Businesswoman recounts journey from South Korea to the US
COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — In 1975, 18-year-old Jeanhee Kang arrived in the United States with $40 in her pocket and hope that she could make her dreams come true.
“To get a visa to America from South Korea at the time was like winning the lottery,” Kang told the Columbus Rotary Club at its weekly meeting Oct. 30. “Poor people like me virtually had to sell (their) soul to get to it.”
Kang said she had decided at the age of 5, working on her family’s rice paddy in South Korea, that she wanted to go to high school so she could one day be a “fat Korean.” Kang said her family grew up poor and starving, unable to keep the rice they grew.
Leeches would cling to her legs when she worked in the fields. The polio vaccine hadn’t arrived in her village and clean drinking water was “a stretch of the imagination,” she said.
“I would eat anything that didn’t eat me first,” she said. “To feed hunger, I would catch birds, rats, grasshoppers. ... I remember pulling potatoes out of fresh dirt, fresh corn off the husk, just to eat to survive.”
Now Kang is a Jackson resident, businesswoman and published author who in 2016 was named a top 10 finalist for Business Women of Mississippi.
“I cannot imagine what my life would be like at this very moment if I had given up my dreams,” Kang said.
She finally convinced her mother to let her go to school when she was 6 — either because her mother was tired of her asking or because she figured that one day Kang would send her money from Mississippi so she could make her friends “super jealous,” Kang joked.
At school, Kang said she didn’t make good grades and was teased relentlessly because of her poverty. But she walked the 10 miles to school every day, including Saturdays, she said.
At 16, she was kicked out of high school after having an abortion, she said, “breaking every taboo in Korea.” She cared less that she was no longer considered marriageable than that she couldn’t go to school anymore, Kang said. She ended up working as a prostitute at an American military base, memorizing English out of dictionaries, until she could catch a flight to the United States.
Even in the U.S., her life was not particularly easy, she said. She talked about being a single mother and peddling watches and purses out of a borrowed car in Mississippi in the 1980s. Eventually, she said, the car turned into a booth at a local flea market, which turned into a kiosk at the mall, which turned into her own store, which turned into Underground Inc. — a multi-million dollar business in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina that she owned and operated for 20 years.
Now working in real estate, Kang is a motivational speaker and published author, having written — and re-written and edited — her memoir, “Meegook: Dry Bones,” which she signed for Rotarians after her talk Oct 30. She said she believed it was God giving her those dreams in that rice paddy when she was 5, and God prodding her mother to “send your crazy daughter to school.”
“After all that, I finally got to have a beautiful house with a real window,” she said, “and I got to eat plenty of white rice, and yes I sent plenty of cash money to my mama so she could make all her friends super jealous.”
Information from: The Commercial Dispatch, http://www.cdispatch.com