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Korean-American grocers group bridges barriers

(Published February 12, 2001)


Special to The Common Denominator

Call up the Korean-American Grocers Association of Greater Washington (KAGRO) and the answering machine will play a message in both English and Korean.

The bilingual message is indicative of one of many issues that Asian-Americans face in owning businesses Ė about two-thirds of the small businesses in the District.

KAGRO's mission is to build closer ties to the local government, law enforcement and communities that they serve, according to KAGROís president, James Yim. KAGRO represents the interests of about 2,500 newsstand, restaurant, grocery and liquor store owners in the District, Northern Virginia and Southern Maryland.

A majority of the Asian-American small business owners in the District are Korean-Americans, said Mark L. Keam, Washington director of the Korean-American coalition, which represents interests of Korean-Americans across the country.

A large part of the job is dealing with licensing issues due to the heavily regulated businesses in which the Korean-American merchants work, like selling alcohol and dry cleaning, Keam said.

Take what Keam refers to as an "archaic" licensing process, and for those whose native language is not English, going to a government office to fill out paperwork and deal with a customer service representative is "a daunting task," Keam said.

Most merchants must physically take time out of work to go to an office when they have to be at the store to wait on customers because there are no other employees, he said.

"Given that many of the businesses are run by Asian-Americans, it would make sense to provide services in native languages," he said.

Keam has worked in the District for five years and has seen some significant changes, including being able to meet with the mayor more regularly, he said. And he has approached Mayor Williams' staff about the fact that "Ö with the tax revenue Korean-Americans are bringing in, they could easily allocate money in the budget" for translations of important documents into Korean.

While communication with the D.C. government has improved over the last few years, so has the relationship between grocers and the police because merchants have felt more comfortable in contacting them, Keam said.

"The merchants are finally at a point where they donít want to be victims anymore Ö They want to be proactive," he said.

Even when they were the victims of crime, merchants were reluctant to contact the police in years past. And therefore, the police didnít pay much attention to the "unheard voices of merchants," said Sang K. Park, one of three legal counsels for KAGRO and acting executive director of Advocates for the Rights of Korean-Americans.

Park works to ensure that despite cultural or language barriers, Korean-American merchants get as much police protection as anybody else, and that the many crimes that are committed against them are investigated and solved.

"You do not volunteer information when you live under authoritarian rule," Park said, alluding to the way of life many merchants led in Korea. Almost all of the Korean-American grocers in the District were born and raised in Korea; the largest chunk of immigration occurring in the 1970s, Keam said.

But building trust between the two groups can be easy, Park said.

"We have been telling the police, ĎYou need to approach the merchants.í For example, on foot patrols, donít only say Ďhi,í but chat a little bit," he said.

Merchants have a "love/hate" relationship with law enforcement officers, Keam said, because the police are the people who help them handle criminal activities, but are also the people who stand over the merchants to ensure that they check the legal age for the sale of tobacco and alcohol.

"Being both a regulated entity and a target of crime, itís touchy," Keam said. And not an easy position to be in. A lot of immigrants go into small business because of lack of other opportunities, Keam said.

Many grocers work 15-hour days, and are often just a husband and wife running the store with no employees, Yim said. "But what can you do? They might not be able to get a job because they donít speak English well," he said.

Job choices for immigrants are slimmed further by the fact that some people are afraid to own a business in the District, Yim said, because they think itís too dangerous.

There were numerous robbery and vandalism incidents at small stores in the last months of 2000.

The Asian-American merchant community is still talking about a killing that took place Dec. 12, when 37-year-old grocer Byung Cha was fatally shot as he was closing the Sunbeam Market at North Capitol and Bryant streets NW.

"Every time a fellow Korean-American falls under the bullet, itís a tremendous loss to the community and to KAGRO," Park said.

Many merchants develop close relations with neighbors, and Cha was one of them, Park said. Police say that they don't think Chaís killers were from the neighborhood he served, he said.

Keam said that Korean-Americans have common interests with the members of the communities that they serve and plan to be in the area for a long time.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator