Three-generations impacted by three words: The American Dream.
From those who chased it, to those who nurtured it, to those who fulfilled it, I wanted to understand how these three words shaped each generation in my family, and what it meant to each one of us through our greatest successes and regrets.
Generation One: Chasers of the American Dream | Son Tae Shik (85) Translated from Korean.
Accomplishment: “My greatest achievement in my eighty-something years of life…It was also the cause of my greatest challenges, but it would be coming to America. My early years of life in Korea was poor…Dirt poor. I didn’t have electricity, my clothes were cheap, and daily life was mediocre. A sustainable life was unheard of – a strange concept to me back then – but when I heard about the opportunities and almost fantasy-like tales of America, I just had to. It was my dream… for myself, more for my children. But achieving that dream was difficult in itself… when we made payments to come to America by plane, we never expected the hardships that followed us. I was in my thirties, not knowing the language or culture, with no knowledge in navigating the Los Angeles streets. I was a mere house painter, while your grandmother worked in a sewing factory – pause – But it was worth it. The dream, it was worth it.”
Regret: “My greatest regret is the most obvious one – which I failed to realize back then – was not learning how to speak English. I came with the mindset that we were too old to adopt a new language… And plus, working non-stop at various blue-collar jobs didn’t give me time to sit down and open a book to learn English. I was too busy. At the same time, I assumed that my kids, who went to public American schools back then, would help me if I ran into any issues with my broken English. I didn’t realize that even though we lived in Koreatown – the neighbors spoke Korean, the restaurants were all Korean, even the dogs that roamed the streets were of that Korean jindo kind – everything was still in English. Looking back, it caused a lot of misunderstandings and problems in my life, even to the point where I had lost money.”
Generation Two: Nurturers of the American Dream | Son Kyung-il (53)
Accomplishment: “My greatest achievement – chuckle – would be my children – you guys. I can’t even comprehend my ability to love someone, the fact that I’m able to have that much love for someone. Whatever [my two daughters] do, I always feel proud… You’ll become a parent and understand… To see them grow with abundant opportunities, to see them adopt two different cultures, it’s a blessing. That would be my biggest achievement – to build our life here so that it would be enough for my two daughters… If I lose everything, it doesn’t matter. I have my family by my side. That’s why I’m happy. As long as I have my children.”
Regret: “Hmm.. regrets? This one is tough… I would say I regret my habit of avoidance. What I mean to say is that I used to constantly flee from my problems. Relational problems, problems at school, or at work… I tried to escape, rather than face them. When I was young, especially after coming right to America, there was the issue of language and adjusting… I was already 17 when I arrived here… I remember when I got rejected from college, they offered me a chance to appeal. I thought it was too much work so I decided to go to a college that just accepted me instead… Because I kept hiding from my fears, every time these same problems would occur over and over again, they were every bit discouraging and self-hindering. I wish I had been more bold back then, wish I had the courage to be more proactive… but it’s still never too late to change my habit, even now.”
Generation Three: Fulfilment of the American Dream | Son Haneur (19)
Accomplishment: “I can’t say I’ve accomplished quite a lot in my 19 years of life, but my greatest accomplishment so far… as predictable as this may be, would be college. Being accepted and going to a university may seem like a almost-shallow, societal metric of how “well” you’re playing the game of life. But reflecting back on the previous interviews with my parents and grandparents, I know this “achievement” hasn’t been on my own, but decades in the making. What makes this so important to me is that my grandmother never received any form of college education. My grandfather attended a local college, only to spend his life as a house painter. My father and mother were able to attend state colleges, despite their language barrier and underprivileged households. My education means the world to me because not only am I learning for myself, but on behalf of my family who has gotten me to this point in life…I had selfishly assumed this opportunity – or gift – of education should have been given to me, but now I am eternally grateful for it.”
Regret: “My regret – and also my motivator – is not realizing this sooner. I remember going through a stage of “I can’t wait to leave my family and become independent,” hence my decision of choosing Michigan. But now I’ve wished I spent more time with them, with greater appreciation and understanding of their hardships. It’s so easy to assume their lives were as cushioned as mine – since the world I was born into, and only ever known is what they have provided me with. As I look to the future, I’m encouraged and excited to take use of all the chances I’ve been given, because that’s what my parents – and grandparents – have struggled long and hard for.”