stories on National Public Radio.
But here in the U.S., immigrants have also learned to commodify their ethnic identities, and this month's controversy in Los Angeles over a proposal to create a Little Bangladesh right smack in the middle of Koreatown is the latest proof.
When a group of Bangladeshi businessmen filed an application with the city clerk to name the blocks from 3rd Street to Wilshire between Vermont and Western in honor of their homeland, Korean activists moved to quash the proposal. The Koreans came across as petty and prideful. "We don't want to seem like bullies, but this is Koreatown," the chairman of the Korean American Federation of Los Angeles told one reporter -- but they were also acting completely rationally and in their self-interest.
Why? Because ethnically designated neighborhoods are as much about marketing and branding, about telling the world where to buy sushi or kimchi, as they are about where people live, their actual New World turf or even ethnic pride. Yes, both Korean and Bangladeshi activists will try to sell you the line that everyone needs a place to be proud of in America, blah, blah, but when push comes to shove, they'll admit that it's just as much about cash. What could be more American?
"It's all connected -- pride and business," 53-year-old journalist, mime and yoga instructor Quazi Huda told me over a cup of tea. "If you pull your ear, your head comes with it."
Huda and his friends believe that a few of those blue city neighborhood signs, bearing the words "Little Bangladesh," could draw visitors from out of town and around town to the businesses and restaurants in their little neck of the woods.
Look closely and you'll find that many ethnic "neighborhoods" are more shopping districts than residential enclaves. There may be a noticeable concentration of, say, Thais living in one part of the city, or perhaps there was at one time, but that's not strictly necessary to qualify for the blue sign.
In fact, only 2% of residents of Thai Town are Thai. Little Ethiopia is less than 1% Ethiopian. Indians make up less than 5% of the part of Artesia known as Little India, though it has never gotten an official title and sign. And really, how many Greeks do you think actually live in the Byzantine-Latino Quarter?
Way back in 1980, when Korean businessmen first lobbied the city for a sign on the Hollywood Freeway designating Koreatown, only 7% of the area's residents were Korean. Today, Koreans are still not the majority of the population in the area between Melrose and Pico, Hoover to Crenshaw (more or less).
Of course, the much older Chinatowns of the West Coast, or Little Italy and Greek Town in New York and Chicago, set the stage. In one of the most studied examples, as far back as the early 20th century, Chinese entrepreneurs self-consciously exchanged restaurants for vice as their neighborhood calling card.
Today, Koreatown is just a more established version of wanna-be Little Bangladesh. Yes, it may have served (and for some immigrants still does) as a launching pad where newcomers gain a toehold in their new country. But a lot of Korean immigrants skip it altogether. More and more, it's symbolically significant, a place Koreans don't call home but might come to on the weekend, for food, the language, cultural events. And that official name? It's advertising.
That's what the Bangladeshis want, a way to tell greater L.A., their compatriots and the world, "Hey, if you want to have Bangladeshi food, come on over to 3rd between Western and Vermont!" For the city, it's a PR deal too. Consider Chicago, with its tourism slogan: "Travel the world, in Chicago, one neighborhood at a time."
I'm not saying that we shouldn't give these districts ethnic labels, just that we should see them for what they are.
Sometime this week, Koreans and Bangladeshis are likely to announce an agreement that both sides can live with. Little Bangladesh will probably end up being just to the east of what we consider the heart of Koreatown.
Gift shop owner Anisur Rahman, for one, thinks that this will be a win-win for all involved. "If we make money, our taxes will go to the city of Los Angeles, the state of California, and to the U.S.A.," he told me.