The Korea Business Interview Series:
"From Immigrant Housemaid to Harvard Ph.D."
with Dr. Jin Kyu Robertson, motivational speaker/author and host of American Dreams: The Sky is the Limit.
Click the button below to hear our exclusive interview (approx. 32 minutes length):
To listen off-line, right-click here to save the .mp3 file to your computer.
Full Transcript of the Interview Held on February 15, 2010:
Tom:Hi, and thanks for joining us today at KoreaBusinessCentral.com. My name is Tom Tucker. I am the host for this podcast series and today, our guest is truly a remarkable woman. She went from being a poor Korean immigrant housemaid who didn’t speak any English to making history while serving in the United States Army. And later, she earned a Harvard PhD.
Our guest today is Jin Robertson, an amazing woman who has truly one of the most incredible life stories you might ever hear. Robertson is now an inspirational speaker in Korea and Japan and her book is titled, I Want to be a Proof of Hope, and it’s one of the top selling books in Korea now with more than 400,000 copies sold. Jin, it’s great to have you with us today. Thanks so much for joining us.
Jin:Thank you. Thank you for the invitation.
Tom:You’re welcome. It’s such a treat to have you. Like I said, you story is amazing. It’s truly inspirational.
Tom:I’d like to start your story when you were about 20 years old and you decided to immigrate to the United States from Korea. Talk about that briefly.
Jin:Well, there is a Korean word “ which means that challenges – I forget what you call that. It’s that difficult times can offer amazing opportunities. In Korea, I was born and raised in a poor family. I was working as a factory girl making wigs and restaurant.
Tom:Making wigs, making wigs.
Jin:And working as a waitress. Also, I served as housemaid for an American family. I decided that’s not life. Then, opportunity came. I saw a newspaper ad looking for a housemaid in America for immigration. So, I said, “Wow. This must be the opportunity,” and I applied for that.
The one amazing danger related to that process is about – I don’t know how many percent. But, the majority of the girls were recruited and brought to America and sold on the street to become prostitutes. So, I had to take that chance. But, I decided if that’s the case, I will just kill myself because we’re all going to die anyway.
And so, I applied and, luckily, it was the real housemaid case and that’s how I came to America. You said, I didn’t speak any English at all. But, actually, in school, they teach you basic grammar, so I was able to find the restrooms at least. I had only $100 to my name and no return ticket; a one way ticket I had. So, that was my beginning in America.
Tom:What was it like for you when you arrived in the United States not knowing any conversational English, not knowing anyone and with just a few dollars in your pocket?
Jin:It was very complicated because while I was going through the application process to come to America, it took me about two years and I wasn’t really sure whether it would be the real case whether I am coming to America, but I landed in America, so that was one joy.
And another thing that was going through in my mind was, “Am I going to be sold on the street?” And when the guy who was supposed to meet me at the airport, he was about mid-40s, Korean guy….
When I saw him, he picked me up and took me, drove me to a hotel in downtown New York. So, I was terrified and I said, “Wow, this must be the sure thing that I’m going to be a prostitute.”
Jin:So, I was so scared and joyful, so all kinds of mixed emotions. At the same time, there is some dumb feeling when you are in a totally new different place.
Tom:Right. A dumb feeling, you say.
Jin:Yeah, dumb feeling. Not recognizing exactly what’s going on.
Jin:So, I was kind of a very confused girl, but then I found out he was real – not the sponsor, but he was an agent and he connected me to an American family in New Jersey. So, he was not going to sell me on the street and this was a real case of a housemaid, so there was an amazing relief and that’s the beginning of my American life. But, actually, I didn’t have to work as a housemaid.
Tom:Right, right. You actually ended up with a job working as a hostess at a Jewish restaurant in the financial district in New York.
Jin:Yes. But, the thing was, because it took me two years to come to America and the family in New Jersey had to have the housemaid right away. So, they got someone from South America.
And the sponsor was an old grandma and she was such a nice person. She said that if I want to stay at her place, she will keep me there and find a job for the South American woman, or if I want to try something else outside, then be my guest and just keep her informed. So, that’s the amazing opportunity I was given to be successful in America, to go for my dreams.
Tom:So, you were working as a hostess at the restaurant and you decided to spend a lot of time and energy learning English. You learned some basic phrases. I guess it was over the course of this time that you began to think about enlisting in the United States Army. Talk about this transition a little bit.
Jin:Yeah, that’s probably about another two hours worth of me talking.
Tom:Just two hours worth of conversation, I’m sure.
Jin:But, while I was working in a Jewish restaurant as a hostess, then I met some Korean people, customers. They found me a job in a Korean restaurant as a waitress in midtown New York. And while I was working there, the next year – I got here in ’71 and in ’72, I start going to school because my purpose of coming to America was not just to work as a waitress or a housemaid, but to become somebody.
So, next year, I found a college and I was going to school. So going to school during the day and at night, I was working at a Korean restaurant, then after two years, I took another venture to try out different parts of America, so I moved to LA.
From there, I was still going to school and working at the Korean nightclub and that’s where I met a guy that just came from Korea. He was an Akito black belt seventh degree; very handsome. I fell in love, and got married and I had a kid, a baby.
But, later I found out – not later, but even before I got married, I knew he was an abusive husband and I was a battered wife.
Tom:Yeah. I’m sorry.
Jin:Yeah. But, internally, I was so desperate to either take revenge and kill him or run away from him and I chose to escape to the US Army. That’s how I ended up becoming a private in the US Army.
Tom:Wow. The story is just amazing. I’m sorry that you had to endure that difficulty with your husband. It’s understandable that you took the action that you had decided to take for your safety and to continue to advance your dream and pursue your goal.
In the Army, as I understand it, you were actually quite a bit older than the rest of the recruits in your class. You actually ended up ranked number one in your recruiting class.
Jin:Yes. I was ten years older than the majority of the recruits. At the basic training, when we started, I couldn’t do even one sit-up and I couldn’t run for about three or four minutes because I had a belly and my baby was only eight months old. And I had a miscarriage too, just one month before the infantry basic training started.
So, it was kind of a real messy and disaster situation, but I thought about just giving up the whole thing because, especially, I missed my daughter. I sent her to Korea to someone I knew, and I missed her so much and I couldn’t take it.
But, then because I was – while I was going through a lot of difficult times in Korea, I discovered amazing power in myself and that there’s another person inside of you. There are more than one person in everybody and one of them is always encouraging and supporting you, and one of them is always discouraging you to tell you you’re not worth anything and you can’t do anything.
But, I decided to give more power to the person in me saying, “Jin, you are amazing and you’re going to become somebody. You’re going to be such an amazing person and you will save so many people through you.”
So, I gave the power to that person and I always discussed with that person, and it helped me and helped emphasize my strengths instead of focusing on my weakness. And then, that really helped worked miracles and at the end of two months of infantry training, I graduated as number one out of 200 trainees.
Tom:Number one out of 200 trainees? That’s amazing. The Army was, I guess, kind of a saving grace for you and as you just alluded to, you did experience some miracles and some wonderful things while serving in the Army.
You completed a Master’s Degree at Harvard and then, you also became the first woman ever to serve as the US Army’s liaison to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.
Jin:Right. That’s why coming to America was an amazing turning point for my life and joining the Army was another amazing turning point. And without the Army, probably, I might not be as successful as I want to be, or as I am now.
And while I was in the Army, there are such amazing opportunities if you are really seeking any opportunity to get ahead in your life. So, I did and there was an Army program as a foreign area officer.
Tom:Foreign Area Officer?
Jin:Right. And in short, they call it FAO. After I joined the Army as a private, after four and a half years, I decided to go for Officers Corps, so I became an officer; a Commissioned Officer, Second Lieutenant at age 32.
So, to apply for the FAO, you have to finish your company command and as soon as I finished my company command, I was very successful and I was doing really great in the Army, so I applied for that position and then, they turned me down.
But, if I was someone who was brought up like a flower in – what do you call it that is a warm house?
Tom:Oh, like if you were brought up in a greenhouse?
Jin:Yeah, greenhouse. If I were brought up in greenhouse, probably I would just get disappointed and give it up, but I’m like a wildflower. But, when Army turned me down for that position, that program, I went to Washington DC and really stayed there for a whole day and kind of delved in and found out why I was turned down.
Tom:Why did they turn you down as a Foreign Area Officer?
Jin:Main reason – on the surface, they said there were people who had better – what do you call it?
Jin:Yeah, better qualifications. But, when I really found out, they were concerned about Korean men and Japanese men because if I get elected as an FAO, Foreign Area Officer, I would have to deal with these Korean men and Japanese men.
Tom:Because the position you wanted was serving as the Foreign Area Officer in Japan. Is that correct?
Tom:Okay. And they were concerned that a woman would not be able to serve effectively in this position?
Jin:Right, because they would look down upon me. So, I persuaded them. I told them, “Hey, but nobody will look down upon their boss’ wife, even Korean men or Japanese men,” not because the boss’ wife is any – what do you call that? Amazing people, but they look at their power, not their power, their husband’s power, right?
Jin:So, they would not look down or treat their boss’ wife bad. And another thing is that I used Thatcher; Prime Minister Thatcher.
Jin:And I told them, “If Prime Minister Thatcher goes to Korea or Japan, the Korean President or Japanese Prime Minister, none of them would treat her bad because she’s a woman.”
Jin:And they treat her great not because of her, but because of the power of England.
Tom:Because of the power of her position.
Jin:Yes, and the support from England.
Jin:So, why not America? America is a greater country than Britain, to me. So, why are you afraid to try out? All you have to do is support female officers just as well as you do for the male officers and leave it up to me.
Tom:Right. What year was this when you were having this conversation?
Jin:That was in ’86.
Jin:Right. So, in those days, the Army was still kind of an equal opportunitizing situation, I guess.
Jin:Equal oportunitizing. I guess it’s a new word I’m making up.
Tom:Oh, you’re saying that they were talking about equal opportunities for women, but not necessarily allowing that.
Jin:In certain places.
Tom:I see, okay.
Jin:And there was one of them. So, after that, they decided to give it a try, so I became a test case for that; female for the FAO for Japan.
Tom:Right, for the Foreign Area Officer for Japan. You were then serving as the Army’s liaison to the Japanese Self-defense Forces in that position.
Jin:You have to go through the process of training, for almost four years of training.
Jin:And so, that program includes where they teach you the language for their country for one year.
Jin:And send you to graduate school, and then take you down to the country and have you tour around the country and the countries around the country to learn to become the expert.
Jin:And also, they teach you a lot about the language there, while you are there. So, that’s an amazingly attractive program. So, once I was selected as a test case, I had to make it successful because, otherwise, I would be an example of failure to other female officers, eventually.
So, that’s when I thought about Harvard. Before then, Harvard was never in my life or never in my picture of my dream. Because in Harvard in America, it’s an amazing school, right? Recognized and looked up to, and in Korea and Japan, it’s like a God School or something like that.
Tom:God School. Yeah.
Jin:Yes. So that’s why I applied to Harvard. I was already over 40 years old and it took me about 15 years to get my—what do you call what it is?
Tom:Your bachelors, okay.
Jin:Yeah. I graduated in ’87.
Tom:So, at this point, you had already completed your bachelors.
Jin:Yes, I did.
Tom:And it took you 15 years to do that.
Jin:Yes, and moved to five different schools. But for me, Harvard—I need to get a Harvard degree to make this FAO program successful. And amazing psychologies—if I just looked at Harvard, I would be too scared, and I would run away. But, this time, I was looking at Harvard like one of the tools to make this FAO program successful. Then, Harvard wasn’t that scary.
So, I applied to the Graduate School of Arts & Science and also I applied to the John F. Kennedy School of Government because, just in case, I might get selected one of them at least. But, as it ended up, I got selected to both of them.
Jin:That’s how Harvard started in my life. And because I have a mission to save those, give opportunities to women officers with a mission, and I studied, and then that was really motivating and helping me. I graduated with an A minus average from Harvard and studied at 43, but graduated at 45.
Jin:And then, I went to Japan, and with that Harvard background. And while I was there at Harvard, I applied for a PhD anyway. Just for the heck of it, because a PhD is something everybody said is almost impossible. That made me feel more attracted to that program.
And the first year, I flunked. But, the second year, I tried again and in my department, which was History and East Asian Languages. There were 32 applicants and they selected two. And one of them was me.
Jin:But, I was active military and I went to Japan. I took a leave of absence from Harvard, and went to Japan and worked there, and I was more successful than probably all the past male officers in that position. And then, the Army changed the policy and they started selecting female officers and started sending them to Japan while I was still working in Japan.
Jin:That was just amazing. Oh, I forgot that before I went to Harvard, I took that Japanese language course. So, I became fluent in the Japanese language. Because of the sense of mission, when I graduated from Harvard, the language school in Monterrey, that’s the Defense Language Institute.
Tom:Yes, in Monterrey, California.
Jin:And it was a one-year program. When I graduated, I maxed out on the listening, speaking and reading exam. You have to pass those exams to graduate and I maxed them out. That was the first time in the school history of 48 years.
Jin:So, with that background, it really helped me to succeed in Japan, in changing the Army policy and it opened up the door for other female officers. And their program started in 1989 for me and last year, it was exactly the 20th year.
And my daughter began to walk into that door which I made. I opened and I made a road, and my daughter is walking in right now. She already speaks fluent Japanese and Korean, so she didn’t have to go to Monterrey, but she’s at Princeton and going through the masters program.
Tom:She’s in the master’s program at Princeton right now.
Jin:Yes. For that; for FAO.
Tom:For the Foreign Area Officer program. So, she is an officer in the Army as well.
Jin:Isn’t that amazing? The amazing thing was that because I went to Harvard, that inspired her to go to Harvard. So, when I was there for my PhD and I returned there after the military, my daughter was attending Harvard too. So, she and I were on the same campus learning from the same professors. And I was in the PhD program, and she was in the undergraduate program.
So, I heard that it was the first time for a mom and daughter to study in the same area. We were both studying about international relations history, especially East Asia, and under the same professor’s guidance.
Tom:Under the same professors.
Tom:That is just remarkable. That’s amazing.
Jin:Yeah, if you do best with your life, it will also trickle down to your children, I believe. It’s like you are becoming a role model and it’s helping them to pursue their dreams.
Tom:Yes. That is so true. What motivated you? What fueled you? What kept you going? What caused you to be able to achieve so much starting out with so little?
Jin:Yeah, that’s another million-dollar question. But, for me, I would say that everybody gets their challenging moments in life and difficult times. And we have a choice what we do with that difficult time, either you fall—you go down the drain—or you use that to motivate you and it gives you a sense of mission. And that, I took the latter.
When I was going through the real difficult times, especially as I was growing up at home, my mom was just discriminating against girls. I had firsthand experience with that, and then that triggered inside me that determination, “I am going to become somebody and to show the world that girls are not useless.”
And also, my mom was running a tavern, a small tavern, in the country in Korea. People look down upon such families, and I was looked down upon because we were poor and of low status. So, that kind of triggered another—I guess planted another mission, saying, “I am going to become somebody and I am going to give an opportunity to the people in the world who are born—that’s not their fault, to be born in that kind of situation. But because they were born into that kind of situation, and looked down upon and not given the opportunity – I’m going to become the savior of them.”
That kind of a mission, I just created to—I think the reason I created that was because I was so, I guess, what do you call that is—so poor, and so run-down, and in so worthless-looking situation in this world.
And I felt so sorry for that little girl. So, I decide to save that little girl and to motivate that little girl. I gave her that kind of a sense of mission, saying, “Make her believe that she’s not worthless. She’s not nobody. She is someone very important.”
That was the strategy I used and after you repeat it constantly, I told you inside of you, you have a great person, and then, there’s a motivating person, and then evil inside.
Jin:Because the motivating person gets motivating, and in the meantime, you get – not hypnotized, but convinced that you are that person who’s supposed to become someone great. You know what I mean?
Tom:Oh, I do. And you certainly have done that. If you have a few words of advice for our listeners today, what would those words be?
Jin:Don’t forget how powerful you can be. That’s one message. And the other one is we have only one life to live. And we have no choice at birth, we have no choice. We have no choice but from dying. But, we do have a choice – how to live this one life given to us. That’s the time you can utilize to find out what you’re made of and see what you can do with it. And do whatever you want to, and leave the worse life and when you leave, say, “Hey, I had a wonderful life.”
Tom:That’s fantastic. What’s next for you? I understand you have another dream and that’s to serve as the United States Secretary of State?
Jin:Yes. That’s another dream because the bigger dream you dream, the bigger accomplishments you can get. And so, that’s one of the reason I’m dreaming that.
And also, that’s giving proof to other people how much you can accomplish within that one little life; one short life. So, that’s one of the reasons. And I really enjoyed doing that Foreign Area Officer. That’s why I was so successful.
Tom:The Foreign Area Officer. You enjoyed that tremendously.
Jin:Yes. That is a job like a soldier statesman. It’s like a statesperson.
Tom:It’s like an ambassador, almost.
Jin:So, I enjoyed it so much and I found so much talent in that, I said, “Wow. I can help the world by becoming the Secretary of State of America.” So, that’s why I’m dreaming that and also, that little girl’s dream about giving opportunities to the people who are born into their situations. So, that’s why I’m dreaming of creating an award – Equal Opportunity Fund.
Tom:Yes, the Worldwide Equal Opportunity Award Fund. What is that?
Jin:That will serve like a Nobel Peace Prize. So, it will encourage the people to continue to work to make the world an offering place for equal opportunities to anybody and everybody.
Tom:Is this a scholarship fund?
Jin:It will serve just like a Nobel Peace Prize. I would like to make it at the size of the Nobel Peace Prize as well, so even after I die, it will continue on down forever almost.
Tom:Wonderful. For our listeners, who would like to learn more about you, is there a website where they can go?
Jin: Yes. It’s www.topinspirationalmotivationalpublicspeaker.com.
Jin:Inspirational, motivational, public speaker, dot com.
Tom:Wonderful. Well Jin, it’s been such a treat talking with you today and I’m sure we could talk for hours about your life, and what you’ve learned and the things that you’ve accomplished. I wish we could do that. Perhaps we’ll be able to talk with you again at another time.
And we’re going to look forward to following your progress. I know you’re now launching your career as a motivational and inspirational speaker, and we’re going to look forward to watching you grow there and accomplish great things there as well, and we certainly wish you all the best.
Tom:Oh, you're welcome. And to finish today, you have a saying that I've read, and it begins with, “For those of you who want to live.” Why don’t you give us that saying in closing?
Jin:“For those who want to live, the sky is the limit. Give flight to your dream, then it will give you a wonderful life.”
Tom:Fantastic. Spoken by someone who’s a true inspiration. Jin Robertson, thanks so much for being with us today. We really appreciate it.
Jin:Thank you so much.
Tom:My name is Tom Tucker, I’m the host here at KoreaBusinessCentral.com for this podcast series. Thanks for joining us today. It’s always great to have you and we’ll look forward to talking with you once again in the future. Have a great day, and thanks for listening.
This interview with Dr. Robertson last year was a breath of fresh air!
Unlike the hardcore business, politics and economy we generally focus on, Dr. Robertson reminded us about the challenges of moving between cultures and the rewards to be had in pushing through. Perhaps Dr. Linda Myer's story would have ended differently had all the players been more culturally prepared and flexible. Even though Dr. Robertson's story isn't a business one per se, the lessons she teaches surely are prerequisites for success in business in Korea.
Dr. Robertson's ability to learn English late in life and then courage in facing down a 45-minute KBC interview unscripted (this one was before we started giving the interviewees the list of questions in advance) in English is inspiring to me, too.
Wow! ...I wish I had read this interview long ago!
What an inspiring read^.^ It has definitely enhanced the way in which I've been approaching my present circumstances. I'm similarly inspired as I prepare the financal groundwork for studying Korean.
I agree: Linda's Korea-based chapter possibly wouldn't be over.
I saw that you have have started the new year with a replay of the great interview with Jin Kyu Robertson.
She was one of the first interviews that I read when joining KBC and I was truly inspired immediately. So much that I
contacted her right after and have had a friendly dialogue since then. I know that she will be releasing a Enligsh version of her book this year so I look forward to read it very soon. I recommend all to do so since her story is very much related to doing business in Korea. Her strength, passion and determination to learn and adapt to a new culture is a great example of how it´s possibe to cross borders and cultures.
Thanks, Susanne. When the new book comes out, please let me know so that I can let the membership know.
I absolutely agree that Dr. Robertson's story is related to doing business in Korea. In fact, all the fancy nuts and bolts in the world about doing business internationally don't mean a hill of beans if you can't bridge the culture.
I remember watching Dr. Robertson's life story on a Korean channel a few years ago ( 성공시대- Success Stories ) . I am glad to be inspired again by this interview. Life may bring a lot of challenges but ploughing through those times via reading a lot of inspiring stories as these seems to be helpful. Thank you!