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Howard teen uses Lunar New Year service project to help reduce growing anti-Asian sentiment

For the Kim family in Woodbine, the Lunar New Year always has been a time for celebrating family, prosperity and health.

This year amid a pandemic and anti-Asian rhetoric that has turned violent in some cases, the holiday celebrated by Asians across the globe takes on special meaning for the Korean American family in Howard County, which has one of the largest Asian American populations in Maryland.

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Asian people account for 6.7% of Maryland’s population and 18% of the population in Howard County, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.

Ben Kim, the family’s eldest son, decided to use the holiday as a way to break down cultural barriers and reduce misunderstanding by providing meals for the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, a Columbia based emergency and transitional shelter.

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The 17-year-old Glenelg High School junior fed 70 people at the center in a multiethnic Asian feast Friday as part of his Eagle Scout service project.

“I hope the project can help. Hopefully, it will help mitigate the effects of this scapegoating that has no doubt been happening,” he said before the meal. “I just hope it can bring positivity to the Asian community. I think that raising awareness will do so much to help people have an open mind and have cultural diversity within their everyday social mindset.”

Crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise nationwide, according to President Joe Biden, who issued a memorandum Jan. 26 that acknowledged and condemned the racism, xenophobia and intolerance that Asians Americans and Pacific Islanders have faced in the United States related to the pandemic.

“The Federal Government must recognize that it has played a role in furthering these xenophobic sentiments through the actions of political leaders, including references to the COVID-19 pandemic by the geographic location of its origin,” the memorandum reads. “Such statements have stoked unfounded fears and perpetuated stigma about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and have contributed to increasing rates of bullying, harassment, and hate crimes against AAPI persons.”

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Since its launch March 19 through Aug. 5, Stop AAPI Hate, an advocacy group comprising several California-based organizations, received 2,583 reports of anti-Asian incidents nationwide. Physical assaults made up 9% of the incidents and businesses were the site of most hate incidents (38%) with 20% of the incidents happening on public streets, according to the group.

In Howard County, Kim raised $1,500 through crowdfunding efforts in January to pay for the ingredients for the meals delivered to the center Friday. He also recruited 17 friends, family members and neighbors to prep and cook the food, which will include dishes ranging from Asian vegetable stir fry to Korean pan fried dumplings. Each group prepared the meals in their homes before taking the food to the center in order to practicing social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kim decided to focus his service project around the Lunar New Year, which he compares in importance among many Asian Americans to Christmas and Thanksgiving. The holiday, which is based on the lunisolar calendar, is observed by people of Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean descent in America. This year, the holiday began Friday.

The mandu once they've been fried. Ben Kim, a 17-year-old junior at Glenelg High School, is preparing 만두 , or Mandu, which are Korean dumplings, for the residents and staff at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center for Lunar New Year. 02-11-2021
The mandu once they've been fried. Ben Kim, a 17-year-old junior at Glenelg High School, is preparing 만두 , or Mandu, which are Korean dumplings, for the residents and staff at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center for Lunar New Year. 02-11-2021 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Dorothy Howard, the food service manager at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center, said she is grateful for the work Kim has done.

“They will have a very delicious meal,” Howard said. “It will be something completely different.”

Kim’s mother, Soojung Kim, a math teacher at Folly Quarter Middle School in Ellicott City, said this is the perfect holiday to rally around. This show of goodwill might change the minds of others, she said, and thus potentially thwart attacks against Asian Americans like those that have happened across the country.

“I think the effort is there to make a difference so that [such incidents do] not become the new norm,” she said. “I feel that all the racism starts from the fear of the unknown.”

Just two days after Biden’s memorandum condemning intolerance of Asians Americans, an 84-year-old Thai man was pushed to the ground in San Francisco, The Associated Press reported. He died days later. Incidents like this are unsettling to the Kim family.

“It’s pretty infuriating,” Ben Kim said. “It’s kind of tough. It definitely needs to change.”

His mother said such incidents cause her to be fearful for her parents who live in South Carolina.

“When you see that, it is worrisome and it is scary,” she said. “I worry about my parents in Myrtle Beach. It is a big concern.”

Ben Kim, a 17-year-old junior at Glenelg High School, is preparing 만두 , or Mandu, which are Korean dumplings, for the residents and staff at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center for Lunar New Year. His 13-year-old sister, Bailey Kim, helps him assemble the mandu while his mother, Soojung Kim, fries them on the stove. Ben noted that his mom and sister are the real experts. 02-11-2021
Ben Kim, a 17-year-old junior at Glenelg High School, is preparing 만두 , or Mandu, which are Korean dumplings, for the residents and staff at the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center for Lunar New Year. His 13-year-old sister, Bailey Kim, helps him assemble the mandu while his mother, Soojung Kim, fries them on the stove. Ben noted that his mom and sister are the real experts. 02-11-2021 (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

She said that she has made extra efforts to introduce herself and her parents to their neighbors to show that they do not have anything to fear.

“I want to share that they have a lot in common,” Soojung Kim said. “That is what we are trying to do [in Howard County] too.”

Suzanne Vernon, who is Chinese-American and a member of The Chinatown Collective, a Baltimore-based advocacy group, praised the work that Ben Kim is doing and said more work from others is needed.

“I’m glad that he’s doing it. He’s closing gaps. We’re not monsters,” Vernon said.

However, Vernon, who lives in Canton, said it should be the responsibility of political leaders and other adults to change the narrative.

“It is everyone’s responsibility,” she said. “It starts with leadership.”

Also while Vernon praises the work that Biden has done recently, she said his efforts need to be amplified.

“It hasn’t been highlighted in mainstream media,” she said. “I just want people to hear us. I want people who stood up for justice [for others] in the beginning of the year, I want them to stand up now. Kindness wins.”

Kim’s mother said she has found inspiration in the kindness of her son’s project.

“This encourages me to do more,” she said. “This is such a wonderful learning experience in this community. Something like this gives me the faith that everything is going to be OK. We are going to get through this.”

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