Aged Koreans escape 'prison without bars' Public housing offers camaraderie

April 18, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

Reading a Korean-language Bible in her tiny 19th-floor apartment high above East Baltimore, Bok Soon Chung, looks far removed from the city below.

But it is precisely to avoid isolation and to enjoy the company of others who speak her language and share her culture that the 76-year-old widow, like a growing number of elderly Koreans in Baltimore, has chosen to live by herself in public housing.

Korean culture -- and Asian-American stereotypes -- might suggest that grandparents such as Mrs. Chung would live as part of extended families to care for their children's children.

Yet, some elderly Koreans have found that as their grandchildren grow up in the United States, little is left for them to do. Speaking almost no English, the grandparents are often left home alone in suburbs where they can't communicate with the neighbors or even understand television programs while their children put in long hours at work.

"Many elderly Koreans refer to life in America as being in a prison without bars," says Jai P. Ryu, a Loyola College sociologist who is City Hall's Korean liaison. "They are totally isolated from the wider society."

A framed photo hangs above the sofa in Mrs. Chung's apartment. It shows one of her sons and his wife standing with their three grown sons in the family's Baltimore liquor store.

"Even in Korea, I raised them," Mrs. Chung, a former elementary school teacher who followed her two sons to the United States in 1979, says proudly of her grandsons, now in their mid-20s. "We expect to live together with our children, but with the grandchildren grown up, they didn't need any more help. I felt really lonely in their home."

"At first, my children strongly rejected the idea of my moving because children are supposed to take care of their parents. But as time goes on, they know I really felt lonely and here there is a better chance to have friends," she said through an interpreter.

Mrs. Chung has found company. Some 160 elderly Koreans -- out of perhaps 650 in the metropolitan area -- now live in two Baltimore public-housing high-rises, according to the city Housing Authority. Their numbers have nearly doubled in the past three years. As do other tenants, they pay 30 percent of their income for rent.

One high-rise, the one in which Mrs. Chung rents an apartment for $117 a month, is at Hollander Ridge on the city's eastern edge. The other is on West 20th Street, close to the city's largest cluster of Korean stores and restaurants around Charles Street and North Avenue.

A new program run by the city's Commission on Aging and Retirement Education brings many elderly Koreans from the high-rises and elsewhere together three times a week at the Harford Center for Senior Citizens in Northeast Baltimore.

The Korean Elderly Education Program (KEEP) buses the immigrants to the senior center and offers them English classes, aerobics, music, speakers on current events and lunch -- sometimes Korean food, sometimes American.

"Most Korean young people are running small businesses from early in the morning to late at night. They often don't have time to take care of their parents," says Kimo Nam, the 37-year-old Korean-born social worker who runs the program.

Younger Koreans "invest in the future," says Neetu Dhawan-Gray, executive director of the Commission on Aging. "There's a tremendous desire for upward mobility so all the effort goes into getting yourself and especially your children a better life."

The program began in January and has just entered its second three-month session. A waiting list has quickly accumulated. More than 90 people registered for 60 available slots, Mr. Nam says. They pay $18 to join the center and $30 for a three-month session of classes.

"The biggest issues for these people are no English and no transportation," Mr. Nam says. "The elderly people want to learn survival language, like how to call the police."

One recent morning at the Harford center, three English classes were going simultaneously. About 25 elderly Koreans crammed into the elementary class, parroting basic sentences recited by their instructor: "Do you carry tofu? Where is your store?"

"Where -- is -- your -- store?" the students chanted.

Another 11 students attended an intermediate session, and three advanced students sat around a table in the center's bingo room with volunteer Mary Owens, 83.

"I didn't know anything about them or how to approach them at first," says Mrs. Owens, a retired city teacher who was a regular at the Harford center before the Koreans arrived. "But the three I have are just wonderful. They are anxious, cooperative and they love homework."

Center director Bernie Kiewe, who opened its doors to KEEP, hopes that friendships will blossom between Koreans and Americans as the two groups get used to each other and the Koreans' English improves.

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