If you walk into a restaurant with Lee Ann Kim, it is a bit like that fabulous and continuous shot by Martin Scorsese in Goodfellas. In the movie, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) escorts his date through the back door and into the kitchen of a Copacabana nightclub. Each step along the way people wave and say hello, making him the center of attention. When Lee Ann Kim walks into a restaurant — especially a loud, smoky Korean barbecue place — everyone turns toward her, saying hello, waving, admiring what they see.
It’s not just a Korean thing. Everyone in San Diego knows her. She is the 29-year-old anchor and reporter for KGTV. But her flawless celadon business suit, her impeccable makeup, her pearly smile, even her seemingly boundless energy — all of it shouts out for you to notice her. Everyone does.
What’s the flip side to this attention?
“Most of the time I am Lee Ann Kim, anchor and reporter,” she says. “But if I should do something wrong — if I fail — it reflects badly, not just on me, but the entire Korean community because I am one of its most visible representatives.”
San Diego’s Korean community is small but dynamic, and its center pulses along Convoy Street in Clairemont. I’ve come to a restaurant on Convoy to speak with Lee Ann Kim and her husband, Louis Song, about that community. I am presuming that behind that face is a person who knows a great deal about the community, not just because she is so visible, but because San Diego is her reporter’s beat.
A few nights earlier I met her at a party the Asian American Journalists Association held for its members at a Taiwanese social club not far from this restaurant. Even before we met, Lee Ann had given me good leads about exploring the community.
One of these was the maquiladoras, factories owned by giant Korean corporations that do business in the United States, manufacturing not in Korea but in Tijuana. So far everyone has been tight-lipped about the maquiladoras.
Once we sit down in a booth with a built-in grill at its center, we get to the business at hand.
Louis Song, though he appears far less extroverted than Lee Ann, is no wallflower. He’s a 31-year-old tech recruiter, and I see right away that he is no-nonsense.
“What exactly are you writing about the Korean community?” he asks. “What qualifies you to be doing a piece about us?”
I try to tell him that I want to see how the Korean community in San Diego is different from the larger ones in Los Angeles and New York. I also want to discover how it is different from a city like Seoul. Finally, I tell Louis, I’m interested in finding out how similar or dissimilar the Korean community is to other communities in San Diego. I tell him that my former wife came from Korea — that we have a daughter, now grown.
“But where is the community?” I ask.
“Well,” Lee Ann says, “that’s part of the problem with San Diego, not just the Korean community. Everything is spread out — no cohesion here. People might work in one place — like around here on Convoy Street — but they live everywhere. There is no community that you can call Korean.”
Convoy Street is the closest thing San Diego has to a Koreatown. What being a Korean — and thus a part of the community — means is a far trickier business to pin down.
“First of all,” Lee Ann tells me, “some people in my business don’t really see me as a Korean. They see one person and she is Asian-Female-Journalist. You know who they see? Connie Chung.”
Lee Ann Kim, of course, is nothing like Connie Chung. Born in Korea, Lee Ann grew up in Chicago, and she possesses both the brashness and no-bullshit manner that I’ve always associated with that town. I always thought of Chicago as a Midwestern Brooklyn, ethnic and hardworking, simple and direct. When I’ve watched Lee Ann’s spots on the news, they seem to cover people and events that often get overlooked. I recall seeing a segment on a pocket park in a Mexican neighborhood, a kind of memorial for fallen neighbors, and I don’t recall anyone else covering the story but her.
“I’m not just representing the Korean point of view in San Diego,” she says. “I want to be a voice for everyone who doesn’t have a voice here.”
Our conversation has been continuous from the moment we sat down in the booth. Now the table fills with tiny bowls of Korean condiments: bean sprouts, spinach, various spicy and mild kimchis (fermented cabbage), roots, and roasted garlic. All of it is laid out in tiny oriental bowls. Bodi-cha (barley tea) is poured into little cups.
A few days ago I had spoken with a high school student who put another spin on assimilation.
“No one identifies themselves as being Korean,” she told me. “What you have are all the Asians hanging out with each other in the cafeteria and with each other after school. We are thought of as the Asian clique, not Koreans or Filipinos or Vietnamese or Chinese.”
When I put this out for comment, Louis grabs and runs with it.
“When I was in high school,” he observes, “I did not think about being Korean. That came about in college. It was a gradual awareness.”
“Being Korean,” I say, “what does that mean?”
“Being Korean is who I am,” Louis Song answers. “But I am seen as a manager first. A Korean second.”
Does Lee Ann agree?
“First a journalist,” Lee Ann adds. “Second, Korean. That’s how I’m seen.”
Both Lee Ann and Louis used the verb “to see” as a way of defining who they are, and they define themselves further by what they do. For me, though, it is curious, not so much that they use the verb “to see,” but rather the point of view they inhabit in that visual equation. It is not how they see themselves so much as how they are seen by other people. Of course, “face,” or appearance, is an old Confucian value. Present a good front. Don’t let anyone know your private business. But isn’t how one is seen as opposed to how one sees oneself a distinctly American value, particularly one that the rest of America ascribes to Southern California, where appearance, it is often said, is everything?