I recently had the privilege of sharing a short preview for my first single. The song is called “Scars.” It was written in 2012, and finally in 2017, it’s ready for an audience. The truth is, every part of me ached as I penned these words. It’s one of the most personal songs I’ve written because in it I admit to the world how frail I really am.
One day, I sat in front of my piano with a certain unnameable heaviness in my heart. In a little while, “Scars” was born. From the very beginning the song convicted me and spoke to me. I wanted so desperately to purge my heart of an aching that had been gnawing at me from the inside, and this song was the perfect product of this pain. You see, I had been harboring a secret at the time, and even today, I keep this secret.
That I immigrated to the US with my family at a young age is commonly known. That I have been an undocumented immigrant since the age of nine, however, is not known. That I am still, at twenty four, struggling to make the most of this shadow-like existence is not.
Being an undocumented Asian American is strange. It really is strange. On the one hand, I’m often spared the immediate dangers of “looking” so, but this is only at the expense of a misunderstood, lonely, and deeply isolated existence. It’s true that no one knew. But that’s just it: no one knew. I was alone.
Some of you reading will care, and others won’t. Some of you will think I’m doing this for the attention (without so much as an idea of how frightening this is for me and all the years I’ve wrestled with myself to be honest about this). Some will decide I’m not the same person I was just a little while ago, and there will be those who criticize me for being who I am. As disgusting as it is to denounce a person’s humanity, I can somehow understand you. How? Because I did it too.
For a long while, I condemned my very existence. I blamed my parents for bringing me here where I had to live a sub-human life. Growing up I heard people say illegal immigrations shouldn’t be allowed in schools, and that instead they should be jailed and deported, that they have no right to live. I internalized this rhetoric as a child. I believed I was a lesser being and that I did not deserve an education, a career, health, and a life free from fear. That when bad things happened, they happened because I deserved them. This was my life, I thought. Because the Korean culture is so steeped in the ideas of shame and honor, I thought my life was stain on everyone and everything I was associated with. I couldn’t speak up or seek help because my situation was shameful, so when I was overwhelmed and exhausted, it was in complete isolation.
So I struggled at every turn in my life to reconcile this self-hate and contempt with the soft glow of life buried in my soul. At one moment, I could swear I had done nothing wrong, that I was just a person living life. A point would come when I could no longer justify these claims against my humanity, for I feel. I yearn. And I dream. How deeply and desperately I ache for life. Then in the next moment, I remember that I am an alien. Unwanted. Illegal. A problem.
Slowly I cowered away when people asked me questions that I knew deserved longer explanations.
Why aren’t you going to college?*
Why don’t you drive yet? Why do you always ask for rides?**
Why haven’t you been back to Korea yet? Don’t you miss it there? Do you even remember anything about it? your family?
Why don’t you have a credit card? You should start building up your credit.
Why don’t you try out for American Idol if you love singing so much?
Why are you using your sister’s library card? You should make your own.
Why aren’t you going on the trip with us? It’s just a three hour ride to Mexico.
Why don’t you just go do it if you want to so much? You should seize the day.
Why don’t you actually go out and do the things you wanna do instead of just talking about them?
People mistook my legal inability for my personal apathy. How could I explain my life which was set on such a different track from nearly all of my peers? How can I get them to understand that for me, it’s never I don’t but I can’t? The few honest encounters in which I did try to explain proved unfruitful and equally painful.
– I can’t because I’m undocumented.
– Oh, I see. So like, you’re illegal?
– Yeah. I don’t have the right documents for it.
– Wait, so… why don’t you just go get your green card?
Tell me where I can go or what I can do to escape this form of life. Please.
I learned later that it’s better and easier to lie. After hearing a number of people try to explain to me that “in life nothing is given but everything in earned,” I learned to shut up–or lie. So I extended my arm out and pushed them and their questions away, keeping everyone at arm’s length. I didn’t want them to see me hurting. That’s a common misconception, isn’t it? That there is shame involved with pain.
I had to become a master of balancing the need to be alone with my natural fear of loneliness. The world prescribed me alienation and a life on the margins of society, and I felt obligated to abide in it, all the while resenting it. All the while painfully hungering for someone to understand. To help me. To be a friend. To give me a place to belong.
What I didn’t know is that each of these moments of confused and misunderstood humanity came with its own wound. I accumulated many of these through time, collecting one after another secretly and silently—after being turned away from a job that refused to pay cash, after watching my friends spread out into the corners of the world, after being the butt end of a joke about deportation—and, as though by intentional design, they formed the outline of my being, and I would never again be without these scars.
Late 2012, however, was a pivotal moment. It was the first time when my perspective began to change. I was given a work permit which, among other things, allowed me to drive, find a job that actually work toward a career, and imagine a real life. with real opportunities. real self-dependence. This is also when I wrote the song “Scars.”
I chose no longer to be a victim of my own hate and mourn the way life mishandled me. I no longer feel shame when considering my experiences. I don’t let myself be consumed with fear– what will happen to me, what people will think, and what people will do. I celebrate my scars. I acknowledge and embrace the person I’ve come to be because these scars are a testament to the healing powers at work in me. They’re not just remnants of past pain, but facts of redemption. My scars evidence the fact that God, or the universe, what ever you believe, intends for me to live.
But why do I choose now to tell the truth? now when the presidential administration is so openly hostile? now that ICE raids are resuming in Los Angeles? now when I am in more danger than before?
For precisely that reason. I am in more danger, in fact, too much danger to not speak out and fight—not just for me, but the entire body of immigrants to which I proudly belong. I cannot simply expect others to fight for me and this cause while I myself am silent. Why should they when I am not fighting for my own life? The brave people whom we respect and hold dear were also faced with a decision: to wait patiently and helplessly or to sound off and demand change. How truly sad would it be if, without speaking out, I’m still “rounded up and deported”?
For the sake of resistance, I bear myself open to my audience, readers and listeners alike, and to the larger world around me. For the sake of art, I bear my scars. The unburdened rarely create meaningful art, and the unaffected rarely move hearts. So, for the sake of resistance and art I find boldness.
However, it’s not without careful calculation of my prospects and my future that I share this information publicly, and I would recommend all my undocumented peers who still live in secrecy to consider the consequences with scrutiny, too. In the past week, there have been raids across the country, and contrary to popular rhetoric, they do not limit their target to those with criminal records. That’s a lie and has always been. It’s as random and spiteful as you would expect any act of hate to be.
As for me, my work permit does not expire until November of this year, at which point the probability of my deportation will rise meteorically. I’m eligible to reapply for a work permit in May, but there is no guarantee that that option will be valid at the time as the program has fallen into danger with Trump’s election. In all likelihood, if I am deported, I’ll return to Korea (for the first time in 21 years!) where perhaps I can teach English while continuing to pursue music and literature. If circumstances permit, I would like to resume studying English literature in England or Canada.
I pray to God sincerely that I’ll be spared of deportation, but those in my position know that we live in constant threat and these alternative plans are necessary.
If the worst were to happen, I’ll be ready. I’ll trust God. I don’t believe he selected to inflict chaos in my life or that he caused this to happen, but I have an eternal hope in heaven that not even lifelong persecution can extinguish. God will be with me in my trials and he will make a new place for me should I be banished. I have complete faith in him who keeps me, and I believe in his infinite wisdom and love to redeem even this situation and turn it into something good for my sake.
And so, I forever brand myself an alien and a criminal in the eyes of US politics. My heart hesitates from time to time, but I am immovable and unwavering in my resolve–to make sense of my life and finally offer the world a complete picture of my existence. I can no longer live my life scurrying into dark and obscure corners, waiting for people and situations alike to go away.
To those who expressed contempt for my overly-political opinions and outbursts following Trump’s election, I wish I could apologize but I have no desire. It involved my very life, and I did what any sane person in danger would do: I screamed and I mourned.
But now I feel that I have nothing to lose. I’ve stopped caring about the opinions of those who wish disaster for me. I’ve come across many who expressed repulsion at the fact of my existence, but I can’t care anymore. I’m weary in that regard. The government already has all my information–when and how I came here, my birth date, my address, my fingerprints–so there truly is no longer anything to lose, except this opportunity to join the masses that seek a chance at life.
My scars are my crown
My scars are my jewels
How could I sing of my scars if I refuse to reveal that very part of me that requires daily healing? How could I choose now to be paralyzed with fear when the fight of my life is just beginning?
“Many times I grew weary of the secret burden I carried and longed to cast it down, either in action or in resignation. But I was not made to be a resigned man…”
Richard Wright, Black Boy
“…but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.”
Henry David Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”
“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.‘ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
2 Corinthians 12:8-10
* AB540 is a California Assembly Bill that allows students who have been in CA high schools for at least three years to attend CSUs or UCs at in-state tuition rates. Because I was disconnected from legal resources for undocumented immigrants, I did not know about this until after high school.
** The Obama administration introduced a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA) which allows eligible youth to obtain work permits, which thereby granted me a CA driver’s licenses and a degree of protection against deportation. It was introduced in June 2012 when I was 20, but I did not receive it until the following year in August 2013.