Flushing, Queens, isn't a spot that one normally thinks of as exotic, but Oriental food shops and Korean restaurants are sprouting there among the diners and the delis like cloud mushrooms after a heavy rain.
Flushing and another Queens neighborhood, Kew Gardens, have the heaviest concentrations of Koreans in New York City - community leaders put the number at 20,000. And in a city where, according to the latest census, 110,000 Koreans live, there is scarcely a neighborhood that does not now have a Korean greengrocer or fishmonger or dry cleaner.
The Koreans are among the city's most visible immigrants because of their remarkable emergence in small businesses. For these 110,000 people, their dreams and difficulties are part of the old, old story of immigrants to the United States.
''I must say that sometimes we go into business because of the prejudice we meet with in other areas,'' said Young Ho Kim, secretary general of the Korean Association of New York. ''I know a man who has a Ph.D. in chemistry. He was seven years with a big company here and was not promoted. At first he was not sure why it was, but when he began to see younger white men being promoted over him, he said, 'Why should I put up with this? I'd rather work for myself.' ''
Sung-Eun Kim, a lawyer who now works for the Korean Community Service Organization, said, ''I don't think we are particularly entrepreneurial people, but often when we first arrive, we can only get very poor jobs, in a factory, say, because we have the language problem. And to a professionally trained person, this is humiliating to do such work, so they will save every penny they can and then put it into a store, where at least they have dignity.''
Dignity is the word used most often by Koreans when they are asked about their motivations for going into business. Language is another reason; English is particularly hard for them because its grammatical structure and sounds are so unlike those of their own language. An Embarrassing Problem
Dr. Geraldine Grant of the Ethnic Studies Program at Queens College observes that Koreans tend to be painfully self-conscious about their language problems. They are embarrassed, she says, if they cannot speak English well. But to open a small greengrocery, it is often sufficient to learn the American monetary system and the names of about 25 fruits and vegetables.
Though many Korean immigrants must work and save before they can start their own businesses, many others come to this country with some capital. There is no Korean-owned bank here to help finance them, though they are considered good loan risks and sometimes help one another out.
Almost all the Koreans in the United States have come since 1965, when American immigration laws were changed and quotas by national origin were scrapped. Mr. Kim of the Korean Association has charts showing a marked rise in Korean immigration since then. Under the new immigration laws, those with professional and technical skills are now given preference. Korean doctors and nurses are admitted easily and seem to be able to pick up their practices here despite the initial language barrier, but other professionals have a more difficult time.
Koreans come here for the same mixed batch of reasons that have brought other immigrants. For one thing, South Korea is overcrowded, and its Government has encouraged immigration for years, even signing contracts for labor with Latin American governments.
Most come for economic, and particularly for educational, opportunity. The great importance that they place on education is apparent in some of the class distinctions they make, in their references to ''a high-educated person'' or ''a low-educated person.'' Anyone they want to dismiss or insult is described as ''ignorant.'' Different Expectations
A few Koreans come here for political reasons, too. Those who mention ''freedom'' as a reason for emigrating say the word with a special reverence.
Dr. Grant noted, however, that the new immigrants were different from ''your tired, your poor, your huddled masses'' who are welcomed on the Statue of Liberty. ''The old immigrants were largely unskilled, uneducated,'' she said, ''and they came with the idea that their children would make it in America. They themselves usually expected to remain laboring people, but the hope was that the children would have opportunities.''
''I think these immigrants have different expectations,'' she said. According to the Queens College studies, more than 60 percent of Korean immigrants have some college education, and 56 percent of them held high-status occupations before emigrating.
Though their expectations may be different, many of their experiences are painfully familiar. One is the matter of names. Korean names are confusing to Americans, in part because so many Koreans have the same last names, even though they are not related. Immigration officials often insist that Koreans must have middle names - even though they do not - because there is a space for middle names on the forms. 'This Makes Us Real Americans?'
The result is that often a first name of two syllables is divided on the immigration papers into first and middle names with results strange to the ear of a Korean - they are called by half a name. Some seemed immensely pleased when they were told that earlier immigrants from other countries had been through the same involuntary rebaptism.
''This make us more like real Americans?'' one inquired hopefully. The culture shock is profound for the newly arrived Koreans, even though many are doing well economically - 62 percent now make more than $25,000 a year, according to Young Ho Kim. The two cultural differences most often mentioned are Americans' lack of respect for elders and their informality. Han Young Lee, who does community work in Flushing, said it was extremely unsettling to Koreans to hear older people addressed familiarly by those who are much younger.
''It is true,'' said Sung-Eun Kim, ''that Koreans are reserved and formal people, except with their families and with very close friends. And with us, friendship is a very deep thing - a friend is someone you would die for, someone you would take into your own home if he had troubles. And we know we are approaching this kind of friendship with a person when his manners with us become less formal.'' Formality and Friendship
''So to us,'' he continued, ''when Americans treat us with great informality, we think this is a deep friendship that is being offered. It is only later that we understand that this person does not care for us deeply.'' He paused and then added softly, ''This can be a painful experience for a Korean.''
The first mental-health center for Korean-Americans opened recently in Flushing. It is staffed by Korean-Americans and attempts to deal with symptoms of the stress put on Korean families by immigration.
Mr. Kim said that one such symptom was an increasing number of cases of wife-beating and child-beating among Koreans. ''Often a man is getting no respect in the outside world here,'' he said. ''He is being called 'Charlie-Boy' by ignorant persons much younger than he is, he is working at a job that is less than he is accustomed to, that does not give him dignity, and then when his wife does not treat him with respect, this threatens him completely.'' Extended Families
Mrs. Lee said Korean women were beginning to talk together about such problems. She asserted that Korean-Americans had received little in the way of government assistance, especially considering how much they paid in taxes. She cited the new mental-health center as an example of the kind of help needed, and said she would like to see much more in the way of language programs.
Another difficulty that Koreans face is trying to maintain their extended-family patterns. Many families bring the grandparents here to help raise the children while both parents work. But American apartments are not built for extended families.
Wilhelmina Jimney, district manager of Community Board 7 in Flushing, noted still another problem for Korean immigrants - they are sometimes suspected of being proselytes for the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
''I think there is a sense among most people here that the Koreans are stiff or clannish or standoffish,'' she said, ''though they are respected as hard workers. I don't think there is much prejudice against them for race reasons.''
''But I know there is some feeling that they might be Moonies,'' she added, ''and some people will say, well, you shouldn't get close to Koreans because they might take your children into the Moon cult.''
''For almost all Koreans here, Moon is an embarrassment,'' said Sung-Eun Kim. ''But I don't understand why Americans think Koreans are Moonies. I would be surprised if even 1 percent are - most of his followers here are Americans.'' Concern About Espionage
Another common concern among Koreans is that the Korean Central Intelligence Agency is active in the United States. The Congressional investigations that followed the ''Koreagate'' scandal of 1977 found that the agency did indeed operate among Korean-Americans, and that its agents sometimes threatened those who publicly criticized the regime in Seoul. Many Koreans in New York believe this still goes on.
The Rev. Paul Kim, of the First United Methodist Church of Flushing, said: ''It is particularly in New York because the U.N. is here. I must say that we are aware they are here, and even though they cannot touch us because we are permanent residents we still have the feeling of being watched. It is a shame.''
Mr. Kim observed that Koreans in America converted to Christianity at a much higher rate than those in South Korea, where Buddhists are still in the majority.
''We have a Korean-language service every week and about 70 people come,'' he said. ''But I must tell you that we don't count all of them as Christians in the church. Some come just because they want to be together as Koreans, speak language, have fellowship. Also we have a day-care program at our church. But eventually they will be a Christian.''