Conflict & Justice

Asian Immigrants in New York Offer Opinions on Same-Sex Marriage

Immigrants know how complicated American law can get—just think about the debate over immigration reform, for one thing.

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But people who've arrived here from other places are also able to see the United States in simpler terms, and in ways that reflect—and contrast with—their own backgrounds.

Alphabet City is on the far east side of New York. It's a downtown neighborhood that's long been home to waves of immigrants from all over the world.

I popped into a laundromat there and asked one of the owners, Kim, what she thought about gay marriage.

"I say that's good," she says, "because that's freedom. No problem."

Kim came here from Vietnam in 1990. She left behind a country that she says wasn't so free and is getting better only slowly.

"Still no freedom like [America]. America you can say anything you want; nobody follows you. But my country, no, no."

Within a couple of blocks there were two more laundromats. One, the Avenue A Laundromat, is run by a woman named Grace who arrived in the US in 1994, from South Korea.

"I'm from Seoul, Gangnam. You know the Psy [song] 'Gangnam Style'? It's the same place."

Grace, a Buddhist, hangs lotus flowers made of folded paper around the laundromat.

"We believe in heaven. Everybody has one flower or two flowers. If somebody is doing a very good job and [has a] good mind, it blooms like it's beautiful," she says.

The lotus flowers make Grace happy, and she wants the same for others.

"Usually the Buddhists don't judge anything," she continues. "They don't decide right or wrong; everything has a cause and outcome, and everything has a reason. So I don't decide this is wrong, right, [or] this is good, bad: I don't decide that way.

"I mean, you know, people want to marry. They are gay; they want to marry. It's no discrimination there.. they just want to marry! That's the way we approach understanding people."

Same-sex relationships aren't legally recognized in Grace's home country, South Korea. But in the US, especially in a socially liberal part of a socially liberal city, Grace's beliefs fit with the attitudes she sees in most of her customers.

Around the corner, I met Lisa, a laundromat owner from Malaysia. That's a country that's even more hostile to same-sex relationships than South Korea.

Lisa arrived in the US a couple of decades ago, and married a local, one of her former customers. She supports same-sex marriage too.

"It's good. Why not? [It doesn't] bother me," she says. "It's none of your business. That's it. Free country here, what do you want? Right?"

Lisa's views couldn't be more different than the official policies of Malaysia, the country of her birth. I asked her what American freedom means for her. She told me it doesn't mean doing whatever you want, such as robbing a bank. But, she added, it does mean everyone being as free as everyone else.

So there you go: Not a scientific sample and not, I'm sure, reflective of every immigrant's view of what's going on at the Supreme Court this week. But a set of bracingly straightforward opinions, nonetheless.

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    The Avenue A Laundromat in Alphabet City, New York. (Photo: Alex Gallafent)

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    Grace, from South Korea, owns the Avenue A Laundromat, in New York. (Photo: Alex Gallafent)