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My Korean Immigrant Parents and Their Great American Road Trip

After arriving in the U.S. in the late 1970s, my parents saved up some money and decided to drive across the country. It was one of the most defining experiences during their early years in the States, and I recently asked them to tell me about it.

In our summer-long series, “Highway to MEL,” we’re exploring all the twists and turns of a perfect getaway. Stick with us as we roll through all-American tales of great escapes down endless highways, and prove once and for all that there is nothing more liberating than the open road. Read all the stories here.

My dad couldn’t believe how long the drive from Los Angeles to the East Coast would be. But he wanted to do a cross-country road trip with my mother, and he knew it would be worth a lifetime of memories for two twenty-something Korean immigrants who had never driven through America before. 

When my parents arrived to the U.S. in the late 1970s, they had little idea about the political tumult and social uprisings that had rattled the nation for more than a decade, nor did they anticipate the mosh pit of crime, crony capitalism and Reagan-era conservatism that would take hold in the near-future. Instead, what they saw was a country in which individuals could dream big and work for themselves. Both of my parents sensed that raising a family in Korea would come with limitations. Born in the aftermath of the brutal Korean War, which itself followed decades of Japanese occupation, they weren’t sure if they should put down roots in a nation still suffering the symptoms of a traumatic liberation. 

To my dad in particular, Korea in the 1970s represented everything he had grown suspicious of: A staid society, led by a repressive government that valued hierarchy and expected young men to become dutiful salarymen in the name of national growth. He had dreams of being an artist and architect, and he ultimately convinced my mom that emigrating was the right decision. 

When they got to L.A. in 1978, what they discovered was an alien American landscape. The language, faces and mannerisms were all different, and it dawned on them that the U.S. was massive and daunting, both in its geography and demographics. In that first year, my dad struggled to juggle his day job (working at a gas station), night classes (to earn his California architecture license) and English lessons (so that he could understand his classwork). My mom also worked several gigs, including as a hotel housekeeper and laundromat part-timer, to help them raise money. 

But after that first year, they realized that they had taken no time to explore beyond the edges of Southern California. So they saved a little spending money, loaded up a Dodge Caravan and pointed the car east, aiming to get as far as possible before turning around and returning in roughly a week’s time. It wouldn’t be the last road trip they took in America, but it was certainly the most defining experience of their first few years. 

I spoke to them over the phone last week, and found myself struggling to imagine the courage and optimism it took to uproot a life, move it 6,000 miles away and learn to thrive. They laughed at my incredulity. “In life, you face a big decision, and you figure out how to manage everything that happens because of it,” as my dad put it. “We were just kids back then.” 

The whole of America was practically inscrutable from their bubble on the West Coast. So, map in hand, they embarked on an adventure with few real plans.

* * * * *

Kenneth (aka My Dad): The first thing I remember heading east from Los Angeles is driving for hours and eventually getting to Death Valley. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, or even pictured in my mind. You have to understand, any kind of dry, desert landscape is strange to a Korean — we don’t have that landscape in Korea. So imagine my shock when I realized that Death Valley never seemed to end. 

Linda (aka My Mom): I think he was scared. I know I was. It felt like a place out of a nightmare. I couldn’t believe it could get hotter than when we were there. Then it felt like we just drove through sand for hours until, almost out of nowhere, we saw the first sparkling lights of Las Vegas.

Korea was growing quickly in the 1970s, but Las Vegas was a completely foreign spectacle to us. We had never seen any place so… rich and aware of its riches. It felt like a city run by people who had endless resources to make it glitzy, almost cheesy, but addictive at the same time. 

Kenneth: You won on the slot machine at… which casino was it, again?

Linda: I don’t remember. But we had a steak and crab dinner with the earnings. That was the big deal: That we could buy steak and not feel too guilty about it. Beef was so expensive in Korea when we were growing up. A big chunk of steak was something reserved for wealthy people, especially for me, growing up in the country. I was practically vegetarian growing up on farmland. 

Kenneth: What I really remember is that I had never seen so many different walks of life. Once in a while you’d see some middle-aged white guy in a really, really nice suit, walking around the casino floor like he owned the place. He probably did! But then there were also the drunk old retirees, the out-of-towners just as impressed as us, the addicts doing cocaine in the bathroom every time they lost money. I couldn’t imagine Las Vegas existing in Korea. I couldn’t stop laughing inside those casinos. It felt like a cartoon. 

Linda: We spent a night in Las Vegas, and then went to the Grand Canyon. My goodness. That lived up to expectations. We had some Korean friends in Los Angeles who told us that America had the most beautiful natural scenery, and that we would feel less homesick in the mountains. 

Kenneth: I don’t know about that. I might’ve felt more homesick because there’s nothing like the Grand Canyon in Korea, either. But we did take a lot of photos of the landscape. It was like the flip side of the coin of Death Valley — a place with lots of vegetation, water and elevation changes, but with the same unbelievable scale. The sheer size of the monument made me lose my breath a little bit. It was another big reminder that America had so much more than Korea. 

We kept running into new things, over and over again, on that road trip. We drove through Arizona and New Mexico next, and it was hard to keep up with everything I was learning about. We visited shops run by Native Americans, who I had only learned about through old Western movies. I was never much of a John Wayne fan, but I always wondered about the ‘Indian’ way of life. Your mom fell in love with the spice in the regional food — they were using all these hatch chiles, and she joked it was finally nice to taste some real bold flavor in “American” cooking. 

And I shot a gun for the first time. Remember how I told you that my very first job was pumping gas in Compton, where the owner gave me a handgun and told me to keep an eye out during the night shift? Well, I never actually shot that gun, because it wasn’t mine. The first time happened in New Mexico. I fell in love with Wild West revolvers because of that. It’s why I ended up getting a Colt Python revolver. I loved that revolver. I still remember the giant old man who ran that range — he said I was the “first Asian” he taught to shoot. 

Linda: I hated that gun, but talking about this road trip makes me think about how naive and carefree we were, even despite all the difficulty of that time. We never worried about getting robbed or running into a dangerous situation while on the road as two Koreans, barely speaking any English. What I did notice is that people did look at us, all the time, and it got more obvious the farther east we went. 

At least in Los Angeles at the time, there was a big contingent of Asian people. Koreans had started immigrating in waves, so Koreatown was growing a lot, and in some places you could almost forget that you were still in America. Even working alongside so many Latinos, I didn’t feel very different — we both had bad English but just wanted to work to save money. But on that road trip, I felt very much seen

Kenneth: You probably might imagine that something racist happened to us as we went into the South, but to be completely honest, I didn’t notice anything. Maybe I didn’t understand what was being said to me, or just missed it altogether. But no, I guess it was fine. Like your mom said, what I noticed was the looks — like they had just seen a zoo animal (laughs). 

Linda: We stayed in Dallas to visit an old family friend, who was trying to get us to move to Texas and start a clothing business with her. We eventually did move, in 1995, but back then, Dallas only seemed like a big city in the middle of nowhere. We spent $1 to go see a rodeo show. I had never seen cows so big. 

Kenneth: And then after Texas, we didn’t really know where we wanted to go. I had heard some interesting things about the history and culture in Memphis, so that’s where we pointed the car. But the landscape started to get less and less interesting, and we started to feel more and more out of place. I knew some people we talked to were not happy that my English wasn’t right. And I think the mood shifted when we went to a Denny’s restaurant somewhere in Arkansas, before we got to Memphis. 

It must’ve been just around sunset when we walked in, and we’re standing in the entrance of the restaurant, and one by one, people start to turn in their seats to look at us. Like a movie — two eyes, two eyes, two eyes. About 30 seconds in, it felt like everyone sitting in that Denny’s was staring at us. I’m sure we were the first Koreans some of those people had seen. 

Linda: It felt like a horror movie. 

Kenneth: That’s probably a little overdramatic, but I don’t know. I didn’t even know how to pronounce ‘Arkansas.’ I think you wanted to leave, but we got seated and ate a normal meal while trying not to think about how many people were staring at the sides of our heads as we ate. I remember I ate a patty melt with French fries — my favorite meal in America. I got sick eating so many patty melts and French fries in the first few months of living here. 

Linda: And after that night, we basically turned around and drove back to Los Angeles. It was quicker because we weren’t trying to see as many things. I mostly looked out the window, trying to remember everything we didn’t photograph. 

* * * * *

Nearly two decades later, my parents went on another road trip — this time, with seven-year-old me in tow. We had moved from Los Angeles to the tiny, dusty town of Delano in California’s heartland, where I was first raised; we then departed California to help run my aunts’ clothing business in Dallas. Two years after that, my dad had a new plan: We had saved enough money to move to Hawaii and start his dream takeout sushi restaurant

So in the spring of 1997, we dragged the family van from Dallas to Long Beach, California, tracing some of the paths that my parents had taken on the inaugural road trip in America. For the first time, I saw the full breadth of the alien desert landscape, framed by snow-capped mountains that seemed to stretch beyond the horizon. I ate green chili in New Mexico, and gazed upon the adobe homes and historical art made by Native hands, daydreaming of an older America. I gaped at the night lights of Las Vegas, and felt the rush of spotting the Pacific ocean, signaling the end of our journey. Then we unloaded the van and put it on a container ship headed for Hawaii, and that was that. 

My parents never got another road trip. Last week, though, they departed the U.S. for perhaps the final time as citizens — they’ve followed through on plans to retire in South Korea, the homeland they left behind more than 40 years ago. Over the phone, they tell me being back in Korea feels oddly foreign now, too; the evolution of the country has left many parts nearly unrecognizable. They’re even embarrassed by the sheer amount of slang they can’t follow. 

“We do feel like strangers in our own land. And people will ask why we ever left at all,” my dad says. 

The vast bulk of their belongings, including thick albums with photos from their early years in America and the road trip to Memphis, are once again on a boat in the middle of the Pacific. They haven’t looked at those photos in years — it’s all been boxed up in a locked storage unit, the victim of my parents’ decision to downsize their home while planning their retirement. 

I think seeing those old photos again will remind them of exactly why they bothered to leave Korea in the first place. They didn’t have much in the way of resources to understand America from afar, save for those imported films and Doors records my dad loved so much. Instead, what it took was a road trip in 1979 to romance them with a vast landscape that holds countless curiosities, from strange to heartwarming, within every one of its peaks and valleys.