Like your average 1.5-generation Korean American, I was raised in South Korea until I was nine, coming to the United States with my family. Like anyone who lived in Korea in the late nineties, we felt the effects of the East Asian Financial Crisis. My parents decided to move to America, forced to lie about how long we would be staying. Our visas were approved, and we left in January 1998 for Honolulu. It was a challenging time: my father was subject to wage theft, while my mother toiled as a waitress. Living in poverty, we bought used clothes and subsided on fast food. Eventually, we moved to New York City, then to suburban New Jersey. During all of this, my father left our family, leaving umma to be a single mother.
I always knew that I was undocumented. The biggest heartbreak came not from the high school crushes and puppy love, but from my inability to go to college. Despite a strong academic record, my inability to receive financial aid wiped out my dreams. Yet, a last ray of hope came: a liberal arts college in Kentucky granted me a full tuition scholarship. That didn’t last: in 2008, the recession wiped out my school’s endowments, cutting off my stipend. Soon after, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. With all of the pressures, I began experiencing breakdowns and nightmares of ICE agents coming to my dorm room and deporting me. The paranoia was paralyzing. Once I came out as undocumented, I found the strength of community: there were undocumented youth who were active in Kentucky! I saw this issue as a form of systemic oppression against the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses. Coming out led me to realize the irony: that making myself vulnerable actually made me safer. Most importantly, I recognized the American Dream as an oppressive narrative that only causes so much pain. Pulling myself up by the bootstrap, my pathway to a future was closed by the broken immigration system. Pulling herself up by the bootstrap, my mother was diagnosed with Stage II Breast Cancer and an almost insurmountable medical bill. Because these are narratives that are being played over and over in our communities, it’s time for our community to break this bootstrap and stand up for justice. Anything less won’t do.
Read more about Tony and his remarkable story over at The Atlantic.
Image credit: Jill Damatac Futter for Raise Our Story