The Gamble for a Better Life

From Riches to Rags, Eun Hwa Lee’s journey to America

essay written by Sean Lee

Sean Lee recently interviewed Eun Hwa Lee. In an attempt to learn about her life, Sean has realized the hardships Lee has gone through immigrating to America. He briefly heard about these hardships, but as Lee opened up to her past, he now realizes the extent of her troubles. She explains her life in Korea and immigrating to America. She loses the gamble for a better life, the story of riches to rags. Sean, as her son, wants to become successful in the future to give his mother Eun Hwa Lee the life she once had.

   Eun Hwa Lee is undoubtedly one of the most compassionate, generous, and strongest woman in this world. Lee was born on May 27, 1950 in a small rural town in the city of Chuncheon, Korea. Before she was born, her parents gave birth to four children before her, two sons and two daughters. Eun Hwa Lee was born into a family that would eventually end up with seven children including her. Lee was born the year the Korean War started, so her life proved to be interesting from the start. Because she was very young, she has no memory of this war. Her parents tell her that there was no major threat where they lived. According to Lee, “soldiers were stationed in our town, but there wasn’t a major threat, [Lee’s parents] just listened to them, made food if they needed food and gave them supplies. It wasn’t a big threat.”1 After Lee was born, her parents gave birth to another son and a daughter, thus completing the family. Growing up in Korea for Lee was a very pleasant time in her life.

   Eun Hwa Lee grew up in a small rural town in a big, wealthy house. When she was growing up, her father was a banker, which was a good paying job at the time. Lee’s family always had enough money to be happy, and they were actually quite rich. She grew up in a rich household, because her father was a banker. Lee says “growing up in Korea was very peaceful, even if our friends were not around; we always had each other my seven siblings.”2 Eun Hwa Lee also had a very traditional Korean family where the whole family would gather in the morning and at dinner for a family meal. It was tradition back in the day; Korean culture was to eat dinner and breakfast at the same table with your family. “School in Korea is very different from school in America, it has its good traits and bad traits,”3 according to Lee. Lee would wake up every morning early to go to school; her father would drop her off at school before he would go to work to the bank. Elementary school for Lee was easy. It was very similar to America. However, middle school for Lee was very different from school in America. In Korea, teachers were able to hit their students if they’re students were misbehaving or did something wrong. Also, in Korea students had to wear a uniform, like Lee had to do from middle school through high school.

   The most influential person in Eun Hwa Lee’s life is her father, the person she looks up to. According to Lee, her father was, “caring, generous, and a good father, husband, and in general, a good man.”4 Lee tries to live in the footsteps of her father, by being selfless, and caring. Always putting the family first and thinking of others before him. According to Eun Hwa Lee, “[her] father was very conservative. He would conserve everything electricity, paper, gas, water, food, and pencils.”5 Lee recalls the things her father said when she got her watch stolen on a bus by a homeless man on her way back from school. Lee’s father said that if that man didn’t steal your watch he would have gone to bed hungry tonight. Words like these show the compassion of her father, and the compassion and generosity Lee wants to live by. The most influential person in Lee’s life is her father. She believes that there will never be anyone else like her beloved father in this world.

   Later life in Korea for Lee was also admirable. She met her husband Sun Won Lee through her younger brother who went to the Korean military to serve his mandatory three years in the Korean military. At the time, all eligible Korean males had to serve three years in the military (now it is two years). Sun Won Lee met my mother’s younger brother in the military. Sun Won Lee was a higher ranked soldier in the Korean air force, and he befriended Lee’s younger brother. As their friendship grew Eun Hwa Lee’s younger brother introduced Lee to him, because Lee’s brother believed that Sun Won Lee would be perfect for her. They met and they became a couple. They got married in 1977 after dating for seven years. In Korea it is tradition for the older siblings to get married before younger ones. Because both Sun Won Lee and Eun Hwa Lee had an older sister who was not married, they had to wait before they got married. Another reason they were waiting to get married was because they wanted to both finish college. Eun Hwa Lee lived a rich and prosperous life in Korea. Sun Won Lee was the president of a construction company in Korea, and his family owned a winery. Eun Hwa Lee’s father was also still pursuing his career as a banker; the combination of both families’ wealth allowed Lee’s family to live happily, and without worry. Eun Hwa Lee gave birth to her first daughter Krista Lee on January 10, 1979 and her second daughter Sarah Lee on March 10, 1980. She did not have to work in Korea; her family had a big house with a maid. According to Lee, “I lived very freely; I could pursue hobbies as well as go out and play with my friends.”6 Eun Hwa Lee’s life was set. She had a beautiful family, a nice house, she didn’t have to work, and above all, she had freedom. Soon she found out that she would give birth to a son and her life would change.

   In Korea, Lee lived the good life all her life. From when she was young until the day she left Korea, she always had a substantial amount of money. Before Lee came to America, she gave birth to a healthy son in 1992, naming him Sean Lee. Eun Hwa Lee decided to come to America because she believed her life would be better, like most immigrants who come to America. Eun Hwa Lee believed that with the money she had in Korea she could live a rich and prosperous life in America. When Lee came to the United States on vacation she would meet her sisters-in-law and her husband’s parents. All her husband’s family members had come to America with the money they had and lived a good life. Lee’s close friend came to America and also lived happily, or as it seemed to Lee. Eun Hwa Lee saw this and believed she could live as well as them, she only saw the good life of America, the vacation life. She never believed she would be working from dusk to dawn. She never imagined the hardships that she would go through here in America. Her expectations of America and her goals were very similar, Lee and her family basically came to America because they believed it was an opportunity, a sure gamble, to live a better life. She wanted to live in a big house and just enjoy the southern California weather. Lee wanted to make her daughters and son successful. She wanted to live with freedom, to play when she wanted, to enjoy her hobbies. Lee said, “My biggest expectation was to raise my kids here to the fullest potential.”7 Little did Lee know that her life would completely change from riches to rags.

   Eun Hwa Lee made an agreement to come to America because her husband wished to live in America. Ultimately, it was her husband’s decision to come to America because he had family members here who made the United States of America seem glamorous. Lee came to America with her family on an airplane in 1993. She just gave birth to a healthy boy in 1992 and came to America to seek a better opportunity with her family. On the plane ride to her new home, she had mixed feelings of anxiety, sadness, and excitement. Lee said, “I was very sad because I couldn’t see my family anymore, I was also worried because I couldn’t speak English.”8 As Lee recalls, “your dad was awake the whole time. Your sisters would sleep, talk, sleep, and then talk again. We left a lot of our stuff in Korea because I was going to go back and sell everything. But I couldn’t, so my parents did all that stuff for me.”9 Like their mother, Lee’s daughters thought coming to America would be a great opportunity for them. However, Lee gave up everything to come to America, all her family members, her rich life style and her freedom. As Lee recalls, it was very hard and stressful to adapt to America. Lee could not speak English, this is what caused the most stress for Lee; she was not able to communicate. When she came to America she temporarily lived together with her husband’s parents in a small apartment in Irvine, California. Lee also had to work in America, from seven in the morning until five or six in the afternoon. In Korea, Lee would have never imagined herself working to provide for her family because her husband made all the money. Because both Lee’s husband as well as she could not speak any English, they could not find good jobs. Her husband worked for her sister’s husband’s golf college. With all the money Lee and her family brought over, they put in a bank and eventually spent it all. Lee wanted to buy a house, but instead rented a small apartment with her family. All her expectations she had for her and family were all eventually crushed. As Lee recalls, “I cried myself to sleep a lot; I missed my family in Korea. It was very hard adapting in America. In Korea, because we were rich, I could buy anything I want, here I couldn’t buy anything.”10 It was very hard for Lee to adapt to America.

   Korea and America are two very different places. As difficult as it was to emotionally adapt to America, it was also very hard for Lee to physically adapt to America. In Korea one does not need an automobile to get around. Most the people in Korea take the bus and tram. Lee did have a license in Korea, but she hardly ever used it. The only person who used a car in her family was her husband. When Lee came to America, she was forced to get a license. She recalls the things she had to do to get her license and laughed. Eun Hwa Lee took the license test in California four times, failing three times and passing on her fourth attempt. Also, unlike America, Korea has stores everywhere, which are very close by to where one lives. For Lee, even the small things were hard to adapt to such as the houses. Most houses in Korea have floors that can be heated; the bathrooms in Korea also have a drain where you can just wash your feet on the bathroom floor. In America, people only take baths in the bathtub or inside the shower. In Korea a person can just wash up on the bathroom floor with the shower hose. Lee talks about the public baths in Korea, “Well in Korea we went to the public baths twice a week to relax. Now that I think of it, it was a privilege.” Because Lee lived a very wealthy lifestyle, she did not worry about spending money freely. Lee explains one of the things that bothered her the most when she came to the United States of America, “Well, in Korea, people buy their houses all at once, all cash. We didn’t have to worry about making the down payment every month or so. But in America, you had to make payments every month or so. Not only houses, but a lot of other things are like that. In Korea, having to pay by making payments meant you were poor. In Korea, I could buy anything without making payments.”11 Another difference between Korea and California is that in Korea, there are no earthquakes. As Lee recalls, she first got to America and she experienced many earthquakes in the first few months. When Eun Hwa Lee came to America she became Catholic. Before she and her family came to America, everyone in her family was Buddhists. Lee said, “Your grandma converted to Catholicism and eventually our whole family did.”12 It was very easy to convert to Catholicism because there were no Korean Buddhists here in America. Her children enjoyed going out to church because there was a big Korean Catholic community.

   Eun Hwa Lee is one of the strongest persons in the world because she went through a lot. When she came to America with her family, all her expectations of life in America were crushed. It became very hard for her as well as her family to live in America as she constantly fought with her husband about money and mortgage problems .As money became scarce, Lee’s husband tried to find an easy way out. He grew fond of gambling and blew most of his family’s money away. No matter how scarce money was for Lee, she always provided the best for her children. Like her father, the most influential person in her life, she thought of her children first. Even with a scarce amount of money, Lee made sure her children would not fall short of the privileges of other richer kids. In the summer of 2003 Lee was diagnosed with cancer. This was one of the hardest times in Lee’s life, yet she overcame her illness with the prayers of her friends and especially her family. With all the procedures such as surgery and chemotherapy she recovered in 2004. Lee explains her thoughts and feelings when she was diagnosed with cancer as a very shocking moment in her life. “Wow, when I got cancer I was shocked, but I knew I wasn’t going to die. I only thought it would happen to people in dramas and movies.”14

   When asked if she lived a happy life, Eun Hwa Lee paused and thought about it. Lee eventually said that she lived a good life in Korea, but in America she honestly lived a hard life. Her son does not doubt her; he remembers growing up, waking up in the middle of the night to Eun Hwa Lee fighting with her husband. Her son remembers what Lee’s family went through and what Lee went through when she had cancer. Her son remembers seeing Lee on the hospital bed unconscious after Lee’s surgery. Her advice to immigrants coming to America from their own country is to think about the process thoroughly. She believes that someone who plans on immigrating to the United States of America should definitely learn English first. Eun Hwa Lee went from riches to rags attempting to live a better life in America.


1. Lee, Eun Hwa. Personal Interview. 17 May, 2009.
2. Lee. 17 May 2009.
3. Lee. 17 May 2009.
4. Lee. 17 May 2009.
5. Lee. 17 May 2009.
6. Lee. 17 May 2009.
7. Lee. 17 May 2009.
8. Lee, Eun Hwa. Personal Interview. 24, May, 2009.
9. Lee. 24 May 2009.
10. Lee. 24 May 2009.
11. Lee. 24 May 2009.
12. Lee. 24 May 2009.
13. Lee. 24 May 2009.
14. Lee. 24 May 2009.