As the only Korean-American in the state Legislature, Assemblywoman Ellen Park was an obvious choice to be a delegate on the governor’s nine-day East Asia Economic Mission that ended last week.
The impact of her presence, however, was much deeper than merely her heritage.
The first-term Democrat from the 37th District (the Englewood area of Bergen County) was part of the group that joined Gov. Phil Murphy on his state visits with the top leaders in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan — and part of the group that accompanied first lady Tammy Murphy on her visits with female business leaders in the region.
Once there, Park used her political skills, smarts — and her competency in the local languages — to make an impression on everyone in the room.
The governor certainly was wowed.
“Assemblywoman Ellen Park is a rising star in New Jersey,” he said. “From participating in high-level meetings with heads of state to facilitating business connections, Ellen was an incredible asset on our trip. We’re grateful for her counsel and look forward to her continued contributions to our state.”
The governor wasn’t the only one who noticed.
Park, who immigrated to the U.S. from Korea in 1978 (when she was 6), said the notoriety she received in Asia (she was sought out by local media at every stop) gave her a greater understanding of how impactful she can be in New Jersey as a role model and thought leader for her community.
“People have always told me, ‘You have so much power,’ but I didn’t understand it,” she said. “Now, I see it.”
Her biggest goal is to help others in her community see that they can be change agents, too.
“I want them to see what my representation means,” she said. “Koreans traditionally have had low voter turnouts. I want them to understand what it means to have someone from their community represent them.”
And not just in the political world.
Park said she wants those in her district to understand the impact that all public service can have.
“We need more teachers, we need more police officers, we need more EMTs,” she said. “We need to make people understand what service is about, especially in District 37, which is one of the most diverse in the state.”
That diversity is not found everywhere, Park said.
“There are towns in the district that I represent that have only a handful of teachers who are Korean, but have a population that is 30% Korean,” she said. “That’s not right.”
Park said Korean culture partially is to blame.
“Like so many people in my generation, we were taught by our parents that you needed to become a doctor or a lawyer — that you have to make money to be successful,” she said. “They never told us, ‘You can be a teacher or a police officer or a firefighter and be an agent of change in our community.’”
That community culture is a big part of Park’s personal story.
She was thrilled by the amount of respect she received as an elected official in Korea — but not surprised. A year ago, she visited Korea for a conference that invited elected officials of Korean descent from around the world.
But Park said she also knows that her experience is not necessarily the norm for women. From the pay gap (which is worse in Asia) to general mistreatment of women, there are challenges in Korea, she said.
“There still is a long way to go,” she said.
There is a roadmap, however. Park said she is stunned to see how much South Korea has changed just in her lifetime, becoming one of the 10 biggest economies in the world.
“I’m so proud of all we have accomplished, considering we just to be one of the poorest countries in the world,” she said. “I remember, when we left, we still didn’t have running water in our house. We had to use an outhouse. And we had coal-burning stoves in the kitchen that basically heated up the entire house. That was 45 years later, but it’s still dramatic.”
As is the Korean impact on popular culture.
From K-Pop to movies, food, beauty products and more, Korean culture is becoming mainstream in the U.S. and around the world.
Increasing that awareness is what a trip such as this can do, Park said.
“I am so thrilled that these countries are finally being recognized not only as economic powerhouses,” she said. “I am also happy that it seems people around the world and the U.S. finally know with certainty that these three countries have different cultures, heritages and history — and speak different languages.
“For many years after I immigrated to the U.S., many would refer to most Asians as Chinese.”
That’s not to say everything is A-OK.
The backlash during the pandemic, against Asian countries, most notably China, was strong.
“I hope that there will be something positive that comes as a result of bias against East Asians during Covid — that there will be more of us getting involved in politics, public service and schools, places where we are seen, have a say and can make an impact,” she said.
Park certainly did that on the mission trip.
Wes Mathews, the CEO of Choose New Jersey, which sponsored the trip, said Park’s impact was felt by all. One signing — a reciprocal agreement on driver’s licenses in New Jersey and South Korea — was a direct result of her input.
“Her ability to speak Korean and understand a bit of Mandarin was also a bridge-builder for New Jersey on the mission,” Mathews said. “Her energy and enthusiasm, not only to represent District 37, but the entire state, was palpable.”