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Wednesday, October 15, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Koreans bloom by holding to roots

Times Snohomish County bureau

With its tile roof and upturned corners, the new Morningstar Korean Cultural Center evokes the traditional palaces of Korea.

Inside are echoes of a remembered country: gleaming, heated bamboo floors and slate hallways; watercolors of receding mountains; a stone julgu, the giant mortar and pestle that peasants once used to pound wheat. Teenage girls, arriving for lessons in traditional Korean music and dance, leave their shoes in heaps outside the door.

On Nov. 3, the center in Lynnwood will be dedicated. It is one of the few privately funded Korean cultural centers in the United States.

For the rapidly growing Korean community in South Snohomish County, the completion of the center also marks the fulfillment of the generation of Korean immigrants who moved here in the 1970s and '80s for good schools and business opportunities, and who now have the numbers and economic stability to give back to their adopted country while honoring their own past.

State Sen. Paull Shin, D-Mukilteo, a leader of the Snohomish County Korean community, said the cultural center is a dream more than a decade in the making. He credited completion of the building to the persistence and drive of Jiyeon Cheh, 45, the founder of Morningstar, and to the vision of her husband, the Rev. Chang Hyo Cheh, the pastor of Bethany Christian Church in Lynnwood, who wanted Korean-American children to know the culture of their native land.

The 20-year-old culture program known as Morningstar had outgrown its practice studio behind the Chehs' house. The Chehs mortgaged their home and borrowed from relatives to help fund the $1 million cultural center. Korean-American business people and politicians, including Shin, donated to the building fund.

"It's become a cause for the community and an inspiration to many," said Shin, who was adopted as a teenager from Korea by an American GI. "I'm very proud of the work it does teaching immigrants' children and adopted Koreans about traditional music and dance."

Before Friday afternoon classes at the new center, Jiyeon Cheh is a lively, gracious guide to the light-filled practice room and the spaces that will become a museum showcasing Korean arts and crafts. For the past 20 years, between the demands of family and her husband's church, Cheh remained focused on one goal:

"I always told myself, 'Someday, I will build a cultural center and make it like a museum.' This is a dream for a long time."

Jiyeon Cheh becomes severe when music and dance lessons begin. In the frequent run-throughs of movements they've performed countless times, in Cheh's exacting instruction, in the girls' swaying shoulders and winging arms, are the aspirations of a generation of Korean immigrants who urged their children to succeed to justify their own sacrifice.

Morningstar is only one sign of the growing Korean presence in the county. A driver traveling north on Highway 99 from Shoreline through Edmonds and Lynnwood will see dozens of signs in ornate Korean script announcing groceries, dry cleaners, video-rental stores and cafes serving the latest Asian food fad — bubble tea, a sweet, creamy drink in dozens of flavors that takes its name from the bits of jelly or tapioca in each glass.

The Korean population in Snohomish County more than doubled over the past decade, from 3,787 in 1990 to 7,654 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A California-based Asian grocery chain looking to expand into the county estimated there were 50,000 Asians living within seven miles of the King-Snohomish county line.

Asians now make up 14 percent of Lynnwood's population of 33,847. Koreans account for 1,077 people, or 3 percent, of the city's population.

Hidden by their stories of successful businesses and accomplished children is the personal toll of immigration: mothers who must ask their children to translate a water bill or court summons, college-educated fathers who can find work here only as shopkeepers, children who feel torn between the culture they were born into and the one their parents left behind.

"It's very stressful," said the Rev. Cheh, who began his church in Everett in the early 1980s with just three congregants: his sister, his brother-in-law and the wife of an American GI. The church today numbers 200, including Shin.

Korean immigrants to America, Cheh said, came in pursuit of the American dream. South Korea, he explained, has about half the land area of Washington state but eight times the number of people — 48 million. Parents in South Korea must pay for their children's education beyond the sixth grade, and competition is intense for university enrollment and jobs. And until the 1990s, Cheh said, South Korea remained one of the poorest countries in the world.

Immigrants, he said, are diligent workers, running not just one dry-cleaning business or convenience store but two or three. State statistics bear him out: Koreans in Washington own 138,000 businesses, including 11,000 groceries and 1,100 teriyaki shops.

Different dreams

Buyong Chan Park is a Korean immigrant who started as an assistant in his brother's Chicago grocery and now owns five Korean groceries in Washington and Oregon, as well as an export business in Korea and a purchasing office in China. The location of his stores traces the rise of Korean communities around Puget Sound, from Tacoma, where many soldiers first brought their Korean wives, to Federal Way, Bellevue and now Lynnwood.

Park moved to Lynnwood two years ago with his wife and two sons to supervise the building of Pal-Do World Oriental Grocery Store, 17420 Highway 99. It has a food court and a dozen small shops. The store's annual sales, Park said, are about $5.5 million.

The long aisles include leeks tender and thin as new grass, fresh ginger and white radish, and 40 kinds of kimchi, the Korean condiment made of spicy, pickled cabbage that's served with every meal. In the seafood display are eels, soft-shelled crab and baby octopus, a delicacy that Park said is eaten live with a spicy sauce.

The signs above the vegetables are in both Korean and English. The music in the store is a mix of American pop and traditional Korean strings and flutes. "I would like everyone to be comfortable shopping here," he said.

Park said his two sons, enrolled at the University of Washington and Edmonds Community College, ask him why he and his wife, Young, work so hard. He travels regularly between Korea and America, and puts in 16-hour days at his stores.

The American dream sought by immigrants for two centuries, he noted, is the promise that hard work will be rewarded with economic success. But among young Americans, he said, he sees only the dream to get rich quick.

"My sons sometimes not understand us," he said. "They have American education, would like American leisure time. But before I finish one project, I think of three others. I still have a dream of a firm, strong company for my sons to take over."

Although most of his time is devoted to business, Park is also an organizer of the Korean American Voters Alliance, formed last year, which aims to get more Koreans involved in state and local government. Particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said, there's a need for leaders who won't answer hate with hate.

Anti-immigrant sentiment

The racial slurs scrawled on the wall at the Korean Presbyterian Church in Mountlake Terrace have been painted over. The cross atop the church, splashed with red paint, is again white.

Mountlake Terrace police believe the attack last month was the work of one or two teenagers, but there's a lingering uneasiness among the congregation of 300. The church has been vandalized many times over the past 10 years.

Sam Chung, 33, a church deacon, is a second-generation Korean who lives in Edmonds and practices law in Seattle. He's president of the International Association of Korean Lawyers and last week was in Seoul for the group's annual conference. When the church was vandalized, he helped communicate among the older church members who speak little English, the police and the press.

Chung noted the melting pot is more myth than reality. Immigration has always been accompanied by waves of anti-immigration fervor and attacks on foreigners. It boiled over a decade ago in Los Angeles, where Korean-run stores were looted and burned.

Chung's own parents ran a grocery in New Jersey for 25 years. They were robbed at gunpoint five times.

"There are success stories, but there are also a lot of failures," Chung said. "The anxiety caused by transplanting yourself to a new country can be immense."

His parents sold their grocery and returned to South Korea in 1997, only to find that the country they'd held in their memories had modernized almost unrecognizably. Even the language, he said, was not the same. They returned to America in March and bought a condo in Mountlake Terrace, to be near their children.

"For their generation, it's almost like they're caught in a time machine," Chung said. "I see this time after time at church. They still hold the values they brought with them in 1975 when (South) Korea was poor and under a dictatorship. There's a real longing for their homeland, but that place doesn't exist."

Keeping their roots

At the new Korean Cultural Center, the teenage girls rehearse a set of seven dances that commemorate 100 years of Korean immigration to America and the picture brides who sent their photos to the Korean laborers working in Hawaii sugar-cane fields. The dances debuted in June at Meany Hall in Seattle and have been performed around the state. Over the past decade, Morningstar has performed in 13 countries and 22 states.

Many of the dancers have been involved with Morningstar since childhood. As they progress through the afternoon lesson, they start and stop, making small movements with their feet while turning their arms and hands intricately.

Kaley Hansen, 22, a recent UW graduate, teaches the class. She began dancing with Morningstar as a 5-year-old adoptee who had only days earlier arrived in Seattle. She and her sister and brothers, who also took dance, singing and drumming at Morningstar, sometimes found Jiyeon Cheh's teaching method harsh.

Now that she also is a teacher, she said, she's equally strict.

"When you're older, you don't want to waste time. You see the students' potential and feel a sense of urgency. You want them to try their hardest now."

In the second movement of the picture-bride dances, she plays the role of a young woman about to leave for a strange country and to marry a man she has never met.

"I am losing my roots, all that's familiar, the ease and comfort that is part of that familiar life," Hansen said. Cheh plays the mother whose grief the daughter comforts. When the daughter at the last moment becomes frightened, it is the mother who hides sorrow and reassures her, before the daughter dances away a final time.

Subsequent movements tell the story of what lies ahead: Passage, Confusion, New Hope, Working, The Land and Sounds of Korea.

"It is during the New Hope section," Cheh said, that many in the audience cry. The young women, bowed by work and disillusionment, adjust their dreams to their changed lives. The music is tentative but uplifting: a flute, a guitar and the sound of rain.

Seattle Times research assistant Gene Balk contributed to this report. Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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