Can You Say “Chuseok”? - In Search of A Community
The genesis of the story is sparked by something that a Korean friend of mine said to me.
“I've been in Battle Creek for 20 years now,” she said, “and I still feel pretty invisible.”
That's a remarkable statement. She loves the city and has never thought of leaving, but even with a close-knit and vibrant Korean community she is part of, it seems that their presence in the broader community can be scarcely felt.
What it says to me is genuine frustration many smaller groups or communities, especially those of new immigrant background, may feel of not having a voice in long-established institutions of all kinds.
So I thought it is perfect for a citizen-journalism piece, to showcase that very real community of hers.
But I digress.
YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME
As a Taiwanese American, one of the first things I did when I moved to Battle Creek was to Google for an Oriental grocery store in town – you know, for my Taiwanese home cooking.
That leads me to Mr. Steven M. Cha, a Korean gentleman who opened his store at 1015 W. Territorial Road in 1995, a treasure trove for Asian customers such as myself. He followed his two brothers' footsteps to the country, both of them grand masters who run marshal arts schools in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.
His customers are Japanese, American, Korean, and Filipinos – in that order in terms of volume. He often greets them by name. A Filipino student comes in often.
“I come here because Mr. Cha is so nice,” she said.
One Japanese lady has been a faithful customer for as long as 15 years.
“This is the only place in town I can buy Japanese food,” she said.
I asked Mr. Cha where Korean residents in town often hang out so I can meet them.
“Come visit my church,” he said, “we have a big lunch after the service”
Located at 14041 Helmer Road, the Battle Creek Han Mee Presbyterian Church – “Han Mee” means “Korean American” - has a distinct Korean makeup, but is extremely inviting to all visitors. As soon as I made it clear that I didn't speak Korean, an interpreter headphone was handed to me for the service.
Pastor Kyung Lok and his wife Mi Jeong Jang made me feel like I was a dignitary of some sort, though all I said was that I was from Taiwan and new to Battle Creek.
Pastor Kyung has always sought diversity and community outreach. After studying at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, he visited a few churches around Michigan. Mi Jeong liked the Han Mee Church right away. Later projects would bring their whole family here.
“I wanted to learn Japanese, so I talked to a few Japanese people in town and started a class,” Pastor Kyung said.
The church also offers a Korean class that the pastor teaches himself. The students are Japanese, American, Brazilian and, now, Taiwanese — with yours truly.
“I want to do more for the local community,” Paster Kyung said, “I want this to be a multinational, multiethnic church. This is very important. American churches are very divided. It's not a healthy thing.”
THE FULLEST MOON
I have since enjoyed many a fabulous lunches at the church, but none as big and festive yet as on “Chuseok,” the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving and harvest celebration. It's on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, which fell on Sept. 12 this year, when the moon is at its fullest and brightest.
There were dishes I could not name, but I ate too much of anyway. To compare Korean food with the Chinese food I grew up with is interesting. I can write a whole book on it. Both sport a lot of spiciness, but different kinds of spicy.
People gathered at the tables and tended to sit among their own age group. I thought that it was some kind of tradition.
“Not really,” a lady laughed. “We just have more to chat about with our age group.”
Funny what you notice when you try to find a seat for yourself.
The kids were eager to chat, and I finally caught up with them at a later lunch.
“I was born in Korea; I moved here when I was 3,” 15 year-old Yeong Hoon Choi said. “After a year I moved to L.A., and a year ago I moved back here. It's a very peaceful place.”
Yeong is very aware of his Korean roots. “My parents are both Korean, so I have a really big Korean 'push'. It's a really good culture,” he said. He reads and writes Korean, but said the grammar is “complicated.”
The other kids concurred. They talk among themselves in, well, English.
“I was the only Korean in my fifth grade.” Ha-Im Jang, 12, told me. I had to wonder what it felt like for her.
All of them had been to – or gone back to - South Korea to visit at one point and saw how different schools were there.
“Do you do anything different from your American classmates here, like, every day?” I asked.
“For starters, there is a lot more studying involved,” Yeong said, “but if I can maintain good grades, my parents don't really mind what I do.”
They also learn musical instruments without exception – piano, violin, guitar. Ha-Im plays piano with the choir.
“As a Korean kid, you have to sleep really really early!” Isaac Lee, 9, injected. We all laughed.
You walk away feeling that those kids are happy, energetic, full of life. Like my own daughter, they straddle two cultures, drinking eagerly from both, seemingly without any break, conflict or confusion.
EVERYONE HAS A STORY
For those who came over a bit later, things were not all fun and games.
“It was 1978, and I was 10,” Esther recalled, “I didn't even know how to say 'hi' when I came to the U.S. I went to a Korean school only the day before. I didn't know where United States was.”
She and her family lived with her uncle's family. Her aunt had to go grocery shopping every day for - get this - 19 people.
“People wondered why she had to buy so much,” she laughed, “but it's fun!”
She made it sound fun. Esther is beautiful, fashionable, MSU educated, owns her own beauty supply and clothing retail and interprets for the church service. She sings in the choir, too. Whatever internal and cultural conflict she had once felt, she had resolved it within herself.
“By talking a lot. I had discussions with my father all the time.” she explained. “Different people have different life stories. Some are sadder than others. But my life has been very fortunate. I got all the education American juniors get. I'm blessed.”
I am constantly struck by how optimistic, well-adjusted and warm my new Korean friends are when they look at and speak of just about everything. There seems to be internal sunshine emanating from them. There are indeed sadder stories – unemployment, disability, disenfranchisement, as in every other community. They speak of those hardships with dignity, sometimes even with a smile.
And with humility, too. A most endearing trait I pick up in them.
“I can't speak for the Korean community,” everyone tells me, “I don't know too much about the community.”
“You ARE Korean community, “ I reassure each one of them. And they make a fine community indeed. I'm very happy that I've found it.