Helen Chang - Poetry

How It Feels to Be South Korean American Me


Let me begin my journey by starting off with my birthplace, which is Seoul, South Korea. Since I lived in South Korea for only five years, I didn’t really know my Korean Culture or heritage due to the fact my parents really never talked about it.

The only sense I have of being Korean is that I look Asian, speak Korean, and eat Korean food once in a while. Sometimes I miss eating Kimchi and Korean BBQ short ribs. The only song I know in Korean is a bunny song which I learned as a little kid but that’s about it. The thing I love most about my Korean Culture is the traditional Korean dress called the Hanbok. Hanbok is a beautiful and colorful dress worn for special occasions like for birthday celebrations or for certain holidays. Also, the biggest celebration in Korea is a baby’s 1st birthday, New Year, and the Chuseok Festivity, which Koreans wear their Hanbok.

The Chuseok Festivity also known as Autumn Eve, which is celebrated for three days starting on August 15th. This is like Thanksgiving to us here in America. The Chuseok Festivity is a celebration to be thankful of the successful harvest for the year.  

Moving Forward to turning five years old, things completely changed for the worse. My parents decided to immigrate to America because they had the idea that the U.S. had so much opportunities and it was the land of the rich. They thought that America had so much money, that money was literally falling from the trees. They thought it was going to be easy-peasy to make a living here and get rich quick. What my parents pictured America to be was very different in reality.

Immigrating to the U.S. in 1978 was very difficult in a sense of transitioning to an unfamiliar country, not knowing the English Language, and had no clue of the culture in the U.S. Nonetheless, my family moved here and there was no turning back.  

The difficult road ahead of us lead to us struggling to find a place to live and to survive in a foreign country. My parents had it rough though because they had no knowledge of the English Language and had to find jobs to feed the family.

My father did get a job pretty quickly because he had a skill of cutting material. He worked at a soccer company cutting material to make shirts and he also had to learn how to drive at the same time to be able to go to work. When my father made enough money, he was able to move my family into an apartment in San Jose. Our family had to manage living off my father’s income for a while but my mother got a job soldering microchips a year later.

My mother had to learn how to solder microchips and even brought the microchips home at night to make extra money. I think at the age of seven years old, I would help my mom solder at night to help out. My father didn’t like me working on soldering microchips and got really mad at my mom. So, she never brought work home again and that was the end of that.  

The struggles of being an immigrant was a harrowing one because we had to learn a whole new language, didn’t have money, and faced a lot of racism. In the eighties the U.S. was not a welcoming one to foreigners and the white society really showed their hatred toward us. They would make fun of how we spoke with our accent and would treat us like we were stupid. I couldn’t believe how awful the white folks demeanor was back at that time.

The mistreatment towards us was very hurtful due to the fact we were simply Asians and spoke with an English accent. Since my parents had a very hard time understanding what people were saying, I was always the go to person to help translate to my parents the English words to Korean words. This helped my parents out a lot because they couldn’t communicate with others. Now that I come to think about it, my parents would smile and laugh a lot when they didn’t understand what people were saying. I realize that this is how they were able to cope with difficult situations. I still translate and help my parents out to this day, when it comes to filling out documentation or calling their doctors to translate what the doctors wanted to convey.  

The difficulties my family encountered immigrating to America was that we barely had enough food to eat, we got hand me down clothing from our cousins, and slept on the floor for years. When I was about eight years old, my dad found a mattress near the garbage can and sprayed it with a bottle of Lysol so that my sister and I finally could have a bed to sleep on. It was tough growing up but we scraped by with what little we had.

We ate a lot of Kimchi Jjigae which is basically Kimchi Soup and we got very tired of it. My dad even exploded one time at my mom and threw the Kimchi Soup on the floor because he couldn’t bare eating the same thing over and over again. We literally ate it almost every night for dinner because that’s all we could afford.

My sister and I were scared of my dad though because he got so angry about the food that we cried and pleaded to my dad not to be mad at mom. He never did that again and thankfully my mom started making some different dishes for a while and then back to the Kimchi Soup again. Thank God my sister and I were able to eat American food at school for lunch though and they served us different types of food each day.

Since we didn’t eat breakfast before school, we really looked forward to lunch and we were very thankful to get the lunch for free or we would have starved all day. My parents tried their best to survive in America and they made it by working seven days a week for 10 years but their struggles paid off later in life. 

The hardships of growing up as a little Asian kid was not easy either because in the eighties, Asian’s were a minority and I got bullied a lot. The racism was thick at the time and white kids would call me ching chong, spit on me, and even threw rocks at me. I thought that living in America was an awful country to live in and I wished my parents never moved here. I had so much anger and hurt going to school that I would wish I was sick so that I didn’t have to go to school. The teasing went on until I went to middle school and I managed to survive elementary school.

Also, my third-grade teacher was the meanest bully I have ever encountered at my elementary school. When I didn’t understand what the teacher, Mrs. Stump was teaching, one time she got so angry at me. She literally grabbed my arms and shook me until I got dizzy and started crying. I tried not to cry and be strong but my emotions got the best of me and I cried profusely. Thank God she stopped shaking me after she saw me crying. I think she was literally and figuratively trying to knock some sense into me. Maybe it was her way of trying to make me understand her by hurting me physically. Nonetheless, after that incident, I no longer wanted to go to school and terrified to be in her class.

She was the worst teacher I ever had in my book and my perception of school went down the drain. I thought I was really stupid and couldn’t do anything right. The pain and torment I faced at school changed me as a child that made me close up inside and I tried to be as silent as possible in class. I wanted to camouflage myself so that I wouldn’t be seen or have any attention coming my way. I wanted to be invisible so that I could blend in with the classroom walls so no one could see or hear me.  

Eventually things did turn around for me in elementary school when I had a really nice and understanding teacher in 5th grade. My teacher’s name was Mrs. Peoples and she was the first teacher I admired because she showed kindness and guidance to help me improve enough to move onto middle school.

Then in 6th grade, I had an exciting teacher named was Mrs. Green and she taught the class by using hand puppets. I really enjoyed her class because she made it fun and exciting while she taught the class, especially with her hand puppets. She was really good at it too because she didn’t move her mouth when her puppets would talk.

I think middle school helped me to overcome my fear of going to school because I had a lot of help from Mrs. Green and my ESL teacher. The progress I accomplished was noticeable from that point forward because I really tried very hard at school and even enjoyed going to school. I really loved the food at school too, especially the churros at brunch time. That was something I looked forward to when they had churros at certain days of the week at school.  

Moving forward, I managed to graduate from high school and receive my high school diploma. I even received an award in high school for being the most improved student in my Spanish Class. The teacher worked with me every day after school to improve on my Spanish and I went from a D to an A with his help. That was a very memorable time and I still have my certificate at home.

I eventually moved on from school and worked meaningless jobs to survive. Things got better in my life when I started working at Boston Scientific and I no longer had to live pay check to pay check. Also, I went back to school and enrolled at Mission College, where I took a lot of different classes but didn’t graduate.

Now after twenty years or more, I am in a better mindset to follow through with my goal to achieve an A.S. Degree at Mission College. Hopefully I can even go to San Jose State University to earn a Bachelor’s Degree after finishing up with my A.S. Degree. My outlook towards school and life has drastically changed over the years because I am thankful towards my achievements and I am better equipped to handle challenges that come my way. Also, I try to be optimistic, hopeful, and thankful, when living my life now that I’m getting closer to being a half-century old.  

To be a South Korean American Me is to try to be a better me. I try to constantly improve on all aspects of my life from being a mother, a college student, cooking, and work. In my late twenties I realized what my goals were and I put 100% effort into achieving them. I no longer wanted to worry about hunger, homelessness, and living in a car. So, I turned my life around by living my life working hard and putting a lot of effort and perseverance towards improving my education, being a mother, wife, work, and a college student. All of these different facets of becoming a better me helped me to grow as a person emotionally and being more knowledgeable.

I no longer have to worry about money as much anymore or the racism that I use to encounter as a child. I love the fact that Silicon Valley is very diverse now and that my daughter doesn’t have to go through everything I went through as a kid. Now that I’m a lot older my mindset is much more positive and I try to give 100% effort in everything I do. The struggles of immigrating to America has made me the person I am today.

Even though I encountered a lot of pain, hunger, and struggles being an immigrant, I feel that I have overcome it all. Now I can say that I do live a better and simple life. I love being a South Korean American and enjoy the benefits that America offers living here. I am hopeful that my daughter will have a better life due to the fact that I immigrated to the U.S. with my family and she doesn’t have to encounter the racism and hunger that I faced. I can comfortably say that I feel more American now than I feel Asian but I will not forget where I came from. 

About the Artist

Helen Chang is a student, a mother, and a loan officer. She is pursuing an associate's degree in Business at Mission College. She plans to transfer to San Jose State University to earn her bachelor's degree.