Gosaeng: An Ode to the Struggle of My Korean Immigrant Parents

I grew up as the child of immigrant parents who, like countless other immigrants, did what they could to provide for their family. Having immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, my parents first ran a 24-hour convenience store in downtown Toronto (within a few miles from where the Netflix series “Kim’s Convenience” is filmed), had a failed business venture in the velvet print industry, and then went on to run a video store, “Video 99”, for the bulk of my childhood.

When I think of my parents during my childhood, certain images are seared forever in my mind. Like the time my mom was weeping in rage, Korean profanities flowing out of her mouth, because a customer had spat on her for attempting to collect a $3.99 video late charge in her thickly-accented English. Or like the time my dad overturned a video shelving display because of his frustration with the slow business painfully amplified by the number of thefts that had occurred in our store. Or the time he ran out of our store in his slippers with a baseball bat convinced he could somehow attack one of these teenage thieves and teach them a lesson. Or all the times my mom hugged me wearily while reminding us not to open the front door and to only pick up the phone after we heard our special phone code (three rings, pause, and then another three rings) as she left us to work overnight at the print shop.

Thanks to blessed circumstances and back-breaking hard work, my dad eventually led a successful video distribution business — called “Video ‘N Me” — until his retirement and the speedy end of the video industry. Video ‘N Me did so well during my high school years that he ended up creating a scholarship program for children of fellow video store-owners who were in the thick of the struggle.

I am ashamed to admit that it took me far too long to be as grateful to my parents as I am today. As a kid, I felt frustrated that our video store was always open on weekends and holidays. That I had to discreetly follow teenaged customers around our store to make sure they wouldn’t steal any videos. That we didn’t get home until past 11:00 p.m. sometimes — together but exhausted. Our birthday meals were midnight steaks soaked in butter followed by a jamoca almond fudge ice cream cake. Despite these simple pleasures in life, I didn’t understand why we had to live in “Scarborough”; I had heard from my other Korean friends at church that Scarborough was a “ghetto” and “where all the rapists lived”. I hated how we never had money to buy anything I wanted. So much so, that I started working at my dad’s friend’s dessert shop when I turned 13, getting paid “under the table”, and proudly saved up for several weeks all to buy a $29.99 cardigan from Thrifty’s (now called Bluenotes — think of a Canadian cheaper version of “Gap”).

It didn’t help that my mom was an absolute “Dragon Mom”. To me, a Dragon Mom is an extreme version of the “Tiger Mom”. Despite her incredibly long work hours, she somehow managed to whisk us away to lessons nearly every day of the week. Thursdays were the worst. I dreaded Thursdays because it was the one day of the week when we had two lessons – and for us, two of the most important lessons: piano and Kumon. I remember my restless anxiety when I knew I had not practiced properly during the week, or when I had not completed my math sheets. Wednesdays were always passed in a kind of frenzy to prepare for the Thursday lessons.  I remember gulping down Big Macs and French fries as my mom sped to our 4:00 piano lessons. Sometimes if I ate more quickly than usual, I’d lean back on the seat of our little Hyundai hatchback and look at the branches of the passing trees above me. The branches were usually a dizzying blur because we drove by them so fast. I tried to concentrate on the pale blue sky above the trees, but often I’d get so dizzy that I had to close my eyes and struggle to re-orient my thoughts. Sometimes, after I closed my eyes, I felt a kind of inner peace. Somehow, knowing that I could curl up inside of me while the branches were swirling above me gave me a sense of comfort. 

I was placed into a French immersion program when I was five and received my Associate of the Royal Conservatory of Music at the age of 14. I remember my mom somehow convincing the Royal Conservatory of Music directors that an eight-year-old (i.e. me) could spend an entire summer writing essays about the complexities of the Baroque and Romantic eras of music. We went to the local library so frequently that by middle school, I felt like I had read every single book in both the kids and teen sections. By 5th grade, instead of the “Baby-Sitter’s Club” books that my friends parents got for them at the book fair, my mom thought I was ready for books like “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights”.

Like the complex piano pieces I was playing, or the literary classics I was forced to read, so much of my childhood had themes too mature for me to fully grasp. There was so much that went over my head — so much that was unspoken. 

Like how degrading it was for my mom, a daughter of a wealthy local chemist, who spent a lifetime being driven by chauffeurs, reading literature classics and dreaming of love – to come to grips with the harsh realities of immigrant life. She used to laugh wryly at memories of her foolish youth when so much of her adult life would be spent frugally squirreling every dollar earned to give her children a better life. In Korean, “gosaeng” usually depicts a period of time which someone has gone through a lot of hardship, suffering, and/or pain. Gosaeng mahnee hae-jeeh my mom would often sigh to me as she reflected on her years of tireless work at the convenience store or print shop. Gosaeng eroded her physically — resulting in perpetual migraines and cracked fingertips — but never weakened her infallible spirit and iron will to give her children a life without the kind of pain or suffering she and my dad had gone through.

Or how silently, yet furiously, my dad bore the endless brunt of providing for his family. From the moment he immigrated, he worked in an auto factory plant getting paid extra for the chemical work others avoided. He always dreamed of being his own boss and worked relentlessly until he achieved his dream. Before the fall of the entire video industry, I remember a two-page feature the local Korean newspaper had done on him having achieved the “Canadian” dream. His was truly a story of rags to riches — well, a Canadian middle-class version of “riches”. More importantly, he was featured for his “Video ‘N Me” scholarship program which gave children of Korean video-store owners a scholarship for their post-secondary studies. 

I was truly blessed. But as a child, and then as a teen, all I could see was what we didn’t have. I was stuck in a selfish mindset of scarcity.

In the spring of 2006, I flew to Seoul for the first time. Although I had spent several months backpacking in Europe, I had never spent any time in Korea. My parents, who had left during the dictatorship of the 1970s, which had severely repressed any political dissent, were convinced that their outspoken daughter would somehow be kidnapped in South Korea. Despite their warnings, I went to Seoul and spent time hunting down relatives and the neighborhoods where my parents had grown up. As I started piecing together my family histories, I learned, for the first time, that both sides of my family were originally from North Korea. I learned that my paternal grandfather was a beloved and trailblazing pastor who had come from an incredible lineage of faith and resilience. I learned that during the Korean War, my maternal grandmother had somehow escaped from the north, with three small children, thanks to her resolute grit to survive. 

Since that fateful trip to Korea, I have never been the same.

It was as if the simple act of knowing more about my family history and lineage unlocked a special power within me. There was an overpowering sense of humility in knowing that I was, each of us are, part of a larger story. Years of uncertainty and insecurity about my Korean identity were washed away in a new sense of confidence and potential. The spirit of resistance, the history of revolution and the incredible strength of my genealogy were coursing through the blood in my veins and I felt the undeniable power of the collective history of my family and of my people.

At first, I was upset at my parents for not telling me about my family history, their family history. But as I thought back on all the times my parents wearily went to work, took all of the degradation and discrimination, like countless other immigrants forging life in a new country… of the innumerable sacrifices they made for my brother and I — I could not be upset. I just realized the gosaeng they had endured… all for me.

They never had the time to sit me down and leisurely share our family history; they were busy working, busy building a better life for the next generation. And indeed, they did give me a better life — one with so much less gosaeng than they had experienced. As if with each new generation, the gosaeng lessened… at least to a certain extent.

So this is my ode to my parents. An ode that not only recognizes their gosaeng, but the gosaeng of their parents, the gosaeng of entire diasporas enduring so much for the hope of a better life. 

About the Author: Sylvia Kim is a proud daughter of Korean immigrants who grew up in Toronto, Canada and currently resides in Southern California with her husband and two kids. Sylvia is a big believer that knowing where you come from and embracing your cultural identity is the key to empowerment. Currently, she is the Founding Director of the National Asian American Community Foundation and the Chief Innovation Officer at the Asian Pacific Community Fund.

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