Rise of Korean culture in New York

By Kwon Mee-yoo

When I visited New York about a decade ago, Korea was almost non-existent in the city, except for the narrow stretch of Koreatown on 32nd Street. However, the situation has changed drastically. Today, it is common to see and experience Korean culture in New York in a variety of forms and locations.

During a recent trip to New York City, I witnessed a cultural phenomenon that has been gaining momentum over the past few years — the vibrant and dynamic presence of Korean culture in the heart of the Big Apple.

From the bustling streets of Manhattan to the hip neighborhoods of Brooklyn, the influence of Korea is palpable. The bustling BCD Tofu House is crowded with both Koreans and international customers, while Paris Baguette’s branches are sprinkled throughout Manhattan, delivering Korean-style breads.

The high-end Korean dining scene is also thriving, with Atomix, a fine dining restaurant boasting two Michelin stars and a fourth-place ranking in the 100 Best Restaurants in New York City for 2024 by The New York Times, is booked for months in advance. The newest addition to this trend is Kisa, which introduced the Korean “drivers’ diner” concept to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, quickly becoming a neighborhood favorite.

These establishments, which once mainly served the Korean American community, attract a diverse, mainstream audience. This shift is largely driven by the soaring popularity of Korean culture, including K-pop, K-movies and K-dramas, which have captivated a global audience and expanded into various fields.

Hallyu, or the Korean wave, originating primarily from the arts and entertainment sector, is the cornerstone of this cultural emergence. Korean cinema and dramas have built a dedicated following, with acclaimed films including “Parasite” and hit series such as “Squid Game” captivating viewers worldwide. The surge in popularity of K-pop, led by global sensations such as BTS and BLACKPINK, has further cemented Korea’s cultural impact. K-pop concerts and fan meetings across the United States draw massive crowds, showcasing the deep connection fans feel to these artists.

Kim Cheon-soo, the executive director of the Korean Cultural Center New York, has witnessed the evolution of Korean culture in America firsthand. Having observed the growth of Samsung in the U.S. market during his time at the ad agency Cheil Worldwide from the 1990s, he reminisced about his experiences in New York some 20 years ago.

“As I raised my children in New York, my wife used to make ‘gimbap’ (seaweed rice rolls) for my daughter when she was little. When she opened it at school, her friends made fun of her because of the unfamiliar food, so she was embarrassed and brought it back home without eating it. She asked not to make gimbap for school again,” he said. “Americans didn’t eat seaweed and they found the smell and texture of seaweed and sticky rice strange and even considered it primitive.”

Today, the narrative around Korean food has transformed significantly. U.S. grocery chain Trader Joe’s now sells frozen gimbap, which is highly sought after, and even “gim bugak,” a crispy seaweed snack, has gained popularity.

“It is not the food that’s changed, but the mindset. The acceptance, understanding and awareness on Korean culture have evolved, largely influenced by K-pop icons such as BTS showcasing Korean food,” Kim said.

The change in perception has driven demand, boosting the Korean food industry and altering the broader understanding of Korean culture. The acceptance of K-pop, K-movies and K-dramas has paved the way for a broader appreciation of Korean cultural elements, from cuisine to fashion and beyond.

As I navigated through New York’s nooks and crannies, it became clear that Korean culture is not just integrating but thriving on a global scale, showcasing the appeal of Korea’s creative industries and their ability to resonate with diverse audiences.

As we continue to witness this change, it is evident that the Korean wave is not just a ripple but a powerful current shaping perceptions and tastes in New York and beyond.

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