Saturday Is Never Day Off for Korean Culture Students


Heejo Nam issues a firm command to his class of 20 Korean youngsters, all clad in white uniforms with white belts wrapped loosely around their waists. They respond by shouting back and kicking their right legs forward.

One underestimates his own power. His sneaker sails into the bushes, and it’s all over for Nam. The boy’s classmates break into laughter.

Distractions are a prime enemy of teachers at the Korean Language School, which is held Saturday mornings at Crescenta Valley High School. The schedule isn’t overly rigorous--an hour of Korean martial arts, dance or calligraphy, then two hours of Korean language--but it’s a sixth school day for nearly 300 Korean children from Glendale, La Crescenta and Montrose, who forgo watching cartoons and sleeping late to attend classes here.

That, say teachers and parents who help run the school, is a small sacrifice for the benefits it offers. The lessons taught aren’t simply about Korean culture, they explain, and they aren’t just for kids.


“The Korean language is not really all we aim for,” said Myung Hwang, the school’s principal since 1985. “When kids become teen-agers, they start to have a communication gap with their parents. But Korean parents also have a language problem, and they don’t understand American teen-age culture.

“Korean school is like a bridge for both sides. It teaches the family about American culture and the American way of life. And it bridges the kids to their parents by teaching the Korean language.”

“At their regular schools, they learn all American things,” said Jong Park, an accountant who began teaching at the school in September. Her two teen-agers both attend the classes. “That’s their world, I know. But when they go home, they see and hear Korean things. And they know they must learn both.”

The program, the largest of 11 Korean Saturday schools in Los Angeles, began in 1983 at Eagle Rock Elementary School, in response to the growing Korean population in Glendale and Pasadena. It moved to Crescenta Valley High School in 1987 after construction work began at the Eagle Rock campus.

The school is a resource for parents who yearn to preserve Korean culture among the youth who have grown up Americanized. But more important, said Hwang, it helps two generations with different values and customs understand each other.

At about 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday, several hundred Korean children, some accompanied by their parents, drifted into classrooms at Crescenta Valley. The morning’s warmth brought the dance and martial arts classes out onto the playgrounds, while students studying so yea-- Korean calligraphy--painted inside quiet classrooms. Later, after a short recess with doughnuts and juice served by volunteer parents, the youngsters studied Korean.

The school, sponsored by the Korean Institute of Southern California, is funded by $120-per-semester tuition, community donations and the South Korean government. Eighteen bilingual teachers, most of whom teach in Los Angeles schools during the week, are paid about $15 an hour.

The school caters to students from kindergarten through high school. They are classed not by their ages but by their knowledge of the language. Although traditionally less popular with older students, who cherish their Saturdays, the school now is attracting more teen-agers, who may earn high school language credits for the classes, teachers say.

“I always sleep late, so I’m usually tired, but I like coming,” said Juliana Cho, 9, who began attending Korean Language School the same time she entered elementary school. Cho, a fourth-grader at Emerson Elementary in Burbank, spent last summer in Seoul with the school’s “study abroad” program.

Still, educators encounter some resistance to the lessons they offer, particularly from junior high and high school students who only recently started attending.

“I asked them once, ‘Are you Korean or American?’ ” said teacher April Kim. “Dead silence. In any other situation, they would have said American. There is some resentment of learning Korean culture. It takes a long time for the message to come out: It’s OK to be Korean. It’s OK to be different.”

The classes and techniques taught at the school have been popular. About 100 students were enrolled when Hwang became principal. Now, with nearly 300 students, administrators are considering opening a new branch in Glendale.

“We like to maintain our heritage as well as reach out into the American mainstream,” said Inhwan Kim, a Los Angeles banker with two children enrolled. His wife, Kay, is president of the school’s PTA, which educates Korean parents about customs and education of American teen-agers.

But the school is not necessarily popular outside the Korean community. Hand-tailored, imported-Korean banners hung on Saturdays constantly were torn down and stolen, and since have been replaced with paper signs, Hwang said. On one recent Saturday, a group of teen-agers standing outside Crescenta Valley High School taunted some Korean children as they arrived for classes.

“The kids look different. Their parents are different. Their cultures are different. Some people think we are trying to withdraw them,” Hwang said. “But if people understand what the real goal we’re aiming for is, they’ll understand it’s best for American society.”

Hwang, an English professor in Korea 18 years ago, is a Panorama City social worker who joined the Korean Institute in 1978 as a Saturday school teacher. Now principal of the Crescenta Valley High branch, her dress is smart, crisp and reserved, but her manner is frank and her voice confident.

She recently talked about sex education in American schools to PTA member, many of whom were surprised or shocked, she said. Early next year, experts will explain other facets of the American school system to the Korean parents.

In many ways operation of the school is strictly Korean. Administrators at the Crescenta Valley branch wanted to hold classes during the Thanksgiving Day weekend and are working to keep their doors open the Saturday before Christmas, Hwang said. Students in Korea regularly attend school six days a week.

But even that effort may be a reflection of Korean parents and children adjusting to life in America.

“Many Korean families work on Saturdays and Sundays, even during holidays, and need a place to take their kids,” Hwang said. “The parents are sacrificing their Saturdays, too.”