How I Got to South Madison
One Family's Journey From Korea to Park Street
by Alex Lee, age 13
My parents have owned the Oriental Food Mart on South Park Street since September, 1, 2000. It has been a long journey to get to south Madison.
It all started when my father, Simon Lee, moved to America with his brothers, sisters, and parents from Kyounguk, South Korea, a small town near Dae Gu. He didn’t want to move, but he had no choice. His family wanted to move to seek better educational opportunities. They left South Korea on May 22, 1981, and soon arrived in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“It was difficult coming to the United States because we didn’t have a permit to live [there],” my father said.
In Kenosha, my father attended Washington Park High School. Then he went to college at UW-Oshkosh.
While in college, he began corresponding with my mom, Sonhwa Lee, by pen-pal. My father returned to South Korea to marry her. They had a second wedding ceremony in Kenosha because my dad’s side of the family was living in America. Following the birth of my sister, Jihae, my family relocated from Kenosha to Seattle.
My father started a little teriyaki restaurant in Seattle called Toshiba Teriyaki, which he sold four years later. He was happy that he started the teriyaki business, but he missed his brothers and sisters. “I was too far away from my family. I wanted to stay close to my family, so I moved to Chicago,” my dad said.
I was born soon after my family moved back to Chicago, on February 26, 1997. After three years, my dad heard from his brothers and sisters about a business opportunity. Their idea, a Korean grocery store, was the Oriental Food Mart. The business, which was up for sale, is located in south Madison.
My dad’s brothers and sisters knew the owner well and believed it would be a profitable venture. After negotiating for a few days, my dad ended up buying the store. My family then moved to Madison. “It was difficult working there for the first few days. I didn’t know what I was doing, I had to learn many new things about running the store,” my dad explained.
Today my mom and dad still work very hard at the Oriental Food Mart. This store is now part of my family’s story. It is how we came to live in south Madison.
Writing this story has inspired me in many ways. It reminds me of how hard it was for my family to move around so much, all the while trying to provide for a better life for my sister and me. It is also a story that has inspired me to study hard in school. If my parents could do so many difficult things for me, the least I can do is get good grades and show them how hard I can work in school. My goal is to continue to make education part of my family’s story.
Alex Lee is a staff writer for the Simpson Street Free Press.