I was elected to the US House of Representatives three times; as the first Korean to accomplish this, I made headlines both in America and Korea. However, my fall came suddenly. As the US media called my fundraising into question every day, I finally lost a bid for reelection. My marriage was already on the rocks, and the company that I had worked hard to develop also fell apart.
I had nothing left – only $200 in my pocket, the same amount of money I brought with me to the US 50 years ago. I didn’t even have enough money to buy a gun and commit suicide. Politics, as its price, took everything I had achieved with my blood and sweat. I asked myself over and over if my political career had been worth the price. I had gone from the highs of public service into the depths of despair, and it was the first time in my life where I thought that there was no hope for me. I could not find a way out; there was no light and nothing to offer salvation. I even lost the will to live.
When a person is in a place like this, the only place they can go is to their homeland and their hometown. I boarded a plane to Korea and went to Inwangsan Alley, where I’d lived as a kid. As I entered the alley, memories illuminated my mind like a revolving lantern. I remembered leaving for the US after my military service, against the wishes of my parents, after being accepted to Chaffey College in California. I dreamed of a new life in a foreign land, dealing with an unfamiliar language and environment, delivering newspapers in the morning and disposing of trash in a hospital at night. I studied sewage treatment in graduate school, and eventually got a job at a sewage treatment company.
At that time, with the beginnings of the environmental protection movement, the business of building new sewage treatment facilities was booming in every state. Thinking that the time was right, I started Jay Kim Engineers, an engineering company for the construction of highways and sewage treatment facilities. I started the company with just a part-time secretary, but by getting contracts during the day and designing the facilities at night, developed it into a company with 150 employees.
When I got a chance to run for the city council of Diamond Bar, a city near LA, I seized it without hesitation. I was elected despite being a major underdog; soon, I was successful in running for mayor. Then I decided to run for the House of Representatives, despite living in a white district of over 600,000 people, only 6 percent of which knew my name. I was told that it was impossible to win, but in 1992 I defeated the Democratic candidate and became a Representative of California.
I remembered the camera flashes and applause of the day where I was sworn into office, and seeing my mother raise her arms into the air and cheer in the gallery of the House of Representatives. I was envied for my undefeated record as a politician. When I left office, I berated myself so many times – “How could this happen to me? I was the one who did what everyone said was impossible…”
Suddenly, I found myself back in Inwangsan Alley. I could see the flowers that were no longer just a part of my memory. Were the azaleas and golden bell trees along the ridges of the mountain and magnolias on the side of the road really this beautiful? I walked very slowly along the alley, where the spring flowers began to bloom. I suppose those flowers had always been there, and I had just never noticed them as a child. The younger Jay Kim, with a mind focused on the future, did not have the time to pay attention to flowers and trees.
It took losing everything for me to see those beautiful flowers; only losing the bright shell of success could allow my empty heart to be filled with those flowers. Suddenly, the image and voice of my mother sprang to mind. “Chang-joon, I like spring. How wonderful it is for it to bring life to a world frozen all winter.” I remember that she would leave the doors to our home wide open once spring began, allowing the scent of golden bell tree flowers and azaleas to float through the house. I realized that my desire for success had been superseded by a need for modesty in my life, and I found peace of mind. In Inwangsan Alley, I felt like I had a chance to truly live again.
It will be spring again soon. I will return to Korea in spring, as that season makes me yearn for my homeland.