By Jane Hong
My parents own a dry-cleaning business in the Bay Area, which usually comes as no surprise to the Korean American community. Far from their dream job, my parents settled for a job that could potentially lead to a steady income to support themselves in a foreign country. Once my mom gave birth to my sister and me, it became too late for them to explore other job options and dry-cleaning became more than just an occupation.
Six days a week, my dad wakes up at the crack of dawn to open the store as my mom prepares their lunch (or do-shee-rrak) for the day. Their business has become a fine-tuned operation, with my dad cleaning the clothes and a number of employees steaming, ironing, and pressing the hundreds of clothes that come through the shop. My mom is the seamstress and usually handles customers, acting as the face of the store.
With my parents working eleven hours a day, I had to spend a lot of days at their store while I was growing up. I dreaded every day that I had to spend there. The heat from the machines suffocated me and the lack of activity made my time there insanely boring. As I got older, I was expected to help out with certain tasks like tagging, bagging, or sorting the clothes. It’s tedious and tiring work that leaves my 20-year-old muscles sore and aching at the end of the work day. I think of my parents as superheroes for being able to handle a physically demanding job, come home, and take care of two kids all at the age of 60.
In high school though, I resented whenever my parents brought up their sacrifices and their tireless work. Whenever I fell beneath their expectations, I listened to them remind me of their journey to the United States and their struggle to manage a business so that I can pursue my education and career. I hated listening to what I didn’t want to hear in times of failure, mostly because it made me feel guiltier for disappointing them.
I wrongly accused them of holding their sacrifices over my head. It made me feel stifled and hopeless, knowing that nothing I do or achieve could possibly mean as much as everything they’ve done for my family.
What I failed to understand was that their pursuit of the American dream is all they know. They’re not fluent in English nor have they assimilated to American culture. All they know of the United States is the broken promise of liberty and opportunity as they head to another day working at the dry-cleaners. As an American born Korean (ABK doesn’t sound as good, does it?), I didn’t even attempt to appreciate the struggle of two Korean immigrants and how their definition of “American dream” was creating potential opportunity for me.
I see how my parents’ struggle to find the right English words pierces their tongues as they speak; the way they quizzically stare at signage and how it embarrasses them to ask me what something means; and how they clutch onto Korean culture in fear that this foreign land will steal it away from them. As my parents struggle with the 5,264 mile distance between South Korea and their unfamiliar home in the United States, I feel my desperation to make them feel as if each exhausting day spent at the dry-cleaners is actually worth it.
This is the cry of a first-generation college student: to become something great all because my parents allowed it for me.