The following Korean-language literary essay was written by Ms. Jane Cho (her Korean name is 황정숙/Hwang Jung Sook). Ms. Hwang is a Korean-language teacher at Palisades Park High School in Palisades Park in Bergen County, New Jersey. She completed her college education in Korea at a teachers’ college by specializing in the Korean language as a foreign language. She had worked as a Korean-language teacher for about 15 years in the New Jersey area before she found a full-time teaching position at Palisades Park High School in 2010. While teaching Korean language for the Korean Studies Program at Rutgers University, she started her Korean-language teachers’ certification program (master’s degree) in 2008 with a scholarship from the Korean Language Association (of New York) and the Korean government. As soon as she completed the program in 2010, she found a teaching position at Palisades Park High School. She still maintains her position as the associate principal at a Saturday Korean-language school in Bergen County. Ms. Hwang is also a well-established essayist. She won the first-place award in the Essay Contest for Overseas Koreans organized by the Cyber School of Kyung Hee University (in Korea) in 2010.
Korean Americans compose the majority of the population in Palisades Park, where her high school is located. Palisades Park may be the only neighborhood in the U.S. where Korean Americans comprise the majority of the population. Since the early 1990s, they have established a Korean business district in this suburban Korean enclave. By virtue of numerical dominance, Korean Americans have had a strong influence in Palisades Park. Jason Kim, a Korean American, was elected as a City Council member in Palisades Park in 2005. He was the first Korean to be elected as a city council member in any municipality or city in the New York-New Jersey area. Currently, two Koreans hold the two top City Council positions among six City Council members. A monument commemorating Korean “comfort women” (sexual slaves of the Japanese military during the Pacific and Asian War) was installed in front of the City Hall of Palisades Park, further testament to Koreans' influence in the area.
Korean students compose 45% of the student body at Palisades Park High School. Korean Language Association, created to promote the Korean language as a foreign language to elementary and secondary schools in the New York-New Jersey area in 2007, targeted Palisades Park High School as the first school in New Jersey to teach the Korean language (of course, there were already several elementary and high schools in New York City that had offered Korean as a foreign language before). As a result of Korean-language leaders’ and Korean parents’ persistent lobbying activities and their and the Korean government’s financial support, the high school began to offer Korean as a foreign language in 2010 and hired Ms. Hwang as the Korean-language teacher. According to Ms. Hwang’s essay, the school started the Korean-language program with about 30 students in three classes in 2010, but soon afterwards, the program grew to over 130 students in six classes. In the first two years, the Korean community and the Korean government covered the teacher’s salary. However, since 2012, the Palisades Park School Board has covered the expenses.
In this moving literary essay, Ms. Hwang describes her passion and excitement as a Korean-language teacher at Palisades Park High School, which is a public school. We can see from the essay that teaching Korean at an American high school entails much more than a regular teaching profession (which is challenging and strenuous in and of itself). Every day, she works hard to teach both younger-generation Korean students and American students the Korean language, Korean history, and culture. To stimulate interest in her Korean-language class, she combines many Korean cultural activities, including making gimbap (seaweed rolls), practicing calligraphy, drawing traditional Korean cartoons, playing samulnori (traditional Korean drumming), making Korean fans, jegichagi (a Korean version of hacky-sacking) and so forth. On the first New Year’s Day, she prepared ddeukguk (rice cake soup that is traditionally eaten for New Year’s) at home and served ddeukguk for 30 students. She also took bulgogi (Korean barbecued beef) and japchae (Korean vermicelli noodles with meat and vegetables) to school for the students.