‘KAAFL will be a Model Korean-American Association’

Eunju Hong, president of KAAFL (left), and Jongho Hwang, vice president of KAAFL. (Photos via The Korea Daily)

Fort Lee, New Jersey, is one of the popular areas to live for members of the Korean community. With a population of almost 40,000, this borough has numerous big companies and established businesses, making it a very good place to live. The Korea Daily interviewed Eunju Hong, the president of the Korean American Association of Fort Lee (KAAFL), which is a nonprofit organization made up of business partners and Korean Americans in Fort Lee, and Jongho Hwang, the vice president of KAAFL.

Hong: The population of Fort Lee is nearly 38,000 and the Korean population is estimated to be 9,500, or almost 25 percent of the whole population last year. Among the 3,814 students who currently attend public schools located in Fort Lee, 1,778 students, or almost 50 percent of them, are Asian and 40 percent of the Asian students are Korean. (…) Thanks to the effort of previous officers, the board of directors, and other Koreans, KAAFL has been able to grow. Now, led by 1.5-generation Korean Americans, KAAFL is planning to become a model Korean-American association that encompasses both first- and second-generation Korean Americans. I hope many Koreans are interested in our association and participate in our events. [Editor’s note: First-generation Korean Americans are adults born in Korea who moved to the U.S.; 1.5-generation are their children, who were born in Korea but grew up in the U.S., and second-generation Korean Americans were born in the U.S.]

Hwang: When I immigrated to Fort Lee 30 years ago, there were only a few Korean restaurants and Korean residents. However, Fort Lee became a big Korean business town. As Fort Lee became a popular area for the Korean community, more than 40 Korean restaurants opened along with Korean markets, banks and hospitals. Also, lots of financial companies are located in Fort Lee, giving it the name ‘The Wall Street of Bergen County’.

The Korea Daily: What projects are KAAFL planning for this year?

Hong: The event [to raise money] for KAAFL scholarships and a cultural fund is held once a year. Every May, we hold a golf outing and profits from this event are used to provide deserving 12th grade students from Fort Lee High School with a scholarship. Also, we are planning to host a Korean War commemoration ceremony, a running event for low-income young adults, an event for Lunar New Year’s Day and [Korean] Thanksgiving Day at the senior apartment building, and a comfort women memorial event. Also, we are going to hold a BBQ picnic and social networking event for the town residents and Korean business owners. One of our special projects is that we plan to create a guidebook in Korean that explains the roles and requirements of each department in municipal government for Korean Americans to prepare to become civil servants.

The Korea Daily: The Korean business district is developing around Main Street and Lemoine Avenue. What are you planning for this Korean district?

Hwang: A large-scale residential complex has been built on the east side of Lemoine Avenue and the construction of a public parking lot will be completed soon. As more skyscrapers were built in Fort Lee, there have been discussions on promoting the town. While Fort Lee’s population mobility is growing, a lot of ideas are coming up among Koreans about what kind of Korean businesses will succeed. I think, contrary to Flushing and Manhattan which optimize the use of the Korean Wave [the growing popularity of South Korea’s pop culture] as a marketing strategy, Fort Lee is a bit lacking in it.

Hong: In 2004, the mayor and council of the borough of Fort Lee established the Fort Lee Business District Alliance (BDA) to foster the district’s economic development. Owners of buildings located in the district on Main Street, Lemoine Avenue, and Center Avenue pay taxes that are used to help business marketing, safety, and beautification of the town. I hope more business owners attend BDA meetings and share their business information and opinions. Instead of sticking to the image of Koreatown, I want Fort Lee to become a multicultural and globalized town which all ethnicities can enjoy. Some non-Koreans said that they often feel unwelcome when they visit Korean businesses. It is desirable that Korean residents try to get along with non-Korean residents.

The Korea Daily: Why do you think it is important to set up Korean language classes at the middle school level in Fort Lee?

Hong: Since Fort Lee High School started a Korean language course in September 2016, there have been three Korean language courses from level 1 to level 3 and a level 4 course will be introduced in the fall semester to more than 100 students. We want to communicate with our children in Korean. Many Korean students are studying the Korean language in elementary school and stop learning it as they go to the middle and high schools. So, young Korean Americans are likely to forget the Korean language as they become adults. If they begin to learn the Korean language in middle school, it can help to extend Korean education from elementary school consistently. (…)

The Korea Daily: What is important for the development of Fort Lee’s Korean community?

Hwang: Korean residents need to understand and participate in the administration of the municipal government. If we actively engage in events and programs hosted by the municipal government, we will learn what the Korean community should do next. Most parents are concerned about their children’s education and success. To make that [success] happen, parents shouldn’t be disconnected, and they need to involve themselves in various activities. (…)

Hong: Voter registration is most important. While there have been more Korean-American eligible voters, in 2015, the Korean-American voter registration rate in New Jersey was 42 percent, while the voter turnout rate was 26 percent. As Fort Lee has the largest number of [Korean] registered voters among Bergen County municipalities, it is important for the town’s Korean-American voters to turn out. (…) To improve the rights of Korean-American residents, we are planning to visit seniors in their apartments or invite seniors to get help registering to vote.

The Korea Daily: What is your message for the Korean community, and especially second- and third-generation Korean Americans?

Hwang: Voting is exercising one’s right. Understanding [the importance] of the vote needs to be improved. The biggest gift to your children without breaking the bank is just your interest in politics and votes. In the election of the Fort Lee mayor and council members, 1,300 – 1,400 electoral votes can determine a winner. If the Korean voters unite, they can have a great influence on elections.

Hong: I have raised two children in Fort Lee. Since first-generation Korean Americans have taken a step back, the Korean community of Fort Lee is having a hard time reconciling the 1.5-generation Korean Americans with the second-generation Korean Americans. Many Korean organizations are losing funding and participation due to a lack of interest from 1.5-generation Korean Americans and second-generation Korean Americans. However, different Korean-American organizations have an important role and responsibility to continue to spread Korean culture, history, and pride in the U.S., a country which grew thanks to the diversity of immigrants. Since young second-generation Korean Americans were born in the U.S., they have little understanding of Korean culture and pride. Therefore, parents need to teach their children the Korean tradition, history, and beliefs by participating in town activities or meetings for Korean Americans with their children. The U.S. improves when such diverse beliefs are combined. I hope Korean parents engage in various activities of KAAFL and spend valuable time together with their children.

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