American Immigrant Identity: Internal conflicts in a foreign land

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Lane T. Plummer
  • 86th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is the first part in a three-part series covering Col. Seung Paik's journey from his early years as a struggling immigrant to where he is now and the people who affected his life in between.

Col. Seung U. Paik, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa financial analysis and budget division, handles money. His passion, however, lies in taking time to share stories he has accumulated throughout his life and the lessons they have taught him with his coworkers.

Sometimes he'll even share his story of being an immigrant boy who was born in South Korea but raised 6,500 miles away in a Chicago suburb.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1970, Seung was brought into a household with two older sisters, Hui Jung and Hye Jung, and his mom and dad, Sun Ja and Nack Po.

His parents were well-educated. Sun Ja was a pharmacist and Nack Po was a college graduate with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

They were frugal with the money they had, eating mostly home-cooked meals of rice, seaweed, fish and cabbage. What the family needed was all that was purchased.

In 1971, a year after Seung's birth, the Paik family packed their belongings and migrated to Chicago.

The family planted their uprooted origins in the middle of a suburban neighborhood on the outreach of the big city after purchasing a small home. Sun Ja and Nack Po now had to find jobs; however, an obstacle taller than they could climb stood between them and their deserved careers: the English language.

By the time they arrived in Chicago, Sun Ja and Nack Po could only speak English at a third-grade level. In the U.S., if an immigrant hadn't learned a competent level of English, almost every door to a top-drawer job slammed shut and locked on them. Thus, Seung's parents began their American lives working at a dry cleaning facility 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

Because of this, their kids were left the key to the house and became "latchkey kids," children who returned from school to an empty home because their parents were away at work or children who were often left at home with little parental supervision.

"In this day and age, they would've gone to jail for doing that," Seung said. "When I woke up in the morning to get ready for school, my parents would already be gone, and by the time my sisters and I came home from school, they'd still be gone."

Soon after the school day was over, Seung and his sisters walked home and began the daily routine of completing homework and waiting for their mom and dad to come home, cook dinner and talk with them.

Hours would go by before the oldest sister would receive a call from Sun Ja.

Answering in subsequent "yeps," the young girl ran through mom's daily checkup.

"Alright, mom will be home in time to cook dinner. Love you," their mom would say, her accent still harboring the dominant Hangul alphabet she carried from South Korea.

Despite Sun Ja's fragmented English, her daughter still understood what she was trying to say.

"We didn't have a baby sitter or a nanny. Mom and dad couldn't afford them, and occasionally the neighbors would help watch us. That's how we grew up," Seung reflects. "It was three kids fending for themselves. That was our elementary years all the way through high school."

Seung looks out his office window, the bright sunshine of Germany's sky illuminating his short, black and grey hair. He leans back in his chair, his hands peacefully laid on its arms, and stares down at his desk. His soft voice lowers in volume.

"I look back and I think to myself 'It's a miracle that we survived,'" he said.

Fast forward to high school. Finding the right group of kids to hang out with wasn't hard for Seung. As he was about to enter John Hersey High School as a freshman, his demeanor was different. He was no longer the shy immigrant boy sitting apart from all the other kids in the classrooms; he was walking in the same groups of white kids that crowded the width of the school halls. He was firm about not letting anything hold him back from fully identifying himself as a white American.

The largest obstacle was the Korean culture waiting for him every night when he returned home.

Seung wouldn't let people inside his house, fearing they would smell the starchy, half-sweet and half-gluey odor of steaming rice. It was a comforting aroma that tells someone they're entering a Korean home. He worried they would come across his family and judge him from what they saw.

"I remember once my parents opened up the window and yelled outside of it with their broken English," Seung laughed. "I would want to be a certain distance from them because I didn't want my friends to hear any of that."

He clarified to his friends and teachers that his nationality was a U.S. citizen born in Chicago. He told them his ethnicity was Korean-American.

"Part of me had this identity crisis because part of me was like, 'I love Korean food. I speak Korean. I go to a Korean church,'" Seung explained. "But all my friends were white, my schools were white and I loved white American culture. Part of me was confused, a bit divided, and a bit ashamed."

Seung grew into his American life, and it was right before he graduated from high school that he finally took time to reflect on who he really was.

"I went through this period of confusion," Seung recalled. "'What are my roots? What is my heritage? What is my ethnicity? Why don't I embrace it the way I should?'"

Seung found ways to keep his mind off the constant deep questions. By the time he was at the tail end of his high school career, his gymnastics skills caught the eyes of many colleges around the country. Amidst his identity crisis, he found that if there was one thing he was good at, it was his agility and balance.

One day Seung was approached by a school in Colorado Springs, Colorado, after they had been impressed by his eye-popping gymnastic ability. It was a different college from the others; it wasn't going to be four to six years of learning and then back to find a job in the world for Seung. This school came with a contract that required an oath of office and a pledge to defend his adopted country.

The Air Force Academy approached Seung and offered him a chance to join the academy as a gymnast.

When Seung sat his parents down and broke the news about joining the Air Force, Sun Ja was shocked.

She repeatedly asked him, "Seung, wouldn't you rather stay closer to home?"

Her eyes said everything to him; she was coming to terms with her grown-up baby boy leaving her to defend the U.S.

Contrasting his emotional wife, Nack Po sat up, and his mouth stretched subtly into a soft smile. His chest slowly rose. His eyes met with Seung's, and his head gently nodded in approval. It finally came together for Seung; the military would help him discover his identity.