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Traditional Korean Study Rooms Fulfill A New Mission In America

Two sisters transform the traditional Korean study room into a New York City hub where East meets West.
Image: The NY Study Café in Koreatown is the city’s only Korean study room.
The NY Study Café in Koreatown holds shared study spaces.Zinno Park / Courtesy Obi Lee

This is where East meets West. New York City's only Korean study room has become a hub where Asian and American cultures collide by providing the one thing everyone needs: a quiet corner to call their own, if even just for a few hours a day.

A dual nature sums up the NY Dokseosil, or Study Room, nestled on the fifth floor of a building in Manhattan's Koreatown. Sisters Youngjin Lee and Obi Lee opened the cafe in 2012 after emigrating from Korea within the last decade.

Youongjin Lee and Obi Lee are the founders and owners of the NY Study Café in Koreatowm.Zinno Park / Courtesy Obi Lee

The small space houses various amenities including desk spaces, a dance studio, board games, beds and cups of coffee.

But the "cafe" label doesn't quite capture the activities it hosts. On any given day, occupants of the study room can be found studying, socializing, snoozing, or digging into some BBQ.

When Americans first approached Obi with an interest in her birth country, she was surprised.

“Why? Korea is such a small country,” she thought, but now the site plays host to a weekly meetup to exchange tidbits on culture and language.

Members meet up weekly on Wednesdays at the NY Study Café in Koreatown.Zinno Park / Courtesy Obi Lee

Obi estimates that the cafe's clientele of about 10 to 15 regulars, plus walk-ins, is made up of about 70 percent Koreans and Japanese and 30 percent Americans. Americans who studied abroad, worked or maintain an interest in Korean culture — sometimes fueled by Korean television drama — flock there to meet with natives who know the country best. For Asians, it's a haven to get acclimated and pursue personal and professional goals.

"They want a sing a long and watch drama together. They know a lot about Korea, but they want to know more," Obi said of her American clients.

A friend, Youngjin Lee and Obi Lee celebrate the one-year anniversary of the NY Study Café in Koreatown.Zinno Park / Courtesy Obi Lee

While the cafe was originally intended to give New Yorkers a quiet nook, free of cafe noise and library restrictions — a common type of facility in Korea — it's now also available for rent to hold galleries or business events. For clients, a visit costs $3 an hour, or $10 for 6 hours. The space is open 9 a.m. and 11 p.m., with some exceptions for $250 monthly pass holders.

“People think New York City is just for fun to hang out and drink something, but some people really want to study something,” Obi said.

The NY Study Café in Koreatown holds shared study spaces.Zinno Park / Courtesy Obi Lee

Clients come to mingle, use the Internet, read or study for anything from the bar or CPA exam to a citizenship test.

“We try to do everything we can do — sometimes even for free," Obi said. "We have a space, and if someone needs a space, sometimes it’s good will,” Obi said.