Editor’s Note: Yumi Hogan is first lady of Maryland, and the first Korean American first lady in the United States. Mrs. Hogan is a first-generation Korean American, an accomplished artist, and an adjunct professor at Maryland Institute College of Art. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Forty one years. That’s how long I have lived in the United States since emigrating from South Korea to pursue the American dream.
Twenty years. That’s how long I spent working multiple jobs, often 14 or 16 hours a day, to raise three daughters as a single mother, all so they could have access to the countless opportunities this country has to offer.
I grew up on a chicken farm in a small town in South Korea as the youngest of eight kids. I was born nine years after the Korean War broke out. Most Koreans were poor. My family worked hard, and I was taught to be sober and diligent – to never get lazy. Leftover and broken eggs that couldn’t be sold from the farm were my snack. I walked 2 miles every day between home and school since there was no bus available.
At 20, I already had a “hard working gene” by the time I arrived to the US. I was humble and determined. That’s how I was taught. But the reality here was tough: I didn’t speak much English, and I was in a completely different world culturally.
Moreover, as a single mother with three daughters, I didn’t have time to do anything for myself. I couldn’t take any sick days because I worked every day to feed my daughters, send them to school, and pay the bills. My life didn’t seem to be close to the American Dream. Without letting my daughters know, I would dry my tears quietly, remembering my childhood. I missed everything familiar from my homeland.
But I never, never gave up.
My family came first. I did everything to provide a better life and education for my daughters. Once my two oldest daughters grew up, they helped me a lot and took part-time jobs. They worked and studied hard. They were the reason I went through all the hard times, and ultimately were the ones who helped me push through.
Once their dreams had come true, they said, “It’s your turn, mom. You sacrificed everything for us. Now follow your own passion and dream.” They told me that otherwise our American Dream was not complete. After I married my husband, he encouraged me as well. He was an inspiration to me.
Finally, I decided to do something for myself. Thanks to my husband and daughters, I went back to school and studied with students who were the same age as my youngest daughter. But I finished my degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and received a Master of Fine Arts at American University. Years later, my big dream came true – teaching at MICA, where I’ve worked for the last 10 years.
That’s my story. It’s an American story – and it’s the story of so many of my fellow Asian Americans.
From coast to coast, we have worked hard, served our communities, started businesses, and raised families here, often while struggling to learn a new culture and a new language. As a result, we have become an indispensable part of this country. We contributed to building America.
However, there is something that has not changed.
We, Asian Americans, still face discrimination and racism.
Many Asian Americans and most first-generation immigrants have experienced it at least a couple of times. Some may share common experiences – no support or response was provided by the police when hate crimes or incidents happened; their windows were broken by aggressors; discrimination or bamboo-ceilings prevented them from being promoted at work; they were asked where they “originally” or “really” come from; their children were bullied and told they “smell bad” due to their lunch box with Asian food; they were insulted with slanted-eye gestures.
We Asian Americans are a proud people. Instead of fighting back or speaking up against this hate, we worked that much harder to prove our worth. We focused on the problems right in front of us – finding ways to make ends meet, feed our families, and educate our children.
But now, as our nation grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, hurtful words have too often escalated to brutal acts of violence.
As the first Korean American first lady in the history of the United States, Maryland’s first Asian American first lady, and a first-generation immigrant, my heart breaks for all victims of hate and racism. Today, our grandparents, parents, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, and friends are forced to live in fear. But as proud citizens of this country, we should not have to be afraid of anything.
The time has come for us to speak out, and demand action.
Last week, I stood alongside my husband and fellow community leaders to lift up the forgotten voice of Asian Americans. After all, every one of us is in some way an immigrant to this land. No one should hear, “go back” to somewhere – this is our home.
We are calling on leaders in Washington, DC, to take this matter seriously by passing laws, like those we have in Maryland, that improve and expand the reporting of hate crimes. In 2019, my husband signed legislation to expand the categories of hate crimes that law enforcement must collect, analyze and report information on, as well as new penalties for those who threaten to commit a hate crime. He has also directed state law enforcement officials to institute enhanced visibility patrols to protect Asian businesses and communities and is calling on every level of government to vigorously investigate all hate crimes allegations.
But institutions and laws are not enough. Asian Americans are both explicitly and implicitly discriminated against. Some who ask us, “Where are you from?” do so genuinely, but ultimately alienate and label us without evil intentions. Regardless, we are judged on whether we are American enough all the time. Our society should evolve to the point where Asian Americans are considered Americans without any questions.
This country is the envy of the world because of its diversity. That diversity makes us stronger, and it is built on embracing, understanding, and enjoying the differences among us.
My fellow Asian Americans weep over the rising number of attacks against our people. But in the face of this senseless violence, I see a new strength, determination and resilience in our eyes.
We will not stay silent anymore. But we will also not respond with vengeance. Instead, we will love each other more, we will support each other more, and we will stand together. We will make sure the overwhelming outpouring of support from leaders turns into real and lasting action that protects our children and grandchildren.