Archive for March, 2014

Silvia Wilson Moves to South Korea

by on Friday, March 28th, 2014

Silvia at the Marrakesh Night in Seoul on December 25, 2009

This interview was originally posted in November, 2010. I’m posting it again in her memory. Silvia died of a heart attack on March 27, 2014. We know she was happy and posting on Facebook the night before. She was well loved on both sides of the Pacific. The photos of her surroundings are Silvia’s own. I have added a few of her.

Moving to Korea to teach English can be difficult. In fact, Silvia’s experience with less-than-honest recruiters and insolvent private language schools is fairly typical. What is much less typical is her decision not to give up and go home. To me her experience illustrates how much personality determines a person’s ability to get along abroad. Here are her words from a 2008 interview.

Silvia’s story

Silvia in Seoul in May, 2013

In July of 2001, my son Jim called from San Francisco and said, “I’m going back to Korea to teach. You want to come with me? You’ll love it.”

I had become a passionate Asiaophile by reading on the floor of my grandfather’s attic with the sun pouring in onto the unpainted wood. He had a collection of National Geographics which went all the way back to the 1880s. I was entranced by the stories of people going down the Yangzste River in steamboats and Victorian ladies visiting royal courts in Thailand. I saw Europe as an extension of my own culture but Asia as alien and fascinating. It was so different, and there was so much to learn.

On my sixteenth birthday, my father took me to a Korean-Chinese restaurant and taught me how to use chopsticks because “you never know where you’re going to end up.” So decades later when I asked what he thought about my going to Korea, he said, “Well, you won’t starve.”

I contacted recruiters to put my name in for various jobs, and they promised that they would find me a place in Seoul where I could teach high school students. I waited and waited.

The last five years in Maine had been really hard. My husband died, I had no income and was struggling to keep afloat in a business that was going down like the Titanic. I was just miserable. I couldn’t find work, and I was taking one temporary job after another. In early September my father died. Then 9/11 happened, leaving us all traumatized. On October 4 my furnace was declared dead. This was Maine, where it’s impossible to live without heat. Three days after the furnace died, I got a call from a recruiter in Korea asking if I could come within two weeks. So I gave up the course I was taking in computer repair and gave away my animals—a lama, a herd dog, and I don’t know how many cats. My brother lent me enough money for a round-trip plane ticket, which I had to have to get into the country. At the consulate I got a visa stamp on my passport. I got to Korea before the deadline.

The girls in Seoul, May 2012

The recruiter who met me at the airport told me he was taking me to Seoul, but instead he took me to Ilsan, about two or three kilometers from northeastern Seoul. I didn’t even know where I was. I had a nice studio apartment on the seventh floor with a view of the hills of North Korea in the distance. In 2001 the mountain nearest me had propaganda signs posted on it. At night when the billboards lit up, the light was so bright that the whole mountain glowed like it had a little halo around it. It was kind of pretty. There was a river with a road beside it—maybe the Imjin River, but I’m not sure—and an extremely high barbed-wire fence with coils of barbed wire on the top.

The next day I discovered the school wasn’t a high school, but a pre-primary daycare center. Some of the children were not entirely toilet trained. I had a little boy in my class who was supposed to be four years old, but he was very, very tiny.  I was told he was born premature. If he said “shil,” apparently meaning hwajangshil [toilet], you had to pick him up and run like hell.

A rock garden nearby

In the meantime, my son Jim was still in San Francisco trying to sell off the possessions he and his wife had accumulated. It took him three months to get to Korea, so he didn’t get here until after my school went bankrupt. Both of us spent the winter running around looking for work, so our paths only crossed maybe five times in three months, but I remember we saw The Lord of the Rings together.

The daycare center was an attempt to help poor, working mothers, who would drop their kids off on their way to work. Because of their working hours, we were open from 9:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night, sometimes later. It was a hard job, ten hours a day, sometimes six days a week. For the first two months I was paid two million won a month, which was about $1,500 at the time. The third month, the place was going bankrupt. They gave me a choice: a ticket to go back to America or whatever they could pay me, which would probably be half my salary.

I did have a ticket back, but I still didn’t have any heat in Maine. That was the deciding factor. I had survived the ice storm of 1998 huddled down in that house. I knew how hard it was to heat a house with wood, and I didn’t have enough wood to get through the winter. It would have been totally impossible. So I said I’d take the half pay and the apartment they rented for me, and I’d hunt for a job.

Motorcycle delivery people

Motorcycle delivery people

I left there in January 20, 2002, and I found a job where I taught for three months before I was out of work again and had to re-register in a different district with different regulations. I had to write back to my college to get more transcripts and all that stuff. My boss was a great guy, but his wife was the bookkeeper, and she figured out very quickly that they couldn’t afford a native speaker. In fact, she said they were making more money with the math tutoring part of the school, so they should get rid of the English language part of it.

So there I was. No job again. I stayed in an apartment that belonged to my son’s employer, who was nervous about leaving the place empty because it was on the edge of the red light district. After that I moved to a yŏgwan, an inn, with a pleasant enough space. I was there during the 2002 World Cup, and I was right on the main street where all the parading was going on in the middle of the night. Every time Korea won a game, there would be a parade. I had made friends in the neighborhood by this time, so for the last Korean game one of them pasted a Korean flag on my cheek, and I had on my red bandanna and red tee-shirt. I was out there at two o’clock in the morning, marching along and singing, “We are the champions.” Very exciting. A lot of fun. Also, by this time I’d been in Korea almost nine months. I felt really at home.

I find people here very easy to live with. I think it’s because they’re basically small town people who know they have to get along with people, even if they don’t like them. I approached the Koreans around me in the same way I would the people in my hometown. Now I know Mainers in general are similar to Koreans because we have a lot of the same values: a work ethic, a desire for our children to have a better life, often a social life that revolves around the church. I grew up on a farm, and most Koreans have some connection with farms—growing up on one or visiting their grandparents’ farm when they were children.

A temple garden near my house

People are friendly. I’ll be walking down the street, and they’ll nod and say hello to me. Sometimes we’ll stop and have a little conversation that is half words and half charades. The other day when it was threatening to rain, I was coming down the mountain. A lady who was walking up said hello to me in Korean and rubbed her knee, indicating her arthritis, and pointed at the sky. I said hello and agreed that it was going to rain. We communicated mostly through hand signals, but it was a very satisfying conversation.

To give you an idea of how the farmers from both countries can interact, in 1979 some Korean farmers came to Vassalburo, Maine because land was cheap then. They rented some land and everybody in town noticed that the Koreans grew the most wonderful cabbages. But at the end of the year the contractor reneged on his promise to buy them. We had gotten screwed six years previously by big city a contractor who had promised us good money for daikon, the large white Japanese radish. The Koreans’ cabbages rotted in the fields, but some of the people stayed, settled in, kept on working and got jobs locally while they continued to farm. We admired them, so that when Mr. Kim got around to building a house, the people in the neighborhood helped him and showed him about insulating for Maine winters. It was really interesting to see how the villagers watched the newcomers before welcoming them. They liked what they saw, so they helped out when they had a chance, which is classic Maine behavior.

Shortly after I came here, I began meeting people who looked familiar. I met a woman who looked so much like someone I knew in Maine. Mainers often don’t admit it, but we’ve got a lot of Native American blood, and of course there’s a strong racial connection between Koreans and Native Americans.

A street corner

For example, my friend William Turner, who’s half Native American, was lost in North Korea during the Korean War. When he found an abandoned farm house, he ditched his uniform for some farmer’s clothes and carried his gun on his back in a wooden A-frame pack. He crept south, going into abandoned farmhouses and unearthing the kimchi that was hidden there and eating it. From a distance he could pass for Korean. The hardest part was making it through to the American lines. Eventually he got to a place where he could see some sentries, and he called to them in a low voice. They were going to shoot him, but he told them that the Yankees had won the World Series that year or some other dumb-fool baseball fact that identified him as an American.

In Korea I met a man who could have been William Turner’s son—same spiky hair sticking out, same sort of aquiline nose, high cheek bones and a good sense of humor. Not quite as quiet as William was. I kept meeting people who looked like Mainers I knew in their appearance and mannerisms. And there were language similarities between Korean and Algonquin, even between the l-and-r sound of Korean and the same sound in Mainer French. The first winter I was here I imagined myself living in the French-speaking quarter of Lewiston, and I felt comfortable. I said to myself that I was only a day’s flight from home, so it was pointless to get homesick. I was so interested in learning about the culture that I just never thought about it.

The differences I saw just seemed to highlight the similarities. The mountains don’t look exactly the same because they haven’t been scrubbed down by a glacier, but the trees and the forested nature of the country is very similar, with conifers and deciduous trees—pines and oaks and maples. The smell of the dead leaves on the ground in the fall is very much the same.

I was amused the first time I saw a roll of toilet paper on the dining room table of a house, completely bare and unadorned, without even a doily covering it. Toilet paper is used as napkins. My grandmother was always making lacy, fluffy things to cover the toilet paper in the bathroom.

A school where I taught

My family has a strong oral tradition, and we remember the Civil War—literally. It was passed down to us. My Grandmother Neal’s father was at Ford’s Theater when Lincoln was shot. My maternal great-grandfathers and one of my paternal great-grandfathers were in the Union Army. So I have a sense of what Koreans experienced in their civil war, which is what they call it. If the Confederates had stopped fighting under a cease fire, but not a peace treaty, the South and the North would be two very different places. South Korea was like the South in the United States, mainly agricultural, and the North in both places was mainly industrial. The difference was that in Korea the industrial base was destroyed during the war, whereas in the U.S. the South never made it far enough north to bust up the factories in places like the Boston suburbs. If that had happened, it would have been a different kind of war. Also, the Canadians didn’t come down like the Chinese did in Korea, and the Spanish didn’t come to America the way the Americans did to Korea.

I’ve been here for close to eight years, and I’m comfortable. I have enough money to get by and a tiny apartment with a little squat of a bathroom and a large shower room where I keep my washing machine and my refrigerator. I have a little galley kitchen and a normal, maybe ten by twelve bedroom.  The first time I flew back to Korea after trip to Maine, I felt really good as we started flying over the peninsula. The last time, I felt the same thrill you feel in your heart when you come back to your home country. Maybe it’s because the last five years there were so hard, but Maine just doesn’t do that for me anymore.

Sunshine Joe through Our Eyes

by on Saturday, March 15th, 2014

Aida Aspiras and Imelda Marcos

Jose Aspiras

Jose Aspiras was one of a group of journalists who in the 1950s made history by refusing to reveal their sources. They were jailed for contempt. The incident led to legislation which protected journalists and their sources. Under the administration of Ferdinand Marcos, Jose Aspiras became Presidential Press Secretary and then the Minister of Tourism. He served as a Representative of the 2nd District of La Union to the 7th Congress (1969-1972) and then a member of the Interim National Legislature established when the country shifted from a presidential to a parliamentary system. He was then elected to the 8th Congress (1987-992), 9th Congress (1992-1995), and 10th Congress (1995-1998). He also served as president of the World Tourism Organization and the Pacific Area Travel Association. He is considered the father of the Balikbayan and the Reunion for Peace Programs. At the time of his death in 1999, he was the head of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office, the Philippines’ coordinating agency in Taiwan.

Aida Aspiras is my friend and neighbor. This interview took place in my study. Later Aida invited me to sit in on an interview with Imelda Marcos, which appears in an edited version below.

Aida’s story

My father, Jose Aspiras, was from a modest family. All he had was a good head. I never met his dad, but he was very close to his mother, a very prayerful lady in a long Filipina dress. She spoke very little but when she did it was something of substance. Dad was basically a simple provincial man who on a hot summer night could sleep inside without air-conditioning or outside under a tree. He was brought up by his half-brother, a priest who became the Archbishop of Pangasinan, near Baguio. Dad’s brother was to me the epitome of priesthood, a holy man–honest, strict and disciplined. We weren’t allowed to curl our hair, use makeup or nail polish or wear revealing clothes. He officiated at my wedding and at my brother’s wedding, but after that no more. Maybe he thought he hadn’t done a good job because both marriages ended in separation.

La Union Province in northwest Luzon..

As a boy my father lived in the archbishop’s palace, where he served mass with his older brother. He was very good in school. He went to the University of the Philippines and Ateneo University on scholarships. He finished a degree in journalism and started a law course. His first job was writing for The Manila Times and what was then The Manila Chronicle.

Having a journalist for a dad meant he was asleep when we left for school and gone when we got home. He had to be in the office at night because the papers came out early in the morning. He worked so hard. Like a lot of journalists, he was thrown in jail for contempt because he refused to disclose his sources. Their defense lawyer was Ferdinand Marcos. After my father got out of jail, he started to follow Marcos and write speeches for him.

Before my father joined government, he was the public relations officer for the Textile Mill Association of the Philippines. He ran for Congress and lost. We were packing up to return to Manila, where we were going to school, when he told all of us we had to go congratulate his opponent, Congressman Manuel Cases. I didn’t want to go because Cases had said so many bad things about my father. Dad said, “Aida, don’t be mad. Politics is like a contest. Somebody wins, somebody loses. People like me too. I got thousands of votes. They like him more. So let’s all go and congratulate him.” After the election he decided to move back to La Union. In the next election Marcos was running for president, and he supported my father’s candidacy. Dad became a Congressman.

Later Marcos appointed him as his first Press Secretary, a job he held for five years.He’d say, “I really don’t like making enemies. As the mouthpiece of the president, you’ll always have people mad at you. I’m a PR guy. I want a job where I can make as many friends and as few enemies as possible.”

My father held two portfolios, one as member of the General Assembly [popularly still called the Congress] and one as the Minister of Tourism. He said, “I am in government now. I don’t want anybody to make money out of my position. If you’re not called to my office, please don’t come.”

Then in 1983 Ninoy [Benigno Aquino] was killed. I never saw my dad so angry. He said, “We’re finished.” Then of course one thing led another [as public outrage rose over the assassination]. In 1986 Dad took the Marcoses up to where they were supposed to get a chopper to Hawaii.

For a long time I was the leader of the youth organization, the Namnama Ti La Union, a youth organization with no political affiliation.  After Marcos was deposed, I took over in my province. I went to La Union for a meeting. One of the candidates for governor of the province was Joaquin Ortega, a 70-year-old man. I walked into the room and said, “Hello everybody.”

The governor said, “Here’s your candidate for vice-governor.”

My father said, “One politician in the Apiras family is enough.”

Then the candidate for vice-governor, a doctor, pulled out of the race at the last minute. The deadline for filing the certificate of candidacy was midnight of the following day. My dad said, “You’re not going back to Manila. I want you to run for vice-governor.” They put me in to solidify the support of the electorate. Someone else might have been as electable.

After the election my dad took me aside. He said, “Congratulations. I never got the lead you had. You won by a landslide.” What he said next didn’t make sense at the time, but I always kept it at the back of my mind. “Listen to me, and listen to me well. Now that you have won, you have nothing else to prove. Remember you owe the people who elected you, not the other way around. Lead with humility and courage. When you make decisions always take into consideration what’s best for the majority.” I’m repeating this verbatim. At the time I was thirty-eight. I didn’t understand, but I discovered what he meant later.

When I was Officer in Charge of the province and had to make decisions, I brought all my documents home to get my dad’s opinion. Once I said, “Dad, look the cost of this cement. How come we’re buying it at a high price when we’re supposed to have a 20% discount?”

He would just read the documents one by one and set them aside. Then he’d say, “Okay. Wait for the governor to decide. You know, Aida, in government if you make a mistake, even after your tenure as a government officer, and people want to make it difficult for you, they can sue you for irregularities. So it’s best to play it safe all the time. If you’re not sure about a document, don’t sign it.”

I came from the private sector, where the paper trail is the same every day. In government, it can change. Today it’s from left to right, but tomorrow it might be from right to left. So it’s hard. The system is difficult. At that time I was also having problems with my sons. My father saw I was really distraught. He told everybody, “Aida’s not running anymore. She’ll have to take care of her children first. What good is she in politics if her family is broken?”

In 1996 when my father got cancer, he was diagnosed here, and my mother said, “We’ll get a second opinion in the States.” I went ahead to look for an oncologist. At the time Dad was in Taiwan as the head of the Manila Economic Council Office. Since we didn’t have an embassy in Taiwan, as the chairman of MECO was the equivalent to a Philippine ambassador to Taiwan. Anyway, in the States he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. The doctor said he would have to have chemotherapy. We were living in my sister’s two-bedroom house in San Francisco. I saw him counting out money. It was so sad to see a man of his stature counting money and telling my mom, “Amparo, you keep this. I’m not going to undergo chemotherapy. I’m not going to get well anyway. It will just prolong my life.”

My mother was angry. “No, no, no. Even if we have to sell our home in Manila, you are going to have chemotherapy. If we have to sell, we will.”

I was angry too, and I was sad. My dad was sitting in a Lazy-Boy reading the newspaper. I said, “Dad, why didn’t you make yourself rich?”

He didn’t answer me. He didn’t even put down the newspaper and look at me.

When I asked again, he lowered his newspaper and said, “Torpe,” which is Tagalog for stupid. “For what? So people spit at you when you turn your back? For you and your brother and sisters to be fighting over what I made? I’d be tossing and turning in my grave.” Then he went back to his newspaper.  “Sorry, kid, all you’ll inherit from me is a good name.”

I thought, “What’s a good name anyway?” I’m a slow learner.

Even at the height of my dad’s popularity, our lifestyle didn’t change, and I’m grateful for that.  My son Padjo married a woman who came from a well-educated, well-to-do family. She said, “Your grandparents’ life is so simple.” Maybe she thought for dinner we would put out a lot of silver and crystal on the table. It was the same before and after Marcos left, even after Dad became ambassador. My dad sheltered us from politics. He didn’t expose us.

As a matter-of-fact, when people said the Marcoses were thieves, it was a shock to us. That’s why when we hear that, I say, “I don’t know those things.”

Martial law was good for the first year. There was a curfew. Filipinos don’t listen to their leaders if they’re not afraid of them. Marcos ordered the execution of a drug dealer, Lin Seng. After that the dealers were too scared to sell drugs.

My dad was like a man who’d swallowed Emily Post [the best-selling Etiquette, 1920]. He was so proper, and he always had the right thing to say. For instance, when he was very sick and in a wheelchair, he said, “Aida, what are you doing this morning?”

“Why, Dad?”

“Because there’s something I’d like you to get for me—but only if you’re not busy.” So how do you react to somebody who would ask you that? He never felt entitled.

“Ok, what can I get for you?”

He sent me out to get some jewelry for my mother, something not too expensive and not too cheap. He asked someone else to buy each of us the least expensive Cartier watch. There was a note saying, “Thank you, Dad.”

Even though he was in pain and couldn’t eat or sleep much, he was always very considerate. He had a doctor, Francisco Lukban, who never charged him for his services. When the doctor came in, my dad would try to stand up to shake his hand. Once when the doctor told him he should take a test he didn’t want to take, he blew his top and walked out of the hospital.

I said, “Dad, why did you talk to the doctor like that? And why were you mad at him?.”

Before he went back to the hospital, he told me to fetch the bottle of Johnny Walker Blue Label that had been given to him by some important people. He took it back to the hospital with a note apologizing for losing his temper.  The doctor told me later that he’d never drunk the whiskey because it was so precious to him.

So that’s pretty much my dad. If he were alive he would be ninety years old in August. We’re writing a coffee table book which will be The Life and Times of Jose Aspiras.

In preparation for the book, journalist Jojo Sylvestre interviewed Imelda Marcos. I was present for the interview, which with his permission I’ve presented here in a shortened form.

Imelda Marcos’s story

Jose Aspiras—he was called Sunshine Joe—and Marcos were friends even back when Marcos was a Congressman. When Marcos became Senate President, Joe was involved in many projects for Ferdinand. Then when Marcos became President, he became Press Secretary. Because of his very pleasant and wonderful personality Marcos put him on tourism, and he did a lot for tourism and for the country—showing the real potential of the country. Marcos also had great need for him. When there were conflicts and misunderstandings among the different people in the Cabinet, he was a peace maker. He fixed things up. That was very important because there was a lot of intrigue. In the midst of power, there is a lot of envy and fighting for a higher post. I used to ask him to join me on my travels because in the groups there were always misunderstandings. You don’t need that, especially when you’re working for a foundation. He was democratic. He brought people together. If I had a social event, for instance, he was very good at organizing it.

He knew what to do, and he was almost indispensable. When people were fighting he was always the one who talked to everybody and put things in place. He had charisma. He could attract people. And he was a credible speaker, a big asset to a political campaign. During the election he was Press Secretary, which was tremendously important.

Tourism became a very important department in the Marcos administration under Aspiras. Mrs. Aspiras and the whole family worked with us because they were all pleasant. Mrs. Aspiras helped in many projects. She was very efficient. It was nice to have her around because she was a beautiful woman. Having beauty around you helps your mind and your spirit. Joe had a wonderful family. The children were hardly walking when they came to visit in Malacañang [the presidential palace].

The Marcos monument in La Union

When the Miss Universe Pageant was held here, I presented a parade of the history of the Philippines, starting with the Stone Age. We were not ashamed to show all the different tribes, to show how rich our culture was, to show our history, to show the best parts. Then to show the Spanish colonization and World War II and what we had to go through under the Japanese. And also the Americans. I wanted people to understand the Philippines and see how beautiful our culture was. Well, I suppose Miss Universe became my responsibility because it was hosted here and I was First Lady. Joe’s opinion was important because we wanted beautiful things not only for women, but also for men. He had quite a talent for visualizing how things would look.

From the beginning to the end, he was with us. Even before Malacañang. That was because 1) he was pleasant to be around, 2) he was very useful in calming down misunderstanding, 3) he was very efficient, 4) he could put things together beautifully and 5) he was Ilocano and he was super-loyal. In fact, we were surprised that he even had a monument of Ferdinand built in Ilocos. Ferdinand never saw it. Unfortunately during the Ramos time they blew it up. I saw it only after we came back from exile. We always stopped by La Union when we went north to Agoo. Joe was a friend. A delight. Above all, he was a man of good character.

 

Becoming Useful

by on Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

I met Kee Park in 2013 when I was in Seoul during the Buddha’s Birthday week. He’s a very laid back, relaxed man who often interrupts his conversation with a joyful, delightful laugh that sounds exactly like my former meditation teacher, a Canadian who was a Buddhist monk for twenty years. This is a recent Skype interview which we did when he was in Cambodia and I was in the Philippines.

Kee’s story

Dr. Kee Park

So why don’t you just start telling me about yourself? When did you and your parents go to the US?

I was born in Korea. My dad’s a doctor. In the early 1970s he was in private practice in Seoul. Because of the shortage of doctors in the US at that time, it was fairly easy for foreign doctors to go there. A lot of his friends had already gone, and it sounded like a good move. For Koreans the US had always been a sort of older brother. It was the place to be.  Everybody wanted to go there. So when the opportunity came, my dad said, “We’re going to move to the US.” We immigrated in January of 1974, when I was nine years old, and he did a three-year residency in Hoboken, New Jersey.

I remember the move to the States as quite painful. My mother didn’t speak any English, my dad spoke functional English. We children didn’t speak any English. It felt like, “Throw the animals in the water and see which ones can swim.” We had to pick up the English language very quickly.

In the mid-70s, it seemed to me all the Asian immigrants were lumped together in people’s minds as “boat people”, Vietnamese war refugees. Also, in Korea at that time we didn’t have much of an identity. Korea was a country torn up by war trying to rebuild itself. It still had a fairly low standard of living. So if you look at it from a social standpoint I felt inferior. Obviously, from a national standpoint we couldn’t even liberate ourselves. We had to be liberated from the Japanese during World War II by the Americans, and then we were occupied by the Americans, and a government was set up in South Korea. So we always sort of never really felt…whole, I guess.

Back in Korea, my dad was a professional, and we were solid middle or upper-middle class. We had a maid, we lived fairly comfortably. I don’t remember feeling socially inferior in Korea. But when we immigrated, we were told, “We’re never going to be as good as the American people so we have to try twice as hard.” The message was clear.  I was not as good as these people. Sometimes that can make someone very ambitious to be become “somebody”.  It’s probably not like that now, but in the 70s, being an immigrant from Korea was very difficult.

I think for the most part I’ve overcome that, but it took a long time. I did what I thought I had to do. I could see it was important to succeed in American society. But success—nobody taught me what success should look like. Nowadays I would define success as being useful. But when I was a teenager success meant money, status, power, respect, those kinds of things. I was only 5’7” and 125 pounds. I wasn’t going to be successful as an athlete. For me the way to succeed was to study hard and become a professional of some sort.

I attended junior high in Union City, New Jersey, which is on the others side of Lincoln Tunnel from New York City. I picked up the language pretty quickly. We then moved to Wayne, New Jersey. In high school I was the student council treasurer. I remember hearing, “Let the Asian guy be the treasurer. They’re good at math.” Typical stereotype. It seemed funny at the time. I was part of the all-school musical production we put on every year. I was on the crew side, starting out the first year as a stagehand and spotlight operator, which meant standing on the catwalk on the roof of the auditorium with this 50-pound light generating all kinds of heat, just aiming it a character on command from the lighting director and following that person across the stage. Then I moved up and became the lighting director my senior year.

Were there other Korean-Americans around you? Or did you feel isolated in that way?

There were only a few Koreans in Wayne during the 1970’s. Forty years later things have changed. There are massive Korean churches in Wayne, New Jersey. There are Koreans everywhere.

Our parents wanted us to assimilate quickly as possible. There was no emphasis on trying to teach us about Korean history and culture and language. I think that also contributed to this feeling of weak identity.  I had to become an American as quickly as possible. All I remember was that I just had to succeed and do well in school and all that.

When I was a kid we went to Europe several times, and I felt that the Europeans, particularly the Germans, were much more sophisticated than I was, particularly when I was a college freshman. I’d been in high school there, so I knew how much better their education was. It really stuck with me. The other students thought the Americans were just so naïve.

I see what you mean, but with me it wasn’t sophistication. It was more the fact that the Korean people—and now I’m going to talk about Koreans in a general way, have issues.

Whenever a country is occupied by outside forces, by force, someone takes us and strong-arms us and says, “Do you give up?” and they make us subjects to their will, that has an effect on the national psyche. Then, when we don’t liberate ourselves through our own strength, we don’t kick them out but are liberated by another force, a “friendly force,” but still…. There are people in Korea who will always look up to the US and say, “They’re so much better than us.” They see the US as protector and defender, and that’s okay. I’m grateful for what the Americans have done, but there comes a time when Koreans have to overcome that and say, “We’re well now. Thank you for what you did, but we’re okay now. You don’t need to meddle with our internal affairs now.” It’s like a kid growing up, a teenager trying to find his identity. It is important to allow him to make his own decisions. But until Koreans become fully actualized, we will tend to believe Americans are better and smarter.

Looking back, there was some of that going on when I moved to the US. I think it played into the way I felt about me in relation to Americans. If I want to be somebody, I have to work twice as hard as they do. This was drilled into my mind. It also made me feel like I was never going to be as good as them.

But things evolved. As got older, clearly I was doing better at taking tests in school. I was a very good student. So academically I out-performed my peers, but that never took away from the thought that they were better than me.

I became a neurosurgeon, and I thought all my problems were solved.  I had achieved success. “I’m done. I’m at the top.” I got married. I had children. I had a very successful practice. I was a prominent member of my community. I was well respected. But I felt something was missing.

I’d become a Christian sometime during my residency, so maybe in my early 30s, which played a big role in what I’m doing now. Gradually, as I developed spiritually, I overcame my demons, such as low self-esteem. I could lighten up and be free of all those things, so I could become more useful to others. I found out I wasn’t as bad as I’d thought I was, other people weren’t as good as I’d thought they were. We’re all the same. Doesn’t matter if you are Korean or American. Everyone has guilt feelings and fears and resentments. It’s amazing how similar we are no matter what backgrounds we come from. That’s helped a lot for me, as an immigrant.

Through spiritual development I was able to ask, “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” I was practicing neurosurgery in a small town. When I first went to this small town in Missouri, there were only three neurosurgeons. By 2008 there were nine. We had more surgeons than we knew that to do with. A time came when I said, “There’s got to be a place where there’s a bigger need than in this small town. Maybe there’s another place where I’m more needed.”

I took a year off. My wife and I took our two daughters out of school—at that time were eight and ten—and we went traveling around the world. The plan was to travel for one year. We stopped at places where I volunteered to teach neurosurgery to local surgeons. This was through an organization called FIENS, Foundation for International Education of Neurological Surgery.  I volunteered in Ethiopia and Nepal. Then we found out my wife was pregnant. So we cut the year short and came back to the US in the spring and had our third child.

By this time I had caught the bug of helping in developing countries. So I formally closed up shop. I decided I was not going back into private practice. I tied up the loose ends and then started working in Ethiopia on a regular basis. I would go back and forth, sometimes taking my family for a while. In 2009, I became the director of spinal surgery at a teaching hospital in Ethiopia. I did that for four years.

Then in January of last year I was invited to do a training course hosted by the Cambodian Neurosurgical Society. It’s a fairly new society, there are only nineteen members. Until now each one of them had to go abroad and get some training and come back. They wanted to start their own training program in Cambodia. They were looking for outside teachers, and I said, “You know what? This might be an opportunity for me.”

So I talked to my wife, and we came to Cambodia, and committed to staying for one year. We moved our family here in August of last year, and now it’s already February and we’ve pretty much decided to stay here three years. I don’t know where I’m going to go from here. I’m not a high-profile academic neurosurgeon with my name on textbooks.  I’m US-trained, board-certified neurosurgeon who is willing to serve in Cambodia. And that’s enough for these people. They’re saying, “We want you to teach us essential neurosurgery, basic neurosurgery.” They’re not looking to do esoteric stuff. They don’t have the capability. So I’m uniquely useful. That’s what I’m doing now. I’m a full-time volunteer. My title is Consultant in Neurosurgery in a government hospital here in Cambodia.

How do you like it?

We love it. Well, first of all, I feel very useful. What little I can bring here means a lot to the people. I could also provide kind of a bridge between the Cambodian neurosurgeons and the outside world because I brought contacts from the world organizations. Sunday night we have a professor from the University of Toronto coming for a week to help teach. We have another professor coming at the end of February. Next Saturday I’m going to Myanmar because the Myanmar Neurosurgery Society wants to get some training. I feel very useful. I’m making an impact, it’s deeply satisfying professionally, and I’m appreciated by the patients and the local surgeons and the residents. I can tell that they are really glad that I am here.

What about your wife and kids?

My wife’s an English teacher who stopped teaching when our children were born. She’s come back to teaching at a Christian international school here, where our children also attend. She works part-time, so we get a discount on the tuition, which is a big help. We get another discount because we were commissioned as missionaries by our church in New Jersey. It’s been good for my wife to get back to teaching. I think she really missed the connection with the students. It’s been challenging because she’s teaching eleventh and twelfth grade English.

My children—my little one, you can take her anywhere and she’ll have a blast. My oldest one is doing very well. My second one, we brought her here when she was thirteen, which is a very difficult age. I think she’s still angry. We’re trying to get her more involved with activities and things like that. We hope the more she’s engaged, the better she’ll adapt.

Overall the transition has been very refreshing. We don’t have all the insanity we have back home. Christmas was as relaxing as ever for us. There are no crazy shoppers, no ads on TV blasting away about what we’ve got to get now. No catalogs getting piled into our mailbox. We took two weeks and went to Vietnam and hung out at a beach resort. It was very relaxing.

How did you find Korea? Was that your first trip back?

No, actually I go to Korea at least a couple of times a year. We have relatives. I also go to North Korea to support the North Korean doctors. We bring in teams of doctors from the US. We always stop in Seoul. Now that we live in Cambodia, we hope to go to Korea fairly often. The whole family is going there in April for a few days.

More stories on Kee Park:

http://www.nkeconwatch.com/2010/07/11/neurosurgeon-travels-to-n-korea-on-medical-mission/

http://www.northjersey.com/community/84085572_Dr__Kee_Park_finds_life_mission_in_giving_back.html

http://dbpearson.blogspot.com/2010/07/kee-park-familychet-dol.html

http://mnshrink.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/from-the-bible-luke-1248/