Second Chances in Tijuana: Profile of Dong-Jin Eastern Kang Sim

At age twelve, Dong-Jin Eastern Kang Sim huddled in a tiny cell in Mexico City with his mother and thirteen-year-old brother. They were the only Asians in the jail. There were two stone beds. The hushed voices of his mother and brother filled the air throughout the night.

Twenty years later, Sim is an analyst in the pediatrics department at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and a doctoral student in global health in the joint program of San Diego State University and the UCSD School of Medicine. His gentle demeanor and warm smile give no hints to the obstacles he has overcome that made him the man he is today – full of compassion, perseverance, and a vocation to help others in need.

Born in South Korea, Sim spent his early childhood in Seoul. One day, his father flew to Tijuana to resolve legal issues concerning the handbag import/export business he co-owned with a partner in Mexico. Sim was finishing the second grade at the time. “That was the last time I saw my father for the next three years,” he says.

With mom and brother dressed up-E

Sim as a young boy with his mother and brother in Korea

Armed with sufficient evidence, Sim’s father was confident that he would win the legal case in Mexico. He did not anticipate that the attorney he hired would sell the evidence to the party he was suing. After losing the legal battle, Sim’s father found himself alone in Mexico without any money. “Day by day, he had to depend on God,” says Sim.

Back in Korea, Sim lived with his mother and older brother on a shoestring budget, moving from place to place to avoid debt collectors. His mother, who suddenly found herself in the position of being the family’s sole breadwinner, struggled to find work to support her sons. Things became so difficult that she sometimes contemplated suicide.

With his father abroad and his mother out searching for work, Sim was left to his own devices. He began to steal toys and money. After church service, he treated his friends at the arcade with the money he had stolen. Sim says, “I did a lot of bad stuff, things that were instantly gratifying to me. Because I stole, lying followed. If I had stayed in Korea, I’d probably end up going to jail or killing someone because that’s how crime starts, from small to big.”

The summer that Sim was in the sixth grade, his family received a message from his father. He had purchased plane tickets, eager to have his family visit him in Tijuana after the long separation. Since they only planned a short visit, the family packed two bags of clothing, along with two sets of spoons.

This is where everything changed. On our way to Mexico City without knowing why we are flying there. We ended up being incarcerated. (1994)

Sim and his mother and brother on their way to Mexico City, where they would end up incarcerated, 1994

When the family arrived to the airport in Tijuana to reunite with the father, they were detained by immigration officials. Unable to understand Spanish, they did not know why they were being held. The Korean travel agency had informed his mother that a visa was not required to enter Mexico. They did not know that there was an exception for border towns, including Tijuana. Sim’s father waited for them outside of the airport, unaware that his wife and sons were being detained for illegal entry.

It was not uncommon for people to travel through border towns such as Tijuana to gain illegal entry into the United States, and immigration officers were on guard. Individuals who attempted to enter Mexico without visas were usually sent back to their countries of origin.

When Sim’s father discovered that his family being detained for lacking visas, he acted quickly to resolve the situation. Since he spoke Spanish, he volunteered to serve as the family’s translator to appeal the case to the main immigration office in Mexico City. It was not permitted for family members to assist with immigration cases, so the immigration officers were not informed of the nature of their relationship. The entire family boarded the same flight to Mexico City. Upon arrival, Sim, his mother, and brother were incarcerated.

“They didn’t sleep at all. They were afraid we might get separated and sent back to Korea in separate airplanes,” says Sim. His mother and brother planned a location to meet up in case the immigration authorities divided the family.

Meanwhile, his father met with immigration officials and successfully argued that the mother and boys had not entered Tijuana with the intent of immigrating to the U.S. without proper documents. After spending a night in the Mexico City jail, the family was released and flew back to Tijuana together. An American woman from the church Sim’s father attended opened up her home to the family.

Every Friday, Sim had to leave primaria, the elementary school, early to report to the Tijuana immigration office along with his family. To prove they had not escaped to the U.S., they had to sign their names on official documents on a weekly basis. One year later, they received visas to reside in Mexico.

It was 1994, the year that NAFTA passed, eliminating most tariffs between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Maquiladoras (foreign-owned assembly plants operating in free trade zones to take advantage of favorable economic conditions) began to expand exponentially in Mexico.

Struggling to make ends meet, his father obtained work at a Korean-owned maquiladora that manufactured chassis for 50-foot containers. His mother generated additional income for the family by preparing and delivering Korean meals for the few other Korean employees at the maquiladora.

For the first time in three years, mom and dad got reunited in Mexico

Sim’s mother and father reuniting in Mexico for the first time in three years

Sim remembers adapting fairly quickly to his new environment in Mexico despite an initial resistance to learn Spanish. He was young, and Mexicans were kind to him. He remembers Tijuana as being fairly safe and calm at that time.

He reconnected with his father and learned what he had gone through during his solo years in Mexico. “I decided to trust in God,” says Sim. “Because everything [in Mexico] was new, I was able to have a second life and fix my bad habits from Korea. I started to become more like the person I am today.”

Sim entered the sixth grade at Colegio Inglés, a small private school. He resisted learning Spanish and spent his days sleeping in the classroom. Despite this, his Mexican classmates were kind and eager to befriend him. “They came to me curious, asking about Korea,” he recalls. There was another Asian student at the school, a Japanese-Mexican boy who was born in Mexico.

While Sim excelled in art and math at his new school, he continued to resist learning Spanish, and the school’s director moved him into the fifth grade classroom. After several weeks without any change, he was demoted to the first grade. At that point, Sim decided to begin learning Spanish. He picked up the language quickly by playing soccer. Within a couple of months, he was placed back into the fifth grade classroom and then moved into the sixth grade. He was able to graduate primaria with his friends.

His family’s financial situation began to improve slowly and their living situation stabilized. There were now more Koreans in Tijuana compared to when they first arrived in 1994. “I wouldn’t say it was a tight-knit Korean community, but we went to them to ask for help when we needed,” says Sim. The other Koreans shared information on how to secure admission to an American college and recommended to Sim’s parents that they send their sons to high school in the U.S.

Sim’s family had obtained U.S. visas but continued to live in Mexico due to the lower cost of living. Then, one winter evening, Sim’s parents sat their sons down for a talk. The next week, he and his brother were sent across the border without having the opportunity to say goodbye to their Mexican friends. In 1997, at the age of fifteen, Sim, along with his brother, moved into an apartment across from Bonilla Vista High School in Chula Vista, less than eight miles from the Mexican border in San Diego County.

In Chula Vista, there were many Koreans, Sim recalls. He felt more comfortable among Mexicans after having relocated from Tijuana. His parents stayed behind in Tijuana due to his father’s employment at the maquiladora. His brother, only a year his senior, became his parental figure. He was already accustomed to living independently with his brother from their years in Korea, as their mother worked long hours to support them and the boys frequently found themselves alone.

Sim recalls his first meal in the U.S.: a soggy sandwich. “We put lettuce and tomato in the middle but didn’t eat it right away,” he says. Soon, his brother began to prepare an array of Korean and American food for them to share together (“He’s a great cook,” says Sim). Every weekend, their parents visited with armloads of banchan from Mexico.

When Sim arrived in the U.S. he recalls, “I thought I could speak English.” He had taken English classes in Tijuana but discovered that he could not understand English. He and his brother struggled again to adjust to their new environment and to learn a new language. They were placed in ESL classes. Because there were many Mexicans living in Chula Vista, Sim did not feel like a stranger in his new homeland. However, he says, “they thought I was strange because I was the Asian who spoke Spanish.”

Sim and his family celebrating his father's 50th birthday at their new house in 1999

Sim and his family celebrating his father’s 50th birthday at their new house, 1999

Less than two years after immigrating to the U.S., his brother was accepted into U.C. San Diego. Then, Sim was also accepted into the school, where he majored in pharmacological chemistry with the goal of becoming a pharmacist. He believed that people suffering from illnesses often needed only simple medications to relieve their pain. He remembered that in Korea and Mexico, pharmacists were able to prescribe medication for patients, preventing them from incurring debt from doctors’ visits for simple medical issues.

By the end of his junior year as an undergraduate, Sim realized that pharmacists in the U.S. were different. They earned a lot of money, but his interest in the field was not for financial gain. He did not want to become what he considered a “bench scientist” and was unsure of his next steps.

In college, Sim was also active in the Christian ministry throughout college and had spent summers traveling abroad to serve the community and to teach English. After graduating from UCSD, he left on a short-term mission to Russia with his Christian community. By then, his parents had moved to the U.S. The family had obtained their first new house, and things were going well.

On July 14, 2004, Sim called his mother from Russia to let her know he was safe and to give her an update of his volunteer work. It was two days before his father’s birthday. When his mother began to cry, he knew something was terribly wrong.

“My mother is a very strong woman and she never cries,” says Sim. She passed the phone to his brother, who did not explain what had happened but asked him to return home as soon as possible.

“That moment changed my entire life,” says Sim. He learned from relatives that his father had suffered a stroke and nearly lost his life. By that time, his father had become the owner of the maquiladora where he had been an employee for many years, and business was not going well. The family lacked health insurance, and because they were unable to afford hospital fees, they did not take the father to the emergency room immediately when he displayed stroke symptoms.

By the time Sim’s father entered the ER and given the stroke diagnosis, he had lost his ability to speak. He could not swallow or eat and lay in bed, immobile.

As his brother was still enrolled in college and Sim was the only other member in his family who could speak Spanish, he was given the responsibility of managing the family’s business with his mother. The maquiladora was on the verge of going bankrupt. They had nearly one hundred employees, and they were very angry that their weekly wages were delayed for several months.

“I cried a lot,” says Sim. “I was able to remain confident and keep my sanity through prayer. Every day I prayed. That was the source of my strength at that time.”

Sim and his family, 2013

His father remains permanently paralyzed on his left side but has regained his speech, although he has lost much of his language skills. Prior to the stroke, his father, who had graduated from a foreign language university in Korea, spoke six languages: French, German, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and English. After the stroke, he only retained his language abilities in Korean, Spanish, and English.

Eventually, the family’s business improved, and they were able to pay the immense debt accrued from hospital bills. “It took two and a half years for my family to go from almost nothing to a stable position,” says Sim.

His father’s stroke led Sim to decide to pursue graduate studies in public health. “My father’s stroke was preventable,” says Sim. “He had many symptoms but we were ignoring them. How many other people, how many minorities are ignoring symptoms because they are afraid to go to the hospital? Because they are afraid of huge fees?” He believes that with education and outreach to inform families about prevention, many illnesses, such as his father’s stroke, can be prevented.

Sim was provisionally accepted into the public health program at San Diego State University. He was still in charge of managing the family’s business. In the mornings, he accompanied his mother to the maquiladora to help with the family business and then returned by bus to San Diego, where he attended evening classes.

By the end of the semester, Sim began to have outbreaks of rashes on his chest. It became difficult to breathe due to the pain. He delayed going to the doctor as he still lacked health insurance. When he ended up at the student health center, he was diagnosed with shingles. Because of working and studying nonstop, his immune system had hit bottom. “It was a reminder to me why I’m doing what I’m doing,” says Sim. “I was able to understand on a personal level what people in pain are going through.”

At Yucatan, Mexico for a field research (2012)

Sim at Yucatan, Mexico for field research, 2012

Sim obtained his master’s degree in public health, initially considering it as a stepping-stone to medical school. As a secondary plan, he applied to the doctoral program in public health and was accepted. He embraced his decision to pursue public health. “It’s about having a wider perspective of viewing the world, whereas medicine trains you to diagnose and treat the patient as an individual,” says Sim. “The global health program taught me to view the entire system on a population-based level.”

He hopes to gain experience working with the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) or the World Bank in developing countries. In the long-term, he plans to return to academia to share his experiences and to provide second chances, which is he grateful for having received, to younger generations.

Grace Jahng Lee is a writer of prose and poetry

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