Korean heritage, American spirit


Kimo Nam, Jae H. Yoon trudged through 12-hour days with no vacation for nearly 30 years after he arrived in the United States from South Korea.

But today, the funk is blasting through the speakers, and Yoon joins rows of other retirees dancing the Bump and Grind like it's their business.

Afternoon line dancing at the Greenmount Senior Center is an escape for Korean-American retirees such as Yoon, 69. Typically the last person to leave the dance floor, he's a man who relishes the taste of the spiced cabbage known as kimchi as much as he savors a juicy T-bone steak.

Korean in heritage. American in spirit. The independent Greenmount Senior Center, on East Federal Street in the city's Station North neighborhood, fuses the Korean past of its 250 members with an American present. It's where women perform Korean fan dances in fuchsia traditional dress, men shoot pool and exchange e-mail with friends. Lunches of bean sprout soup and spicy tofu are followed by citizenship class, aerobics and the Electric Slide.

Many members arrived in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s seeking the American dream.

Grocery store owners and tailors made their livings operating corner shops in Baltimore's roughest neighborhoods, saving money to send the first generation to college. Others in professional fields such as medicine and music were lured to the United States with top-notch jobs. A handful came to the United States after retiring in Korea, joining their adult children here to care for new grandchildren.

After years of hard work and caring for others, many Greenmount members gather at the center to do what they never had time for in the past: focus on themselves.

"Some of them have been taking care of grandchildren, but when those grandchildren grow up, they don't have anything to do and many of them feel alone," said Kimo Nam, the center's executive director, who has worked with Baltimore's Korean community for 13 years. "Here is a program that gets them out of isolation. It's a second home for them."

For $10 a month, the center provides services targeted to Korean-Americans with the help of a bilingual staff. Volunteers teach courses, prepare lunch, perform blood-pressure screenings and provide workshops on topics such as Medicare prescription drug benefits.

It's also a resource for family members. Nam routinely receives calls from children of members who need immigration paperwork translated into Korean or have health problems and want to find a Korean-speaking physician.

By offering these services for seniors, Greenmount meets a need often overlooked by immigrant services. And it does so in surroundings that are comfortable for members.

"One of the biggest barriers is learning English - older people are less likely to put themselves out there and make mistakes," said Jai P. Ryu, chairman of the sociology department at Loyola College and one of the center's founders.

"You are talking about proud people who think if their English isn't good, they better be quiet rather than be judged," he said.

The center was established in 2000 at its present location - a gleaming rehabbed building at the dreary corner of Federal Street and Greenmount Avenue. But its services have existed for nearly 14 years.

In 1992, the Baltimore Commission on Aging and Retirement Education lured Nam away from a job at a Washington Korean outreach center to organize senior services for Koreans in Baltimore. Nam oversaw a handful of programs in a shared space at the Harford Senior Center. The program later moved to the Waxter Senior Center downtown before quickly outgrowing the space.

Of the Baltimore area's 18,000 Koreans, the majority live in Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, according to the 2000 U.S. census. Still, community groups wanted to establish a center for Korean-Americans located near the hub of the Korean business community along Baltimore's Charles Street.

"I wanted it there because it's in the city where most of these Korean seniors came from," said Ryu. "It's where they and their children had their businesses, and even though they moved out, I want it to be a return to the roots."

Korean-American organizations identified a dilapidated old school at 425 E. Federal St.

The project cost $1.5 million, combining grants from the city, state and federal governments with donations from members and foundations. Greenmount is managed by a nonprofit group but receives about a quarter of its operating budget from the city. That kind of collaboration makes senior centers possible, said John Stewart, executive director of the Commission on Aging.

Of Baltimore's 14 senior centers, only four are owned and operated by the city; the others are managed by nonprofit groups.

Greenmount isn't the only center to cater to a particular demographic. The Edward A. Myerberg Senior Center is known as the Jewish center. And the city is working with Catholic Charities to refurbish the Joseph SeniorLife Center on South Broadway to cater to the region's growing Latino community.

Although the Greenmount programs remain largely unknown beyond the Korean-American community, Ryu would like that to change.

"I'd like to see more interaction with the overall community," he said. "Maybe some community gardening."

For now, Greenmount remains a core part of life for its members and volunteers.

English instructor Julian Yoon, not related to Jae H. Yoon, returned to volunteering with Korean seniors after spending a decade away.

"It's important for people in my generation to give back," said Julian Yoon, 30, whose family left South Korea for the United States when he was a child.

"They have dedicated their whole lives for us to do well," he said. "But unfortunately, people take them for granted. In Korea, family values are important. Those are the values we grew up with. We need to remember that."

Members respect Yoon, who owns a consultant business specializing in international marketing, saying they see a bit of their own children in him.

Yoon's instruction is a dizzying blend of English and Korean, and he spends as much time teaching new vocabulary as he does poking fun at the accents of his 20 students. When class is over, the class erupts into applause. Some students hug Yoon goodbye.

"We speak Konglish - we have a good time," he said.

For Jae H. Yoon and his wife, Wooaj Yoon, their moments of leisure at Greenmount were 30 years in the making.

They left Seoul in 1975, first spending time in Philadelphia and later buying a grocery from an old friend who lived in East Baltimore.

After owning a handful of carryout stores in East and West Baltimore, the Yoons retired five years ago. Their children are grown - one owns a karate gym, another is a car salesman, a third works for a major airline. They have four grandchildren.

In retirement, the Yoons have joined other center members visiting China's Great Wall, and they have explored the beaches of the Bahamas and St. Thomas.

"I come to the U.S. with no money, I just started working, working, working," said Jae H. Yoon. "We want to work, send our kids to school. And that's it."

But now he has a different passion: "Now, I have a very good time."

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