On a Saturday afternoon in mid September, a group of 18 Korean senior citizens gather at a small hair salon on 199th Street and Bedford Park to eat, cook, sing, and catch up on family gossip.
The women wear neon-colored hiking clothes and similarly bobbed hairstyles, and though this weekly ritual is less than a year old, you wouldn’t know it: they’re loud and friendly and very close with one another. They tend to discuss life’s most serious problems – love, loss, money – at the top of their lungs, their voices echoing loudly in the hallway of this Bronx apartment building.
Each week, the women come with vegetables that they’ve grown in their gardens – taro leaves, beansprouts, soybeans, onions, cabbages – and endless jars of spices. These are the materials they’ll need, as they begin the the hard work of making kimchi, a fermented Korean side dish.
Each are responsible for bringing something – either by growing, making, buying from a local Asian food store, or asking a friend to send from Korea.
“This used to be an even bigger party, with everyone from every corner of life in this neighborhood, but now there’s only just us oldies,” said Young-ja Choi, 79, the former vice president of the Korean Senior Community Center. She pointed to a pile of wooden train tracks and stuffed animals that the children used to play with several years ago.
“See these toys?” she said, as she picked up a grimy Raggedy Ann doll from the heap, brushing dust off of its red yarn hair.
“The Korean kids would play tag and run around this apartment all the time, and you would see teens chatting in the streets. But now they’ve all gone to other parts, like Flushing and Queens,” she said.
The population of Koreans living in the Bronx has halved since 1990, to just over two thousand in 2013. Citywide, however, the trends are different. Koreans in New York City have increased by 30 percent during the same period, to around 95,000, according to an analysis by Queens College’s sociology department. As a result, many Korean businesses in the Bronx have closed down, including grocery stores, Asian drama DVD rental shops, cosmetic stores, and oriental medicine pharmacies.
The remaining elderly living in northwestern Bronx have been coping by sticking together. Owners of the video rental shops brought in soap operas for the members to laugh and cry to; the manager of Sunny’s Make-Up brought faux lashes and eyebrow pencils to share; the neighbor’s herbalist provided at least five ginseng packets for everyone each meeting.
In Korean culture, this kind of grouping has a name: a gye, which means ‘thread’ or ‘connection’ in the Korean pronunciation of the Mandarin Chinese character. A gye is a cluster of people that collect a modest amount of money each month and take turns to receive a lump sum share in times of need. It can also operate as it does for these elderly Koreans in the Northwest Bronx, as a kind of social club, a network of friends.
Members of this gye gather for the collective benefit of “having each other’s back,” according to Young-eun Woo, 75, who hosts the weekly meetings. The gathered members recreate the sense of being back in the country many left behind decades ago. “It doesn’t even feel like we’re in America – we make everything here feel like Korea,” Woo said. “From television shows aired in Seoul to local traditional dishes from all parts of the peninsula – you name it and our gye makes it happen.”
For the most part, the members of the Bronx gye came to the U.S. in the wake of the Korean war, fleeing an impoverished nation recovering from a devastating conflict. Most were the first in their families to leave in the search of better prospects.
“I came to America, the land of dreams, blue-eyed people, and big-nosed men,” said Woo, who divorced her Korean husband at age 30. “I was heartbroken, but it was the best thing that happened in my life because it made me determined to live a life better than other Koreans.”
Jeong-ja Lim, 84, who came from North Korea to the Bronx almost half a century ago to work at a nursing home, says that everyone seeks her advice for health issues. “I may be old, and I mean really old – but people trust me best with all sorts of problems, from improving your digestion system to getting better-glowing skin,” Lim said.
The corner of her eyes started to water and her voice cracked as she said that she had held many senior citizens in their arms as they passed.
“It’s not a sad thing anymore. It’s the end of the pain they’ve been enduring for too long of a time,” Lim said. “They take a big, big breath, and you know their souls are on their way to a place with no more hurting.”
In some ways, the gye has replaced the more formal structure of a traditional American senior center. In fact, just across the street, the Korean Senior Community Center, where most gye members used to spend their days, is slated to close within three years.
Abraham Lee, 80, the president of the center, said it has been facing financial difficulties and is now open less than two hours a day, Monday through Friday. The senior center used to be a large assembly room in a church, where some would even sleep overnight. The center was relocated to a smaller room with three desktop computers, which many complain is too small.
“It used to be a residential haven for Koreans, and people could come in to play Korean chess and eat traditional food, but now it has shrunk to a cramped room for people to visit from time to time,” Lee said.
Yoo-hui Hwang, 77, agrees. She recently switched to the gye, complaining that the center for the Korean seniors was too small to fit everyone that came to learn English.
“It is now a tiny cubicle attached to a Korean community church, and we had difficulties managing to make ways to pay the rent,” she said.
Like Hwang, most of the seniors in gye have raised their families in the Bronx. Some of their children and grandchildren – most now in their 30s and 40s – had decided to move to places with a larger Korean community, such as Flushing and Queens. The younger Koreans had been a major support for the center, providing the rent payment, furniture and food for the seniors on a regular basis. Their move away from the Bronx has had a major toll on the center’s management.
“In a way, we depended too much on our children to take care of us. I guess we’ll have to grow up,” Hwang said.
Scholars on senior citizens in the region are well aware of the financial difficulties that the aging residents are facing.
The National Council on Aging, a non-profit organization, launched earlier this year the National Institute for Senior Center Research to help senior centers in the Bronx and nationwide to reach out to those in need.
The organization’s mission included raising the senior citizens’ public profiles, demonstrating their relevance to communities, and advocating for continued support.
“Our goals are to operate as a clearinghouse for senior center-related research across the country,” said Manoj Pardasani, the national director of NISC and faculty research scholar at the Ravizzin Center on Aging at Fordham University.
“However, the Korean senior community runs privately and is not a part of the umbrella networking association that covers more than two thousand centers in the nation,” he said, adding that many centers are based on language, culture, and traditions for specific activity programs and the provided food.
“We strive for a network according to the needs of those that have reached out to be a part of our program,” he said, adding that other cultural communities simply “prefer the comfort of being independent.”
In other words, despite the availability of public money and support, the Korean senior citizens of the Northwest Bronx have chosen to turn to their own alternatives instead.
“We like being around Koreans and only these people, because I don’t have to explain about my cultural values, the story behind the food that I make, and decisions I made in life,” said Kyung-ae Kwon, 80, who has been living in America for over 35 years.
The language barrier is also something the seniors cite as a reason to exclude themselves from the non-Korean senior community in the Bronx.
“We don’t have to think over ten minutes to find the right English word to try to communicate,” Kwon said. Though she claims her English is not fluent enough to spend more time with people outside the gye, Kwon still considers her decision to come to America “the best thing” she did in her life.
The members not only support each other financially, but remind each other of the youthful years they lived in Korea. They share stories of how their mothers used to cook – a wide variety of recipes from different regions across the Korean peninsula.
“Now that we are all nearing the next life, we just want to reminisce upon our childhood stories of when we were young schoolgirls, and help one another finalize the American journey that we had bravely embarked upon,” she said, as she pinched the edges of the dough to form the shape of a half moon.
“This is how my mother made rice cakes in Jinju – I think I’m doing it right,” she said.
According to Jeff Greenberg, professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, people closer to one’s last years in life have a tendency become more drawn to others of their own kind.
“People feel a connection to continuity of life the way they’ve been living all their lives – which is why the Korean seniors may have chosen to stay in the Bronx, and not move to Flushing or Queens,” Greenberg said, adding that the elderly become more negative towards other cultures as they age.
“They’re stubborn about what they know, because death haunts us as it does. If you raise the specter of death in a person’s mind, Italians like Italians better, and Christians like Christians better.”
In this way, seniors are prone to be more nationalistic out of defense.
“To manage the terror that we’re just these transient creatures, we shoo away those people who make us disappear,” Greenberg said.
With the Korean Thanksgiving, Chuseok, just around the corner, the topic of death popped up almost casually at a recent meeting of the Bronx gye. Making endless rows of rice cakes that symbolize honoring passed ancestors and family, the gye members took turns sharing stories, as the scent of cinnamon and tea leaves filled the air.
“Our pastor sang to my husband when as he was being brought back to the arms of his creator,” said Mi-ja Kim, 79, who used to run a Korean bakery near the New York Botanical Garden. Kim would ship in flour and sweets from Korea, and sell pastries to the community in the Bronx. Now she bakes rice cakes for the weekly meetings.
After her husband passed away, Kim didn’t have to worry about arranging a Korean traditional funeral in the Bronx. The members helped prep the body for burial – they bathed the corpse in warm water, soaked it with perfume, manicured his fingernails, and applied make-up for a respectable burial. One even brought sobok, or white mourning garments, for Kim to wear as she wept her last farewell to her partner of more than 60 years.
“I wanted to do my best until the very end to be a loving wife to my husband, even on his way to heaven, and these friends helped me achieve that goal here in the Bronx,” she said.
The group reached out and clasped Kim’s hand altogether, putting their spoons and chopsticks down for a while. The support they had for each other was silent but firm – just like the community’s existence in the Bronx.
“I’m thankful to have found these people that will help me when I go join my husband in heaven,” she said. “It’s like I’m in Korea, where I don’t have to spell out this culture that seems exotic in the eyes of the blue-eyed and big-nosed people. I’m home.”