Northern Virginia's newest supermarket extraordinaire, the Korean-owned Super H Mart, signifies an ethnic evolution in a business once dominated by mom-and-pop stores serving a largely Korean clientele, its owners say. Super H stocks plenty of ethnic food, to be sure, but it was given a name that its owners believe "sounds American," and it offers an abundance of Western products to compete with the big chain grocers.
The pattern is seen in other areas as well. Korean churches in the suburbs once rushed to post their names on Asian-lettered signs outside. Newer congregations often do not. Ambassador Bible Church in Vienna, for example, which was founded in 1996 by second-generation Koreans, reaches out to all races. Its leadership wouldn't think of putting up a billboard in Korean.
As these examples show, Korean Americans -- in their economic, religious and family interactions -- increasingly are leaving the ethnic enclaves that nurtured them and their parents for so long, those familiar with the evolution say. Some, especially the community's elders, bemoan a loss of ethnic identity, but others view the assimilation as natural and healthy.
The debate is sharpened this year, which marks the centennial of Korean immigration to the United States. One hundred years ago today, 102 passengers docked in Honolulu on the ocean liner Gaelic. They were the first large group of Koreans to arrive intent on making this country their own.
With Korean Americans now numbering more than 1 million, according to the 2000 Census, communities nationwide plan a year-long commemoration of the centennial. Today's kickoff in Hawaii will be led by a son of one of the original settlers.
The Smithsonian Institution is sponsoring an event each month, beginning with a photography exhibit Thursday at the National Museum of Natural History. About 66,000 Korean Americans live in the Washington area, a majority of them in Virginia's suburbs. Only Los Angeles and New York City claim more.
The national retrospective aims to shatter some stereotypes by telling the stories of the first wave of Korean immigrants, celebrating the progress of the second generation and exploring what lies ahead for the third.
For success stories, one need look no further than Donald C. Kim, chairman of the centennial committee and the son of one of those first 102 immigrants. Kim, 74, spent much of his youth on Hawaiian pineapple farms making 69 cents a day.
"It was backbreaking work," said Kim, who rose to become chief executive of Hawaii's oldest and largest engineering consulting firm, R.M. Towill Corp., during a visit to Washington last year. "All to make and provide a better life for our children."
The biggest wave of Koreans came after 1965, when U.S. immigration laws were loosened. The immigrants were largely well educated -- close to 90 percent had completed high school, according to Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies -- and they moved quickly to set up small businesses catering to other Koreans. Among the immigrants have been tens of thousands of children who were adopted into U.S. homes. Last year, nearly 1,800 arrived, the fourth-largest total, behind Russia, China and Guatemala.
Among immigrant groups, Koreans are distinct in a couple of ways, Camarota said. The first generation -- those born in Korea -- has the highest self-employment rate among immigrants, at 27 percent. And more than 70 percent are considered middle-class, with incomes at least twice the poverty level.
Devotion to religion and church projects -- a hallmark of the first generation -- seems to have waned with its offspring, according to Korean pastors. Another sign of change: Women of the second generation have one of the highest rates of interracial marriage, at 28 percent.
In all areas of their lives -- at home, in church and in business -- the signs of a changing, assimilating community are evident.
Beyond the Mom-and-Pops HanAhReum Asian Mart Corp. owns 16 Korean groceries on the East Coast, four in the Washington area. None is more important than its new Super H Mart on Lee Highway in Fairfax City, an experiment to see whether the company can compete with the local big boys, Giant Food and Safeway. It is the first time the company has operated under a non-Korean name.
Super H offers one-stop shopping: a 53,000-square-foot warehouse with tanks of eel and lobster alongside Korean foods, pottery and videos, refrigerators, Kellogg's cereals and other Western foods.
Company officials had more than just the big grocers in mind when expanding. They figured they'd leave some mom-and-pop Korean operations in their wake as well.
And they have. Myung Hee Kang, who runs tiny Dong-A Asian Market about a half-mile from Super H, said there used to be 12 small Korean grocers in the area. Two remain. "We've had to find a niche. That's the only way we could survive," she said. "There's no sense in fighting the big stores."
Kang puts in about 80 hours a week at her grocery and the little restaurant attached to it. The chef has been there 20 years, the elderly kimchi-maker a decade.
Kang, 47, took over the store from her mother and hopes that her 18-year-old son, Junehee, will one day take over from her. Out of her hearing, he says he doesn't want to work such long hours and hopes to do "something with computers" instead.
Kang's plummeting business since Super H Mart arrived is the price of progress, its owners maintain. Theirs "is the story of Korean immigration," said Vice President Sun Huh, noting the company's own mom-and-pop roots in Riverside, N.Y. The company grew along with its Korean customer base, he said, until it now has the resources to be a "truly American company."
"This is not a second- or third-generation Korean store," said Paul Kwon, Super H's manager. "This is a store for everyone. We want to reach all races, whites, blacks, Hispanics."
The days of Koreatown, in other words, are long gone.
Into the Churches Christianity spread quickly in Korea at the dawn of the 20th century.
Oppressed by the Japanese, Koreans took comfort in missionary teachings and believed that Christianity linked them to the West, the enemy of their enemies, according to Peter Cha, a professor at Chicago's Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Korean immigrants brought their strong faith with them, said Kyeyoung Park, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. Surveys find that as many as 70 percent of Korean immigrants attend church regularly.
"It was the only institution that provided regular fellowship gatherings for these lonely immigrants," who often worked 12-hour days, six days a week, Cha said. Their faith gave them a sense of purpose, a belief that their labor was not in vain. In return, many poured all they had into the church. First-generation Koreans emptying their retirement funds to build churches were not uncommon.
For the second generation -- who pastors and academics estimate attend services in about half the numbers of their parents -- the Korean church remains a social haven.
Alexandria resident Yooshik Seo, 29, attends Open Door Presbyterian Church, a Korean congregation in Herndon that offers a respite from "a mainly white world."
"You don't have to explain everything when you are with other Koreans. They understand exactly what you are going through," he said.
But other Korean Americans, some of them resentful of the control the first generation exerts over services, have left traditional Korean churches to join mainly white churches or form their own.
For Helen Oh, who belongs to Ambassador Bible Church in Vienna, leaving the church of her elders strengthened her faith: "It feels like it's my church rather than my parents' church. I have a stake in it."
Changes in the Family Not surprisingly, it is in the family that the generational shifts are felt most deeply.
John Kim, a 41-year-old who emigrated as a child, attends Korean Central Presbyterian Church, where many Ambassador members came from. Kim, who lives in Great Falls, is concerned that his daughters and other second-generation offspring will lose what is uniquely Korean if they someday leave the church of their parents.
"We are all supposed to be one community," Kim said. "I would never consider joining an American church, and do you know why? It's all for my kids. They have more opportunity to meet Korean friends . . . "
" . . . and their future husbands," his wife, Helana, 40, also a first-generation Korean American, half-jokingly interjected. The couple's daughters, ages 10 and 5, giggled as their parents discussed their marriage prospects.
It is a serious matter for Korean parents, whose children are choosing non-Korean spouses at a rate higher than that for most other immigrant groups. Their concerns touch on the essence of what it is to be Korean: Is it a bloodline or a mind-set? It's just one question scholars will explore this year.
Viewed one way, immigration researcher Camarota said, the high rate of interracial marriage is "the best indicator of assimilation and a powerful sign of acceptance from the rest of society."
Sociologists expect the rate will continue to rise with the third generation.
Min Cho, 32, echoes many Korean Americans when she says that, while her parents pressured her to marry a Korean, she will not do that with her children.
Cho said she's trying to raise her two daughters differently. Her parents worked six-day weeks and spent all of Sunday at church. Vacations were rare.
In contrast, she enjoys as much time as she can with her girls, musing that she may be overcompensating "for time we did not get to spend with our parents."
Cho struggles over how much exposure her daughters should have to other Koreans. She's considered switching to an American church because Koreans can be too "cliquish." But then she sees her girls getting along so well with the other third-generation children at their Korean church.
"I know my kids like it there. They have so many friends," she said. "So it's difficult to leave."