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[INTERVIEW] Wisdom we learned from our seven years in US

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In a memoir, author says her family's American dream shattered but their years of struggles were worthwhile

By Kang Hyun-kyung

A 34-year-old author, who identifies herself only with her pen name Hae-gil, published a memoir this week about her and her parents' seven years of living as legal aliens in the United States, defining the nature of their life in the foreign land as a total failure.

In the book, "Back Then, We Shouldn't Have Gone to the US," released by Daejeon-based small independent publisher txt.kcal, she narrates about her family's shattered American dream, and the wisdom she gained from the years of struggle and harsh living as a second-class citizen. One of the toughest challenges she and her parents had faced was downward social mobility, she said.

In Korea, her family was upper-middle class, thanks to her hard-working parents who made a considerable fortune through their business. Her financially stable parents had a nice apartment as well as property in Seoul, enabling their only child Hae-gil to lead an impeccably satisfying life as a film student.

In the United States, they were blue-collar workers, hopping from one precarious job to the next with long periods of unemployment.

Their unsuccessful migration and ensuing poverty put their family ties to the test.

"While living together after returning to Korea, the three of us realized that we were unwittingly hurting one another. Our small actions or words hurt us and caused us to recall what happened to us in the United States," she told The Korea Times over the phone. "So we agreed to live apart."

Hae-gil said she felt her family suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder-like readjustment problems in Korea.

She now lives in the suburb of Seoul, earning an income from her day-job working in marketing at a small company located there.

"Back Then, We Shouldn't Have Gone to US" by Hae-gil
As the title suggests, her memoir testifies to her and her family members' deep regrets about their hasty decision to leave Korea for a new life in the United States.

She elaborates her family's "sudden and unprepared" migration to the United States, their struggles to make ends meet in Georgia, another devastating failure in her parents' eatery startup after they relocated to Alabama, and their painful decision to make a U-turn to Korea after all their endeavors to survive there went to fail.

A sense of alienation in the Korean community is another tormenting experience she went through. Her years of experience in the "Koreatowns" in the two U.S. states gave a sneak peek into the way of life of Koreans as an ethnic minority in the United States. In the small Koreatown, she observed, there was a social hierarchy among Koreans and an immigrant like her living in the United States as a legal alien took up the lowest level in the social strata. One of her acquaintances encouraged her to meet a man 20 years her senior on a blind date, telling her that marrying him would ensure she would obtain citizenship, a piece of advice she rejected.

She said she was traumatized by her experiences. But the suffering she and her family went through made them wiser.

She uploaded her writings to her blog, which was discovered by the publisher who encouraged her to release them as a memoir.

Hae-gil said her approval of the publication of her memoir is her way of recognizing her family's struggles to survive in the foreign land.

"I know a story like this is not fascinating at all. A story about failure is difficult to draw attention from readers. But I decided to publish the book because I wanted to acknowledge our efforts to survive there. We failed and didn't achieve anything great but I think what we did was meaningful and worthwhile," she said.

She said her parents were initially very supportive of her book. But she went on to say that completing her memoir met several hurdles and distressed her parents.

"My parents and I still had difficulty telling what happened to us during our seven-year stay in the United States, because all of us were traumatized in one way or another, while adapting to our new lives in the United States. So whenever I checked with my parents about certain facts and events while working on the book project, they were emotional and sometimes enraged," she said. "For us, the wounds are still fresh."

Her family's decision to emigrate from Korea to the United States came all of a sudden with a phone call from one of their distant relatives who went there over a decade earlier.

The relative encouraged her parents to invest in opening a beauty supply chain store in Georgia and consider living out the rest of their life in the United States. Before making their decision to migrate, her parents visited Georgia to see in person the location of the store and meet the people involved. Their trip convinced them to believe that the business was promising. Her parents sent money to the relative for the business, which later turned out to be a fraudulent scheme.

After experiencing failure after failure which kept causing them to burn through the money they brought from Korea, her parents eventually decided to partner with their church friend to open a fried chicken store in Montgomery, Alabama.

The eatery startup turned out to be another devastating failure that forced them to return to Korea.

Asked how they were able to make such a big decision ― to emigrate from Korea to the United States ― so easily without considering various other factors, she said her family had a shared dream and this propelled them to make a relatively quick decision on their departure.

"I studied film at university and had always dreamed studying film further in the United States since I was a teen. My parents were fascinated with living in the United States after their visit to Georgia," she said.

Asked what she learned from her seven years in the United States, she said she came to be thankful for what she had long taken for granted. "I learned that the fact that I am a citizen of Korea means a lot because I have a country that protects me and I have certain rights that I enjoy as a citizen," she said.



Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr


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