Natalie Kim - At the crossroads of cultures

Natalie is a Korean descendant whose first language is Russian. She was born in Uzbekistan, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. After the Soviets fell apart, at the age of 5, she moved to Russia with her family. Natalie and every woman in the past 3 generations before her immigrated to another country sometime in their life, whether it was voluntary or not. Her great grandmother escaped harsh living conditions, starvation and poverty in the Northern part of Korea when it was still one, undivided, and very poor country. They organized first settlements in the Russian Far East and began new life. Her grand mother was the first born Russian -Korean, who, years later, along with hundreds of thousands of other ethnic Koreans was forcefully deported to Central Asia by Stalin’s orders- that was very gruesome part of the history. Later in life, Natalie’s mom, dad, older brother and her moved back to Russian Far East.

Can you talk about how it all started? (i.e., When did you come to the U.S.? Came alone or with family? What made you want to move to a different country?)


I came to America in 2007, when I was 20 years old. My visit was supposed to be just a summer-long trip initially. I had just finished my 4th year of college, and one of my best friends and I signed up for a summer exchange student program. As English was my major, I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn more about American culture and practice the language.


Can you talk about how you choose which city to move to?


So we landed in Panama City Beach, Florida, that's where we had our work contract from. It is a popular waterfront vacation destination. Even though it was really nice there, it did not look like the America I had always imagined in my head...


My friend and I decided to stay a little longer after the summer, it was just too short. We wanted to explore and travel more, we felt like there was so much more to see outside of that small town on Florida’s panhandle. However, getting my family on board was really tough. I grew up in a very conservative, traditional family. My dad was especially very strict. I couldn’t go out with friends at night, or go to parties until I started college, really…can you imagine how hard it was to convince him to let me travel to US for the whole 3 months? He was very upset when I told him I wanted to stay for another year! It took a lot of convincing, and my brothers helped. I'm so glad how everything worked out, and I am now a citizen, my brother and his family moved here too and became US citizens, and my mom has recently got her permanent residence as well.


Can you talk about your education journey in America?


My education journey didn’t start right away. A lot has happened before that. While working in Florida, I met my future husband, then moved to Los Angeles to be with him, we started a family, had a baby. It wasn’t until my daughter turned 3 when I finally went to school.


I chose Interior Designer's Institute in New Port Beach, California to study…..interior design :) I always wanted to be in a creative field when I was little. For the longest time I thought that someday I’d become a hair stylist or fashion designer. I used to find fabric scraps around the house and make skirts and vests out of it for my dolls and myself.


In school, I felt like I was older than most of my classmates, because I already had 4 years of college in Russia, and didn't go to school in the U.S. for another 7 years. I was afraid to look stupid in front of people, native speakers, so I worked harder to compensate for language skills flaws. The fear of failure was a big driver, but I also found so much more joy studying as an older adult vs. being in your late teens and early twenties.


But overall school years were extremely tough for me, I had to juggle between studio projects, being a mom, a two- sometimes three-hour long commute to OC every day, and a part-time internship that started in a sophomore year. I barely had friends in school, and had to miss many fun family trips and friends gatherings during that time in order to catch up on everything, I could not wait to graduate. I finally finished my BA program in 2018. It felt like a huge accomplishment to me.


Can you talk about your career journey in America? Could also be some interesting, unexpected work experiences.


The time in Florida was the most adventurous and somewhat carefree time of my life. It was fun.

I worked as a server on a dining cruise ship when I first came. It was a popular tourist attraction for families and couples during summer season. I was so scared to do or say something wrong because my English wasn’t that great. We also had a band playing and singing live every night on a cruise, the music was so loud and it made it harder to understand people. Sometimes I had to ask guests to repeat what they needed several times until finally one of us just gave up. I feel like I was going above and beyond to make up for that disadvantage, but still walked away with so little tip some nights. That was my first job in the US and I think I was making around $7 and hour. One of the most memorable moments was biking home every night after the shift, enjoying ocean breeze. I was sweaty, tired, partially-deaf from all the loud music but so happy! Night was also the only time I could enjoy being outside in Florida, it is usually super hot and humid during the day.


Few months later I found another job at a local resort as a banquet server. I was able to use my creative side a little bit, while working there- decorating and setting up ball rooms for parties, weddings, family reunions, corporate events etc. I met such diverse groups of people there. Seasonal employees were mostly international students and immigrants from all over the world: Russia, Brazil, Jamaica, Thailand, Moldova, Bulgaria, Columbia, Ecuador, Czech Republic and many more. It seemed like America was perfectly represented in our group of immigrant employees, everyone had their own story to tell and a reason to be there. There was a lady- cardiologist from Uzbekistan who had left her career and kids back home, trying to make it in the US to eventually bring her family over.


None of us spoke perfect English, but somehow we were able to work together, get things done, and party together after work. It was a lot of fun. I partied so much during that period of my life. I was only 21 and full of energy unlike now. :) Later, another close friend from my Russian University moved to Florida to live with me. Having close friends really helped getting through difficult times, we were a family to each other. Both of my friends still live in Florida now, both married with kids, I go visit them once in a while.


A year or so later, I got trained to become a bartender at the same resort. Mixing drinks was far more enjoyable than serving tables, and I could make a lot more money doing that. It later helped me find a part-time bartending job when I moved to LA.


During winter, the resort would get very slow, no tourists - less business. At one point, in order to stay afloat, my friend and I found a job in construction. It wasn’t hard at all, but rather tedious- we were patching tiny little holes in drywall for a few months in a newly built hotel. Other odd jobs I had were hotel housekeeping, Starbucks barista and African hair braider at a gift shop :)


After I started school for interior design, I started working in design and architecture firms as an interior designer. And that journey is still going strong.


Do you think being a multi-cultural and multi-lingual background has aided you or created struggles for you? It could be both. If so, please elaborate.


Being an immigrant is already a struggle no matter if you speak the language or not. When my family and I moved to Russia, we were seen as outsiders. Even though we were very assimilated with the culture, I was still teased a lot at school for my skin color and eye shape. Coming to America I’ve never had this issue, but there was a language barrier and just overall struggle to fit in. Now I see my background as an asset, because I can see things from three different perspectives: Russian, Korean and now - American. Also coming here gave me a chance to choose what I truly wanted to do, and not be restricted by family decisions or peoples opinions. I finally chose the career I wanted. I learned how to take responsibility for my own decisions in life.


What's your biggest struggles at workplace?


Growing up with Russian education system where no authorities could be questioned was so different. At work, speaking up when I'm not in agreement is really hard. On top of that, I'm still sometimes worried that I could misunderstand something and screw things up, like project related things on a big scale. I feel like I just worry too much in general. I also used to hate small talk, but I think overtime got a little better at it.