The Journey from Korea

Irene Hyun-Kyung Kim’s immigration from Seoul to Irvine, California

essay written by Angie Kim

Irene Kim is currently 42 years old and lives with her two daughters in Irvine, California. She immigrated to the Unites States on July 14, 2002 for specific education reasons. Her husband, Ernie Kim, works for a car company in Korea called KIA motors. Irene used to be an English teacher in a Korean High School before she delivered her first child. As a permanent resident of the US, Irene Kim endured many hardships, yet found her life in America efficient.

   Irene Kim was born in Seoul, Korea on October 16, 1966. Her father worked at an electronics company, and her mother was a housewife. She had three sisters: two older sisters, and one younger. Her family was one of the richer families in her town because both of her parents had “inherited a lot of money from [Kim’s] grandparents.”1 As a result, Kim and her sisters went to a private kindergarten and elementary school. They were able to “[do] a lot of things that others kids [in town] could not do”2 such as taking art classes and other extracurricular activities. Since her classes only had about twenty students per teacher, (public schools usually had a 60:1 ratio) Kim was able to receive a decent education.

    When she was young, Korea was “in bad economic conditions”.3 They still used dial up phones instead of the digital ones we use today. Also, the television sets were still in black and white and were rare during her childhood. Only the wealthy families had television sets. Most people listened to the radio for the latest news and entertainment. There were also few automobiles back then. Automobiles too, were luxurious, unnecessary items that only the wealthiest people owned. During her youth, all of Korea was participating in a movement called, “Saemaeul Movement”4 or New Community Movement. This movement focused on reconstruction of the economy. Everybody worked exceptionally hard, keeping in mind that “their own prosperity was for the better of the entire country.”5 People went to work early in the morning and came back late at night to receive the maximum wage possible. They were very dedicated to make Korea a prosperous and better place to live.

   Kim’s family was sent to the Unites States because of her husband’s work. Because of his exceptional work in his company, the higher associates of KIA Motors decided to send him to the KIA Motors America for the new project they were constructing in the United States. Therefore, the KIA Motors Company took care of all the immigration materials, and Kim’s family received an A1 visa to reside to the United States. During the plane trip, which had been paid for by the company, Irene “[felt] a mix of relief and anxiety.”6 She has always wanted to come to the United States for more freedom for her children. However, in order to come to the US, she had to give up several important things, such as her job and her family. Since one of her favorite things was family gatherings over the holidays, Kim had a difficult time giving up spending time with her loving family.

   There were several expectations Irene had before she came to the US. She expected that her English would improve dramatically since she would be forced to speak English everyday. She also thought that since she majored in English Literature, she would have an easier time with communication. However, communication turned out to be the most difficult barrier she had to overcome. Also, because there were so many Korean towns and markets, she did not have as much stress on language as she thought she would have. Other expectations she had were more optimistic. She expected her children to have fun while studying. She wanted her daughters to learn an instrument and do sports. There were not many youth orchestras and youth sports teams in Korea at that time, so she expected there to be more opportunities in the Unites States. And when she came to the US, she found that there were many different organizations that supported young musicians such as the Pacific Symphony Youth Ensembles. She also expected Irvine to be a city-like place because it was near Los Angeles and worried about her family’s safety. However, when she came here she was relieved that “[everybody] was nice,”7 and the public buildings were clean. In addition, in Korea, the education system was very strict and structured in a way so that the students could not use their creativity. Although there are students who are very creative, the majority of the students had a hard time finding their creative side. The subjects were also predetermined by the board of education; the students were required to “learn Korean, English, math, history, science, and social science.”8 She wanted her children to be able to express themselves and to choose the subjects they want to learn. Because she finished all of her education up to college in Korea, she knew how strict the teachers were. According to Irene, the tests were almost “impossible unless you memorized the entire text book.”8 In addition, Irene emphasized the college entrance tests are a once in a life time opportunity for the Korean students. In Korea, students get one chance to take entrance exams during their last year of high school. With those scores, the students’ colleges are determined. Irene did not want her two daughters to go through the stressful procedures of preparing for that one test during their entire high school career. She wanted her children to enjoy their student career, and find a hobby such as playing an instrument. Confident that her children will appreciate the educational environment in the Unites States, she did not hesitate to accept the offer from KIA motors.

   There were several things that surprised Irene when she first came to the U.S. In Korea, people did their work as fast as they could. For example, for car repairs, the workers worked very fast to get the repair finished for the customer. However, in the Unites States, people took their time and were slower at getting things finished. Because they took their time in doing the work, the outcome was more stable and satisfactory. In addition, Irene was surprised by the volunteering system everywhere. At hospitals and schools, she noticed that there were many volunteers. These volunteers worked for the public, not to become noticed, but to really help the society. After seeing the volunteers, “[Kim] wanted to volunteer, too.”9 Now, Irene volunteers at her younger daughter’s school. Also, when she goes out for a jog, she noticed that people always said ‘Hi.’ She thought that this was very polite of them. In Korea, if you greeted a random person on the streets, “people would think you are crazy.”10 She also appreciated the availability to all kinds of fruits throughout the year. Since the weather in Southern California was so warm, there were a lot of fruits to enjoy. Lastly, she was very surprised by the donations the U.S. citizens make to various organizations. She said that “if you donated money to an organization in Korea, you got an entire column in the newspaper,”11 because it was so rare. She found it remarkable that so many people donate money to public parks, and hospitals. However, there were uncomfortable things she experienced such as the fact that she had to put gas in her bar by herself. In Korea, there are workers who put gas in your car, so when she had to put gas in her car for the first time, she was very scared that she might do something wrong. Also, because the stores were very far, Irene always had to take her car around. In Korea, the public transport system was much better than the transportation in the US. With about twenty dollars, one could get to the other side of the country through the subway.

   She experienced several difficulties as an immigrant in a new country. First and foremost, Kim experienced the most difficulties in language. Unable to express herself, she had a “hard time communicating”12 with others. Even at small convenience stores, the language barrier prevented her from finding the product she wanted. To overcome these difficulties, she received help from her Korean-American friends and took English classes. Irene is “thankful for all those who helped her in her through complicated and difficult events.”13 When she had to get her new drivers license, her social security number, and the school registrations for her daughters, Irene received a lot of help from her friends. Although she was an English teacher in Korea, the English she had learned and taught was very basic and focused mostly grammar and vocabulary. Her knowledge was very helpful, but communication was still a difficulty for Irene. Another difficulty that Irene experienced was the price of the everyday household products. The prices were very high for everything, starting from chips to wine. The medicals bills were also very expensive here. In Korea, going to the doctors was not anything stressful or expensive. However, in the United States, even going for a checkup is expensive. There are Korean-Americans who go to Korea for medical surgeries because surgeries in the United States cost too much. In addition, when she went to school in Korea, the teachers tended to scold their students to earn respect. They had rulers or long sticks to reprimand the students with. Some students seemed to listen to the teachers so that they don’t get punished, but most Korean students do not respect their teachers. In the United States, however, teachers hold very much authority among their students. Even though the teachers in America are kind and gentle, the students seem to have much respect for them. Kim was very surprised by this fact because she finished all of her education in Korea and had never seen such a sight. When she was volunteering at the younger daughter’s classroom, she learned that the even with one stern look of the teacher, the students quieted down and gave their undivided attention to the lesson.

   One of the things she found most interesting was the public parks. She mentioned that there is a lake near by Woodbridge High School. This lake is open for everyone to enjoy. She also enjoyed traveling throughout the Unites States. She really liked the “big country because there were lots to see.”13 One of her best memories in the US includes the trip to Yellowstone National Park. She was able to feel the nature close up because the animals came so close to the car while driving through the forests. In Korea, she could have never experienced these because most animals only lived in the zoo. Also, Korea is such a small country that there are not many nature reservations. Another place she enjoyed was the Red Wood Sequoias. The spectacular sights of the enormous trees were amazing to her.

   At first, she had a conflict between raising her children in American style or Korean style. However, she was soon able to come up with a conclusion. In Korean cultures, education is very strict. Korean students are very motivated to work hard and studies because they really want to study and do well. They are eager to be the valedictorian of the entire school and study intensively throughout the year. Kim likes the motivation of the Korean students. However, as mentioned above, Kim was against the tradition of forcing the students to take only certain classes. Instead, she wants the students to be able to have preference and freedom in choosing their desired courses. On the other hand, American style education is different. American education system offers more choices to the students. Classes such as Advanced Placement Psychology and Comparative Religion seemed to be popular among the high school students. However, although some American students are truly motivated to succeed, the typical American students seemed to lack the eagerness and the strong determination the Korean students have. Kim says she wants her two daughters to have “the eagerness to find and pursue exactly what [they] want to do.”14 She wishes for a compromise between the two education styles. Kim even mentioned that President Obama wanted the American education system to learn the good aspects of the Korean education system.

   After living in the United States for almost seven years, Irene has experienced and endured many different events. She stated that after her husband’s term in the Unites States ended and left to go back to Korea, she had to learn to be very determined. Even though her husband left to Korea for work, she decided to stay in the United States. She thought that her children had spent too much of their childhood here in the US, and that they would have a difficult time adjusting to the new and harsh environment in Korea. Although she did not come to the Unites States at her will, she came here with a responsibility to support her husband while he worked here. Therefore, she learned that determination is key to surviving in a foreign country as an immigrant. There are many difficulties and hardships to endure in a new and unfamiliar environment so the immigrants “will need a positive mind to accept the new challenges they will face.”15 Immigrants should start off with a new blank page and start over from the very beginning. They need to learn how to obey the rules here and make sure they don’t cause trouble. Kim says “being a good citizen shows patriotism for both his or her own country and the United States.” 16 Irene also wishes that the government would provide more support for immigrants. The citizens of United States understand and accept all nationalities and cultures and tend to preserve the different cultures and encourage the immigrants to preserve their cultures. However, the government does not provide any support so that the immigrants can actually preserve their cultures. She wishes that the government would give them more opportunities and hands on support. The public organizations and services also should be more helpful to those who cannot speak English very well. Although big companies have translators, most hospitals and other public facilities lack translations. Rather than explaining the procedures calmly, most Americans tend to get frustrated. She hopes that the Americans would be more patient and thoughtful to the immigrants.

   As a permanent citizen in the United States, Irene has several goals for herself. First, she wants to completely adapt to the American culture. Because she is in America, she wants to follow the American rules and laws. It was “[her] decision to come to [the Unites States], and [she thinks she] should feel responsible to be Americanized as much as possible.”17 Although some aspects of the American culture do not match her desires, she believes that she has to try her best to adjust and absorb the American culture. There are several things like manners (such as saying excuse me) that are still very new and uncomfortable for her, but she believes that if she tried hard enough, she can accomplish that goal. She also does not want her two daughters, Angie and Rachel, to forget their Korean nationality. Although she wants them to fully adapt to the Unites States’ culture, she wants them to remember their Korean heritage and pride. She emphasized that as Koreans, she wants her daughters to never forget the Korean language and the unique and beautiful culture. The only times Irene wants to go back to Korea is when her parents are sick. She wanted to take care of them and always be there fore them. In addition, because her mother passed away several years ago, Irene feels that she should always be there for her father. Otherwise, she is enjoying her life in the Unites States, despite the fact that her husband lives in Korea. Looking forward to his visits to the United States, Irene is thankful for her life and for her children’s opportunities to experience a new culture.


1. Kim, Irene. Personal interview. 21 May 2009. 9.
2. Kim. 21 May 2009. 1.
3. Kim. 21 May 2009. 1.
4. Kim. 21 May 2009. 1.
5. Kim. 21 May 2009. 1.
6. Kim. 21 May 2009. 4.
7. Kim. 21 May 2009. 4.
8. Kim. 21 May 2009. 9.
9. Kim. 21 May 2009. 6.
10. Kim. 21 May 2009. 7.
11. Kim. 21 May 2009. 6.
12. Kim. 21 May 2009. 5.
13. Kim. 21 May 2009. 8.
14. Kim. 21 May 2009. 10.
15. Kim. 21 May 2009. 10
16. Kim. 21 May 2009. 12.
17. Kim. 21 May 2009. 9.