The American Dream
Was immigration a beautiful burden?
essay written by June Son
Lee had lived with many worries because she struggled through most of her years since coming to America working towards that “American dream”. The day after getting married, the trip to America doubled as their honeymoon. Struggling through the early years of immigrating to America proved extremely difficult but it gave Lee an unforgettable experience. The newlywed couple that had immigrated to America from Korea in 1982 had overcome many obstacles and difficult times and made something of it from nothing.
The first immigration of Koreans to the Americas happened in the early 1900’s. Later, the United States government restricted the limit of immigrants from Korea. However, when the Immigration and Nationality Act was created and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, the act permitted many Korean immigrants to enter the United States. Around 20,000 to 30,000 Koreans immigrated each year until 1988 when the numbers of Korean immigration slowly declined. After some time, Korean immigration increased and “In 1992 The Los Angeles Riot occurred which raised the immigration of Koreans due to the racist acts of the Los Angeles riots of the Rodney King Uprising, burning and destroying Korean property and stores.”1 Out of fear, this event led many Koreans to migrate to different parts of other cities. Korean-Americans make up one of the most prominent Asian communities in the United States. Many elements of Korean culture, ranging from Kim Chi to Tae Kwon Do, have made their way into the American lifestyle. There have been many events that have shaped the Korean American community and there are many current issues that affect Korean Americans.
Born on June 26, 1958, Sung Woon Lee was born in Mapo-gu, South Korea, a district in the capital, Seoul, which lies northwest of the Han River. Lee’s family lived in a newly built tenement with a running rice business in the front on a busy street. With four bedrooms, she lived with her three older brothers running the business with their parents working full-time. In her early years, Lee led an easy life because she was the youngest; she received much love from her older brothers. Growing up, she attended school and learned to help out with the family store. Like most children would say, Lee said, “I hated going to school because we received a lot of homework.”3 Schools were small but available to all children living in or near the districts where they were located. When Lee was fourteen years old, her family was having dinner when her mother suddenly collapsed and passed away from an aneurysm. After her family’s tragic loss, the rice store was run by her father. Growing up as a teenager, Lee was determined not to let her mothers’ death have any traumatic effect on her and her family. She believed if she was depressed, it would cause her whole family to emotionally break down. When Lee graduated from high school, she took up working full-time in her family’s rice business with her father and brothers.
When Lee was twenty-four years old, she was introduced to Eun-Yong Son, a handsome 28-year old through a blind date set up by Lee’s sister-in-law and her husband. Shortly afterwards, Lee and Eun-yong decided to get married after dating for a couple of months. Lee said happily, “he was handsome and diligent, and we had to get married.”4 After coming back from training in the army for 4 years, Lee’s husband was able to save up some money and travel to America. Lee’s husband had a brother living in America and was willing to be their host and house them. With the success of the rice business, Lee took some money with her and followed her husband to America after the wedding. The trip to America also doubled as the newlyweds’ honeymoon trip. Around the late 1980’s, the real estate and economy in Korea was prosperous. If one wanted to run a business, the retail sale of a store was affordable. The premium and house rent in Korea was also inexpensive. “It was just a good time to come over to America since we had some money.”5 Taking this chance to start a new life, the couple immediately made plans for their permanent leave to America in 1982.
Lee’s abrupt decision to immigrate to America with her husband prompted her to say farewell to her family and close friends. For Lee, she sacrificed a big part of her life coming to America when she disconnected ties to her family and all of her friends. When they stepped off the plane, Lee and her husband had come with only $6000. Lee’s brother-in-law was there to greet them and had later helped them settle in the new country. After only a year of immigrating to America, Lee returned to Korea to retrieve more money from the rice store to start a business. It was then she found out that her father had passed away at the age of 65. They saved money by eating only boxes of fruit, sometimes kalbi, a Korean cuisine made with marinated beef or pork short ribs marinated in Korean soy sauce and water. The newlyweds lived in Arcadia, California, where they resided in an apartment with Lee’s brother-in-law and his family for a month. Lee remembers that “The neighborhood was absolutely gorgeous. It was like a picture.”8 There, Lee’s husband got his driver’s license and with the money they brought, established a small alterations and convenience store in Los Angeles. Before conceiving their first child, they had a small booth selling sunglasses in a swap meet in Venice Beach, California. The business was successful and they were able to support themselves for a while.
The newlyweds expected the United States to be a fruitful country with a prospering economy and many opportunities. Their favorite movies at the time were the James Bond 007 films because they “believed life was just like that in America.”6 However, they had encountered obstacles and went through hardships to make a comfortable life for themselves. The couple wanted to raise a family in America and believed they could be successful there. Looking back at her experiences, Lee said, “It was incredibly hard to get ahead.”7 Lee’s early dream was to become a talent in American television but that dream was soon crushed when they had arrived. Her life revolved around trying to be financially stable and raise a family of her own. When they arrived in America, Lee and her husband became full-time workers running a business and had their first child within a year of arriving to America in 1983.
To Lee, America was very different from Korea. The work conditions, the way of life, and everyday things were different. The first month of living with her brother-in-law’s family, Lee’s husband struggled with learning English. Although he had taken some English classes in Korea, he struggled in improving his grammar. For Lee, even though she had lived in Korea for 25 years with her husband, she still did not improve her English; she said that, “[It was] too hard to learn English. I learned [only] enough words to run an alterations store.”10 When they lived in Arcadia, they had to commute to work 30 min. away. They had become friends with their neighbors in their apartment complex in Arcadia and still remain close friends to this day. They helped look after Lee’s first child and second child. They went through a lot together, even helping to co-sign the contract for their convenience store. Lee’s friends risked getting caught by the law. Even with the danger of being fined and sent to jail, they showed extreme loyalty by signing the contract for the convenience store.
What was different and unusual for the couple was that there were no markets in Korea. When they arrived, they found that there were grocery markets that were nearby, whereas in Korea, all of the vendors were spread out in various locations. It took them time to get used to the markets. Growing up on the countryside of Korea, Lee did not have computers. When they immigrated, Lee found that America was very technologically advanced at the time. Lee and her husband had to adapt to using the television, computers, and upgraded radios. She learned the ways of American culture quickly through the help of her brother-in-law. Another thing that Lee had to get used to was that in the United States, everyone took their time, when in Korea, everyone and everything worked fast. Lee really enjoyed the landscape in America, especially the neighborhoods in certain parts, where they moved to places like Arcadia and Glendale. Lee said, “There were lots of cars and parks and the flower buds would bloom pretty little white flowers in the spring. It was just a nice place to be and live.”11
Before Lee’s second child was born, they regretted purchasing a booth at the swap meet in Venice Beach. They deeply regretted this because it caused them to sell the business for no profit. Going back to the drycleaners, it was time-consuming and stressful, but it at least put food on the table. Lee said scornfully, “I think I would have stayed in Korea if I hadn’t married Eun-yong”.17 Lee’s life in Korea was good, but, now she thinks she is better off in America because of its offers many opportunities. One just has to make the right choices to be successful to get where you want to be. Lee believed that social networks, community organizations, and religious freedom are what brings Koreans together and where they can help one another. This way, Lee and her husband were able to find places to establish their businesses and try their hand at being successful.
In 1992, the Rodney King Uprising occurred when white officers beat up a black man; Rodney King for a traffic violation. African-Americans, in retaliation, rioted along the Los Angeles streets and expressed their anger by robbing stores and causing concerns. At that time, Lee was pregnant with her second child, almost in the third trimester and was at home while, her husband was running the convenience store when a robber came in and held him at gunpoint. Armed and dangerous, the robber demanded that he hand over all the money in the cash register. He fulfilled the robbers’ demand and escaped the perilous situation.
To avoid any further encounters like that, lee and her husband sold the convenience store out of fear and purchased a dry cleaning business. They went back to this business for a while until their second child was born on June 29, 1992. Born in a dangerous situation where Lee could have lost her husband, they remained focused and strong in safely and successfully raising a family. When Lee was a little girl, she dreamed of having a big family. However, realizing that there were many sacrifices that she would have to make if she had a third child, they reconsidered. The family moved but still lived in Arcadia and Orange County. Living there, Lee really enjoyed what the seasons offered “because in the summer, it would be comfortably warm, warm enough to go to the beach. ”13 In the winter, it would just get cold but not to the point where it snowed. She hated the cold because in Korea, it had snowed everyday and rained cold showers in the fall. Her favorite season was spring because it was when all the flowers bloomed. She believed “spring [was] the season when things are given another chance and hardships bloom into something beautiful after three seasons of harsh battles and grief.”
The family attended different churches, one of which they devoted to attending for most of the children’s lives. The youngest was baptized there when she was six years old. Being Christian, the Son family was devoted entirely to God, praying for that one successful event where they could be financially stable and safe. They were very religious and had conservative views. While attending church, Lee’s husband had also worked as a pool man studying at night to become a realtor. Being a pool man was exhausting work; touching wires, fixing pipes, and remodeling pools. Lee said, “when he got his license, I thought that was very bold…he [just] came out of high school too.”16 Lee and her husband did not feel comfortable until 2006 when Lee’s husband tried his luck at real estate. Working as a pool man did not prove to be any success. He received his license in 2000 and he reached his peak when their family moved to San Bernardino and sold multi-million dollar homes. Lee said proudly, “[my husband] was extremely successful in earning half a million at one point before the recession.”14 They came a long way to getting that far. They owned two homes, one with a lake view and the other with a golf view. They were able to relax and enjoy what they worked so hard for. Lee said proudly, “working hard is what got us to that point.” Lee had lived with many worries as she struggled through most of her years since coming to America working towards that “American dream”.15
Korean traditions and values were not lost coming to America. For example, for their daughter’s first birthday, they celebrated it as any other Korean family in Korea would. Korean birthday celebrations are an important part of the Korean culture. Dol is the celebration of a child’s first birthday and is probably the most well known of all Korean birthday celebrations. Parents would dress their child in a Hanbok; a traditional Korean dress, often characterized by vibrant colors and simple lines. The family would hold a traditional party with a lot of food and have the child choose one of three items as a present: a book, a pencil, or money. It is believed that if the child picks up the book, he will be smart, the pencil means that he will study well, if he picks up money, it means that he will be successful. Even now, Lee’s family retains most of the Korean culture. Because of a close knit Korean community, it would be unfortunate if the Korean tradition and cultures were lost, Korean tradition and cultures have influenced parts of America and its culture.
Korean-Americans have been able to thrive in the United States because of the strong emphasis on family, community support, often found through the church, education, and tradition. Lee and her husband had immigrated to America in 1982 had overcome many obstacles through difficult times. Immigrating to America had proved to be an onerous journey. Lee and her husband were able to survive through Lee’s brother-in-law’s aid. “Without the help and support of Eun-yong’s brother, we would probably have not immigrated to the United States.”18 Today, a little over one million Korean-Americans live throughout the United States, representing one of the largest Asian-American populations in the country. The largest concentration of Korean-Americans is found in the five-county area of Los Angeles, which includes Los Angeles, Orange, and San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties.
Now, the Son family is content living in Irvine, California. Struggling through the early years of immigrating to America proved extremely difficult but it gave Lee an unforgettable experience. Through years of trial, the hard-working couple finally found their place and settled comfortably in America with a family of their own.
1. Son, Sung Woon. Personal interview. 22 May 2009. 4.
2. Son, 22 May 2009, 1.
3. Son, Sung Woon. Person interview. 22 May 2009. 2.
4. Son, 22 May 2009, 3.
5. Son, Sung Woon. Personal interview. 22 May 2009. 1.
6. Son, 22 May 2009, 1.
7. Son, Sung Woon. Personal interview. 22 May 2009. 2.
8. Son, 24 May 2009, 2.
9. Son, Sung Woon. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 4.
10. Son, 24 May 2009, 3.
11. Son, Sung Woon. Personal interview. 22 May 2009. 2.
12. Son, 25 May 2009, 2, 3.
13. Son, Sung Woon. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 1.
14. Son, 22 May 2009, 4.
15. Son, Sung Woon. Personal interview. 25 May 2009. 5.
16. Son, 25 May 2009, 5.
17. Son, Sung Woon. Personal interview. 25 May 2009. 3.
18. Son, 22 May 2009. 1, 2.