A Korean-American Helps Asians Adjust to New Life

THE distinctive stick-and-circle shop signs along Union Street in Flushing's "Koreatown" tell the shopper that everything Korean, from kimchi (pickled cabbage) to greeting cards, can be bought here. Nearby, at the local YMCA, mothers and preschoolers chat in nonstop Korean, waiting for a day-care class. Other visitors sign up for a Korean Mask Dance class. More than half of this Y's members are Korean-American.

Joseph Min, the sole Korean on the paid staff, is executive director of the Y's Korean program, which offers everything from advice on finding services (from doctors to food stamps) to courses in the English language and Korean culture.

Mr. Min, who came to the US at the age of eight, describes himself as a 1.5 generation Korean. YMCA classes over the years, he says, gave him a genuine appreciation of his Korean background and a clearer sense of his cultural identity. Though trained as an aeronautical engineer, he took the Y job to help other immigrants make similar gains.

"You speak English and eat American food, but (because of an Asian face) you're not accepted as an American," he explains. "The best way to minimize that is by education."

The number of Asian immigrants arriving in New York City has doubled during the last 10 years. Here in Flushing the Asian total, including many from Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as South Korea, trebled in the 1980s, according to the 1990 census. Though language and customs differ sharply, Asians in general are viewed by many Americans as a model minority.

John Kuo Wei Tchen, historian and acting director of the Asian/American Center at Queens College, terms the label "deceptive and mean-spirited," unfair to Asians and to other minorities expected to follow the example.

The stereotype, he says, ignores class differences and minimizes the difficulties many Asians face, such as failed businesses and poverty. The implication that individual effort is all that's needed to overcome racial prejudice, he says, is out of step with reality and leaves Asians vulnerable at a time of rising anti-Asian hostility.

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