I worked at Horton Plaza for about a year and I didn’t work again until James and I decided to start our own business. This was in 1988. We didn't have very much money saved up so we borrowed money from my father-in-law and some other people. We wanted to open up a restaurant inside of a food court at first but we couldn’t because restaurants are open on Sundays. My father-in-law told us that we shouldn’t do that because the Bible says to rest on Sundays. So we thought about that and realized that most dry cleaners are closed on Sundays so we decided to do that.
There was an elder at our church who owned two dry cleaners. He was about to retire so he sold the cleaners to us. It was a mistake to buy it.
At first we made a lot of money. After just a few years we had enough money to put a down payment on a house. It was a big house in a new area. It was safe and spacious. We did the landscaping ourselves. I planted trees, plants, and flowers all over our front yard and backyard. I had always wanted a large backyard to grow my plants. There, they had a lot of space to grow. It was nice to own something and not have to pay rent.
We each worked about 90 hours a week and never took a vacation; our only breaks were on Sundays. We worked so hard that we never got to see our daughters. We would leave early in the morning around 5 or 6 a.m. before they were up and come home after they went to bed, around 10 or 11 p.m.
The girls would ride the bus home from school and take care of themselves until bedtime. It’s so sad. They would make their lunch to take to school. They didn’t have time to make sandwiches in the morning so they would just take a bag of chips and a juice box. When they would come home they would make ramen or sandwiches. I eventually taught the girls how to make soo jeh bee, a simple Korean soup that I made for my brothers and sisters when I was a girl in Korea. Christen and Amy would sit in front of the TV and knead the flour for the soup at the same time. I didn’t want my girls to cook too much because I grew up taking care of my brothers and sister at such a young age. I didn’t want them to cook or clean like I did when I was a little girl. Amy was in fourth grade then and still very little. She had to pull herself on top of the counter so she could reach the stove and the microwave. One time she tried to cook and her hair caught on fire!
The long hours we put in at work got to be too much for our family. My husband said that we needed to spend more time with our daughters, even if it was only eating dinner together. So after our store closed at night, James would drive home, pick up our daughters and bring them back to the cleaners. The four of us would eat out as a family. Sometimes we would eat at this fancy Chinese restaurant called Chin’s but mainly we ate at Kentucky Fried Chicken or got Mexican food. After dinner our family would come back to the cleaners. My daughters would work on their homework or read and they'd help us with our work. We spread out sleeping bags on the counters and floors so they could sleep if we stayed there late.
When Christen and Amy were younger, on the weekends or their school vacation they'd come to work with us, or we would drop them off at a library near our work and they would stay there and read books for the entire day. They never complained. After Christen was in sixth grade she would run the small agent store for us. Amy would play in the back and keep her sister company. It was just those two little girls at a store all by themselves. These are sad memories for me but my daughters say they talk of those times with happiness.
At that time I had a lot of stress. My English wasn’t perfect so it was challenging for me to talk to the customers. Sometimes they would complain and I couldn’t explain everything in English. It was hard. I would think, “We started this business for nothing. It was a mistake.” Also some customers would accuse us of ruining their clothes and they would sue us. We would clean something according to the label but the clothes would get ruined. It wasn’t our fault; it was the manufacturer’s fault. Still sometimes we had to pay $300 for one piece of clothing. They would yell at me and tell me to go back to my own country. I always thought that having another business wouldn’t be so stressful.
Even though it was hard to run the cleaners, there were good times too. Some of our customers were so good to me. The elderly customers would tell me how sweet I was. They liked how I smiled a lot. They would say, “Song, you're such a nice girl.” Some of the customers would give us gifts on Christmas and always speak very kindly to us. Sometimes the men would ask me to go golfing with them or go on a date! I would have to tell them I was married and had two daughters. The men would be shocked and embarrassed.
Aside from the nice customers we had two employees, Lola and Margarita who helped make our time at the cleaners less stressful. They didn't speak very much English so they would teach us Spanish words and we'd speak to each other broken English. All of us would laugh at the way we sounded. They were good employees. My husband and I believe you have to treat your employees well so they feel that it is their business too. They worked so hard. All day long, sweat would drip from their foreheads and I would think, they are such good people—they work that hard only for their children. I had a lot of respect for them.