Just last week, I asked the building manager of the apartment I live in to come by and take a look at an issue we’ve been having with our sink. He comes by that later day (it’s a very good apartment), we exchange pleasantries, he examines the pipes underneath the sink, and then on his way out we engage in small talk.
I despise small talk.
As we make our way to the front door, he tells me about some of his coworkers referring to one as an Italian man. At which point he asks me, “What are you?” As I stand barefoot on my linoleum floor, I say, “I’m Korean”. My building manager casually puts his shoes back on and responds, “Oh, I’m American.”
Good morning everyone! I’d like to thank Dr. Torrey for inviting me to be a part of this assembly. And, to all of you for listening today. I’d like to share a story. A story that you may or may not be familiar with, but one that is no less uncommon, no less important.
This is the story of my parents.
My father first came to America in 1981 to get a degree in nuclear engineering at the University of Detroit. He came by himself under an F-1 student visa, leaving behind my mother and my one-year old sister in Seoul, South Korea. His goal? To graduate and earn a job, hoping to see if this country would be a better place to make a living and raise a family. A year into his studies, my mother and sister arrived in the states and the three of them lived in a dorm room on campus.
I’ve heard it’s difficult to raise kids. It’s also difficult to not be able to speak the language of the country that you live in. Consider then, also trying to get a job just to have enough money to pay for the basic costs of child care. But they did. They both earned minimum wage. You wanna know how much minimum wage was in 1983? $3.35.
Now just to give you a sense of the value of money in 1983, my parents will still tell me that back then, they were able to buy a Big Mac sandwich for $1. They will also tell me that the Big Mac was the best thing they ever ate when they arrived in this country.
In any case, they worked. That is, until one of my father’s peers informed the university that one of their international students also had a job.
You see, under the F-1 visa, students are not allowed to maintain employment while enrolled as a full-time student at a college or university. It doesn’t matter what your home situation is. They were forced to leave the school. They left for Brooklyn, New York, where they knew another immigrant family from Korea.
It was at that moment, that my parents became undocumented immigrants.
After a few years, my parents were somewhat settled in Brooklyn and they found work at a jeweler’s shop. It was owned by an American, who gave my parents a passable wage for them to live and support their child.
One evening, the shop owner tells my father that he’s got a job for him. My father was to help him break into another jewelry store and steal. To commit burglary.
When my father said that he wouldn’t, the owner took a gun out and forced my father to get in the car with him. They drove out in a locked car toward an isolated area while my father was held at gunpoint. When the car finally stopped, my father immediately tried to wrestle the gun out of his boss’s hand, doing everything that he could to stay alive. In the middle of that brawl, my father was pistol whipped in the face and on the head.
When he finally disarmed the criminal, my father unlocked the passenger door and ran out of the car as fast as he could. Somehow by coincidence, a police car was casually patrolling the neighborhood at that exact moment in time. They saw a frantic, middle-aged Asian male profusely bleeding from his face, and they saved his life that evening.
After I was born, my family moved out of Brooklyn and into next-door Queens. Mom worked in a dry cleaner and Dad worked in construction. Most of my young life was spent moving from home to home, temporarily living in the home that he and his team would build until there was a buyer. We would then move to an apartment, and then repeat the process over again.
When I was in third grade, my parents couldn’t afford to pay rent in the tiny apartment we lived in. So they decided that we should live in the basement of an unfinished construction project that my father was working on. If you ever drove by an unfinished home that was being built, you might see the wooden skeleton of the house. Perhaps some scaffolding against one of the walls. Pallets of bricks, piles of two by fours, and plywood. You might not expect a family to be living underneath all that.
Hey, at least my dad had a short commute.
That, of course, all ended when a torrential rainstorm flooded the white-tiled basement we lived in. I remember my father lifting me up in one arm, throwing me over his shoulder and my mother grabbing my sister’s hand as water would pour down ramps of drywall that came crashing down under the weight of all the water.
We ran out into our beige Mazda MPV minivan. I remember the sound of the car door shutting. I remember the rain hammering down on the car and the thunder occasionally interrupting the ruthless wind. But the silence we shared in that moment—it was deafening.
What do you do when you have no home?
Dad had a warehouse that he was renting to store all his construction equipment. There was a small office space at the top level overlooking the warehouse. That’s where we lived for a few months.
I remember walking down the stairs in the mornings to go to school, not to see a kitchen or a living room, but an excavator, some generators and miter saws. It wouldn’t smell like coffee or bacon, but sawdust and metal.
(Actually, if we were living in a home then, it still wouldn’t smell like coffee or bacon, but rather it would smell like Kimchi. My goodness, it tastes amazing but its aroma…well it’ll knock you down.)
“Struggle” would be such an inadequate description of immigrant life. I could continue to share endless stories of how my parents got to where they are now. How they would jump from motel to motel with their three-year-old daughter. How they worked at a meat packing production factory in Delaware to earn their green card, all while leaving my sister and me in New York.
How they were taken advantage of, how they were scammed multiple times by immigration lawyers that made empty promises and stole their money.
This was all in their thirties, forties, and fifties. That’s, like, me right now! (except, obviously, I’m not in my forties and fifites). But my point is, I don’t know if I could endure all that. I’m not strong enough. I’m not courageous enough.
Was it worth it?
Their calloused hands and wrinkled eyes would tell you “yes”.
Me? I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for all their hard work and sacrifice. But I can’t help but be reminded of all the people that have deliberately tried to harm, hurt, and get in the way of my family. And I can’t help but think of all the other families like mine whose stories have a similar beginning, but a completely different ending.
I wonder, is this really the land of the free? Of opportunity? Is this really the country that says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?”
I hope we can ask ourselves: What does it mean to be an American? What does it mean to be recognized as an American? I’m not talking about having a passport that says USA on it. I’m talking about being accepted and valued in this country.
My father fought in the Vietnam War alongside American soldiers. Both my parents work and they employ people. They are now citizens of this great country. They pay taxes. They vote. We don’t vote the same way, but that’s OK because they participate. And if you asked them to, they would proudly recite the pledge of allegiance in their broken and accented English.
If you were to see my parents, would you accept them as people who belong here?
When you see me, do you accept me as someone who belongs here?
I think back to the conversation I had with my building manager, just last week. I’ve been playing it back in my mind so many times now, and I can’t help but wish it went differently.
I walk my building manager to the front door, and he asks me, “What are you?” .
He puts his shoes back on and responds, “I’m American.”
I lift up my eyes from my bare feet on the linoleum floor, stand tall, and say, “So am I”.
“So are we”.