Cultural roots: Korean American finds his place
Follow Denver Water systems analyst Tommy Han’s journey after his move to America when he was 8.
Denver Water is very proud of our diverse workforce. We asked a few of our employees to share accounts of their cultures and experiences for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which occurs in May and celebrates the achievements and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.
Tommy Han was 8 years old when he left his home in Seoul, South Korea with his older brother, Frank, to join their father in the U.S. As a child, Han’s family moved frequently, making it difficult to put down roots and feel a sense of community and belonging. Despite these transitions, Han always found comfort in the Korean American culture that surrounded him. It’s a culture that has remained important and has helped keep him grounded throughout his life.
“I have very few memories of my time in South Korea. I was pretty young when we moved,” Han said. Han’s earliest memories are of attending school in the U.S. “I didn’t know a single word of English, and I didn’t know the alphabet — not one letter. I had to start completely at the beginning,” he said. “I remember picking up my school classes very easily. I learned the language quite quickly.” Although separated, Han’s parents agreed that they wanted to provide a better life for their sons. This prompted them to immigrate across the world, landing in Southern California. When they arrived, Han’s father worked as a janitor and had other similar jobs to make ends meet.
When Han was in sixth grade, his mother moved to the U.S. Because of their family situation and their parents’ various jobs, the kids moved every few years. “My parents truly sacrificed a lot to build a better life for us in the U.S. I am so very thankful to them for that,” he said. But that sacrifice came at a cost. “We didn’t have much money, and my brother and I didn’t have many possessions or toys. We moved so frequently that it was difficult for us to develop a sense of community or consistent friendships for a while,” he said.
Despite the changes in his life, Han always found comfort in the Korean American community. “Throughout my life I’ve been drawn to various Korean American groups, whether it was in school or at church,” Han said. “No matter where we lived, my culture always seemed to find me.” In middle school, Han surrounded himself with Korean popular culture, discovering a love of K-pop music and Korean TV dramas. Through these means, Han reconnected with the Korean culture and language that had been somewhat lost to him after coming to the U.S. Han was a sophomore in high school and was living with his mother when she had to move back to South Korea. Han didn’t let this change his plans. He rented rooms with various friends to stay in school and finish high school. “My brother was in college at the time at the University of California, Berkley, so it was really up to me to focus on my schooling and graduate with minimum supervision. This time in my life taught me so much about responsibility,” Han said. Han’s main goal: Stay out of trouble, finish high school and get into a reputable college. He joined the school’s volleyball team and became more involved with a local Korean church, finding comfort again surrounded by his Korean American community. Thanks to discipline and determination, Han graduated high school.
He attended college at the University of California, Irvine and became involved with the school’s Korean American mission club, eventually becoming president of the group his senior year. Not only did the club provide a sense of community for Han, but it was also the place where he met his future wife Staci, who was a member of the club through her school, the University of California, Santa Barbara. Like Han, she had left Korea and moved to the U.S. as a young child. Han graduated college with a degree in social science, a minor in linguistics, and a Teaching English as a Second Language certificate.
Han dreamed of teaching in the Los Angeles school district but couldn’t find an opportunity to teach without an education degree. After working a few temporary jobs, a recruiter suggested Han apply for a position working in business information systems. “I had very little experience, but a manager took a chance on me,” said Han. He was hired for the position and a wonderful mentorship developed. “Throughout my life, I believe that God has sent various angels to help me through hard times. Whether it was friends who let me live with them, or people who gave me a chance to prove myself. I was able to learn the IT software and get my foot in the door. That position launched my career,” he said. Han and Staci were married in 2000, and a few years later they had their first child. The young family moved to Colorado to be near Frank and his wife. Han worked a few jobs in the data and software fields before taking a position as a business systems analyst at Denver Water six years ago, where he analyzes, tests and implements information systems.
Now a family of five, Han, Staci and their three children celebrate their Korean roots through their church. “Most people want more for their children than they had growing up,” Han said. “My goal has always been to provide stability for them, a place to feel belonging and to encourage their faith.” Han’s children have all grown up in the same house, and they live within walking distance of Han’s brother. They enjoy cooking Korean food, watching Korean shows and dramas and spending time with their church community. Last year, the family traveled to Korea, and the kids experienced their cultural roots firsthand. “I think it was really eye-opening for them,”’ Han said. “It’s very important that they know where they come from — know their ancestors — and embrace the Korean culture.”
“I’m extremely proud of my Korean culture. It has always been a part of my life. It’s so wonderful and makes me proud to see Korean culture becoming more popular around the world. Today, many people outside of Korean culture celebrate K-pop music, watch award-winning Korean movies and enjoy Korean foods,” he said. Even as an adult, Han continues to find comfort in the Korean American community. He serves as an elected ruling elder in his church, which encourages him to keep up with his Korean language skills so he can communicate with the Korean speaking members in the congregation. “My faith is very important to me. Throughout my life, finding peace and joy in God was a very important lesson for me and I hope to pass this along to my children. Despite all I went through, I would not change a single part of my past. Every challenge I faced helped shape my character and who I am today.”
Watch Han cook the Korean dish Soondubu Jjigae, or soft tofu soup.