Helen KimGeneration: 1.5 Generation
Location: Oakland, CA (at time of interview)
Interviewer: Ramsay Liem
Immigration to the United States
So our family, um, there’re four children in our family. I was twelve when we immigrated. So we immigrated in ’76 at the height of all this immigration influx. In Chicago. We actually have my mom’s side of the family; a few of them were living in Chicago so we had extended family on my mom’s side.
Yeah, we were all born in Korea. So I was twelve, the oldest, and then my brother, who is the youngest, was six at that time. So we went through some, yeah, all of us went through some traumatic times but we were the only, like, streaks of color at school and all of that.
On my mom’s side, I’m the oldest of my generation. On my dad’s side, I’m oldest of North American cousins. I’m the only bilingual one. And then, I’m a history major and you know. And then I got to learn more about my parents when I went back to Korea, from their friends…. Now as of this year, all of my grandparents have passed away. So when my parents’ generation passes away, I feel like all of these cousins are, we don’t have enough connecting points and nobody else to really, to tell stories about our family. So that’s why I feel like dragging my butt up. You know, wanting to sort of document something as well.
I grew up in Korea until I was twelve. So during grammar school, we actually had a special class called [unintelligible]. It means like, ethical living or something. But it was mostly propaganda about North Koreans and we would actually have textbooks that depicted North Koreans as subhuman, as something, um, animal basically. They were always red, and they were always nasty. I mean, I grew up reading that kind of you know, stuff, and we were never allowed to forget that Seoul is what, some how many miles away from the DMZ? There’s always another war. Around the time of the war, June 25th, we would be always singing this special song about the war, and how we should never forget and all of that.
I remember one night when I was sleeping and there was some loud knock on the, not on our door, but some neighbor’s door. It was this really loud banging and probably some guy coming home drunk or something but that kind of loud banging in the middle of the night; immediately I thought the North Koreans are here. And I remember running downstairs to my parent’s room because I was too scared to sleep in my room with the rest of my siblings. But it’s that level that you lived with…that kind of propaganda was always there.
War Legacies (Grandfather)
If my grandfather’s story wasn’t so closely linked with the war, maybe in our daily conversation, our family, we wouldn’t really have any reason to talk about the war all the time…. This is sort of the pride of the family that our grandfather was kidnapped during the war and he was martyred as a Christian because he held on to his beliefs…. My parents and my, you know, all my uncles—so, when they were living in Korea—still went to that church in the middle of Seoul…. This was the church that our grandfather [attended] when he had died because of his beliefs…. So because of our grandfather…and because it happened during the war, the war was always a constant presence in that way.
So I mean, that’s always been a part of our family. That’s why I think the war has always been sort of hanging over our heads…. My father, my father was um, I think he was maybe about thirteen or fourteen when his father was taken. So sometimes I forget that my dad grew up without a father after that, and that the war has always been, um, a really significant point because that was the beginning of a really, really hard life for my grandmother raising five sons.
But uh, never really in specifics. Anything they mentioned about our grandfather was, nobody really spoke in specifics of what exactly happened. It was sort of this…mystical figure in our family and, and in that way, I think a lot of times, we didn’t ask questions because it felt like almost unapproachable topic. It was like too painful a topic, especially for my grandmother. So we didn’t really ask questions that much until much later, and it didn’t really dawn on me that until I realized that, you know, my gosh, my father actually grew up without a father, starting age like thirteen on, and I started wondering what kind of impact that would’ve had on him. But it’s not until much later you realize all these things, and try to, you know, ask your parents what that meant.
Korean War Memories (Mother)
Because her older brother and the father had to go into hiding because they were afraid that they were going to get drafted into the North Korean army, while they were in Seoul, she [mother] was the one who had to sell fruits or whatever to bring money back home so they could actually eat. And I think she’s always been a tomboy, and I think this was just like, totally, her calling. She never really talks about it in terms of really a lot of hardship. I mean she talks about, you know, I had to walk miles and miles with all this fruit you know on my head, basically carrying it over my head. She would talk about that, but the things that she remembers are more fond memories, more probably like independence. She was sort of on her own.
This woman very much had a sense of, you know, all the opportunities. And she became the person that she would not have become in terms of her confidence and her ability to deal with things and to sort of stand up on her feet if she needed to and so forth. And she thinks, maybe she would not have if she had never been shown into that light.
I mean, my grandmother was also, how should I say, she had very clear ideas about gender roles and I think she really reinforced it in her sons. And her sons, of course, would say their wives would never live up to their mother. So I think that my dad and his brothers turned out to be really sexist. None of their wives could ever live up to their mother. So, I think that my mom and my aunts are just, you know, fighting this impossible battle. And, yeah, I mean I wish I knew my grandmother a little better but I do know, as much as I think she’s an incredible person, I have a feeling, if I had gotten to know her better, we would’ve gotten into such huge arguments.
Because the county’s divided, you know, I think there’s definitely a legacy of what happened during the civil war. It’s where so much of my political understanding also comes from. I think a lot of the beginnings of my questioning comes from discovering that what I learned about North and South Korea may not be exactly the way it is. You know, when I started questioning that, then you start questioning a lot other things…. Although, you know, I wasn’t living at that time, it’s like everything I hear is secondhand, hearsay, but I am a product of the kind of brainwashing that went on in Korea and you know abroad, as well.
When I talked to labor activists and women’s activists when I go to Korea, their political view, their worldview, has a lot to do with the division of the country and the U.S. militarism in the country, as well. And for a deeper level of finding connection to Korea, as a people, as one country, I think that it’s extremely tragic for you know, a country to divide, for families to be divided, and a whole country just completely messed up by something like this.
Anyway, so I think, the Korean War, you just can’t underestimate the kind of impact it has…. During one of the North Korean-South Korean symposiums that we had here, they were playing some old Korean songs at the basement of that chapel and I was sitting next to [inaudible]; we’re singing the same song. I was like really, I was just really moved. It’s like, we’re singing the same song that was sung before the war. And people both in South and North are still singing this song. And how tragic it is that you know, we can’t seem to do that, to figure out how to do it together.