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Avaliable Excerpts are: Chapter 1 - Chapter 2 - Chapter 3


I once read that every single pearl evolves from a central core. This core is simply an irritant -- a fragment of a shell or fishbone, a grain of sand. To protect itself from this irritant, the oyster secretes multiple layers of nacre, which form a beautiful pearl.  I think of this process of my grandmother, whose name is White Pearl. She experienced some very difficult events in her life that I will share with you in this book. Despite it all, she became one of the rarest and most beautiful of pearls. 


Chapter 1: An Innocent Trip to a Local Bakery

"The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis.' One brush stroke stands for 'danger'; the other for 'opportunity.' In a crisis, be aware of the danger - but recognize the opportunity."
- John F. Kennedy

It all started with a loaf of bread that didn't even exist. It was early afternoon in Leningrad, a freezing winter day in December 1991 that felt more like night. Everything was dark gray - the sky, the buildings, the people's moods. Another gloomy day, I thought, pulling my scarf to cover my chin and nose from the cold wind, which was blowing into my face so hard that I could not keep my eyes open. I was standing in line at the bakery for the third day in a row. The previous two days, after I had waited for hours, the owner had reluctantly ducked outside the door to announce, "There won't be a bread delivery. You might as well go home." The bakery was the size of the kitchen in my apartment, with one counter for the cash register and bare shelves that should have been filled with baked goods. By the register, below the sign for sahar (sugar), sat a few lonely brown bags empty of sugar. The scarcity of bread, potatoes, and vodka was maddening. Milk, cheese, meat, and sugar became difficult to find in stores. Soaps and toothpastes, shampoos and razor blades vanished from store shelves.

To be a resident of Leningrad, you had to have a propiska (a record of place of residence). The propiska system was similar to the czarist internal passport system used to control population movements in the Russian Empire. If I wanted to move to Moscow, I needed a propiska in Moscow to be a legal resident there. Yet becoming a legal resident is still not easy, even in Russia in today's free market, when people cannot only buy apartments but can also build homes and castles.

I read that the Bolsheviks abolished the passport system right after the October Revolution, but Joseph Stalin reinstated it in December 1932. When I still lived in Russia, you needed a valid propiska stamp in your passport in order to get a job, get married, or receive medical treatments, which were free for all citizens. This may be different now, but back then, if you didn't have your propiska, you didn't receive ration coupons, either. Each month, my ration coupons allowed me to buy two bars of soap, a pound of butter, a pound of any kind of meat, and one box of detergent. I didn't dare to lose them. I hand washed all of my clothes because we didn't have a washing machine. I washed my clothes, towels, and bedding and hung them to dry on the balcony.

To Purchase "White Pearl and I" please [click here]

Chapter 2: My Russia-Korean Babushka

"People don't alter history any more than birds alter the sky; they just make brief patterns in it."
- Terry Pratchett

My paternal grandmother, Bya-ok ("White Pearl"), was born on January 8, 1915, and christened with the Russian name, Olga. As a young woman, her hair was jet black, her eyes radiated pure love, her skin was the color of a lustrous white pearl, her lips were full, her smile was irresistible, her voice was soft and pleasant, and her touch was gentle. Her laugh was inspiring and contagious. Her children called her "Mama" and her husband, my grandfather Alexander, called her simply "Olya." To me, she was always my loving babushka.

In the cold autumn of 1900, after a poor harvest and famine in Korea, White Pearl's parents, Elena Hvan and Tyan Sen Guk, had come to Russia to pursue a better life. They arrived at Sakhalin Island in the far eastern part of Russia. White Pearl told me, "My parents were country people, affable and down-to-earth, and of course hard working. They were poor like everyone else, but poverty back then was not depressing as it is today. My parents had neither electricity nor plumbing, neither bath nor shower. In order to stay clean, they melted snow in the winter to wash themselves. In the summer, they swam in rivers or lakes. They used kerosene lamps and were considered rich by their neighbors."

My great-grandparents were the first generation of what we call Koryo-Saram, which means "Korean person," the people who came to Russia during the Joseon (also Choson or Chosun) Dynasty. Chosun is an ancient name for Korea that means "Land of the Morning Calm." As early as 1861, thirteen Korean families applied for permission to settle in Russia. Most of them were very poor peasants who faced death, hunger, and freezing winters. The weather was severe, not unlike it is today. They kept their Korean lifestyle, cooked Korean food, spoke the Korean language, and wore traditional Korean clothes.

To Purchase "White Pearl and I" please [click here]

Chapter 3: Anxiety at the Airport

"Little things are indeed little, but to be faithful in little things is a great thing."
- Mother Teresa

The customs officer looked at me. "Get your passport and ticket ready."
I looked nervously around at the other travelers. What if this is a scam? What if Vladimir sold me a fake ticket? One woman noticed that I was looking at her ticket. She cautiously put it away in her purse. My ticket showed my name, flight number, and the price it had cost Vladimir. "Everything looks right to me," I said to myself. Wait a minute! I looked again. My name was handwritten in blue ink on the ticket. Would this be a problem?
"Where are you going?" the customs officer asked me.
"New York," I replied, hoping to find out that I did have a "real" ticket. I looked back. My cousin was still waiting to see if I could get through the airport customs service.
My thoughts were racing like a fast-moving river. No, they were chattering and jumping like a monkey. I wanted them to stop and sit still. Then I turned to the same customs officer, who seemed to be friendly. "I'm sorry," I said. "I just got the ticket. Can you tell me if it's real?" I was about to burst into tears.
"What do you mean by 'real'?"
"Well," I said quietly, "I bought this ticket from my friend Vladimir on the street. Can you please help me to get through the line?" I pleaded.
"Is Vladimir a pharzovshik [illegal trader on a black market]?" the man asked me.
"We were classmates."
"What else did you buy on the street?" He shook his head. "This generation is lost. Let me see your ticket, Kim. How many bags are you checking in?"
"This is all I have," I answered. I was embarrassed that I only had a backpack.
He pointed to a counter. "Go and fill out the customs form," he said. "And don't lose your head."
I rushed over to the counter, my pen poised to fill out the required information. I looked more closely at the form. Suddenly I saw that all of the questions were in English. My stomach sank. I groaned in dismay.
The woman next to me must have sensed my distress. "What's wrong?" she asked in a kind voice.
"I can't figure out the form," I confessed.
And serendipity, good fortune, whatever you want to call it, once again came to my aid. This kind woman and her husband, from the Baltic States, helped me fill out the form. She spoke fluent English and, judging by her luggage and mink coat, also had good taste. They had leather suitcases unlike any I had ever seen.
She picked up my form. "What is the address of where you will be staying?" she asked.
I looked at her blankly and shook my head. "I have no idea."
She looked at me as if I were crazy. Perhaps I was.
I had one dollar in my pocket.

To Purchase "White Pearl and I" please [click here]



Q&A with Svetlana Kim

Lana Kim has many gifts. She speaks several languages and is an accomplished writer, successful businesswoman, and community activist. Her greatest gift is one that she shares with all of us - her story of hope, survival, and success.

In this exclusive interview, the author shares with us her personal insights into her life and her journey from the former Soviet Union to the United States.

1. Your whole life involves travel. How has this affected you?

I don't feel that travel, as a source of change and growth, is something we naturally seek out. The history of my family is a history of travel. My people, the Koryo Saram, left Korea for Siberia in search of a better life.

In 1937, the history of my family and the history of our travel began when Joseph Stalin deported 200,000 Koreans to Central Asia. This was not a journey of choice, but a journey of survival. My grandmother, White Pearl, survived this brutal forced exodus. When I left Leningrad for the United States, it was a journey of choice and of survival. I have needed to travel to reach my goals. Because I survived my early journey, travel for me today is a way to enrich my life and experience all that this world offers.

2. White Pearl (your grandmother) is your guiding star and inspiration for your book. How has her journey inspired your journey?

My grandmother is a generous, funny, warm, fearless, and resilient soul. And yes, thankfully, she is still alive. She survived Joseph Stalin's forced deportation in 1937 from Far East Russia to Central Asia. She was just a young girl of 22 then, and I can't imagine the horrors she saw. So many people died during that journey.

During a particularly hard moment for me in 1991, when I had to decide whether to use my return ticket to Leningrad or take the chance of my life and stay in America, I thought about her life. She didn't have the choice to go home. She didn't have any choices. I had already made the hardest choice by leaving everything and coming to America. I was alive and no one was trying to harm me. In fact, I had only encountered generous people who- whether through pity for me or just the sheer incredulousness of meeting someone alone who spoke no English, helped me.

When I was a girl, White Pearl always told me that I was born with good fortune and luck. I believed her then and I believe her now.

3. Is your book an immigrant story or the story of someone achieving the American dream?

That's a good question. I feel my story is both. I believe in tenacity, the importance of reinventing yourself, and always, always learning new things. You also can't take criticism or bad luck personally. America is a land of immigrants and we have all survived by finding something inside of us or something that we can pass on to our children to help them achieve our dreams even if we can't.

I can say it certainly wasn't my dream to work as a cleaning lady. But I never dreamed of being a stock broker either. As the narrator of my own story, I may not be the best judge of the type of story this is. I hope readers will find my story and the lessons I've learned inspiring. I encourage all new immigrants to have faith, dream impossible dreams, and to know that dreams do come true. I'm living proof of that.

4. How many times have you returned to Russia? What was your first visit back like?

I've returned to the former Soviet Union three times. The first time in 1996, next in 2003, and most recently in 2007. My book describes my trip back to Leningrad in 1996. At that time I noticed dramatic changes in the city's vibe. Many young people, well, people younger than me, I was 28 then-spoke English. There were new restaurants with English menus and stores with European fashions and food items. I also noticed that everything was more expensive and polluted. Sadly, with development and progress comes problems.

5. Everyone in the United States is proud to have a nationality. Do you consider yourself to be ethnically Korean or Russian?

My people are called Koryo Saram. This translates to "Korean person" in Russia. Today there are nearly 500,000 Koryo Sarams still in the former Soviet Union. All of my family still lives there - four generations. That includes my grandmother, White Pearl, my parents, me, and thirty-three nephews and nieces. Many people are surprised to learn that I don't know how to speak Korean. My book explains how the Soviet government eradicated our language. I do speak Russian, German, and of course, I'm proud to say, English--American style.

6. Now that the huge accomplishment of finishing your book is done, what's next for you?

I still can't believe that I'm done. I'm also taking time to promote White Pearl and I and applying my energies to my volunteer passions. This fall I will be volunteering at the Calvary Women's Shelter in Washington, D.C.

Giving back to the community will always be part of my life. While I was going through the legal proceedings to determine my refugee status, I promised myself that if I won my case and became a citizen I would always work to help others. That for me is a greater accomplishment than finishing the book.

7. You write in your book that your life has been full of serendipity and luck, starting from your chance encounter at the bakery. But clearly you haven't relied on luck or waiting for opportunities. What do you rely on?

I truly believe in serendipity but I also believe in my intuition. Life presents everyone with opportunities. Some are worth chasing, others are not. I've relied on my intuition more than anything else. And I feel I've inherited this from both my grandmother and mother. Early in life, my parents encouraged me and my father taught me to seize every opportunity, no matter how small they are.

One of those opportunities that I write about is my decision to move to Washington, D.C. When the call came, I simply said yes. I knew it was the right move at the right time. It wasn't easy moving across the country and leaving so much behind, but the move has changed my life once again. I've met the most incredible people, made new friends, and started writing this book.

8. Every step that you have taken in your career has led you to another milestone. It is as if you are climbing a mountain. What peak does writing this book represent?

Everyone I met after moving to Washington told me to write a book about my life and experiences. With so many people giving me the same advice, I knew that I needed to give it some serious thought. Writing this book has opened a floodgate of emotions. It has been one of the hardest tasks I've tackled, but I've also met some amazing people, like my friend Ron Powers. This book also gave me a great reason to travel back to Russia and interview my inspiration, White Pearl. I've learned a great deal about myself and my family.

But any author will tell you that the hardest part of writing a book is letting it go and letting other people read it. What will they think of the story and of me? Then my book was accepted to the Maui Writers Conference and it gave me the confidence to continue with the manuscript. I now have the joy of sharing this book with the people I write about. This book is a tribute to the generosity and kindness of everyone I've met in America.

Writing seems to come naturally to Lana. She has been blessed with a heart to feel deeply and a mind to remember what is important. With so many interesting experiences from her life to draw from, expect Lana to author many more inspiring works.

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