Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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Growing Up American in Papa’s World: Stories of a Korean Immigrant Family

Book review by Judy Yung

Written by Marie Park Fujii, Growing Up American in Papa’s World is a heart-warming memoir of the Park family, their immigration to America and their struggles to survive as farmers in Oregon and Idaho during the Depression years.  It is a story that is connected to the only photograph we have of Koreans on Angel Island, the one showing two women and a three-year-old girl in traditional Korean clothing.  And it is a story that I began telling in “Immigrant Voices” (see story about Rose Young Soon Park).  Now you can hear the rest of the family’s story from Marie Park Fujii, Rose’s younger sister who moved to Hawaii in 1942 and became a nurse, schoolteacher, and feature writer for the East Honolulu News.

In 1904 Papa Kyung Soo Park was recruited to work in the cane fields of Hawaii.  A carpenter by trade, he was ill suited for the long hours of hard labor under a blazing sun.  A year later, he moved to the U.S. mainland and found a job as a custodian and bartender in Mountain Home, Idaho.  He was able to save enough money to lease farmland and send for his wife So Sa Im, daughters Wanda and Rose, and son John in 1914.  They would have come sooner if not for the delay in obtaining passports from the Japanese government after it annexed Korea in 1910.

The family traveled in comfort by cabin and after fourteen days at sea, their ship docked in San Francisco.  They were surprised to be taken to Angel Island for immigration inspection.  According to Marie’s account,

“In a short time, the ferry arrived at the immigration station.  Mama, Wanda, and Rose were sent to the women’s section of the large building, John to the men’s section.  Papa was told he had to wait in an area for visitors, which he did, as patiently as possible.  At the end of the day, though, he was still waiting and was told that he would have to return the next morning.

Meanwhile, Mama and the girls were shown to their dormitory and assigned to bunks.  It was extremely crowded, with no privacy and only one bathroom for thirty or so [Japanese and Korean] women in that room. Even there, the men were separated from the women, and Mama worried how John was doing by himself. And Papa—did he know what was happening?

The next day, Mama, Wanda, and Rose were examined by a doctor. It seemed that Wanda and Rose were “sick,” but because there was no interpreter, Mama could find out nothing more about their illnesses.  [Wanda had hookworms and Rose had the measles.]

On the third day, Mama was ushered into another room in the building.  There, she faced five people.  Three were inspectors who questioned her, one, a stenographer who recorded everything that was said, and the other an interpreter.  They asked her many questions—when did she marry Papa, where was she going, what was she going to do in Idaho, how much money did she have?

After Mama’s interrogation, Wanda was brought into the room and she, too, went through the questioning process. Because the men and women were kept separated, Mama didn’t realize that both John and Papa were interrogated next.

The inspectors questioned Papa the longest, asking him over forty questions.  He was not really prepared for the interrogation session.  Innocently, he had thought that he and his family would pass through the immigration process easily, just as he had in Hawaii years ago.

Throughout the interrogation, Papa insisted that he was legally in the United States, that he owned a house and leased a farm in the state of Idaho, that he had been farming for two years, and that his income was sufficient to support his family.  But the inspectors did not believe him because he hadn’t brought any of his documents, such as his passport and bank account—evidence that would have proven that he was telling the truth.

After about two hours of intense questions and answers, the interrogation was finally over. Papa, even though he was bewildered by the long session, still hoped that his family would be cleared to enter the United States.  But the immigration inspectors decided to defer the case until Papa could produce evidence that he could support his family (pp. 28-29).”

Thanks to the help of David Lee, Korean interpreter and president of the Korean National Association, Papa telegraphed the postmaster in Mountain Home to vouch for him.  Once the return telegram arrived saying that Papa owned a lot and a farm and would be able to support his family, Mama and John were admitted into the country.   Wanda and Rose were kept at the hospital for another week until they were cured of their illnesses. “As soon as the ferry delivered them to San Francisco, Papa bought their train tickets and they travelled to their home in America.  They were a family again (p. 31).

But in 1925, tragedy struck.  Mama died giving birth to their eighth child Charles, leaving Papa with the daunting task of raising the children on his own.  He decided to move to the town of Eagle, Oregon, to farm and to be closer to relatives.  Then the Great Depression hit.  “I knew that we were poor, but we always had food on the table,” recalled Maria.  They ate what they grew and got credit from the local grocer when income from their crops fell short.  More importantly, all the children pitched in with the farming, housework, and any part-time jobs they could find.  Growing up on the farm, they learned to work hard.  When confronted with racial hostility, they banded together to protect each other from harm.  Following Papa’s example, the Park children were known for their resourcefulness, defiant spirit, and good humor in the face of adversity.

After a hard-working life as a farmer while raising seven children as a single parent, Papa died peacefully at his Oregon home in 1953.  He was 83 years old.  By then, all his children were grown and married.  His son Harry continued on the farm; Jackson had enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WWII and was killed in action; John was farming in Portland and Wanda in Idaho; Rose and Gilbert had moved to Los Angeles, where Rose’s husband worked in an import-export company and Gilbert found a job in the aircraft industry; Arthur, Louvie, and Marie were living and working in Honolulu as a radar repairman and as nurses.

In 2010, the Park family, consisting of 140 descendents, got together near Portland, Oregon, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Papa’s arrival in the United States.

Growing Up American in Papa’s World is a testament to an immigrant family that through hard work and perseverance was able to thrive in spite of racial discrimination, economic depression, and cultural clashes between Papa’s traditional values and the Americanization of his children.

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