Topeka Korean School Keeps Heritage Alive

by Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. — A longstanding school that is the subject of a recent documentary works to maintain traditions and culture for second-generation Korean-Americans.

The Topeka Korean School was founded in 1993, said Sangyoub Park, associate principal at the school and a Washburn University sociology professor, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports.

The Korean school holds sessions every Saturday at the Berryton United Methodist Church. Currently, there are 15 students.

Classes are divided into beginner, middle and advanced levels. Students learn Korean language skills and about the culture.

Park, whose two sons were born in the United States, said it can be difficult to cultivate and understand a mixed identity.

Kids, especially as they get older, want to fit in with their peers. Some second-generation immigrants face similar questions in their identity as someone with a biracial background.

“We want them to know they are Korean and American,” Park said.

The school also provides a sense of community and belonging.

Sung Kyu Kwak is the school’s principal and teaches the advanced language class.

He said the school helps second-generation Koreans form their identity and that he is proud of the school.

During the spring semester, Park took a sabbatical and embarked on making a documentary about the school.

He had to learn how to film, edit and add audio components. The film was shot on an iPhone and a camcorder.

“A Little Bit More Korean” recounts Park listening to his son describe his school day and coming to the realization that his son wasn’t culturally Korean at all. It was a “turning point,” Park said.

The film goes on to explain the school’s purpose. It also says there are 160 Korean-Americans in Topeka, according to the 2010 census.

Park said he would like to eventually expand the film to include other Korean schools, like the one in Kansas City. There are about 1,000 Korean schools across the country.

 

The school’s instructors are parents and international students from South Korea who are attending high school or college in Topeka.

One of those international students is 19-year-old Soo Young Chun. She became involved with the Topeka Korean School in 2012. She has conducted lessons on language, culture, manners and holidays. Chun said one of the most challenging aspects of the Korean language is learning the formal and informal system. When meeting someone for the first time or speaking to someone older, formal phrases are used.

The reasons students want to learn Korean are many.

For some, it helps them communicate with parents or other family members and in turn, understand them better.

For Lexi Welcher, 14, the school has helped her learn about her grandmother’s history and heritage. Others hope to one day visit Korea.

“I think it’s really fun because we get to learn how to speak a different language and one of our parents is Korean and we’ve never been to Korea, but we want to go,” said 10-year-old Abby Harper.

Some parents admitted they made their children attend and learn Korean. But, they said, once their children are grown, they appreciate it as a skill and as part of their identity.

The school offers other community members the opportunity to learn Korean, as well. Alicia Muniz was interested in learning about Korea because she has Asian friends and likes the culture and music.

She is studying English education at Washburn and plans on teaching English in Korea.

A meal and time to socialize follows each class, and Korean food often is served.

So far, the documentary has been screened at Washburn University and for the Topeka Sertoma Club.

Park said the reaction to the film has been “positive,” and that some Caucasian Americans have commented they can relate to not knowing a lot about their own heritage.