Becoming Useful

Dr. Kee Park

I met Kee Park in 2013 when I was in Seoul during the Buddha’s Birthday week. He’s a very laid back, relaxed man who often interrupts his conversation with a joyful, delightful laugh that sounds exactly like my former meditation teacher, a Canadian who was a Buddhist monk for twenty years. This is a recent Skype interview which we did when he was in Cambodia and I was in the Philippines.

Kee’s story

So why don’t you just start telling me about yourself? When did you and your parents go to the US?

I was born in Korea. My dad’s a doctor. In the early 1970s he was in private practice in Seoul. Because of the shortage of doctors in the US at that time, it was fairly easy for foreign doctors to go there. A lot of his friends had already gone, and it sounded like a good move. For Koreans the US had always been a sort of older brother. It was the place to be. Everybody wanted to go there. So when the opportunity came, my dad said, “We’re going to move to the US.” We immigrated in January of 1974, when I was nine years old, and he did a three-year residency in Hoboken, New Jersey.

I remember the move to the States as quite painful. My mother didn’t speak any English, my dad spoke functional English. We children didn’t speak any English. It felt like, “Throw the animals in the water and see which ones can swim.” We had to pick up the English language very quickly.

In the mid-70s, it seemed to me all the Asian immigrants were lumped together in people’s minds as “boat people”, Vietnamese war refugees. Also, in Korea at that time we didn’t have much of an identity. Korea was a country torn up by war trying to rebuild itself. It still had a fairly low standard of living. So if you look at it from a social standpoint I felt inferior. Obviously, from a national standpoint we couldn’t even liberate ourselves. We had to be liberated from the Japanese during World War II by the Americans, and then we were occupied by the Americans, and a government was set up in South Korea. So we always sort of never really felt…whole, I guess.

Back in Korea, my dad was a professional, and we were solid middle or upper-middle class. We had a maid, we lived fairly comfortably. I don’t remember feeling socially inferior in Korea. But when we immigrated, we were told, “We’re never going to be as good as the American people so we have to try twice as hard.” The message was clear.  I was not as good as these people. Sometimes that can make someone very ambitious to be become “somebody”.  It’s probably not like that now, but in the 70s, being an immigrant from Korea was very difficult.

I think for the most part I’ve overcome that, but it took a long time. I did what I thought I had to do. I could see it was important to succeed in American society. But success—nobody taught me what success should look like. Nowadays I would define success as being useful. But when I was a teenager success meant money, status, power, respect, those kinds of things. I was only 5’7” and 125 pounds. I wasn’t going to be successful as an athlete. For me the way to succeed was to study hard and become a professional of some sort.

I attended junior high in Union City, New Jersey, which is on the others side of Lincoln Tunnel from New York City. I picked up the language pretty quickly. We then moved to Wayne, New Jersey. In high school I was the student council treasurer. I remember hearing, “Let the Asian guy be the treasurer. They’re good at math.” Typical stereotype. It seemed funny at the time. I was part of the all-school musical production we put on every year. I was on the crew side, starting out the first year as a stagehand and spotlight operator, which meant standing on the catwalk on the roof of the auditorium with this 50-pound light generating all kinds of heat, just aiming it a character on command from the lighting director and following that person across the stage. Then I moved up and became the lighting director my senior year.

Were there other Korean-Americans around you? Or did you feel isolated in that way?

There were only a few Koreans in Wayne during the 1970’s. Forty years later things have changed. There are massive Korean churches in Wayne, New Jersey. There are Koreans everywhere.

Our parents wanted us to assimilate quickly as possible. There was no emphasis on trying to teach us about Korean history and culture and language. I think that also contributed to this feeling of weak identity.  I had to become an American as quickly as possible. All I remember was that I just had to succeed and do well in school and all that.

When I was a kid we went to Europe several times, and I felt that the Europeans, particularly the Germans, were much more sophisticated than I was, particularly when I was a college freshman. I’d been in high school there, so I knew how much better their education was. It really stuck with me. The other students thought the Americans were just so naïve.

I see what you mean, but with me it wasn’t sophistication. It was more the fact that the Korean people—and now I’m going to talk about Koreans in a general way, have issues.

Whenever a country is occupied by outside forces, by force, someone takes us and strong-arms us and says, “Do you give up?” and they make us subjects to their will, that has an effect on the national psyche. Then, when we don’t liberate ourselves through our own strength, we don’t kick them out but are liberated by another force, a “friendly force,” but still…. There are people in Korea who will always look up to the US and say, “They’re so much better than us.” They see the US as protector and defender, and that’s okay. I’m grateful for what the Americans have done, but there comes a time when Koreans have to overcome that and say, “We’re well now. Thank you for what you did, but we’re okay now. You don’t need to meddle with our internal affairs now.” It’s like a kid growing up, a teenager trying to find his identity. It is important to allow him to make his own decisions. But until Koreans become fully actualized, we will tend to believe Americans are better and smarter.

Looking back, there was some of that going on when I moved to the US. I think it played into the way I felt about me in relation to Americans. If I want to be somebody, I have to work twice as hard as they do. This was drilled into my mind. It also made me feel like I was never going to be as good as them.

But things evolved. As got older, clearly I was doing better at taking tests in school. I was a very good student. So academically I out-performed my peers, but that never took away from the thought that they were better than me.

I became a neurosurgeon, and I thought all my problems were solved.  I had achieved success. “I’m done. I’m at the top.” I got married. I had children. I had a very successful practice. I was a prominent member of my community. I was well respected. But I felt something was missing.

I’d become a Christian sometime during my residency, so maybe in my early 30s, which played a big role in what I’m doing now. Gradually, as I developed spiritually, I overcame my demons, such as low self-esteem. I could lighten up and be free of all those things, so I could become more useful to others. I found out I wasn’t as bad as I’d thought I was, other people weren’t as good as I’d thought they were. We’re all the same. Doesn’t matter if you are Korean or American. Everyone has guilt feelings and fears and resentments. It’s amazing how similar we are no matter what backgrounds we come from. That’s helped a lot for me, as an immigrant.

Through spiritual development I was able to ask, “Why am I here? What is my purpose?” I was practicing neurosurgery in a small town. When I first went to this small town in Missouri, there were only three neurosurgeons. By 2008 there were nine. We had more surgeons than we knew that to do with. A time came when I said, “There’s got to be a place where there’s a bigger need than in this small town. Maybe there’s another place where I’m more needed.”

I took a year off. My wife and I took our two daughters out of school—at that time were eight and ten—and we went traveling around the world. The plan was to travel for one year. We stopped at places where I volunteered to teach neurosurgery to local surgeons. This was through an organization called FIENS, Foundation for International Education of Neurological Surgery.  I volunteered in Ethiopia and Nepal. Then we found out my wife was pregnant. So we cut the year short and came back to the US in the spring and had our third child.

By this time I had caught the bug of helping in developing countries. So I formally closed up shop. I decided I was not going back into private practice. I tied up the loose ends and then started working in Ethiopia on a regular basis. I would go back and forth, sometimes taking my family for a while. In 2009, I became the director of spinal surgery at a teaching hospital in Ethiopia. I did that for four years.

Then in January of last year I was invited to do a training course hosted by the Cambodian Neurosurgical Society. It’s a fairly new society, there are only nineteen members. Until now each one of them had to go abroad and get some training and come back. They wanted to start their own training program in Cambodia. They were looking for outside teachers, and I said, “You know what? This might be an opportunity for me.”

So I talked to my wife, and we came to Cambodia, and committed to staying for one year. We moved our family here in August of last year, and now it’s already February and we’ve pretty much decided to stay here three years. I don’t know where I’m going to go from here. I’m not a high-profile academic neurosurgeon with my name on textbooks.  I’m US-trained, board-certified neurosurgeon who is willing to serve in Cambodia. And that’s enough for these people. They’re saying, “We want you to teach us essential neurosurgery, basic neurosurgery.” They’re not looking to do esoteric stuff. They don’t have the capability. So I’m uniquely useful. That’s what I’m doing now. I’m a full-time volunteer. My title is Consultant in Neurosurgery in a government hospital here in Cambodia.

How do you like it?

We love it. Well, first of all, I feel very useful. What little I can bring here means a lot to the people. I could also provide kind of a bridge between the Cambodian neurosurgeons and the outside world because I brought contacts from the world organizations. Sunday night we have a professor from the University of Toronto coming for a week to help teach. We have another professor coming at the end of February. Next Saturday I’m going to Myanmar because the Myanmar Neurosurgery Society wants to get some training. I feel very useful. I’m making an impact, it’s deeply satisfying professionally, and I’m appreciated by the patients and the local surgeons and the residents. I can tell that they are really glad that I am here.

What about your wife and kids?

My wife’s an English teacher who stopped teaching when our children were born. She’s come back to teaching at a Christian international school here, where our children also attend. She works part-time, so we get a discount on the tuition, which is a big help. We get another discount because we were commissioned as missionaries by our church in New Jersey. It’s been good for my wife to get back to teaching. I think she really missed the connection with the students. It’s been challenging because she’s teaching eleventh and twelfth grade English.

My children—my little one, you can take her anywhere and she’ll have a blast. My oldest one is doing very well. My second one, we brought her here when she was thirteen, which is a very difficult age. I think she’s still angry. We’re trying to get her more involved with activities and things like that. We hope the more she’s engaged, the better she’ll adapt.

Overall the transition has been very refreshing. We don’t have all the insanity we have back home. Christmas was as relaxing as ever for us. There are no crazy shoppers, no ads on TV blasting away about what we’ve got to get now. No catalogs getting piled into our mailbox. We took two weeks and went to Vietnam and hung out at a beach resort. It was very relaxing.

How did you find Korea? Was that your first trip back?

No, actually I go to Korea at least a couple of times a year. We have relatives. I also go to North Korea to support the North Korean doctors. We bring in teams of doctors from the US. We always stop in Seoul. Now that we live in Cambodia, we hope to go to Korea fairly often. The whole family is going there in April for a few days.