Creative Ties to Culture, Community

(Robert A. Reeder - Twp)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006

The students sat in tiny chairs around low tables that might have fit them well several decades before. They worked with quiet concentration, dipping wooden-handle paintbrushes into plates of black sumi ink, then swishing them across delicate white rice paper.

Jung Suknoo, 82, bowed her head over a desk, gently dabbing at her watercolor-in-progress. It was a replica of an image in the book open next to her: a white-crested laughing thrush sitting on the stem of a pink peony. She began to giggle.

"My bird looks like it is 80, like me!" Suknoo said in Korean.

At the Korean Central Senior Center in Vienna, aging and its effects -- even on artwork -- are part of the dialogue. One student considers the Oriental art class therapy for her right arm, damaged years before by a stroke. Their teacher, Dae Sung Kim, wanders the room with his hands in his pockets, reminding his students to be careful, because, he cautions, each line in a Japanese sumi painting must be done with just one stroke.

"They're really eager to learn," Kim said with a smile. "But frequently they forget."

The senior center is not really a center but a place to gather. The volunteer-run, twice-weekly program for elderly Koreans began in 1994 as a small effort by leaders at the Korean Central Presbyterian Church in Vienna to offer senior members lectures and English lessons. It has become more than an occasional visiting place. Its day programs, with class schedules rivaling those of some summer camps, draw as many as 400 Korean immigrants from across the region, some from as far as Baltimore.

The center is one of a few efforts aimed at elderly immigrants in Fairfax County, where the foreign-born represent more than one-fourth the population, and Koreans are the largest immigrant group.

Immigrants have fueled much of the growth in a nation whose population is surpassing 300 million this week, and some demographers say the growth is essential to support an aging population in retirement.

Many immigrants, though, are also aging or retiring, and some find themselves without social contacts and increasingly in need of services. Elderly immigrants are especially in need of the services that the senior center and other operations in the area offer, experts say. Most older immigrants do not work, so they have little incentive or opportunity to learn English. Many live with adult children who are busy with jobs.

"They stayed home most of their lives here, babysitting, housekeeping, while their adult children go out to make the money," said Heisung Lee, the center's director. "So they really have been living isolated."

According to Lee's surveys, about half the 341 regulars at the Korean senior center are U.S. citizens but just 12 speak "good" English and 141 speak "very little." About 240 live in single-family homes. About 40 percent arrive in buses that the center sends for them.

Daniel Ro, the senior pastor of the church, which partially funds the program, said its mission goes beyond getting seniors out of their homes: It also tries to interest them in being part of their community through citizenship classes or by learning to connect to the world through computers.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company