For Atlanta spa victim Suncha Kim, America was always where she felt she belonged

Long before Suncha Kim settled into her adopted country of America, she knew it was where she and her family belonged.

She would visit street markets in Seoul to exchange Korean won for dollars, which she then used to buy pizza at a U.S. military base. She enrolled her daughter in an elementary school that taught English, and introduced her to “Peter Pan” the musical after it debuted in South Korea in the 1970s.

Kim loved everything about America, her family said. The grandeur. The food. The diverse races and religions. The land was vast — and so too, it seemed, were the opportunities.

America was also the place where, at 69 years old, Kim would be killed. She was one of eight people, six of them Asian women, slain by a gunman at three Atlanta-area spas last month.

The tragedy outraged Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders across the U.S., galvanizing the “Stop Asian Hate” movement as a formidable counterweight to the rise in reports of violence aimed at these communities ­­— attacks disproportionately reported by Asian women over the past year.

The deaths of the six Asian women, all workers or managers at the spas, ignited a debate about race, class and gender, and drew particular attention to the struggles of immigrants working lower-wage service jobs to provide for their families. Their stories have highlighted the often overlooked vulnerabilities of such women, who can face language barriers and financial struggle while settling in the United States.

As they grieve their sudden and violent loss, Kim’s family said they hoped she would be remembered for her love — for them and for America, her home for the last four decades.

In their first extended interview since the shooting, three members of Kim’s immediate family shared their memories of her life of sacrifice and grit as a first-generation immigrant, and their struggles as they contend with the continuing attacks against people of Asian descent. They spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing a desire for privacy, but called on the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community to more forcefully denounce such racism. And as attention inevitably turns to the suspect’s criminal trial, they want to ensure the victims’ stories, and their legacies, don’t become forgotten.

“We just ask that the AAPI community not let our mothers and grandmothers, our ummunees and halmunees, die in vain,” said one of her children, using Korean phrases to describe mothers and grandmothers. “We have to make sure that the victims, their names will go on forever.”

Suncha Kim and her son, whom she brought to the United States in 1980. (Family photo)

Suncha Kim and her son in the mid-1980s in Texas. (Family photo)

LEFT: Suncha Kim and her son, whom she brought to the United States in 1980. (Family photo) RIGHT: Suncha Kim and her son in the mid-1980s in Texas. (Family photo)

‘America was home’

Kim arrived in Texas in 1980 with her 1-year-old son in tow. The first thing she ate was a corn dog at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. She had never tasted anything like it before.

She was about 29, a mother of two, and a wife to a man to whom she would remain married for more than 50 years until her death. Her daughter and husband joined them in America about five years later.

Kim’s own mother died when she was in middle school, and as the oldest daughter, she was left to care for three younger sisters and her father, a police officer. She eventually helped them move to the United States, including by helping pay for her sisters’ school tuition.

She and her husband lived a modest life in Seoul, and she was always fascinated with America and Western culture, her family said.

She admired the American democratic system, her family said, in the way that is common among some South Koreans of her generation who grew up during their country’s own turbulent period of democratization.

Among her proudest achievements was becoming a U.S. citizen, they said, and she described her naturalization ceremony as one of the happiest days of her life.

“We went back a few times [to Korea] but this was home. America was home for her. This is where she wanted to die. She wanted to die in the United States,” one of her children said.

But life in America was not easy. She spoke little English and worked two to three jobs at a time to survive — as a waitress, a janitor, a convenience store cashier.

Her family recalled her first job in Texas, washing dishes at an Army post near Killeen and scrubbing pots so big she could almost fit inside. She felt proud when she saved enough money to buy a car so she could drive herself to work — and it didn’t matter to her that it was so beat-up the headlights were falling off, they said.

“I don’t think she knew how hard it was going to be settling in a new country, because probably she had only heard and seen good things about here, the American Dream,” one of her children said.

Despite the hardships, Kim maintained a positive attitude for her family, they said. She worked long hours, often coming home while her children were asleep, but left notes in their textbooks to let them know she was thinking of them.

Kim was a devout Catholic who attended church regularly and volunteered to help the homeless and underprivileged children. She used her cooking skills to feed the elderly at church and to raise money for a nonprofit that works to eliminate child hunger, said Agnes Choi, a friend with whom Kim attended church and volunteer work.

“She always thought about other people first. She was always smiling. She was always happy,” Choi said.

Kim lived with her family for many years in the greater Washington, D.C., area, where she helped to feed the homeless and, in 2011, was recognized with a President’s Volunteer Service Award, according to a certificate provided by the family.

Being a loving mother and grandmother was her top priority, especially after losing her own mother as a teen, her family said. She taught her children to love their own children fully: “As much as you can give,” she would say.

Kim frequently left voice mails and wrote letters reminding her children and her three grandchildren that she loved them and that she was praying for them. In a letter last spring, Kim wrote in Korean:

“To my daughter, whom I love. Always remember this: The best thing I did in my life was raising all of you as God’s children. Thank you, God.

… To my granddaughter, you are beautiful, so beautiful. Grandma loves you, and you are beautiful. Study hard and take care of your siblings, and have courage. I love you.”

She signed the letter with an English word used by Koreans to express motivation and support: “Fighting.”

Oh Granddaughter, it’s Grandma. Nothing is wrong with you, right? Grandma called but you didn’t answer. Work hard, hard, hard, always work hard at all things. Thank you, bye-bye.

‘We grieve in silence’

In early March, Kim bought two pairs of sneakers: One for herself, and one for her daughter, so they could take a long walk together over Easter and enjoy the springtime weather, her favorite time of the year. She planned on traveling to Virginia from Georgia to attend Easter Mass with her family. Kim was scheduled to receive her coronavirus vaccines in time for the trip.

In her free time, Kim enjoyed taking Zumba classes and dancing to a Justin Bieber playlist. She loved gardening and flowers, especially daisies and cosmos, a popular flower in Korea. And she loved animals, cooking and hiking.

Kim had moved to Georgia a few years ago because of the big Korean community there, in hopes that she and her husband could spend their retirement years there, her family said. Her husband, 76, recently retired and lives with family members.

The Korean population in Georgia has ballooned over the past two decades, and the state is now home to one of the largest Korean American communities in the country.

Georgia’s Korean business community has grown to offer everything from real estate and pest control to medical, legal and insurance services. There are churches, radio stations, newspapers and even phone books that cater to Koreans, and the growth has organically drawn more immigrants like Kim who are seeking a community they can navigate more easily.

A relative in Georgia recommended she work at Gold Spa, where she cleaned, cooked and did laundry for the other employees, her family said. Then, on March 16, the unthinkable: A gunman opened fire at three spas in the Atlanta area, including Gold Spa. Kim was shot twic
e in the chest, according to the autopsy report.

Earlier that day, Kim texted her daughter a photo of their new shoes: “Look, this is for you and me.” Then she called later in the day, asking her daughter if she ate lunch, and they talked some more about their new shoes and her upcoming trip. That was their last call together.

Unlike many other mass shootings, it took several days for the victims’ names to be confirmed by authorities. In that void, media coverage of the attacks was dominated by stories about the alleged shooter, Robert Aaron Long, his suspected motives, and conjecture over whether the killings constituted a hate crime.

For Kim’s family, the delay was agonizing. They were unable to verify her death or know when they would be able to view her body. They said the experience spoke to the marginalization and invisibility of Asian women, especially older immigrants who have led quiet lives.

When the names were finally released and the victims’ families were asked to speak about them, Kim’s loved ones struggled to balance the Korean cultural expectations of keeping family matters private with wanting Kim’s story to be told, they said.

“Culturally speaking, we struggle to share heartache. We do sort of keep it to ourselves and we grieve in silence. We’ve had a hard time being able to balance that,” her granddaughter said.

Last spring, as reports of attacks against Asian Americans began spiking amid a backlash to the coronavirus pandemic, which originated in China, Kim warned her children to be careful of their surroundings. “Be careful when you go out,” she told them. “They’re angry at Oriental people.”

The family said they were heartbroken to see another mass shooting, this time in Boulder, Colo., occur less than a week after the shootings in Atlanta.

And they are appalled by the continued attacks aimed at Asians, including a recent incident in New York where a man repeatedly kicked a 65-year-old Asian woman while making anti-Asian statements.

They thanked the public for the flood of support, prayers and donations to their GoFundMe page and for peaceful rallies calling for an end to racism and discrimination.

“While there’s evil in this world, when we see things like that, there’s still hope, and we see that there’s still more love in the world,” one of her children said, “and my mother would have loved that. My mother would have known that there’s still love and positivity in the world.”

Granddaughter! It’s Grandma. Hmm, call me back. I love you.