This is a summary of my forthcoming book that describes my first seven years in America. The book will be available within two years. The first book, Shattered by the Wars, that describes my 16 years in Korea, was published in November, 2013, and is available on Amazon as an e-book and as a paperback. http://amzn.to/1kjD9s5
Previously, the parts of First Seven Years in America were posted separately. Now they were removed and replaced by this complete version
Part 1: Introduction
In my growing years in Korea, I lost three of my loved ones. During WWII under Japan, the Japanese police took my father – a Christian minister – to prison because he refused to bow down to the picture of their emperor. My fifteen year old brother, my best friend, volunteered to join the Japanese army to have his father released from the prison. He left home as a vibrant young boy; after the war he returned home as a worn-out injured eighteen year old man. He died a year later from his injury. Then five years after WWII, the Korean War came. In June, 1950, the North Korean army rammed through the 38th parallel line that divided the North from the South. Within days they entered Seoul where we lived. One day two North Korean officers came to my house to my father away because he was Christian minister. In late September of that year, when the Southern army returned to Seoul with the help of the UN soldiers, my eldest brother, who turned a communist, left home. He never returned. Mother and I escaped to the south for safety. During the refugee period, without Father, we struggled to survive day by day. Then when the Korean War was still raging, Mother put me, a 16 old boy, on a boat heading for America. Mother wanted me to be safe and get a good education.
It was February 3rd, 1953 at Busan Harbor, the southern-most port of South Korea. I was a sixteen year old boy standing on the deck of Sea Serpent, a freighter, heading for the United States of America. I looked down on my fifty eight year old mother looking up at me from the dock.
“Will I ever get to see Mother again?” I wondered. “Or will she get killed in the war and I will never get to see her?”
I wanted to run down the ramp and join my mother, but the ramp was up and the boat was about to depart.
I mustered enough courage and shouted at her, “Mother, please take good care of yourself until I return.”
The night before my departure, Mother held my hand and told me to trust in God always. She told me to rush to Him with any problem, not matter how great or how small. She said that God would give me strength to rise above any worldly problems. I knew, that was how she had overcome many problems in her life. I would try to do the same.
That was more than sixty years ago. Since 1953, my journey through America took me to Flushing, NY, Stony Brook, LI, Austin, TX, Columbus, OH, Andover and Boston, MA, Endicott and Binghamton, NY, and finally to San Jose, CA.
During my journey, I fell in love with an Ohio State University coed from Canton Ohio and got married in 1963; received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and joined IBM; have 52 inventions, published 40 technical papers, and one textbook; brought two wonderful people – David and Julie – into this world; took an early retirement from IBM and went to teach at San Jose State University in 1987. Then in 1989, a major depression struck me; it took me to the brink of no return; and in that darkest period of my life in 1990, I experienced God’s amazing grace: the inner freedom and peace that I had never thought possible to experience in this world.
Looking back – at the age of 78 — I wondered how I had been able to survive through the first seven years in America. Without a proper command of English, alone without friends and family, without a penny from home… How? The answer popped up in my head: You remembered your mother’s praying. You remembered your father’s total dedication serving God and his people. Through the life’s trials and tribulations they marched on with love and grace with absolute faith in God. They set good examples for you to follow. And you did your best to follow their footsteps. You wanted to make them proud.
Part 2: Real America
When I stepped on to San Francisco, contrary to my expectations, I found no golden highways that the Koreans talked about. I found no money trees to climb and pick few dollars for a day’s spending. Soon I realized that I had to support myself to survive and go to school in America. First summer Lakeside Bible Conference hired me as a general worker. They gave a little cabin in a wooded area for me to stay, all by myself. Away from other cabins for boys and girls, it was peaceful and quiet.
My job was to ring the gong at 6:30 in the morning to wake the campers and helped them get ready for breakfast. After the breakfast, I washed the dishes for over 100 people. Then I joined other workers to do whatever needed to be done that day: painting the cabins, cutting down trees, digging holes, mixing cement,.. Ring the gong again for lunch. Wash dishes. Join the workers for more manual work. Ring the gong for supper. Wash dishes. Take huge cans of left-over to the garbage dump to feed those fat maggots crawling all over the dump. Mop the dining hall. Clean the restrooms. Then the day’s work was over, and I trudged back to my cabin – all exhausted.
It was hard work even for a young 16 year old body. Every night my body ached. Also as one who had never done manual work in Korea where it was considered disgraceful for an upper class person doing manual labor, I felt humiliated. But I persisted to do my best because I wanted Americans to know that Koreans could do anything Americans could. I did not want to let my country down. I did not want to let my parents down. At the end of the summer, the camp did not pay me a penny, and I was too proud and shy to ask why. I left the camp with three pennies jingling in my pocket.
But what I learned at the camp was that in America no work was below one’s means. The most important thing was to do my best. Also I gained confidence that I could do anything – including physical and manual labor. Sixty years later, I do most of the yard work and repair jobs around my house.
Part 3: Stony Brook, Long Island
In September, 1953, I was at a college preparatory school in Long Island. About 150 students from all over the country went there to prepare themselves for universities of their choices. All the students lived in two story brick buildings in a park-like campus with trees covering the sky. The school gave me a working scholarship. My job was to clean the classrooms on weekends. To clean a classroom, I moved thirty desks and chairs on one side, broom and mop the floor. Move the desks and chairs to the other side to broom and mop. When the other side got cleaned, I had to move the desks and chairs to original positions. I had to repeat the same procedure for other classrooms. It wasn’t hard but very boring. After the classrooms were cleaned, I swept and mopped the hallways. Finally I cleaned the restrooms. In the fall I raked leaves with other workers. In the winter I shoveled the coal to heat the dormitories.
The study at the school was difficult. Algebra and Geometry were easy because they had numbers and shapes that I understood with less words. But English, History and Western Civilization were torture. So many words to read. So many words that I did not understand. Worse still, my English teacher loved Shakespeare. When I was barely able to recite, Twinkle, twinkle, little star…, my teacher told us to memorize and recite, To be or not to be, that is the question …, in front of the class. To catch up with my classmates, I needed to study twice as hard, but there were only 24 hours a day. For the first several months I hardly slept to catch up with my study. On weekends, I wanted to sleep and rest but I had to clean the classes, mop the hallway and clean the restrooms.
Out of the 150 white students, who were well dressed and who mingled each other as buddies speaking perfect English, I was the only Asian boy – a working Asian boy – dressed in the outfit bought from a Goodwill store. I avoided mingling with other students because of my poor command of English and I had no money to spend like them. Also I had to study to catch up.
Oftentimes I felt humiliated and lonely for being the only Asian boy among the well-to-do American boys. Many times I wanted to run away. But I remembered Mother praying for me. I remembered Mother telling me to trust in God always. I remembered Father who had been taken away by the communists during the Korean War because he was a Christian minister. I wondered whether Father was still alive. If alive, whether he was treated humanly by the North Korean police. The picture that came to my mind was seeing him curled in a prison cell shivering from cold with sunken eyes and the sunken rib cages. I was determined to excel to honor my mother and my father. I prayed God to give me the strength to go on. I prayed, not like Mother who was eloquent and moving. But I prayed hard. Very hard. Everyday. To give me the strength not to give up.
On the graduation ceremony, I received the most number of awards: an honor student, a student who made the most progress, a hardest worker,… I wished that Mother was there to celebrate with me, but she was ten thousand miles away.
Part 4: Austin, Texas – First week
September, 1955, in Austin, Texas. The first day in Austin. I had a room in the second floor of a rooming house built with woods. No air condition. The place was hot and humid with the temperature hovering around 90 degrees – days and nights. How am I going to survive the next few years? I wondered. In this heat with these giants? My New York friends told me that Texans had strong accents? Will I be able to understand professors’ lecture? Will they understand my English? Then I reminded myself, You have no choice. It’s a good way to develop self-discipline. You survived through Lakeside Bible conference. You survived through Stony Brook School. A little heat and humidity? Giant Texans with drawls? No problem. You can do it. After unpacking, I wanted to get out of the steam room and go downtown and see what the capital city of Texas was like. I stepped onto the bus and saw a strange sight: all the black faces in the back and all the white faces in the front. Where do I sit? I asked. In the middle, was my immediate answer. But if I sit in the middle, I’m admitting to the black that I am superior while admitting to the white that I am inferior. I didn’t like that. My mind raced for an answer. Finally I sat behind the bust driver facing the door anxiously waiting to get off.
I spent an hour sightseeing the downtown. I walked toward the state capitol building. It looked impressive. But unlike New York city, the buildings along the street toward the capitol building were not tall. Just a few stories high. But the people – both men and women — walking slowly on the streets seemed like giants compared to myself, a five feet seven inch Asian. And they had strong accents. They spoke English all right, but I could not understand. I guess I have to learn to speak like them to survive here, I thought to myself. Texas drawl with Korean accent will make my New York friends laugh.
After looking at the stores with frequent stops, I had to go to the restroom. I saw a Greyhound Station sign a block away. I walked into the station to find a restroom. In the building, I saw two signs: Whites Only and Colored Only. I was puzzled, Which one do I use? I asked a bus attendant nearby. Sir, which restroom should I use? I asked the attendant. As you can see, I am neither white nor black. The attendant drawled smiling, Anyone is OK. Out of curiosity I went into both restrooms to check.
The first Sunday, I went to University Methodist church by the campus about 15 minutes early. It was a big church holding several hundreds of people. The place was empty except the ushers getting ready to welcome the congregation, and the organist playing a Bach’s organ music. I picked a middle row and sat in the middle. I closed my eyes listening to the music and thanking God for the safe journey to Austin and praying that I would do well in my study at the university.
The well-dressed people started to come in and greeted each other in broad smile and took their seats. The front rows were filled up. I looked around and saw that back rows were also filled up. I looked to my right. I looked to my left. They were empty. Nobody would come and sit beside me. What’s going on? Do I smell? I sniffed myself, but I could not smell anything. In fact I had a clean white shirt, a clean pair of pants and socks. I know they are discriminating against this strange looking Asian. I peeped around. There were no black faces, no Asian faces, but all smiling white faces. I wanted to stand up and get out, but the organist started playing, ‘In Christ there is no East or West, in Christ no South or North; But one community of love throughout the whole wide earth.’ The choir marched in from the side door singing the hymn and all stood in the choir lot behind the lectern. The congregation stood and joined the choir in singing the hymn. I stood also, surrounded by six foot giants, wanting to rush out of the church. But I was too timid. I decided to stay till the service was over.
Part 5: Austin Texas – first two months
After the unpleasant experience at the church, I came home to plan for my first semester. The most important part was to spend my savings wisely until I could find a job. Thankfully, I had the enough money for tuition, books and rooming for a semester, but not enough money for food and other expenses. To save money, I went to Big Bear supermarket a block away from the rooming house; bought a dozen raw eggs, a pound of Wonder bread, a bottle of Peanut butter, a bottle of grape jelly, a can of sardine, a box of Carnation powdered milk. A week’s supply of breakfast and supper. I kept them in my drawer because I had no refrigerator.
For breakfast I got two raw eggs from the drawer, picked one egg, made two small holes on the opposite ends with a pencil, put one end in my mouth and sucked. A slimy liquid filled my mouth. I wanted to spit it out. Act like a man, I said to myself. Swallow like a man. I swallowed. Then I took the other one and repeated the action. Then I took out a piece of Wonder bread to chew. For supper I had three Wonder breads, put the peanut butter one side and grape jelly on the other side. I went to the bathroom for a class of tap water, filled it with a scoop of Carnation powder into the water, stirred. It looked white like the regular milk. Then I took a bite of the peanut butter jelly sandwich, chewed slowly and swallowed, followed by a drink of Carnation powder milk. Now and then I was hungry for more. But I scolded myself, How can you do a great things in life if you can not control your hunger? Think of your people starving not only for a day but for days. Think of Mother praying for you day and night. Be a man.
I reminded myself to be a man of great discipline who would face any difficulties in life. But sometimes I felt very lonely eating alone in the hot, humid Texas. Days in and days out. So I sat in front of a vanity mirror in my room eating the sandwich keeping company with the person staring at me in the mirror. Sometimes I saw tears falling down his eyes. One of the painful parts to endure in those days was receiving a letter from Mother. Her letter always contained the words, “…God has blessed you so much to be living in the kingdom of heaven on earth. Always give thanks to Him for his blessings…” Sometimes I wanted yell out, “Mother, why don’t you come and see how I’m surviving… Yes, I am grateful to God for the wonderful parents like you and Father, but please don’t tell me that I’m living in the kingdom of heaven on earth with nothing to worry about. Please. Please….”
Part 6: Austin, Texas – Third month on
Fortunately, after two months eating in my room, I found a dishwashing job at a boarding house. My pay was three meals a day – all the food I could eat. I felt so good to fill my tummy with scrambled eggs instead of raw eggs for breakfast, and meat and potatoes instead of the three pieces of Wonder bread with peanut butter and grape jelly for supper. I still yearned for a steaming bowl of rice and kimchee, but I was grateful that I didn’t have to fight my stomach groaning for more food. I was grateful that I didn’t have to sit in front of the vanity mirror, eating my supper to keep company with the person in the mirror. But I still had to worry about saving enough money for tuition. Doing yard work on weekends less than a dollar an hour and shuffling papers in the university historical library did not provide sufficient savings for the tuition.
About a week before the coming spring semester, I was $100 short of money to pay for my tuition. What am I going to do? I was in panic. If I can not pay the tuition, I can not go to school. If I don’t go to school, the immigration officer will send me back home. Some will laugh at me. Some friends will avoid me. And I will live the rest of my life hiding from people out of shame. I prayed to God to help me to find $100 for the tuition, but God seemed to say, ‘It’s your problem to handle.’ What am I going to do? My mind raced day and night. Go to the people I did their yard work for? No, they didn’t seem to be the types who would help others. Go to the librarian and ask her to loan me the money? I don’t think she can afford to help me. Go to the minister at the University Methodist Church and ask for help? No, his congregation didn’t sit next me on my first Sunday service there. Also he may not be interested in helping an Asian boy. After the long inner dialogue, I decided to go to Dr. Hall, a director of Wesley Foundation for the university students where I frequented. Dr. Hall knew me and was friendly to me. Gritting my teeth, I went to his office. He looked up at me who was standing up by the door like a statue. ‘Hi-Dong, How are you?’ Dr. Hall smiled. I need $100, I stuttered. His smile disappeared. He looked at me for seconds without asking questions. Then he opened his desk drawer, pulled out ten dollar bills, stood and walked over to me. ‘Here,’ he said handing me the money. ‘Spend where you need them. You don’t have to pay me back’. I rushed out of his office after saying, Thank you. Thank you, many times, feeling relieved and grateful and also feeling humiliated having to beg for money.
In spite of all the problems that I had, I did well in my study in my freshman year, and in my sophomore year a math teacher gave me a grading job that paid me enough money for my tuition and other expenses. I thanked God because I did not have to go to bed hungry and because I did not have to worry about the tuition.
With the money problem being less of my worry, I focused my attention to study. I did well in Mathematics and Physics. But English and History were another story, but I passed the courses. I wanted to make all A’s in my major which was electrical engineering. But to my great dismay, the courses were difficult. I could follow the equations in the texts, but having no practical experience – like playing with electrical toys or games – I had no ‘feel’ for resistors, inductors, and capacitors. I had no ‘feel’ for transformers, motors,…I prayed God to guide me in my major field, but again God seemed to say, “It’s your problem. You have to find a way.” As a result, I ended up with B;’s and C’s and some A’s.
At graduation, my grade was good enough to be accepted at a graduate school, but I felt like a failure. How can I be Edison of Korea with these kinds of grade? I thought. How can I invent something like Edison’s light bulb that will be used by every household in the world when I can not build a simple circuit shown in the lab manual and make it work? I did not go to the graduation ceremony. I was depressed. I didn’t want to see anyone. Instead I wanted to run way feeling ashamed. But where to?
Part 7: As I look back
How did I survive the first seven years in America without money, with a poor command of Egnlish, in a totally different culture? Feeling like a failure for not meeting my expectations?
As I mentioned in the beginning, I was able to survive the difficulties that I faced in America, following the examples of my father and mother. My father and mother had absolute faith in God, and they marched on through the dark tunnels of despair and distress with courage, love and grace.
My father: During WWII in 1940’s the Japanese forbade Korean Christians to worship in their churches by closing all the church doors. Instead, they ordered all Koreans to walk up to the Shinto temple and bow down to the picture of their emperor. They expected my father, a Christian minister, to do the same.
“Are they out of their minds, expecting me to go up to the Shinto Temple, and bow down to the picture of their emperor? No way,” was my father’s response. “My God is the God of Jesus Christ.”
“Do you want to end up in prison?”
“Yes, I am willing to die for my God.”
“OK, then you get what you deserve.”
The Japanese police took my father to prison.
Father had a stroke in prison and was released from the prison under house arrest. The police came to see whether Father was at home, any time of the day and night – without notice – in the dark of the night when everyone was asleep or when Mother was alone with Father while their children were at school. For three years we lived under the watchful eyes of the Japanese police.
WWII came to an end in 1945. The Japanese left Korea and the church doors were open again. Father started to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him would not perish, but have everlasting life,” Father recited the Bible.
“Come, my people. Let us give thanks to our God, who sent his son to die on the cross for our sins and who raised him from the dead for our salvation.”
Unfortunately, the peace lasted for only 5 years. June 24, 1950, the North Korean army with the support of Russian arms broke through the 38th parallel line, that divided the North from the South. Within days, the Northern army entered Seoul, the capital city of South Korea. For ninety days, we lived under North Korean control. All the church doors were closed again. North Korean officers started to arrest Christian leaders in Seoul.
Relatives and friends urged Father to go into hiding, but Father refused, saying,
“I have served my God of Jesus Christ all my life. I will not run away. My life is in God’s hands.”
He recited the Scripture: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine,…? ….For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
One morning Father and I went out to the community garden near our house to pull weeds and water the lettuce and radishes. As we walked back to the house, we saw two young men talking to Mother at the gate. When they saw us coming, they approached Father, bowed respectfully, and asked Father to attend a Christian minister’s meeting to discuss church-related matters.
Then Father looked at Mother and me, and walked away between the two men. He never came back home since that day. He was probably shot somewhere along a dirt road and was left there to bleed to death. Whatever might have happened to Father, I am sure that he was at peace in his heart, picturing God planting his feet on Higher Ground.
My mother: Mother married a Christian minister in the land of Buddhists and Confucianists in the early 1900s. She bore ten children. Three of her ten children died before they could walk and talk. She lost two of her grown-up sons and her husband because of WWII and the Korean War.
During WWII, Mother was tormented by the Japanese police because her husband was a Christian minister and an educator. After the end of WWII, she was tormented by the South Korean police because her oldest son was a communist in the democratic South. She was tormented by the North Korean communists because her husband was a Christian minister. There were tension, frustration, fear, and sorrow in our family during those periods. Under such conditions, a mere mortal would have been crushed, ending up in a mental hospital or turning into a bitter person, angry at God, angry at the world, and angry at people. But Mother did not buckle. She marched on and led us onward with love and grace.
Mother gave thanks to God when everything around us was darkness and gloom. She gave thanks to God for His love for us while I saw no love — instead, only hatred and killing. She prayed for the well-being of others, even when our own well-being was at stake. She shared with our neighbor when we did not have enough food left even for us. During the refugee period, she fed me while she went hungry.
The life of my mother was suffering upon suffering. Yet her faith in God gave her the strength to lead her children with love and wisdom through her trials and tribulations. She prayed in the morning. She prayed in the evening. I found her praying in the dark of the night while everyone was fast asleep. She prayed, sometimes with her eyes drenched in tears.
Throughout my growing years, I marveled at the strength of her character, which came from her absolute faith in God. But often, I wondered, how she could praise Him when suffering was all around her. I wondered, how she could thank Him when there seemed nothing to be thankful for. I wondered, how she could sing about God’s wondrous creation when all I saw around me was destruction: scorched hills by the bombs from the sky, corpses on the roadways piled up like trash, and children roaming the streets without their parents.
How could I go astray with the image of my mother praying day and night and with the image of my father never giving up his faith even when his life was in danger? Those images gave me courage to rise above many difficulties and to march on to fulfill my dream in America. I marched on believing that God would guide me even I was not sure what I was getting into.
I tried to give thanks. To give praise. In spite of loneliness and the worry not having enough money to pay for tuition. In spite of the darkness and gloom all around me. Believing that God was with me in my journey, not only through my happy times, but also through the dark tunnels of despair where the only things that I could feel were pain and worry.
I lived with the Bible passages that talked of faith: Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went….For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker was God
To me believing was like a beacon in a stormy sea. It helped me to move toward the goal that I had set while passing through the set-backs along the way. And I am grateful that I attained much of my goals in America. I know that my mother was proud of me. I am also sure that my father would have smiled at me if he were alive today.