In a fluid stream of Korean and English, the stories came pouring out — stories about navigating the nuances of the American educational system, struggling to be understood through thick accents and bridging cultural gaps with their American-born children.
The discussion signaled a running start for the Korean-American Women's Association (KAWA), which attracted a dozen women and a handful of children to its inaugural meeting at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA on Tuesday. The group, which will meet on a weekly basis, is designed to allow Korean women a forum in which they can share anecdotes, build community and explore resources.
"I want them to be fully participating citizens of America where they can understand what is going on politically, socially, economically and be able to enjoy their life here as much as they can," said founder Chris Park.
As the Korean population in La Cañada and La Crescenta continues to grow, so does the Korean membership at the YMCA, said Kim Beattie, the local Y's director of communications. But while local Korean residents signed up for the swim team and youth leadership activities, there remained a disconnect between YMCA organizational leadership and the Korean community, she said.
"A lot of the families participate in the swimming program and the camping programs, the health and wellness aspects at the YMCA, but when it came to volunteer activities, we couldn't bring them into the fold," Beattie said.
Park understands well the language and cultural barriers that can sometimes make it difficult to unite mainstream American and Korean communities. She moved from South Korea to Southern California in her early 20s. But despite a Western-style education and fluent English, she found suburban life isolated her from would-be neighbors and friends. It was difficult, the Montrose resident and information technology professional said, to connect with others outside of work.
In 1988, Park joined and began frequenting the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA. She found she believed strongly in the organization's mission. She also became heavily involved in her daughters' Girl Scout troop, and in the youth programs at her church.
All around her, Park said, were Korean women grappling with linguistic, cultural and technological barriers.
"I don't think they understand American culture, social norms, how to behave, how to understand different body language and different gestures," Park said. "And I know that if they have children, they probably have difficulty understanding the education system."
Sometimes Korean parents struggle to communicate with their American-born children, she said, or to understand the social influences they are exposed to at school.
KAWA will help address some of those problems while offering practical services such as computer and Internet literacy classes, and volunteer opportunities.
"I think it is a good resource for me…and I think there are people who can take a lot away from it," attendee Young Levoir said.
La Cañada resident Susie Moon said she is most excited about the accent-reduction lessons, which will be offered free of charge. At the age of 7, Moon moved from Korea to Brazil, where she lived for 10 years before coming to the United States. She speaks Korean, Portuguese, Spanish and English, but says she sometimes finds herself searching for the right word in the right language.
"Sometimes I can remember one vocabulary word in Korean or some of them in Portuguese, and some in English," Moon said. "Sometimes I have a hard time communicating with my kids. I say, 'What are you trying to tell me?'"
KAWA is still in its developmental phase, said Beattie, but she hopes it will help facilitate dialogue between YMCA management and Korean members, and eventually lead to improved service to the community.
"How to make people feel more comfortable here and get the most out of this YMCA experience is really what we are trying to do right now," Beattie said.