Korean lessons bridging ethnic gap


Dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, Devin Boulware, 7, ambled nervously up to the counter of a Korean grocery store in West Baltimore where a stern-looking merchant stood.

"An young hashimnika?" Devin asked. It was a simple greeting, an inquiry of the merchant's health. The boy's speech was slow and far from fluent, but understandable.

The merchant smiled broadly and nodded his head. "Go map sm ni da," he said, thanking Devin for his interest.

Devin grinned and left. Mission completed.

"I didn't want to buy anything, and I'm not sure what he said to me," he said later, in English.

"I guess I didn't say the wrong thing. I just wanted to try out speaking to him. It worked out all right. It's nice to know you can talk to other Koreans. It also might help because I might go to Korea when I grow up."

Devin is one of about 30 youths ages 5 to 13 who have completed half of a six-week course in the Korean language that is part of the Summer Fun Camp of Druid Heights Action Association Inc. in West Baltimore.

Funded by the Korean Businessman's League, the language lessons are an effort to help the majority-black West Baltimore community relate better with the growing number of Korean merchants in various pockets of the area, said Jacquelyn Cornish, executive director of the Druid Heights organization and founder of the language program.

The Korean Businessman's League also has offered a scholarship to the youngster who has best learned Korean, she said.

"There has been a lot of animosity among adults and Koreans," Cornish said. "How do you get through to the adults but through their kids?"

Cornish got the idea for Korean language lessons after news events over the past year of conflicts between Koreans and blacks.

In October, blacks staged a brief boycott of a Korean-owned store on North Avenue after a 57-year-old man died after he suffered a heart attack in the store and was taken outside to the sidewalk by store employees.

And in New York earlier this year, blacks boycotted a Korean grocery store, citing insensitivity of the store owners.

"I was thinking that this is going to be a long, hot summer if there is not some type of understanding in the community," Cornish said.

The language classes meet for 90-minute sessions twice a week, giving instruction in Korean culture and such language basics as business transactions, greetings and other general usages.

Jai P. Ryu, one of the language instructors and a sociology professor at Loyola College, said that many Koreans live in inner-city neighborhoods and are misunderstood by the community.

"The general perception is that Koreans work in the community, but don't want to be a part of the community, and that's not true," Ryu said.

Korean merchants often live in apartments above their stores but don't leave their homes because of frequent animosity in the community. This puts them in "forced isolation," Ryu said. "Both groups need to understand each other."

But for Yashmum James, 12, the chance to learn Korean is the chance to experience another world.

"I can meet new people and understand different things. We're learning it in phases, but we've learned a lot already," James said. "It's good because it's interesting to know Koreans."

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