Howard County Times
Howard County

County's Korean Festival celebrates mix of tradition and contemporary

Stephanie Choi plays a Janggu during the samul nori, a genre of tradional percussion music, in the 2014 Korean Festival. This year's edition will be held Saturday in Ellicott City.

Korean-Americans whose parents immigrated to the United States navigate between two worlds — one rooted in the past and one focused on the future — and nowhere is that reflected more clearly than at the Korean Festival.

Headliners for the 39th annual event set for Sept. 17 at Centennial Park include Korean comedian Kim Chul Min, YouTube singer and songwriter Ann One, the Dave Tauler Music Group, and K-Pop dancing teams — all younger, contemporary acts that hold great appeal for the second generation of Koreans, who were born in America.


But traditional dancing, music and games, as well as taekwondo demonstrations and a men's arm-wrestling contest — which honor Koreans' cultural heritage — will also take place. Korean foods will be served alongside typical American fare at the festival, which is expected to draw more than 7,000 people from across the state.

Seong Baik is president of the Korean Society of Maryland, which was formed as the Korean Society of Greater Baltimore in the 1970s. A Woodstock resident, she is a real estate agent with two grown children and two grandchildren.


"I want to emphasize with this festival that we, as the first generation, miss our country and our family and we're homesick," said Baik, who noted that a round-trip plane ticket to Seoul, South Korea, will be raffled off at the festival.

"We have sacrificed a lot to come here for a better life for our families," she said.

Baik will wear a traditional garment called a hanbok that she ordered from Korea for the festivities. The formal gown is vibrantly colored and made of embroidered silk.

She will give a speech in Korean that will be translated into English, and preside as Howard County Executive Alan H. Kittleman and representatives from Gov. Larry Hogan's office and the Korean Embassy in Washington are introduced at noon.

Jenny Baik, who is Baik's daughter and has been serving as her adviser, said first-generation Koreans should strive to strike a balance between living in America and missing their homeland, and that's something the second generation can help with.

"When the first generation comes here, they don't understand how things work," said Jenny Baik, who came to America with her family at age 5 and lives in North Laurel. "They need to learn the language and be open to American culture."

The second generation, with one foot in their parents' customs and one foot in current trends, is intent on melding the two generations' points of view, which occasionally conflict, she said.

"It is imperative that the second generation becomes a part of the Korean Festival and that's why we are working together to bridge the generational gap," she said.


The desire of both generations to help the process of assimilation might explain in part why the number of sponsors has more than doubled to 100 since last year's festival and why there will be more than 70 informational and food booths this year.

"This event is exciting and fun, but it's also about team-building and collaborating," Jenny Baik said. "We want the first generation to know there is someone there to catch you if you need help in understanding how things work here."

To that end, there will be assistance with voter registration and a sign-up for mammograms aimed at older residents. But there will also be a large children's zone and sketching and writing contests to entice younger attendees.

"We want this to be bigger than ever and offer something for everyone," she said.

The society moved its offices to Columbia in 2008 and shifted the location of the festival two years later to better serve the large segment of the state's Korean population that resides in Howard County.

The number of Koreans living in the county, according to the latest census figures from 2010, is 13,000 out of a total population of 287,000, said Jimmy Rhee, a Clarksville resident and Seoul native who is the state's special secretary of minority affairs.


There are 50,000 Koreans among the state's 6 million residents, though all those numbers have increased over the last six years, he noted.

"That means that 25 percent of Koreans in the state live in Howard County," said Rhee, who will give a welcome speech at the festival. "Howard County is a special place, and that's why the Korean Festival is held there."

Seong Baik hopes to take recognition of those facts a step further.

Since many of the county's Korean residents own small businesses, she has proposed to the state's Department of Transportation that signs be erected on U.S. 40 that proclaim "Korea Way: Next 5 Miles," covering the stretch from Normandy Plaza to Turf Valley.

Rhee said he thinks the idea is a good one and would benefit the Korean population, just as the festival does.

"Now that Korea is cool — with K-Pop and 'Gangnam Style' dancing — events like the festival help illuminate and differentiate the old and new parts of our culture," he said. "Koreans take multiple paths in assimilating to life in the U.S., and this festival helps people understand that."


Peter Hwang, an Ellicott City attorney and former vice president of the Korean Society of Maryland, said that two years ago the society's directors were "really focused on turning the ship around" in order to reflect the interests of the new generations of Korean-Americans.

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"Back in the 1970s, the festival was largely service-based and aimed at new immigrants with advice on how to open a business and do other things," said Hwang, who will introduce the government officials.

"Now that the ship has been turned around, the second generation is focused more on celebrating our culture," he said. "That's how we will keep pushing the ship forward."

Jenny Baik summed up the festival's overarching goal as a universal one that is equally important in all cultures.

"This festival is about remembering where we came from," she said, "and holding on to a little piece of that."


If you go

The 39th annual Korean Festival will be held rain or shine from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sept. 17 at Centennial Park, 10000 Route 108, Ellicott City. Admission is free. Overflow parking will be available at Columbia Presbyterian Church, across from the park's south entrance, and a free shuttle will transport fairgoers from the parking lots at Burleigh Manor Middle and Centennial High schools on Centennial Lane. All proceeds from beverages sold by the society will benefit Historic Ellicott City flood-relief efforts. Volunteers are still needed. Information: or 410-772-5393.