Our living room wasn’t very big. It was just spacious enough for a 16-inch analog television and a couch, but in that small space, my father also kept a pair of wooden display cases to house some of his most prized possessions: a collection of imported spirits. Even as he maintained an after-work ritual of drinking inexpensive soju on a nightly basis, he saved those bottles behind the glass for very special occasions, such as holiday gatherings or when guests visited our home.
When my father offered me a sip of his whisky for the first time when I was 10, I felt like it was a rite of passage, as if he were ushering me into manhood. Years later, when I was a high school student and my father was visiting me in L.A. (by that time, he was living and working in Korea), I remember him inviting me to do shots of soju with him after dinner. By that point, I think he assumed that I regularly drank with my friends, even though I was just a teenager.
My early exposure to drinking alcohol is probably familiar to many Korean Americans, who, starting at a young age, often witness how much alcohol is valued, celebrated and considered a key part of socializing and enjoyment with friends and family—or even bonding with one’s dad. For an ethnic community known to stigmatize issues ranging from mental health to cancer, there seems to be a remarkably casual attitude and permissiveness toward exposing young people to this culture of drinking, even excessive drinking.
Throughout his childhood, Sam Joo, a second-generation Korean American who grew up in the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles, remembers attending family parties where “there was always a lot of drinking going on,” even though there were children ranging from ages 9 to 11 present. The kids weren’t drinking the liquor, but still, Joo said, “You observe this, and you [as a child] equate that as normal, acceptable behavior.”
Unfortunately, Joo is well aware of the impact this kind of permissive, often encouraging, attitude toward alcohol consumption can have on young people, its harmful effects lasting well beyond their adolescent years. A former residential counselor and prevention specialist at the Asian American Drug Abuse Program (AADAP), he now oversees efforts to stem underage drinking at the Koreatown Youth and Community Center (KYCC), where he serves as the director of Children and Family Services. At the Los Angeles-based nonprofit, he and his colleagues are trying to send a far different message about alcohol consumption than what many Korean Americans may have learned in their youth: this celebrated culture of drinking isn’t “normal, acceptable behavior,” and neither is underage drinking.
“Alcohol is almost a gateway,” said Joo. “Even though drug addicts are addicted to cocaine and heroin, consuming alcohol from an earlier age is a very big part of their addictions.”
During his days working at AADAP, which provides treatment and rehabilitation for individuals struggling with substance abuse, Joo recalled meeting an 18-year-old Korean American client who was addicted to cocaine and crack. “He began ditching classes in junior high, and he would go over to his friend’s house [to drink],” described Joo. “He told me that it all started with drinking beer. Then he moved on to hard liquor, and it eventually led to drug use. Later on, he even had a brand new car, but he ended up selling it for $500 for drugs.”
With real-life examples like these, it’s no wonder the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies underage drinking as a major public health problem. More so than tobacco and illicit drugs, alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the United States. Studies show that people between the ages of 12 to 20 drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States, but that 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed in the form of binge drinking, according to the CDC.
A 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, based on statistics collected by the CDC, state and local agencies, found that 35 percent of high school students drank alcohol in the past 30 days, 21 percent binge drank (five or more drinks in one sitting), 22 percent rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol, and 10 percent drove after drinking. Again, the effects can be long-lasting, as with the case Joo mentioned.
Youth who start drinking before age 15 are five times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after age 21, says the CDC. It is well-documented that underage drinking also increases the risk of physical and sexual assault, and is also associated with overall risky sexual behavior, academic failure and smoking.
In addition, because there are so many physical and developmental changes occurring during adolescence, underage drinking can lead to brain shrinkage, stagnant formation of connections between nerve cells and even a prominent loss of existing connections in the brain, according to researcher Linda Patia Spear, who specializes in alcohol’s effects on adolescents at Binghamton University.
The consequences can also be deadly. Every year, an estimated 5,000 people under the age of 21 die from alcohol-related car crashes, homicides, suicides, alcohol poisoning and other injuries, including falls, burns and drowning, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Yet, despite all of these dangers, Korean American community advocates say that, unfortunately, parents, who should be the messengers and disciplinarians on this issue, are often part of the problem.
“I have families come in for counseling services, and if a situation involves the child drinking alcohol, a lot of the parents didn’t seem as upset, compared to times when the situation involved their kids doing poorly at school,” said Joo.
“I think the perception of smoking has slightly changed [in the Korean American community]. I think there’s a recognition that ‘I don’t want my kids to smoke,’” he added. “But I don’t think drinking has caught up to that yet. I think that it’s still much more acceptable.”
Edith Bedolla, who counsels mostly Korean and Latino parents and teens about underage drinking at KYCC, said she’s encountered many parents who didn’t even know the legal age for drinking in the U.S. is 21. “Parents often think, ‘Well, where I come from, whether it’s Korea or Mexico, the legal age for drinking is 18, so here, I let my child drink because they’re under my supervision,’” said Bedolla.
One of her roles is to teach youth skills to better communicate with their parents, so they can talk about issues like pressures to drink with friends. But she said it’s difficult when the parents don’t find underage drinking a problem—or tend to drink quite a bit themselves.
“So we give them information about alcohol, we teach them how to communicate with their parents, and we model the behavior so that they’re comfortable talking to them,” Bedolla explained. “[But] if their parents drink, it’s going to stop them from approaching them. It’s confusing to them. They’re not sure what to do.”
While it’s almost common knowledge that a number of Korean American adults—not unlike their counterparts in South Korea—have a problem with drinking excessive amounts of alcohol (the binge drinking rate for Korean Americans is 25.9 percent, while it’s only 16.2 percent for the general U.S. population, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health and Services Administrations, or SAMHSA), various studies also indicate that an alarmingly high number of Korean American youth are drinking before their legal age.
In a recent survey of 1,043 college students under age 21, conducted by AADAP, nearly a quarter of Asian Americans said that they had considered themselves “drunk” more than three times in the past month, compared with only 12 percent of all surveyed California students. Among those Asian American students, Korean Americans represented the largest ethnic majority in the pool, with 35 percent of them consuming six or more drinks in one sitting. Filipinos, at 24 percent, were second.
In another study, the California-based Alcohol Research Group, an international organization that examines alcohol-related behaviors, more than a quarter of the 202 Korean American adolescents surveyed in Southern California in 2009 said that up to 10 of their friends drank alcohol in various settings, including at home with friends and family or at parties. Only 8 percent said that none of their friends drank. Most of the respondents were aged 13 to 17.
Kyeyoung Park, an anthropology and Asian American studies professor at UCLA, said that she’s noticed the exposure of Korean American children to alcohol is quite “blatant,” not only in the home, but in many public venues—from Koreatown parades, featuring multiple alcohol sponsor logos, to the neighborhood Korean grocery store.
“When you go to a Korean supermarket in Koreatown, alcohol is prominently displayed in the middle [aisle],” said Park. “I don’t think that’s the case in other supermarkets.”
And, in fact, it’s hard to believe it’s a mere coincidence that the Koreatown district of Los Angeles, the densest neighborhood in L.A. County with a population per square mile of 42,611, is home to many after-hours drinking establishments that often stay clandestinely open past California’s 2 a.m. curfew on alcohol sales. The central area of Koreatown, represented by zip code 90005, has 104 active on- and off-sale retailers (including restaurants, bars, grocery stores and liquor stores) with liquor licenses, according to data on the Alcohol and Beverage Control’s website. That’s more than any other district in L.A. County represented by one zip code, according to the regulatory body.
“Koreatown is known as the destination to go drink,” said KYCC’s Joo.
Kids know this, too. They also know which Koreatown liquor stores sell alcoholic beverages to underage drinkers.
“Kids have told me directly, ‘Yes, it is very easy to get alcohol in Koreatown,’” said Carol Lee, a community organizer at KYCC. She has conducted several focus groups about alcohol use among Korean American youth between ages 16 and 18. “They knew all the liquor stores that sell to minors. They knew it all by word of mouth,” she continued. “I even learned that some liquor stores charge more, like an extra five or 10 dollars, when minors come in to buy alcohol.”
“Buying alcohol is really easy,” affirmed Jeff Joo (no relation to KYCC’s Sam Joo), a 20-year-old Korean American student at Santa Monica College, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea when he was 9. He agreed to be interviewed alongside his father, James Joo. “Even when I was in high school, I either had friends who had beer or even hard liquor at home because their parents don’t really mind them drinking, or we would just buy the drinks at stores that don’t check IDs.”
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