My grandmother always reminds me, "Anything is possible." I arrived in New York City on December 18, 1991, with literally one dollar in my pocket. I had one dollar, and a dream. I didn't speak a single word of English. I didn't have a rich aunt or uncle to greet me at the airport. I had no place to stay. I tell you this because I know very well what it means not to have a steady job, and to have to clean restrooms for five dollars a day. I know what it's like to have no change for bus fare, and to go hungry for three days. I know what it means when fear controls your life.
Fear: It is one of the greatest obstacles to achieving success. There's no number—no limit—to the kinds of fears we must face every day. And just think about the damage unchecked fear does to us. Think about the tremendous energy we waste just thinking about fear! Does it really deserve that much attention? No! That's why I call fear a "spoiled child"—it takes and takes, distracting us from our real goals.
When I came to America, I did so with an open-date airline ticket. After three difficult months in American, the night before my return ticket to Russia was due to expire, I didn't sleep at all. My pillow was wet with tears. This was my last chance to go home. Making decisions is difficult, but making a decision that will affect your life once and forever is nearly impossible. I agonized all night long.
My flight was leaving at nine o'clock the next morning. When morning came, I made a cup of coffee and went outside. But instead of heading for the airport, I took the first bus I saw and ended up in a nice part of the city, where I saw a woman pushing a stroller. On impulse, I followed her. A block later, she entered a building and posted a note on an announcement board: Nanny wanted.
I could read her note! Even though I still knew very little English, I understood what this woman was advertising for. "Nanny" in English sounds like the Russian word, "Nannya." I understood that she needed some help. But when I turned around, she was gone. I ran outside, screaming, "Hello! Hello!" The woman stopped. I did my very best to speak good English—and I got the nanny job!
I came to America, like so many others, because I believed in the words of the Declaration of Independence: That "all men are created equal" and that they have incredible rights—including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I had faith in the American dream: a faith in things unseen, the courage to embrace one's fear. I had many fears, but my dream was bigger than my fear. I learned to embrace my fear, and to release it.
My greatest inspiration through every difficulty I've faced is my paternal grandmother, Bya-ok, which is Korean for "White Pearl." She has always believed that I can do, be, and have anything I want if I dream big, and pursue those dreams.
The word "failure" did not exist in White Pearl's vocabulary. Instead, she called life's difficulties and challenges "life lessons." I once read that every single pearl evolves from a central core. This core is simply an irritant—a fragment of shell or fishbone, a grain of sand. To protect itself from this irritant, the oyster secretes multiple layers of nacre, which, over time, form a beautiful pearl. I think of this process when I think of my grandmother: She experienced some very difficult events in her own life, but despite it all, she became one of the rarest and most beautiful of pearls.
My grandmother's parents were the first generation of what we call Koryo-Saram, which means "Korean person," the people who came to Russia during the Joseon dynasty. They came to Russia in 1900, after a poor harvest and famine in Korea, to pursue a better life. They were country people, very down-to-earth and hard-working. They had no electricity or plumbing, no bath or shower. These are the people White Pearl and I are descended from—people of courage, of tenacity.
The wisdom of White Pearl's parents was passed down to my grandmother, who passed it down to me. Now I want to pass this wisdom to you. I want to share seven life lessons I've learned from White Pearl, and have mastered on my own. I still apply her lessons to every situation I face today. Her wisdom kept me strong and kept me going. I am who I am today because of the lessons I learned and lived.
As White Pearl would say, "Face every situation with faith, hope, and love. Embrace all that life throws at you, good or bad; neither will last forever. Life is a gift from God, and it's up to you how to use it."