The month of May celebrates the heritage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and aims to uplift their identities, experiences, histories, and cultures. Many individuals and groups recognized as such have endured significant challenges and have been subject to many hardships assimilating into American culture. We reflect on Asian American and Pacific Islander culture and stories to learn from, understand, and acknowledge these experiences.
One of the many stories worth sharing and honoring is that of MPOWERD President & CEO, Seungah Jeong.
Born in Pusan, South Korea, she and her family immigrated to the United States for a more prosperous life filled with opportunity - the American Dream, if you will, since unfortunately, life in South Korea in the 1970s and earlier was difficult and often poverty-ridden.
"I remember that cars were extremely rare and toilets were even more so," she recalled. She and her family lived in a 3-story concrete building with a deep, dark latrine and no running water or electricity. Seungah reflects on specific things that frightened her as a child, like kerosene lamps, which her family emphasized as dangerous for the risk of burns and inhalation of unhealthy fumes. "I thought the beast with fire in its mouth was terrifying."
After Seungah's mother gave birth to her, her father, mother, and sister left for America to begin building a new life. During that time, she was raised by her grandparents, aunts, and uncles for the first three years of her life until her family sent word that they were ready for her to join them in the States. So, Seungah flew to America, as a toddler, by herself. "I cried during the entire 29-hour plane ride," she remembered.
While living with family in South Korea during that time, and again at age 5, Seungah cherishes many memories and aspects of Korean culture.
"My uncles loved having a little girl around, and one of them stopped drinking with his buddies, so he could rush home to play with me. They all taught me to sing, and apparently, I loved singing and eating. Both are aspects of the culture that resonate today; Koreans love to gather, tell jokes, sing, and eat!" She even indicated that her family was extremely fortunate because her grandfather was a bone doctor. So, even with oranges, milk, and bread being true luxuries, her family was better off than most in a poor community.
Once settled in Texas, the promised oil and gold of the American Dream did not greet Seungah's family. "They came to the US during the first big wave of Korean immigration to America and were disappointed to quickly learn how difficult life could be for immigrants who did not speak English and were "different" from those around them. Seungah's father had to assume three construction jobs to make ends meet, while her mother, sister, and she all worked with garments on a piece-good basis.
"We also faced a tremendous amount of racism, but of course, as a child, I was not aware of what this was… only that it was painful to be singled out and humiliated for the way we looked and mocked for the little we had."
Seungah and her parents found a sense of community in their local church. Eventually, her father started his own business and then went back to school to become a Christian minister, while her mother never learned English. "We lived a dual life - we were fully Korean at home (even speaking Korean), and then we ventured out into a very different world for school and work."
Seungah acknowledges that although the journey was difficult, the resiliency she and her family built reflects what many immigrants have developed. The cultural elements that we maintained are now recognized more widely as immigrants have helped influence the fabric of what is celebrated here in America. Korean food, K-pop, Korean dramas, Korean beauty (think facial masks and CC cream), and Korean tech (touch screens were available in Korea 10 years before iPhones!) are now part of the mix of offerings here in the US - shaping us all!
It is both ironic and incredibly meaningful that today, Seungah is now the President and CEO of a company that designs solar-powered lanterns that are used to replace harmful, dangerous kerosene lamps used in low-income areas of the world. MPOWERD is honored to have Seungah leading the mission of delivering clean, reliable, sustainable light and power to people who are without access to electricity.