Photos by Nicole Wong
A blanket of snow covers the strip mall parking lot isolating Sayaka Fukuyama’s restaurant, Sushi Kamon, in a desolate, icy wind. Fukuyama, 57, peeks from a curtain corner.
“No customers,” Fukuyama said, as she tucked her arms together against the cold. After wiping down the spotless tables and countertops, prepping lettuce for side salads, refiling soy sauce containers to their brims and setting placeware for what seemed like the millionth time, there is little to do but hope for a customer to venture out for her Japanese/Korean cuisine.
Despite positive Yelp reviews, business has dwindled enough for her to reduce the restaurant’s hours. She shuffles to a table to quietly sip on green tea as she tells her sushi chef, Song Min Hyuk, to go on break until customers arrive. They both sigh heavily. Business has been like this for a while.
“It felt like freedom when I was younger, but now…it’s not freedom. I feel like I don’t know what else I can do here. I wonder if I should have stayed,” Fukuyama said.
Fukuyama came to Chicago in 1984, at age 25. Her older sister and younger brother first immigrated to the United States from South Korea. The country, she said, was left in uncertainty after the Korean War.
“Then, jobs might include [being] a housewife or not working at all for women. You could be a good wife, maybe,” she said. “Most of my experience has been working in restaurants here. I remember asking my husband, ‘What else can I do?’ I still don’t know the answer.”
Fukuyama and her family are part of the third wave of Korean immigration to the U.S.. A high proportion of these immigrants were well-educated and emigrated in their prime to seek a better life, pursue further education and join family members.
From 1965 to 1990, a lack of job opportunities and political insecurity under Major General Park Chung-hee’s military dictatorship prompted many Koreans to leave the country, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
“I came here for more opportunity,” Fukuyama said. “I was anxious and excited. I didn’t know what to expect. Though, the longer I stayed here, the more I disliked it. The cold was especially new. I hated being trapped in the winter,” she said, frowning at the snow piling outside her windows.
Her first job in Chicago was at a Japanese restaurant in Streeterville, Hatsu Hana, where she worked part-time as a waitress. Though barely making ends meet, she did not have negative feelings about working or feeling alienated in a new culture.
“I had to make do. I was here. I didn’t have a choice to go back,” Fukuyama said. “It was not a thought I could have had to think about failing.”
That goal of survival, combined with the independence she lacked in Korea, was inspiring as a new immigrant. She was determined to make a living for herself and her family.
Nowadays, it feels tiring, as business wanes and her community dwindles. Faces come and go, and trying to mingle with Japanese or Korean communities can be difficult as a newcomer.
Both of her siblings eventually returned to South Korea, as they felt they had less opportunities and less freedom in the United States.
“My sister returned because she failed her driving license test so many times. She couldn’t get around, she couldn’t speak English very well. It was too much for her.” she said.
“I tried to make ties in the Korean church. It was hard to get to know people at my age.”
However, she did have her husband, Allan Fukuyama, as support.
Fukuyama moved to the suburbs in 1989 when she pregnant with her first child . Her daughter, Marian, arrived in May.
“I wanted the best opportunities for her,” she smiled. “Perhaps the suburbs would be better, I thought.”
The new family flocked to Arlington Heights and opened the first incarnation of Sushi Kamon in 1994. Her husband, originally from Japan, helped as the sushi chef. With a welcoming Japanese community in Arlington Heights, business was decent.
“It was the best our restaurant ever was,” she said. “[In 2013] We couldn’t afford it. We had to move locations. Business has dried up since.”
Fukuyama was reluctant to share further details about her life, showing an ambivalence in staying in the United States. She shrouded herself in a thick cardigan while looking around at the empty chairs. It was apparent, the current anxiety she faces as a third wave immigrant today. She mentioned her husband passed away 17 years ago, which made things extremely difficult for her.
“We talked over everything together. Business, family, retirement, our whole lives. Now, I have to think and do everything on my own, whether I like it or not,” she said.
Opening the restaurant six days a week, Fukuyama can end up working twelve-hour days.
“I am the waitress, the cook, I clean, I manage money, everything. It’s not easy,” she said.
The restaurant is only staffed by her and her sushi chef, Min Hyuk. Fukuyama is exhausted running Sushi Kamon, with panicking worries about staying in business.
Though Yelp reviewers say they have felt “welcomed by [Sayaka]’s sweet personality” and admire “her personal touch” with authentic Japanese and Korean dishes, the restaurant frequently has empty chairs.
“Though we work hard together, especially Ms. Fukuyama, it’s tough maintaining a restaurant nowadays,” Min Kyuk said. “Business is unstable. Ms. Fukuyama is a capable, resilient person, but this kind of unknowing can wear on anybody.”
For the most part, she hides it well. When a family of four regulars came in to eat, she wore a welcoming smile and made heartfelt recommendations. There was no sign of weariness or loneliness, as just moments prior she was looking back at old baby photos of her daughter on her husband’s lap.
Her daughter, Marian, now 26, lives in St. Louis as a teacher. Though she wishes she could be closer, they keep in contact through Facebook and texting.
“When Marian’s dad passed away, I wanted to go back, very much. But Marian wanted to stay here. But, now that she’s an adult with her own life, I think about going back.” Fukuyama said.
Marian Fukuyama has always admired her mother’s hard-working ethic but feels just as torn about Fukuyama returning to Korea.
“I do want her here. She’s my mother. But she’s allowed to live her own life. I know the restaurant is hard on her, especially with my dad gone. She’s exhausted, isolated, alone. Her friends are mostly in Korea. Facebook is the only thing she has close to a social life. She keeps joking that she’ll surprise me in St. Louis to move in with me.” Marian Fukuyama said.
“I should return. I should visit my family again,” Sayaka Fukyama said. “I’m not sure what there is for me here anymore, or what can I do. I can’t be in a restaurant for my whole life.”
Marian Fukuyama agreed.
“I wish my mom happiness. She hasn’t felt it in a long time. I owe my life to her coming here. If she hadn’t left Korea, who knows who or where I would be now,” Marian Fukuyama said. “For her sacrifices, she deserves so much more.”