Visiting China and South Korea, in New York

Highlights from three of New York’s Asian neighborhoods

A South Korean gardener at a community park. A traditional jianbing chef and tea shop owner. And the dean of a school that teaches students how to be K-pop stars. Welcome to Flushing, the Kissena Corridor Park, and Koreatown.

Main Street in Flushing, Queens. (Chun Yip So via Flickr)

Flushing, Queens

There are hundreds of cafes, restaurants and food stalls off Main Street in Flushing, and most of them are tucked into small corridors and back corners. The Express Tea Shop, in the basement of the Golden Shopping Mall, is no exception. Some people pass through just looking for an exit, squeezing past the customers lined up at the register ready to order their bubble tea, and possibly a jianbing.

Jianbing is the Express Tea Shop’s specialty — a kind of traditional Chinese breakfast that is similar to a crepe — and Jenny Mei Long is the owner and chef behind the shop. Long moved to Flushing from the Tianjing Province of China with her husband. When they arrived, they realized there were a lot of Chinese food options, but few had traditional techniques. Long and her husband decided to open the jianbing shop soon after. She spoke about her craft with Bo Hamby:

Kissena Corridor Park, Queens

Just south of Flushing is the Kissena Corridor Park, where everything from a cemetery to a botanical garden is available to people in Queens. Zackaria Murad, 14, lives nearby. “It’s not that bad. A lot of basketball courts,” he says of the park. Murad can usually be found on the courts, shooting from the top of the key and chasing after rebounds on a mostly empty blacktop. He plays point guard for his local high school basketball team, something that’s he’s enjoyed since leaving Afghanistan and coming to Queens six years ago. He says his grandma, his aunt, and his cousins remained in Afghanistan. “I talk with them on the phone daily so it doesn’t feel too, too long,” Murad said, adding that he makes sure they’re doing okay when he calls.

Zackaria Murad, 14, plays basketball at Kissena Corridor Park. He’s lived in the neighborhood since he was 8 years old. (Bo Hamby)

As a freshman in high school, the question of whether he’ll want to leave Queens for college is coming up. But he’s “not going to think about that for a few more years.” Until then, he’ll be shooting hoops at the Kissena park.

The entrance to the Evergreen Community Garden, part of the Kissena Corridor Park in Queens. (Bo Hamby)

On the other side of the basketball courts, behind a large chainlink fence and a steel gate, lies the Evergreen Community Garden. In 2013, this otherwise quiet community garden was surrounded by controversy when it became the site of violent fights and verbal threats between elderly Korean gardeners. But a few years later, serenity has returned. Jeong Kwanghee has enjoyed the mostly peaceful garden for the last five years, which she says is nothing compared to most of the gardeners, who have been frequent visitors for over 20 years.

Jeong Kwanghee, 59, moved to the neighborhood from Incheon, South Korea. (Bo Hamby)

Kwanghee moved to New York from Incheon, South Korea. She arrived with her husband and two children, who have since graduated from university and started their own families. “I live in Flushing, but of course Korea is my hometown,” she admits. “I miss my family. I miss the food. I miss everything.”

Now an empty-nester, Kwanghee spends her days caring to the garden and chatting with friends. When it gets dark, she walks home and prepares dinner for her husband.

Koreatown, Manhattan

Walk along Korea Way in Manhattan and you’ll find spas, supermarkets, BBQs, and bakeries lining the street. Signs jut out from the buildings, advertising for karaoke bars on the upper floors, nestled between office space and hotels.

In one of those buildings, tucked away on the fourth floor at the very end of the hall, is the Born Star Training Center. There are no signs on the street inviting tourists to come try out their new programs, or any mention of opening hours. But that’s because Born Star doesn’t take walk-ins. Born Star takes learners. People who want to know what it takes to be a K-pop star.

Students of Born Star NYC practice a performance in one of the studios. (Born Star America KPop via YouTube)

Describing themselves as a “power acting and music arts school” on their website, Born Star offers programs in acting, vocals, dancing, as well as the Korean language. Daniel Shin, the Dean of Born Star NYC, says their classrooms have been growing as more and more attention is paid to Korean culture in America. According to Shin, only 30% of Born Star’s students are Korean.

That’s exciting for Shin, who was born and raised in New York before moving to Korea to pursue a career in K-pop. After some success in the ’90s, Shin moved back to New York and helped establish Born Star NYC, where he now teaches the next wave of students eager to make it in the Korean entertainment industry. And while singing and dancing like a K-pop star is important, Shin says having a firm understanding of Korean culture is vital.

In Midtown, a few train stops north of Korea Way, is the Korean Cultural Center. Nearly 40 years old, the institution promotes Korean aesthetics and culture in New York. That was one reason why 29-year-old Su-ok Park, who now works at KCC, moved to New York.

A map pointing out Seocheon on the west coast of South Korea (Google Maps).

Park lived in Seocheon, South Korea, until she was 26 years old. Growing up away from big cities, she says she misses the sounds of home the most. “I miss the sounds of Korea, I guess. I lived in the countryside, so I had a lot of sounds growing up,” she says. “How do I call them… I don’t know the name. But there were a lot of bugs. Here it’s more cars, and in Korea I lived by the ocean. So I miss that.” Park left Korea to attend graduate school at New York University.

Su-ok Park, 29, came to America for graduate school from Seocheon, South Korea. (Bo Hamby)

Park completed her degree in Museum Studies and found a job at KCC soon after. She’s been in New York for three years now, and if you ask her, she’ll admit she enjoys it, but Korea will always be home.