Korean-American Police Officer Sidesteps Tradition Julie Sohn's parents emigrated from Korea in the early 1970s. They dreamed their only daughter would benefit from all their adopted country could offer. They never imagined she would become a cop.
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Korean-American Police Officer Sidesteps Tradition

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Korean-American Police Officer Sidesteps Tradition

Korean-American Police Officer Sidesteps Tradition

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Los Angeles has the largest population of Korean-Americans in the United States. It's the city where Julie Sohn's immigrant parents arrived when they came here from South Korea several decades ago. One of their dreams was that their only daughter achieved the best of what their adopted country could offer.

As part of the NPR series Immigrants' Children, Gloria Hillard brings us the story of a young woman who exceeded all of her parents' expectations in her own way.

GLORIA HILLARD: For 31-year-old Korean-American Julie Sohn, L.A.'s Koreatown is both a foreign and familiar place.

Officer JULIE SOHN (Los Angeles Police Department): For me, I'm very Americanized. I'm a second-generation Korean-American. I was born here. So, for me, you know, I'm definitely more Americanized than a lot of the people in Koreatown.

HILLARD: Hundreds of Korean-language signs lead the way down boulevards and strip malls packed full of bakeries, shops and restaurants. One of the restaurants in this neighborhood is owned by Sohn's cousin. The table is covered with multicolored appetizers of small clay pots full of red, hot bubbling stew.

(Soundbite of bubbling)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ofc. SOHN: I guess the best way to describe it is like a tofu stew and…

Unidentified Woman: Right. Tofu stew, yeah.

Ofc. SOHN: Tofu stew. My parents came here in the, like, late '60s, early '70s, and, you know, they like to tell me stories about how when they first came to the United States they had to make do with, like, sauerkraut and, like, hot sauce to make kimchi.

HILLARD: Today, her father, a pharmacist, and her mother, a doctor, want to share stories about their only daughter. Seventy-two-year-old Soon Ho Sohn recalls the day his Julie told him she was joining the Marines. At first he said no.

Mr. SOON HO SOHN: Just my wife said that leave her alone for what she wanted. That's the American way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HILLARD: After completing her service, including a tour in Iraq, the former Marine captain put on another uniform.

(Soundbite of police radio)

Ofc. SOHN: (unintelligible) 25, 35 (unintelligible).

HILLARD: She joined the Los Angeles Police Department.

Ofc. SOHN: He was resistant at first. I think part of it is I'm his only daughter. And then, just traditionally speaking, he just wants me to get married, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HILLARD: Sohn was recently assigned to LAPD's Use of Force Review Division, involving cases of officer-involved shootings.

Ofc. SOHN: When a radio call comes out, it gives you, like, maybe 25 percent of what's really happening and you have so much more to find out when you get on scene. You're trying to piece together a story.

HILLARD: In piecing this story together, we need to go back to the early '80s where Sohn grew up in the predominantly white suburbs of Orange County.

Ofc. SOHN: The racism that we dealt with was very formative, I guess, is the best way to put it. So for the longest time it was me trying to understand why, you know, people were treating me this way, because, you know, for me, all I knew was America.

HILLARD: Growing up, Sohn's parents insisted she and her three brothers learn and speak only English. Sohn can understand Korean, but is not fluent in it.

(Soundbite of police radio)

Ofc. SOHN: One, zero (unintelligible). Two, zero, five, zero (unintelligible).

HILLARD: She talks about the time she responded to what she says is one of the hardest calls a cop can make, it was a suicide, and the family was Korean.

Ofc. SOHN: We walk in there, my partner and I together, and we meet with the family. And I found myself, you know, stumped because I never learned the language of grief in Korean.

HILLARD: So she called her father on her cell phone.

Ofc. SOHN: My dad was definitely the back-up.

HILLARD: I asked Sohn why she wanted to be a cop.

Ofc. SOHN: For me, it was just giving back to a country that has given my family so much opportunity we wouldn't have back in Korea.

HILLARD: And there was another reason, she says, it's the one most cops will tell you.

Ofc. SOHN: You want to get those bad guys. And the other part is just to make sure that people are safe.

HILLARD: And in the last three years on the job, Sohn says her father seems to have come around.

Mr. SOHN: I'm proud of what she's doing, the LAPD. We are happy.

HILLARD: Of course, she's still his only daughter.

Mr. SOHN: I hope she will find a boyfriend to get married. That's all I need right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HILLARD: Those wedding bells may have to wait.

(Soundbite of siren)

HILLARD: Because for now, Officer Sohn is pretty busy.

Ofc. SOHN: Male, Asian, 40 to 50 years.

HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

Ofc. SOHN: He was trying to tow a vehicle.

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