On being an immigrant

17 years.

Yesterday marked the 17th anniversary of my immigration to the United States. This time every year, I take a minute to reflect on how far my family has come to get to this point. Explaining the meaning of this day is difficult to put into words. And unfortunately, talking about immigration without some level of political undertone is nearly impossible in this day and age, especially with the upcoming Presidential Election. But here goes.

On June 25th, 1999, the four of us (my parents, my brother, and I) came to the United States with nothing but a big bag of clothes. My dad’s company went bankrupt a few years beforehand, which left us living with my grandparents next to rice farms in a small corner of the Korean countryside. My dad, who was either ashamed or in serious trouble with the bank, didn’t live with us during that time. I never knew if my parents were separated at that point or if living with your wife’s parents beheld too much shame for a man who once ran a multi-national company.

I was 6. The only thing I cared about was Mario games. I just remember I would see my dad once every few weeks, and wondered why he chose to live in a small studio in the city instead of living with us. Whatever the situation may have been, I know these events led us to look for better opportunities elsewhere, in a place called the United States of America.

I remember the news came out of nowhere. My mom sat me down one day and told me we were moving yet again. I was just about to finish 2nd grade; I made a handful of friends, had two dogs, and even had a girlfriend (heh). Being the bratty kid I was, I remember I threw a massive tantrum. It was unfair, I thought: why are we leaving Korea, why do I have to say bye to friends yet again, why can’t I stay with my grandparents, why can’t I take my toys, why can’t I take my dogs, why now, why America? To be quite honest, I don’t remember the conversation very well, I just know I cried. I only had a few weeks to say good bye to my friends, my classmates, my girlfriend, and my dogs.

Landing in LAX was the most surreal experience of my long 8 years of existence. Aside from a short trip to Tokyo, I’ve never been outside of that region. I have never seen a white person, a black person, or a hispanic person in my life. Going through the Tom Bradley International Terminal, we were now surrounded by people of all colors, religions, and backgrounds. It was incredible.

Plus, none of us knew a single lick of English. And yet here we were, in the United States of America.

My uncle convinced his bosses to sponsor my dad in the textile factory. The pay was complete garbage, but it was a way in. It was guaranteed sponsorship. It was a chance to give his kids a better life. So my dad took the job. For the first six months, the four of us stayed with my uncle, since one of my cousins moved out for college. For years we scrapped by, saving every cent we could, eating subsidized lunches in school, and sleeping in the same bed. Our celebratory splurges were at Sizzler, where $9 steaks were considered a luxury saved only for the happiest of occasions. My lunch today was $14. Now I kind of feel guilty.

Life wasn’t great. It certainly was a downgrade to the situation I had in Korea. But it gave us an opportunity to be together again, something I certainly appreciated. So we kept pushing. I tried to do my part by doing well in school, not causing problems, and lessened my relentless complaining. Because all things considered, we still had it good.

I look back and I’m constantly reminded of how lucky I am. Despite our early bumps, we were able to build a life for ourselves. We are living the American Dream, a dream held by so many all over the world. I constantly hear and read stories about immigrants. How some “made” it, and how some are still struggling. I see my friends, my boss, and my ex go through the painful and arduous process that is legal immigration. So I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it’d be to live undocumented in this country. And yet millions do it every single day.

I have no doubt my story is not unique. It’s a story experienced my millions of people every single day. It’s a struggle that so many of us go through. It’s a gamble. It’s a risk.

But at the end of it all, it’s hope. A hope that we could build a better lives for us and our children, so they can experience every day what was deemed as luxury for our generation. A hope that we could find our riches, however we define it. A hope that we could build a new home in a new country, even if we sometimes feel unwelcome. A hope that dreams can eventually become reality in the Land of Opportunities.

Sometimes I wonder how my life would have turned out had I stayed in Korea. I often joked to my ex saying I’d have Justin Bieber hair, tight pants, and possibly played computer games for a living. I only found out a few years ago that both my grandparents lost their homes due to collateral for my dad’s failed business. So chances are, we could have been homeless, begging for other family members to take us in.

Coming to the United States changed everything for me and my family. I’m thankful. And I sincerely hope that the American Dream continues to live on, so that anyone can experience what my family and I were so lucky to have. That’s what being an immigrant has meant to me.

– B. Kim

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