Albert Camus once wrote, “There is no love of life without despair of life.”
I thought that way for many years because I had experienced much despair in my life. For a long time, despair kept me from thinking that my immigrant life would change. The future seemed dark and I did not have much hope then. Now I know our lives are not immune to hardship and suffering. As hope comes and goes, we must hold onto it and improve ourselves. I realize how drastically despair has shaped and molded me into to the wife, mother, and teacher I am today. The appreciation I have for my life stands regardless of any crisis that I might face.
On a cold December morning in 1981, I boarded a plane at Gimpo Airport headed to Brooklyn, New York. I waved to my aunts, uncles, and grandma good-bye. My destination was to meet my father who was studying in the United States. My mother was taking me, a seven- year old, my five- year old sister and two- year old twin brothers. I had no idea what was going on.
The despair started when my family moved to the United States. We had very little to start with. We lived with my dad’s sister in Brooklyn for a few months. There were 10 of us in a one bedroom apartment! Then we moved into a small one bedroom apartment with windows facing a dark alley. My parents were not struggling to move unto bigger and brighter things – they were just trying to keep us living. They struggled for seven years to make life worth living, but we lived in the same impoverished state as when we first moved to America.
This was when I first became aware of despair and of fleeting hope. Hope faded away as slowly as does the expectation of a friend‘s visit wanes with the false assurances of appearing one day. I was young and naïve. I thought hope would finally materialize into a life without the hardships that my family and I were facing. Why me? But hope was like that friend who never showed up even at church, turning promises into empty words. Hope became false; I no longer paid attention to it because it disappointed me so much.
There was just too much too deal with. Language was one. Money was another. Once I was so hungry, I passed out at a pizzeria in Sheepshead Bay. My siblings were always hungry. We lived with what we had and thanked those who were able to help us. I was constantly ridiculed for being “fresh off the boat” at church and at school. I never had the right clothes or shoes. I washed my clothes every day in fear of smelling like one.
Finally after years of struggling with learning English, in sixth grade I made it to the advanced reading class. Summer was filled with dread of going to summer school. I never got to go to camp. I hated school!
My roots were still deep in Korea and I suffered to keep myself immersed in what I thought was meaningful. I missed Korea so much.
For the longest time, my mom and dad suffered to make something out of nothing. My paternal grandparents disowned my dad for leaving them in Seoul. My dad was the oldest son. The Korean system of filial piety was thrown out the window when my dad left. My father didn’t have money to start a new life. He just thought of making the American Dream come true.
We were able to gain some ground when we moved to Los Angeles in September of 1988 to run a market that my grandfather’s brother owned, and we later bought. Who knew that Koreans owned most of the liquor stores and markets in Los Angeles? I was glad to leave New York and all the despair I had felt there.
Just as meaningless hope began to materialize into the fulfillment of my expectations; my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. Again hope crashed and left me regretting that I ever trusted in it. I resolved to never let hope creep into my thoughts again. I started to hide from exposure of anything that could disappoint me. I lost trust in people and myself. I wanted to bury my head in the bucket that I washed my hair in every morning. I couldn’t bear to see a smile of joy. All the care in the world did not move me. As my dad’s health worsened, I withdrew from friendships. Who could possibly understand what I was going through? I struggled with my faith in God, school, and everything else. I did not want to try because I did not want to fail. I withdrew from classes at school.
After many months of desolation, I began to feel some optimism. I woke up from a bad nightmare. I had to accept what was dealt to me. What can I do to change something that already happened? You can’t turn back the time. There were people out there in dire straits and I could not keep on living the way I had. As my father grew stronger I realized that I could improve in the same way. Because I had fallen into despair, I knew that the only way to emerge out of it was to grasp onto hope again. I could not lose my focus on life.
“There is no love of life without despair of life.” When I stumbled onto this passage in a library, I knew that Camus meant that with every loss, there is a renewal. That renewal is what makes life worth living. We must all go through pain, struggle, learn from it, and change for the better. Pain should not keep us down. I understood how much I wanted to live to see my dreams and expectations come true. I wanted to regain the happiness I once felt when I was a little girl in Korea.
I know deep in my heart I am more Korean than American. Sometimes I think about what my life would have been if my parents stayed put in Seoul. Would I have struggled just the same? Would have I worked as hard as I did?
My parents did not expect a lot from me. They thought I was never smart enough to get anything done. It was not in my nature to be competitive. My motto was “take your time and do your best” so that is just what I did. My parents were ashamed of me for lacking motivation. But I was motivated at my own pace. I am thankful that despair did not ruin me. I eventually graduated from UCLA after transferring from Pasadena City College.
Teaching young students gave me the motivation to become an elementary school teacher. I am a big advocate of protecting the environment and conservation. Somehow all the years I have lived without having much has turnout to be a blessing. Living within my means has been an important lesson I learned by watching my parents live with what they were able to afford. They had tried to provide all the basic necessities for us but sometimes we had to make difficult choices even within what we really needed.
Of course envy and shame also played a big role in shaping my identity. The poor and the wealthy did not mingle very much, and I saw the stigma of being poor affect my relationships within the Korean American community. It was the question of what kind of car you drove, the neighborhood you lived in, and the school you went to. Not having much growing up made me painfully aware of those Koreans who were better off. It really has not changed much. These conditions affect a lot of immigrants still today.
What am I doing now? My husband and I tend to our garden; we go camping with our two girls, and enjoy what life has to offer. My life experience has made me a more self/world aware. Life should be simple. It did take a lot of tears over the course of thirty years to get to where I am comfortable in this life, but I am happy that I am living a good life. There were many days that were filled with dread and sense of desperation and these memories are not going to fade anytime soon. I want to make sure my girls appreciate life to the fullest because there are so many opportunities if you search for them.
Well, I think I turned out okay. I am not making a million bucks but I am making enough to let my husband stay at home to take care of the girls. Yes, money can be tight sometimes and I have to plan and budget wisely, but it can be done. It’s hard to raise a family a four on a teacher’s salary, but it is possible. Tip: We grow most our own vegetables. I drive a hybrid car and I only buy things on sale. Yes, it is hard when a lot of things go on sale at REI.
I wish that my mom was there for me when I was little. I cried all the time when she would walk out the door to go to work. I would walk her to the Sheepshead Bay subway station and see her off. I would cry all the way back home because I missed her so much! But I knew she had to earn some money.
My childhood was non-existent. I took care of my sibling, put the rice on the cooker before 5pm, and did all the laundry. Sometimes, my mom was so frustrated at life that she took it out on us. The welts were covered with long sleeve shirts and long pants in the summer. We ran from the plastic clothes hanger. Those memories are hard to forget even now. My mom has since apologized. Her stories of struggling always bring a flood of tears to my cheeks. How can I be angry with her?
My wish is to take her to back to Korea with me. I want her to show me everything. I want to know about her life in Suwon. She must have felt one thousand times worse than me when we moved to the United States. She won’t tell me everything but while she is alive, I am going to show her all the appreciation I have for her for she is my rock.
That leaves me with my plans for the future. I am going to try to visit Seoul in 2013 with my American husband and the girls. The girls will be old enough to experience their Korean culture. They love black bean noodles and kimchee chigae. In the past 5 years I have visited Korea twice. My daughter was only 3 ½ years old when I took her in 2009. Things have changed so much in thirty years. My old elementary school was demolished in Jamshil. My apartment is something unrecognizable. Then I found out that my grandfather was originally from the north. I didn’t know that. His grave faces North Korea and he rests peacefully with my grandmother and his brother at his side. I will visit them once again with my family in tow.