The room is uncommonly quiet. Two men play an Oriental version of checkers. Two women crochet. The others sit around a table sharing a whispered conversation.
But for these 10 elderly Koreans, many of whom have spent the last few years isolated from friends, taking care of grandchildren and watching television shows they don't understand, the two mornings a week they spend together at the Madison Community Center in Arlington bring genuine comfort.
"They have no language here, no money and no transportation. Their children are working all the time so they don't communicate with anyone. Many of them feel like they're in jail, even in their sons' and daughters' homes," says He-Sook Kim, who acts as chauffeur and companion to these immigrants living out their lives in Northern Virginia.
Kim, a registered nurse who came from South Korea, has been driving 40 to 80 miles a day, twice a week for the past month, to bring the group of 10 Korean immigrants together for a few hours of social contact.
The program is organized and sponsored by the Rev. Frank Park, pastor of the Korean Baptist Church in Arlington. Park, who came to the United States from Korea 21 years ago to study theology and social work, has been helping Korean immigrants ever since.
"I take newcomers to the welfare department, Social Security, hospitals for operations . . . anything they have problems with," says Park, 58, who lives in Annandale but works 55 miles away, at a hospital near Annapolis.
Park and local authorities estimate there are 12,000 Korean-born persons living in Northern Virginia. When the influx began more than 15 years ago, there was very little in the way of social services for them. With the arrival of the Vietnamese refugees, however, more services for immigrants have been set up, and the Koreans have benefited.
"They don't need me as much now," says Park with obvious relief. "It's not like before."
But while the Koreans of school and working age have been assimilated somewhat into the community, Park says the needs of the elderly remain. Because their children work, they are expected to care for their grandchildren. It is a traditional role, one they would be performing in Korea, but there they would have the company of friends. Here, they are isolated. They have no one to talk to but their grandchildren, and even the little ones stop speaking Korean when they start school.
"The only time they see their friends is on Sunday at church," said Kim last week, acting as an interpreter for the group. Kim also teaches them basic English phrases ("I am lost. Which bus do I take for home?"), and gives lectures on hypertension, asthma and other health-related subjects. Her most vital role, however, is that of chauffeur.
"They tell me it is terrible not to have legs, which is their way of saying no transportation," said Kim, who some days has to make two trips in her station wagon to pick up all of the elderly. Park is currently trying to find funds to provide more transportation services. "Many people call me, but I cannot give them all rides," said Kim, whose lunch excursions to McDonald's are often an exercise in creative packaging.
"It is not so difficult," said Kim. But she was not speaking of the difficulties of others, such as 70-year-old Chun E. Kim, who has never taken root in this country since leaving his rice and wheat farm in Korea five years ago.
"He told me today he wants to go back to Korea so badly. He has no friends and no English," said Kim. "All he has is dreams."