Sara S. is a 42-year-old mother of two daughters: a high school freshman and a high school senior. In 2002, she immigrated to Honolulu, Hawaii from South Korea with her husband to continue her studies at Brigham Young University. After living in Hawaii for several years, she moved to Los Angeles, first settling in Burbank and then moving to Koreatown. Despite being a single mother, she decided to further pursue her passion in the clothing industry, and currently, she is working as a patternmaker in Downtown Los Angeles.
Where is your hometown?
My hometown is Seoul, South Korea. Seoul is the capital of South Korea and for a simpler comparison, Seoul is like California or New York. It’s the center of South Korea as it’s the most developed city. What I love about Seoul are the shopping streets such as Hongdae and Myeongdong. Each street has their own trend and fashion and usually people are more attracted to one street depending on each person’s style. I remember going with my friends before coming here and it’s one of the best memories I have of living in South Korea. I finished college in South Korea and was working for a company there when coincidentally I met a friend that introduced me to an opportunity to study abroad in America. I first applied and when I got accepted, I decided to take the chance and that’s how I came to America. I was very excited about this opportunity because, during this time, America was way more developed and modern than Korea. America seemed like a place so distant from me, so when I got the chance to come here, I took it without hesitation.
I first settled in Hawaii and attended Brigham Young University. I enjoyed my experience at the university and it was a really different college environment than I had experienced in Korea. The professors were very nice and I enjoyed their lectures. Different from the university I attended in Korea—the classes were filled with more discussions and we were given a lot of freedom. I made a lot of new international friends from different countries who were very nice to study with. One challenge I faced was speaking English, but I couldn’t avoid speaking in English. However, since the people with whom I studied were mostly international students whose first language was not English, we didn’t judge when another person really couldn’t speak English. Our grammar and vocab wouldn’t have been hard to understand for others, but to us, we were able to understand each other without any difficulty.
Being away from my hometown wasn’t always enjoyable. For the first six months, I often felt homesick and struggled to adjust to the new environment. It took a year for me to fully adjust and adapt to the American culture and environment. One thing that helped me get through this new change was visiting my hometown. After living in America for around a year, I visited my hometown for the first time and after that, I felt like I was ready to live in America. I do sometimes miss my hometown because that is where all my firsts happened: my first home, my first college experience, and my first job.
Do you live or work in Koreatown?
I live in Koreatown right now, but I did live in Burbank before. Burbank is a lot quieter than Koreatown and when I lived there, there weren’t many Koreans. I often felt lonely there because I didn’t have family members or friends whom I could lean on. After living in Burbank for around a year, I decided to move to Koreatown after inviting my family to come to America. For them to live a more comfortable life, I thought it would be good to settle in Koreatown, a place most similar to South Korea. Living in Koreatown, they wouldn’t necessarily need to speak English which I thought would make the adjustment a lot easier. Although it was very challenging at first to support the whole family, everyone started adjusting to their new environments by taking jobs and helping out the family. My mother works in a restaurant in Koreatown, but as of now, her place had to shut down. I can’t imagine another place our family would have decided to live other than Koreatown because of its convenience and familiarity.
My job has changed a lot after coming to America. My first job was at an eyeglass company and I was in charge of data entry. Although I did work there for five years, I wanted to try something that I had a genuine interest in. My dream was to be a designer as I always had a passion for the clothing industry. However, starting at a much older age than others, I decided to learn patternmaking, which was similar to designing. I got in contact with a teacher who had a lot of experience in this area and learned everything related to patternmaking for a year. I got my first job as a patternmaker in Downtown [Los Angeles] and am still continuing to work in this position. I love how I can be part of the clothing-making process and essentially my job is to make the framework of the clothing. I use a specific computer program to get all the dimensions and parts of the clothing and we use a specific printer and paper that’s thicker than regular paper to print the design. I usually patternmake clothes, but because of the coronavirus, our company had to make masks, which was a new experience for me. I would have never imagined making masks, but working for the fashion industry, we have to constantly be aware of people’s needs. Masks are an essential now and the fact that I was in charge of making masks to help fight the virus made me think of how meaningful and important my job is.
What are your thoughts on Koreatown?
As a person who has lived outside of Koreatown, I can definitely say that Koreatown is a lot busier and crowded compared to other areas. In Koreatown, since everything is close by, it is convenient and comfortable. There are a lot of markets, as well as restaurants and stores. However, I do feel like Koreatown is not the safest place, but overall I am satisfied with living here.
Living in Koreatown for more than 10 years, I haven’t noticed significant changes. When I first came here, I was shocked because compared to other areas, I felt like Koreatown was not developed. However, as Koreatown is expanding its influence, many people have started to gain interest in this area. Recently, I have seen a lot of remodeling in the area and am starting to see the changes. Along with these positive changes, one event that really stood out to me while living in Koreatown was the incident with the people living in Little Bangladesh. When the people of Little Bangladesh invaded Koreatown, the Koreatown community was united to prevent this action. The majority of the people living in Koreatown participated in the ballots and I was amazed to see how, in a time of difficulty, people of this community came together to preserve its history and culture.
Where is your favorite place in Koreatown?
My favorite place is the Olympic Galleria market or shopping mall. I go to this mall at least once a week because of its convenience. In this one building, there is the market and the bank as well as several clothing shops so it is very easy for me to get things done in one place. I specifically go to the second floor to shop at the Korean clothing shops. I like to buy my clothes from Korean stores because it fits my body a lot better than American brands. There’s around four to five stores here and I could spend hours here just window shopping.
What has been the most challenging part of the quarantine?
The most challenging part is being forced to live a completely different lifestyle. I can’t go out without facing restrictions. Our family can’t eat out and shop like before. Also, for a long period of time, I could not work so there was no source of income. Because of the coronavirus, our company was forced to cut down around 30 percent of its employees. Luckily for me, I was just forced to rest because of the mandatory shutdown. Not being able to work was the most difficult, but we were lucky to be able to get some financial aid from the government to recover.
Has this experience changed you? If so, how?
Because of this experience, I was able to feel a lot more grateful for the freedom that was given to me before. Before all this happened, I would be able to go to places freely and meet people without feeling worried about meeting people who may have the virus. Usually, I would enjoy meeting people, eating at restaurants, and our family would travel to different places. However, because of the given circumstances right now, it’s difficult to even go outside. Now, I learned to be more grateful for what I have and not to take things for granted.
If the quarantine ended tomorrow, what’s the first thing you’d do?
If quarantine ended tomorrow, I would love to go to church. Since churches are usually crowded with people, it has been hard to open. Although many churches are providing online services, it’s not the same as physically going to church. Also, I would definitely want to travel. Our family really likes to go to different places or even go on drives, so that’s what I would want to do.