The American Nurse
Susie Lee to America from Daegu, Korea, in 1989
essay written by Brian Lee
Susie Lee immigrated to America on November 1989 from Daegu, Korea. She left behind her family and friends but took with her the American dream. Seeking opportunity in the nursing field, Lee faced many cultural obstacles. However, through perseverance and understanding, Lee grew to love American culture and eventually assimilated within it. Though she retains much of her heritage, she achieved many of her goals within the vast opportunities of America. Now she lives in Irvine, California, and enjoys the peace of the city, the love of her family, and the benefits of her stable and well-paying nursing career.
Leaving her friends and family in order to create a new life from scratch, Susie Lee arrived to America on November 1989 when she was 32 years old. Immigrating from the Republic of Korea, or the “Land of Morning Calm,” Lee came alone and with little support. At the time, America and Korea shared strong diplomatic ties because of America’s role in the Korean War, the demilitarization of North Korea, and the creation of the Korean democracy. Boasting the 15th largest economy in the world as well as one of the world’s top ten exporters, Korea itself is a nation with a very high standard of living.1 Seoul, the capital of Korea, is the second largest metropolitan city in the world. Culturally, Korea has taken tremendous influence throughout the world in consumer products, entertainment, sports, cuisine, and even games. This worldwide interest has even been given the label, “the Korean wave.” During Lee’s time America boasted worldwide opportunity and benefit in open arms. Hence, Lee, a lone woman in search of her career and her life, immigrated to America searching for what Korea could not provide.
Lee was born in 1957 and lived in Taegu/Daegu, South Korea. In terms of population and commerce, Daegu is the third largest city in South Korea. Lee grew up in a middle/lower-class Christian family—her strict mother was a hardworking housewife and her kind-hearted father a government official. As the oldest sister of four younger brothers and sisters, she took great responsibility in the family not only as a role model but as a caretaker as well. However, a key component of Korean culture was respect for elders, and during Thanksgiving and New Years it was a mandatory tradition to pay respect to one’s grandparents. Though everything “material or financial-wise was not enough(sic)”, her life was fairly pleasant as a child in a family where everybody had to work. Clothes were passed down from sibling to sibling, thus, the younger siblings “[would] always wear what the elder one was wearing before.”2 Food was not treated as lavishly as it is now—“eating one egg was [a luxury] those days” and only the wealthy children were able to bring it for lunch.3 Otherwise, the daily school lunch would be rice and Kim chi, a primary component of most Korean dishes. Lee remarks that “we had hardship[s], because nothing was really enough,” yet these hardships paid off as “we had a strong union [bond] in the family,” and it made everybody work harder as well as appreciate what they had.4
The educational system at the time was extremely rigorous, and every day was a battle. In high school, students would have to run with heavy backpacks nonstop for twenty minutes to be able to reach the bus, then fight their way into the crowded vehicle. Lee mentions that “it was like a war every day,” and upon arriving the students would have to run up many flights of stairs to reach their class.5 Punishment for being late was harsh and painful—often a stick to the hand, and for boys, much worse. Furthermore, students usually left school at nine to ten at night because of academic or extra curricular and after school activities. Thus, students would bring two lunches to school every day—one would actually serve as their dinner. The academic student life proved difficult as there was no time for leisure. Even on weekends students woke up early to get seats in the library. If school ended early—around six PM, students would continue studying at the library. At school, janitors did not exist—the students would take turns cleaning and maintaining school grounds. Lee recalls, “It was really hard…but everybody was doing it, so we were used to it.”6 Even so, Lee believes that such work and discipline developed character in herself and others.
Another essence of daily life was walking. In Daegu, as well as most of Korea, the subway was the primary method of transportation. The environment was friendly and clean, with forthcoming and approachable people. Although not everyone obeyed the law, public services such as transportation and schooling were well organized and strict. The government, however, was in turmoil during the 1980s due to corruption and insurrection. “People suffer[ed] from the corruption” and instability.7 The government further influenced Lee’s immigration, since opportunity was limited in the cesspool of fraud and bribery. Getting a job, especially a political position, took the right connections, underhand tactics, and most commonly, bribes. Though South Korea was known as the “Republic of Korea,” many of the leaders still ruled in a despotic manner. As in many other countries, the rich extorted from the poor—the rich only got richer and the poor stayed poor. Decisions such as starting new in America were bold but also possible chances of change in social class. Nevertheless, Lee emphasizes that in these times of poverty and hardship, family bonds were the strongest and friendships all the more worthwhile.
Challenge and opportunity sparked Lee’s decision to move to America. At the time, Lee was graduating Seoul’s National Nursing School and decided to go to America for greater opportunity. Korea’s nursing system was primitive in comparison to America’s. For example, “in America, if you want to work in nightshift, you will get the greater differential…whoever will work harder will get more, that kind of system.”8 However, in Korea, nurses had to work and rotate all three shifts, thus, how hard you work is not proportional to how much you get paid. Lee appreciated the American system in which she could choose her shift, and thus be paid more for difficult shifts. The American work ethic, organization, and flexibility were the aspects she longed for as she came to America. Most importantly, she values the opportunity that “even though you are not the high position, if you work hard, you will get paid more.”9 Lee realized that in America there was a chance to advance in her career, not through bribery and connections but through honest achievement and excellence.
Lee was first introduced to the advantages and wonders of America by her seniors in nursing school who were also planning to immigrate. With the help of her seniors and a close priest, the journey to America was not particularly difficult. However, it was complicated to obtain her parent’s—especially her father’s—consent, because the daughter leaving the country on her own was an outrageous idea in Korean culture. On approving of her journey, her family worried for her and her friends prayed for her to “make [her] dream come true.”10 However, the most emotionally difficult part of the journey was that she was alone with few people to talk to. There were “no families or friends around, that was most fearful [thing] for [her].”11 Physically, the greatest difficulty was when she was sick and alone without anyone to take care of her. The journey not only took the courage to single-handedly brave a completely foreign and strange country with limited communication, but also the support of the very few around her.
Before arriving, Lee called one of her friends from nursing school to arrange beforehand, and was able to live with a Korean family for a cheap three hundred dollars a month. Also, a priest with whom Lee went to church with helped her with the unfamiliar immigration and citizenship paperwork. Even now, Lee appreciates the support and remarks, “That was a pretty good deal [for] me.”12 She was not completely alone, and was able to start off safe and educated.
Lee arrived in Orange Country by plane, and at first was fascinated by the size, spaciousness, and cleanliness of California. She chose California in particular because it seemed like the ideal place with its sunny weather and moderate temperature. Not only that, the scenery and open environment was picturesque, and the people were amiable. However, Lee was taken aback by the open and laid back nature of Americans. She was overcome by cultural shock when encountering people who freely exposed their body, “kissing in the street, and other things.”13 During the same time period in Korea, such public affection was unimaginable or at least scorned at. Lee was also shocked when “youngsters… approach[ed] the elders, they [didn’t] have any kind of respect or respectful way, they just call[ed] [them by their] first name.”14 In comparison to Korea, which revolved around respect towards elders—even the language has certain tenses for respect—America seemed quite rude and morally lax compared to the culture in Korea. Another thing that surprised Lee was the relationship between some employers and employees. For example, in a hospital environment, when an employer didn’t need the employee that he or she called, the employer simply responded with an “I don’t need you.”15 Thus, much of Lee’s cultural shock was due to the little respect shown in America as compared to the hierarchical standards of Korea.
Though many of these changes seemed negative, Lee was impressed by America’s educational system. The Korean system, as Lee described, had a “lack of creativity”16 and was solely based off memorization. The common routine was to memorize and repeat—one of the reasons why Korea placed third worldwide in mathematics. The American education, however, emphasized creativity and practice as well as deeper thought. While Lee was taking inexpensive reinforcement classes in America, she was also able to work at the same time. Often, the hospital would pay her to further her professional capabilities in institutes such as Golden West College. Thus, education in America wasn’t a question of money or connection but a matter of determination and hard work. Besides education, Lee was also surprised at the lawfulness of California. In Korea, she had heard stories of violence, “gangsters, and gunfighters” in America, but upon arriving, she realized that the law was strictly enforced.17 For example, Korean buses, cars, and even taxis would readily and blatantly ignore traffic laws—many drivers even made U-turns from the outward-most lane. In America, however, traffic, crime, and security were all heavily invested in, and proved quite successful in cities such as Irvine. Thus, after a while, Lee felt safer in the United States than she did in Korea. Impressions aside, Lee faced the task of assimilating into American culture despite her heritage and tradition.
The biggest obstacle for an immigrant in America was communication and the English language. However, most people were quite considerate and understanding of Lee’s accent and limited vocabulary. During her first year in America, Lee was caught off guard by her vision of California. She heard that California had perfect weather and only thin clothes were needed—she paid for this misjudgment during her first winter. Ill prepared and unwary of temperate fluctuations, Lee’s “first winter in America [was] the [coldest] weather [she] experienced” in America.18 However, she finally resorted to calling her sister in Korea to send winter apparel. Otherwise, the Californian weather was near paradise—the only weather that Lee missed was the frequent rain in Korea that produced luscious forests and scenic mountains.
Many changes occurred in Lee’s lifestyle upon arriving in America. Her diet was limited to the ingredients available to her, and until she found a Korean market she missed many of the traditional foods she ate. Additionally, upon arrival, she was lonely and without Korean friends. However, through a Korean church she was able to acquire many acquaintances and unite with others who also immigrated to America. Lee was able to cope with the homesickness through her friends, but had to deal with American individualism herself. Over time, she noticed that “the people [seemed] very kind and nice, but beyond that, they [did not] really not care about others.”19 This often caused Lee to regret coming to America, though the joys of living here far outweighed the qualms.
Lee maintained her religion in America, and slowly coped with her difficulties in communication. Accustomed to American values, morals, and conduct, she participates equally and fluently in the work environment, diminishing most language barriers. However, there are many aspects of Korean culture that she misses and wishes for her children to keep. Primarily, she wishes for her children to maintain family bonds similar to those in Korea, where children continue a close relationship with their parents even throughout adulthood. Lee hopes to see “care for [the] family... respect to[wards] elders, and close bonding within families.”20 For example, she wishes to maintain the Korean holiday traditions of visiting and paying respects to grandparents, where everyone “gather[s] to eat good food and give gift[s].”21 Also, she wishes for her children to maintain a Christian faith, because she believes her faith is a factor in helping her pull through her trials and tribulations.
Today, Lee is fully assimilated into American culture. Though she still maintains a mostly Korean diet, she appreciates American food. Speaking both Korean and English in the house, she has become proficient enough to greatly advance in the nursing society. However, she still feels uncomfortable with her accent. When others comment “oh, I love to hear your accent,” Lee feels slightly remorseful and thinks “oh my goodness, why [do] I still have this accent.”22 However, Lee notes that, “[in her] professional job there is no problem working with [others].”23 Having taken full advantage of America’s opportunities and benefits, she appreciates what this country has to offer. Upon leaving her home country, Lee regrets leaving her family—especially her aging mother with whom she had a close bond with.. Nevertheless, America provided Lee with an unparalleled to benefit and expand in her profession. Despite going to nursing school in Korea, she now works two jobs as a Head Nurse at University of California, Irvine Medical Center and a Charge Nurse in Kaiser Permanente, selecting her flexible shifts in both hospitals. More importantly, Lee takes advantage of America’s labor system and works nightshifts, while getting a significantly higher pay than day shift workers. Furthermore, along with full medical and insurance benefits and considerable chances for career advancement, her generous pay rises dramatically with her seniority. Such unparalleled benefit, which makes nursing one of the top jobs in America, was almost unimaginable in Korea before she immigrated.
Despite the great life she achieved in America, Lee also lost many things in coming here. The delicious Korean food is just not the same, and her native language is not as widely used. She has lost the strong bonds she shared with her Korean family, as well as the joy of a large, extended family. Even so, she feels that she has achieved most of her goals in America. She has left the metropolitan, energetic and bustling cities of Korea but at the same time resides in the peaceful, safe, and isolated city of Irvine, California. She no longer feels the friendly conformity of walking to work or taking the subway, but she owns her cars and regularly drives to work, though many miles away. She no longer regularly visits relatives and grandparents to pay her respects, but peacefully spends holidays with her humble, small family. In an immigrant’s exchange of culture and lifestyle, Lee unhesitatingly concludes that she is on the profiting side, and is proud to have assimilated into American society. As an American nurse and a loving mother, her trials and aspirations are irreplaceable pieces of the greater American Dream.
1. Wikipedia. Online. 4 June 2009, 1.
2. Lee, Susie. Personal Interview. 24 May 2009, 16.
3. Lee, 24 May 2009, 16.
4. Lee, 24 May 2009, 16.
5. Lee, 24 May 2009, 15.
6. Lee, 24 May 2009, 15.
7. Lee, Susie. Personal Interview. 23 May 2009, 11.
8. Lee, 23 May 2009, 12.
9. Lee, 23 May 2009, 13.
10. Lee, 23 May 2009, 4.
11. Lee, 23 May 2009, 4.
12. Lee, 23 May 2009, 5.
13. Lee, 23 May 2009, 14.
14. Lee, 23 May 2009, 14.
15. Lee, 23 May 2009, 14.
16. Lee, 23 May 2009, 10.
17. Lee, 23 May 2009, 11.
18. Lee, Susie. Personal Interview. 24 May 2009, 15.
19. Lee, Susie. Personal Interview. 23 May 2009, 6.
20. Lee, 23 May 2009, 7.
21. Lee, 23 May 2009, 8.
22. Lee, 23 May 2009, 7.
23. Lee, 23 May 2009, 5.