Christine Lee remembers immigrating to Howard County as a child in 1982. There were only four or five Koreans in her entire Columbia grade school.
“My brother and I and one Italian were the only ones taking [English as a Second Language courses],” she says of her first year at Jeffers Hill Elementary. Howard was a largely rural, white county then. A mere 1.9 percent were Asian, of which half a percent, or 625, were Korean.
“It was such a small community then,” she says. “If you saw a fellow Asian in the Giant, you would stop and ask. My mother met several people that way.”
Now fast-forward three decades.
Today, Asians in Howard County number 41,206—more than double their number just 10 years ago—representing 14.3 percent of the population. That’s the largest Asian percentage in any of Maryland’s counties and Baltimore City and compares to a statewide average of 5.5 percent.
Koreans account for 30,000 of Howard’s total Asian population. They live within districts that include Centennial, Mount Hebron, and River Hill high schools, institutions whose student bodies are up to 30 percent Asian.
Christine’s old school, Jeffers Hill, is now roughly 13 percent Asian. Countywide, Asians comprise 16 percent of all public-school students.
“The Korean-American community in Howard County is really coming of age,” says David K. Lee, an Ellicott City resident and director of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Office of Ethnic Commissions.
Educated, affluent, and with high standards for their children now and in the future, Koreans have come to Howard for its top-ranked schools and overall quality of life: a quiet mix of suburban and rustic settings and a less-hectic pace within commuting distance of both
Washington and Baltimore. They are clustered in Columbia and Ellicott City, not because they are ethnocentric, but because of the highly desirable public schools there.
How do these immigrants hear about Howard? Websites in Korea tout its schools. Families spread the word back home. Even those who settle here first in Northern Virginia sometimes migrate to Howard when they discover that Fairfax County has but one magnet, the highly competitive Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, while Howard boasts high educational quality across its system.
When moving to Howard, many Korean immigrants first attend Bethel Presbyterian Church, where Korean is the primary language for 90 percent of its 2,000 members. There are four weekly worship services in Korean, and one in English. David Lee, a deacon, has been active in promoting more English-speakers to the leadership.
“Before,” says David, “it was almost like two separate churches using the same facility.”
The differing needs prompted Pastor Walter Kim, 41, who had been at Bethel, to lead a small flock out to form his own Harvest Community Church to serve the younger and more assimilated segment of the community. While Bethel is a megachurch with a huge building, Harvest meets in rented space in the rear of a small office strip in Columbia.
“It’s been a year since the beginning of this incredible journey,” Walter tells his congregation of about 30 parishioners one Sunday. Most are in their thirties; about a dozen are single men in polo shirts and shorts. There are a few small children. On stage are percussion instruments and music stands, but today there is just one musician on an acoustic guitar.
“I had a real calling to all second-generation Korean Americans,” says Walter, in short sleeves and khakis. “It’s what I believe God put me here to do.”
And “here” is where a great divide comes into play in Howard’s burgeoning Korean-American community. In computerese, Korean Americans divide themselves as follows: Generation 1.0 comprises the older immigrants from Korea; 2.0 consists of their American-born children. But there are also gradations, such as 1.5 (those who came here from Korea as young children), which reflect their particular place on the generational spectrum.