As part of my resolve to celebrate the diversity and cultural integration in America, I thought it best to get to know the lives of people from different countries, who have chosen to call USA their home.
My first guest on JournalsFromAmerica is Nam Kyung Kim, who moved to New York City, in June of 2016.
I was invited into Nami’s spotless midtown loft apartment, where my shoes were requested to wait on one side of the line which divided the clean part of the apartment from the “not so” clean part. I got to choose what my feet wore, from a selection of slip-ons in various sizes. Nami led me inside her neutral studio, decorated with subdue shades of white, tan and gray.
We sat with a cup of “Korean tea” on her gray couch to chat about her life in America, how different things are from Korea, what she learned here and how she made New York City feel like home.
Name & Pronunciations
N: Call me Nami, because my real name’s pronunciation is pretty hard for Americans. So they just remember me as Nami.
T: Yes, there are several Asians who change their names, when they come here.
N: Actually I did not want that, but when I saw them ( New Yorkers, when I told them my name) they looked confused so I just ( say) you can call me Nami. That’s my nickname, online. Online nickname! (laughs)
My mother calls me Nam Kyung Kim or “Tale me”, meaning my daughter. Sometimes I am embarrassed, when my father calls me that, because my father(‘s) voice is very loudly*. I just pull him down, when he calls me.
On Living In NYC And Housing In Korea
N: I (was) born in Seoul. I moved to Gyeonggi( pronunced Kyon- gi). It is near Seoul. You can think about Gyeonggi, as Queens or Brooklyn. Seoul is the main city. It looks like Manhattan. Actually the culture is very similar like Manhattan.
T: Is (Gyeonggi) not part of Seoul? It’s a separate town, city or suburb of Seoul?
Nami went on to explain that Seoul was a very expensive city to live in. Besides it had several companies, which made housing quarters for its employees in Gyeonggi. Koreans it seems, liked that sort of lifestyle, but now a days the prices even in Gyeonggi are forcing young couples to move further away.
Young couples in Korea prefer to live in apartments, with modern amenities, where management takes care of their needs, like apartments she has seen in Jersey City. The ones, she has seen, in Manhattan are brownstones and old versus the ones from Korea where there are doormen, elevators and security.
Yet, she is happy to live in her mid town walkup beacuse of the convenience and location. Now, having lived in New York, a city she had only seen in the movies or on TV shows, she says that she will not envy people living here, anymore. She says, “New York is not unreachable, it is not flashy.” It is livable.
For her the best thing about New York is that if she wants to eat traditional food from any country, she can go get that.
On Speaking English
T: You didn’t know any English ( before your move to New York). Correct?
N: No. Actually I learned the English, from the elementary** school. But that is just a regular program in the school. But my school was not good. ( giggles) And in Korea, we pass (if we are) just speaking, listening and reading.
T: You were tested on your reading and writing skills?
N: No. Writing is also not important in Korean exam. Because writing is very hard to judge ( grade.) Korean exams usually check number.( Multiple choice question)
T: So you can read English, well?
N: No not well. Because I was not a good student. Actually, the reason is, my major is Korean Traditional Oriental Painting. So, I thought I (will) never (have to) go out (to another) other country to live, so I thought I don’t need (to) speak English very well. If I speak English, I will be cool. ( laughs) And I just do not want to enter a company, because my job is an artist, so I don’t need. English was a very basic program in my generation, but now it’s getting better.
T: I remember you saying that conversing with people in New York City, was difficult.
N: Oh! It was horrible. ( giggles) Even when I said, “How are you?” people*** was very confused.
N: In September my husband started school and I met many people from his school. It was not comfortable sometimes, because I have no idea of other people. And at that time, I could not speak English. Not being able to speak English, may make me seem like I am rude. And after (I met them,) I was very exhausted, because I had to think a lot. It was not enjoying.
T: It was like going to school. You had to speak English and translate it into Korean, in your head.
N: Fortunately I got an English class from my husband’s university. That is not regular English class, but kind of (for) people like me. Many people follow from family, so they need some activity. I enjoyed that during the first semester, but suddenly I just realized that everyone ( who I had made friends with) will be moving back.
Nami said, meeting people from around the world was very difficult since they all had their own accents, not an American accent but versions of speaking from their country. Besides, at the end of the semester, after all her effort at making friends, she was back to being lonely when they all went back to their countries. “Being kind off, heart broken,” she didn’t take the same effort at making friends, in the next semester when she went back to take the same English class.
She also felt that all the time spent in learning to speak English, was taking away from time she could be spending developing her own art and working on her drawing. Coming home she was exhausted from speaking this new language, and could not work on her art, which she thought was getting worse.
On Living And Art
N: My husband and I wanted to adapt to (life) here, before my husband start class. ( Her husband is here studying film critiquing.) His classes were to start on the last week of August.
Which really helped her settle down and to speak English.
N: I was really scared, if I live here, that if my husband goes to school, I might be alone.
T: Lonely. And were you?
N: When I was lonely I could not call over there ( to Korea, to family and friends). 14 hours is the time difference. That is too big!
Attacking the loneliness head on, Nami dived into developing her art. She considered studying, but that would mean her having to take money from her parents, since she is unable to work on her visa. Her honesty struck me and I felt her pain.
She channeled her energy from being lonely into developing her art. She started drawing with what little art material she had brought with her from Korea. But she also said that she had to cook and clean the house, because ( here) she did not live with family and had to care for herself.
About six months after her arrival to New York City, one of Nami’s English Class classmates, introduced her to a Ceramic class. That was the first time she felt like she could speak English, learn it, focus on her art and she could learn a new art form. It was when she finally felt settled, like she had finally adapted to this country.
On Food Culture
I asked Nami about how dining out here is different than it is in Korea.
N: The first thing is, when I came here, is I waste a lot of time to pay!
T: Waiting for the check ( after dinner)?
N: Yes! Wait for ( the) check. Wait for tea.
T: Europeans say that it ( food and service)is very fast.
N: Here is fast?? In Korea we usually eat the food (in one place) (and) eat the dessert in another place. After we eat, we just leave really fast. The New Yorker looks like they are enjoying dinner. So they spend time and money for dinner, at least 1 hour. But Korea, for drinks we do that.
N: We do not need to pay check. We can ring the bell and take it to the counter and pay. Korean restaurants have a bell on the table to call the waitress. “I am ready to order,” we buzz. “I am ready to pay,” we buzz.
N: Coffee shops we didn’t write names ( on the cup) like Starbucks. They just give you a buzzer.
Usually her husband and her are done with dinner in 30 minutes. They do not socialize or chat over dinner. But during dessert, is when Koreans sit to have long conversations.
T: Where do you go to buy Korean groceries or Korean food, here in New York?
N: Actually here in New York, I can find Korean food very easily. Every street has a Korean restaurant. And most grocery owner is Korean. In the deli I can eat the Korean food.
On What She Brought From Korea.
T: So what were some of things you left behind in Korea when you came to New York City?
Nami said that she wasn’t sure whether moving to New York was what she found hard to adapt to, or if it was her newly wedded life or not living her parents in their home.
T: What did you bring with you from Korea?
N: Nothing really. No wait, I brought this heating stone. ( Holds up a round disk.)
Apparently Korean women believe that to stay healthy women must have warm bellies. The round stone disk is heated and Nami, lies down with it every time she feels cold.
T: Do you have anything that you would like to tell another couple, who would be possibly moving from Korea to America?
N: To someone from my generation– Manhattan is similar to Seoul and you do not have to worry a lot.
When they need help, they should ask others. People are the same even if they are from other countries.
Living in America, Nami says her mind has opened and she is not scared of a lot of things anymore. A lot of her questions have been answered and living here has made her stronger. She believes that if she has to move and live in another country, she will be able to do so with ease.
Now Nami, has made many friends, has developed a routine to work on her art and has made a home in America. When I asked her, what she would miss the most, if she left New York City, she says it will be the people and the positive energy from them. Definitely, the people!
** she meant middle school
*** she meant that she was actually confused.