Where is your hometown?
I grew up in Mokpo, Korea. It’s a city near the coast of Korea. I remember eating a lot of seafood growing up, playing at the beach, riding boats with my family…I had the typical coastal childhood. After I graduated from high school, I moved to Seoul with my sister. I loved living by the beach, but I was always more drawn to the city life. There’s a thrill about living in the city. I was never a small town girl.
AE When did you immigrate to the United States?
March 2001. To be honest, I didn’t expect to come to the United States. My husband and I were married and we have a five-year-old son. My husband’s job required him to immigrate to the United States so I kind of had to come. I followed my husband here for his job. I planned to raise my kids well, find a job here, and live well here. I’d say I’m 70% there.
AE: How has Koreatown changed from when you arrived in 2001 to now?
P: First off, it’s gotten extremely dirty and a lot of homeless people have appeared. Second off, a lot of apartments and Korean markets have appeared. Most of the old restaurants have disappeared as well. Gin-sang was a Shabu-Shabu restaurant on Olympic that closed down. I have mixed feelings about the change: I’m disappointed that our town has gotten so dirty, but I’m happy that Koreatown has developed much more to support its residents. There’s so many legal services for the residents in Koreatown.
Honestly speaking, as a Korean immigrant, you can get by without learning English. Almost everyone in Koreatown speaks Korean.
AE: What are some hardships you’ve experienced as an immigrant?
P: Obviously, it would be the language. I wasn’t young when I came here. I was in my mid-thirties, and I had to learn English. At the time, there weren’t a lot of language services in Koreatown. I had to get things done by myself. Because I wasn’t familiar with the U.S. and its culture, learning and adapting was difficult as well. There is a lot of waiting in America, wherever you go. Whether you go to the hospital, the DMV, etc, everything is just slower here.
My first trip to the DMV was terrible. In Korea, I never had to wait five or more hours just to get an I.D.
AE: How did you overcome these hardships?
Through the power of God. I have been a Christian for 20+ years now. In Korea, I never wanted to go to church because I thought it was worthless and a waste of my time. My sister would always push me to go to church but I never wanted to go. I just wanted to work, have fun, and enjoy my life.
But in America, my neighbors encouraged me to go and I met an incredible Christian community. I don’t know what changed. Yes, Christianity is the same in Korea and America, but I decided to go to church here. Maybe it was the support that I was drawn towards. Maybe it was the people. I don’t know what it is, but attending church changed my life for the better.
How has Christianity helped you?
It gives me faith during dark times. I pray a lot and I feel like I am being watched over. My family is being watched over. It taught me patience, trust, and humility. It helped me to become a better person.
My church has also been an incredible community. I love my church members because we always support each other through the good and the bad times.
How did you overcome the language barrier?
I went to ESL classes for two years extremely diligently. My first ESL class was at Hobart Elementary School. There were classes between 3:00-5:00 and 7:00-9:00. They also provided daycare services. It used to be extremely well-funded. There used to be classes all the time. I walked there and rode public transportation to get there. That’s how I learned English. When I got my first job, I had to stop attending the ESL classes for three years. When I was trying to start attending ESL again, I was surprised at how underfunded the classes were.
What is your most memorable memory at ESL?
Cory was my first ESL teacher. I remember when I went to class on 9/11. Cory was always happy and smiling, but on 9/11, she was so sad. She explained to the class about what happened and her patriotism and sincerity really touched me. I think my teachers had the biggest impact on me: they taught me most about the American values of respect, politeness, and mindfulness.
Why did you start attending ESL classes?
The woman living next door in my apartment told me about the ESL classes, which is how I started attending then. The first memories that I have in America is holding hands with my three-year-old son and going to these ESL classes. I always liked the English language, even in high school in Korea. That’s why I always wanted to learn English. The reason why I continued attending these ESL classes was because I went to the Housing Department once and it was just so difficult to get the paperwork done. There was a Korean worker there too, but ironically, she didn’t even help. That was when I found my resolve in attending these ESL classes; I didn’t want to be helpless or ignored in this country.
What kind of people did you meet at these ESL classes?
Mostly Hispanic people, African Americans, Armenians. There was lots of culture. Some Korean grandmothers came to improve their writing/grammar skills.
What is your best memory from ESL?
Honestly, I liked it all. I met American teachers and learned more about American culture. There was no discrimination in the classes as well. Everyone could work hard and participate. Mr. Bruce, Mr. Lawrence, and Mr. Church were my three favorite ESL teachers. They all were extremely capable teachers and they all had great relationships with me. They were extremely kind and humble people. They never cared about wearing designer clothes or looking expensive; they dressed smart and clean. My teachers saved their money and loved to travel in the summer; they enjoyed their lives and were extremely satisfied and proud of their jobs. Unfortunately, I lost touch with them once I finished all of the ESL classes. I finished all of the levels and Mr. Church (one of my teachers) couldn’t keep me in his class forever.
What is your favorite thing about Koreatown?
I like how you can buy Korean supplies whenever you want. For example, you can buy daengjang, gochujang, rice cakes, etc. The best part is that I can eat Korea food whenever I want to.
So food/lifestyle wasn’t an issue for you when you immigrated?
Definitely not. I love experiencing other cultures and trying new foods. I particularly like Spanish food. I had it for the first time when I immigrated here. I also met Hispanic people for the first time as well. My experiences in America have been extremely fun. I like meeting new people. I grew up and stayed in Korea my entire life. What I liked about America is that I can stay in one place and still meet so many different kinds of people.
Where did you work in Koreatown?
I worked at a drugstore, a beauty supply store, a bakery, and multiple restaurants. My first job was at the beauty supply store. I worked there for around two or three months, but I quit because of the schedule. They only needed night workers and my son was three years old at the time. My next job was at a drugstore, kind of like a Korean Ralphs or CVS. I had to quit because the store was going under. From then on, I bounced around different restaurants through connections that my church members recommended to me.
What is your favorite restaurant in Koreatown?
I don’t have one currently, but I used to love Korean BBQs. I just like to cook at home, to be honest.
What is the difference between Korean and American culture? Which do you prefer?
The cultures are extremely different. One thing that shocked me when I came to America would be the difference in mannerisms. In America, everyone sees one another as a neighbor. They apologize when they bump into each other and are considerate of the other person. Even with the tiniest disturbances, American people apologize. In Korea, everyone is already their own person with their own business. I’m not saying that Korean culture is more “rude,” per say, but Americans are more considerate of one another.
How has COVID-19 affected your home life?
I have to stay home all the time. It’s been difficult for my kids, mostly. For me, not as much. But I do miss going to shopping malls. I usually go to the Beverly Center/Connection and the Grove. I feel like if everyone is responsible and keep their masks on, we can return to normalcy.