By Janice Nesamani
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Seattle Museum of Flight provided the perfect backdrop to lift off into the world of Soyeon Yi. South Korea’s first astronaut, who happens to be a woman, has an energy about her that’s hard to contain. Perhaps, that’s what launched her from Gwangju, South Korea into outer space. Yi has now traded the fame she enjoyed in South Korea for a quiet life in Puyallup with her husband.
“The place I grew up in is very similar to Puyallup. We lived between the farming province and a large metropolitan city. I am the first generation of my family to have studied past high school. My mother is from a farming family and attended primary school. Then, if a woman could read, write, and run the washing machine without breaking anything, it was enough to be a housewife. My father went to high school, but couldn’t afford to go to college and had to take up a job to support the family. He worked as a banker. My parents could not teach me, but they definitely inspired me,” Yi said, giving us a glimpse of the childhood that inspired her to choose her career.
The first engineer Yi encountered was her father. “He worked as a banker, but had the traits of an engineer. At home, he built our sewage system, the boiler and pipe system under our floor that kept us warm, and repaired our doorbell and my bicycle. During these tasks, I was his No. 1 assistant. It didn’t have to do with the fact that I was a girl or boy, it was because I was the only one to help him. I learnt the names of tools because he would ask me to bring him his screwdriver or pliers. I learnt terminology and basic mechanics from my father,” she explained.
Yi’s idea of being involved in the mechanical field was born when she realized as a 7-year-old that not everyone’s father could do the things her father could. “When a friend of mine moved out of her house for three days so a technician could fix their boiler, I asked my mum why her father couldn’t fix it. My mother told me that not everyone could do what my father does. That’s when I realized my father was incredible and this was something I could do. So, I started to try and fix things myself and my father would guide me. It was fun,” she said.
Yi recounts playing with Lego blocks as a child. Her blocks came with no instructions — allowing her the freedom to imagine and construct whatever structures she could dream up. This childhood, she believes, laid the foundation for her career as an engineer and scientist. “It’s funny. My mother once apologized to me for making me do extra work compared to other kids and not helping me focus on my studies. I don’t think she had anything to be sorry about. I feel grateful that my parents gave me the opportunity to pursue my passion. Unlike my father, I could follow my heart and take up the career that I loved,” Yi said.
Have an attitude of gratitude
Yi feels that gratitude is a great starting point for someone to change their lives. “Try and find something you are grateful for. Make it a habit. When you take a ferry from Seattle, be grateful — it leads you to your next step, curiosity. Wonder how it works. It could lead you to want to build or design a ferry yourself. Be grateful for the captain of the ferry, wonder what it takes to do his job. Ask questions about everything and try to find the answers, but the start is being grateful.”
Picking a major
This curiosity is what pushed Soyeon to apply and get selected for the gifted program in Gwangju Science High School. From there, she made it to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), where she was one of four women in the mechanical engineering course.
Yi said, “It was not trendy for women to pursue an engineering program. A lot of seniors said this was not something a woman could do, but I wanted to prove them wrong. I was very careful while considering my major. Even though my mother urged me to pick something female-friendly, I picked mechanical engineering because I love creating dynamic things. It was difficult, but I had a goal and passion. It’s like setting your sights on Mt. Everest after Mt. Rainier. That’s my motivation!”
Yi also chose the course because of her need to be active. “I was not sure if I could sit at a desk solving an equation all day. In engineering, you plan and then go to the lab, run around, and make things happen. Her ‘active lifestyle’ presented a little problem for Yi. Singing in a rock band, in a choir, at weddings, and even taking up a part-time job as a stylist was not looked upon as something good. Her stress buster was going for midnight runs after finishing lab work. She’d go to her dorm, change, and run around campus to clear her mind!
“In Asian countries, if you do something other than your major, everyone thinks you are distracted. I was supposed to be focused on my major and PhD. One shouldn’t even date. So I would do these activities on the sly. I found it presented a welcome break and helped me space out a little. I don’t think my adviser liked me doing these things, he wanted me to focus on my doctorate,” she said.
Next week, the reality-TV like path to space.
Janice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.