Ida Soon-ok Hart: “Growing up in America, I didn’t know that I wasn’t a citizen.”
In August 2017, I was driving through downtown Los Angeles and I saw signs at the Convention Center—Oath of Citizenship—with arrows pointing the directions for parking. I felt a deep sadness that I had never finished my own citizenship process. I told myself not to be afraid and to try again—maybe I would qualify now and stand proud in my dignity as a law-abiding, productive resident of the US for many, many years.
Growing up in America, I didn’t know that I wasn’t a citizen. My father was a black American soldier and my mother was Korean. My father was a 22-year-veteran of World War II and the Korean War, who saw active service in both of those wars. He was not married to my Korean mother and had to go through formal adoption in order to bring me to the United States. He told all parties involved that I was his biological daughter. I am grateful to have had a father with character and loyalty, who did not abandon me. I came to the US when I was eight-years-old. He thought I was a citizen and told me the same. When I was about 35, I was shocked to find out otherwise and I needed a green card.
I first applied for U.S. citizenship when I was about 40 and I was denied. The USCIS officer told me to re-apply with the corrected answers. I should have taken her literally and reapplied but I was in shock. I was afraid of being rejected again. It brought up a lot of emotional pain because bi-racial children had not been readily accepted in Korea and yet, I didn’t feel accepted by Black Americans because I looked very Asian. I wanted badly to belong to a country like America where diversity was accepted and even celebrated.
It took me 25 years to apply again. The people at Asian Americans Advancing Justice—LA were really helpful. Their assurances gave me moral courage to finish the application process. They were patient, kind and explained the procedures and questions to me, because some were confusing. They explained my mistakes with the first application and helped me to reapply. I was still afraid and couldn’t stop crying. When they told me that, if necessary, they would accompany me, I was able to move forward with faith.
I got my citizenship two days before my 65th birthday! I started with AAAJ—LA in September 2017 and had my citizenship certificate by March 2018. I felt a sense of relief. My best friend who accompanied me was very impressed with the ceremony. There is a lot of enthusiasm in Los Angeles for citizenship. I took the oath with 3,412 people—and that was just the first session. There were people from India, Asia, and Africa, Pacific Islands, Latin America, and Europe. The diversity was amazing; and the age range, from young people, barely 18, to the elderly, was remarkable. I finally felt like I belonged and had a home.
The United States has been good to me. When I went back to Korea to teach English, I could see the lack of opportunities. The children left behind by soldiers were not allowed to enroll in Korean public schools. I found my childhood village and saw the original building for the Sung Lim Mixed Blood Children’s Institute where I had to go to school. In the U.S., I’ve been able to go to college on scholarships (including a summer at Harvard University); to help build the LA subway system; and to be a science teacher. I have a Master’s Degree as an education specialist and I love my current job working with disabled students. There is something special about America with its acceptance of diversity and its provision of access to opportunities. I hope people won’t waste the time I did because they don’t understand the process. There are good people organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice—LA ready to explain and guide you toward citizenship. They will even hold your hand if necessary to provide encouragement!