More than two decades ago, Jong Cheol Jang moved from South Korea to Howard County and since has opened two tae kwon do schools, teaching children roundhouse kicks and body blocks.
About once a year, he returns to Seoul -- and he's stunned to hear people talk about his adoptive home.
"They know Howard County is the No. 1 education city," said Jang, 53. "I'm surprised. How do they know Howard County? They know."
Word about the county's school system has carried across the globe. Internet sites point Korean parents toward Howard County as a place to give their children a good education. People half a world away know about the high SAT scores, the strong Asian community and the safe, picturesque area that, like Korea, has four seasons.
Community leaders say that's partially what is behind the consistent rise in the number of Asians in the county. Recent census figures show that the county's Asian population increased by 8,137, or 42 percent, from 2000 to 2004, and the majority of those new Asian residents were Korean.
The signs are everywhere -- the Korean language advertising in local shops, the dozen or so Korean-language churches, the two Korean-language newspaper bureaus, the Korean grocery and barbecue restaurant. What might once have seemed exotic now is seen as an established part of Howard County's makeup.
Maybe that's why an ugly episode like the recent racially motivated arsons and vandalism of two Asian-owned stores in Elkridge came as such a shock. The incidents in July and this month, in which two 15-year-olds have been charged, took place in a county where the growing Asian population has made itself at home.
Sue Song, president of the Howard County Korean American Community Association, has lived in Ellicott City for 25 years and said racially motivated crimes involving Asians in the county are almost unheard of.
"I don't know if these teen-agers just did it impulsively, or if this is something that they planned," she said.
New and older members of the Asian community alike see Howard County as a welcoming place. That's true, they say, for immigrants and for those of Asian backgrounds who were born in America.
Roy Appletree, executive director of the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, which provides services to people new to the country, traces the county's Asian influx to the 1970s. That population is drawn to the county for the same reasons as everyone else: good schools, a safe environment and a high quality of life.
And with the growth of Columbia -- the planned town designed to include all races and incomes -- the area began to cement its reputation as an open community.
"It helps. There's no question about that," Anwer Hasan, president of the Howard County Muslim Council, said of Columbia's vision. "The leadership I see in the county is also promoting diversity."
The heaviest Asian concentration is in the Ellicott City area, with other population centers in Columbia, Laurel and Elkridge, Appletree said.
The community includes those with backgrounds from many Asian and South Asian nations, primarily China, India and, especially, Korea.
Particularly in the past decade, there has been a surge of Koreans moving to the area, helping to push the Asian population from 19,304 in 2000 to 27,441 in 2004, according to census data.
Businesses opened to support that clientele. The Golden Triangle Shopping Center in Ellicott City is home to Lotte supermarket, which specializes in Korean food, and to Shin Chon, a traditional Korean open-flame barbecue house.
Howard Community College offers Korean language courses. Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church has about 2,000 members in its Korean and English congregations.
"In some communities, they feel like they're not welcome," Song said. "Here, they feel like they're really welcome."
The main driving force is the school system. The county's Class of 2004 outperformed its counterparts in the Baltimore region on the SAT and scored above the state average.
There are so many Korean-American students -- more than 3,000 in the nearly 48,000-student school system -- that there are even Korean PTAs.
Bok Kim, a former president of the Korean PTA at Mount Hebron High School, said that when she was looking to take her three children out of an expensive Baltimore County private school, she heard about Howard County.
"Howard County was the best one, so we went there," she said.
Chinese are also attracted to the county because of its schools, said Emily Yee-Mei Lee, a board member of the Chinese Language School of Columbia, where about 150 students on weekends learn how to read and write in Chinese "and not forget about Chinese culture and history."
"They can live anywhere they want," Lee said. "They always like to come to Howard County."
Min Kim, Howard County school system's special assistant for equity assurance, sees immigrant parents who clearly have done their homework.
"They come and they say, 'Centennial, I want to be in the Centennial district,' " Kim said, referring to the high school that last year posted the district's top SAT score, 1176, and had the highest Asian population at 25 percent.
When a delegation of Korean educators came to the county in December, the school system offered to show them Wilde Lake High School, explaining its diverse student body.
"They said, 'No, we want to see Centennial,' " Kim said.
The Asian population is Internet-savvy and does its research, Kim said. They study the school system online or hear about it from friends or family members.
When Appletree heard that some Korean Web sites point to Howard, he didn't believe it. But a staff member showed him the Web site of a Korean company that helps families immigrate to America -- and the site promotes the county.
"Now I've become convinced that it's not urban folklore," he said. "It's real."
The school system also has earned a reputation for providing assistance to its Asian population. It offers interpreting services for Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Urdu and Vietnamese. Registration forms and school supply lists are translated, and translators are available for parent-teacher conferences.
In October, the school system is inviting families who speak limited English to a forum to learn about the family life and sexuality classes that their children will take in fifth grade -- a topic that might not be addressed in schools in their native lands.
"They need to know what [their children are] learning about in our curriculum," said Young-chan Han, the school system's English for Speakers for Other Languages Family Outreach specialist. "The way we address this topic, it's so different than the rest of the world."
For Myungok Shin, who moved from South Korea to the county in 2001 with her two children, language services have made her feel connected to her children's education.
"Without that service, it would be very difficult for me to survive," Shin said in Korean, with Han acting as the interpreter.
Jang, the tae kwon do instructor, didn't come to Howard because of the schools. Instead, he followed his sister to the county and says he was fortunate to have his two children graduate from the school system, in which his wife is a teacher.
He is unabashed about his feelings for the county, where he once lived by Lake Elkhorn in Columbia and where his children received a sought-after education.
"I'm very proud and very lucky," he said. "I love this county."