She was in the sixth grade. Holding the pillow up to her face, wrapping it around her head, all she had to do was stop breathing. And so, sitting on the top of the bunk bed she shared with her little brother, in her oversized t-shirt and baggy shorts, she tried to suffocate herself. Life sucks and there is no reason to keep breathing, she thought as she used her pillow and positioned her body in every possible way to help her die. She tried all night long.
“I just couldn’t do it…it just wouldn’t work,” Semy Lee recalls as she sits in a tile-covered coffee shop in Seoul.
She picks up the string to her tea bag, pulls it to the rim of the cup, pinches it, lowers it back down to the steaming water, and repeats the process.
“After that moment, I just lived kind of like a robot.”
Easy-going, free-spirited on the outside, Semy played her part well. A tomboy to the core—wishing to wear nothing but sweatpants and t-shirts, yet cringing when forced to wear floral dresses—she didn’t leave home without her Game Boy. Thought of by everyone as the “innocent girl”, Semy never lacked friends, and pretty much everyone liked her. No one saw the girl on the inside; the one that had to grow up too soon, too fast.
Born in Queens, New York, Semy lived like a “latchkey kid”. Along with her younger brother, Mike, she came home from school to an empty home every day. Both parents always gone, working multiple jobs, left Semy and Mike to fend for themselves. By the time she was seven years old, she made her parents’ coffee and cooked dinner. On the rare days when she would lose the key to the apartment, Semy and Mike would steal snacks from the grocery store for dinner and hang out at the park down the street until their parents came home at 9 p.m.
Living with parents who constantly fought and loved to throw parties, it was common to step on empty bottles of alcohol, porn magazines, and cockroaches.
was common to step on empty bottles of alcohol, porn magazines, and cockroaches. Her family lived as nomads. The longest she ever stayed in an apartment or the room of someone else’s house was two years, the shortest being six months. They moved down the street, across the neighborhood, and then back to the apartment they started in.
“My life was very unstable,” Semy admits. “Even now, I get antsy when I have lived in the same place longer than two years.”
Growing up in a Korean household, it was always about grades. Semy would come home with her report card, hands shaking while she handed the paper to her dad, knowing if she didn’t have all A’s her dad would hit her. The ever lingering threat of being beaten pushed Semy to excel in school.
Then, after her eighth grade year, her nomadic parents moved the family to Virginia, where Semy’s mother’s family lived. The same family who hated her father for eloping with their daughter. Her dad didn’t want to move. But after his wife threatened to leave with or without him, he went.
Her father abused Semy and Mike from the time they started grade school until her sophomore year of high school, when he eventually walked out. After watching him beat their mother in front of them, Mike, now strong enough to interfere, grabbed his father and forced him into a headlock. A short time after that, knowing that his kids were always going to be on their mother’s side because they didn’t understand him, his life choices, or the sacrifices he made to raise them, he left. He took their only car and all of their money. After he gambled away his family’s savings, he left the country and moved back to Korea.
“Talk to your father.” Semy stared at the message written inside the cap of her Jones Cream Soda, disbelief covering her face. She flipped it over and looked at it again. It was the confirmation that she needed.
Semy attended church as a child, but she despised churchgoers. Even at a young age, she witnessed hypocrisy and observed a culture interlaced with two-faced people. She decided to stop going altogether when they wouldn’t let her see the movie Titanic.
“It seems really childish now that I think about it,” Semy laughs. She clears her throat, sipping on her tea, and continues, “I had my ticket and everything, and they literally wouldn’t let me go.”
Even though her parents didn’t go to church, her mom forced Semy to attend, so that she could bring her tithe. After the movie experience, Semy took the money from her mom every Sunday, headed to church, and then turned around to sneak into an arcade or buy magazines that featured Leonardo Di-Caprio and N*Sync.
But that all changed a month into her freshman year at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, better known as Virgina Tech. Semy and her high school best friend, Sky, who were both uninterested in religion, found themselves following friends to Cornerstone Christian Fellowship (CCF). They simply went to make more friends. But instead, they discovered a group of people with a genuine type of faith and a different attitude about life. One of those people was fifth-year senior John-Michael, or “JM” as Semy calls him. He mentored freshmen through weekly Bible studies known as “home group.” For the first time in her life, Semy had a male figure actually looking out for her. Up until this point, she thought her relationship with her dad growing up was normal.
“JM was so fatherly, so kind, and so different from everyone else I had ever met,” she says.
Semy experienced a feeling she never knew. She felt taken care of. She could finally be the child she never got to be growing up. Her love for God grew deeper and deeper. On October 30, 2004 at 10:30 a.m., Pastor Sang baptized Semy in the chilly waters of New River. For two weeks, Semy did not take a shower, even refusing to wash the clothes she was baptized in. She felt so clean. Her childlike faith marked a new zeal for God.
But a year later, she felt a block. She wanted more out of her relationship with God, to delve deeper into her faith, to love more furiously than before...but something stopped her. She desired to share everything with God yet it was always met by an inherent need to protect herself, her thoughts, her dreams. Semy longed to please God but feared she would disappoint Him like all the times she disappointed her dad. For every step she took forward, she feared being pulled three steps back. Frustrated, she asked God, why?
He told her simply, “It’s because you need to forgive your father.”
But Semy refused. She remembers actually saying, “Hell, no.” Yet, she heard the same thing, again and again.
She gave the same response. No. That’s impossible.
Semy stopped at a convenience store on her way to a CCF retreat in March 2005 and reached for her favorite drink, a Jones Cream Soda.
2005 and reached for her favorite drink, a Jones Cream Soda. “Talk to your father.” Semy stared at the message written inside the cap, disbelief covering her face. She flipped it over and looked at it again. She realized that after ignoring God’s advice to forgive her father, He found a more creative way to speak to her. To Semy, the cap to that Jones Cream Soda proved that God was more real than she ever imagined.
During that retreat, God reminded her of the sins she had been forgiven of, the hatred she felt towards church people growing up, the lies she told, the things she stole. Regardless of those wrongs, Semy couldn’t justify the way her dad treated her. Then, she experienced the tangible presence of God for the first time. After two days at the retreat, her heart began softening towards her dad. For the first time, she allowed God to help her utter words of forgiveness.
Immediately afterwards, Semy called her dad for the first time in three years to tell him she forgave him for everything. His response surprised her.
“No, I should be the one asking you for forgiveness,” he said. “I treated you so wrong all these years, and I should be the one saying ‘I am sorry.’”
“I am sorry I couldn’t do anything for you.”
Semy cradled her phone and broke down in tears. For the first time, her dad shared his side of the story. The side she would have never heard if she didn’t take that first step of forgiveness. Her dad opened up and let Semy into the hurt he experienced from her mother’s family, who never wanted him to marry the girl he barely knew to begin with. He opened up about the trials they faced raising two children in a country they had not yet fully made their home. Reminding Semy of having to live with family in Korea while her mom and dad worked to the bone, saving enough money for them to be a family together in America.
together in America. This conversation became the first of many that Semy cherished as she got to know her dad...as if for the first time.
The rest of her college experience proved to be a sweet time in her faith. JM describes her walk with God with that same word, “sweet.”
“I have been blessed every time I have witnessed Semy tap into His sweetness and light up with joy and love from His presence,” he says.
Semy, the child who grew up too soon, too fast, finally allowed herself to be taken care of by her church family, knowing that she could rebuild her relationship with her dad because of her relationship with God, the Father.
The summer before her senior year, Semy traveled to Korea to visit JM, who had built up an orphanage ministry in Seoul for the past several years. She stayed for a month, volunteering at orphanages and falling in love with the children.
While in Korea, she saw her dad for the first time since that first phone call two years prior, thus, establishing a face-to-face relationship.
Semy returned to Virginia to finish school. When God told her to move to Korea after she graduated, she didn’t hesitate. She came to teach English for one year.
Four years later, Semy relaxes in the booth—still sipping on her tea—ticking off her three C’s.
“Commitment, confidence, and my calling…that is what God has shown me here in Korea,” she says. Semy smiles as she realizes they all start with C’s, the teacher in her strikes again. “I had no idea I wanted to be a teacher.”
Semy graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in Human Nutrition, Food, and Exercise. She never gave a thought to becoming a teacher, until she moved to Korea. Getting her Master in Education through Simpson University while living in Seoul opened her eyes to the different education systems in the world and made her realize that Korea needs to change.
while living in Seoul opened her eyes to the different education systems in the world and made her realize that Korea needs to change.
Throughout her childhood, Semy feared education the most. Now, God has turned that fear into her passion. Semy wakes up thinking, “Yes! I am going to work,” arriving up to two hours early many mornings. Prepping for her classes brings her joy. By lunchtime, when her co-workers are wiped out, Semy bounces around the cafeteria. Students beg to be in her after-school classes. They are drawn to her fun, genuine spirit.
“I love kids,” Semy states simply. “Seeing a child smile will brighten up my day, period.”
Growing up with her brother, Semy never did anything for Mike; she made him do everything with her.
“If we were stealing food, we did it together,” she says. “If we were cooking dinner, we did it together.”
Without realizing it, she has mirrored this in her classroom. Instead of telling her students what to do, she does it with them. Working alongside each child, Semy emphasizes that making mistakes is okay, that not knowing everything is okay.
When Sky first met Semy back in high school, she thought she acted too much like an adult. That she was too mature for her age. Sky remembers constantly thinking, “What is wrong with her?” Talking about Semy now, though, she feels a deep connection towards the friend she grew alongside with in her faith.
“I admire that Semy knows how to do things her way, she knows how to be herself with God…how to have fun,” Sky says.
“She doesn’t put God in a box.”
The little girl forced to grow up too fast, who thought “life sucked” and lived like a robot, she’s gone. In her place is a grown woman with a childlike spirit who never wants to stop breathing and now only uses her pillow for a good night’s rest...that, and pillow fights.
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