Trials, Tribulations, and the Strength to Overcome Them
Tammy Yoon perseveres through struggles as she experiences life from Korea to America
essay written by Andrew Yoon
Growing up in Seoul, Korea, Tammy Yoon experienced many ups and downs throughout her life. She initially enjoyed wealth, but with her father’s sudden death, her family plunged into poverty. Yoon faced increasing hardships at school and at home. She lived alone with her three brothers for a year before they could immigrate to America. In America, Yoon faced further adversity adjusting to society, facing ridicule and language barriers. Eventually, however, she regained stability, married into a new family, and received the love she had been missing all her life.
In a time when the world was experiencing major upheavals due to the Cold War, the life of a girl from South Korea was forever changed when she immigrated to the United States of America. She persevered through affluence and poverty, family strife, the death of a father, and the hardship of adjusting to a hostile society. Although she is originally from Korea, she confesses that “[she is] happy that [she] could say that America is [her] country.”1
Tammy Yoon was born on April 12, 1966, in the busy port city of Po Hang in southern Korea. At the age of four, she and her family moved to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, where she grew up. Her father, a decorated Marine and Vietnam War veteran, built the largest home in the capital city for his family. Yoon said of her life in Seoul, “a lot of townsmen and women and children looked up to our family,”2 and her family was regarded as part of the “high society.”3 Her father’s impressive military prestige as a Major gained them affluence in the city. The family enjoyed a wonderfully stable and happy life until Yoon’s father suddenly suffered a stroke from high blood pressure and passed away. With the death of the man of the household, the Yoon family’s high social status quickly spiraled downhill. Yoon’s mother had never worked before, since it was seen as “a poor status for a woman to work.”4 However, in order to support her four children and mother-in-law, she had to forfeit her pride and begin working. Unsuccessful in the real estate business, she eventually lost all their money, putting the family into poverty within three years. The death of Yoon’s father was a watershed moment that greatly impacted every aspect of Yoon’s life.
As her family’s social status began to crumble, Yoon’s friends and emotional control also began to deteriorate. Children in Korean society only mingled with those of similar societal standing: rich played with rich, and poor played with poor. Yoon recalled that “some of the high class society friends that [she] used to have slowly moved away from [her].”5 As she watched her old friends drift away, she found new friends according to her new social status. She resented the fact that she had to lose her friends just because her family had lost money. With her social plunge, Yoon’s entire life changed—not only her friends, but also her personality. She became very angry with her experiences; she had lost her father and no longer had enough money to eat. As she grew older, her anger only intensified. Although she was lonely, depressed, and angry, the people around her regarded her as a lively, active, fun individual. Yoon was so uncomfortable and broken by the sudden changes that she “hid all of [her] internal feelings.”6 This emotional burial would persist throughout a major part of her life. All of this anger was further enhanced by her experiences in school and at home.
At school, Yoon detested the standard punishment given to disobedient students. The Korean society had “a deep-rooted Confucius teaching that the emperor and your parents and your teachers were regarded as one.”7 Therefore, if children did not give the proper respect to their teachers, they were punished in the form of a spanking. This disciplinary action was universal and commonly used. All the abuse, however, took a serious toll on Yoon’s emotional and mental health. As she was getting punished, she felt inferior and as a result her self-esteem crumbled. Her anger was fueled by the frequent punishments as well as the established Korean mantra of vigorous studying. Yoon and other children like her were required to study constantly, but she had lost all interest in it. She reflected, “I just didn’t want to be punished. I think I just rebelled, I didn’t want to study anymore.”8 Although she didn’t study or try her hardest, she still somehow managed to keep her grades high.
Daily experiences at home, however, formed the worst part of her childhood. Her father’s mother lived in the same home as her family, and Yoon’s parents and grandmother constantly got into heated arguments. Because her parents’ marriage was arranged and they were complete strangers forced to start a new life together, their relationship did not have a strong foundation and eventually proved to be full of confrontation. Yoon’s mother was headstrong and motivated, but she was persecuted by her own parents because of her devout belief in Christianity, not in Buddhism. Her parents forbade her from going to college and forced her to give up her dream of becoming a news anchor. Her persecution was extended when she married a man who, according to Yoon, “absolutely demanded…full devotion and respect.”9 Yoon’s paternal grandmother moved into their household, and as Yoon’s mother attempted to care for her new family, the two women’s differences erupted in conflict. Because of her Christian background, she refused to follow the religious customs and was met with violent opposition from her husband. Yoon recalled that “it was like a battle zone within [her] family.”10 Her mother was even pushed to the brink of suicide because of the constant fighting; Yoon and her three brothers were especially traumatized by this experience. For example, because Yoon witnessed her father choking her mother, she couldn’t wear necklaces for many years. Despite all this physical abuse, however, Yoon still loved her father. She always felt special because she was his only daughter, and as a result, she “intentionally…subdued and suppressed those bad memories”11 that she had of him.
Family matters turned from bad to worse with the death of Yoon’s father. His mother claimed that Yoon’s mother was the reason he died, that her belief in God had brought bad luck on his household. Consequently, Yoon’s mother had to listen to these horrible accusations at home daily. In addition, this situation collided with the efforts she was making to find work to make some money. Her falling social status and the constant accusations caused Yoon’s mother extreme stress, to say the least. She could not express herself freely or relieve herself of that stress, and so she would pass it on to her children. Thus, Yoon and her siblings became victims of the hostile home. Attributing her situation to a mouse’s exercise wheel in which it runs and runs but never gets anywhere, Yoon described her life during this time as a “very disrupted family environment that never got better.”12 Because her mother channeled her own problems toward her children, especially to her only daughter, Yoon grew up hating her mother because she simply couldn’t handle all of the stress. Her two older brothers, also experiencing their own anger and depression issues, would attack Yoon and her younger brother as well, often times for no reason at all. The physical and mental abuse Yoon was forced to suffer caused her to harbor her anger even deeper inside.
Family struggles continued as Yoon and her family prepared to move to America. Her mother found an opportunity to immigrate first, so she asked her oldest brother, who was also a Christian, to take care of her children. Now, Yoon’s maternal grandparents were extremely wealthy, but because they were Buddhists they refused to help out their two Christian children in any way. They criticized their daughter for abandoning her children to live a content life on her own in America. Nevertheless, she proceeded with her plans, and Yoon’s oldest uncle took custody of the four children. At that time, Yoon’s oldest brother was attending college in a small countryside town to the south called Dae Jun, since he could not afford to attend any schools in Seoul. When Yoon and her two other brothers moved in with him, he was renting small room with an attached kitchen. Yoon’s uncle or aunt would occasionally drop off essential supplies, but soon, her oldest brother had to drop out of college and enter the workforce. The four individuals lived off of his meager salary and could hardly afford to buy food and pay the rent. Almost everyday, Yoon and her younger brother could not eat lunch because they simply could not afford it. She recalled, “We didn’t have any money…we barely survived.”13 It was also during this period that her second brother became depressed, angry, and bitter. He felt that his chance of going to college was ruined by their family situation, a fact he highly resented. Yoon, as the only girl, was busy while she attended school with all of the household duties, which included cooking, cleaning, and washing clothes. Yoon and her brothers endured this life for about a year, and when their mother’s paperwork was finally cleared, they headed off to the United States of America.
Yoon had dreamt of the United States every night of her year in Dae Jun, envisioning a grand land of opportunity somewhat like a fairy tale. She hoped to throw down her old life in Korea and embrace a new one in America: a life easier and more enchanting. Her dreams, however, did not come true. Yoon had her vision abruptly interrupted by reality, and “it was not a fairy tale land. It was just as difficult as Korea.”14 Yoon and her siblings moved into their mother’s apartment, which she had acquired with the help of a church pastor, to whom Yoon owes a tremendous amount. As the two younger children attended school, Yoon’s mother and older brothers worked as apartment cleaners. Even with three adults working, they received a very insubstantial pay that they could barely live on. Furthermore, being new to the country, the family didn’t know much English at all. They didn’t understand the culture and realized their lives were no better off in the United States than they were in Korea. Then in the 9th grade, Yoon, at age 14, picked up the new language quickly. She had the tough task of travelling everywhere with her mother and serving as a translator, even with her limited knowledge of English. Although the first few years were filled with hardship and were extremely tough for her, Yoon said, “I endured it because I felt like I had a better future here… I’m really glad that I actually had those tough days and tough years.”15
As time went on, Yoon gradually adjusted to her new life and became more comfortable with living in the United States. Although she had trouble making friends in her new American high school due to the language barrier, she had caring, compassionate teachers. They introduced her to another Korean immigrant two years older than her, who took her on a tour of the school and explained the system, the lunch line, all the things she had to know. Yoon also made friends with other Korean students, but she was never close with any of them. After school, because she had nowhere else to go, she went home and discovered her true friend during that time: television. She developed a daily habit of turning on the TV as soon as she came home, before doing any homework or studying. Smiling, she admitted, “I think it’s a bad habit for me, but I just can’t get rid of it.”16 As she watched cartoons such as Tom and Jerry and other programs, Yoon began to pick up English words and learned how they were structured together. In this way, television was her teacher (along with English as a second language classes) and that is how she truly learned English. By the time she was a junior in high school, she felt comfortable with her life in America because she had grasped the language.
Yoon faced more trouble as she prepared for college. Her dream at the time was to study at UCLA and to eventually become a doctor. However, when she took the SAT, she received high math scores, but extremely low English scores. Her language disadvantage basically sent her dream down the drain, and Yoon, already having low self-esteem, felt somewhat like a failure because she wanted to be a doctor so badly. However, she went on to go to a nursing school at Biola University. Surprisingly, she soon realized how beneficial nursing school was for her. She found that her studies at Biola helped her to move on from all the pain and suffering she had endured in her childhood. For example, the students of Biola’s Rosemead School of Psychology were looking for volunteers to sit through therapy sessions and encouraged nurses to attend. Yoon volunteered, assuming she was going to learn about psychology, but actually ended up received therapy. As she began to open up and talk about her childhood, she finally accepted the death of her father for the first time, a feat accomplished in thirteen years. Although she didn’t know it back then, it was a “good thing [she went to nursing school], because it brought so much healing towards [her].”17
After college, Yoon began working as a nurse and dating her future husband, Sam Yoon. She started out as an adult nurse but could not master her job due to her ongoing internal struggles. Eventually, she ended up with a career in the neo-natal intensive care unit, caring for deathly ill premature babies. Since then, she “absolutely…fell in love with those babies…[she] never regretted becoming a nurse.”18 At this point in time, Yoon’s life truly turned around and began improving. She married a man who, according to her, “was able to pull [her] out of lot of [her] own psychological, emotional distress.”19
When they got married, no one could help them out, and they not only had to pay for their own wedding, but also had to start a new life completely on their own. They bought a town home, started a family with two children, got promotions and received raises, and essentially built their lives from scratch, a feat that has made them very proud. When raising her children, Yoon attempted to refrain from acting like her mother by taking out her stress on her children. She also found a new family, one that was full of love and never as dysfunctional as her past family. Her father-in-law proved to be one of her main sources of love. Because he had four sons, he was glad to finally have a daughter, so he would dote on her, take her out to places, and cook for her. Yoon expressed her joy in saying, “I’m very grateful that I found a father’s love.”20 She had found peace and happiness in her new family, finally filling the void left by her difficult childhood.
After enduring a heartbreaking childhood, demanding immigration, and the complex readjustment of her life, Yoon finally found a joyous place which she could call home—the United States of America. She said that this nation gave her “the second life…the hope and the future.”21 Although she faced hardships as an immigrant to this country, she overcame those struggles, which eventually became critical, defining moments that shaped her exemplary character. Looking back, she no longer feels any anger or remorse toward her childhood, but rather she treasures those memories and knows that because of that adversity, she is the person that she is today.
1.Yoon, Tammy. Personal interview. 25 May 2009. 17.
2.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 1.
3.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 1.
4.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 2.
5.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 2.
6.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 3.
7.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 3.
8.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 4.
9.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 5.
10.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 5.
11.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 6.
12.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 6.
13.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 7.
14.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 8.
15.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 8.
16.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 9.
17.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 11.
18.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 11.
19.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 12.
20.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 15.
21.Yoon. 25 May 2009. 10.