Two years ago, I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Southern California for a new job and unknowingly stumbled into the biggest Asian minority enclave community in the United States.
I love it: restaurants with entirely Chinese menus that serve complimentary warm tea instead of iced water; establishments that openly play Korean pop or hip-hop music instead of mundane American Billboard top 100 radio; Asian nightclubs that play matchmaker and allow indoor smoking; and posters promoting Asian or Asian-American creators like Wong Fu Productions and films and TV shows like Fresh Off the Boat, and Crazy Rich Asians, all conspicuously placed in store-fronts.
The most striking thing about the Southern Californian Asian communities isn’t the percentage or volume of Asian people living in them, but the boldness and shamelessness of the Asian culture that thrives there.
Being raised by first-generation Chinese immigrants to this country, I understand how much race matters in America. The dreams of a post-racial American utopia have been permanently shattered since November 2016.
There is a mental model called “unknown unknowns”, in which someone is so clueless that they don’t know what they don’t know. This describes my state of self-awareness before moving to Southern California (SoCal) and living amongst large groups of other Asians for the first time. After spending over 20 years living in Seattle and Silicon Valley, it’s as unambiguous as ever to me that Asian Americans must experience life in an enclave at least once to understand their own identities and have a comprehensive picture of their place in American society.
Introducing: The 626, K-Town, and Little Saigon
The Asian enclave here is a collection of different regions in SoCal: Koreatown, where I live now; the San Gabriel Valley, also known as “The 626”; Irvine; and Garden Grove, among others.
The San Gabriel Valley area is home to the largest population of Chinese in the West. This is partly because this region was among the first in America to permit Asian immigrants to purchase property. Early Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino pioneers settled in this region as laborers, but a century later, The 626 has flourished and is now the home of many Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, and Taiwanese residents. The 626 is composed of ten cities, eight of which are top ranked as cities with the largest numbers of Chinese Americans in America, including Arcadia, Rowland Heights, Alhambra, West Covina, Rosemead, and Monterey Park.
If you want late night Taiwanese desserts, boba, Vietnamese cafes and pho noodles, Chinese hot pot, Asian style “KTV” karaokes, arcades, dim sum, and lit Asian bars, The 626 is the place to be. The area also champions an impressive quarterly event called the “626 Night Market”¹, where various Pan-Asian street food vendors showcase an eclectic mix of their best snacks. (I suggest pre-gaming before the night market and trying the giant fried squid!) It’s the largest Asian night market in the U.S., and definitely worth the long lines and hectic parking.
The region is also home to a burgeoning 富二代 (Fùèrdài) “Rich kids of China” population, resulting in every other parking lot in the area looking like an exotic car show. I’ve spent many nights speeding down Pasadena’s “Angeles Crest Highway” to later roam around the 626 in search of good Asian food, arcades, and boba. Many of my Tinder dates with other Chinese or Chinese American women have all been in the 626, and a majority of the Chinese Americans there speak fluent mandarin. They take pride in their heritage — a sentiment not reflected in many other regions of America, unfortunately. Young Asians hanging out with each other instead of sycophantically trying to “assimilate” into white American society? It’s incredible, right?
I also enjoyed near-cathartic experiences after watching China’s latest American Sniper-esque blockbuster, Wolf Warrior II, and Jon Chu’s recent Crazy Rich Asians at AMC in The 626. Imagine entire movie theaters filled with mostly Asian people, with some non-Asian people as well, but where everyone is cheering for people who look like you to experience intricate emotions, to suffer devastating trials and tribulations, and to finally succeed. What a contrast from the one-dimensional caricatures Hollywood forces on us, right? Those two-hour movies felt like ten-hour therapy sessions on steroids for me.
Think I’m being superfluously emotional? It may be helpful to know that a 2012 study published by Communication Research revealed that American TV lowered the self-esteem of every race and gender, except for white boys². This is very important; we are talking about self-esteem, one of the critical predictors for success and stable mental health later in life.
Los Angeles Koreatown is a 7-sq.-kilometer plot of land in the heart of LA city proper. It houses the greatest aggregation of Korean people on the planet outside of Korea. Similar to The 626, K-Town is home to an abundance of Asian establishments: karaokes, cafes, Korean BBQ, Korean bars, Jollibee’s (a Filipino multinational restaurant chain), Asian nightclubs, Korean churches (Koreans are fervently religious), hipster Asian American ice cream shops, Mexican food trucks, and so much more. It is also now my home.
I was originally introduced to K-Town though Gio, a friend from college who loves to party, and his friend Vont, who has been living in the area for a few years and knows all the fun spots. There were many weekends when I’d go out for KBBQ, followed by drinking or clubbing with friends until 4 or 5 a.m., followed by even more food or late-night swimming at the rooftop pool at my apartment: a skyscraper of glass and steel that houses a disproportionate number of YouTube celebs.
What’s most striking is how small the K-Town community is. The same few hundred locals frequent any given coffee shop, restaurant, drinking establishment, or club, and I’d run into familiar faces almost every day. When I try to introduce my friends to each other, half the time it turns out they’ve already met on Tinder or some Facebook group.
My friends Min and Steven helped organize a bunch of BBQs at the rooftop of my apartment (pictured below). I met Min, a Pokemon Go-loving LA native, through Sarah, a friend I met from Tinder back in San Diego four years ago. Steven is my roommate and an aspiring air force pilot.
I became friends with leaders of various American online movements and we’d attend K-Town political outings and protests together and talk about the future of Asian activism, Pan-Asian community, and what it means to be Pro-Asian. I also met Paget Kagy, an actress and the founder of her own independent TV Series “Kat Loves LA”³. The first season of her show was phenomenally good and it galvanized me to help with the Asian American media representation effort. Together, we crowdfunded for her show’s season 2 and received over $50,000 in donations⁴.
South of The 626 and Los Angeles, there are established towns in Orange County that serve as enclaves for thriving Vietnamese American communities. Garden Grove and its adjacent sister city Westminster constitute a region known as Little Saigon. These cities are famous locally for their lit late-night boba shops, Pho, and Vietnamese cafes. I’ve driven forty minutes South to Garden Grove and Westminster after work just to meet up with a friend over boba and it’s always been so worth it. Little Saigon is also situated in a region with high accessibility to many different local colleges, resulting in a youthful and vibrant vibe.
Asian diaspora, come home
When I was younger, my family traveled far around the country for new jobs and I experienced all sorts of racism: I was called “chink” by many of my commenters and fans on YouTube vlogs, bullied and harassed in school, taunted on the street, and dealt with passive-aggressive treatment at anywhere from convenience stores to upscale restaurants. Whether the area was very white, poor, safe, or wealthy, it didn’t matter because I ultimately never felt at home. As a result, I developed identity issues while growing up. But the past two years of enclave living restored my confidence in my identity and gave me a sense of fulfillment I hadn’t known before.
Political Scientist Robert Axelrod proves the effectiveness of minority enclaves with game theory in his seminal piece, “The Evolution of Cooperation”⁵:
“Suppose that everyone has either a Blue label or a Green label. Further, suppose that both groups are nice to members of their own group and mean to members of the other group.
… from any disparity in the numbers of Blues and Greens, creating a majority and a minority … the members of the minority group suffer more.
To see why, suppose that there are eighty Greens and twenty Blues in a town, and everyone interacts with everyone else once a week. Then for the Greens, most of their interactions are within their own group and hence result in mutual cooperation. But for the Blues, most of their interactions are with the other group (the Greens), and hence result in punishing mutual defection. Thus, the average score of the minority Blues is less than the average score of the majority Greens.
… No wonder minorities often seek defensive isolation.”
In an incredible study showing the impact of living in enclaves on mental health, researchers Emily Walton and David Takeuchi found that unlike integrated communities, Asian ethnic enclaves “concentrate structural and social advantages” while protecting their residents “from the detrimental health effects of community poverty”⁶. This suggests that staying connected to one’s ethnic community may be the best way to access material and moral resources that would be hard to find otherwise.
If you’re an Asian American or recent first-generation immigrant who feels lost, lonely, or going nowhere in a city that treats you like you’re invisible, then please consider moving to L.A. It doesn’t matter who you are; you don’t have to be a YouTube celebrity, well-paid engineer, endowed fuerdai, or high powered executive. Sure, rooftop swimming pools are great, but they’re just icing on the cake at the end of the day. It’s the people, culture, awareness, and mutual respect that truly make The 626 (San Gabriel Valley) and Koreatown, L.A. special. L.A. is a big place with many people, and there are plenty of cool and affordable places to live if you’re willing to do your homework and search for them.
If you’re telling yourself, “Oh, I don’t know… twenty years ago my parents took me to a rundown Chinatown when I was a kid and it was kind of awkward”, then realize that this is something completely different.
If we only talked about numbers, the San Francisco Bay Area actually has a greater percentage of Asian people than SoCal does — 23.2% to 14.7% via an outdated 2010 census — but having lived in that area for two years, I can attest that none of the cultural pleasures and idiosyncrasies found in SoCal exist in Northern California. There is something about SoCal that somehow allowed for the development of strong, protective, and insular Asian enclaves. I suspect it has to do with the sprawling geography of the South and the demographic makeup of the immigrants. NorCal has a lot of highly educated and skilled H1B immigrants that mostly work in engineering and seem, to me at least, indifferent towards preserving in their own culture. They have a lot more of an assimilation mindset there than in the boisterous and spirited immigrant groups prospering in SoCal.
Eventually, it won’t be enough to just seek out existing enclaves. It’s important to also give back and build up new communities in new areas for posterity.
I originally moved to SoCal for a job at Snapchat, largely to chase the autonomy of a smaller start-up and IPO glory and money. Two years later, although I still enjoy the many challenges at the company, Snap isn’t as engineering-driven as I’d hoped it would be and it no longer feels like the right decision to stay. I’m moving to New York for the new job in a few months.
Although this article urges one to take a chance on living in a minority enclave, its broader goal is to encourage the exploration of new areas and new lifestyles whenever possible. NYC is a true pluralism compared to SoCal and it may be meaningful for me to experience it. I can’t imagine what my life would be like had this two year SoCal chapter not happened. But who knows — maybe one day I’ll be back!
If you enjoyed this, please also read my piece on ‘Subtle Asian Dating’ and the state of Asian discourse in 2018. https://codelucas.com/the_state_of_asian_discourse/
[Edited by J of ProAsianVoice and Guest Editor Rogers Feng]
- Read Paget’s essay on Asian representation.