An Immigrant’s Tale

Nam Joo Hyun came to America looking for a better life.  He found it at a karaoke bar.

By Cho Park

“What would you want to do with a regular guy like me?”

Nam Joo Hyun looks up from wiping the counter, a quizzical look on his face. He seems genuinely surprised, all five-foot-six inches of him, that anyone would be interested in him. He hides behind the counter with an unassuming stance, seemingly already half-apologetic for daring to take up so much space.

The entrance to Rodeo, the karaoke-bar in Upper Darby that Nam owns, is small and unassuming like himself, and largely overshadowed by the flashy lights of the Korean grocery H-mart next door. Yet it is one of the most popular destinations for the

Nam Joo Hyun at Rodeo

Korean community, with many students choosing to end a night of drunken debauchery singing soulfully in one of Rodeo’s many rooms.

How Nam got to own one of the most popular nightspots, in spite of close competition from neighboring bars, is a question he often asks as well. 

Nam never dared to take up much space, in fear of being noticed in a world where it was much easier to live invisibly. Originally from Mapo-gu, Seoul, his father died when he was 18, just as Nam was heading towards mandatory military service that arose from the ongoing North and South Korea conflict.

“When I re-entered civilian life, my life was in the pits,” Nam recalled, his soft voice belying the dark, leathery look of his face. “My mother was selling cabbages at the local flea market, and there wasn’t enough money to send me to college, if I had even wanted that. I had to start working right away.”

He bounced from job to job, until he settled for assembling sewing machines at a nearby factory. Even then, life was difficult. He often worked from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., and earned only $80 a month.

“I was barely getting by… The other older workers kept telling me to get out as fast as I can; this work was dangerous, as their severed fingers and hands showed me,” he said. “But how could I when there were no other opportunities?”

He finally got his chance. When his sister married an American soldier and moved to New Jersey, she invited him to visit their home in the States. Nam decided to make the move permanent.

“This was the only opportunity that I could see… I saved up for months and finally earned enough to buy my plane ticket,” Nam said. “I’ve never been back since.”

The difference in pace between Korean life and American life was vast. At first, it bewildered Nam. Having worked 16-hour shifts in Korea, it was odd to only work eight and still receive almost double the pay. Even though he was still doing manual labor – moving around heavy crates and boxes at warehouses – he was happy because he could actually see “a future in sight.”

He finally got his big break when a friend he had made through the small Korean community in New Jersey made an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“He knew me from the day I got here, and he knew how hard I worked… He offered to sell me his karaoke bar for only $2,000, not even a fraction of its worth, as a sort of “I’ll pay you back someday” sort of deal… It was everything I had saved for six years, but it was worth it,” he said.

A lot has changed in the 18 years he became the owner of that karaoke bar. 

Nam got married, a luxury he didn’t think was possible until he became the owner of his own karaoke-bar. He had four children, with a pair of twins at the last minute surprising him and his wife – “I had two boys and wanted a girl. Thank God there was one in the pair of twins.”

After paying off his debts, something that took another 10 years, he traded his first karaoke bar for Rodeo – a somewhere bigger and grander bar that was right next door. It operates on a unique system, where customers can rent rooms that vary according to their party size, accommodating four to 40 people. Once in the rooms, the customers can order beverages and the liquor of their choice, and a waiter delivers it to them. Although there are similar places nearby, it is puzzling why Rodeo has a steady stream of customers while the other karaoke-bars remain dark and quiet.

Nam believes that it’s the customer service.

“The customers are grateful; I get the same ones back every year, with old ones always bringing in new ones. They probably sense that I want to do the best for them, so they want to do the best for me,” Nam says, as he relaxes into a cheeky smile and rubs his small hands in ill-concealed glee. “How come I haven’t seen you around before? You should definitely come back with more of your friends.”

Maybe it’s good customer service, or maybe it’s being business savvy in a close-knit community; whatever the case, Nam knows that success doesn’t come lightly.

“I’ve been open every day for 18 years, no matter what has happened. Swing by and I’ll be sure to treat you and your friends very well,” Nam says.