Mary Paik Lee

Mary Paik Lee, born in 1900, is the author of an autobiography, Quiet Odyssey : A Pioneer Korean Woman in America (University of Washington Press, 1990), that is a remarkable first-person account of Korean American immigrant life in the early part of the 20 th century. The Paiks emigrated from Korea to Hawaii in 1905 and then to California in 1906. They lived in Riverside from 1906 to 1910 or 1911 and then moved to Claremont (about 40 miles from Riverside).

Her father, Paik Sin Koo, and her mother, Song Kuang Do, were Christians who were displaced during the Japanese occupation of Korea . After Japanese soldiers commandeered their home, they decided to emigrate. Although Paik Sin Koo came from a family of ministers and teachers, he and Song Kuang Do became laborers in the U.S.

The following excerpt from Quiet Odyssey (pp. 14-20) describes Lee's memories of their years in Riverside. Mary Paik Lee was a small child at the time.

Many old friends came with us from Hawaii. Some stayed in San Francisco , others went to Dinuba, near Fresno, but most headed for Los Angeles. We ourselves went straight to the railroad depot nearby and boarded a train for Riverside, where friends would be waiting for us. It was our first experience on a train. We were excited, but we felt lost in such a huge country. When we reached Riverside, we found friends from our village in Korea waiting to greet us.

In those days, Orientals and others were not allowed to live in town with the white people. The Japanese, Chinese, and Mexicans each had their own little settlement outside of town. My first glimpse of what was to be our camp was rows of one-room shacks, with a few water pumps here and there and little sheds for outhouses. We learned later that the shacks had been constructed for the Chinese men who had built the Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1880s.

We had reached Riverside without any plans and with very little money, not knowing what we could do for a living. After much discussion with friends, it was decided that Mother should cook for about thirty single men who worked in the citrus groves. Father did not like her to work, but it seemed to be the only way we could make a living for ourselves. She would make their breakfast at 5 a.m., pack their lunches, and cook them supper at 7 p.m. But my parents did not have the cooking utensils they needed, so Father went to the Chinese settlement and told them of our situation. He could not speak Chinese but he wrote hanmun, the character writing that is the same in Korean and Chinese. He asked for credit, promising to make regular payments from time to time. They trusted him and agreed to give him everything we needed to get started: big iron pots and pans, dishes, tin lunch pails, chopsticks, and so forth. They also gave us rice and groceries.

The Korean men went to the dumpyard nearby and found the materials to build a shack large enough for our dining area. They made one long table and two long benches to seat thirty men. Father made a large stove and oven with mud and straw, and he found several large wine barrels to hold water for drinking and cooking. that was the start of our business. Mother had long, thick black hair that touched the ground. It became a nuisance in her work, so Father cut it short, leaving just enough to coil in a bun on the back of her head. It must have caused her much grief to lose her beautiful hair, but she never complained. We had already lost everything that meant anything to us.

We lived in a small one-room shack built in the 1880s. The passing of time had made the lumber shrink, so the wind blew through the cracks in the walls. There was no pretense of making it livable-just four walls, one window, and one door-nothing else. We put mud in the cracks to keep the wind out. The water pump served several shacks. We had to heat our bath water in a bucket over an open fire outside, then pour it into a tin tub inside. There was no gas or electricity. We used kerosene lamps, and one of my chores was to trim the wicks, clean the glass tops, and keep the bowls filled with kerosene.

The Chinese men who had lived there in the 1880s must have slept on the floor. Father solved the problem of where we were going to sleep by building shelves along the four walls of our shack. Then he found some hay to put on each shelf. He put a blanket over the hay, rolled up some old clothes for a pillow-and that was a bed for a child. I used a block of wood for my pillow. It became such a habit with me that even to this day I do not like a soft pillow. My parents themselves slept on the floor.

After our shelter was taken care of, I looked around and found that all our immediate neighbors were old friends fro Korea. Philip Ahn, who became a movie actor many years later, lived across from us. His father was Mr. Ahn Chang-ho. Mr. Ahn and my father, who had been boyhood friends in Korea, felt like brothers to each other and kept in touch through the years. It was good to see so many familiar faces again, and we felt happy to be there together.

Every day after school and on weekends, my older brother and I had to pile enough firewood up against the kitchen shack to last until the next day. Father found some wheels and boards at the dumpyard to make a long flatbed for carrying the wood, but we had to make several trips each day. An acre of trees grew some distance from us, where we found plenty of broken branches to gather up.

Meung's job was to keep the wine barrels filled with water so Mother could do her work. I cleaned the oil lamps, kept our shack in order, looked after my baby brother, and heated the bath water for the men at 6 p.m. so they could bathe before supper. The workers' bathhouse had just one large tub inside; I heated the water by building a fire under the floor. The men washed themselves with a hose before entering the tub.

Every Saturday Meung and I went to a slaughterhouse some distance away to get the animal organs that the butchers threw out-pork and beef livers, hearts, kidneys, entrails, tripe-all the things they considered unfit for human consumption. We were not alone-Mexican children came there also. They needed those things to survive just as we did. The butchers stood around laughing at us as we scrambled for the choice pieces. When I told Father I didn't want to go there anymore because they were making fun of us, he said we should thank God that they did not know the value of what they threw out; otherwise, we would go hungry.

Meung started school at the Washington Irving School, not far from our settlement. When I was ready to go, Father asked a friend who spoke a little English-a Mr. Song-to take me. My first day at school was a very frightening experience. As we entered the schoolyard, several girls formed a ring around us, singing a song and dancing in a circle. When they stopped, each one came over to me and hit me in the neck, hurting and frightening me. They ran away when a tall woman came towards us. Her bright yellow hair and big blue eyes looking down at me were a fearful sight; it was my first close look at such a person. She was welcoming me to her school, but I was frightened. When she addressed me, I answered in Korean, "I don't understand you." I turned around, ran all the way home, and hid in our shack. Father laughed when he heard about my behavior. He told me there was nothing to be afraid of; now that we were living here in America, where everything is different from Korea, we would gave to learn to get along with everyone.

The next day when I went to school with my brother, the girls did not dance around us; I guess the teacher must have told them not to do it. I learned later that the song they sang was:

Ching Chong, Chinaman,
Sitting on a wall.
Along came a white man,
And chopped his head off.

The last line was a signal for each girl to "chop my head off" by giving me a blow on the neck. That must have been the greeting they gave to all the Oriental kids who came to school the first day.

Because our Korean names were to difficult for them to remember, the children at school always said "Hey you!" when they wanted our attention. I told Meung that it was too late to change our names, but we should give American names to our siblings. So we started with Paik Daw Sun, who had been born in Hawaii , by calling him Ernest. When another brother was born in Riverside on August 8, 1908, we named him Stanford.

Meung was only three years older than I, but he was extremely observant and considerate for his age. He told me to stop playing around and to notice how much work our mother had to do. He said that to help her, every day before school he would wash the baby's diapers, and I was to hang them on the line. After school, before going for firewood, I was to take them in, fold them, and put them away. Meanwhile he would fill the wine barrels with water from the pump. We followed this routine from then on. I was always taking care of the babies, bathing them every night, changing their diapers, and feeding them midnight bottles. He heated their bath water in a bucket outside so I could give them baths in the tin tub inside our shack.

There was one large building for community meetings in Riverside, where religious services were held on Sundays. We didn't have a minister, but several persons read the Bible and discussed it. Father preached there whenever he had time. An American lady named Mrs. Stewart, who lived in Upland, used to come to our church on Sundays. She was interested in the Korean people and brought presents for everyone at Christmastime. She gave me the first and only doll I ever had.

Meung and I had a special "gang" consisting of six members about the same age. We ran to school together, ran home for lunch, back to school, and home again. On the way to school there was a large mulberry bush growing in the front lawn of one house. Whenever we passed, we noticed the big black berries that had fallen on the lawn. They looked so tempting that we just had to stop and se what they tasted like. They were so delicious we couldn't stop eating them. After that, every time we passed the house we helped ourselves, but we had an uneasy feeling about whether it was right or wrong to take the fruit. We childishly decided it was all right because the berries were on the ground and weren't picked off the bush. We had a big argument about it one day. When Meung said it was wrong to take something that belonged to someone else, my girlfriend got so angry she picked up a piece of firewood and hit him on the head. When we told Father about it, he said that the berries belonged to the owner of the bush, whether they were on the bush or on the ground. That settled our arguments. From then on we looked the other way every time we passed that house.

An old Chinese peddler used to come to our place once a week with fruits and vegetables on his wagon. I told Philip Ahn to climb up the front of his wagon and talk to him while I climbed up the back and filled my apron with small potatoes, lima beans, and corn, which we roasted in hot ashes. It was our first taste of such vegetables, and they were so good. But the old man got wise to us after awhile, so whenever we approached his wagon, he used the horsewhip on us.

One evening, as I was helping Mother wash the lunch pails the men brought back, I asked her what kind of work the men were doing. She told me they were picking oranges, which gave me an idea, but I didn't dare to tell her about it. After breakfast the next day, as I passed out the lunch pails, I asked some of the men why they never brought me an orange. I said I had never seen or tasted one. That evening as I took the lunch pails, they felt a bit heavy; when I opened one I saw a beautiful orange for the first time. I was so excited I told Father about it. He must have talked to the men, because there were only a few oranges after that. It helped make the work of washing the lunch pails seem less tiring to find a few. One night some time later, when I took in the lunch pails every single one felt heavy. I got really excited, but to my surprise, each pail had a rock in it. When I asked why, the men said they were afraid I would scold them if they didn't bring something, but there were no more oranges to be picked. Everybody had a good laugh about it.

After the orange season was over, the men picked lemons and grapefruit. In the fall there was wok in the walnut groves. The men would shake the walnuts from the trees with long poles, then the women and children would gather them up in sacks, take them to a clearing, and peel off the outer shells [hulls]. They got paid by the sack for their labor. Between the walnut harvest and the time to prune the orange trees, the men got a short rest. When there was no work in the citrus groves, Father worked at the Riverside Cement Company on the edge of town.

Two incidents happened in Riverside that will always remain in my memory. The first was when I told Father I needed a coat to wear to school. He said he would see what he could do about it. He rode to town on his bicycle to buy some material, and he made a coat for me. Since we did not have a sewing machine, he had to sew it by hand one evening. It was a beautiful red coat; I was so happy to wear it. All the girls at school wanted to know where I had purchased it. They couldn't believe my father had made it himself. When I asked Mother how Father could do such a wonderful thing, she smiled and said that, among other things, Father had been an expert tailor in Korea. He had studied to be a minister and had taught the Korean language to missionaries, but tailoring was how he made his living.

My second memory is equally wondrous. One evening Father woke us up in the middle of the night and said a wonderful thing was happening in the sky. Looking out the window, we saw a big star with a long sparkling tail that seemed to stretch across the whole sky. The tail was full of small sparkling stars. It was a spectacular, awesome sight, a bit frightening to us children. We didn't understand what was going on and couldn't sleep the rest of the night, wondering what it meant and if everything would be all right the next day.

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