Similarities and Differences

Esther Baek’s 1987 journey from Seoul, Korea

essay written by Jay Sagong

Her immigration story started off with her uncle who was a martial arts teacher who got sponsored by an American G.I. Esther Baek currently works at a law firm in Los Angles. She graduated from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as an English Major. She is involved in her church. She graduated from University High School (UHS). She plans to work for immigration law because of desire and her wanting to help other immigrants who come to the United States. She has an older sister who graduated from University of State California (UCS) and there is rivalry when they are both at home.

   Esther Baek immigrated to the United States in 1987. Her father’s oldest brother started the foundation of her immigration in the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ). Her uncle taught hand-to-hand combat to American soldiers on a United States army base in South Korea. He soon became friends with one of the American soldiers and when the soldier returned to the United States of America, the G.I. invited her uncle and became his sponsor to immigrate to the United States to teach hand to hand combat at the United States Air Force Academy in Denver, Colorado. After teaching at the United States Air Force Academy, Baek’s uncle moved to Ohio because there was a large Korean community. In the late 1970’s he opened a dojo to teach martial arts and shortly after afterwards, Baek’s two younger uncles also immigrated to the United States to join their brother. The oldest uncle taught tae kwon do and the two younger uncles taught kung fu. Since Baek’s oldest uncle was invited to come to the United States to teach martial arts, her dad had to take care of her grandmother because “In Korean culture, it’s usually the oldest son or oldest child who takes care of the mother.”1 Baek’s father had “wanted to keep the family together” 2 so after a few years, he too, immigrated to the United States.

   Another reason why Baek’s family chose to leave Korea was because of the country’s poor economy. She remembers her mom saying that, “the economy wasn’t that great in Korea [because there were] many people and not enough jobs; people were always out of work.”3 So, in 1987, Baek along with her parents, her older sister, and her grandmother, boarded the plane to the United States of America. Baek was too young to realize the significance of the move while her sister was “sad to leave her friends.”4 Nevertheless, America had an image in Korea as the “great golden land of opportunity.”5

   When Baek arrived in Ohio, she could not distinguish America from Korea. She noticed a few differences – there was a park within walking distance of her house and the only Asians living in the predominantly white neighborhood was her family. In the beginning she and her family were subject to a lot of stares and the kids in neighborhood didn’t want to play with Baek and her sister. However, because Baek had her uncles and cousins living close to her, she did not feel obligated to socialize with the other Caucasian kids. With all of the other Caucasian kids around Baek, she wondered why she did not live close to the Korean community in Ohio.

   While in Ohio on her first visit to the market, Baek became, “agitated”6 because of the time her parents took to count out the change. It was difficult for them to count out the change because in Korea they had different currency; the American coins and bills valued differently from those in Korea.

   Baek’s dad didn’t have a problem finding a job because he received help form his brothers. For his first job He taught Tae Kwon Do at his brother’s dojo. Her parents were “grateful because they had all that kind of taken care of”7 such as job and housing. When he was sick, he would not have to worry about getting fired as in a store. Because they are brothers they would keep him. At the dojo, he did not have to worry if he was unable to work because he had three brothers who could replace him. Another reason why this was possible was because, “they [were] brothers and they were all what they really had.”8

   When Baek first enrolled in pre-school, she didn’t understand any English because Korean was her first language. So, when playing with other kids Baek noticed the “difference between [her] and the other kids.”9 They were, “speaking a foreign language to [her]…it was a little bit difficult for [her].”10 But because Baek was in an environment where she had to interact with other English-speaking Americans, she adjusted and learned English faster. In pre-school, her teacher had to “mime everything”11 to her. When the teacher wanted her to do something specific, she would actually do the action, such as sitting down or, putting her hands together in the prayer position and putting them against her cheeks to indicate nap time. It was more different when she tried to help Baek learn what different words meant. Her mother was worried about the fact that Baek and her sister were not native speakers -a huge obstacle for them to overcome. So, she made Baek and her sister watch special television programs that taught English, letters, and pronunciation. Baek hoped that she wasn’t off task and was doing what she was suppose of to be doing.

   For Baek, things became progressively easier throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school. In the third grade, she had an animal research project and had to research the bald eagle. She had to use the encyclopedia and two other books for her research project. However, the encyclopedia was too dense for a third grader. She asked her friends if they knew what they were doing and they all told her, they were going to ask their parents. However, Baek could not ask her parents because they could understand even less of it than she did. She was jealous that her friends received help from their parents and resented the fact that she could not get any help from her parents. Consequently projects, grammar worksheets, and homework were more difficult for her.

   One day, her sister brought a friend over. Her friend wore her shoes inside the house, of which Asians do not do to maintain the cleanliness of the home. But her Caucasian friend did not know any better. Baek’s sister got in an argument with her friend saying that she needed to take her shoes off but her friend said she didn’t want to. Her mom stepped in and said, “This is your guest and let your guest do as they please.”12 Baek and her sister are 4 years apart, but the cultural gap between her and her sister seemed bigger than it really was.

   When she was seven years old, she re-visited her homeland Korea. She went there because of her mom’s family. She did not have much to compare the United States to Korea because she had little memories when she was younger. She did not have any ties with her mom’s side of her family until that point because it was essentially a “brand new family”13. In that sense, the trip to Korea was a “brand new experience.”14 When she went back, she noticed many different things in Korea. The land was rural when she first re-visited Korea.

   By junior high school, she felt completely comfortable with the English language. She was enrolled in honors and Gifted And Talented Education (GATE) classes. By high school, although she was an immigrant, she felt as if English was her native language. In high school, she became active in the school. She was in Honors and AP classes, also in ASB (Associated Student Body) and class council. Attending University High School, an academically competitive school, she wanted to keep up with her friends and her rivals. Her parents did not force her to enroll in AP or Honors classes. She, “pushed [herself] to do well…[her] parents pushed [her] more [in] elementary school.”15 When she entered high school, she had a, “desire within [herself] to do well.”16 When she entered high school, she was already thinking of which college she wanted to go to and had academic performance in her mind. She always wanted to push herself to do well because everyone around her was doing well.

   During her years in high school, religion played a big role in her life. Her parents were devout Catholics. Baek’s grandmother especially was a dedicated Catholic; she prayed the rosary twice a day and said prayers in her room. Baek was taught to rely on God and her faith. She barely saw her friends on the weekends, but church helped her a lot. She made many friends at church and their common faith was able to make her friendships stronger. Baek also joined youth group during high school and helped to plan many activities. The main reason she was so involved within the church was to see kids come to church because they wanted to and also to see the activities that she planned turn into a success. She joined to see the kids come to church because they wanted to and to look forward to something not just because they had to. When she saw that, “it was rewarding because [she was] able to see the fruits of [her] labor.”17

   Baek attended the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). She graduated in 2004 with a Bachelor’s degree in English. For Baek, college was easier than high school because the atmosphere in high school was always fast-paced and demanding, whereas in college she paced herself. She had first entered UCLA with an undeclared major. She had no idea of what field she wanted to major in. By taking, “art history class to satisfy general education credits (GE).”18 She wanted to major in art history, but people would ask her what she could do with that knowledge. Consequently, she began to think about what information she could use after college. Finally, one of her friends suggested that she major in English. In the end, she ended up enjoying the classes that she took to become a English major while attending UCLA. Although it was “more challenging than the art history classes” she was “learning about really rich literature that [she] really enjoy[ed].”19

   She really appreciates the fact what her parents have done for her. When she took an Asian American studies class at UCLA, they talked about the patterns of Asian American, Asian immigration. She had a “greater appreciation for [her] parents and the decision that they made to move here.”20 She learned that many immigrants struggled to really create a stable life first and the hardships that they experienced when they moved here. Although her parents did not open up to her, she knows that they experienced racism or discrimination in some sense. The college classes opened up her eyes to the struggles that her parents had to endure through. She was sad when her mother’s father passed away but Baek’s mother could not attend her father’s funeral. She feels bad when her parent’s friends call for reunions or the get together that they have in Korea because her parents are not able to attend the reunion or the get together and enjoy their time.

   Baek re-visited Korea in 2004, Korea was a cosmopolitan city. Baek was surprised from the technological advances of the computer and phone that Korea developed. Even in rural areas where one of her cousins lived had T3 connection, T3 connection is the fastest Internet connection in the world. The fact that there was getting connection even in a rural area surprised Baek. Her cousin was up to date with the world and was receiving little updates on her cell phone. The thing that struck her most from her second trip to Korea was probably the “technological advancements.”21 She saw more private buildings outside of Seoul. In Korea, an apartment complex is not just one apartment complex. She saw “30, 40 story complexes that are part of a community together.”22

   Baek also noticed more people were speaking English. She heard that “Korea [spent the] most money in the world out of any other country on English classes.”23 They spent so much money so that their kids can learn English because they value the English language. In junior high, students are allowed to take a foreign language in the Irvine District. But in Korea all the kids are taught English starting from elementary school. But the thing that Baek is bothered about is that the students are taught from a Korean who is not perfect in English. When people heard Baek speak English, there were two reactions: one, “gave [her] a dirty look”24 and she “didn’t feel welcome from native Koreans” 25 and “felt offensive when they found [out that she] was a Korean-American.” 25 The other response she received was “they were really impressed by the fact that [she] spoke perfect English.” 25 They also wanted her to tutor them privately. Baek was subjected to dirty looks and “the cold shoulders”26 from Koreans. Baek felt confused by the two completely opposite reactions that she received from the different Koreans. Her perceptions of Koreans changed drastically after these two incidences.

   Baek currently works at a law firm that practices criminal defense and civil litigation. She works there in hopes of applying to a law school. As she plans on attending to law school and actually considers going into immigration law process where you help other immigrants with their paper work, visas, or helping them get out of trouble if they are here illegally. She plans to get an internship at an immigration law firm. Because Baek herself was once an “immigrant plays a big part”27 why she is so passionate about immigration law. Another reason is because her parents are immigrants. Her parents had helped many of their friends who were immigrants struggling to obtain citizenship. If “[she] weren’t an immigrant, if [her] parents was not immigrants, if [she] didn’t know any immigrants, it [would not] sparked [her] attention.”28

   In the beginning when she came to the United States, to her “it was more like moving houses than moving countries.”29 She had thought it was a trivial matter when she first moved to the United States. When she was in high school, she never understood fully about the struggles that her parents endured. It never crossed her mind how grateful she was for being in the United States, how she suffered so little, and the difficulties that she didn’t go through as much. She said, “It wasn’t until college that [I] learned how to give a greater appreciation, and a better understanding of [my] parent’s experience what their experience would have been like.”30

   Even now, Baek still relies heavily on her parents. Although she is 23, she feels like she is still in need of her parent’s support. She lives in her own apartment separate from her parents, and also makes her own decision. She asks her parents for final advice whether she should quit or stay her job. Every week she visits her parents and, they tell her every week that “it would be welcome for me to stay.”31 Baek’s parent’s opinion really plays a big part in her decision and her life until now. Baek’s dad has experienced the same experience that Baek is going through right now so he tells her his story how he “tried sticking it out for a while, and just tried to get through the hardships, but in a long run, he wasn’t learning anything from the experience.”32 He pointed out to her the same thing he had learned from his experience. The experiences that he tells Baek are universal lesson that you can learn. Baek believes that the universal lesson is a lesson you can learn anywhere you live.


1. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 6.
2. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 6.
3. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 6.
4. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 9.
5. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 9
6. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 8.
7. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 8.
8. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 8.
9. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 2.
10. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 2.
11. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 2.
12. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 14.
13. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 10.
14. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 10.
15. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 16.
16. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 16.
17. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 21.
18. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 19.
19. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 19.
20. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 22.
21. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 11.
22. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 11.
23. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 11.
24. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 11.
25. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 11.
26. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 11.
27. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 25.
28. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 25.
29. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 22.
30. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 22.
31. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 4.
32. Baek, Esther. Personal interview. 17 May 2009. 5.