Q&A with Svetlana Kim
Lana Kim has many gifts. She speaks several languages and is an accomplished writer, successful businesswoman, and community activist. Her greatest gift is one that she shares with all of us - her story of hope, survival, and success.
In this exclusive interview, the author shares with us her personal insights into her life and her journey from the former Soviet Union to the United States.
- Your whole life involves travel. How has this affected you?
I don't feel that travel, as a source of change and growth, is something we naturally seek out. The history of my family is a history of travel. My people, the Koryo Saram, left Korea for Siberia in search of a better life.
In 1937, the history of my family and the history of our travel began when Joseph Stalin deported 200,000 Koreans to Central Asia. This was not a journey of choice, but a journey of survival. My grandmother, White Pearl, survived this brutal forced exodus. When I left Leningrad for the United States, it was a journey of choice and of survival. I have needed to travel to reach my goals. Because I survived my early journey, travel for me today is a way to enrich my life and experience all that this world offers.
- White Pearl (your grandmother) is your guiding star and inspiration for your book. How has her journey inspired your journey?
My grandmother is a generous, funny, warm, fearless, and resilient soul. And yes, thankfully, she is still alive. She survived Joseph Stalin's forced deportation in 1937 from Far East Russia to Central Asia. She was just a young girl of 22 then, and I can't imagine the horrors she saw. So many people died during that journey.
During a particularly hard moment for me in 1991, when I had to decide whether to use my return ticket to Leningrad or take the chance of my life and stay in America, I thought about her life. She didn't have the choice to go home. She didn't have any choices. I had already made the hardest choice by leaving everything and coming to America. I was alive and no one was trying to harm me. In fact, I had only encountered generous people who- whether through pity for me or just the sheer incredulousness of meeting someone alone who spoke no English, helped me.
When I was a girl, White Pearl always told me that I was born with good fortune and luck. I believed her then and I believe her now.
- Is your book an immigrant story or the story of someone achieving the American dream?
That's a good question. I feel my story is both. I believe in tenacity, the importance of reinventing yourself, and always, always learning new things. You also can't take criticism or bad luck personally. America is a land of immigrants and we have all survived by finding something inside of us or something that we can pass on to our children to help them achieve our dreams even if we can't.
I can say it certainly wasn't my dream to work as a cleaning lady. But I never dreamed of being a stock broker either. As the narrator of my own story, I may not be the best judge of the type of story this is. I hope readers will find my story and the lessons I've learned inspiring. I encourage all new immigrants to have faith, dream impossible dreams, and to know that dreams do come true. I'm living proof of that.
- How many times have you returned to Russia? What was your first visit back like?
I've returned to the former Soviet Union three times. The first time in 1996, next in 2003, and most recently in 2007. My book describes my trip back to Leningrad in 1996. At that time I noticed dramatic changes in the city's vibe. Many young people, well, people younger than me, I was 28 then-spoke English. There were new restaurants with English menus and stores with European fashions and food items. I also noticed that everything was more expensive and polluted. Sadly, with development and progress comes problems.
- Everyone in the United States is proud to have a nationality. Do you consider yourself to be ethnically Korean or Russian?
My people are called Koryo Saram. This translates to "Korean person" in Russia. Today there are nearly 500,000 Koryo Sarams still in the former Soviet Union. All of my family still lives there - four generations. That includes my grandmother, White Pearl, my parents, me, and thirty-three nephews and nieces. Many people are surprised to learn that I don't know how to speak Korean. My book explains how the Soviet government eradicated our language. I do speak Russian, German, and of course, I'm proud to say, English--American style.
- Now that the huge accomplishment of finishing your book is done, what's next for you?
I still can't believe that I'm done. I'm also taking time to promote White Pearl and I and applying my energies to my volunteer passions. This fall I will be volunteering at the Calvary Women's Shelter in Washington, D.C.
Giving back to the community will always be part of my life. While I was going through the legal proceedings to determine my refugee status, I promised myself that if I won my case and became a citizen I would always work to help others. That for me is a greater accomplishment than finishing the book.
- You write in your book that your life has been full of serendipity and luck, starting from your chance encounter at the bakery. But clearly you haven't relied on luck or waiting for opportunities. What do you rely on?
I truly believe in serendipity but I also believe in my intuition. Life presents everyone with opportunities. Some are worth chasing, others are not. I've relied on my intuition more than anything else. And I feel I've inherited this from both my grandmother and mother. Early in life, my parents encouraged me and my father taught me to seize every opportunity, no matter how small they are.
One of those opportunities that I write about is my decision to move to Washington, D.C. When the call came, I simply said yes. I knew it was the right move at the right time. It wasn't easy moving across the country and leaving so much behind, but the move has changed my life once again. I've met the most incredible people, made new friends, and started writing this book.
- Every step that you have taken in your career has led you to another milestone. It is as if you are climbing a mountain. What peak does writing this book represent?
Everyone I met after moving to Washington told me to write a book about my life and experiences. With so many people giving me the same advice, I knew that I needed to give it some serious thought. Writing this book has opened a floodgate of emotions. It has been one of the hardest tasks I've tackled, but I've also met some amazing people, like my friend Ron Powers. This book also gave me a great reason to travel back to Russia and interview my inspiration, White Pearl. I've learned a great deal about myself and my family.
But any author will tell you that the hardest part of writing a book is letting it go and letting other people read it. What will they think of the story and of me? Then my book was accepted to the Maui Writers Conference and it gave me the confidence to continue with the manuscript. I now have the joy of sharing this book with the people I write about. This book is a tribute to the generosity and kindness of everyone I've met in America.
Conclusion Writing seems to come naturally to Lana. She has been blessed with a heart to feel deeply and a mind to remember what is important. With so many interesting experiences from her life to draw from, expect Lana to author many more inspiring works.