My Korean American Story: Diana Yu

In the late fifties, following the Korean conflict, things were so bad in Korea that people tried to leave the country any way they could. College students were no exception. They would pass entrance exams for Korean colleges, but would then often seek admission to colleges in America.

dianayu 1958-square

Hearing about America from my best friend, Suh Oak intensified my curiosity about Migook. She related what she had learned about the country in letters she was receiving from her three elder siblings, all of who were studying in America. Suh Oak was the youngest child in her family and the last one to take off from Korea for America. Unlike Suh Oak, I was the very first person in my family to come to the States. My parents had four sons and one daughter. I was number fourth child.

I was really interested in coming to America­. Although I thought that securing a student visa would be a long and almost too arduous a task. Actually, however, it didn’t take as long as I had feared. To begin with, I picked up a “how to book,” Oegook Yu-hahk, Study Abroad, from a bookstore in Seoul. It listed colleges and universities in America along with locations, tuition, religious affiliations, etc.

 I don’t know how much of what I had to get a student visa still the same, but I had to take various exams required for students applying to study in foreign countries. The Ministry of Education gave the first exam. It was held at an auditorium on the old campus in Don-ahm Dong of the then Seoul National University. About sixty college students took the exam when I did.  Of the sixty, I was the only female. The exam was given every three months. The subjects were English, Korean History and one’s major field. Upon passing the exam, the applicant was required to pass an English proficiency test given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

While taking the exams, an admission from an American college was secured. After taking the exams, verification of health and ideology clearance had to be secured to make certain that I was not, in any way a communist or sympathizer to the communism.

Those days, one was expected to bribe even with a bowl of noodle lunch to the clerk who was handing out one’s passport. In my case, I couldn’t do that because I didn’t have any money. Consequently, I had to wait in line, which was outside into the street, and wait for whole two hours to receive my passport.

After receiving the passport from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and before obtaining the Visa from the American Embassy, one had to take yet another English exam given by the American Embassy. In order to take the Embassy exam, I needed a financial sponsorship. The financial sponsorship had to be signed by an American citizen. I didn’t know any US citizen who could sign for me.

My family was a Buddhist family and our social and political connections were mostly within the Far East. My grandfather had sent Father to Waseda University in Tokyo where he studied English and Economics. Returning home to Korea, however, during the Japanese occupation, Father spent a good part of his youth working against the Japanese as a pro bono lawyer who worked to get Korean political prisoners out of the Japanese prisons. The Japanese constantly harassed him for his anti-Japanese activities. He wasn’t able to remain in Korea. He joined the Korean Government in Exile in China as a messenger between Korea and China. On numerous occasions, he was caught by the Japanese police and put in jail for weeks and months at a time.

Fast forward to post 1945: after two humiliating defeats, in 1954, father was elected to the National Assembly. At that time and always, he was in the opposition camp. This meant things were just as difficult for my family as it had been during the Japanese occupation. The Korean government was constantly harassing him and his life was being threatened.

My father was proud that I had gone ahead and taken all those exams and even had secured the scholarship from the American college. He felt that I had done a courageous thing and that he had to his part to help me. His part was to use whatever influence he had to help me to secure the required financial sponsorship document.

diana-suhok-croppedDuring the late fifties, the Vice President of the Republic of Korea was Dr. John Chang. He was an influential member of the major opposition camp and worked closely with my father. Being an American college educated man, he had contacts with many US citizens.  One morning, Father took me to the VP’s residence and told him that I needed a document of financial sponsorship on my behalf. As soon as he heard my father, the VP leaped up from his chair and made a phone call to Mr. Carey, an American businessman residing in the Chosen Hotel in Seoul. My father and I visited Mr. Carey that night. He was an elderly gentleman of in his sixties, and was more than willing to put his signature on the form I presented to him.

With the financial affidavit secured, I felt as though I was on my way to the US, the country I had dreamed of seeing.  One more hurdle, however, stood in my way: This time, it was my mother. She wasn’t too happy about sending me so far away to a strange country across the ocean. She wanted me to stay in Korea and become a college professor, and live near her.

One winter day, Mother took me to a blind fortuneteller in Deijun, the capital city of my hometown province, Choong Nahm. This fortuneteller was supposed be totally accurate predicting people’s fortune, or misfortune.  My mother reluctantly believed the fortuneteller’s assurances that everything would turn out fine and that Mom should send me to Migook.  I was relieved, and let out a big sigh.

With a load of curiosity, I finally made it to the US in 1957 at age twenty-one during my sophomore year at Ewha. My destination was to a small liberal arts college in the Deep South, located in Birmingham, Alabama. It was small school, but I liked it very much. The atmosphere was a lot freer than the school I had just left in Seoul, Korea. It was racially segregated between the Whites and Blacks. The issue of race at the time preoccupied the American media and college campuses. However, I personally didn’t feel any particular discrimination directed against me, probably because I was an Asian, not an African American.

In fact, the very first time I did experience race discrimination was in San Francisco, California. This was in 1960 when I tried to rent an apartment, the manager told me that the owner of the apartment specifically directed him not to rent to any “Orientals.”  The only other time I had been discriminated against was in Arizona in an Office Max store in 1995. An angry and jealous White woman shouted at me, “Go back to Japan!” She had wrongly felt that the store clerk was nicer to me than to her. She didn’t realize that I had been waiting in line longer than she had.  When I answered her back that I wasn’t a Japanese, she asked me what I was. I had quickly calculated, in my mind, that if I said Korean, she might say something nasty about Koreans. I answered her, “American.”

Among other things she threatened to beat me up outside in the parking lot because I had said that I was an American. Anyway, I instituted a lawsuit against the woman, the matter was heard at a court in Scottsdale, and I won. She was made to pay a fine of five thousand dollars, which was the maximum amount for this type of case. The important part for me was not the money. I just wanted to make sure that she didn’t repeat this type of behavior to any other Asians.

My first job in America was working with thirteen all white teenage boys, ages between thirteen and fifteen. These boys had been taken from their delinquent parents by the court system. Through this job, I learned that not all parents were the same with regard to keeping promises to their children. For example, some parents would promise their boys that they would visit them on Saturday, but instead would show up, unannounced, on Sundays. Often I could smell alcohol on the breath of these parents when they spoke. Showing up like this by their parents embarrassed those boys.

All my three daughters were born in America and have visited Korea several times, but do not speak any Korean. I wish I had taught them to speak Korean but I simply didn’t have the time. I had to focus on English for myself.

I continued on with my education through graduate school while raising my three daughters. The first daughter was two years and two months old, when I had twins. This meant I had three babies in diapers at one time. I cannot say things were easy for me, by any measure, during those days. Many times, when I had classes and didn’t have family to leave my children with I would take the children to my classes and have them sit in the back of the classroom. Now, those children are all grown. I am grateful that they grew up to be fine individuals.

I don’t know what I would be doing in Korea if I hadn’t come to America. Some of my friends in Korea remind me that I must be having a tough life in America and that I shouldn’t have come to US.  I don’t agree with them at all.

In America I learned to do things myself, solve my own problems instead expecting someone else to solve it for me.  I owe a lot to America. It has been my training ground. This country has taught me some of the most important lessons in life. Moreover, I like living in a multicultural/multiracial society. At times, American society appears to be rancorous and messy, but since the mid sixties, with the passage of the civil rights law, America is rather a fun place to live for racial minorities much better than most countries in the world.

Would I do it again, if I had to?  The answer is, yes. I am still curious about America, Korea, China and many other continents and countries. I would be happy to do everything again.

diana yu-2013Diana Yu is the author of Winds of Change: Korean Women in America, nonfiction, published in 1991. Diana is looking for a publisher for her recently completed novel, “Sylvia’s Garden.” Diana lives in Scottsdale, Arizona and works as a court interpreter.