This Thanksgiving, I want to share the story of my mother, Jeannette Park, a pioneer and exemplar for Korean women, a self-exile who came to the U.S. to became a physician, who made and remade fortunes, and who raised three children while battling my father, a domestic terrorist.
Thanksgiving was for too long a pregnant holiday. Every year, my mother laid out a feast equal parts American and Korean: a glistening turkey with crackling skin and chestnut and cornbread stuffing; mashed potatoes; candied sweet potatoes with marshmallows; collard greens; string beans with bacon; cranberry sauce; roast pork with a garlic, soy and vinegar sauce; a brined grilled mackerel; steamed white rice; kimchi; and innumerable panchan, the typical Korean tiny side dishes. In too many years, the more beautiful the meal the more likely was it to erupt in a paroxysm of violence; in “quiet” years, the feast would seem more as a protest: a defiant demonstration of love and hope in an environment of terror and fear.
My mother was born Jung Wha Park in Sangju, Korea on March 1, 1933, the 4th of 6 children from a lineage that started with a white pumpkin, became Korean royalty and carried on as prosperous merchants during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century.
Her father had business all over Korea and would take my mother, his favorite, in his private train, lavishly finished in rich woods, polished metals, and plush velvet seats hidden from outside eyes by thick curtains. Upon finding the sons of his workers scavenging rice kernels for food, he built and funded free schools and food support. From the experience of having four daughters, he started to educate them privately, which expanded to free education for girls. He told my mother and her sisters that they had to be twice as smart, work twice as hard, to get half the credit of their male peers. So for his girls he instituted pre-dawn tutoring sessions under his direct supervision and other onerous training that his sons weren’t invited to attend. In his plan, her oldest sister was to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, another was to become a pre-eminent economist, the younger sister to lead the arts, and my mother to lead healthcare.
In 1945 VJ-Day vanquished the Japanese from the Korean peninsula and the partition between North and South was established. In 1949, while the Korean War percolated, rival South Korean factions competed for American sponsorship. Syngman Rhee advocated full alignment with the U.S. But my mother’s father had a competing, controversial vision for an independent, non-aligned Korea built on the full participation of all its citizens, rich and poor, men and women. One moonless night, the black-uniformed secret police of Syngman Rhee surrounded the family compound. A few entered to take my grandfather away, never to be seen again, almost certainly with CIA complicity.
In 1953, the Korean War ended. A few years later, my mother was one of the first women to graduate from Ewha medical school and arrived at the University of Pennsylvania to start her postgraduate medical training.
Asian exclusion was a powerful American theme with deep roots. When my parents arrived in the US, Asian immigration had been severely curtailed since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, making for slim dating prospects for the few Korean students, whose generally high social class and significant academic achievements allowed them to enter the US, primarily for post-graduate education. In 1960, through mutual friends, my mother met my father, Sang Hoon Chang, who attended Georgia Tech.
Time in the South opened my parents eyes to racial injustice in the U.S. In 1961, after my parents married, my mother continued her residency at Emory University in Atlanta, when Georgia was a Jim Crow state, where all facilities were “white” or “colored” and there was no place for Asians. My parents were advised to use the “colored” facilities, unless they could persuade a white person to escort them into those for whites.
Motherhood presented my mother with a difficult choice: to return to her wealthy family in Korea, with bleak future prospects for her children, or to stay in this racially divided land where opportunities and healthcare for her children were superior. She stayed. I was born in 1963, my sister in 1965, and my brother in 1966. To complicate matters, in 1965 I suffered third degree burns that required biannual reconstructive surgeries over the next 14 years. In 1967, my father completed his degree, making him one of the first Koreans to receive a doctorate in systems research engineering. When he was offered a job at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in 1967, we moved to Akron, Ohio where there were no Koreans; further, as the only minority family in our school district, we were completely isolated. We had a house and a yard, but it was no American dream.
My parents survived the war, and the war survived in them. They spoke the same language, but starkly divided visions, values and experiences were ever-present tinder that combusted instantaneously from bitter, irreconcilable arguments rooted in class, culture and behavioral differences. My father overturned perfectly set dinner tables, broke through closet doors, drove his car through the front door. He threw my mother down stairs, blackened her face then learned to hit her below the neck where it was not visible, and occasionally beat her unconscious, wakening her by dumping buckets of cold water on her head. He ripped the phone from our hands as we tried in vain to call the police and lied on the rare times they did come. To send money to his family, he stole what my mother brought from Korea and gave her allowance barely sufficient to cover our most minimal needs.
1972 clarified and strengthened my mother’s decision to stay in the US. She became an American citizen, Jeannette Park, which enabled her to visit Korea for the first time since emigrating. There, she found her family in financial ruin and disarray, giving her a renewed resolve to succeed against all odds, at any cost to her.
My mother had a clear and audacious vision, which drove a strategy with huge but potentially achievable milestones that centered around academic achievement. First, her children’s academic success would win scholarships that would allow us to attend boarding school, leave the home and position us for the best universities. In parallel, she would complete her medical licensure, leave my father, establish herself for private practice, and position her to return to Korea to fulfill her father’s dream. In doing so, she had to conceal the strategy from my father, consume no additional family financial resources, yet make him believe that he deserved the credit for his children’s accomplishments. The entire strategy relied on the oldest child, me, who felt the enormity of the pressure without understanding the bigger picture.
In late 1976, my mother drove me to the Wilson Library at Western Reserve Academy to take the PSAT. If my father knew, he would have beaten her and ended this plan. She sent me into the test alone and sat in the car weeping from the stress. It paid off. My scores and academic record enabled me to gain acceptance to Western Reserve Academy on scholarship. And, once revealed, my father felt pride in this accomplishment as my mother planned, paving the road for my sister and brother to follow.
My mother didn’t forget about herself. In 1979, in spite of my father’s ridicule, she finally passed the medical licensure exams. In 1983, in my sophomore year at Yale, my mother divorced my father for the third and last time, sold the family house, and invested her proceeds in acquiring a private practice in Niantic, CT. When she arrived, she found that few patients had visited the practice in years, creating an immediate financial crisis. Abandoning the idea of renting an apartment, she slept on patient examining tables, cooked rice in her laboratory, and treated herself to one meal a day from the nearby McDonald’s. Every week, she drove to New Haven to shower in my apartment and make us a hot meal. By the time I graduated in 1985, she bootstrapped her way into an apartment with a panoramic Long Island Sound view, where she still lives. By 1990, hers was the largest family practice in New London County. Today, long after retiring, she is still stopped on the street by patients who treasure their experience with her.
There is no one I respect more, admire, and strive to make proud than my mother. After a half century, I still fear her disappointment, which to her frustration I’ve learned to endure. Many years ago, she told me that until I had children I couldn’t understand what she did for me. I have two teenagers and am still coming to understand. But the gift I treasure most is a deep and constant gratitude.