This is a series in which you help me learn about America.
Debbie was born and raised near Los Angeles, by her parents, who emigrated from Korea. Today, she lives in Chicago, where she’s getting a PhD in public policy. I really enjoyed hearing about her parents and the values she’s learned from them, and I hope you enjoy her interview as much as I did!
Why did your parents leave Korea?
My parents immigrated here separately in the 1950s and met in Los Angeles through a mutual friend. My dad was born in what is now North Korea. His dad was a well-respected doctor, and his family was targeted early in the Korean War. (As the conflict was beginning, they went after people of certain occupations (such as doctors and professors), who could mobilize or help people.) His family fled to South Korea, where his dad ended up being a Colonel in the South Korean Army.
I asked him about this recently and he emphasized that he did not come to America chasing the American Dream. He didn’t come hoping to be rich and have a ton of material things. (His dream car is a Toyota Avalon.) He came because we have better schools and he wanted to learn. At the time, immigrants weren’t allowed to come to America unless they had a solid purpose and sponsors (someone willing to host them and vouch for them). So, he applied for sponsorship and came for college, where he studied engineering.
My mom was born and raised in Seoul and fled with her family to the southernmost region of Korea during the war. One of her relatives held political views directly opposed to what was considered appropriate at the time. He escaped, but the army publicly targeted her whole family as a result. Punishment for certain beliefs was extremely harsh and families like my mom’s were often used as examples. This led to huge family drama: they lost everything, scattered and reunited, and ultimately had to start over.
She told me that when the war was over, she looked around, and realized that the paths available to her in Korea were not for her. She wanted to leave the country and knew that once married, doing so would be nearly impossible. America was known as the best country to immigrate to, so she decided to go for it. She also applied for sponsorship and came here for college to study accounting.
Once she got here, American life was not as easy as people in Korea thought. After the war, Korea was so poor and people were struggling so much; the perception of America was that it was the richest country in the world and finding success was relatively easy. When my mom got here, language barriers and lack of a real network made it very difficult to find her way.
It’s funny, of all these things, she says that the most persistently difficult thing was not having a car and having to figure out public transport in LA. As she says, “Every immigrant struggles for at least the first few years.” But my mom is a tenacious person and worked hard, was occasionally truly miserable, and eventually made it through.
I think about their choices and I’m amazed at their bravery—they came here barely knowing the language, with very little support. They were the first of their families to do so and in the 1950s international communication was not easy.
Wow! What’s is like to be a first generation American?
My parents both came to America in the 1950s, which is pretty early, compared to most Koreans who typically came over in the 70s or 80s, when sponsorship was no longer necessary and barriers to immigration loosened. So in many ways, their views are more “American” than other Korean immigrant parents They had time to assimilate to American culture before having children.
Also, when they came to the US, there weren’t huge immigrant communities to make the transition smoother. So, they were pushed to assimilate even more, which means they have a stronger grasp of America (in terms of language and culture). My brother and I didn’t have to act as language translators for our parents, for example.
I’ve also experienced fewer types of parental pressures compared to my other Korean-American friends. I think other parents might have had a more narrow view of success in America and pressured their children to follow those paths. Because my parents had been here for longer and understood a bit more about the complexities of America, they were aware that their children could go down a number of paths and still be alright. We were definitely pressured to do well, but I’d say we had more options and freedom than some of my friends.
At the same time, my parents are definitely more “Korean” than other American parents. We were taught a certain set of rules (for example: don’t start eating until the oldest person at the table takes his or her first bite), which are strongly rooted in Korean culture. I love that I was brought up with these sensibilities and I think the dual roles have shaped me significantly.
What do your parents expect of you?
My parents are value-driven rather than status-driven. For example, my mom has always advised me to not choose my partner based on looks or money. She says, “After a few years, it doesn’t matter how good looking someone is. You just see his character. And if his character is good, he looks good to you. If his character is bad and he’s handsome, he won’t look that way after awhile.” She usually illustrates this example by telling me she that my dad is too short. But he’s such a good man that she doesn’t even notice it anymore. (By the way, my mom is 4’11”, my dad is probably around 5’2”. They’ve shrunk as they’ve gotten older. It’s pretty cute.)
My dad tells me to pick a career that makes me happy, not one that makes a lot of money. He grew up affluent, lost it all during the war, and eventually gained it back. In the process, he figured out the values that he has deemed most important—money won’t give you what you want, keep your feet dry and warm, have a comfortable bed, and be able to survive on your own.
Professionally, my parents are pretty big on hard work and being good at what you do. They’ve always told me that if I’ve chosen to do something, do it well and to the best of my ability, no matter how big or small the task. My mom has always told me that people will say “no” to me for all kinds of reasons and it’s my job to make sure that I’m so good that they can’t.
I think this is a remnant of her experiences when she was first in this country. She was pigeonholed a lot as a Korean woman in the 1960s and 70s and I know she worked extremely hard to prove herself. There was a language barrier, along with all the other challenges that came with being a minority woman at that time. She eventually became the manager of a division at the accounting company where she worked, which, at the time, was a big position for a woman to hold.
My parents have also pushed me to be self-sufficient and not ever have to rely on someone else for survival. I should be able to earn an income that I can survive on and just generally be able to stand on my own two feet. They have stressed that I will always have good friends and family but it’s not healthy to need them. I think they’ve had these supports pulled away enough times that the ability to be independent is very important to them.
In terms of work, they’ve never pushed me towards a specific profession, such as becoming a lawyer. I’d say they were both surprised that I decided to get a PhD. Initially they were concerned that I was choosing to not have a family, but they’re starting to realize that it’s not all-or-nothing. They stopped understanding exactly what I do years ago when I started working in policy. I’m pretty sure they still don’t get what I do, but they are firmly supportive of my decision.
What do you do?
I’m finishing up my third year in a multidisciplinary PhD program. It’s hard to fully describe the program: there are all kinds of thinkers (sociologists, economists, statisticians, etc.) in the same program generally looking at some sort of policy problem. I study a mix of institutional theory, education policy, and computational linguistics.
Are you really dating a descendant of the Mayflower?
I sure am! Matt’s father’s ancestors came over on the Mayflower and his mother’s grandparents were born in the Ukraine, and eventually came to America. His father’s side of the family is as Southern as can be. They run cattle, live in rural Kentucky, have heavy accents, and make the most amazing food.
His mother’s side is not Southern at all. She is from New York and went to Kentucky for school due to her love of horses. Matt was mostly raised by his mom, so I feel like he’s an interesting mix of Southern sensibility mixed with values he learned from being raised by a woman with pretty liberal views.
It’s really interesting to visit Kentucky. Growing up in California around other kids with immigrant parents, there were certain parts of America that we knew existed but never ever thought would be for us. I remember seeing movies or reading books about the South, or hearing about businesses being in families forever. I know stories like this are very American, but they aren’t my America. It doesn’t matter how rich or how established families are in Korea, when you come to America, your roots don’t run deep here so those types of stories aren’t ours.
A few summers ago, I was visiting San Francisco and went to a museum with my cousin. We were looking at portraits from some of the first American families and I remember talking with him about what it all represents, and I noticed there were no ownership words such as “our” or “we” in that conversation.
A few days later, I went to one of Matt’s friend’s weddings in Kentucky. It was held on the family’s estate, which had been in the family since before Kentucky was a state. In the house, I saw a bunch of portraits of the original family displayed. They looked exactly like the ones I’d just been discussing in the museum. It struck me, in that moment: I was participating in a part of America I had never thought would be so immediate to me.
Ironically, when I was young, some of my friends thought my family had been in America for a long time. Ha. We have nothing on some of the Kentucky folks.
How does your family feel about that?
They like Matt a lot. This is an area where I feel like my parents’ acclimation to America comes through. They tell me to choose someone based first on how nice he is to me and then whether or not he can help support me.
When they found out Matt was an “American” (what they call white people), they didn’t say a thing. When I told them we were going to live together in Chicago, they thought it was great.
It’s funny though, when he visits my parents’ house, he has to sleep in the guest room (and stayed in a hotel the first time he visited). I guess when it’s my house, I can do what I want; but the rules change when it’s their house. Other friends have not had as easy of an experience dating outside their culture and I really appreciate how open my parents are in this sense.
Sounds like there isn’t any culture clash among the families?
When Matt came to Southern California to meet my family, I know they were really nervous and kept asking my brother for tips. My brother mentioned that people from the South like iced tea and so they stocked the fridge with Lipton Iced Tea so Matt would feel comfortable.
Also, when my dad met Matt, they were both extremely nervous, which was really amusing for me. The first question my dad asked Matt was, “So…tell me about the history of Kentucky.”
Luckily, Matt knows a lot of random stuff and was able to give him a pretty lengthy answer. Which my dad followed with, “And what about Kentucky Fried Chicken?” I think my dad knew two major things about Kentucky: there is a lot of history there and there are several KFCs near our home. So, he really pulled out all the stops.
Matt’s family is extremely warm and welcoming with me. His family is huge (lots of stepfamily, nieces, nephews, cousins) and mine is tiny. It’s been a ton of fun getting to know them and forming relationships. I’m curious to see how it is when our respective families meet, especially when my parents meet his dad.
How do you feel about the term “Korean-American”? Do you feel Korean and America, or more one than the other?
I know some people might take issue with xxx-American labels, but I don’t. I’m happy to be called Korean-American. The word “American” can encompass so many types of people and experiences. It’s a huge part of what makes America such a unique place.
I think the “Korean” part of that label is a very big part of who I am. And, more importantly, really represents what I came from. I feel more American than Korean but definitely feel more “Korean-American” than anything else.
Did you grow up speaking Korean at home?
I didn’t. When my brother was very young (he’s two years older than me), my parents used to speak to him only in Korean. He had a really rough time when he first started preschool. My mom said she would drop him off and see his crying face smashed up against the front window. It must have been so confusing for him!
So they started speaking to him in only English and by the time I was born, that’s the way it was at our house. It’s too bad. I wish I was more fluent in Korean. My parents speak to each other in Korean and have many Korean friends and watch a lot of Korean television. So I can understand pretty well. Since I’ve left California, though, my Korean has become much worse since I never hear it around me
Have you been to Korea?
I have. I went when I was 7 with my mom and brother, and again when I was 20 with my cousin. The first time I went, I was so little and remember being weirded out by how emotional my mom got seeing her family. She doesn’t show a lot of emotion and it really stood out to me. I was also weirded out by how much these strangers loved me and loved to be around me, even though we had a significant language barrier.
I remember we went to a huge marketplace and my mom started aggressively bargaining with the vendors. I had never seen this side of her before, but she seemed to fit it so naturally. It made me realize that she had this whole life before America and could pretty easily step back into pieces of it. My second trip was a lot of fun. I was older and had more of a sense of self. So I was able to speak more with my relatives, ask them questions, start to build a bit of a picture of our family in Korea. It’s kind of crazy to realize that pieces of you and very formative pieces of your parents are so far away and that there is a definite split in time for your mom and dad when they essentially started a second life.
Oh, one other question. Are there reunions for people who are descendants of the Mayflower? Or is there an association? Just curious!
I asked Matt and he says he’s never heard of something like that. But, I don’t know that his dad would be the type to keep up with that type of organization. It could be worth researching. It’d be so interesting!