Evolving from nothing into a tough cookie
Thirty-nine years ago on March 30, I became a U.S. citizen. In the spirit of sharing my good fortune, I wish to say a few words about immigrants in general.
Every immigrant you see in your neighborhood came to America in search of freedom and opportunities. In fact, America has become what she is today by the sweat and blisters of immigrants. Like exotic trees planted in unfriendly foreign soil, every immigrant adapts to the harsh foreign climate and grows and toughens while she clings onto her origins.
Today I can solemnly declare that I am a tough cookie made in Korea. But when I arrived in Kansas City in the fall of 1966 as a young musician, I was a Korean nothing. I was 25 but was a child in a real world. Having lived 23 years under my parents’ protective wings in Korea and then two years in a girl’s dormitory in Paris operated by French nuns, where three daily meals were provided along with rigid Catholic doctrine, I didn’t even know how to cook for myself. Campbell’s soup had no taste, and every time I tried to make crescents with Pillsbury dough, black smoke filled my studio apartment on 11th Street downtown.
It was a time when most Americans didn’t know anything about Korea except what they knew about the Korean War, during which 54,000 Americans were killed. When someone said that her son or brother had died in Korea during the war, all I could say was, “I’m sorry,” and bow. My motherland then was the poorest of poor, a nation whose per capita income was only 60 American dollars.
My poor English was another problem. You can’t feel good about yourself when you can’t communicate with anyone. Even dogs gave me an inferiority complex by barking at me in English, “Arf, arf, arf,” instead of “Mong, mong, mong!” like dumb Korean dogs.
The only comforting fact was that I belonged to an American symphony orchestra, but there was no promise. Upon my arrival, I learned in dismay that my employer had closed its doors due to financial problems and that its 80 musicians were on strike. Though I couldn’t understand what was being discussed, I showed up whenever the musicians rallied on the streets of downtown, handing out fliers and holding a picket sign that read “Support your Local Symphony!”
When the Philharmonic reopened its doors in late fall and we began rehearsing, I stopped bowing to Americans. I didn’t have to anymore. I was somebody now, somebody who made $160 dollars a week. At a time when a chocolate bar cost only 10 cents, my weekly salary was a lot of money. Even after paying $65 weekly rent, I had plenty to spurge on myself.
An unexpected event showed me another face of America. A neighbor, a man who lived directly above me in the same apartment building, was fatally shot in broad daylight. The murderer was a woman, which shocked me even more. For the first time, I wrote home that America isn’t a safe place to live after all.
My second residence was a dingy studio apartment near the Country Club Plaza that was infested with roaches. It turned out, however, the roaches were not as big a problem as my neighbors. Whenever I practiced, they threw pennies at my door, startling me. I kept practicing harder and longer to see if they’d throw more pennies, and they did. I collected them all in a pickle jar, in case we would go on strike again.
One morning, two handsome policemen showed up at my door, each with a pistol on their belt. This was my first encounter with American policemen, so I greeted them politely. “How do you do, gentlemen? What can I do for you?” By the quick way they spoke while pointing toward the ceiling, I gathered that the woman above me had complained about my practicing.
I had met her once. She had come to complain about my practicing, but not understanding her speedy words, I had shut the door in her face. Since that day, she and I had been communicating in a musical way. Whenever I practiced, she’d hit the heating pipe that connected her room to mine, and I had responded by raising the volume of my playing.
But this morning, in the presence of the two American policemen, all I could say was, “Very sorry” and bow.
With time, Americans began to show warmth toward me, particularly when Korean cars, computers and cameras showed up in the market. Today I am delighted whenever someone says that he or she drives a Hyundai or Kia or owns Samsung computer or camera. And I enjoy telling them that South Korea today is America’s seventh-largest trading partner or the sixth-largest exporter in the world. When you live in a foreign country as long as I have, you become a patriot of your own.
Behind a tough cookie, there is the culture that nourished her soul, and in my case there are two — American and Korean.
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