Kang Nam Lee sometimes hobnobs with California politicians, even though she isn’t fluent in English.
Through an interpreter, the 80-year-old Korean immigrant has also spoken to large audiences about her pet issues: school funding and better healthcare for senior citizens.
Lee is a member of a club at Los Angeles’ Korean Resource Center that encourages political activism among elderly immigrants. When she first came to the United States in 2005 to join her daughter, she felt isolated. Through the club, she has overcome the language and cultural barriers that kept her from interacting with non-Koreans.
“In the beginning, when I just came to America, I was afraid to communicate with people,” Lee, a retired teacher, said in Korean. “Since I’ve become involved, I’ve learned about the issues. I want to participate more and make a better society for children and for other seniors.”
The Korean Resource Center contingent has become a familiar sight at rallies and candidate forums, with staff members acting as interpreters. The senior citizens have shaken hands with state representatives, addressed television cameras outside Gov. Jerry Brown’s office and demonstrated for immigration reform in Sacramento. They have staffed phone banks and knocked on doors, urging fellow Korean Americans to vote for measures such as Proposition 30, which gave more money to public schools.
Most club members were born during the Japanese occupation of Korea and lived through years of post-World War II authoritarian rule. They saw South Korea grow into a democracy. When they came to the U.S., often to join grown children after retirement, they found the simplest things difficult.
When an official-looking letter arrives, Hee Pok Kim asks her son to translate or brings it to the Korean Resource Center.
“When I meet politicians, I tell them to translate English letters to other languages,” said Kim, 91.
The club, called Community Health Promoters, or Kabori in Korean, was founded in 2006 and has about 25 regular members. Language access and affordable housing for seniors are two of the club’s main concerns. With the help of bilingual staffers, the senior citizens have become increasingly assertive.
“Many seniors, because of their background, they were all shy and timid. If the reporter held out the mike, they’d back away,” said Jongran Kim, a Korean Resource Center organizer.
Now, Kim said, “they are feeling bad if they don’t speak up.”
Kabori may be the only local program that focuses on political engagement for elderly Asian immigrants, whose voices are not often part of the public debate. According to census data, Los Angeles County is home to more than 200,000 people of Korean ancestry.
“Just the power of them speaking about their own experiences is really important and effective, so that policymakers understand from the senior citizens’ firsthand experience what they go through and what changes are needed,” said Betty Hung, policy director at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.
Recently, half a dozen club members arrived at Kevin de León’s Echo Park office to meet with the state senator, who represents part of Koreatown.
Grace Yi, 73, hugged De León like an old friend. They had seen each other at an event the week before.
“I’m so happy to see you,” Yi said in English.
De León responded with a Korean greeting — “Anyong haseyo” — and handed out business cards printed in Korean.
Seated around a conference table, each senior citizen took a turn speaking to De León.
Thomas Lin described his quest to find senior housing. Since moving to Los Angeles from Sacramento two years ago, he and his wife have been living with their children. They camped overnight at one apartment complex just to get an application.
“If you have a chance to see these kinds of struggles, it’s good for you to see what community members go through,” Lin, 69, said through an interpreter.
Ki Tae Lee, 76, also spoke about housing. He lives in Torrance and wants to move to Koreatown, where he does most of his shopping and volunteers at the Korean Resource Center. But the wait for a subsidized senior apartment is longer than five years, Lee said.
De León said he was pleased to host the group because he does not often hear from Korean senior citizens.
“If your sons and daughters were here to witness you speaking, they would be very proud of you that you feel empowered enough to advocate for what you believe is right,” De León told the group. “Even though you’re Korean, you’re like all of our mothers.”