She’d been rushing to and from the mailbox each day, consumed with trepidation and anxiety. She had opened each admission letter with trembling fingers and bated breath.
When Dohkyung Kim got the letter from Berkeley, she didn’t celebrate. She didn’t flounce about emitting a high-pitched squeal of excitement.
The university had not offered her funding of any kind, and there was no way her parents could pay for the high costs — not when she was an international student ineligible for student loans or financial aid.
Kim’s most cherished dreams slipped away in an empty envelope.
Assistant professor of history Ellen Wu said America is often conceptualized as a melting pot and a nation of immigrants, but both historical and current immigration policies have proven this to be false.
“America likes to tell itself that it stands for freedom, democracy and tolerance, but the real story is much more one of white supremacy, exclusion, imperial domination and slavery,” Wu said.
“The impetus for regulating Asian immigration came out of the desire of Americans to exclude people from Asia altogether — to bar them from entry, bar them from citizenship and meaningful participation in the U.S.”
An examination of the lives of Asian immigrants in Bloomington challenges the concept of universal equality in America. Student Dohkyung Kim, along with business-owner Kyungsil Choi, have both discovered they are not privy to the same opportunities as Americans because of their race and lack of American citizenship.
Under U.S. immigration policy, junior Dohkyung Kim is classified as a non-immigrant visa-holder despite the fact that she has lived in Bloomington since she was 12 years old.
She came to America as a dependent on her father’s student visa back in 2004. While she speaks English fluently and has American friends, Kim continues to feel unwanted in the U.S.
“I don’t feel like I belong here,” Kim said. “We’ve been here for years, and we pay taxes, but we don’t get any benefits.”
She has felt this way since her younger brother was initially denied an F-1 student visa to go to college in the U.S.
“My brother is completely American, and the possibility that he might not get to stay here really scared him,” Kim said.
House Bill 1402 passed in 2012, and it classified her brother as a non-resident for tuition and fee-paying purposes, adding another significant weight to her parents’ already-strained budget.
Because Kim does not want to burden them, she plans to return to Korea to get a job and, eventually, to attend graduate school.
“The American dream doesn’t exist. To me, that means the opportunity to be happy and live a good life,” Kim said. “For us, for immigrants, there are so many laws that impede our success here.”
Wu said understanding exclusive immigration policies is crucial to making sense of American identity.
“In thinking about debates on immigration, we end up reflecting on profound, fundamental questions of who is American,” Wu said. “Who gets to consider themselves American? Who gets the power to decide the answers to these questions?”
Kyungsil Choi, 55, owns and manages Sobon, a Korean restaurant in Bloomington.
She said she has felt a similar sense of isolation since moving to Bloomington in 2010.
Choi immigrated to the U.S. because her two daughters wanted to study in America.
Back in Korea, Choi was a music teacher in secondary school. Her younger daughter professed an interest in music and wanted to attend IU to study cello.
As a teacher, Choi was well aware that the Korean education system benefits only those who can excel in academia.
“You have to be good at studying, or you’re nothing,” she said. “Your rank in school follows you for life. That’s not the case in America — there are opportunities for everyone.”
Because Choi did not want her daughters to fend for themselves in a foreign country, she moved with them.
“It was a difficult decision, leaving everything behind,” she said. “I didn’t want to break up the family.”
Yet, she bid farewell to her parents, siblings and even husband to start a business in America. She applied for an E2 investor visa, which allows individuals to enter and work in the U.S. provided they have a substantial investment large enough to capitalize a new venture and employ American workers.
“It is a really hard visa to get,” Choi said. “I was rejected the first time I applied because I didn’t have enough documentation. You have to have money, investment, capital.”
Soon she found herself a restaurant owner in America with little experience in managing or operating such a business. Because she does not have a large staff, Choi works an average of 15 hours per day in order to ensure her business operates smoothly.
“I have to do everything — cooking, accounting, sorting through tax issues and managing the employees,” Choi said. “Life here is so, so hard — a hundred times harder than life in Korea.”
Choi said one of the worst aspects of life in the U.S. is the discrimination she faces from Americans because of her foreign appearance and lack of knowledge of the English language.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2012 report, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” merely 30 percent of foreign-born Korean immigrants in America reported they can speak English well. Choi is not proficient in English and feels uncomfortable whenever she attempts to carry out a conversation with an American.
“When I have to go into an office or buy supplies or deal with problems with Americans, I have trouble conveying my meaning,” she said. “I don’t like interacting with Americans because I feel ignored and dismissed. I get so frustrated because I just have to go along with whatever they say since I can’t speak English.”
Choi has no American friends in the U.S.
“I’ve been living next to my American neighbor for years, but I haven’t ever exchanged one word,” she said.
While she interacts more with the Korean community and attends a Korean church, Choi generally keeps to herself and her family. Most of her time is eaten up at the business anyway.
“That’s one of the things I miss the most about Korea — the sense of camaraderie you have with others,” she said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to do business in America, and there are many good things here, but this life is so difficult.”
Wu is often frustrated by the attitude of some Americans that immigrants have no right to complain about the way they are treated in the U.S. since they came here voluntarily.
“A response like that doesn’t take into account issues of power and inequality of resources,” Wu said. “Worldwide inequality in terms of resources leads people to seek better lives, however they can, and the kinds of choices they have are limited by circumstances beyond their control.”
The influx of Asian immigration into the U.S. is also a result of American presence as a global and imperial power in Asia, she said.
“I would like to live in a world where access to opportunities and resources are not tied to such circumstances like accident of birth,” Wu said. “Unfortunately, this is not the case in America.”
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