The Life-changing Experience

Tony Lee’s 10-year journey in North America

essay written by Kristine Lee

Born in South Korea, Tony Lee enjoyed a fun childhood and personal accomplishments in his early adult life. He continued living in Korea until his mid-thirties when his curiosity and ambitions led him to immigrate to Canada. After ten years of living there, he moved to Irvine, California to settle for a warmer climate and a more diverse range of private business opportunities. He currently resides in Irvine, keeping in mind the lessons he learned from success and failures from his previous years in North America.

   In 1960, “about a decade after the Korean War,”1 Tony Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea. He spent his childhood in “a post-war period where the atmosphere of the war hadn’t disappeared yet.”2 He grew up seeing “a lot of military camps … [and] military soldiers and trucks passing by… [and] a lot of beggars begging around for food on the streets.”3 There were also many orphans back then; if a classroom at school had a hundred people, at least ten of them would be orphans. Korea in the 1960’s experienced a dramatic growth in population, since many people had babies after the war ended in 1953; it is just like the baby boom in Europe and America after World War II. Accordingly, with such a high population growth rate and widespread hunger and poverty, the main national concern in that decade was escaping hunger.

   Fortunately for Lee, however, he was born in a relatively well-off family, so he was less exposed to the sufferings during that period. His family was in the agriculture business, and they had “many acres of farmland, money, and crops.”4 He reflected: everyone was [on the] same boat…same situation [and] everyone experienced sufferings…I was kinda lucky to avoid poverty and [hunger]…and I had both parents…mom and dad.”5

   Lee’s daily life consisted of going to school, playing with his friends and toys and helping his parents with their work. Schools in the 60’s were not very common, so he “had to walk [a long distance for] 20 to 30 minutes”6 everyday to learn. The classrooms, too, were huge and limited in number; “there was a morning class and an afternoon class,”7 and each had up to a hundred students. Although his generation did not have the cultural benefits and opportunities that the current generation has, he still had a fun childhood. For example, there were no computer games, so it was impossible for his generation to want games, but they were satisfied with the toys they did have back then. He remembers clearly that during his childhood, he used to play hide-and-seek with his friends, play with marbles, and view village-to-village performances and circuses.

   Several factors combined to form his decision to leave for America. The first and foremost reason was his early success in his country and the resulting thirst for a new, more challenging experience. As a university student, he had majored in international trade and business management; he had also studied English for an extensive period of time, along with the basics of other foreign languages such as Spanish and Chinese. When he entered his mid-twenties, he got hired as product manager in LG Electronics and earned good pay. Around the same time, he got married and had a child who grew healthy and well. A few years later, he decided to quit office work to start his own private business; he set up a real estate office and earned a good amount of money from there as well. Thus, Lee, at an early age, was already happily married and had experienced success in working for both a company and for himself. As a result, he “began to think that life was this easy, even though in reality, [as he later discovered], it wasn’t that simple at all.”8 Until that point, whatever he did had a positive result, even if he did not work hard for it. Based on his early encounters with the world as an adult, he naturally came to perceive society as an easygoing place with few gale winds that would prevent him from doing what he set out to do. The sprouting ambition and confidence he gained from his early achievements induced him to try living somewhere else, a foreign country, and he eventually decided that Canada would be the most appropriate place to settle – his elder sister was already living there.

   Lee commented that another influence in his immigration decision was the training courses he had received from his early working days in LG Electronics. The courses taught him to prioritize challenges and goal-setting. “As I received lots of training about taking on challenges, my views and thoughts changed. So I think emigration itself was a challenge, not anything scary or uncomfortable, but something worth taking on and overcoming,”9 he explained. “So I guess you can say that the [challenge-and-goal-oriented] training courses that the company offered me became the base of my character and attitude and thus the base of my decision to try moving to a new country...and I appreciated it very much.”10 Other reasons for the immigration was the better education and lots of other possible benefits and opportunities that he would be able to pass to his children, and the fact that he could always return to Korea if things did not go well. Therefore, along with his previous success and thirst for new adventure, his will to provide his children with better opportunities, and the flexibility of his move were what encouraged him to emigrate from his home country.

   In his new home in North America, he hoped to start a business that involved exporting products to South Korea. He was interested in this particular area because, as mentioned before, he had majored in international trade and business management. Along with that, he planned to raise a happy family in a healthy, positively influential environment. Some of the things that he admired about Canada were its rich natural resources and convenient sports facilities, which Korea seemed to lack. “[His] number one hobbies were fishing, tennis, [and] golfing,”11 all three whose facilities or resources in North America he found to be better than those in Korea. For example, in Vancouver, he enjoyed fishing year-round thanks to the abundance of lakes and rivers in the area. He would “fish while on a boat, or fish by a river side…[just] fish in complete nature.”12 For tennis, he was happy to find that the tennis clubs in North America were much easier to join than the ones in Korea, which were created more for intermediates and pros rather than for beginners like him. He also added: “…and especially in this warm [Californian] weather, I can enjoy doing tennis anytime, even in the winter, so that’s also very good.”13 For golf, both he and his wife were happy that there were many affordable golf courses here and that they could golf casually. In Korea, green fees had been very expensive. “Of course, the conditions there [in Korea] are more well-maintained than the ones here,” he commented, “but still, it was more expensive there.”14

   Lee had two immigration experiences – the first was from Korea to Canada, and the second was moving from Canada to America. He had no particular difficulty in setting out on his journey from Korea to Canada. His parents gave him consent and fully supported and respected his decision. This was most likely out of their faith in their son who had already demonstrated his capability in Seoul, and their desire for him to go out to the world and build on his experience. Lee stated that another reason they were able to let him go with considerably little hesitation was the size of his family. He had two older brothers and two older sisters -- a family of five children. If one of them left, it would not have a big impact on the family. Many Korean parents at the time would have dismissed their children’s decision to leave home to emigrate to a foreign country as a dishonorable lack of filial piety, since in Korea, the “Confucian [notion that] children should take care of their parents [in return when they grow elderly]”15 was prevalent – but Lee’s parents were different. They, on the other hand, happened to be less conservative, and so granted him his wish to set out to North America. Having been under all possible favorable circumstances, Lee viewed immigration at that time in a light-hearted manner; he looked forward to going to a foreign country not based on necessity – such as unstable economy or political repression – but with a curiosity for new things. From his stance, there was almost no risk or difficulty in coming to North America.

   However, his journey to the United States from Canada was less light-hearted. By the time he had acted upon his heavy decision to come to the United States, he had accumulated years of experience of living in a foreign country, carrying with him lessons he had learned form both success and failures. “This time,” he said, “I guess you could say I felt more risks and doubts.”16

   Lee’s first impression of America was a place of more opportunities and competition. There was more diversity and a larger number of businesses than there were in Canada, and accordingly, the competition was as much tougher. Another notable trait he first observed in California was the consistently warm, beautiful weather. In Canada, he had felt the weather was “6 months winter and 6 months summer.”17 Lee preferred warm weather over cold weather – not only because of personal preference, but also because it seemed to attract more customers to businesses.

    Lee, like any other immigrant, endured several hardships adjusting to life in North America. However, since Canada was the first country he immigrated to, he underwent all the initial cultural differences and language barrier problems there. The place he first settled in Canada was Vancouver, which, fortunately for him, was a multicultural community with many Asians. Thus his first foreign setting was actually not that foreign at all; he saw many things that were familiar to him such as downtown Korean communities. Of course, that does not mean that he did not experience any cultural differences. One particular thing he noticed was that he could not easily join in the conversation of his co-workers because he did not know about the topics they talked about:

   “When we went to a restaurant and had conversations, about 90 percent of the issues they said, I couldn’t understand. This was not a matter of English [speaking] skills, but things like idioms that you can’t find in dictionaries and things I didn’t know about such as famous Canadian singer[s] or local singer[s]…their pets, sport events movie or an actor or actress… I had no knowledge of that. Except for just understanding a little and laughing to it, I had no idea… what they were talking about. So, all the things that Canadians talk about in their society…. were subjects you couldn’t join in unless you had some knowledge about that culture. I guess it would be the same for Koreans as well. If an American were to try to engage in a conversation with Koreans, the American would not know the Korean culture and knowledge to fully understand the conversation. Those kinds of things would be what culture shock is.”18

   As for language barriers, he had studied English in Korea for a long time, so he did not face significant problems there. One of the times he did feel it was when he did group presentations at his workplace in LG Electronics. “In business conversations, you can feel a bit of a barrier there…because you have to speak fluently and clearly,” Lee commented, “but if you’re a first generation in a foreign country, you most likely won’t be able to talk or understand as fast or as efficiently as native speakers, no matter how much you’ve studied…because in order to improve your English skills, you have to have conversations and practice, not just study the grammar rules.”19

   Another thing that gave him difficulty was his gradual realization that moving back to Korea would not be as easy as he had initially thought it would be. Before, he had believed that he could return to his home country any time if things did not work out in his new settlement. That was still partly true, but only physically:

   “10 years ago, the thought that I could return anytime was a very simple idea. That was just returning to Korea physically…which is no problem at all…but what I mean is returning to the situation in Korea the way you left it. The space you’ve been absent for [in] those 10 years…going back to the inner circle…is a pretty hard thing. So it’s a [mental] matter. Basically, I began to think that I can never really return to the way things were 10 years ago.”20

    For example, if Lee returned to Korea after 5 years in Canada, his friends or family would not be exactly the same as they were 5 years before. Perhaps they will have moved to a different city by then, maybe even a different country; or perhaps their personalities will have changed, and he and they would not connect as well as they originally had; or perhaps the hometown or country itself will have developed, becoming too different and alien from what it used to be in its old days. If these were the cases, then returning to Korea would be meaningless; what Lee missed and expected to find would have changed by the time he came back to it, and no longer be there. It was at this point that Lee felt the sense of regret and alienation every immigrant would experience at least once in his/her lifetime.

   When Lee moved to America, almost everything there was similar to those in Canada, so he did not find it particularly difficult to adjust. In general, he did get a sense that he would have to work harder than before in order to be more successful. Up until his life in Canada, his life had been easygoing, and it had given him more than his diligence had earned. As time passed though, he learned that “success is a matter of lifestyle, how much [one tries] to become happy and how [one treats his/her] life… people who work hard and manage or develop their careers well are the ones who succeed and… live well, and those who don’t do that but live without a plan on a daily basis are the ones who [eventually get undesirable outcomes].”21 He went on to say that although this was true, he acknowledged that not everybody can start at the same starting line: “Immigrants, as soon as they land in the foreign country, are already starting late and have fallen behind…meanwhile, the people who were already living in that country are well-equipped and start from a prepared condition, so you can’t ever say that they both stand at the same starting line.”22 Some people may think it is unfair, but he thought it was fair because it was the immigrants’ decisions to go into another country instead of staying in theirs. “Not only that,” he continued, “but U.S.A. is basically a country of immigrants, and there are also many immigrants who have succeeded… so [from that, I think that] USA gives fair opportunities… This is a society in which if you work hard, you will without always get rewarded [in some way].” 23

   As a first generation parent in a foreign country, Lee faced the common problem of whether to assimilate his children into American culture, or to maintain the traditional culture. Lee chose both. While he valued the importance of learning English if living in an English-speaking country, he equally valued the children’s sense of cultural identity. In effect, he spoke in mostly Korean to his two children at home, took them to Korean School on Sundays, bought them Korean books, encouraged them to enjoy Korean culture – even pop culture – and kept them up-to-date with important news in South Korea. At the same time, he embraced and admired the side of American culture that encourages people to be outgoing, cooperative and enthusiastic. When he saw his kids making many friends and involving themselves in the community, he was glad that they were fitting in well and learning American ways while still retaining Korean culture.

   Overall, Lee was glad that he had made the decision to immigrate, although there were some parts he regretted as well. If he had immigrated to North America, his son (the second child) might never have been born. Secondly, he broadened his previously narrow-minded view of the world through living in many different settings. A few bitter things he did taste were that he could never really return to the mainstream of Korea and that he had suffered a few depressing setbacks throughout his immigrant life. On the bright side, however, he is certain that his 1.5 and 2nd generation children would go through all that he and his wife had endured much more smoothly, and that his children’s generation [would] live more happily than his generation had. His closing comment was: “I hope that when you guys look back on my immigration decision, you’ll be glad of it and think proudly of my generation.”24


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