Monday, April 6, 2009

Korea: the land of a million grocery stores

My brother’s high school basketball coach once told him, “You’re a pretty good basketball player. Maybe you won’t grow up to own a grocery store.” Wow. What a compliment! Or was it advice?Talk about deflating your dreams of ever becoming a grocer.  

A friend in law school once asked me if Korea was a land full of grocery stores and drycleaners (proof that attorneys can be pretty dumb). I had to explain to him that there were many other services and products available and that not all 45 million people were spraying vegetables and pressing suits. His follow-up question was why then are there so many Koreans in that line of work in America. First, I replied by saying, “Well, my parents owned a luggage store! So there!” No, I didn’t say that. But I did explain to him that many immigrants get into the line of work that other immigrants before them have established themselves in. For Koreans, it’s grocery stores and drycleaners… oh, and nail salons. For the Chinese, it’s also drycleaners but they also open a lot of restaurants. For Indians, it’s convenience markets and motels. The list goes on and on for every ethnicity. Because newcomers to America will look to their already established family and friends for help, they will often enter the same industry as them and pretty soon an entire ethnic group will dominate a trade.

What you may not know is that many of these immigrants are well educated (many have master’s degrees) and could get better jobs in their home country, but American money, freedom, and what they think is a better life for their children lure them to pursue the American dream. But when they get to the country, language and cultural barriers often prevent them from doing anything other than what their relatives do.  

But the explanation goes even deeper for some specific industries. For example, historically, the Chinese have been running dry cleaners since the 1800’s. The main reason for that was because it was literally one of the only jobs that the Chinese were allowed to do at the time. Since Chinese men had little other skills and were viewed as effeminate, they were relegated to cleaning clothes. When large numbers of Koreans showed up in the 1960’s and 70’s, they looked around and saw that their fellow Asians were cleaning clothes, so then they eventually picked it up too.

So there you have it. That’s why certain ethnicities always seem to be doing the same kind of work. It’s not because they have some kind of knack for it, or even like doing it. Maybe my brother should go back to his high school and tell the coach that he took his advice… and became a doctor, instead. 


  1. wow... i think i even know the coach you're talking about... still can't believe anyone would say something like that...

  2. During my docent training for the Museum of Chinese the Americas, we were introduced to the reasoning behind the Chinese laundry business. After the Chinese migrant workers were pushed out of the Transcontinental Railroad labor contracts, most chinese men settled in pockets of society and set up ethic communities. They could not apply for jobs in law enforcement, etc and so the only areas available to them was the laundry business. Since laundry was seen as work women do, no other ethic group competed with the Chinese.

  3. Minerva, it's not the coach you're thinking of. This was in NY.

    Groovement, thanks for adding to my credibility.