Grace Lim | Oshkosh, WI
“We called it ‘yellow’ hair because we didn’t know a word for blonde. To us, he was just, like, a magnificent being. My dad was a very friendly person. He knew a little bit of English, so he said, ‘Hello,’ and he smiled big. He says, ‘You American?’ The guy says, ‘Yes.’
He turned out to be an American GI. He said ‘Hi’ to us, and he must have told my Dad his name was Jim, but because none of us spoke English, we all thought his name was ‘Hi Jim.’
My dad invited Hi Jim to our village. He said, ‘Come and have dinner with us. My family would love to meet you,’ thinking that that would never happen because it was a long trek. But Hi Jim actually took my dad up on his offer, came up to see us. We had a big feast, and all of the kids were running around saying, ‘Hi Jim! Hi Jim! Hi Jim!’ When the evening was over, Hi Jim said to my dad, ‘If you’re ever in America, look me up.’
My dad came to America shortly after that to get his Master’s degree in divinity in South Carolina. After he graduated, he didn’t have any money. But he remembered the offer from Hi Jim and gave him a call. My dad ended up staying with Hi Jim’s parents in Ohio until he got a job. He worked hard and saved enough money to bring my mom over. Then my mom worked and saved money to bring my brother and me. It took three years to get us all back together. So I grew up in the Midwest, in Ohio, because of Hi Jim. It all began with my father smiling and saying, ‘Hello.’ Just starting a conversation.”
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“Eventually our family moved to Texas, where my father was the pastor at a church in Houston. I majored in journalism at University of Texas and worked for the Austin American Statesman right after college as a crime reporter for two and a half years. Crime reporting beats the idealism right out of you, because in order to have a banner day as a reporter, someone else has to have a really terrible day. You want your stories to be page one, but as a crime reporter that means it’s going to have to be a homicide. It’s going to be a serial killer. All sorts of things that are really, really bad about humanity. So that was really tough on me.
I became a bit disillusioned, so I left reporting for about eight months and went into business and learned that I was not very good at business. Then, a friend saw an ad in the Chicago Tribune that said Star Magazine was looking for reporters. I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This is like the dregs of journalism. It’s a tabloid.’ She said, ‘Just do it for fun.’ That’s exactly what I did. I traveled 30 states that year and went to Mexico and then went to Canada and did a lot of nutty things.
After that, I got into the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. On the first day of school, the teacher went around the class asking people about their background. When they got to me, I said I worked for Star Magazine right before this. I heard a whole bunch of people snicker, like, ‘Oh my God, how could they let her in here?’ I said, ‘Before you make fun of it, you should look at where the publisher of Star Magazine and the editor of National Enquirer graduated from…this very university.’”
“After graduate school I worked for the Miami Herald, and eventually I moved over to People magazine, Miami bureau, because I thought it would be calmer, but it wasn’t.
My husband and I met in college and we had a deal to support each other in our careers. He had followed me to Miami after graduate school, so the plan was that I was going to follow him next.
He was finishing up his PhD in Mathematics. When you have a PhD and you become an academic, you go to where the jobs are. So, he got a job here at UW-Oshkosh. My husband was really worried about me at first. I’d lived in five of the ten most populated cities in the U.S., and then we came to Oshkosh. I have to say, the first couple of years here, I went to New York a lot just to get my big city fix and to hang out with my friends there. But now, I don’t even like going to Appleton. It just seems too far!
I love Oshkosh. Back in Miami, going to Target was a 40-minute ordeal. Our best friends were over an hour away. Trying to do playdates with our kids, it takes months to plan that kind of thing. Here in Oshkosh, I have really lived the idea of a village raising a child. My best friends are within a half mile of me. We raise each other’s kids. We have an amazing community of friends. It’s wonderful.”
“I began teaching as an adjunct professor at UW-Oshkosh shortly after my family arrived here. At first I only taught journalism students, but after several years, I was asked to create a general education course. I knew the class had to have a community engagement component, and I really wanted my students to just get out in the community and talk to people. I think that’s a lost art.
I was really inspired by the success of Humans of New York, so we started Humans of Oshkosh. The idea was that the students enrolled in my class each semester would go out and document stories in Oshkosh, and as a class we would share them online.
I set some parameters for them. I would say, ‘This week we’re going to go out and interview kids under the age of ten with parents’ permission.’ Or, ‘This week go find somebody who works behind the counter, any kind of counter.’ Or, ‘Go find somebody who is a person of color, or somebody who’s a senior, over the age of 70, etc.’
One of my students came back with a great story one day. She had asked a woman, ‘What advice would you give a new couple based on your own marriage?’ The woman responded, ‘Never go to sleep angry. It worked for me, but there was this one time my husband and I were awake for 74 days.’ I thought it was great because it was very short, but it showed this woman had a great sense of humor and there was a nugget of truth in it.
So I asked my student, how did you get this woman to talk to you? She said, ‘Well, I looked around for the oldest person I could see, and I went up to her and I said, ‘Excuse me. Are you over the age of 70?’ I just said, ‘Oh. You didn’t.’ She said, ‘Yeah! And then she started talking to me.’ I said, ‘What’d she say?’ She said, ‘She just laughed a little bit.’ Then I was like, ‘Oh man.’ I realized at that point that my students, some of them, may need a refresher on how best to approach people.
My students are going out there and meeting really neat people.
“For the first ten years of our lives in America, my dad worked as a pastor without getting paid. He earned money as a dishwasher for Denny’s and worked the third shift at a meatpacking factory. My mom worked as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant, oftentimes pulling double shifts for extra money. My brother and I didn’t know any better because we were little kids, and there was always food on the table and a roof over our head and clothes on our back.
It wasn’t until I was in sixth grade when a classmate asked, ‘Where did you get your shirt?’ I was really proud. I said, ‘Goodwill.’ I remember the look on her face when I said Goodwill. It was a look of disdain or something. She said, ‘That’s for poor people.’ I just thought, ‘Wow…’ That was the first time I felt the shame of being poor. Then I realized why my mom always deflected my pleas to go to JCPenney, where my friends shopped. She would just always say, ‘We can find something just like that at Goodwill. Goodwill is closer.’
When the United Way of Oshkosh approached me and asked if I would be willing to help them with their campaign on women and children in poverty through Humans of Oshkosh, of course I had to say yes.
But I was concerned it was going to be a challenge. On the first day of class that semester, I asked my students, ‘What does poor look like to you?’ They all wrote their answers down, and it was pretty harsh. They came back with dirty hair, dirty skin, unmotivated, lack of discipline, drug use. It was just really hard to hear. The students were going to be going out into the community, to the homeless shelter, to the food pantry, to St. Vinny’s…
“As we delved into our project together, my students and I learned that Oshkosh has one of the highest poverty rates in the state—26 percent of people here live below the poverty line. That semester I had 16 students, which meant four of my students, if we were a random selection, would have come from homes who lived below the poverty line.
A couple months into that semester, one of my students came into my office and said, ‘Do you know all the stories we’ve been working on for the poverty project?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘They’re about my mom and me.’ She went on, and told me about how her mom has been living paycheck-to-paycheck. They have gone to St. Vinny’s to get emergency funds to keep their rent going or their electric bill going.
Then she said she wanted to know if she could interview her mother for this project. As much as I love these kind of personal stories, I was feeling a little protective of my student. It’s a public project. It goes on Facebook. It’s in a book. It’s in an exhibit. It’s going to be out there. I said, ‘Are you sure? Does your mom understand this?’ She said, ‘She does. My mom is a good mom. She wants to tell her story.’ I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
So, this brave young woman interviewed her mom and shared her story. And by the end of the semester, three more students shared with the class that they, too, grew up in a home that was on food stamps. Four of my 16 revealed that they came from a circumstance similar to the people that we’d been speaking to for our project.
What I saw that semester, and every semester that I teach this class, is that through producing stories for Humans of Oshkosh, my students really learn how to listen. They begin to question their preconceptions. They develop more empathy. They learn that when people share their stories, they can actually really relate to them even though they may look different or have different life experiences. It’s been really powerful.”
-Grace Lim | Oshkosh, WI