By Michael Hill
Palisades Park: population 20,000, more than half of Korean descent. Including Hyukman Kwon.
Kwon and other mostly first-generation Koreans have been coming to borough council meetings this summer but having a hard time understanding and following the discussion in all English. So he’s led the charge for the council to provide a translator and Tuesday night, the council agreed to hire a local company to translate meetings upon request.
“Korean residents have been asking for a Korean translator for a long time and they are very happy about the decision,” Kwon said through translator Michael Park.
“The way we envision it working would be that once the agenda is published, the groups that do see the agenda, if they have questions, they can contact either our two Korean-American council members and say we’re going to come to the meeting and we’d like a translator,” said Palisades Park Mayor James Rotundo.
While Kwon had been lobbying for a translator, he attended Tuesday night’s meeting with a system much like the one the UN General Assembly uses to translate the spoken word, giving the city an idea it had not considered.
“They surprised us last night,” Rotundo said.
Council President and second generation Korean Christopher Chung said, “It’s an initiation of their willingness to participate and I thought it was a great idea.”
Rotundo says the translation contract includes the company helping the borough launch a website in Korean.
Katherine Belci moved to Palisades Park and bought a house here in 1960.
“I think that’s wonderful. I think that’s a very good thing,” she said.
Palisades Park has had its growing pains, as an article from 20 years ago points out. The 1980 census put the Korean population here at 6 percent. The 2010 census put it at 53 percent and nine out of every 10 businesses in the borough are owned by someone of Korean descent. Council President Chung says it’s a segment of the population that pays a big chunk of the borough’s taxes just in case anyone complains about the $150-plus for translation services per meeting.
The Palisades Park Homeowners Association and others here say they would like to see more of the owners of Korean businesses speak English. The borough already has tried to get many of the businesses here to post their signs in English as well. It’s an issue the borough fought in court but lost.
“I do believe that the majority of the people here are Korean-American and they should have a right to understand what’s happening at our meetings,” Rotundo said.
Providing translated documents and information to immigrants is nothing new in New Jersey. Schools have done it for years. Palisades Park is following Plainfield’s lead this summer with a translator for council meetings and leaders here say they envision expanding translation services for other newcomers.