On Hee Hwang is a 49 year old mother of a UCLA college-graduate son and a daughter who is a senior. She is the co-owner and works as a hairstylist at Tiji Hair Salon, which is located in Koreatown. She immigrated to the United States with her family from Ulsan, South Korea, and has been living in Koreatown for the past decade. Her hair salon was closed for the past two to three months due to pandemic. However, she reopened for the first time in the past three weeks, but needs to close her salon again due to the rising number of COVID19 cases.
Where is your hometown?
My hometown is Busan, South Korea. Busan is known for its ocean, mountains, and fresh seafood. Many young adults and teenagers come to Busan to perform their talent and share the culture of Korea. In order to see the beach from Seoul (the capital city of South Korea), you would have to travel by car for about 5 hours or ride the subway. However, in Busan, the beach is right next to you, so you can see or visit any time.
I lived in Busan until I was 26, right before I married. A few months later, I moved to Ulsan, South Korea, which is my husband’s hometown. Ulsan is a seaside metropolitan city full of huge factories and companies such as Hyundai. In Ulsan, I lived with my husband, mother-in-law, and his sisters for ten years. However, when I gave birth to my two kids, I immigrated to Los Angeles, California for my children’s education.
When I first came to the United States of America with my family, I’ve dealt with so many hardships. The main one was the difference between Korea and America’s lifestyle and way of thinking. In Korea, people show their respect to elders by calling them ‘unni’ (older sister) or ‘oppa’ (older brother), however, in America, the kids call their siblings or elders by their name which was very unusual for me. Also, for Koreans, we tend to care about how we portray ourselves towards others, but I’ve noticed that many people in America are very care-free and nonchalant. After coming to America and living here for years, I realized that the Americans are more free and open-minded than the Koreans.
Korea and America’s education systems are very different. Why did you want your kids to be educated in America?
In Korea, private schools are very popular and well-known to be very good at teaching students. The schools are very organized and clean, but, in order for your student to be successful in the future, they would need to get a separate tutor, which would cost a lot of money. In addition, students would have to spend nights at school studying for their tests and finishing up their homework. I thought my children would have a really hard time and I did not want my children to suffer as they did. In America, students are given more freedom and opportunities. I’ve realized that it was important for my kids to have a better education and learn to become more independent.
Do you live or work in Koreatown?
Yes, I live and work in Koreatown. My house is right in front of the Oriental Mission Church, located on Western & Elmwood Ave. The reason why I came to Koreatown is because my sister-in-law was already living here. As for my job, I am a co-owner and hairstylist at Tiji Hair Salon located on Western & Rosewood Ave. As soon as I graduated high school in Korea, I looked for a steady job. After long consideration, I chose to be a hairstylist because I thought that it was the safest and easiest. When living in Korea, I worked with more than 20-30 people at one hair salon for almost ten years. And, when I immigrated to America, I worked at a hair salon, located in Koreatown (6th St.& Harvard) called Kaju Hair.Com for two to three years for experience, and I created my own business with a good friend that also used to work there.
I wanted to open my business and not work under someone else’s. Opening my own business would give me more benefits and provide clients with excellent customer service. When I first opened up my hair salon, I was worried that I wouldn’t get any customers because not many customers would trust a new business without any reviews.
What are your thoughts on Koreatown?
When I first came to Koreatown, I thought it was very old fashioned, however, after living here for a couple of years, many changes occurred to this town. Koreatown was developed by first generation Korean American immigrants that must have been through so many hardships and struggles to pave the way for future generations. Sometimes I feel the energy embedded in places around Koreatown.
Koreatown is like a place you would never see in Korea. When I first came, it was not city-like. I thought Koreatown would be luxurious, consisting of large buildings, but it was a lot different than I expected. It was really awkward at first and I had a hard time adjusting to it.
Many young adults and youth are coming to Koreatown now. There have been various reconstructions around the city and there are a lot of taller buildings than usual. However, I still think the country and city side of Koreatown coexists.
Do you ever regret coming to Koreatown?
I have never regretted coming here. There is no point in regretting. It’s not like you can go back in time and undo what you have done. My family is happy here in Koreatown, and honestly, that’s all I want.
Where is your favorite place in Koreatown?
I just love my home. Whenever I come home from work and see my family members’ faces, the stressful day at work disappears. My home and family gives me happiness and joy. I haven’t really gotten the chance to go to a lot of places. The only places I go around Koreatown are KBBQ restaurants, Koreatown Plaza, and clothing stores. I would’ve loved to visit and go to more places, but because I have to work six days a week, I haven’t gotten the opportunity to. However, if I were to pick one, I would choose my sister-in-law’s restaurant called Hwang Hae Do, which is a block away from my house. Her restaurant is known for broth bulgogi (육수불고기) and pork belly. Our family reunions, birthdays, holidays always take place at that restaurant. Their food is great and it’s a great place to get together and have some quality time.
On New Year’s Eve 2016, my sister-in-law decided to open the restaurant and trusted us to work at the restaurant. Her family and my family came together, and we split up the jobs and started a business. My husband and son were in charge of washing the dishes and I was in charge of serving the customers. My daughter and niece were in charge of setting up the Korean side dishes at the counter. It was so hectic at first, but as we got used to the heavy workload, we started to make a good team. Usually, the restaurant closes around 11 p.m., but since we got exhausted so quickly, we closed at 7 p.m. After, we were finally able to eat pork belly and kimchi stew at the restaurant, and celebrated New Year’s Eve.
During this time because of the pandemic, many people are unable to open their businesses and go outside, how is this experience different from the other historical experience you’ve been through?
I have never struggled this much because of a virus. I have always struggled with financial hardships, but I have never dealt with this kind of hardship in my life. Well, Korea went through a phase called the IMF and a virus called SARS, but compared to the coronavirus, there weren’t that many casualties.
Through this experience, did you learn anything?
For two to three months, our family dealt with financial hardships; however, I’ve learned that I needed to be more appreciative of everything that my family has done for me. The chance to create stronger bonds with your family members and spend more meaningful time with them has given me strength and hope that with your loved ones by your side, you can get through anything. However, because of this experience, I think many parents are worrying. I am definitely worried about how hard it will be for my college-graduate son to find a job later in the future. Also, because we are not allowed to go outside, my daughter is missing the opportunity to go to school, chat with her friends and teachers, so I do feel sorry in some way.
I heard that your hair salon reopened a few weeks ago, and it is now closing. How do you feel about that? When you do reopen again, what are some things you need to be careful of?
When the second lockdown was announced, I was so worried because our hair salon had just reopened a few weeks ago and now it’s closing. I was expecting a lockdown to happen but not this quickly. Right now, I’m really worried about how I am going to take care of the hair salon financially in the future. We still have to pay rent even when the salon is closed.
Working with a mask on for 9 hours a day is very stressful and exhausting. I don’t really get to eat lunch or take a break because we have customers every 30 minutes to an hour. When I am done with one customer, I have to sanitize the chairs, tools, and surroundings. It is a lot of work, but in order for the customers and workers to be safe, I have to do it. My coworker and I have to be careful each and every day. We don’t know who has the coronavirus or not, so it is dangerous and unsafe.