Cultural gulf paved with `steppingstone'

Outreach: With a grant from the Anne Arundel health department, a new organization offers some assistance to that county's growing Korean population.

May 13, 2002|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Tucked behind the town center that is the heart of Glen Burnie, the squat buildings adorned with Korean letters nearly fade into the background of the Food Lion's sprawling parking lot. With only a few English words on their exteriors, they're hard to see from a distance, easy to overlook.

Over the years, the same has been said of the local Korean-American community itself. Along Glen Burnie's strip mall-strewn highways, Korean immigrants opened jewelry shops, video stores and restaurants serving kimchi and other traditional favorites. They became citizens, paid taxes and founded churches. Yet many felt overlooked, unable to find affordable health insurance, establish a credit history or take advantage of government services their English-speaking neighbors used.

Now, the Korean Americans in Anne Arundel County Service Center -- known as KAAA -- wants to change that. Armed with a $34,000 grant from the county's health department, the organization set up shop this spring in a small office above the Crain Highway Korean shops.

Because its funding comes from Maryland's share of the tobacco settlement, its main goal is providing colorectal cancer screening to adults, and warning youths about the dangers of tobacco. But Kap Y. Park, KAAA's founder and executive director, said the organization will do much more.

"We are not actually the bridge between Korean and American cultures. We don't have enough resources. We want to be the steppingstone to cross the stream," he said. "We hope that the second and third generation will build the bridge."

Numbering 4,000, Anne Arundel County's Korean population constitutes less than 1 percent of the county's total population of about 490,000. Howard County has half the population of Anne Arundel, and nearly twice as many Korean-Americans. Montgomery County, with 873,341 residents, has more than 15,000 Korean-American residents, according to the U.S. Census.

But Park said the census figure in Anne Arundel County reflects a significant undercount: He estimates the population to be closer to 10,000. He said the growth is apparent in the number of new businesses, households and cultural groups. For example, the county has 16 Korean churches, compared with two when Park arrived 21 years ago.

Park, who lives in Pasadena and owns a small grocery store in Curtis Bay, said county government had tried to reach out to the community. But without civil servants fluent in Korean, efforts failed. Many of the new immigrants lacked health insurance, despite programs that could assist them. Some worried that their children would reject their heritage if they assimilated, or become withdrawn and slip into the wrong crowd if they didn't.

County Executive Janet S. Owens said she realized the outreach efforts had to change.

"We have to take care of our citizens the way they come -- in all shapes, sizes and colors," she said.

Last year, her administration established a minority health office with a liaison to each of the county's three fastest-growing minority communities -- the African-American, Korean-American and Hispanic populations.

Felisa McCall, program manager for the minority health office, said the effort has brought improved communication.

"Oftentimes, there are issues of trust, and people are much more comfortable when the messenger reflects the message," McCall said.

The health department, through its liaisons and KAAA, can refer uninsured residents who qualify for the colorectal cancer screenings to doctors who accept lower fees. It also can help immigrants enroll in the Maryland Children's Health Program, an option for low-income residents.

But she, too, shares Park's vision of KAAA as more than a health resource.

"I'd like for people who arrive in the community to say, `I need some help. And there's someone who speaks my language, and I can call there and get some help,'" she said.

Signs of progress

Progress is apparent in the county. Three years ago, the school system hired one English-as-a-second-language teacher who is fluent in Korean.

Every summer, Park organizes a nine-week cultural exchange camp that brings together African-American children from Druid Heights and Korean-Americans from the Glen Burnie area. And two years ago, the Department of Aging hired Sung Yi, a retired Army sergeant fluent in English, as an office manager-turned-interpreter at the Brooklyn Park Senior Center.

The senior center, which serves Glen Burnie's Korean population, presents a catered Korean lunch every Wednesday. Ararang, a traditional Korean dance troupe that includes seniors from the center, practices there every Friday. On New Year's Eve, Ararang performed at the First Night celebration in Annapolis with colorful scarves, its graceful, swaying moves accompanied by chants and drumbeats.

`Don't be afraid'

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