Citizens’ Journal is proud to present the Coming to America series of immigrant related interviews conducted by Ventura resident Dr. Kathleen S. Roos. CJ publishes a new story each Sunday. These stories describe what life was like in their native country, the whys of wanting to come to America and what they have found here. It is the hope of each interviewee that those born in America, who have not had these experiences may reflect on what it means to be an American by these immigrants. Many have risked their lives and their families to come to America. Some have had an easier road, but the desire to be free, to make choices and what it means to become an American is a thread found throughout these interviews.
In current news today look at the young man Enes Kanter, the Boston Celtics basketball player speaking out about human rights and comparisons to China and the companies who do business there! He is from Turkey and Muslim and his family is paying a price for his decision to speak out. He is also taking a lot of heat from others here in the U.S. to risk his career to take such a stand. A very decent guy who makes a great example to Americans. He is well-known and appreciates the U.S. and our freedoms and deplores the atrocities in China and other parts of the world relative to abuse and lack of human rights. Most of these interviewees are not well known, or famous but their stories matter. All the varying perspectives of the interviewees are presented. Each one is their own story.
For the Citizen’s Journal readers who want to go back and view previous interviews we have included a list of those already published which can be located through the journal’s search engine box by typing in Coming to America, and the name of the Country. These include interviews from Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge through Cambodia: The Next Generation (installments 1-3), Oaxaca, Mexico (4), Santiago, Chile (5), Aligarh, India (6), Santiago, Cuba (7), Cambodia: years later told by an American dental professional (8), Jalisco, Mexico (9), Bagdad, Iraq (10), Bulacan, Philippines (11), and United Kingdom (12).
This week’s installment CJ is presents Mark Lai’s story from Saigon, Vietnam. Future interviews will include Plauen, Germany, Rimmanapudi, India, Great Urswich, UK., Helsinki, Finland, Tehran, Iran, North Korea, Riga, Latvia, and Dr. Roos’ story from her travel and experiences.
Interview conducted with ‘Kay’ Kookhwa November 7, 2021
When and where were you born? Tell me some of your family background.
I was born in Pyongyang, North Korea. It is important for you to understand our history. From 1910 to 1945, Korea was under Japanese rule for almost 36 years. Before 1910 we were one Korea. In 1945 the U.S. bombed Hiroshima and told the Japanese to let Korea be free.
My family lived in North Korea for many generations. All Korea was totally controlled by the Japanese until the US finally defeated Japan. There were struggling factions and the 38th parallel was determined dividing North from South Korea.
Because Japan invaded Korea for 36 years, Korea had become a very poor country. It’s easy to control people when they have nothing or are uneducated. Most of the people realize how much control and how much pain is caused by the Japanese.
In Korea I come from a rich family. We were too rich and too well-known to be bothered by the regimes.
How does the education system work?
There were no schools available to most in Korea. You just didn’t go to school unless you were very rich. Then Japan would decide who would go to school and who would not. My father always went to the best schools. My mother was home schooled by her parents who were professors. There was a law school in Japan. School or even what you studied was not by choice. Japan selects who goes to school and what you will study. Since my dad was so smart and wealthy, he was chosen with his two older brothers to go to Japan and study law.
My grandparents and his brothers were operating a silk factory in North Korea. They employed hundreds of people. My grandparents owned a silk factory and farmland for over 100 years. They were the only lawyers (my dad and my two uncles) in all of Korea. My two uncles came home to North Korea and my dad stayed in Japan. Do not misunderstand, even going to law school as a Korean and to represent Koreans you were still under the Japanese Emperors’ rule.
Thus, for all Koreans living in Japan, my father is the only lawyer to handle all the legalities and businesses.
My dad was very powerful in Japan, and he was allowed to judge Koreans in Japan. Whenever there was a problem, it was given to my dad to decide. My dad was very much against communism and socialism movements from some of the Korean people. He would have people put to death for doing something illegal if they were pushing communism. He could decide who would die and who would be allowed to live.
This was the way it was during this time. That was the power and job he was given. Communists were trying to influence everyone in Korea at this time.
The Japanese provided my father and our family 24-hour security (round-the-clock). He had a lot of enemies, and a lot of friends due to this power. Because of his position and this power, he was given this needed protection. Then the Japanese sent my dad to Mongolia in 1942 to govern Koreans and the Chinese in that region. Japan was trying to capture Mongolia and put China under their regime. The Japanese provided homes and security for us. He met a lot of people that were Mongolian and Russians as friends. In 1945 the U.S. tried to free Korea from the Japanese.
The Japanese plan was to control Mongolia and put them under their rule and the Koreans be under Japan’s rule as well, but the United States did not want that nor did my dad. My dad knew what was going on. My father decided to sell everything he owned in Mongolia and returned to North Korea. He had heard rumors about the bombing of Hiroshima, and he wanted to get home to his family.
The Russian Communists were backing North Korea while the U.N. and the U.S. supported South Korea. It was a continuous push-pull situation for Korea. In the beginning there was an attempt to have one Korea. That is what all Koreans wanted. It didn’t happen and the 38th parallel divided us forever. During this time, my dad was home, and I was born several years later in North Korea.
The Communists-loving Koreans wanted my dad and uncle to join them to govern North Korea with them. He came from a super-rich and powerful family, he didn’t need money, he turned them down. My dad was always against communism and the Soviet Union. He had already lived under Japanese rule, and he wanted to raise his family in freedom. He wanted to be free and in hopes of a changing North Korea, we spent two more years in North Korea.
In our 1948 family meeting it was decided to escape to South Korea and who was to go and who was to stay. We didn’t want to go all together for fear of what would happen if we were all captured together. The family decided to have my dad escape from North Korea to South Korea first. He went first and hired what you call a ‘coyote’, and they know the way to escape through razor wires and mines and to locate a ‘rabbit hole’ to escape to the South. The coyote showed the way. My parents walked all night through a steep mountain range. I was 2 years old, and they were very concerned that I would make noise. I didn’t know any better and would cry and carry-on and laugh. They prayed that I would be quiet going across the border. The family held hands and they told me I had to be very, very quiet. Somehow, I sensed something was going on. I was very quiet, and my mom carried me on her back. My dad brought a lot of gold with him to sell for cash, so we would have money to survive until he could provide for us. We carried no pictures or any other belongings that could identify who we were.
When we got to South Korea we saw U.N., U.S. and South Korean soldiers on the other side. They took us to a room for questioning. In this interview room my dad was asked his name and he said, ‘Lee dong gun’. The interviewers immediately knew who my dad was, and they told him you will all need new identities. There are spies everywhere so you will be given a new name. My dad knew there were spies and knew he could be captured so his name and his age and his birthplace were all changed. My mom and my two sisters were all provided new identities as well. They did not change my name. I was just too young, and I would be unknown to the North Koreans and the communists.
With my dad’s law degree and all his knowledge, he was offered a high up government job right away. My mom was against this. She said if his face was published, he would be hunted and killed. My mom wanted a life and so did my dad, so he refused the government job. Then he was offered a job where he would not be exposed or have to deal with the public. His photograph and face would not be made public. We had everything we needed to start a new life. We were comfortable and we were provided everything. Other people were escaping every day and most of these people were peasants, and they had a hard time settling down and getting a job. But, living in South Korea made them happy, it was easier for them because they could not be recognized.
My dad had a lot of information, and he was given a lot of information also. As soon as North Korea realized my dad and family were gone, they took it out on his family back in North Korea. My uncle’s family was supposed to come later. This was based on that 1948 family meeting. My uncles and our entire family were erased. They were all killed. We called it ‘disappeared’ back then. First, they harassed my grandparents for a while but then all were killed. The entire family was wiped out, all my aunts, my uncles, all my cousins and children. I have no one left outside of my immediate family who came across with my mom and dad. All the people we knew in North Korea and some of the well-known employees of my dad’s and uncles’ company were killed too. The communists do not like rich or educated people. They wanted you to be unemployed and then they could control you. My grandparents and his children were considered a big threat.
June 25, 1950, through to July 22, the Soviets pushed north, and we were pushed. It was an ongoing back and forth push- pull for control of Korea. South Koreans were okay, and we felt we were camping out here. You know we didn’t have established homes. My dad kept saying we are going to go back to North Korea. We are going to
claim our land and our homes that were in our family for hundreds of years and Americans are going to help Korea to push the Communist back. I remember having my crayons and my toys all packed and ready to go back home to North Korea. That was our home. We played like we were camping out in South Korea. None of us really felt we lived here.
We lived in a palace, (it’s like the White House [U.S.] in Korean standards). Korean custom is for all families to live together. There were many living quarters for all of the families and servants’ families: cooks, housekeepers, and gardeners etc. There were many kitchens.
My older sisters remembered how wonderful it was to have a lot of playmates and many people around them. We also had many guests from Japan, China and Russia visit my dad. We were not like many other people; we had a car and a driver. My mother was very pretty and dressed in western clothes and came in the car with the driver to shop. She was famous (well known) as a rich princess. In all of North Korea no one ever had leather shoes or western style clothing. North Koreans only had rubber shoes and handmade cotton clothes. My sisters played in their silk shoes and often some of the servants would go around and pick up my sister so she would not get her silk shoes wet in the muddy ground.
The war ended in 1953. My sister was born in 1949, another sister in early 50s. Do you know the Korean War has not ended? It never ended. There is a ceasefire and that has existed for 70 years. For those 70 years my family always thought we would go
back to our home in North Korea. My parents decided to get us out to Hawaii while waiting for a visa. During this time my dad developed kidney problems. He was
getting sick. He never really wanted to leave North Korea. He felt forever guilty that since he left, he was responsible for his family being killed. He felt that if he remained in North Korea, they would all still be alive. We believe that this is what made him ill.
My parents love freedom, money can’t buy it. It’s okay to trade wealth and fame for freedom in their heart. Dad passed away in South Korea. He was a train engineer and that was the job the government gave him instead of the much more public position. After he died, my mom took on all the responsibilities of raising the family. You have to understand, my mother never worked, she never cooked and now she had to raise five daughters on her own.
Most women in Korea were not educated at that time. My mother’s side was very educated, and they ensured that she would have an education even though there were no public schools for girls. My mother was home-schooled by her parents being professors. My parents were fluent in Chinese, Japanese and Korean and my dad spoke Russian also.
My two older sisters could now work, and I was in high school. Mom took a job as a cook, and we moved into public housing. I know this is hard for others to imagine but my mother had always been very wealthy, and I can’t imagine what she was going through having to go into public housing. She was so sorry for us that she had to raise us in public housing as compared to the life we had had. We all cried then, and mom kept blaming herself. Said it was her fault that she wanted to be free and that’s why we were in public housing now for our freedom.
My older sisters worked for a drug company, and I worked for a restaurant part time as I was still going to school and wanted to help out my mom. During this time there were many U.S. and U.N. soldiers around. One soldier in particular seemed to be very fond of me and he kept coming by to eat and saying I want to take you to America.
I kept telling him I don’t live here and we’re waiting to go back to North Korea. He was persistent and I said I will go with you under one condition, that you take my sister who is 5 years older with us. That is the only way I will go to America with you. This man introduced my sister to his best friend, and they fell in love and got married and then we all came to America in 1966. It was a wonderful experience. My sister and I have always lived very close to each other.
Those two soldiers were the nicest, kindest, most generous people I have ever met. The soldiers were good people and were excellent providers for me and my sister.
Everyone we met in the U.S. was good to us. We were never exposed to bad people, and we never saw any prejudice or racism that is so frequently spoken of today. I entered City College in Pasadena to further my education. After many years we got divorced as I found he was cheating on me. He told me he knew it was wrong, but he said ‘she chased me’ but I divorced him anyway. We had been married 16 years.
I then went on and got my real estate license and became very successful. I was a real estate agent for 33 years and I kept coming back to it even though I retired several times. I had two girls, one is in San Francisco and the other is in Orange County. They’re wonderful daughters. My one daughter in San Francisco became very liberal and my other daughter is very conservative. We don’t talk politics too much in the house. My daughter in San Francisco does not see or understand our background and what my family went through to come to the U.S.
My mom came to the U.S. 2 years after I came. I brought her here. My oldest sister came down with a mental illness and died in Korea. My mom continued to apologize to us and how she raised us in public housing and having to leave North Korea. We told her how much we love the United States and we have accomplished so much here that she would be very proud of us. She wanted us and our families to be free. We shared with her that the U.S is our adopted home, and this is our adopted country. A country that made us feel safe. We are safe, we are successful. We can choose to go to school, to church if we want and work hard and do things, we want which we did not have nor ever would in North Korea. My mother hid her true identity for 30 plus more years.
Never in my mind would I consider that my beautiful, adopted home country would push socialism. I can’t believe it. We always thought we were camping out in South Korea; it wasn’t our home. We were very happy once we came to the U.S. We were accepted, we were accomplished. I became very successful in real estate and my sisters are both accomplished. We are comfortable and safe here and we are free and that is what my mother and father both wanted. They wanted us to be free to do whatever we wish for. We can talk about anything we choose to talk about, and we can disagree, but we are not silenced or killed for it. In North Korea you would be killed for just speaking out. These were very real threats, and all that fear was gone when we landed in the U.S.A.
I see things changing here now and it seems like North Korea now. What my parents described. When it happened there, they started changing things. The government said one family cannot own all the land and that the government would control who owns different things. Even if a family had owned the property for thousands of years, the government could take it. They would decide who went to school and what they would be taught. They would decide who got married and when the Soviets and communism came, and we started hearing that everything was going to be free.
You didn’t have to work, it was just going to be given to you, and you would be taken care of. You will be given one to two meals a day. This is the beginning of socialism when they start offering you things for free. That everything will be taken care of by the government. People started growing opium in North Korean and they smoke it. It damages the brain and that’s all they do all day; it keeps the people very compliant; everything is given to them. They have no jobs, no rights, they just get handouts, they have no water, no medicine and the medicine they are given is fake. My dad always told us this is not a life they wanted for us. Dad and mom wanted America as they knew America was a free country. This freedom is what my dad wanted for North Korea but after 70 years I know now that that will never happen for North Korea.
I pray that in this country young people will see by comparison what socialism can do to people. They want to sell their soul for free stuff, instead of creating their own ideas and making their dreams come true, and that life that you lived once is wasted.
I was never a believer in religion or practiced any faith in Korea. I practiced no religion, but I became Christian when I saw the freedoms we had in the United States. I became very active in the Christian faith and now I have been doing missionary work for 12 years.
I minister on USC campus to Chinese scholars that the Chinese government sent to the U.S for one year. I think they are undermining the students and I believe they are stealing intellectual property and our schools’ technology. I was able to have a classroom and set up just like we did in church every Sunday. I am not a formal pastor, but I went to theology school for a couple years to learn. I did this with a friend from China who came to study to be a pastor, and we worked together for 2 and ½ years. and opened 8 underground churches through 8 Schuler. All of the scholars I talk to do not like their government in China.
Some of the South Korean churches are set up on the Chinese border as a hideout place for the North Koreans to stay after they defect from the North. They welcome them and help take them into South Korea. These peasants often have an easier time to escape because they are not well-known. There is a river between North Korea and China that is the route of escape (you need to be a good swimmer to make it). North Korea is accepting U.S. dollars. If you have a Chinese passport, you can travel to North Korea. Due to accepting these dollars my friend travels several times a year to bring food to poor villages.
There is a group in South Korea that sends a balloon filled with medicine, dollar bills, and actual news from South Korea. The North Koreans only hear fake news saying that South Koreans are starving, and that America is responsible for keeping South and North Korea apart and maintaining the 38th parallel across the land to North Korea. I continue to hope and pray for all land on where the poor people live.
I am scared to death that what happened in North Korea is happening in this country, true socialism. Once we go to socialism, if it does happen here, it will never go back. Look no further than North Korea: 70 years later we are still divided.
I didn’t know why I came to Ventura and now I do. I am providing meals for between 200 to 300 homeless people. God seems to always find a way for me. I work with the Ventura Family to Family program. It has been going on for 39 years and was established by a group of Catholic women. Most of them have since died but one in her 80s is still alive and has helped train me. I took over her position 6 years ago.
There are many veterans who come and get food and it breaks my heart to see how these veterans are treated in this country. They fought and provided freedom for everyone that lives in this country, and they are left being homeless. I have met young vets and older veterans, some very damaged and some hanging on but have no resources to succeed. Again, it breaks my heart to be in the U.S. and see all that people have and they treat their vets like this! I am trying to give back for all that we have been through and the freedom to be here in the U.S. I buy whatever I can, and I cook. I buy all the food and I have many wonderful volunteers to cook with me and to feed the many homeless. It is a rewarding thing to do to enjoy this freedom and give thanks to be here.