By AUDREY FISCHER
American businesswoman Svetlana Kim’s life is an homage to her grandmother whose wisdom helped propel her from the streets of Leningrad to Wall Street. The fourth-generation Korean from Russia, who became a U.S. citizen in 2001, intertwines her personal journey with the teachings of her grandmother in her new book, “White Pearl and I: A Memoir of a Political Refugee.”
Kim discussed their mutual journeys in her May 7 keynote speech at the Library for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
“With my ancient history and Russian background, I share Dr. [James H.] Billington’s interest in Russian history,” said Kim, who researched the historical portions of her book at the Library of Congress.
The great-granddaughter of Koreans who immigrated to Russia in 1900 for a better life, Kim told of Josef Stalin’s deportation in 1937 of more than 200,000 Koreans from the far east of Russia to Central Asia for fear they would spy for the Japanese. During this wave, her ancestors were transported by cattle car from Vladivostok to Kazakhstan.
“Koreans living in Russia had to be orthodox and they couldn’t buy land, but they could farm,” explained Kim. “I’m proud to come from farmers, who were humble and down to earth.” Kim’s beloved grandmother White Pearl was born in 1915, two years before the Russian Revolution.
“Growing up a minority in Russia was not fun,” said Kim of her experience and that of her grandmother. “But she never complained or spoke negatively. She taught me to practice happiness, to pursue happiness. I believe I was born to be happy. Happiness is a state of mind.”
Kim’s optimism undoubtedly was a factor in her meteoric rise from political refugee to a successful career as a stockbroker on Wall Street. From her grandmother she learned “not to live in the past, live today, live now. Create your own future and your own opportunities,” recalled Kim.
So she did just that. In 1991 at the age of 23, she emigrated from Leningrad to San Francisco during a time of great turmoil in the Soviet Union. With very limited funds, she took a series of odd jobs, from knitting to housekeeping. But she also pounded the pavement, insisting that she wanted to be a stockbroker.
“A cleaning lady wants to be a stockbroker!” she recalled people responding.
For the first time in her life, she was surrounded by many people – other Asians – who looked like her.
“The city was so diverse, I didn’t even have to learn English,” she joked.
Kim did not discuss how she acquired the skills to succeed on Wall Street. To learn about that, her audience will have to read her memoir. But she did discuss the skills and values she believes young people should develop.
“Seek to change someone’s life,” said Kim, who volunteers regularly in a homeless shelter. “Learn about different cultures and listen. Treat people the way you want to be treated. It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.”
The only hint of the level of Kim’s success was her recounting of a recent conversation she had with Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric. His advice on how to be successful in business is to “come to the table with ideas and talent, over-deliver and never label yourself a victim.”
“It’s a global economy,” observed Kim, who is trying to convince her 94-year-old grandmother, who still lives in Kazakhstan, to use a computer to communicate with her in America.
“But then you would never visit,” is White Pearl’s response.
“The average lifespan there is 56. If she lived in the United States she’d probably live to be 120,” said Kim of her resilient grandmother.
Being at the Library of Congress, “a storehouse of human understanding and wisdom,” made Kim wonder what Thomas Jefferson would think of the World Digital Library, which recently made its debut at UNESCO in Paris.
“Jefferson had such an inquiring mind,” said Kim. “He said ‘information is the currency of democracy.’ I think he would see the World Digital Library as a tool to keep us more intellectually and culturally connected.”
A webcast of Svetlana Kim’s lecture may be viewed on the Library’s website at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.