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Jeena Cho 조지현 @Jeena_Cho
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My family immigrated to the US in 1988 (the same year that Korea last hosted the Olympics). I was 10 years old. I didn’t speak a word of English. Neither did anyone else in my family.
We moved to Astoria, NY where my grandparents owned a grocery store. My dad went from being an architect at Samsung to working at the grocery store. Long hours, working 7 days a week.

My mom was an art teacher before getting married. She started working at a nail salon.
I was a shy kid and I withdrew into a shell, being plucked from a school where everyone looked like me to a school that was very diverse. When I was in fourth grade, I remember being taken out of class by a lovely and kind woman who would play games with me.
Many years later, when I majored in psychology, I realized the woman was a child psychologist.
Here’s the thing. When you’re an immigrant in a country where you don’t speak the language, aren’t familiar with its rules and laws, you get taken advantage of.
For example, we moved into an infested apartment without running hot water. We didn’t know for years that you can report the landlord to housing agencies.
I still remember waking up in the middle of the night, screaming, terrified because a rat ran across my torso. Or finding a cockroach in a bowl of soup.
We would use Raid Foggers and literally sweep up dead cockroaches.
My dad eventually bought a laundromat and more than once, customers threatening to sue him for some damage to their clothing or claiming he lost an article of clothing.

Sadly, he would end up paying the customers because he didn’t understand how the legal system worked.
My parents, like most Koreans valued education and doing well in school. Despite not having a lot of money, my parents still figured out a way to send me and my siblings to after school programs where we’d get help with homework and learn the next years curriculum.
I watched a lot of Law & Order growing up. I learned a lot of English watching that show.
I loved the show. In 60 minutes, bad people were always prosecuted and justice served. To my naive 12 or 13 year old self, this was obviously my path.
Go to law school, become a prosecutor. Send bad guys to jail. Protect the innocent.
My parents were very traditional and didn’t believe girls should go away to college. So, I saved every dollar I could from my job as a cashier at Boston Market and applied for colleges out of town.
I faked their signature on the college application, completed all the financial applications and got into University at Buffalo. Full scholarship.
My parents told me the only way I was allowed to leave the house was (1) get married or (2) dead. Neither option appealed to me so I “ran away” to college. I suppose as reasonable as one could be while running away.
I didn’t speak to my parents for a long time after that.
I felt very strongly about making something of myself. To give meaning to my parents’ suffering and sacrifice. Also, I wanted to prove my worth.
One experience I’ll never forget. My mom owned a nail salon and I worked there after graduating from college over the summer.
My mom told one customer (very proudly) that I just graduated from college. The woman looked at me, seeing me for the first time (as I was washing her feet).
Said very sweetly, “well, isn’t that nice. So, will you be working here then?”
Stunned, I paused and responded that I was there for the summer and I was starting law school in the fall.
Her facial expression changed and she responded, “well, good for you.”
So, I graduated from law school at 24 and got my dream job as an assistant state attorney.
First, I was assigned to the DV unit where I learned that our criminal “justice” system is a terrible mechanism for helping people.
Also, I learned as a lawyer, part of the privilege of having this role means that we’ll see images that we’ll never be able to unsee. And hear stories that we’ll never be able to unhear.
Then I was assigned to misdemeanors court. And whatever expectation I had of the criminal justice system actually helping people was shattered.
The first day was arraignment day. And the judge had the Spanish interrupter ask everyone that was there for a “driving without a valid lisence” to move into the jury box.
A large group of men all stood up and walked over. It was around 30 people so they all sort of huddled around the jury box.
He had the interrupter tell them his rule, “the first time you’re caught, it’s a fine. Second time, 10 days in jail. Their time, 364 days.”
Just to put that into perspective, a 3rd time DUI carried with it a minimum mandatory sentence of 30 days.
One by one, the men were asked to plead. Those that plead guilty were sentenced according to his rule. And those that didn’t were given a PD and set for trial.
Needless to say. This was incredibly traumatizing. Granted, I was in the US legally but I could easily see myself, my family in the faces and stories of these migrant workers.
Other cases I was charged to prosecute were petty theft, possession of marijuana and DUI.
Bryan Stevenson writes in his book, Just Mercy, “Why do we want to kill all the broken people?”

While I didn’t capital cases, his statement rings true for me. We want to lock away, criminalize, and shun people who are broken.
The law often didn’t make sense to me. For example, making it illegal to panhandle. Sleep on park bench.

Other times, the application of the law was flawed. For example, using driving without a valid license to prosecute undocumented workers.
Like most SAO, we were overworked (I had over 250 cases) and there was no time. No time to actually sit down and figure out how to help people. To consider what would be a just outcome.
I was burning out. Desperately trying to keep my head above water. And I had regular nightmares of seeing my parents in the jury box. Taken away from me for 364 days.
Often, those defendants didn’t understand the consequences of pleading guilty and more than once, would start wailing when they were given a year in jail. Taken straight from arraignment to jail.
Sorry. Broke the thread. Continued here.

After a few years, I was completely burned out. And also, went through a horrible breakup with my boyfriend. I lost 30 pounds, was depressed and felt like a complete failure.
I needed a change. So, I moved from FL to the Bay Area.
I met my husband, @jeffdcurl and we started a bankruptcy law practice.
Bankruptcy law was the perfect practice area for me. I got to help people who are experiencing financial trauma and give them a fresh start. It was healing and restorative.
The first bk case I ever filed was for a very sweet 69 year old immigrant. He was HIV positive and struggling with bipolar depression.

After the 341 hearing, we hugged and he cried.
I love being a bankruptcy lawyer (even though it doesn’t make me very popular at cocktail parties).

Most of us are a few steps - an accident, layoff, divorce, etc away from potential financial devastation.
Oh. And of course an illness. I’ll write another time on what I learned about our medical care system and what it can do to people’s financial well-being another time...
Wow. Thank you for reading my story. I’m blown away by the responses. I hope others who also comes from “less privileged background” (a term I’m still chewing over) feel inspired to share their story. #MyPathToLaw
Epilogue. I started practicing mindfulness and meditation in 2011 after being diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder. I co-authored @AnxiousLawyer w/ @karengifford for @ABAesq. #MyPathToLaw

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