THE most magical thing about journalism is the possibility that anybody, anywhere, might publish something alive. This kind of democratic miracle doesn't occur very often, even in the age of the Internet, but when it does, it's exciting and inspiring. The example I've run across most recently is KoreAm Journal, a six-year-old monthly publication with a circulation of 12,000 that is published out of an office-warehouse complex in Gardena, California.
"KoreAm" is short for "Korean-American"; part of what's impressive about this journal is that it has risen out of the swamp of ethnic publishing, where boosterism is the prevailing ethos and one of the most interesting subjects in American life is made safe and dull. KoreAm Journal does inform subscribers if someone becomes the first Korean-American to achieve a position, or if a leader protests some insult to the group. But it also reports bad news ("KOREAN BANKS DOING POORLY IN LOS ANGELES"), and it can get across the full scope of a big, messy issue such as black-Korean relations. Rarer still, it tries to capture the ambiguity and complexity of its main theme -- assimilation.
The most popular feature in the journal is an anonymous advice column called "Dear Banana Man." The author, depicted in a cartoon that accompanies every column as a muscular, booted, moustachioed figure in a banana costume, is a swaggering know-it-all who swats back answers to questions about everything from presidential politics to courtship. Not long ago I wrote to him, meekly requesting an interview. As I should have expected, Banana Man printed my letter in his column and then responded to it in print.
My editor assures me that I'll get paid for granting this interview. My first question, of course, is how much? If there is no money, then I gotta ask, "What's in it for Banana Man?" Publicity is the last thing the Great Yellow One desires.
We ironed out that issue (Banana Man dropped his insistence on being paid), and I went to see him in Los Angeles. Attempts to unmask Banana Man, and his teasing evasions, are a leitmotif of the column. He has hinted that he may be married with children, but the main impression he gives is of a tough, macho, ungovernable character. Here's a typical Banana Man pronunciamento: "These namby-pamby, bleeding-heart liberal weenies who favor gun control are totally lost." He says he has received death threats as a result of his column.
Banana Man plays against the stereotype of Korean-Americans as submissive straight-A students who care only about obtaining graduate degrees and making propitious within-group marriages. Several years ago KoreAm Journal published a comic strip called Robert Kool, in which the
hero was abducted by a group of gorgeous women who tied him up in an abandoned warehouse and revealed their membership in a secret organization: "We're committed to make sure that no young Korean American man or woman ever gets involved with anything other than medicine, law, business, or engineering. With the sure thing." To this end they planned to "dispose of" every Korean-American aspiring writer or artist whose success might get others off the track. Banana Man's position is that such threats wouldn't frighten him.
WITHOUT breaking the terms of an elaborate agreement we made to protect Banana Man's anonymity, I can report that he isn't quite the bad boy he makes himself out to be. It is true that he came roaring up to our interview on a big black Suzuki motorcycle, which he was driving because the new Harley-Davidson he had ordered hadn't arrived yet, and that he is a freelance writer without a secure, credential-requiring job. On the other hand, he lives in a suburban-style tract house that is impeccably neat except for the room in which he works. I won't reveal the location, but I will say that it is an ethnically diverse community in Los Angeles County where many upwardly mobile Korean-Americans have settled because the public schools are separate from, and better than, those in the enormous Los Angeles Unified School District. Banana Man's wife was born in Korea. He is the son of a prominent, respectable father -- a former judo champion in Korea who has held a series of high-level positions both there and in the United States. Upon entering Banana Man's house, people take off their shoes, in keeping with Korean tradition but also in deference to the shiny wooden floors.
James "Bear" Ryu, the editor of KoreAm Journal, belongs to what's called "the one-and-a-half generation" of Korean-Americans: he was born in Korea and brought to the United States as a child during the early 1970s, so that his father could attend graduate school here. (James Ryu's father, Jung S. Ryu, who has a doctorate, holds the honorary title of publisher of KoreAm Journal and writes a statesmanlike column in every issue.) Banana Man has a similar life story, except that he was born here. Both Ryu and Banana Man lived in university towns in the Midwest before gravitating to Los Angeles, the capital city for Korean-Americans. After graduating from college Banana Man planned to enter law school but decided at the last minute not to go, disappointing his parents. Ryu, meanwhile, was working part-time as a sushi chef while completing college. The two met when Banana Man happened to go to the restaurant where Ryu worked. In 1990, a few months after Ryu had started KoreAm Journal, Banana Man told me, he called Ryu "to tell him what sucked about his paper -- nothing was fun." The Banana Man column was the result of this conversation. For the inaugural column Banana Man and Ryu made up the advice-seeking letters, but since then almost all the letters have been real.