By ELIZABETH JOHNSON/Montana State News
Han Lee can often be found in her small nail salon, Lee’s Nails, which looks like a smaller version of her house, cultivating her relationships with her nail clients. Lee is a native of South Korea and is now a resident of Billings, Mont.
The journey to opening her shop, however, has not been an easy one. She tells her story to me, her daughter.
Lee became a mail-order bride 25 years ago in order to escape hard conditions and enter a world where economic opportunities paved the way to a better life, and she fought to take advantage of every chance given to her.
She married her new husband, a Montana native named John Johnson, only three days after they met. She moved to the U.S. to be with him, and they are still married. In a foreign country with her new life, she had the opportunity to grow in ways never before available to her.
Growing up in poverty, Lee turned to a mail-order bride agency to search for a better life, as many women historically have done. She admits she was scared to leave her home country, but felt that it was necessary in order to achieve a better life.
According to The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World, “mail-order brides are hoping for a better life in terms of more financial security through their husband, or maybe even a job of their own…. “The women who chose this path to marriage did so because they thought they could achieve a better lifestyle than if they remained at home-as either a married or single woman.”
Lee feels the same way.
“I came to this country as a mail order bride to search for a better future,” she said. “Even though I could not speak English and had no education, because of the opportunities this country offers me with a college education, the chance to carry out a responsible job, the ability to help out my children’s education, and even owning my business, my dreams have come true.”
Through her business, she builds a strong relationship with her clients.
“She takes pride in her work. The hardest worker I have seen,” Lee’s client Shelly Jansma said. “I not only like getting my nails done but the friendship we have gained.”
Owning her business is a dream come true. “Every client is special to me,” Lee said. “I treat my clients with respect and am sincere with them. We bond together like family. I listen to them and encourage them, and try to make a difference and bring them a bit more sunshine in their lives. This makes my business worthwhile and precious to me.”
In addition to the nail business, Lee holds a part-time position as a clerk for a small elementary school. She wanted her own business in order to connect with other women, as well as to help her mother and three siblings come to the U.S. and support her own children and husband.
Lee has felt she had to work hard even before owning her business, in order to get past the barriers she faced due to not being able to speak English well. When she first started her job as a clerk at the elementary school, she put in 80 hours a week despite the fact that the position was only a 25-hour per week part-time job.
Lee said, “Fortunately, I could work this job at my home so my employer didn’t know how many hours I put in to get the job done.” She has showed her dedication to trying to attain a better life.
In Korea, Lee worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week – only having every other Sunday off. Still, she could not make ends meet. There was no overtime pay, no available assistance from bank loans or welfare, and no health insurance. Cash in full was needed up front to buy a house. Her family could only afford two meals a day; they did not even have enough money for rice.
“In the U.S., everything is possible,” Lee said, “It is all up to me and how hard I want it.”
Lee has always made it a point to achieve what she sets her mind to, such as obtaining an education. In her native country, she could not obtain a high school education. Since her family could not pay a bus fee, she had to walk to school three miles each way – “better than the seven miles many students had to walk,” she said. She was only able to receive a ninth- grade education, since tuitions and purchasing books were required.
Once she moved, however, she had the chance to take charge of her education. She bought a GED book. She recalled her first day studying and
“It took me 16 hours just to study a single page. I had to use an English/Korean dictionary for each word.” Four years later, she obtained her GED.
With governmental financial aid, she was able to go to college and get a degree in Microcomputer Accounting. She managed to get a 3.76 GPA by working hard and sleeping no more than four hours a day so she could study, “which is an opportunity I wouldn’t have had if I was still in Korea,” Lee said.
“A whole new world of opportunity opened up when stepped foot in her new country” her husband Johnson said. “She simply took on each obstacle one by one and overcame them all.”
Options to grow financially presented themselves through bank loans for a car and a place to live, overtime pay, the ability to make payments on doctor bills, food stamps, and programs such as Medicaid.
She was most happy with the opportunity to give birth to her two children in a hospital with her husband’s health insurance and payment plan.
“In Korea, many people didn’t visit a doctor during pregnancy and had to give birth at home without a midwife because they had no money,” she said. To be able to have medical care allowed her to get through her pregnancies safely.
“Her journey to becoming a business owner was much like her journey to America. It was simply a matter of necessity for ever growing desire to achieve her dream. Her desire to provide her mother and her siblings with a better life was part of her drive but also her new family as well,” Johnson said.
Now Lee works hard her two jobs, happy to feel the rewards of her journey. Her family came to America from Korea, escaping poverty and enjoying the same opportunities Lee had.
– Edited by Jacqueline Blackwood