A minor dispute between a group of elderly Korean immigrants in the New York City borough of Queens and the local owner of a well-known fast food establishment revealed some cultural fissures that would otherwise have gone unnoticed in the huge metropolis. A group of senior citizen Koreans in Flushing, a heavily Asian neighborhood in northwestern Queens, have long annoyed the proprietor and employees of a McDonald’s restaurant at the corner of Northern and Parsons Boulevard by ordering only coffee or fries and spending hours in their seats -- thereby making it impossible for other diners (who bought hamburgers and other meals) -- to sit in booths in the eatery.
The issue became so heated that the managers often called the police or 911 to forcibly remove the elderly Koreans, sparking outrage among some quarters of the immigrant community, citing that in Asian culture, the elderly are respected and highly valued.
A resolution of sorts arrived recently after a contingent of local politicians, led by New York State Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Democrat who represents parts of Flushing and is himself a Korean-American, brokered a “truce” between the Korean seniors and McDonald’s. Under terms of the compromise reached by the owner of the diner, Jack Bert, and twelve elderly Koreans, the Koreans will be allowed to enjoy extended seating privileges in the eatery except during “high traffic” hours between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.; local senior centers will provide transportation to and from the McDonalds (the nearest Korean senior center is reportedly twenty blocks away). Also, Bert and his employees will no longer call the police to resolve any future conflicts with the Koreans. "We see the plight of the small business owner trying to make a living and the seniors, who need more places to go," Assemblyman Kim said in a statement that sought to find a balance between both sides, according to the Queens Chronicle newspaper.
Assemblyman Kim, the first Korean-American to be elected to the legislature, also characterized the imbroglio as “cultural miscommunication,” rather than racism or discrimination. "It was a small business owner, who has been doing business in Flushing for 20 years, trying to keep his business running while accommodating our local seniors," he added.
Aside from cultural considerations, some local Koreans said what began as a minor squabble exposes some serious problems for the elderly in the immigrant community. Linda Lee, the executive director of Korean Community Services (KCS), an organization that principally helps seniors, told the Chronicle: "We believe the real underlying issue that this incident has highlighted is the lack of social services and resources available for our seniors. We need to create more places where they can go and spend time with their peers and feel a sense of independence and ownership."
Sunny Hahn, a Flushing-based activist with the Korean American Association of Queens, said the problem goes far beyond a group of elderly men and women sipping coffee at McDonald’s. "It's sad; there are not enough facilities for them. Even the Korean bakeries can't handle the situation," she told the Chronicle.
The New York Times reported that elderly Koreans, many with the aide of walkers, canes, or even wheelchairs, sometimes spend the entire day at McDonald’s, nursing one cup of coffee for hours on end (despite the fact that signs on the wall spell out that customers should not spend more than 20 minutes per meal). Some of the Koreans arrive as early as 5 am and stay in the eatery till well past dark. But even a forced removal cannot keep them away. Man Hyung Lee, 77, who was rousted out of the McDonald’s by police officers last month, complained to the Times: "They ordered us out. So I left. Then I walked around the block and came right back again."
Restaurant workers complain that the elderly Koreans are monopolizing seating and hurting business by discouraging other paying customers. "It's a McDonald's, not a senior center," Martha Anderson, the general manager, complained to the Times. The global corporation knew it had a delicate matter on its hands. "This really is difficult," Lisa McComb, a spokeswoman for McDonald's, told the Times. "The restaurant has welcomed these guests for a long time, [but the lengthy stays by the elderly Koreans] has led to uncomfortable interactions with the McDonald's workers."
Prior to Assemblyman Kim’s intervention, some Koreans in Queens had called for a boycott of McDonald’s to protest the treatment of their elders. "Senior citizens should not be treated as criminals," said Christine Colligan, of the Korean Parents Association of New York, during a protest outside the Flushing eatery. "They should be respected." Colligan accused McDonald’s of “racism” and called for a global boycott of the fast-food giant for the month of February. "[Would] you call the police on your grandmother?" Colligan said, according to the Times. “Treating our senior citizens, or our parents' generation, as criminals is an insult to Koreans as a whole. Our elderly citizens are the ones who have overcome the aftermath of the war and drove our nation to become one of the top ten economies in the world. They deserve respect,” the organization added in a statement.
Another Korean-American activist named Terence Park complained that elderly Koreans at a McDonald’s should not be treated ‘criminals.” “They are grandmas and grandpas. We have to be more understanding," Park told Chronicle. "They don't have much money, need a place to hang out." Park added that during the warn summer months, elderly Koreans favor congregating in parks, but in the winter there are no convenient places for them to meet. "Even my father hung out at McDonald's in the past. It is part of their daily routine," Park said. Hee-Jin Park-Dance, a police officer from the local Community Affairs Bureau, and herself a Korean-American, conceded that police and others need to understand the cultural dynamics in the extremely diverse Flushing community. "In Korea or any other Asian cultures, the elder is treated like gold. When you see an elder you get up, you give a seat right away. It's a sign of respect," she told the Times. "You need to know your community."
Even Young Jin Kim, chairman of the Korean American Business Council of New York, agreed, by stating: "Respecting elders is particularly serious and important," superseding financial considerations.
However, not all Koreans (either in New York or in Seoul) sympathized with their elderly countrymen who loitered for hours in a fast food restaurant. The Korea Times newspaper, stated that some younger Koreans in Flushing think the seniors were abusing the system by spending too much time at McDonald’s without purchasing much. "The McDonald's outlet is famous, or should I say infamous,'' Kim Ji-sun, 27, of Flushing told the Korea Times. “Walk into the restaurant and, at one glance, you can see that a bunch of old Korean people are hogging the entire place.'' Another young Korean named Sul Ji-hae lamented to the Korea Times: "I go there 30 minutes before lunch time to beat the rush. I see no line in front of the counter, but there aren't any seats left. It's always the Korean seniors who take up most of the seats before anyone else.”
A Korean online social media user criticized the aforementioned proposed boycott of McDonald’s this way: "These Korean seniors share a $1 cup of coffee between two to three people and get refills. Sometimes, they even take the cups home, wash them and bring them back for refills. As a Korean, it's really embarrassing to see this.”
The Korea Times also noted that given its large Asian immigrant population, Flushing actually has an abundance of Korean community centers and senior centers where the coffee-dawdlers could go instead, but they prefer the McDonalds probably because it’s cheap, convenient and part of an established routine. "It's not that these people don't have anywhere else to go. They just like going to this McDonald's because that's where everyone gathers. They don't even have to set a date and time,” said Seo-Ji-woo, who runs a cake shop across from the fast food diner. "Go there any day, any time and they'll find senior friends they can chat with. It's an established meeting spot so it's tough to break that apart.”
According to the Asian American Federation (AAP), New York City has one of the largest Korean-American populations in the country and forms the third largest Asian ethnic group in the city. Between 2008 and 2011, the Korean population in New York City jumped by 11 percent to more than 103,000 – fully two-thirds of all Koreans in the city reside in Queens. But AAP data also indicated that while Koreans enjoy higher education levels and lower child poverty rates, relative to other New York residents, they also have higher rates of senior poverty (25.5 percent). Korean seniors in the city also suffer for lower English language skills. Presumably, many of the Koreans who patronize the McDonald’s in Flushing belong to the segment of the community who are poor and isolated.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.