Younghye Han: My Mother's First Exhibition
My family immigrated to the United States in 1992. A trained artist in Korea, Younghye Han left that behind and has spent the last 24 years, working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, as a seamstress and running her own dry cleaning business in Manteca, California. It has been 24 years since her last painting. Inspired by the birth of her first granddaughter in 2015, she began drawing and painting again. This is my mother’s first exhibition. It features her works made in Korea, her most recent pieces, and my responses to her last unfinished drawings made in the first year we immigrated to the United States.
Photos by Aram Han Sifuentes and Kanthy Peng
My Interview with My Mother, Younghye
These are the questions I’ve asked my mother. Some of these are questions I’ve asked again and again throughout my life and the answers have changed and evolved throughout the years, further complicating my mother’s story. Some of these are questions I’ve never had the courage to ask her before. This interview was translated from Korean.
How did you decide to become an artist?
When I was seven or eight years old, I found out about an art contest at my elementary school. I went home and told my sister who yelled at me and told me to get money from our parents to apply. So I was crying when I asked my parents. They gave me the money and I went to school after hours to apply. This was my first time I participated in an art contest but I won a big prize. From then on I applied every year and continued to win big prizes. Later on I asked my sister why she yelled at me to apply. She said that she would see me draw and I didn’t draw like other kids my age. They would draw stick figures but I wouldn’t. She said I drew high heels particularly well and saw that I had talent. My sister wanted to study theater and our parents were opposed to it and didn’t let her pursue it. Then in high school our family went bankrupt and I wanted to go to college. I knew that artists wouldn’t be able to make much money straight out of school. So I was deciding whether or not to go into art or to go into nursing. Even though it would be hard, I decided to go into art. So I took the tests and got into art schools. My mother wished I wouldn’t pass. She didn’t even believe it when I passed the tests.
Why did you decide to move our family to the United States?
Even though your father and I received our education from very good universities, our English wasn’t very good. So we thought that you and your sister could do anything if you knew English well. This is why we decided to move to the U.S.
What type of job did you think you would work in the U.S?
I knew it would be difficult. But I just wanted you and your sister to learn English. Then you both would be able to do anything and get any type of good paying job. I didn’t think about myself so I didn’t know what type of work I would do. I just thought about your future. My parents weren’t able to help me so I wanted to make sure that I could help you both in any way.
You didn’t think about it?
I thought that if other people could do find work and make it in the U.S., then I could do it too.
Why a dry cleaners?
When we came here, it seemed that the only jobs available to us were to run a liquor store, ice cream shop, or dry cleaners. We didn’t want to work at a liquor store because during this time the LA riots were happening and they were targeted so we decided not to go that route. And I can do anything with my hands. I knew how to sew already and thought that working at a dry cleaners would be easier.
Did you think you would be able to practice art here?
I knew that I would make art again at some point in my life before I die. It was too hard working at the cleaners. I gave up even though my mind was there and I thought about it often. But when I saw Nara, I started to make art again because I felt so inspired.
How did you feel about me becoming an artist?
Now I feel happy about it. At first I was so worried. It is not an easy job and there is no stability. I know since I was an artist. It was so hard for me so I didn’t want that for you. It is too hard. Now that I have worked too hard for many years, I’ve lost my happiness. While raising you two and working so hard, my life and happiness has become lost. Now I am thankful toward you. Through you I was able to find my art again. You Facetime me every day so I can see Nara and you talk to me in Korean. I always thought that if you are kind, then life will be good to you. I gave up on this but this has come to me suddenly.
Younghye Han received her BFA in Traditional Ink Painting from Ewha Woman’s University. She ran her own painting and drawing academy for children for five years in Seoul, South Korea. She has been working as a seamstress and running Mainz Dry Cleaners in Manteca, CA with her husband for 22 years.