Finding pieces of Korea at home

I still remember it vividly — on April 30, 2013, I was in a panic. With college acceptance letters haphazardly strewn across my bedroom floor, I felt totally lost as to where to spend my next four years. Though my entire K-12 education had built up to this moment, making a choice about my future before the deadline looming the next day seemed entirely daunting.

Endless pros and cons lists later, I decided on the University of Southern California over my other options. For me, the edge that USC carried was its numerous study abroad programs, spanning across more than 20 countries. It seemed like a culture was bred within the University in which students were highly encouraged to gain meaningful experiences overseas, outside a familiar classroom setting. Having never been anywhere except China, where I was born, and various parts of the United States on family road trips, USC seemed like the right choice to satiate my wanderlust dreams.

After almost four years and countless “there’s always next year” vows, my biggest regret during college thus far is not studying abroad. When friends come back from all corners of the world after a semester abroad, I can’t help but consider how limited my horizons are. Their networks have now expanded across continents and oceans, while mine is limited to my college circle.

Whenever people ask me where I would have gone had I studied abroad, I always answer South Korea without hesitation. Growing up in a predominantly white community, I was inundated with Hollywood movies and the Western ideal of beauty that they embody. With the advent of hallyu, or Korean Wave, it was especially powerful to see people that looked like me in the media.

Having Koreatown only miles away makes me feel closer ties to those values, and I realize how lucky I am to have Los Angeles as my college town. Vibrant, diverse communities make up the entire city, and every outing is a chance to learn more about different cultures. Koreatown offers a snapshot of what it would have been like to spend some time in South Korea.

During the fall semester of her sophomore year, a friend of mine studied abroad in Seoul, South Korea. Her parents immigrated from South Korea, but she was born in the United States.

“Being Korean, I definitely felt more tied to my heritage by studying abroad in the country where my parents grew up,” she said. “I’m so proud that I’m Korean, and my time there added to that.”

She took me around the neighborhood, highlighting her favorite places, some that reminded her of her time in Seoul, some that were unique to the area.

We first went to Quarters, a restaurant serving tapas-style Korean barbecue. Since the inception of Koreatown in the 1960s, Korean barbecue has been closely associated with the area, and Quarters certainly serves some of the best that I’ve had. We got the beef belly, bulgogi (marinated beef), galbi (marinated short ribs), beef brisket and pork belly, which were served alongside complementary side dishes and rice.

Our Korean barbecue excursion underscored the quintessential Korean dining experience. We prepared our food on the grill, round after round. We took our time and made sure we actually enjoyed our food. It was a much-needed change of pace that ran counter to my usual rhythm — most of the time in college, I eat on the go or in between commitments.

We then stopped at Okrumong for dessert. The spot serves traditional shaved ice in flavors such as black sesame and red bean. According to my friend, if friends or family members came to Los Angeles from Korea, this would be the place she would take them for the authenticity of the menu items.

The day ended with a trip to Touhmi, a Korean bar. Between soju drinks, we had standard Korean bar food, including the corn cheese and the Korean fried chicken. Popular K-pop songs filled the lounge, which was a great place for a large group of friends. Touhmi carried on the idea that food and drinks were central to conversation. A good time couldn’t be rushed.

For my friend, Koreatown is filled with whispers of her time abroad. Commercial establishments where she frequented, such as Paris Baguette, a bakery, and Tom n Toms, a coffee shop, can be found in the area. Her favorite restaurants carry the same, Seoul-inspired flavors. But she concludes that when she misses Korea, she can’t simply go to Koreatown to shed her nostalgia.

“If you can go to Korea, I definitely recommend it,” she said. “Koreatown is a great place in proximity to school, but my semester in Korea just can’t be substituted.”

For me, though, Koreatown, a mere 10-minute drive from my apartment, offers a brief picture of what Korea would be like. It’s not by any means an accurate representation of what the country would be like, but for now, it’s my own.

Danni Wang is a senior majoring in psychology. She is also the associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column. “Abroad at Home,” runs every other Monday.

1 reply
  1. Lil Gochu
    Lil Gochu says:

    Just stay away from the party scene in K town. All the drinking will hurt you, especially school work.

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