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KRCC in the News: “Korean-Americans Learn Spanish to Help Out at Work” (Chicago Tribune, 11/09)

By November 9, 2009No Comments

Reposted from The Chicago Tribune

Korean-Americans learn Spanish to help out at work:
Business owners attempt to cool tension with Latino workers

By Antonio Olivo
Tribune reporter

November 9, 2009

In a city long known for ethnic ghettos and virtual walls between segregated neighborhoods, Sue Choe is something of a trailblazer. The Korean-American is hustling to learn Spanish.

“Bienvenido a mi tienda,” Choe proudly welcomes visitors into her Koreatown Laundromat, over the rumbling of dryers.

The businesswoman’s cultural leap is not only an acknowledgment of how fast many neighborhoods are turning Latino. It’s part of an urgent attempt by Korean-American leaders to quell escalating tensions in the neighborhood.

Aware of an ugly history between Korean-Americans and African-Americans — one that erupted into violence in some cities in the 1990s — Korean business owners are trying to soothe mutual suspicions with Spanish-speaking workers and customers. The effort is mostly born of an increasingly interdependent employer-employee relationship.

It is just one of the ways in which new waves of Immigration and intermigration between neighborhoods is fast changing the city, mixing new combinations of ethnic groups together and forcing them to search for ways to coexist as so many previous generations of immigrants did.

It is not only Latinos and Koreans in Albany Park, but other newcomers and established communities, such as blacks and Hispanics in Chicago Lawn, Poles and Hispanics in Humboldt Park, Italians and Hispanics in Heart of Chicago, and Chinese, Irish and Hispanics in Bridgeport.

“We need to have a dialogue. Immediately. The sooner, the better,” says Ray Kim, senior vice president of the Chicago Korean American Chamber of Commerce in North Park. “The tensions … are getting worse.”

As with blacks in years past, some of the hostility between Koreans and Latinos can be chalked up to the usual urban frictions, and a few unfortunate cases where teenagers have either shoplifted or hurled racial epithets at Korean shopkeepers. In turn the shopkeepers have become overly suspicious of all Latinos, Kim said.

But the problem mostly lies in the cultural clash the groups face when the Koreans’ need for labor runs up against Latinos’ need for jobs.

At Chicago’s roughly 10,000 Korean-owned laundromats, restaurants and other small businesses, Latino immigrants have become the primary labor pool. Some volatile workplace battles have erupted, further fueled by cultural misunderstandings and a language barrier.

Latino workers, many earning less than the minimum wage, complain that their Korean bosses neglect to pay overtime and are often callous about days off or job-related injuries.

In turn Korean owners, at times unfamiliar with U.S. labor laws, see ingratitude and disloyalty in their employees’ complaints. They argue that their up-from-the-ground businesses are a team effort that also has the owners working long hours.

“The Korean mentality is that it’s not that easy to establish a family relationship (in the workplace), but when it happens, it goes a long way,” says Charles Cho, a dental laboratory owner, explaining the importance Koreans place on employee loyalty. “Spanish workers? Easy to make friends, but also easy to go.”

In some instances the disputes have hurt both sides.

In 2005 Latino immigrant workers filed a class-action lawsuit against an industrial cleaning company for unpaid wages and other allegations. The suit sent shudders through the Korean community when the $400,000 legal expense ultimately forced the business, Yoo’s Cleaners, to shut down.

While the two-dozen workers got money through a court settlement, they also ended up unemployed, says Tim Bell, lead organizer for the Chicago Workers Collaborative, a non-profit group that works on behalf of Latino workers and has filed several labor complaints against Korean business owners.

“It was pretty ugly,” Bell says.

That case and similar lawsuits spurred Bell’s group and Korean community leaders to begin trying to improve relations. Last year the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center, a non-profit group advocating for immigrants, launched an awareness campaign that sought to find middle ground between the two groups.

Above all, they found, there was a lack of communication.

That’s where Blanca Joo comes in. A Guatemalan immigrant who is quick with a laugh, Joo married a Korean bus driver who was so smitten he proposed in 2005, three months after they met.

She now teaches Spanish inside Korean American Community Services, one of Koreatown’s oldest nonprofits, which also offers sewing classes and a Head Start preschool program to neighborhood Latino families.

Describing the first months of her marriage as “a mountain of culture clash,” Joo says she has come to appreciate the Korean tradition of togetherness — the emphasis on family and the way that communal eating is cherished.

In her Spanish classes Joo and a handful of Korean students grapple with their unwieldy English as she tries to teach them her native language and they thumb through Spanish-Korean dictionaries.

“I think we teach each other,” says Choe, one of Joo’s pupils.

Choe, who arrived from Seoul in 1974, takes Spanish classes for two reason: her ministry work in Bolivia and the awkward exchanges with her Latino employees and customers reminded her of the difficult history Koreans had with African-Americans. The date April 29 is seared in many minds as the moment when those tensions fueled some of the violence during the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

Now when Choe exchanges Spanish pleasantries with her workers and customers, she says she sees herself in the young immigrant women striving for a firm footing in a new country.

“We had a very hard time,” she says, recalling her early years in Chicago. “I had a baby, and I had to work the night-time shift.”

Choe’s employees seem appreciative. During the holidays they’ve even begun to look forward to the Korean food their boss brings.

“She’s very communicative with us,” remarks Elvia Diaz, who has worked for Choe for two years.

Still some subjects lie beneath the surface. With her boss out of earshot, Diaz ventures a question in hushed Spanish.

“When do you think is the appropriate time to ask about time off for vacation?” she wonders. “It’s been very hard with my children when they’re out of school and they don’t want to give me the days off.”

Copyright © 2009, Chicago Tribune