One of my favorite first memories of living in America was wearing Buster Browns. My mother bought them for us from Hahn’s shoe store in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland. Ah, the smell of brand new saddle shoes on my feet with my flouncy dress! I would twirl around in them pretending I was a beautiful princess because they just made me feel that way.
Also vivid in my memory were the celebrations at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor, with their overflowing assortment of ice cream with fudge and caramel and jimmies! Then walking through the candy area with the huge lollipops that reminded you of the Lollipop Kids in the Wizard of Oz.
As a 5-year-old coming to the United States, these things were pure culture joy for me. Coming from a country that had finally recovered from the Korean War, I had been privileged. We probably had the only television in our neighborhood and an American bed. I was fed with American baby formula and Ritz crackers. I loved spaghetti and I was a rare kid who didn’t grow up on rice and kimchee every day. My dresses and shoes were bought from a children’s boutique that sold beautiful clothes from France. And my mother was always impeccably dressed, too, in her designer dresses, some of which, she had designed herself. Of course the main reason things were so exclusive is because there were no department stores and high rises and cars everywhere.
When we first arrived in Honolulu everything seemed quite normal and not even memorable. My mother chatted with people naturally in her native Japanese so it just seemed like home. Besides, most of the people looked like me and this may sound stereotypical, but I grew up not knowing the difference between Japanese and Korean. My mother spoke to me in both languages; she spoke to her parents and several of her brothers in Japanese. I really thought it was one language, although my dad spoke only Korean. I honestly didn’t figure it out until I was about 16.
The excitement of actually being in AMERICA happened when we arrived in Los Angeles and stayed overnight in a hotel. When we checked in my mother spoke in her accented English, of which I couldn’t speak at all. I had had a private tutor teaching me but I only knew the basic ABCs and salutations.
My eyes popped seeing all the floors of the hotel and the bright lights. I had never seen a hotel look like this, despite the fact that I had grown up ordering room service and having a maid tending to me in the penthouse of the Savoy Hotel in Myeong-Dong, Seoul, South Korea. At the time I was under the care of my father since my parents were separated. It was one of the best hotels around in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Marriott and Hilton had not come into town yet.
The next day driving back to the airport the main thing I remember were the palm trees lining the streets. I was in great anticipation to see my father. We arrived into Baltimore Airport and I was not impressed; when we walked out of the airplane I could see the dust blowing around. My first burger at the airport restaurant was the worse thing I ever tasted. I could not finish it and was chastised by my stern aunt. I tried the Coca Cola and it was so sweet, I didn’t drink it again for decades. Everything pretty much overwhelmed my taste buds.
But soon after, my life changed.
The last time I had seen my father he was wearing 3-piece suits and had very white skin. So when a strange man started coming toward my mother and me, I instinctively hid behind her. The man was wearing fitted Levis blue jeans, a trucker jacket, and a Greek Fisherman’s cap. He was tan like Elvis Presley. Was this my father? Even his manner and gait had changed–but then he laughed and I knew it was him. Although his cologne had changed from French to either Stetson or Old Spice, making me a little suspicious that my father had been taken over by an alien…
Before we arrived at our destination, we stopped at Giant Grocery Store. I was shocked at all the cars; this was obviously not Honolulu. We walked into the store and there were rows and rows of groceries. Everything and anything was there. There were stacks of toilet paper, crates of all types of fruit and vegetables, shelves of bread, gallons of milk and orange juice. It was overwhelming, including the fact that everyone around me spoke English and we were the only Asians in the store. But then my aunt spoke English perfectly and even looked white, sort of like an Italian so that eased me a bit.
Then we got to the (very big) house and I saw my grandmother. That was a little nerve wracking since the last time I saw her I had thrown up on her after eating a bunch of bananas and she had been a bit peeved. But she welcomed me and gave me a big hug. Then the culture shock of all cultures shocks: a boy popped out from behind my grandmother. He had very light blonde hair and did not look like me at all so when he opened his mouth and started speaking Korean and it was my grandmother’s Pusan dialect, I was in shock. My Korean was a Seoul dialect so my head was spinning thinking, why does this kid sound like a country boy? I was still trying to correlate the blonde all-American kid with what came out of his mouth.
Everything changed soon after when we started to play together and fight as close kids would. We colored, played with his hand-me-down dolls from his older sister, made forts and houses. But most of all, the shock of his color disappeared when I realized he was a nut like me. I also got used to his father, my uncle, who only spoke English to me and was very proper. He was a two-time World War veteran. He had received the second key to Seoul City after Eisenhower and was one of the civil engineers who designed the Hoover Dam, where his name is inscribed. I’d sit and watch him cross his legs and smoke his pipe while he read the Washington Post in the morning and the Washington Star in the evening. He spoke to me in English now and then, looking up at me with his intelligent, vivid blue eyes behind his spectacles. It was quite relaxing and I felt comfortable just to sit there quietly and enjoy my aunt’s patio with him although in the beginning I didn’t understand much of what he was saying.
We also ate together in the morning, toast and jam, bacon or sausage and eggs. I had never eaten bacon before, or sausages. Thumbs up! Much better then the airport hamburger. I boycotted burgers for most of my childhood. Who didn’t like McDonalds? Aside from the French fries and the Filet-o-Fish, I didn’t.
This was the beginning of my life in America as a Korean immigrant.