With this 4th of July now behind me, I wonder if I’m still proud to be an American. Images of people refusing to wear masks, children in immigration detention centers and protesters chanting against racial injustice make me depressed and angry. How did we get here and how do we cope?
My parents came to this country to seek the American Dream. They immigrated from Korea in 1971 with three children and no job, but a hope that their lives would be better here. When my father was a houseboy doing laundry for the American soldiers during the Korean War, he was given a Hershey bar. To him, the chocolate symbolized a country filled with sweetness and bounty, and he couldn’t wait to come here someday.
Fifty years later, I’m not sure my father feels the same way about the U.S., and neither do I. But throughout my life, I have been touched by the grace of so many Americans that I can’t help but feel gratitude to be here. Recently, I read a story that resonated with me because it was about what is possible in this country from individual acts of kindness. My friend’s husband Murray got his name because of the generosity of a stranger who blindly sponsored his father to study in the U.S.
Mr. and Mrs. Work
We all have stories of how our lives have been enriched by the kindness of Americans. My parents believed that our first neighbors in this country were sent to us by God because we wouldn’t have survived without them. Lester Work was an elderly military chaplain who lived with his wife Mabel in the apartment across the street from us in Hawthorne, California. Mr. Work was tall with silver hair and a curved back, and always had a smile on his face. He came over when we first moved into our apartment and asked if we needed help. When he noticed the upstairs light on as my mother worked late into the night sewing, he told her she needed to rest. He drove her to a local high school to take English classes, and later to Xerox where she got a job assembling PC boards. She simply memorized the phrase “I will do my best” and recited that during the interview per Mr. Work’s recommendation.
Mrs. Work was soft-spoken and always offered us things to eat. I remember going to their apartment with my mom and being asked if we wanted tea and cookies. It was the first time I ever held a teacup. She introduced us to delicious American-style fried chicken, and my mother still uses Mrs. Work’s recipe to this day. Our parents were overwhelmed by our neighbors’ generosity and their uniquely American willingness to befriend strangers – a trait unheard of in Korea.
My first American friend was Linda Nelson. She didn’t know where I was from and didn’t care. She lived a few apartment buildings over and we were in the same class at Eucalyptus Elementary School. We watched back-to-back episodes of Zoom together (yes this was the name of a TV show in the 70s) and ate Ritz crackers. Their house always looked lived-in with magazines scattered on the tables and dishes all over. Her parents spoke loudly and laughed openly. They didn’t make me take off my shoes and smoked all the time. Although Linda’s family was so different from my own, they made me feel welcome.
When Linda came over to our apartment, she watched me taking off my shoes and removed hers without asking. I offered her sticky white rice as a snack and she drenched hers in soy sauce. She tried to use chopsticks and my younger brothers giggled at her awkwardness. My grandmother offered Linda kimchi and exclaimed “Uh-muh” in amazement as she watched Linda devour the spicy fermented cabbage. When Linda asked for more, my grandmother beamed and generously filled the small side bowl. She called Linda “yellow hair” and loved touching her blonde curls. My family saw Linda as open-minded and friendly. We all adored her.
Focus on Individual Relationships
To this day, it warms my heart to think of Mr. and Mrs. Work and Linda because they taught me early on that Americans are generous people. They showed me that individuals are generally good, and that moving to America was worth it. I crave that hope again, but it’s challenging when I see our country so divided along racial lines and the prospect of reconciliation so distant. It’s good to remember that although we may be different, we can still be welcoming like Linda, and do our part to help others like Mr. and Mrs. Work. I am still working on my book about my grandmother who took English classes at age 90 so she could learn more about her adopted country. She loved America and greeting strangers in broken English. I think her openness came from meeting American missionaries in her Korean village in the 1920s and becoming devoutly Christian herself. The foreigners she met in her formative years informed her view of people and life, as they did mine.
During these discouraging times, I cherish these early positive influences in our lives. They remind me that kindness is a gift that should not be taken for granted. I have a daily gratitude practice where I call out by name the people who have touched my life for the better. We can learn from them and emulate what they do. Who boosts your spirits and makes you proud to be an American?
Who are you grateful for? Leave a comment below!
What I’m reading
This book helped me to deal with the despair I was feeling about the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty of the future. Chodron is a Buddhist nun who invites the reader to surrender to our uncontrollable situation and get comfortable with fear in order to learn and grow. We don’t know why things fall apart, but letting there be room for not knowing is important. The more we become in tune with negative thoughts and emotions, the faster we can let them go. I now meditate with these ideas in mind and feel more hopeful, thanks in part to this transformative book.
This heartfelt coming-of-age story set in the 1950s explores what happens to a girl and a town after the girl’s father commits suicide. The message is timely and so relevant to today: you are not alone and reach out if you need help. The author is my dear friend who is a licensed therapist and proponent of removing the stigma of mental health in our country. Order your copy today on Amazon, where it was the #1 new release in teen and young adult books about suicide.