Wrong! Not South Korea. This photo was taken in Flushing, Queens.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had already read everywhere that LA had the largest population of Koreans in the US. "It really is like a bit of Seoul in American," one friend had told me, "Nothing but Korean stores and businesses as far as the eye can see."
Imagine my surprise and disappointment then that when I finally saw Koreatown in Los Angeles I saw nothing of the beautiful, highly-compact shops and scenery of Korea. The LA Koreatown area, instead, was just a bunch of ugly Los Angeles architecture with some Korean letters on it. Los Angeles is really such an ugly urban landscape... especially when you compare it with the design aesthetic of Korean buildings.
Somebody should have told me to go to Flushing, Queens in New York City. If you want to go to Korea but don't have 1500 bucks to spend on a trans-Pacific plane ticket... getcher self over to Queens! This seriously is like a bit of Sinchon district or a back street around Gwangbukhung station. Oh there is a good bit of American graffiti and far more trash than any self-respecting neighborhood in Korea would allow... but on the whole this area is virtually indistinguishable from Anytown, Korea.
Hubby, baby and I flew to New York for Thanksgiving. We spent the first night at my aunt's wonderful house in Larchmont, but due to the baby's incessant crying- a noise that had apparently reverberated throughout the entire wooden mansion until three o'clock in the morning- we were soon banished to a nice hotel in Queens. This pleased my husband no end. Always sensitive to cold (winter in Outer Mongolia had been hellish for him), he spent his first night outside of Los Angeles shivering under the feather comforters in my aunt's attic guestroom. Between the cold and the crying baby my husband was miserable, hiding all day in the guestroom and refusing even to come downstairs to eat. I couldn't blame him really... being trapped with a bunch of strange in-laws who don't speak your language can be daunting. My husband is Korean, and when I traveled with him to visit his mother and sisters in the village of Chung-Nam I found myself similerly isolated. I couldn't really speak to his relatives. I absolutely HATED the thin little floor mats that passed for beds in that house. I was pregnant at the time and I despised the food they thoughtfully placed in front of me (gelatinous, raw grey squid with tiny black eyes, forty different kinds of pickled cabbage and not a single piece of palatable nourishment among the forty different dishes on display) and almost cried when my older sister-in-law denied me coffee because she insisted the 90% artificial-milk-and-sweetener concoction that is instant coffee in Korea would harm my baby.
One year later the tables were turned. My husband hated the guestroom and shivered all day under the beautiful linen down comforters my aunt has in her house. He couldn't bring himself to go downstairs and eat because the food was too Western for him. It was all bread and cheese and bagels... not a single scrap of odorous pickled cabbage to be found on the premises. When I gave him the news that we would be spending the next two nights in a hotel, he practically sprang out of bed, packed the bags and was tapping his foot by the front door before I had even brushed my teeth. No worries though, I had had a similer reaction when my husband (a year earlier) announced that we would be leaving Chung-Nam a day early.
After taking the train into New York and then out to Queens my husband was starting to visibly relax. As soon as we came out of the subway station at Flushing it was dusk. The air was full of good cheer and twinkling christmas lined the windows despite the fact that Thanksgiving was barely cold in its grave, so to speak. The scene was so beautiful. It rivaled any Seoul shopping district during the holidays... and that is saying something. The Koreans are renowned around Asia for having exquisite taste when it comes to cosmopolitan beauty. I was dumbstruck by how gorgeous- and how Korean!- Flushing looked in the dark. When my husband's cousin picked us up to take us out to dinner my husband was starting to smile again. He laughed through dinner (at a Korean restaurant, of course), devoured two small dishes of kimchi and insisted that I have a taste too before we left.
Once dinner was done and our stomachs happily full of barbacued meat and various bits of vinegary vegetable matter, we all checked into a Ramada Inn. The room was very comfortable. The beds were white with thick, good-quality coverlets. The TV had one of those amazing high-def flatscreens which pleased my husband no end. He likes to fall asleep with the TV on and the guestroom in Larchmont had had no television. "Good, good..." he sighed, reclining in bed as "Indiana Jones" played on TV and I nursed the baby.
"No, sorry," I said, smiling apologetically, "I'm just out to get coffee."
The salesmen quietly let me pass. Life must be so rough when you work on commission.... but I had no time to feel pity. I was about to indulge in an interruption-free peppermint mocha at Starbucks for the first time in months! As I went the coffee shop the smell was more wonderful than I had imagined before. Look! There were young professionals typing on laptops while sipping coffee! There were industrious yet cheerful baristas in black linen aprons filling cups full of heavy, sweet milk, syrup and caramel. There were people talking on phones, reading books, writing in notepads, studying texts (probably students from CUNY-Queens) and- bliss of bliss- reading newspapers. When was the last time I had read a good, old-fashioned paper newspaper... something wrapped in a dew-spotted blue tubular bag and left on your doorstep. Something where you had to shake the bottom of the bag to get out the paper, which the unfurled in your hand or (if you were slightly more clumsly) spilled its guts- inserts, adverts and all- on the kitchen floor. Something that was papery, slightly chilly and smelled of fresh print- REAL print! The stuff that turned your fingertips slightly grey. When had I last read something like that? Pleasures like that really can't be overestimated... especially when they're experienced over coffee.
But getting back to the story at hand, as I relaxed in the Starbucks in Flushing with a peppermint mocha in one hand and a dog-eared copy of the New York Times front page in the other, I resolved that one day I would move to this place. Here, where a young student couple argued in Chinese two tables down from me, a Korean man tapped idly on an iPad while sipping something hot that came with a lid and a young woman right beside me was furiously scribbling something from what looked like a college-level biochemistry textbook.... here was where I wanted to live. It had all the pleasures of Korea with none of the dangers of nuclear attack from the North. Here in New York I would not have to worry about earthquakes or war or droughts or sleazy marijuana venders. Here in Queens was where I wanted to live. That was the spell of the coffee and the newspaper... a little bubble of bliss suspended in time before my cell phone beeped telling me that my husband was up, the baby was awake and I needed to get back to the hotel quickly if I expected to be on time to meet my cousins-in-law for lunch.