Connected To The Community

Bergen County offered Dr. Mingi Choi and his wife, Heather, a way to help others.

Dr. Mingi Choi and his wife, Heather, visit the Korean section of Palisades Park.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

It was the stolen car and the slashed tires that finally got Dr. Mingi Choi and his wife, Heather, to cross the Hudson. From the time he was 9, when his mother, a pharmacology professor, and his father, a government official, left their native Korea with their four children and brought them to America for a better education, Choi had been a New Yorker. He had grown up in the Bronx, studied medicine and completed his residency in Manhattan, and begun his medical career in Brooklyn. He and Heather were living in Manhattan and pondering their futures when, in 1990, his car was stolen. That incident focused their thinking, but it was not until someone slashed the tires of his rented car that the couple decided it was time to pull up stakes.

“We thought about Westchester, because my parents had moved there,” Choi says, “but then we decided on New Jersey,” specifically Fort Lee. Why? The much lower crime rate was one reason. With the George Washington Bridge practically on their doorstep, proximity to the city, where Choi still worked, was another. But the clincher involved something else entirely. Heather, a violinist, had grown up in Korea. (She and Choi met during a two-month rotation he spent in Korea during medical school, and wed in 1987.) “Heather wanted a connection to our Asian heritage,” Choi says.

Bergen County provided that, to say the least. Beginning in the early 1970s, Korean immigrants began to move from places like Queens, across the George Washington Bridge to the Hudson River towns of Bergen County, creating thriving communities. Today about 40,000 of New Jersey’s 200,000 Korean-Americans live in Bergen County, with the largest pockets in Palisades Park (where Koreans are more than 35 percent of the population) and Fort Lee (about 17 percent).

The Chois lived for a year in Fort Lee, then spent two years in Palisades Park, getting heavily involved in community life. Heather gave violin lessons. Choi, a specialist in spinal disorders and pain management, tutored high school students in English, provided free health screenings, and held seminars for students wanting to pursue medicine as a career. “We will always give back to the Korean-American community,” Choi says.

In 1993, Heather gave birth to a son, Eugene, and the next year the family moved to Demarest, a leafier Bergen suburb. “I wanted the opportunity to live in a suburban neighborhood with a big house and yard with my family,” Choi says. Their American dream turned nighmarish in 2002, when Eugene was diagnosed with brain cancer. The family’s ordeal lasted five years until Eugene died last year at age 15. “It was the most grueling experience of our lives,” says Choi.

Nowadays, the Chois live in Franklin Lakes, in northern Bergen County. Choi, 48, practices medicine in Somerset County. Heather, 45, belongs to the Asian Women’s Christian Association and serves as principal of the Angel School in Teaneck, where she teaches Korean language, culture, and song to Korean children adopted by American families. Says Choi, “Many Korean children who are adopted by Americans never get the chance to learn about Korea, and Heather’s school teaches them.”

The couple have traveled widely in Europe and Asia. But they wouldn’t want to live anywhere but here. “I am American,” Choi says. “I have been in New Jersey for almost twenty years, so I am a New Jerseyan. I have the pride of belonging to this great country and this true Garden State.”

Alicia Staffa is a former research assistant for New Jersey Monthly.

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