Changing face of Howard

In Ellicott City's Bethany 40 Center, the signs of change are in the signs.

"Bridal gowns," "movies," "coffee," read the signs - in Korean.


Dozens of Asian businesses, from bakeries to hair salons, have opened in Howard County during the past decade. Dozens of Asian churches are tending to congregations. School officials have hired interpreters who can speak Korean and people who can translate documents into Mandarin Chinese.

Behind it all is a new phenomenon in Howard: The county is fast becoming a hot place for Asians to settle.


"My friends in Korea, they research it," said Jong C. Jang, 49, who moved to Columbia from South Korea in 1980 and owns three businesses. "They said, 'No. 1 is Howard County.'"

Census workers counted 19,100 Asian residents in the county last year, a 136 percent jump from 1990. Only one county in Maryland saw a larger increase: Talbot, which has about 300 Asian residents.

In Howard, Asians - American citizens and recent immigrants - account for nearly 8 percent of the population. In some neighborhoods, the numbers are higher. One of the main reasons for Howard's changing demographics: education.

Many Asians live in Ellicott City, clustered around two well-regarded high schools: Centennial and Mount Hebron. Another sizable group lives in Columbia's River Hill, attracted by the new River Hill High School.

At Centennial, one in five students is Asian. Volunteers translate the school's parent-teacher-student association newsletter into Korean.

"Most Asian parents come into the county knowing what school district they want to be in," said Min Kim, who coordinates interpretation, translation and outreach efforts for the public school system's English for Speakers of Other Languages program. "Some parents say the name 'Centennial High School' is in a book in Korea."

Families also can research schools from half a world away using the Internet, and many do, said Susan Oh, youth services coordinator at the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network in Columbia. Test scores are just a point-and-click away.

As the Asian community expanded during the 1990s, more companies catering to these residents moved in. Bethany 40 Center on U.S. 40 has quietly become the Korean business-owner's capital in Howard County.


Six years ago, when Jang opened a tae kwon do school in the center, he was surrounded by non-Asian stores. Now, he said, 15 of the more than 30 businesses there are run by South Korean immigrants.

"This area is Koreatown," said Young Bae, who runs Young's Wedding Boutique from a second-story shop in the center.

She left South Korea about 25 years ago, immigrating first to Glen Burnie and then to Howard County, searching for good schools for her two sons. Her older child graduated from Centennial, the younger from Mount Hebron. Both are in college.

She holds two jobs and figures she will keep both until her 4-month-old bridal shop is profitable. In the mornings, she works at an Ellicott City dry cleaner and then heads to her business for the rest of the day. A 75-hour workweek is normal, she said.

She smiles away any offers of sympathy. No pity is needed.

"I'm fine," Bae says, simply. "I like this Howard County; I like this very much."


Leaders in the county's Korean community estimate its size at 10,000 - or more than half the total Asian population in Howard - and the numbers are increasing every year.

Some who have lived in the United States for decades think the time is right for a group to represent them, to help immigrants enter mainstream society and to work on problems.

"We want to be in the melting pot," said Bong Y. Lee, a vice president of the new Korean-American Community Association of Howard County. "We're growing up, but we don't have any organization."

The group, which has an 84-person board of directors, met for the second time Sunday night at Slayton House in Columbia to discuss a wide-reaching list of goals. Members want to improve the welfare of senior citizens, offer after-school activities for teen-agers, and start other programs for people in the community.

Yong Ku Ahn, who has lived in Columbia for nearly 30 years, told the crowd in Korean that a quarter-century ago, residents could muster nothing more than an informal social group. "Today," he said, standing between American and South Korean flags, "our dream has come true."