A couple years ago my parents returned to their country, and by “their country” I mean America. My parents were both born and raised in Korea. Their first experience with Americans was the arrival of soldiers in World War II and during the Korean War. They both remember with deep and abiding gratitude the great sacrifices of American GIs who came to fight for them. They also remember their simple kindnesses. My dad still talks about how a GI handed him a chocolate bar. It was the first time he tasted chocolate. He promptly threw up, but still remembers the gesture with fondness. The idea that he might pursue an American education was first suggested to him by a soldier, who offered to sponsor him to come to the United States to study. For someone who wanted nothing more than to read and learn and who had struggled so hard to get an education, this was a tantalizing and almost impossibly beautiful dream. For both my parents, coming to America was as much about going towards a brighter future as it was about leaving a painful chapter of their lives behind.
My dad first came to America as a student in the early 60s and he brought my mother over shortly afterwards. They chose America as their country when they became naturalized citizens and have been proud to call themselves Americans ever since. They love America, unabashedly and wholeheartedly. This has manifested itself in many ways over the years…My dad only bought American cars, even back in the days when American cars were terrible. My dad’s a scholar, not a fighter, but out of a sense of patriotism to his adopted country, he tried to enlist in the army to fight in Vietnam. To his sorrow, the recruiters told him he was too old. Once he tried unsuccessfully to return his tax refund to express his gratitude to the country that had done so much for him. My parents always extolled the virtues of American democracy, the American educational system, American culture and society. They’ve always been quick to praise their country, loathe to criticize it any way.
At times I’ve felt like this was more their country than my own, even though I was born and raised here. Thanks to my patriotic parents, I’ve attended schools and have hung out with people who have tended to regard patriotism with suspicion – as something corny and anachronistic. I think it was only when I began to travel abroad that I realized how very much I do appreciate this country and how much there is to love about it.
After spending the majority of their lives in America, my parents felt compelled by a sense of filial piety to return to Korea. Every year they would promise to return to the States after “just one more year,” but they always ended up extending their stay in Korea. What was only meant to be a year in Korea ended up being a dozen years.
Finally, a couple years ago they came back home to America for good. They had been living in a high-rise apartment complex in the middle of Seoul and were delighted to have a patch of suburban lawn that they could transform into a garden. By then my mother, who had been the visionary behind their last beautiful American garden, was too sick to do the work required to translate her vision into reality. But my dad, who was always a farm boy at heart, could hardly wait to roll up his sleeves and till the soil. He had barely recovered from jet lag when he sent a check for over $500 to a mail order nursery for dozens of plants. That’s a lot of money for retirees on a fixed income. It’s a lot of money, period. He eagerly, then anxiously waited and waited and waited for his plants to arrive. Finally, he asked me to contact the company.
I called, emailed, called, hectored, emailed, pestered, called, over and over and over again to try to get the nursery to either send the plants or refund the money to my father. Finally, I contacted the Better Business Bureau and filed a complaint with the Office of the Attorney General for the State of Tennessee. That was two years ago, and I didn’t hear a word until this week when I got a call from the Consumer Affairs Office of Tennessee’s Better Business Bureau.
To be honest, I had thought it was a lost cause. Whenever I would mention it to my parents, they would tell me the money was long gone and to forget about it. It rankled, but I eventually did manage to forget about it until this week’s phone call. It turns out that the nursery is still in business, but is being closely monitored by the state. Every month a portion of the money they make is appropriated by the state of Tennessee to pay back all past claims against the company. They’d been wading through over 300 claims filed from as far back as 2003. They’d gotten to around half of all the claims, and had finally reached the one I had filed on my dad’s behalf.
I felt positively gleeful and giddy with excitement as I called my parents to tell them the news that the state of Tennessee would be issuing them a refund check. I guess I was expecting to get some credit for having gotten their money back. I was looking forward to basking in the glow of their appreciation for my labors. But when I told my mother the news, she said in a triumphant, I told you so kind of voice, “THAT’S America!”
Not “THAT’S America!” where a shady business can steal people’s money for years and years and still be allowed to operate. Not “THAT’S America,” where it takes two years to get your hard-earned money returned to you. But: “THAT’S America,” where nothing is impossible and where there are people hard at work making sure wrongs are eventually righted, and where there is a process to ensure that they are. That’s my parents’ America, and I’m glad to be living in it too.