In the heart of Central Kentucky, people are paying greater attention to South Korea than ever before. While Kentucky’s Korean American community is not as large as those of other states, at approximately 8,800 individuals as of 2019, growing interest in Korean culture has nonetheless spotlighted the community and its contributions to the state.
As the largest city in the Bluegrass region, Lexington has long been a center of immigration and cultural diversity in Kentucky. Because of this, the Korean American presence has long been a fixture of the Lexington community. In recent years, its presence has skyrocketed. One of the earliest Korean American organizations in the city can be traced to 1980, when the Lexington Korean School was founded as part of the Korean United Presbyterian Church of Lexington. While its original primary focus was to educate 2nd generation Korean Americans in their heritage language and culture, non-Korean Americans of all ages and backgrounds now constitute a significant portion of the roughly 40 students who participate in one of 16 different classes each semester. Meanwhile, Korean restaurant mainstays such as Arirang have recently been joined by fast-casual restaurants like Han Woo Ri, which caters to students at the University of Kentucky, and even a new Korean hot pot restaurant.
Perhaps the greatest increase in access to Korean language and cultural materials has taken place at the University of Kentucky (UK). While universities of a similar size in the region, such as Indiana University – Bloomington, offer robust Korean programs, UK only launched an official program in fall of 2020. This was in no small part due to the student-run Korean Language & Culture Club (KLCC), which has offered student-taught Korean courses from the beginner to the advanced level since 2018. Due to the KLCC’s work and a strongly demonstrated student interest in South Korea, UK now offers two years of Korean classes. Additionally, Korean cultural activities have been promoted by the likes of UK’s Student Activities Board and the Korean Student/Scholar Association of Kentucky.
While Korean language classes and cultural festivals have been at the forefront of a burgeoning Kentucky-South Korea relationship, this relationship has also manifested itself in UK’s recent focus on esports. Esports, which enjoy widespread popularity in South Korea, are increasingly gaining attention on American university campuses. UK has partnered with Gen.G, an esports organization operating in South Korea, China, and the United States, to support UK’s growing esports program. Additionally, UK participated in the 2021 Overwatch U.S.-Korea Virtual College Esports Tournament.
As Korean culture thrives in Lexington, so too does the growing relationship between South Korea and Kentucky. With more and more people seeking to learn Korean or enjoy Korean culture, this reflects a broader trend in Americans consuming Korean pop culture. For now though, one thing is clear: whether you are a student or simply enjoy Korean food, it is not too difficult to find a piece of South Korea in the Bluegrass.
Michael Di Girolamo is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is currently a first-year graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.