Updated: Apr 20, 2022
To build something as a mechanical engineer was once a dream Jun-Sup had but instead he built a successful foundation for his kids running a grocery business. We learn his story of how he immigrated to the States from Korea and how things developed.
J: I was born in Seoul, Korea and I came to the United States when I was 15 years old through my uncle, my mother’s brother in 1974. My uncle came to the U.S. through the missionary during the Korean War so he came first when he was 19. Later, he brought over my mother for better opportunities and we settled in San Jose, California, on a west side neighborhood. My father bought a small store in Mountain View in 1975 and ran it for about a year.
I went to the local high school with mostly Mexican people and went to UC Berkeley and studied mechanical engineer. After I left school, I worked in Westinghouse for 2 years. It’s a company that made light bulbs but during that time they were the US Navy.
Because I am an immigrant I consider myself the 1.5 generation who has a great deal of responsibility compared to the 2nd or 3rd generations. Our parents don’t speak English so the 1.5 has the responsibility to guide the parents in the new cultural area- legal or cultural issue so they can adjust here. Sometimes we make the tough decisions. That’s why I came here to NY to start a business, not for us but for our family. It’s not part of the Korean culture but it’s part of being an immigrant where you have to sacrifice for the family.
My father bought this Queens supermarket in 1987 and I ran it with my brother who eventually got his own place and I stayed here. I thought it would only be 2-3 years but it turned out to be more than 30 years now.
I never thought of doing any kind of business, it’s not in my blood. There was always some regret not continuing my education and it didn’t materialize but I decided it was best for the family to come here. Now it’s become me. The neighborhood sees me as someone they can always ask questions and I think that’s a sign of appreciation that they trust me. I’m proud of that. I look at it as a foundation for my kids hoping they don’t have to sacrifice like I did. I always encourage my kids, don’t ask me what I want but do what you want to do for yourself.
A: Why a grocery store?
J: When I started with my father and brother, I asked myself, what’s the safest business we could get into? People have to eat and it happened to be something available. My father worked in the bank for 30 years in Korea and didn’t know anything about business but he used the money he saved and bought this place. I feel like I accomplished something because my kids have the opportunity to do something for themselves and don’t have to sacrifice like I did and now my wife and I plan to do something just for us.
When I started this business I had no knowledge or experience. One thing I knew is you buy and you sell. I learned along the way about the city regulations and how to run the business. There was one point where I thought I wasn’t going to make it. We had to borrow money and we weren’t sure we can pay it back which was scary, but we continued to work hard. My oldest sister was a doctor and she had a one bedroom apartment where there were 6 of us living together for 3 years just to make this business work. It took 5 years to feel that we will survive and make it work. It wasn’t easy at all. It was tough.
A: What is the biggest challenge with running a business and Covid-19?
J: With Covid-19, I was fortunate and lucky to have good employees that come in and work, and customers who understood and was very patient. The most difficult part are government regulations, it was always changing, like the amount of people allowed in the store, temperature measurements, customers have to wait outside in a line. Employees got sick and we were short handed but we got through it. One time we had 3-4 people out at the same time. We had to limit some of the products but some people understood. We have the responsibility to provide what the neighborhood needs.
The biggest challenge working in this business is the people. Dealing with the public, the employees, and coworkers, it’s not easy. You know the government tries to make a policy to help people but not everyone is going to be happy about it. It’s the same thing here.
One time 20 years ago they offered me to buy another grocery in the neighborhood but I turned it down because I may have to do something I don’t want to do. I want the neighborhood to have a healthy competition.
Service and freshness is what makes us different and have an edge over from another business like Amazon. We started in 1987 and a year after we started providing food delivery service. A reason we did that was when we saw customers only bought a few items, especially the elderly or mothers with young babies, it was to help them out. They couldn’t carry a lot of items home so we provided the service and people are happy with it.
A: Tell us a little about the Korean culture, traditions and customs.
J: I do not know too much of the Korean culture so I can’t really teach my kids about it. I can have a conversation and speak Korean but I don’t think I would be able to read the newspaper and may not understand certain things. We grew up in an environment where it’s not privileged and we accepted that then. When I was growing up, Korea was a third world country. When we came here, we couldn’t believe how it was. It’s almost an alien world and couldn’t imagine this place existed at the time. The education system is totally different. It was difficult to learn English and I learned by studying extra hours and observing everything. I went back once to Korea to visit and it wasn’t what I remembered from 1970. It changed and it’s different.
A: What do you think about the term people of color?
J: People of color- like us, Hispanic or Black. I’m not really concerned about the term, it is just terminology. It sounds like they’re separating white from nonwhite instead of saying we are all people. It can also be a biased term. In order to be part of society then maybe it’s what they need to do. To me it’s OK because simply I’m not white. My first name is Jun-Sup but if someone calls me Jun, John or Juan, it’s OK, it’s just a name. It doesn’t explain who I am. I had a choice to have an American name but I didn’t do it because my mother gave me this name. I’m willing to learn other people’s name so they should also learn my name. I don’t have to make my name convenient for others. For my kids they have both American and Korean names. Growing up as kids, I didn’t want them to be uncomfortable.
A: What do you wish that people understood about Asian people?
J: I don't’ think it’s an Asian issue. It’s an issue simply of not knowing and not understanding. Education is the key. I think crime is not from the street or the school but it comes from the home. Parents as well as kids need to be educated. Meanwhile, I tell my kids to look at yourself in the mirror. You are Asian American and have to understand that in order to fit in, you have to work twice or three times as hard. It’s about understanding who you are and accommodate the situation. It’s the same thing for the white person. If they consider themselves as the Americans, but separate themselves from other people, then we are not united. They have to acknowledge us and be educated too. Start from who you are. Remember who you are first and act accordingly.
Growing up I experienced stereotypes, especially in high school, but at the time, I didn’t understand what they were saying or know what was going on so I just walked away. Not knowing sometimes is helpful at the moment.
When I was in college, I took a course about Asian American culture. It was an easy course that I can easily pass but I realized it was an interesting subject. It was not taught in regular history class. I asked myself, why is this not in regular history? Schools are teaching one side of history- it’s not false but it’s not all of history. Teaching them only one side of history doesn’t teach kids to be able to understand other cultures. If they teach about other people and other cultures I think there would be more of an impact and understanding. If they teach that at a young age, it would make a difference. My message is to teach the kids a broad spectrum of American history, not just one.
The nation is segregated not by the color but by the belief. I wish we could somehow come to a neutral understanding of one another and become one nation.