Land of Opportunities
Harry Wang’s 1971 journey from Seoul, Korea to make his own opportunities in a new world
essay written by Sarah Wang
This essay is about Harry Wang, who moved to the United States when he was only 12 years old. Surprisingly he had a good life, without any hardships at all. Life was even good in Korea, only his parents wanted more prosperity for the future prosperity and decided to move; just like their parents moved from China to Korea. He didn’t and currently doesn’t have any problems in his life and has nothing to complain about.
As a young Chinese boy, living in Korea, Harry Wang never had the opportunities to make it big in a prejudiced country. Hometown Seoul, Korea, Wang moved from his country of birth to the United States when he was twelve. Although he lived and was born in Korea, Wang was not treated with equal status as a Korean. His parents moved to Korea due to a famine in China and Wang was born and raised as a minority in Korea. Despite being a minority, Wang claimed that, “It was like a normal life.”1 His family was well off with a restaurant and a farm. His life had always been calm and “normal” and he currently has a decent job with a nice family. There is nothing he could or would complain about, all throughout his life.
In Korea, life was fairly prosperous. Wang had a comfortable life and his family all had pleasant jobs. “Grandparents were farmers; mom and dad owned the restaurant,” commented Wang.2 Although his parents lived in the city, Wang lived on the farm. Even though he was separated from his parents Wang didn’t mind it too much. “We grew up with our grandparents and aunts, and we [went] to school and do your thing and study. There wasn’t much anything else to do [those] days that required parent’s participation,” Wang recalls.3 During the winter, he threw snowballs and made snowmen; during the summer he played marbles with his siblings in the front yard. Life was peaceful. There was never any famine or hunger. He always had a full stomach. He was healthier back then, always running around playing games with his siblings, compared to now with little or no exercise. Although they had a stable income, they couldn’t afford luxuries like cake. “That’s why cake tast[ed] so good back then,” Wang chuckles.4 They couldn’t afford much meat either. Meat was eaten only on special holidays or occasions. But Wang didn’t mind, he didn’t like meat anyway. Special foods weren’t the only things that were scarce. Baths were also rare. “You had businesses that provided places to take a bath or shower,” said Wang.5 They would only go once and week if they were lucky; and if they were unlucky, once a month.
School life was very pleasant too. Wang went to an overseas Chinese school. “[I] went to [a] school that was managed by Chinese for Chinese immigrants in Korea, so everything was taught in Chinese and not in Korean,” Wang remembers.6 Although demerits in Asia included some physically painful punishments, Wang never had to endure those consequences. “I never did anything wrong, so I never got hit,” Wang boasts.7 He also had a trip down to Ching Cho, still in Korea, after his graduation from elementary school in which he stayed in a camp for three or four days. “[It was] first time away from home, spending time with classmates,” Wang recollects.8
Holidays were different from the ones in America. There were no Fourth of July or, Thanksgiving but there were some different Chinese celebrations such as the Moon festival. “We just took a day off and ate moon cakes,” said Wang, moon cakes are pastry filled with deliciously sweet and sticky red bean in the shape of a moon.9 Everyone celebrated the Moon festival; it was based off the moon calendar, which most, if not all, Asians’ ancestors used to keep track of the year and Asians of today use to keep track of traditional holidays. There was also the Dragon Boat Festival. But, there was no water, so no boats; and there wasn’t enough extra money, so no fireworks. So Wang’s family could only celebrate with a nice dinner and a day off from work.
Wang’s grandparents decided to move from China to Korea to escape famine, and his parents decided to move from Korea to America for opportunities. “Opportunities for the next generation weren’t as good,” Wang explains.10 Korea was prejudiced against all other nationalities and Wang, being Chinese, didn’t have a chance to pursue the career of his choice or move up on the social ladder. If he stayed in Korea, he would be stuck forever as a farmer or a restaurant owner. But his dream job was an architect; if he stayed in Korea, his dream would never be fulfilled and he would never have a chance to become what he wanted to be.
Wang’s family didn’t just decide to pack up one day and immigrate to America. Wang’s father’s friend had gone to America a few years before and everyone thought he had died. But one day he came back to Korea, with stories of his experiences there: the prosperity and the opportunities. He announced that his brother had opened up a restaurant and was in desperate need of a skilled chef that could help out. Luckily, Wang’s father was a chef. It was a perfect match. All he had to do was cross the vast ocean and he could provide more opportunities for his sons and daughter and his future grandchildren. “So [with this new opportunity ahead of them], mom and dad decided to go to America to start new,” Wang explains.11
The journey to America was not hard. There was no swimming involved, no illegal passports or boats, no immigration police chasing after them. Wang came into America legally and smoothly. “We took the airplane,” Wang recalls.12 He merely boarded a plane with his two brothers and his sister, his mom and dad, and took off from Korea, leaving his birth home forever. About a year or two after Wang’s family had been settled and everything was smooth and secure, his grandparents, aunts, and uncles came to America. Wang didn’t become an American citizen till fifteen years after he landed in the glorious land of California, Los Angeles. The journey was relatively short and sweet. And, when they arrived, they had friends to greet them. For about two weeks, Wang and his family lived with a friend.
After finally acquiring their own fully equipped apartment, Wang and his family got their first modern room. The apartment was fully furnished; the floor was covered in carpet, there was a refrigerator, and television was readily available to be watched. This was new and different to Wang. “We used to sleep on slabs of vinyl and carpet was plush, but now-a-days carpet is dirt cheap,” Wang said.13 The carpeting was even new. To Wang and his family the carpet was even thought to be luxurious, compared to the cold hard floor they used to sleep and walk on back in Korea. Even beds were considered strange. The first apartment they bought had beds in it; but, these beds were uncomfortable and unnatural. “We didn’t like [beds]. That’s why we slept on the ground on sleeping bags,” said Wang.14 They found it very difficult to get used to beds. Even today, at times Wang sometimes sleeps on the ground instead of the bed.
The apartment itself was completely different from what they had back home. In Korea, Wang lived in a stone house with one room built by his grandfather. It was a one story L-shaped building that contained everything they needed. The kitchen, dining room, study, and bedrooms were all crammed into one single room. But suddenly, in America there was a multi-room apartment filled with refrigerators, which were not available in Korea. Back in Korea people had to buy everything on the day of consumption. Food was bought fresh from the market and immediately cooked at home. There was a refrigerator that was able to preserve their food from a couple of hours to a couple of months.
This sudden change from a third world country to an industrialized country was immensely different for Wang and his family, everything was different to them. The walkways and transportation was different; “In Korea they built a lot of bridges so you could walk over traffic,” said Wang.15 But in America, people didn’t walk as much, and took buses instead. Also, there were more private transportation vehicles in America than there were in Korea. In Korea, most people walked or biked or took buses, while in America people could afford taxies or private cars to take them to where ever they wanted to go to. Wang also recalls his first trip to Disneyland. The experience was magical to him and Disneyland really did seem like the happiest place on Earth. The amusement park had multiple roller coasters and rides, unlike Korean amusement parks, which were basically carnivals or festivals. “We went to Disneyland when a friend visited us. We were the host basically. We took them over there. In the morning we were driven there. But at night we had to ride a bus back all the way from Disneyland to West L.A.” Wang reminises.16 Disneyland was nothing like Wang or his family had ever experienced, and he had the best of time there.
But, there were some American pastimes he found strange, one of them was baseball. He had heard about it in Korea, but actually playing it was quite different for him; after playing baseball he found it fairly boring. But, basketball, new and different to him too, was more interesting and Wang enjoyed it. Back in Korea the streets were rough and dirty, and there were no sports equipment. So Wang never really played these sports until he made friends in America that had the equipment such as a basketball and a local basketball court.
America was definitely different for Wang and his family. Of course, the language was most obvious difference between Wang and the rest of America. In Korea, he spoke Korean to the natives and Chinese at home. In America, he didn’t know much English and could only speak Chinese at home, as there weren’t many Chinese in America yet. Wang had to battle a language between him and the rest of the community. When he first came to America a teacher had asked him “how old are you?” but in Korea he had only learned “what is your birthday?” so he couldn’t answer the question. This caused the teacher to recommend him and his siblings to enroll in English as a Second Language class, ESL for short. “It took me about a year and a half to get through ESL and enter regular school,” said Wang.17 But he quickly adjusted to the language and was able to enter regular school with the rest of his siblings rather quickly. Sadly, when he left his ESL class he left all his friends. “In middle school, [my] friends were mostly from the ESL program, then after that everybody sort of went their own way,” Wang sadly recalls.18 It was difficult, after making friends who could speak the same language as him, for Wang to leave after one short year to attend regular school, which was mainly a Caucasian dominated environment.
Once Wang’s mother had taken English classes, his father left his friend’s restaurant to start his own. The family moved to Costa Mesa and started up their restaurant business, the Golden Dragon, which still operates today. But this move was very drastic for Wang and his siblings. In Los Angeles, there were many different ethnicities in school; but in Costa Mesa, there were only a few Asians, and Wang was one of the few. People in Costa Mesa didn’t have the same accent as Wang or the same culture. They shared nothing in common. Wang’s Chinese name is Pen Chang. But, most people merely pronounced the “Pen” part. “They usually leave out Chang. So it was just pen. Yea, so I didn’t like,” said Wang.19 And later in life, although people calling him “pen” wasn’t the main reason, Pen Wang changed his name to Harry Wang, just to make things simpler. Unfortunately, he didn’t recall how he came to his name or who named him, which is very unfortunate because he also didn’t even remember the exact reason he changed his name.
Since his parents were restaurant owners, Wang never had a regular childhood. Every day after school, Wang had to help his parents with the restaurant. He couldn’t hang out on weekends like all the other teenagers. “We were old enough to help, so on weekends we’d always work and on weekdays we’d help out after school,” Wang said.20 Wang and his siblings had to spend all of their time, in the restaurant, since they didn’t have hired employees then. Wang wasn’t able to socialize with people, and failed to completely integrate into American society. He was too busy working at the restaurant, helping out in as many ways as he could to keep his family well fed. He started working at age sixteen; and continued to be of help even up to now, working every now and then or when help is needed. As a youth Wang didn’t receive any allowance or pay for his work; everything just remained in the family. Today, he gets a sum of money for his services. It was difficult to level out helping with the restaurant, school, and friends. Many times he would have to forfeit holidays with his friends to help out with the restaurant, along with his other siblings.
Today, Wang still practices many traditions with his extended family, with his mother leading the ceremonies. Chinese New Year is a big tradition where his whole extended family, from the grandparents all the way to the grandchildren, meet together to eat. Wang recalls that, “I had pig’s head meat once. That was real good. You get to eat it during Chinese New Year.”21 Today’s traditional Chinese New Year celebration does not include pig’s head meat, but dumplings. Many dumplings are hand made by mothers and grandmother. The dough is made from scratch and the meat is mixed with ingredients bought from the market. Then, to add a special twist for the children, dimes, dates, and tofu are also put into the dumplings. But, these added specialties are not only for looks or taste, especially since dimes are not exactly tasteful, but for money. Each grandchild competes with the other for these special items, all in the hope of collecting a prize: money. Each special item is worth one whole dollar. Yes, even the dimes. The finding of these special items is supposed to represent good luck and prosperity. Finding these special items symbolizes the finding of special items in reality; the parents and grandparent encourage the children’s hasty grabbing of dumplings. And finally in the end, the special items are counted and each item equals one dollar. This special tradition was added to make Chinese culture more appealing and to help the grandchildren better understand their ethnicity’s culture.
Today Wang lives in a large and peaceful house that accommodates his and his family’s needs. Although his original dream was to be an architect, Wang said, “since I didn’t have a creative ingenuity I chose to be a structural engineer that is kind of like an architect.”22 He is happy and content with his life and doesn’t regret coming to America. He believes that moving to America was a great choice and would really help out the future generations and give them a lot of opportunities, especially for his daughters Sarah and Cathryn. He is currently married to Lily Chang, her last name before she was married, for a happy nineteen years. The journey to America had brought Wang’s life for the better, and he couldn’t imagine his life anywhere else.
1. Wang, Harry, Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 1.
2. Wang, 24 May 2009. 2.
3. Wang, 24 May 2009. 12.
4. Wang, 24 May 2009. 6.
5. Wang, 24 May 2009. 14.
6. Wang, 24 May 2009. 2.
7. Wang, 24 May 2009. 4.
8. Wang, 24 May 2009. 8.
9. Wang, 24 May 2009. 7.
10. Wang, 24 May 2009. 4.
11. Wang, 24 May 2009. 4.
12. Wang, 24 May 2009. 6.
13. Wang, 24 May 2009. 6.
14. Wang, 24 May 2009. 9.
15. Wang, 24 May 2009. 14.
16. Wang, 24 May 2009. 13.
17. Wang, 24 May 2009. 10.
18. Wang, 24 May 2009. 11.
19. Wang, 24 May 2009. 13.
20. Wang, 24 May 2009. 11.
21. Wang, 24 May 2009. 7.
22. Wang, 24 May 2009. 14.