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Where is America the Beautiful?
by Therese Park


Therese ParkIn the fall of 1966, the musicians of the Kansas City Philharmonic were on strike. The 80 members scattered to several spots in downtown Kansas City and handed out flyers to pedestrians and held the signs that said,

"Support the local symphony!"

"Your help counts!"

"Kansas City deserves a Symphony orchestra."

I had auditioned for the conductor of the Philharmonic, Hans Schwieger, while I was a student in Paris and joined the orchestra as a cellist for the 1966-1967 season, making $140 per week. Without a paycheck, I was having a second thought about coming to the United States.

America had been my childhood wonderland. During the Korean War, America had introduced herself to Korean children like me through Hershey Bars, Nabisco Cookies, and other goodies, and everyone talked about going to the United States.

Our government forced all citizens to eat only two meals a day, including children, to save food for fighting soldiers and starving refugees--so those Hershey Bars and Nabisco Cookies were manna from heaven.

When I arrived in Kansas City a decade later I discovered that America wasn't a paradise after all. A battalion of roaches lived in my apartment on 11th street in downtown Kansas City. Within days of my arrival, a man was shot to death on the floor above. Walking on the street alone wasn't safe. In broad daylight, a homeless man would unexpectedly lurch out from behind a vacant building and follow me, asking, "Got a coin, china doll?" Once, my purse was snatched on a busy street, but no one came to help me.

At night, it was worse. With colorful neon signs flashing and loud music blaring, the bars and burlesque theaters along the 12th Street bloomed like poison mushrooms. Where was America the Beautiful? I asked bitterly.

I seriously thought about going back home in Seoul. String instruments had been introduced to Korea after the war, and teachers were in short supply. But I couldn't just pack and leave. Not many South Koreans could enter the United States in those days, and having a position in an America orchestra was an achievement for a Korean.

Whenever I was out of money, I wrote to my mother in Seoul to help me. One of her letter reads: "My friends' children in America are sending money home every so often, but you're asking us for money... Isn't America treating you well?"

I decided not to go back to Korea. The Philharmonic deteriorated financially, and in February 1982 it died. That fall it was resurrected with a new name: The Kansas City Symphony. I played with the Symphony until I retired in 1996.
'America is treating me much better now, Mother."

June 6 , 2006