My version of the American dream, Korean style

Finally able to pursue what I thought defined the American dream, I had a beautiful home full of gleaming objects. I came to realize I was living someone else's dream.



March 3, 2020 - 10:25 AM

As a child, Helena Ku Rhee took it upon herself to teach her Korean-born parents how to be “American,” not realizing their simple ways and lifestyle were intrinsically more rewarding.

When I was very young, my parents worked as night janitors at a law firm in Los Angeles. They often took me to work because they couldn’t afford child care, and to keep my grumpiness at bay they zoomed me around in empty wastebaskets as if they were race cars and made up funny stories about the people who inhabited the offices by day. While they cleaned, I would fall asleep on my father’s jacket.

We had very little, but I was happy. We had a small TV on which I watched cartoons, and on weekends we drove along Pacific Coast Highway, marveling at the vast ocean. And though we lived in a tiny apartment in a cramped building in Koreatown with other immigrant families and the occasional cockroach, I had everything I needed.

After my brother was born, my dad secured a job as a machinist, making metal parts for cars, boats and airplanes. We moved into a small house in a working-class neighborhood in Norwalk. As I befriended kids on the block, I became aware that our house looked like the others from the outside, but the inside couldn’t have been more different.

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