Those who live in the neighborhood of Bleecker and West 11th Streets are familiar with the lines that regularly wrap around Magnolia Bakery. Tourists from far and wide queue up to buy the shop’s cupcakes, made famous by Magnolia’s brief appearance on the hit show, "Sex and the City," about a fabulous band of Manhattan girlfriends. Sharp-eyed West Villagers may have also noticed that often this patient lineup includes young Asian women, usually in pairs.
Are there no cupcakes in Tokyo and Seoul? Are they all in love with Christopher Noth’s character, Big, the dominant he-man of "SATC"? Or is Magnolia a secondary attraction to the neighborhood’s mother lode of Marc Jacobs boutiques? I stood on line on a recent Sunday to find out.
Within ten minutes of letting people ahead of me so as to stay at the back of the line, two Asian women sidled up behind me. They were Yumi Kang, 27, and Myung Seon Seol, 29, who goes by the English handle “Keren.” Visiting from Seoul, they had been in New York for less than a week, but were eager to cross Magnolia off their tourist to-do list.
The two women met after arriving in New York, through the Korean agency that brought them here to study English. Both are staying at a Flushing guest house while they look for a long-term rental. Both are also huge "Sex and the City" fans.
New York looms large in the fantasies of young Koreans, explains Seol, a television producer, because of popular New York-based TV shows and movies such as "SATC," “Gossip Girl” and “The Devil Wears Prada." "Koreans are very sensitive about fads,” Seol explains. “They want to be fashionable and fabulous people like the New Yorkers in movies.” They also, she says, think of New York as a place to experience all kinds of food, people, economic levels and technology (mainly, she means, the Apple store).
As Kang, a member of the Korean sketch comedy troupe, Gag Concert, and Seol approach the door of the bakery, an employee admonishes them to “take what you touch,” and encourages them to make a neat line inside the tiny bakery. Kang goes for red velvet cupcakes, which are the type most highly touted on Korean blogs.
Kang says her "SATC" alter-ego is Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Carrie Bradshaw, “Because she’s a dreamer and a positive character.” Although Kang adds that her wardrobe is not nearly as fabulous as Carrie’s. Seol identifies mostly closely with Miranda because she is a realist, a bit of a cynic and a good advisor to her friends
Fantasties aside, the practical reason young Koreans come to New York, explains Seol, is that they want to become fluent in English. “It helps their career, and looking for good jobs,” she notes. “For someone who doesn’t need to worry about money, they can have a [fun] experience and learn English as well.” Usually, it is the parents who foot the bill. “In Korea grandparents are not rich,” says Seol, because adults that age went through the war.”
Seol and Kang are uncommon because most young Koreans come to New York as college students. “After they graduate they have to look for a job, and after they find a job, it’s not easy to have free time for trips abroad,” Seol explains. She and Kang left jobs to chase adventure, despite attempts by friends and parents to dissuade them. They are also different because they are new acquaintances; most Koreans like to embark on such adventures abroad with a close friend. “Koreans don’t like to go on trips with strangers,” explains Seol.
Saving their cupcakes for later, the women tick off other places they plan on visiting in between apartment hunting and studying English: Katz’s Deli, the Lower East Side institution immortalized on screen in “When Harry Met Sally,” FAO Schwartz (because they loved Tom Hanks in “Big”), and the ice cream shop Serendipity 3, which was featured in the romantic comedy “Serendipity,” starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, (they meet at Bloomingdales, eat ice cream at Serendipity 3 and somewhat serendipitiously, find each other again years later). Kang and Seol have already been to Grimaldi’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, and give a thumbs up to both the pies and the atmosphere there.
The women are well aware that proper young Korean women their age are supposed to be marrying and settling down. Will their parents freak out if they wind up marrying an American and staying here?
“If he’s rich like Big,” says Yang, “they would be okay with it.”