Aside from a few harrowing tales surrounding World War II, most of the immigrant stories I know about took place one or two generations ago. My friend Soo is from Korea. After our lovely breakfast last Sunday, I became curious. Here is part of her story.
Q: When did your journey begin? Was it sometime around the time of the Korean War?
A: I was born three years after the end of the Korean War. Then, as a teenager I came from Seoul to Chicago.
Q: Were there a lot of difficulties?
A: Definitely. My mother had only recently obtained permanent resident status (Green Card), so, she could only bring me over on a tourist visa. There was a huge set back when the US Consulate denied my visa initially during the visa interview. It took another year and the help of a very compassionate stranger. He was a minister who was a friend of my mother's pastor in the US. I remember going to the visa interview with that minister and, although I did not understand a single word he spoke in English, I could tell that he was making a cogent plea on my behalf. I had already withdrawn from my junior high by the time the first interview was scheduled, and was devastated because everyone in my school was absolutely thrilled that I would be making an imminent journey to "America" where everyone was rich and beautiful.
Q: What was it like to be a teenager in a new country?
A: At fifteen, there was real culture shock. Pizza and hot dogs were so salty! Other food was so bland.
For my first day at Evanston High I wore a dress my mother made from a Simplicity pattern. It was a white one piece with red stripes and a red cloth belt. I also wore faux patent leather pump shoes.
I was completely shocked at the behavior of my fellow students, smoking: and African-American girls bullying and hitting white girls in gym classes and white girls just taking it. The kids thought I was either Chinese or Japanese. No one knew where Korea was back then.
I had a friend Stephanie who had a locker near me and she was pretty nice to me. In Korea, you hold hands with your friends of the same sex. When I tried to hold her hand walking up to our biology class on the second floor she batted it away.
Q: Do you still have a “Korean identity” ? If so, how does that play out?
A: Because Evanston had hardly any Koreans and my mother was a 'self-hating' Korean (being a single mother carried a big loss of face in the Korean community), I distanced myself from other Koreans in Chicago. For for a long time, I think I behaved as if I were "white." I had worked pretty hard to assimilate and speak English without an accent. It wasn't until l went to Michigan State University for graduate work that I realized I was still the “other.” It was a huge shock to me when I went to the Dean to ask what happened to the teaching assistantship I had been promised. He told me that it was only available to graduates from US universities. When I told him that I had graduated from University of Illinois in Champaign, he then said that the it was only available to US citizens. I told him I also qualified on that account. This interaction left me bitter about MSU. Because U of I in Champaign had so many Asian American students, I did not realize how provincial some academic institutions could be.
My Korean identity also took a toll in my relationship with my American ex-husband.
I also think that my affinity to Buddhism has something to do with coming from a country where Buddhism was one of the early religions and the philosophy of Buddhism, especially Chan/Zen/Son Buddhism is still quite deep in the culture.
Q: And, your “American identity”?
A: I am very grateful to this country for taking me in. Even with harassment and other very insensitive behaviors, I am deeply committed to the ideals of this country. I do think of myself as more American than Korean. America, where there are more equalizers than many other nations. America, where programs like Job Corps is funded by its citizens to help the disadvantaged youth to become productive citizens. America where immigrants come with only $200 to their name to start a whole new life to prosper and contribute to the fabric of the country.
And no, this is not blind adoration. This country does have a history stained by blood of those it exploited and abused. But I think that there is more good than evil here. And I cannot tell you how upsetting it is to see this administration trying to dismantle all that is noble and good about this country.
Thanks, Joan, for this opportunity to share my story with you.
And thanks to you Soo, for giving us a glimpse of your life. I’m really glad I know you.