A Dragon Rises From a Small Stream — “개천에서 용 난다”

Project proposal

“American dreams are strongest in the hearts of those who have seen America only in their dreams.” -Pico Iyer

Ju Bong Kim around the age of 20 at Jirisan, a mountain in South Korea

In exchange for 50,000 won (about 500 dollars) he received his boarding pass. Grabbing his belongings and the cash he had saved up for this day, my father, Ju Bong Kim, walked down the cold, brightly lit hallway of the Incheon International Airport. Within the next few hours, he would depart from his life in Seoul, South Korea, and board the next flight to the United States of America for the very first time in his life. Excited, happy, and scared, he did not know what to think or expect. He had lived in Korea for all thirty-two years of his life, only dreaming of going to America. Nonetheless, that day was the beginning of the end; the day signifying the start to a fresh and hopefully better life where he could pursue the American dream.

My dad around the age of 16
In front of a large temple in Seoul

My father was born on November 3, 1958, just five years following the end of the Korean War, in a small rural town of South Korea. After a few years, he moved to Seoul, South Korea. Today, Seoul is known as a bustling megacity populated with an endless amount of illuminated skyscrapers. Seoul is filled with tons of private academies, high rise apartment buildings, entertainment businesses, and dazzling architecture. However, the city was unrecognizable around the 1970s, about the time my dad was in his teenage years. He described it as a very poor city with small, rundown houses, and only a couple of tall buildings, most of which belonged to apartment homes. And without them, the great, picturesque mountains of Korea surrounding the town sat magnificently along the horizon. Major roads were in the process of being paved, and the population was only a fifth of what it is today. It was only in the early stages of industrialization.

Ju Bong Kim 12th person in the back row
One of wallets my dad made 35 years ago

Growing up with an ill mother and father and five other siblings, my dad had many responsibilities and duties as a child. His few of his chores included gathering firewood, hand-washing clothes, and helping his mother with preparing meals. At the age of 13, his mother’s sickness became serious. Their family was too poor to afford to hire a doctor, and she passed away from what my dad claimed to be some form of stomach cancer. About one month later, he also lost his father to an unknown sickness. Unable to finish middle school, my father was forced to find work and a place to live on his own. Working for anyone who would pay him, he worked at least ten different jobs ranging from running around the city selling cans of soda to sewing various clothing items in sweatshops. Three years later, at the age of 16, he started his own small business of sewing handmade leather wallets and selling them to wholesalers. He stayed up late nights precisely measuring pieces of leather then carefully hand stitching them together. After about ten years of continuing with this business, my dad met a woman named Hee Do. She worked for the main wholesale company my dad did business with. Their love story was short, but she was the woman he’d eventually marry and who I would someday call mom. They got married in Seoul, and soon decided to move to America in hopes of starting a new life and having a family. My mom left Korea first in 1987. My dad stayed behind to continue to save up money and finally left in 1990.

Wedding of Hee Do and Ju Bong Kim

They bought a tiny home and settled down in a small country town, with a population of about 4,500, named Cochran, Georgia. My mom proposed the idea to start a small beauty supply business. They purchased a fairly large store right in the center of downtown, a short road filled with old, colorful storefronts with chipped paint. My parents were thrilled. Two years later, my dad decided to open another beauty supply business in a neighboring town. These two businesses flourished, and within the next seven years, my siblings and I were born.

My mom and I (left) my sister and brother (right)
Ju Bong Kim in his Corvette

I remember the day my dad had finally saved up for a sports car. He always used to go on about how much he had wanted one. It was the summer of 1999, and my sister, brother, and I were playing outside in the swing set of our small, but cozy house. In the midst of pulling my siblings around in a toy wagon, a small, shiny, dark green car rolls up, and my dad steps out. He had just bought a Corvette. He spent hours and hours washing, waxing, and cleaning it to maintain its pristine condition. I remember him letting us lay like sardines in the back of the hatchback trunk, which was connected to the back of the front seats, while we’d listen to the roar of the engine and yell at our dad to drive faster.

My dad at the 2015 Myrtle Beach Bike Week

It was the summer of 2015, and I was sitting in the cool living room of my house, trying to avoid the sweltering Georgia heat. I heard a loud, unfamiliar rumbling noise in the the garage. I got up to investigate what that sound was coming from, and to my surprise, my dad had just rolled into the garage with a gleaming, yellow Harley Davidson motorcycle. For years, he joked with our family about buying a motorcycle, but we never thought it would happen. My dad took off his helmet, and under it he was grinning a big, dad-like grin. That same day, he made me take multiple videos of him riding his new motorcycle, and upload them to his Facebook.

I can confidently say that my dad is the most hard working man I know. Moving to a different country isn’t easy, but he managed to be very successful through his unrelenting determination to provide for his family. Even until this day, he works every day without any breaks or vacations. Through this project, my dad has become my biggest role model, and I believe he genuinely deserves to have everything he wants in life and more. Hopefully some day in the future, I will be able to financially support my dad and fund his next large purchase and complete his American Dream.

During this project, I want to uncover the unknown history of my dad. For all of the 21 years of my life, he never said a word about his own family or how he grew up. He never complained, though he had to take care of himself at such an early age. He never got frustrated, though he had to work and make a living at the age of thirteen. He never snapped at me, though I was never nearly as determined and accomplished as he was. Instead, he supported every decision I’ve made and encouraged me along the way. As I was listening to my dad’s story, I couldn’t help but start crying. I couldn’t help but feel so awful that I was clueless about my dad having to grow up as an orphan and live such a hard life. My dad just hugged me, knowing my thoughts, and said to me in Korean, “it is okay now because I have you and my family.”

꿈이 두려움보다 크게 하고, 행동은 말보다 크게 하라.”
Let your dreams be bigger than your fears and your actions louder than your words.

My dad and I around 1997

Interview questions:

  1. What was living in Korea like?
  2. What are the differences in Seoul from the 1970s until now?
  3. How did your parents pass away?
  4. Who took care of you, and where did you live?
  5. What about the rest of your siblings?
  6. What kind of work did you do before you started your business?
  7. How did you start your business?
  8. What was coming to America for the first time like?
  9. What was it like being separated from your wife for three years?
  10. Do you ever wish you stayed in Korea instead of moving?
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