Ajumma Susan: The Stilt Walker
Ajumma Susan Kim may have a very common name, but there’s nothing ordinary about this Korea-born mother of two. When she’s not hip hoppin’ at San Diego’s Culture Shock, she’s traveling around for her most unusual career as a stilt performer (and yes, that IS a thing).
Tell Us About Yourself
First and foremost, I am a mother. That also makes me a cook, a chauffeur, a nurse, and an ATM. Secondly, I work as a stilt walker. That also makes me an artist, an athlete, a performer, and a traveler. (More on this later).
I was born in Korea and came to the US when I was three. When I started school at five, I couldn't speak any English, and I remember struggling a lot because of that. It was then that I began speaking only English even though my parents continued speaking to me in Korean. That explains why my Korean is equivalent to that of a five-year-old.
Despite that, I grew up doing all the things that were expected of me. I played piano and cello, I studied hard and earned good grades, and I went to a good college on a pre-law track. After college, I decided to take a break from studying to get some work experience before I went back to school. That's when my life took a detour.
I found out I was pregnant after the baby’s daddy and I already decided it wasn't working out between us. Then when my own father found out, he disowned me after I insisted on keeping it. So there I was - young, alone, and facing the prospect of being a single mother with no support from my family. That was my reality for eight months, and that time completely changed my priorities and my way of seeing the world. Fortunately, by the time of my son's birth, both his father and my own father had come to their senses, and my son (and later his sister) was raised with both parents in the home, and visited his grandparents regularly.
Today, my two children, ages 16 and 18, are the center of my world. Every minute with them is a privilege and a responsibility. That doesn't necessarily mean that I hover over them (at least I hope not), but I do spend as much time with them as they let me. The way I see it, there is a limited amount of time that they will be "mine", and I want to make the most of it.
Oh, and that detour that I mentioned? That also led to me becoming a stilt walker. "A what?? A stilt walker...you know, those people who walk around with things strapped to their legs to make them really tall?” I do that for work.
I was lucky enough to be able to be a stay-at-home mom for seven years. It was not because my baby daddy made a lot of money, in fact the opposite was true, it was because we valued spending time with our children above other things. So, we learned to keep our expenses low and live within our means. The consequence of that is that when we split up, I had a seven year gap in my resume, and no monetary support from him. Since time and availability for my children were still my priority, I floated around for a while, picking up random jobs that allowed me my freedom (this was long before Uber and Lyft) ...substitute teaching, website editing, graphic design... One day, a friend asked if I would be interested in stilt walking. Sure, I thought, it sounds like fun. I spent a couple months training and practicing before I realized I could actually get paid to do it. "What?? You mean someone will pay me to strap things to my legs to make me really tall and walk around? Okay!!"
Today I place a high value on the avenue of self expression that my work allows me. I am so grateful to have the opportunities that I do. I am naturally shy and was raised to be insecure. I am so self-conscious that being the center of attention is almost painful for me. Stilt walking, and performing, lets me behave as silly and outlandish as I like, while hiding in plain sight.
What does being an Ajumma mean to you?
Being an Ajumma means having the strength and will to do whatever is necessary for the good of your family. I think of my grandmother, who was one of the many refugees fleeing from the north to south during the Korean war. She made that trek with four children in tow, while my grandfather was away fighting. I think of my mother, who worked the same hours as my father, but woke up two hours earlier every day, to do her makeup, make breakfast, and pack lunch. When they got home from work, my dad sat and read the newspaper or watched TV, while she made dinner, cleaned the house, interacted with the kids, and got them ready for bed. You don't do those things without fortitude and spirit, and deep seated sense that your family is your life.
Ajummas are known to have super-human strength and abilities. What is your secret Ajumma power?
Fake it til you make it. I've found that I can do anything if I just proceed like I can. Eventually, the 'faking' becomes the reality. After all, who's to say what the reality actually is?
What is one of the biggest challenges you've overcome?
One of the biggest challenges that I've overcome in my life has been to be okay with not meeting the expectations of my parents and my culture.
Having a circus-performing daughter who is a single mom out of wedlock is hardly something any Korean parent would boast about. But as I've grown older and wiser, I've also become more confident in my identity and have no shame for who I am and what I love to do.
Sage Ajumma advice? (words you live by?)
Learn to let go. This applies to every aspect of life. Whether it's anger, or fear, or a grudge; whether it's self-consciousness, a belief, or an expectation; whether it's your firstborn, or your baby, learn to let go. Holding on to negativity creates conflict; holding on to an idea hinders creativity; and holding on to your children when it's time to let them go only makes them more desperate to leave.
Appreciate your life, appreciate your health, appreciate your loved ones and MAKE SURE THEY KNOW IT.
Finally, what is your guilty pleasure?
I feel guilty that I have so many! My guilty pleasures are probably everything I tell my kids not to do. "Don't eat too much candy. Don't lay around all day reading your book. Don't binge watch that show. Don't just eat junk food all day." My favorite guilty pleasure is when I spend the whole day with my kids, eating too much candy, reading, watching TV, and eating junk food all day.