LAGRANGE, Ga. — Imagine moving from one end of the Earth to the other, to a small town where the culture and language are completely foreign.
Some in Troup County don’t have to imagine.
“To leave my family and friends in Korea and go to another country I’ve never been before, it was kind of scary,” said LaGrange High School junior Hyorin Lee, who moved to the area about two years ago when her father’s company began work in the area.
Said younger brother Junhan Lee: “It was really scary. I couldn’t speak English well when I first came.”
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Stories like the Lee family’s are becoming more common within the quiet LaGrange community that sits just an hour outside Atlanta. During the past several years, the area has seen its Korean population increase, a trend most people attribute to Kia and what can only be described as a ripple effect.
The South Korean automobile manufacturer recently built its first and only North American plant in Troup County. As the plant comes to fruition and readies to begin production next month, it has brought not only jobs and new industry but also a niche community.
LaGrange/Troup County Chamber of Commerce officials estimate about 55 Korean families were in the area by 2007 as a result of Kia and that number has increased to several hundred Korean residents.
Hyorin and Junhan’s father, Jong-han Lee, works for Hanterin US Inc., an architecture and engineering company that helped design Kia’s assembly plant. The Lee family came to LaGrange in July 2007.
Like their children, Jong-han Lee and wife, Misook Cho, had to work on their English when they first arrived. They said that was one of the most difficult aspects of coming to LaGrange. No one from the Lee family, including Jong-han, had visited the United States before.
Both Lee and his wife worked with United Way literacy volunteers and took English courses at West Georgia Technical College. Cho, whose children help her to communicate, said she wants to learn English to assist other Koreans who come to the country.
Through her daughter, Cho explained that people helped her family when they arrived in LaGrange and eventually she wants to return that good will. She was especially grateful to her children’s teachers.
“She liked the teachers,” Hyorin translated for her mother. “They knew that we needed a lot of help and they didn’t hesitate to help us and talk to us. They want to know what we need and what we need help with.”
Area officials said its been a priority to make sure families have the support they need.
Enter Susan Ferguson, the area’s family support coordinator.
Her position was part of the incentive package for Kia to locate to the area. Ferguson, who was hired in 2006 and has had her contract extended twice, now works part time. She has helped new residents get their utilities hooked up, obtain driver’s licenses and set up bank accounts and has taken the children of new residents to school for registration.
For Ferguson, who does not speak Korean, the language barrier was also a hurdle. She said she had to listen carefully to understand thick accents and broken English. After her first encounter with new residents from Korea, she recalls, she was exhausted.
“My brain hurt,” she said.
Since beginning her role helping Korean families, Ferguson said, she has seen more Koreans and Korean businesses in the area. She noted several area churches even have large Korean missions.
A few laps around downtown LaGrange, and churches serving Korean congregations are obvious. There are signs in Korean at neighborhood churches and even several storefronts with various signs printed in Korean.
Area officials have also gotten into the bilingual act. For the first time, Troup County Schools have started printing information sent home to parents in English, Spanish and Korean. Many city officials even have their business cards in English on one side and Korean on the other.
The Development Authority of LaGrange has seen Korean companies come to the area and is betting more will. The authority recently hired D.K. Lee, who works as a consultant to help cultivate Korean business and investments.
Currently, Lee estimates there are about 30 area Korean or Korean-run businesses. The county is home to everything from major Kia suppliers to Korean restaurants and even a Korean CPA firm. Lee said Kia arrived first, followed by suppliers and then various service businesses.
“Kia is like a flagship of a big fleet,” Lee said. “Kia came and hundreds of smaller ships follow.”
Lee was among those to follow Kia. He came to LaGrange in 2007 as vice chairman of Sewon, a large Kia supplier. He oversaw various orientations, site selection and the Sewon facility’s construction.
During his time in the area, Lee said, he’s seen Korean residents and businesses increase.
He recalled when he first came to the area and couldn’t even find a Korean restaurant nearby.
“We had to go all the way to Opelika,” he said. “It took 40 minutes.”
Now, that’s not the case.
Jin Chul Hong co-owns the Fried Tomato Buffet, which specializes in fresh home cooking. Hong said his American-style buffet is an alternative to the fast food restaurants that line Commerce Avenue where his restaurant is located.
Hong, who has been in the country for 20 years, lived in Newnan before coming to LaGrange three years ago. He said Kia was not the main reason he became an area entrepreneur, but that Kia’s presence has certainly been an asset.
“I think as far as local businesses and Kia, I’m very excited,” he said, adding that those working for Kia will be making money to spend with local businesses.
Hong and his business partner are on the cusp of opening a second restaurant in Valley, Ala., a few miles from the Kia facility. It was always his intention to open a second restaurant, he said. His current location sees plenty of Kia employees and he predicts their economic impact on the area will be huge.
As for the Lee Family, they anticipate being in LaGrange for a while. Lee said they will stay as long as there are projects for his company. Both Hyorin and Junhan discussed their future in English, showing a newfound ease with the language.
Hyorin said she hopes to attend a Georgia university and that she’d like to study medicine. Junhan is also eyeing college, but somewhere north, maybe in Boston. Lee watched as his children spoke in English about their future.
“When we come here, we thought together the chance for us to go to America is a kind of adventure for our family,” he said. “I and my children decided to do their best to adapt themselves to new circumstances.”