Children of Korea seek their heritage School: At her academy in Glen Burnie, Yoon Hee Choi teaches Korean-American youths about the language, customs and history of her native land.

September 17, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

At times, 11-year-old Gi Eun Lee feels as if she has a double life.

By day, the sixth-grader attends Glen Burnie Baptist Church School and plays with her American friends.

But after school and on weekends, she switches gears and studies at the Korean-American Academy -- learning Korean, penciling the language's 24-letter alphabet in a notebook and reading about the country's history.

It can be confusing, but Lee said her dual existence is important to her as a Korean-American.

"It's embarrassing if you're a Korean person and you don't know the language," she said. "It's like if you're an American person and you don't speak English."

For five years, Yoon Hee Choi has been teaching Lee and about 15 other youths the language, customs and history of Korea in a tiny three-room space above a tae kwon do school at 8 Crain Highway in Glen Burnie.

Choi -- who emigrated from Seoul, South Korea, 18 years ago -- started the Korean-American Academy when she saw her adolescent son, Steve, absorbing only American culture while he was growing up. She says she wanted Steve and other Korean-American children in the area to know and understand their heritage.

"If we don't teach them, they don't know where they came from," said Choi, 44, who lives in Hanover. "They don't have roots, and they won't learn it from American schools."

At the academy, the children -- between ages 5 and 13 -- begin classes by bowing to Choi and saying, "Anyonghasayo," Korean for "How are you?"

Choi stresses respect for elders and encourages the children to be polite and disciplined.

In her classes, students must sit up straight, be attentive and speak only when spoken to -- as students do in Korea, said Choi.

"There's too much freedom in [the United States]," Choi said. "In Korea, you always have to respect parents, teachers, older people. When they learn the discipline in my Korean-style class, they'll go back to their American schools and pay attention and be more disciplined."

Ling-Chi Wang, chairman of the University of California Asian Language Task Force, said Choi's school is among 700 Korean "heritage schools" across the country that teach the language to children.

Most are based at Korean-American churches, he said.

"Immigrants having their community language schools is as American as motherhood and apple pie," Wang said. "In New York, people are learning Italian, Polish, Armenian.

"It's in the best interest of Americans to maintain and support these languages because knowing a second or third language is important to become a well-rounded, educated person, and not only be able to function in America but also outside the country."

Other parents agree. Korean-born Sue Hicks of Glen Burnie said she tried to teach her 7-year-old son, David, how to speak Korean because it might help his job prospects when he is grown. But because her Caucasian husband does not speak Korean, it was hard for their son to pick up the language.

Woo Hyang Lee said she wanted her American-born daughter, Gi Eun, to learn about Korean culture to preserve the bond between them.

"I see a lot of Korean kids who learn it when they're children, but when they're older, they don't want to talk Korean," said Lee, who owns a dry-cleaning business. "And if they don't speak, they forget how to speak it, and later they can't talk to their parents [who] don't speak good English. It's so sad. I told myself that I want to keep talking to my daughter when she grows up. I want her to learn my language."

Steve Choi, 17, said the academy also is a place of support for Korean-American youths who might feel slightly out of step in regular schools. He said he tries to be a role model to his mother's students when he helps them read the illustrated books about Korean fables that line the academy's shelves.

"I was the only Korean in my elementary school," he said. "I felt that I didn't blend in. So I think this helps the children. It gives them an opportunity to learn their culture and teaches them to be proud to be Korean."

Information: 410-761-7614.

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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