Originally created 09/16/97

Coming to America



Sun Lee always thought she was an only child. She had seen her mother's photo album with pictures of Sun and two unsmiling boys dressed in red silk han polk, traditional Korean garb, but she had assumed they were her cousins. She never asked.

Five years ago her mom said her brothers were coming in two days.

Be nice, her mom said. Call them opa (brother).

Sun suddenly had two brothers who didn't know how to speak English or play Nintendo. They didn't know her. And they didn't know her country. She was American. They were Korean. East met West.

It wasn't easy.

When Sun was 6 months old, the hotel chain her dad, Seong, worked for transferred him from Seoul to Atlanta. Two years later, he moved to Augusta to open a business. His wife, Yeon, followed with Sun.

"My mom didn't want to come," says Sun, now a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Curtis Baptist Middle School. "She didn't want to leave my brothers there with my grandma alone, and she hardly knew anyone here. And she was afraid. But she didn't want to leave my dad alone."

Her brother Ho, now 16, remembers the morning they left 11 years ago. His grandmother took him to school. But the 5-year-old ran right back home. His grandmother walked him back to school and told him to stay. When he came home that afternoon his mom and sister were gone.

He cried all night.

He and his older brother, Sung, lived outside Seoul, surrounded by dairy farms and mountains filled with yellow flowers.

"Where we lived was not good at all," Ho says. "It was country. Kinda like a trailer."

It was a two-room house without running water or beds. He slept beside his grandmother on cotton blankets.

When he came to the United States, Ho brought with him two pairs of jeans and a yearbook his classmates had signed.

"If my brothers got too old they couldn't catch onto English," Sun says.

When Ho learned he was moving, he only had a week to pack.

In Korean there are five ways to say goodbye. Ho didn't get to use any for his three best friends. They lived far away, so he didn't have time for a last visit.

He wrote them each a letter. They never wrote back.

After a 15-hour plane ride with his grandmother and brother Sung, Ho saw his folks again.

"My dad used to be really skinny - but he had a big ol' beer belly and chubby cheeks," Ho says. "I was surprised."

Eight years had gone by.

His mom looked just as he remembered her.

Sun didn't look like the framed picture of a chubby baby in a yellow sundress.

"I hadn't expected her to grow that tall," he said. "I always thought of her as a baby."

They weren't a super happy family right off.

They fought over who got to sit in front of the TV and who got to sit in the best seat - the middle couch cushion.

"I didn't like it at first," Sun says. "They always hogged the bathroom."

In Korea the boys shared a toilet with four families. They had to pay for showers, so they only bathed a couple of times a month, Ho says.

"Eeuuww," Sun says, wrinkling up her nose.

It wasn't so bad, Ho says. They showered quickly, and they were little boys - they didn't care if they were dirty.

Nowadays, the siblings are close. They wash their dogs together, help their dad stock the shelves at his three grocery stores, and they just started taking tae kwon do. Ho's already a black belt. (He took karate lessons in Korea.)

"I think of this as a second chance," Ho says. "I screwed up a lot in Korea. As soon as I got here, everything changed."

In Korea he had a 69 grade average. He was about to drop out of school, he says. He didn't like the teachers, who walloped him with a broom.

"In Korea I was bad boy," he says. "But now I'm a goody."

Ho came to America knowing how to say "hi," "thank you" and "My name is Ho."

He flunked seventh grade because he couldn't understand the teachers.

"I just didn't know what they were talking about at all," he says.

Ho is starting his sophomore year at Curtis Baptist High School - last semester he almost made the honor roll. Sung is a senior with lots of academic awards.

The Lees are the only Korean students at Curtis Baptist High School. Columbia County has 44 students who speak English as a second language this year. Richmond County had 123 students last year who spoke English as a second language.

Last year Ho was one of the 365 Koreans in Georgia to become an American citizen. He wants to go to West Point.

A varsity football team's running back, Ho was voted outstanding offensive player last year. He also ran track and was voted the basketball team's best player on defense.

Now he has his own room with a post of Shaquille O'Neal in the family's home on East Boundary. He wears Polo Sport cologne and drinks strawberry-kiwi Gatorade.

But he still loves kimchi, the traditional Korean dish of pickled cabbage.

Ho also likes hanging with his best friend, Matt Williams, who helps him out with his English. And he spends a lot of time with about 40 Korean kids he met at church.

"They understand," he says. "I can't speak English that well. So it's easier to hang around them."