Though she has now lived in the United States for 37 years, Seoul-born entrepreneur and author Sun Segura still retains strong emotional ties to her Korean heritage. Sun describes how the experience of acclimating to American culture has provided her with a more open, cosmopolitan perspective of the world.
“I will always be a Korean first. That’s not going anywhere,” she says, “Now I am a Korean-American, as far as the citizenship goes, but consciously I try to live as a citizen of the world.”
In her teenage years in Seoul, Sun faced a number of societal and family pressures that eventually spurred her to seek out other prospects in the states. Sun shares one of her biggest struggles was when her father went bankrupt during her last year in junior high school.
“I went through a couple of tough years before coming to Chicago. Creditors would come to my school and wait for me outside. I would see them from the window and would have to sneak out the back door.”
At the same time, Sun’s half-brother was raising a family in Chicago, having moved there some years before. He encouraged Sun’s mother to come to the states, asking her to help with raising his children and offering a support network. Sun’s mother took the opportunity, and four years later, Sun made the move as well.
“I really wanted to come to America,” Sun recalls, “I think when you live in a small country like South Korea, everyone thinks alike and looks alike. You want to be a little bit more adventurous and know a little bit more about the world. As much as I was afraid of challenges ahead, it was very exciting time for me.”
Moving to Chicago at the age of 18 allowed Sun to perceive the cultural differences with the acuity of adulthood, while still holding the malleability of youth that allowed her to adapt. She observed the differences in culture with a sense of neutrality; certain aspects enthralled her, while other stirred in her a longing for her home.
“The first thing I remember was my brother driving me into the city. I remember seeing all these bright lights at night. I grew up with this mindset that we have to save everything, recycle, conserve energy. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god they waste so much energy here.’”
In spite of all the things she missed, Sun found that her new American life afforded her much in return. Initially, she felt intimidated by the language, but rather than shrinking in the face of the challenge, she immersed herself in it. She enrolled in community college and devoted a year solely to learning the language.
After that one year, she transferred to multiple schools as her interests and needs evolved, including Northeastern University, Northwestern University and Harrington Institute of Interior design. After graduating with a degree in Interior Design, Sun passed through a series of milestones. First she worked as an in-house designer for one of the contract furniture manufactures in Merchandise Mart. Then, on a blind date at a Chinese restaurant in Lincoln Park, Sun met Carlos, an art director living in the city. The two fell in love so quickly that it only took two weeks for them to decide to get married.
Carlos and Sun Segura
Subsequently, Sun pursued a career in real estate. Shortly after receiving her license, however, she realized that the business was far more cutthroat than she had originally anticipated. After six months, Sun left the industry and found herself at a career crossroads.
“Carlos came home one day and said, Okay I’m quitting the agency, let’s start our own business. I knew he was very capable and trusted him, so I said ‘ Okay, let’s do it.’”
The two started off slowly, working from project to project. Once Carlos’ work started winning awards, the two gained momentum and had to expand.
“Projects just started coming in. We got busy and we started hiring people.”
The two worked steadily together and built a reputation for themselves. As fate would have it, after many years Sun’s working partnership with Carlos led her back to her homeland, a journey which would inspire her in ways she had not envisioned.
“My husband and I went to Korea in 2008 because we did a design project for a Korean company. When I arrived, I got to see this new modern country that is completely different from what I left in 1980. The difference was like day and night. South Korea has been described as a phoenix risen from the ashes.”
Sun was shocked by how far South Korea had come in a single generation. With all the advancements in technology and industry, Sun began to research how the country’s population was dealing with such a stark external change. She found that while South Korea was booming in industry and tech, there were still aspects that stood to be improved.
“We have a high suicide rate, a big gender wage gap, our overall happiness level is quite low, and we have the highest rate of plastic surgery in OECD countries. I think that element of competition and comparison is just too intense. Obviously these are universal issues, but it appears that we Koreans take it to the next level.”
With her new cultural perspective and cosmopolitan attitude, Sun felt compelled to share her story. Thinking back to her new start in Chicago as a young adult, Sun remembered how she tried to absorb the best of American culture while retaining her own heritage.
She is now on the journey of sharing her experiences and lessons with others and Koreans living in South Korea through her book “Reset: moving korean culture forward,“ which is being released in May 2017.
reset l moving korean culture forward Cover Designed by My Sister Fred
”The Korean society is very rigid. You are judged by your family background, your education. You feel like you can never be good just being yourself. When I came to Chicago, I felt like I could really be free. I was just really happy to live in a society where it was okay to be whatever you are.”
At the same time, Sun expressed how Americans could stand to learn just as much from Korean culture. Specifically, she explained the concept of jung, a Korean term used to refer to the deep bond that exists between people. In her perspective, the individualistic nature of Americans can sometimes lead them to feel greater loneliness.
Through telling her story, Sun shows the power that comes with bridging these cultural divides. There is no country or culture that is without its own flaws, but at the same time there is none without beauty to offer. In short, Sun hopes that others will hear her story and be open to altering their perspectives from time to time.
“If you shift your view, even just one degree, you may see a whole new side of life.”