Our Family’s Journey

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Our Family’s Journey: Picture

Ms. Song is pictured with her mother and father in November 1963, shortly after their arrival to the United States. (by Personal Song Family Photo)

I arrived in Chicago in the early 1960s as a two year old. My father was already in the United States on a scholarship from the Korean government for graduate work at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in nuclear engineering. After he completed his Masters degree, my mother and I came to the U.S. in order to be with him while he completed his Ph.D. When I arrived in Chicago from Korea, it had been a long time since I had seen my father, and it was a difficult reunion. I did not recognize him or understand who he was. I would not let him pick up our luggage and was upset that he was holding hands with my mother. Fortunately, that did not last long. I soon was inseparable and would not let him leave my sight. He had to take me with him to his office because I would not let him leave without me.

We had planned to return to Korea after my father completed his Ph.D., but friends and relatives advised us otherwise. The Vietnam War was raging and they were concerned about problems the war might cause for Korea. And so we all remained in the U.S. and became naturalized citizens. We lived in Colorado at the time and were one of very few Asian American families there. I often was the first and only Asian American many of my classmates and neighbors had ever met. My mother grew cabbage, bean sprouts and chili peppers in our backyard because there were no Asian grocery stores from which to buy the ingredients for KimChee. Over time, my father sponsored some of his siblings to immigrate to the U.S. It was wonderful to suddenly have aunts, uncles and cousins. I had never known what it meant to have relatives before, so I didn’t know what I missed until I had it. I can only imagine how lonely it must have been for my parents to be alone in the U.S., missing their family for so many years.

Our family now has several generations in the U.S. and we are in communities across the U.S. Many of us are still in Colorado; I am in Chicago; others of us are settled on the coasts. My father went on to a long career in the U.S. Navy and the Department of Energy. At the end of his career, during the Clinton administration, he became a technical advisor to the U.S. State Department to negotiate with North Korea to shut down their nuclear program in exchange for new and safer nuclear technology from the U.S. and international allies. It was a fitting close to his career in public service and his decision to immigrate to the U.S.—to be able to represent his adopted country in work that also would assist the land of his birth.

Ms. Unmi Song is a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Song is also Executive Director of the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation.

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