Jeanhee Kang finds abundance in Mississippi

By on May 1, 2019
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BY KATIE EUBANKS

Jeanhee Kang finds abundance in Mississippi

 

She would’ve done just about anything for a bowl of rice.

As a little girl in rural South Korea, Jeanhee Kang only got her own bowl of rice on her birthday and New Year’s Day. Her family grew rice, but they had to trade it for other necessities in order to survive.

“Little things my mom would make, there was exactly (enough). There was nothing left,” Jeanhee says.

One day Jeanhee’s school held a field day and she won the 100-meter dash. To her shock, her father showed up and was proud. This was the only time he had touched her gently.

“My dream as a child was … I’d like to go somewhere and eat all that I can eat, white steamy rice.” Instead, she spent her days in constant hunger, planting crops behind her mother.

According to rumor, the local dam keeper got to eat white rice three times a day. He also lived in a house with windows and had the only telephone in the village. He controlled the water gates for the rice patties.

“My mom told me he went to high school in the city to get that job,” Jeanhee says.

One day she knocked on the dam keeper’s door and asked to see his telephone. He let her watch him talk on the phone, gave her a morsel of white rice wrapped in seaweed, and sent her home.

After a year of begging her mother, Jeanhee started school at age 6. She wanted to live like the dam keeper one day, and she wanted to go to “high school” like him. (She used the term to refer to the entire breadth of her education.)

Ten years later, Jeanhee got pregnant and had an abortion.

Her all-girls school kicked her out. No matchmaker would ever bring her a husband. And her family wouldn’t be able to salvage their reputation unless she left. Or died.

“Many girls who broke that taboo killed themselves by drinking rat poison … We didn’t have guns,” she says.

“I had to volunteer to run away so (my family) could keep their face. It was how it was done. Just leave. Disappear. I cried for days and days. But I knew better than to ask for a second chance.”

Jeanhee in seventh grade in South Korea. Girls’ hair had to be trimmed exactly one inch below the ear for school.

Her parents didn’t throw her out immediately. But they expected her to leave. Her mother cried every time she saw her, and her dad wouldn’t look at her at all.

Soon, she found out her grandmother had died. Jeanhee waited until her mother left for the funeral, then stole money from home and traveled to the city of Osan. There she started working as a prostitute near the air base, with the ultimate goal of meeting an American G.I. who would take her to the States so she could finish high school.

She started meeting her mother once a month to give her money. Mrs. Kang didn’t have to ask where it came from.

G.I. John

In 1974, Jeanhee met an American soldier named John and they fell in love and got married. He sent her to live with his parents in Missouri while he finished his service in Osan.

The day after she arrived, she registered for high school.

After struggling with high school and obtaining a GED, Jeanhee got an associate’s degree in elementary education.

“I was sitting in 11th grade … and I didn’t speak basic English, but I was there. I made it.”

Jeanhee and John divorced in 1979 after having two sons together, Joshua and Jason. Jeanhee also dropped out of high school. The pace was too fast, the English too hard.

While working as a waitress in San Antonio, where John had last been stationed, Jeanhee met a man named Robert who offered to take care of her and her kids, help her get her GED and fund her college degree if she’d marry him. Despite not wanting to be tied down, she agreed.

Robert was kind, he loved her, and she wanted her “high school” more than anything.

The marriage only lasted a year. She’d completed her GED and started taking college courses, but she wanted the “real” college experience, as a schoolgirl without a husband.

“I broke his heart, and he gave me a divorce,” she says.

The wrong man

Jeanhee and her sons moved in with friends in Oklahoma City, and she attended Rose State Junior College. While there, she met another man — the wrong man — named Hamid.

“He was Palestinian and Muslim, didn’t believe in anything but Muslim culture. Somehow I fell in love with this guy and couldn’t shake him away,” she says.

The only photo Jeanhee has of her with all three sons: Jason (top left), Ahmad (in her lap) and Joshua.

Hamid hated America and all things American. So much so that when he found out Jeanhee had been accepted to the University of Oklahoma on a full ROTC scholarship, he said, “You want to serve my enemies.”

Hamid also became physically abusive. On the day of Jeanhee’s Rose State graduation, he only let her attend the ceremony if she agreed not to attend OU. In desperation, she agreed.

Jeanhee, Hamid and the boys moved to Baton Rouge, where Hamid’s abuse worsened. At one point she fled with her sons to New York City, where they lived with a friend and Jeanhee found work. But New York is big, she got lonely, and in 1985 she and the boys flew to Jackson, where Hamid was living. She married him, and immediately “he was worse than the monster (from before),” she says.

“Now I can’t even come out of the room if his friend comes to the house. He preached Islam, but he’s not even a real Muslim. ‘Cover yourself’ (he said). He tore all my clothes up (that I had from New York).… If I accidentally met a man’s eyes, he’d grab me (and say) ‘Who is that?’ I quit going to the grocery store because I didn’t want him to do that to me. I called 911 so many times.”

Jeanhee did take two semesters of classes at Jackson State University while married to Hamid. Then she got pregnant.

She went to an abortion clinic — she even made Hamid drive her all the way to New Orleans for the procedure, and somehow he knew not to cross her this time — but she couldn’t go through with it. “I couldn’t kill another baby,” she says.

Jeanhee’s youngest son, Ahmad (center), in Jordan before she brought him back to America.

Even while Jeanhee was pregnant, Hamid’s violence continued. Their son, Ahmad, was born in 1987.

Around that time, she saw an episode of “Oprah” about how women who grow up in abusive households often get sucked into similar relationships as adults. Jeanhee, whose father had abused her and her siblings, finally realized she had to break that cycle.

She asked for a divorce. Hamid said no. Then one day she went to a flea market and bought a gun. She was going to kill him. Or, if she didn’t kill him, she’d at least scare him. “It was a little bitty gun, a .22 revolver,” she says.

The next time Hamid was beating her, the gun fell out of its hiding place under the mattress. Jeanhee picked up the gun and pointed it at him.

“He froze. It was like he saw a dead person. That was all it took. He ran through the house, packing his stuff, cussing the whole time.”

He also took 3-month-old Ahmad.

Just before leaving, Hamid said if Jeanhee ever tried to take Ahmad from him, he’d come back and cut Josh and Jason’s throats. She believed him.

Two months later, Hamid called. “‘Don’t you miss your baby?’ (he said). Like stabbing me.”

Desperately missing Ahmad, she agreed to visit him at Hamid’s apartment — “but every time I went to see him, I was raped. That was (the price of admission).”

This happened until Ahmad was nearly a year old. Finally, she had to stop.

“I can only do so much. I had to give up, because I didn’t want to be raped again. It was a struggle. I had to choose,” she says. “I had to start (lying and saying), ‘I don’t miss my baby.’”

She also believed, despite all of Hamid’s violence, that he’d never hurt his own son.

When Ahmad was 16 months old, Hamid called and said he was taking Ahmad far away. If she wanted to see her son, this would be her last chance.

They met at a Burger King across from Northpark Mall — Josh and Jason too. Hamid handed Ahmad over, told her they had three hours, and left. Jeanhee fed her boys at Burger King and took them to JCPenney at Northpark, where they had a family photo taken.

It’s the only photo Jeanhee has of herself and all three sons.

Soon after that day, Hamid called to tell Jeanhee he’d sent Ahmad to live with his paternal grandparents in Kuwait.

Business success, salvation and a tragic death

Meanwhile, Jeanhee was making a living selling knockoffs that she ordered from a vendor in New York’s Chinatown. She put her education on hold while she worked like mad to make money. And now she had another reason to do it: not just to take care of herself, Josh and Jason, but also to get Ahmad back one day.

In the ’90s, Jeanhee founded the Underground store at Northpark Mall in Ridgeland and turned it into a multi-state franchise.

She didn’t try to tell anyone her fake Rolexes and Louis Vuitton bags were real. People knew the truth — they bought from her because they liked her. Some of her customers became her lifelong friends.

Jeanhee bought a car. She signed a lease-to-purchase agreement for a condo on the Ross Barnett Reservoir. She rented a kiosk at Northpark Mall.

In 1990, as Jeanhee was easing out of selling knockoffs and moving to fashion watches and other accessories, she was arrested for selling counterfeit goods. She faced up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine.

While waiting for her trial, she turned to Jesus.

Having grown up in a Buddhist culture, Jeanhee had only had limited experiences with God. She’d often prayed to a mountain near her village that looked like the profile of a man’s face. She’d attended a Christmas service at a church near the village once, but only because they were giving out rice cakes to the children — and they ran out of rice cakes. She was the only kid who didn’t get one.

But she’d also had dreams — including a couple of dreams about funeral announcements that had come true, and a couple of dreams that comforted her when she and her sons were on welfare. In one of them, Jesus had appeared and asked, “Why aren’t you going to church?” She’d assumed Jesus must have her mixed up with someone else. Surely He couldn’t have wanted her in His house.

Jeanhee graduated from the University of Mississippi in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and minors in sociology, psychology and history.

Now, worrying what would happen to her boys if she went to jail, she entered the house of God. And at the end of the service, she prayed to receive Jesus:

“Jesus, I am at your church. Here I am. I’m here for a reason. Please don’t let them send me to jail. Please give me peace in my heart, so I will stop hurting. And while you are busy forgiving my sins, Lord, please give me lots of money. I really could use it to live a good life with my boys.”

She figured she might as well ask for what she wanted while she was talking to God.

Jeanhee started attending church regularly. At her trial, customers and friends filled the seats, and the judge sentenced her to a year’s probation. No fine, no jail time. She was free, spiritually and legally.

Then the unthinkable happened. Four years later, in 1994, Josh was in a car accident. At the hospital, Jeanhee’s pastor showed up and said he would lay hands on Josh and save his life.

It didn’t work.

Several weeks after Josh’s death, Jeanhee walked out on church, literally, in the middle of a service.

Getting her son back

Less than a year later, Hamid called. Jeanhee had kept her same phone number in case he did — he was her lifeline to get Ahmad back.

By this time Jeanhee was wealthy. A permanent space had opened up on the “40-yard line” at Northpark, and she had founded Underground, a T-shirt and accessories shop aimed at teenagers. She was already establishing Underground stores in other states.

Jeanhee with her sons Ahmad (center) and Jason.

Now Hamid needed money. Badly. Jeanhee said she’d give it to him, no repayment necessary, if he let her take Ahmad back from the Middle East. He was now 8 years old. After some discussion, Hamid agreed.

Jeanhee traveled to Jordan, where Ahmad and his grandparents were living with rationed water and electricity after being kicked out of Kuwait when Saddam Hussein was defeated. She convinced Ahmad’s grandfather to let her take her son. She had to promise, as she had Hamid, that she’d never marry again — in other words, that Ahmad would never call another man “father” —and never force Ahmad to attend church or become a Christian.

She took her boy home, where he and Jason were reunited, and they visited Josh’s grave. She wasn’t attending church, but she thanked God for giving her baby back.

Both Ahmad and Jason came to faith in Jesus —there was no need to force Ahmad into church, Jeanhee says — and both graduated from the University of Mississippi.

After that, Jeanhee no longer felt compelled to make so much money. She was already able to take care of her parents and provide whatever they needed. She sold her Underground stores and retired, in a sense.

In 2005, with an empty nest, Jeanhee met a man named Cecil Muse. They got married in 2006 — and are still married today.

A friend invited Jeanhee to church, and eventually she went. When she did, the pastor preached on the prodigal son — a runaway, as Jeanhee had been.

This time she didn’t bargain with God. She simply surrendered.

In 2014, Jeanhee graduated with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Ole Miss, with minors in sociology, psychology and history. She had finally finished her “high school.”

Another dream

Jeanhee with her son Jason and his daughters Hartley (center left) and Stella on Easter Sunday 2019.

Jeanhee’s son Jason is a sales rep for Boston Scientific in Hoover, Alabama. He is married to his junior-high sweetheart and they have two daughters. Ahmad, the son Jeanhee nearly aborted and later rescued, is general manager at Mercedes of Jackson.

Jeanhee, not fully retired, is a realtor with Berkshire Hathaway. She lives in Flowood in a home with plenty of windows — like the dam keeper’s house only better — and she eats rice whenever she feels like it. (She cooked the rice used in our cover shoot.)

But when asked what she wants readers to take away from her story, Jeanhee talks about another dream she had: She dreamed that Josh, her oldest son who died, was taking care of a baby in heaven. And recently she realized who that baby was — the one she’d aborted all those years ago, when she was 16.

“That baby is a real person. God knew our names before we were born,” she says. And He knew hers — even when she only knew Him as a face on a mountain.