Passing the past along at Korean Festival

Kirsten Jin, 15, Clarksville, performs the Fan Dance with members of the Dance One Academy, Columbia, during the 34th annual Korean Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds.
Kirsten Jin, 15, Clarksville, performs the Fan Dance with members of the Dance One Academy, Columbia, during the 34th annual Korean Festival at the Howard County Fairgrounds. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kim Hairston)

She was born in South Korea, loves her homeland's traditions with a passion and has officially served the burgeoning Korean-American community in Maryland for more than six years now. But Michelle Kim still insists that as a cultural ambassador, she sets something of "a poor example."

Kim, an official with the Korean Society of Maryland, helped organize the 34th Korean Festival in West Friendship on Saturday, an event that drew thousands of people on a brilliantly sunny afternoon.

But as Korean pop music throbbed in the background, the aromas of traditional foods like songpyeon (steamed rice cakes) and bulgogi (barbecued beef) filled the air, and a group of children tried their hands at yut nori, an ancient stick-tossing game, she still seemed a little preoccupied.

"I tried to convince my [14-year-old] son to come today, but his basketball team has a game, and to him, that's more important," she said with a shake of the head. "I recommend, but I don't pressure."

Kim, an art gallery owner from Ellicott City, had given voice to the main purpose of the festival, an annual celebration of food, music, games and dance that started in Baltimore City in 1977.

"We want to share our heritage with the non-Korean community — and to share it with our [next] generation," said Kim, who was born in Daegu City, South Korea's third-largest metropolitan area, before moving to the U.S. in 1980. "If we stop doing that, it will cease to exist in the future."

From the looks of it Saturday, she had little to worry about. By early afternoon, about a thousand people were choosing foods from a half-dozen vendors, greeting old friends, and settling in on folding chairs arrayed in front of a stage.

Youngsters from Victory Martial Arts in Columbia, clad in red, white and black uniforms, gave a vigorous display of tae kwon do kicks, throws and punches. A drummer and sax player anchored a set of synth-pop tunes, with lyrics in Korean. A half-dozen women from Greenmount Senior Center, an activity center for Korean men and women in Baltimore, donned ceremonial hanbok outfits and performed traditional fan and drum dances.

Anna and Albert Kim of Lutherville were on hand to support Albert's mother, Angela, who joined the dance group about a year ago, well after turning 70, and took graceful part in the show.

"She has gotten much younger since she started out," Anna Kim said as her husband hoisted a video camera to record the performance.

The fest was hardly a difficult sell for the Kims' daughter, Melissa, 18, a freshman at Salisbury University who said she and her brother, Jason, 12, enjoy being exposed periodically to the many elements of Korean culture.

"I like the atmosphere here," she said. "I'm American, but I'm Korean, too. Both sides are part of my identity."

Older guests appeared to be feeling even more at home. Sue Yon Park, 66, and her husband of three years, Moon Kang, 59, both of whom were born in Seoul, South Korea, held hands nearby and wore traditional embroidered costumes as they waited for the next act to get started.

"We're American citizens, but we love our hometown, too, and it's nice to celebrate our traditions," said Park, adding that the festival happens about the same time of year as Korea's most important holiday, Chusok, known as "Korean Thanksgiving."

A three-day celebration, it finds thousands of Koreans traveling to their ancestral hometowns every fall to express gratitude to their forebears, just as they have done for 2,000 years.

Park and Kang planned to take the stage later in the day to sing a well-known Korean pop song, "Hangbo Idan," or "Happiness."

"In our hearts, we like to see happy families," Park said.

There seem to be plenty of those in the region these days, especially among the Korean-American population, which has grown steadily — and prospered — since the late 1970s, when the first wave of immigrants from the Asian nation arrived in the Baltimore area to seek jobs.

Today, there are about 120,000 people of Korean ancestry living full- or part-time in greater Washington and Baltimore, according to Jonathan Choi, an official with the Korean Society of Maryland, the festival's sponsoring organization.

The last census, Choi added, suggested there are more than 50,000 people of Korean descent living in Howard County alone — one reason festival organizers moved the event from Baltimore City to the Howard County Fairgrounds two years ago.

The festival surpassed 5,000 in attendance last year, a figure Choi and Michelle Kim hoped to top by Saturday's 10 p.m. closing time.

Kim was hopeful the number would include her basketball-playing son, who speaks good Korean when he wants to and enjoys an annual trip to his mother's homeland.

It's just a matter of whether it would win out over his American pursuits on Saturday.

"He told me, 'Mom, after the game, I'll see how I feel,'" she said. "I think he's going to make it. If not, I may call him on his cell phone and see what I can do."


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