A forgotten slice of the Asian American success story: Struggling single mothers
Her husband is the Maryland governor but as the couple toured a string of Asian-owned restaurants and shops at a news event Monday, she was the one employees were excited to meet. Some recognized the Korean American first lady, who frequented their businesses even before Gov. Larry Hogan (R) had been elected; others were intrigued to see a woman who looked like them followed by such a large crew of cameras, reporters, and staff. She had come out to this strip mall in Howard County to condemn the Atlanta shooting and the recent spate of anti-Asian violence.
She shook hands and bumped elbows, asking Thai, Vietnamese and Korean business owners more about their lives. Her immigrant story mirrored theirs, she said later — and on some levels, those of the women who died in Atlanta. Like some of the victims of last week’s rampage, she said, she was once a single mother, an immigrant working long hours in low-wage jobs to support her children.
Born and raised on a chicken farm outside Seoul, Hogan came to the United States in her 20s, working at restaurants, dry cleaners and flower shops to provide for her three daughters before meeting the man who would later become governor. Her middle daughter, Jaymi Sterling, recalls hardly seeing her mother during the week as a child in the ’90s, when Yumi Hogan worked from early in the morning until late at night, returning home with calloused hands from counting money at her cashier job.
“We work so hard, serve our communities, raise our children,” Yumi Hogan said Monday. “Our stories are American stories.”
Days after the Atlanta shootings that left eight people dead, limited details are known about the victims employed in the spas, their lives often relegated to the margins in an industry shrouded in stigma. But among the women who were killed while doing their jobs, some common threads emerged: Most of them were mothers, middle-aged or older, with limited English language skills, who for decades had been seeking financial stability for themselves and their children.
Hyun Jung Grant was a 51-year-old single mother and immigrant from South Korea who worked long hours at Gold Spa in Atlanta to support her two sons. Suncha Kim was a 69-year-old grandmother of three and mother of two who helped take care of her younger sisters while she was growing up in Korea. Yong Ae Yue, 63, was a mother who loved to cook Korean food for her sons’ friends, and who first moved to Georgia in the 1980s after meeting her boys’ father, an American soldier.
Their stories provide a window into the lives of a vulnerable segment of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. Since the late 1980s, the median household income of Asian Americans has matched or exceeded that of their White counterparts. But the dazzling success of the top-earners has overshadowed the struggles of those living at the other end of the income spectrum. Some of the most vulnerable members of these communities are working-class and single mothers who face limited job prospects and meager safety nets.
This was true for several women working at massage businesses earlier this week in Annandale, a Korean American enclave in the Virginia suburbs where spas are tucked into back corners of strip malls or in the basements of office buildings. Peeking out from behind doors that are usually locked until customers ring a doorbell, female employees spoke of their fears after the shootings — attacks that targeted women much like them. They, too, were mothers, between ages 35 and 55, and worked six or seven days a week to earn enough money for children and parents back home.
One woman, a 40-year-old Chinese masseuse who came to the United States 13 years ago, said she recently moved from Queens to Virginia just to take a job that would support her and her young daughter. If she could, she said, she would work in a restaurant and not a spa. But she doesn’t speak much English and doesn’t have any advanced educational qualifications. Like many of the other women The Washington Post spoke to in Annandale and other Asian enclaves around the Washington region, she declined to provide her name out of fear of retribution from her employer.
“Of course, I want to be safe,” she said, standing in a dim, carpeted room on the second floor of an office building. “But what can I do?”
In Atlanta, the exact nature of the slain women’s work is still unknown. But it is clear that they were working in an industry that made them vulnerable to abuse, violence and stigmatization even within their own communities — an industry that often employs mothers and grandmothers, well into their later years of life.
“Many of them are really resilient caretakers,” said Amy Hsieh, a human rights attorney and deputy director of the Anti-Trafficking Initiative at the New York-based group Sanctuary for Families. Reading news accounts about Grant, Hsieh was reminded of many of the women she has interviewed in similar jobs. “They really are shouldering so much, responsibility-wise, emotionally, physically, to work at these places.”
Her organization has met with more than 1,200 women who have worked in massage businesses or spas. The majority are from China and Korea, and many of them are older than people might assume, Hsieh said. Many of them came to the United States alone, leaving home countries in Asia where divorce and single motherhood remain taboo, she said.
Occupational segregation in South Korea severely limits career options for middle-aged women who take on heavy responsibilities for unpaid domestic labor, said South Korean feminism scholar Yoon-Kim Ji-yeong, a professor at the Institute of Body and Culture at Seoul’s Konkuk University. The country ranks low in some global indexes evaluating conditions for working women. But the employment options available to them once they arrive in the United States aren’t much better.
“Limited by language barriers, age, and gender, these middle-aged women usually take low-paying jobs in the service sector shunned by Westerners,” Yoon-Kim said.
For those who do end up working in illicit massage business, “a lot of these women — they’ve already tried to do more legal, if informal, work. A lot of them are not starting here,” said Lois Takahashi, a professor and director of the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy in Sacramento. Between 2014 and 2016, she and another academic, John Chin, and a team of researchers interviewed 116 Chinese and Korean women who reported that they provided sexual services in a massage business setting in New York City or Los Angeles County. Among the women they interviewed, nearly 7 in 10 had children. Only 13 percent were married and living with their spouse; 37 percent were divorced.
“They’re starting in the restaurant industry, they’re starting in the nail salon, but you can’t earn enough money,” especially given the difficult physical labor of some of those jobs, Takahashi said. There is a lower barrier to entry into illicit massage business work, in comparison to other jobs available to undocumented workers. Employers often do not require documentation or work authorization or previous experience, the professors found.
On top of that, Hseih said, many of the women she works with have young children and minimal child care support, so they search for work in the evenings or after hours, when the children are asleep. All of these pressures have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has caused the layoffs of many restaurant and nail salon workers, eliminated child-care safety nets, and forced even more people into underground economies, experts say.
“The women who were murdered in many ways what they faced was some of the harshest kinds of inequities that the United States has to offer,” said Ji-Yeon Yuh, an associate professor of history and Asian American studies at Northwestern University.
Sun Hee Choi, a 53-year-old single mother in northern Virginia, doesn’t work in the massage business, but she, too, is familiar with the struggles faced by the women killed in Atlanta.
Choi has worked for the last five years in the Korean American supermarket chain H-Mart, handing out samples of hodduk, a Korean pancake dessert, to support her three children, who are now 22, 20 and 16. The work is physically draining, she said, and requires standing for long hours next to intense heat. She’d like to find a job that is less physically exhausting, but she is an undocumented Korean immigrant who can’t speak English and has no car or driver’s license. She’s dependent on her job at the supermarket, which provides transportation.
She doesn’t have the time or resources to learn English — she’s too busy working. She’s been trying not to think about the shootings last week, attacks that targeted people who looked like her.
“To be honest, I’m not concerned,” about the Atlanta shootings, she said, “because I am trying to survive day-by-day.”
In Annandale on Thursday, one 44-year-old Korean woman spoke of the two children she left behind in Seoul, with their grandmother. They are 15 and 17, she said, and she doesn’t want to bring them to the United States to live with her and her husband, a White American. “Too many guns,” she said. “Too much shooting.”
She sat alone, waiting for customers in a windowless room at a massage business located in between a small law office and a podiatrist. Three of her four massage rooms were closed; one was still open, bathed in orange light. Business had slowed to a trickle during the pandemic and most of her staff had left for their home counties, leaving her to do the massages herself. Now, even her regulars were not coming.
The woman said she couldn’t fall asleep Wednesday after learning about the shooting. Instead, she stayed up till the early morning, watching American news channels for updates.
“Everyone’s scared. What kind of people are coming in the doors — we don’t know,” she said. “You can close your eyes to the news, but you could still die. Nowadays, who knows?”
Min Joo Kim in Seoul and Joyce Lee in Washington contributed to this report."