Montgomery’s Korean community: ‘It feels like home somehow’
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Rachel Jang thought it was strange at first that so many people in Montgomery spoke Korean, shopped in Korean stores, ate at Korean restaurants. It wasn’t like that in Huntsville or Birmingham, where she got through high school as an exchange student by following around one friend who spoke a little Korean.
Now she doesn’t want to leave.
“It feels like home somehow,” she said.
Jang has been able to stay here for five years so far, thanks to a lot of love and a lot of luck. Her Alabama host family arranged for her to stay long enough to finish high school, then helped her get a student visa to attend college. “I love them, and they love me,” Jang said.
Then she had to win the lottery. Twice.
Hyundai contractor Seung Kwang wanted to hire her as their controller in Montgomery. They sponsored an H-1B visa petition for her and six other Korean employees. A $460 fee, alongside bigger filing fees paid by the company, put her into the H-1B lottery and gave her about a one-in-three chance of being considered for a temporary visa. “If you get selected, then they’ll review your paperwork,” Jang said.
She and one other employee made it through. Five others did not. A few years later, the company closed its Montgomery office.
With her visa expiring and the company gone, she had to find a new sponsor. She found one in a Korean-American-owned investment company across town. “I’ve been lucky,” she said. She was selected through the H-1B lottery again, and got a job working at the investment firm’s office inside a once-struggling shopping center that’s now alive with Korean business.
A new heartbeat, a new fear: Korean community’s growth is unique to Montgomery
Since Hyundai announced an assembly plant in Montgomery in 2002, an influx of immigrants helped stem the tide of population loss here and pumped billions of dollars into the economy. Just the plant and its network of mostly Korean auto suppliers pour in nearly $5 billion a year, according to a 2014 impact study.
The city lost about 30 percent of its white residents since the plant announcement, according to a city-backed study using census data and federal estimates. And while the Hispanic population grew at a pace in line with other Southeastern cities, the burst of growth in the Korean community is unique to Montgomery. More than 1,500 people here are native Korean speakers compared to less than 200 in Birmingham, according to Census estimates.
Beyond all that, they’ve become part of the city’s heartbeat. Families that come here through Hyundai and its top partners cycle in and out of the country about every four years, enrolling their kids in schools, joining churches, becoming active in the community while they’re here. Others aren’t on a rotation and stay longer.
Swaths of Montgomery are now more than 15 percent Asian. Around them, stretches of closed stores have reopened under Korean signs.
Yet they’re not immune to shifting attitudes about immigrants. The head of one major Korean company agreed to talk about the challenges they face, from cultural disconnects to education woes, but asked not to be identified out of fear that anti-immigrant backlash would hurt the business.
‘Korean-style living:’ Korean, American cultures align in many ways
Junhyung Park had a different experience, at least among his circle of friends.
Park came here with his family as a 10-year-old, with no knowledge of English. Now 16, he’s a student at Loveless Academic Magnet Program, the state’s top academic high school. He’s also a Boy Scout and a part of LAMP’s baseball team. Park spoke while handing out supplies to homeless veterans at a charity drive he organized, alongside his teammates.
“At first, it was (tough), but I had my friends around me,” Park said.
His neighborhood has changed almost as much as him in the last six years. “In my community, I’ve seen Koreans increasing,” he said.
Jane Kim has seen the same thing. “It’s significantly different from when we first moved here,” she said.
Her father, Jacob Kim, came here 26 years ago. He recently opened an indoor kids play center called Newtopia in east Montgomery, near the heart of the city’s most dense Korean population, many of them with young children. It’s been wildly popular among families from across the city.
Several longtime members of Montgomery’s Korean-American community said they settled here in part because the cultures align in many ways — with an emphasis on family values, heavily Christian, and even a love of golf.
“It’s Korean-style living here,” 40-year Montgomery resident Yun Chung said. “It’s close. You live in Chicago, New York, San Francisco, (neighbors) never talk to each other.”
The next lottery: Not everyone wants to stay
That doesn’t mean they all want to stay. Many younger Koreans are leaving the city. Sometimes it’s for more opportunities, or better education, or just a different experience.
Jane Kim doesn’t have any illusions about living in Montgomery once the 21-year-old finishes her degree at Auburn University. She spent some time in New Jersey, saw the huge Asian-American community there, and wants to go back.
Park, the LAMP student, talks about wanting to help people, “maybe the world.” That may start back in Korea.
There won’t be a third lottery win for Jang. There’s a limit on H-1B visas. Even if there wasn’t, its future is hazy. The Trump administration has taken steps to further limit the program, and the denial rate was already higher by late last year, according to a study by the nonpartisan National Foundation for American Policy.
But Jang won’t need one. Her husband found out this week that he’s been approved for American citizenship, meaning she can start the process of applying for a green card.
Now she has an eye on Montgomery’s schools.
“I’m not planning to have kids for the next couple of years but if I do, that’s going to become an issue,” Jang said.
Information from: Montgomery Advertiser, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com