Be willing to assimilate. If you are an immigrant to the U.S., whatever your reasons for coming to this country may be, it’s important to embrace the new reality and adopt a new attitude. Although it was my parents’ decision to immigrate to the U.S., and not my own, I decided that I wasn’t going to live as a “forever-foreigner.” I resolved that I would assimilate to the American culture, despite the fact that it proved to be a very long, painfully difficult process. For me, it started with picking out my American name, “Susie,” and making a commitment to learn to speak English. For me, this meant choosing to attend a college hours away from home, which provided a total immersion in the English language. On the campus of the elite college I attended, I spoke very limited English. Also, I felt completely out of place amongst a predominantly white student body, most of whom came from very privileged backgrounds. This period of “identity crisis” continued for approximately 20 years of my life. Ultimately, you need to get comfortable with yourself and embrace your new identity as a citizen of your adopted country. Once you achieve your dream, ideally you will want to discover something larger than yourself and a way to give back to your society. I believe that giving back is what gives meaning to your life.
As part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Susie Sharpe. She is a Yale-trained physician who has had a fulfilling career as an internist. She is also an award-winning artist who has had numerous exhibits, and who has been selected to show her art at three international art fairs in Europe this year. Below you will discover her fascinating life story, that is sure to inspire you.
Dr. Sharpe is multi-talented and creative individual, whose passion for art is now being recognized internationally, following a long career as a physician — work she still continues, caring for patients in Springfield, Missouri, including those affected by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Having put her art aside for many years as she attended medical school and devoted herself to the demands of working in the medical field, she began exhibiting her artwork several years ago at galleries in Missouri — and her paintings will be featured in upcoming art fairs in Paris, Brussels and Luxembourg later this year.
Dr. Sharpe says that the freedom and creativity that goes into the creation of a painting offers a welcome contrast to the discipline and precision required for her work with patients. Colorful and expressive, her paintings are inspired by nature, her passion for music, and several other themes.
At this pivotal time in her career, Dr. Sharpe’s artwork is now available to be seen and appreciated by art lovers on an international level, and she looks forward to connecting with more collectors and galleries in the years to come.
Her lifelong dream of becoming a professional artist is now coming to fruition, thanks to her tireless effort and passionate desire to connect with others through this medium.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Seoul, Korea just eight years after the Korean War ended. As South Korea was completely wiped out during the war, I saw a lot of poverty while growing up. My parents eventually pulled themselves out of poverty through their education. My father became a highly successful pharmaceutical company executive, and my mother became a nationally known educator. In our family, they stressed the importance of education and hard work to me and my two younger brothers. Although the educational opportunities available to girls at that time were limited, my mother’s advice to me was, “Don’t get married. Instead, have a successful career and maintain your freedom.” At that time, this was a radical message in a culture in which women had virtually no opportunities to work outside the home.
I was an exceptionally good student in numerous academic subjects, but music and art were my true talents. I started studying the piano when I was only seven years old, and I won several top national awards in art. My dream was to study abroad in Paris during college, and then return to Korea one day to become an artist and art professor.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us a story?
In 1977, when I was a high school sophomore, my parents decided to immigrate to the U.S. South Korea was struggling to get out of third world country status, and there were constant threats of another invasion from North Korea. My parents knew almost nothing about America other than what they saw in a few American movies; America looked like a paradise on earth. It was almost impossible for families and individuals to leave Korea and immigrate to the U.S., so when my parents saw their chance, they moved quickly to seize this opportunity.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
While we were in South Korea, the U.S. seemed like paradise, but when we arrived in 1977, we found that the reality was shockingly different from what we expected. The fact my mother was the only member of the family who spoke any English made life extremely difficult. I was bullied and routinely called, “Stupid Chinese.” I cried in school almost every day. In the U.S., my parents were unable to continue the professions they held in Korea, and they lost their status and income. Life was traumatic enough for me, at the age of sixteen, but it was a painful and extremely humiliating experience for my 53-year-old father, who had to resort to manual labor to support the family.
When my father eventually opened up a small grocery store, he was robbed at gunpoint on a regular basis for years to come, and he was never able to sell the store.
It didn’t take long to realize that the dream I held as a young girl in South Korea of pursuing a career as a professional artist was unlikely to provide an escape from the hard life I was experiencing in the U.S. Instead, it became clear that I was likely to find myself a starving artist, without anyone to rely on. I realized that it was essential to find a career that would allow me to support myself. Also, I believed that if I became very successful in my career, I would experience less discrimination. With that in mind, combined with my desire to help others, I decided I would become a physician — but this appeared to be such an impossible, ridiculous dream that I couldn’t tell anyone about it, not even my own family.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
I didn’t really have any person helping me, but my Christian faith offered hope and comfort. Every night, I desperately cried out to God to help me to achieve my dream of becoming a doctor, one day. Some people take action because of inspiration, but for me, I took action out of desperation. I hated my inability to understand or communicate with anyone in the U.S. and felt horrible about being treated like “nobody.” I hated poverty, and I hated racism. I set two goals, to learn English and to become a physician. I was determined to achieve these goals, no matter what.
For the next 20 years, I buried myself in books, graduated from Wesleyan University with a B.A. in Chemistry, and then graduated from Yale Medical School with an M.D., all while learning English and working several jobs to pay for my education. After my graduation, I spent the next three grueling years immersed in a residency program at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.
So how are things going today?
For more than 20 years, I’ve had a very successful career as an internal medicine physician, and found great joy in raising two wonderful, gifted children. While my career in medicine has been a source of great satisfaction and fulfillment, I’ve never given up my childhood dream of becoming an artist one day.
Despite a demanding schedule as a physician and mother, I have still managed to study art whenever I could. Painting whenever my schedule allowed, I began to have great success as an artist. My paintings have been featured in numerous exhibits and received many awards, all while I have maintained my busy medical practice. My artwork has also received widespread attention and appreciation online, and this year my work will be featured in international art fairs in Paris, Brussels and Luxembourg.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My patients come to me not only with their medical conditions (including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Covid-19 and chronic pain) but also with many psychological issues (including profound depression, suicidal thoughts, addiction, grief and life crisis). I believe I am a much more compassionate physician because of the hardships I have experienced when I first came to the U.S. I know what it’s like to feel that death appears to be less painful than life, what it’s like to go hungry, and to feel that one does not belong anywhere. When my patients come to me and tell me how they are suffering, I offer them my advice from a place of compassion, empathy and humility. I’ve been humbled by their trust in me and by their extraordinary praise for my work as their physician. After all these years, I have cared for tens of thousands of patients and saved countless lives. I have found great fulfillment in devoting myself — around the clock, almost every day — to providing the best possible care for each of them them. It’s not unusual for someone to approach me on the street — and even in church — to express their gratitude for the way I cared for them as their physician, years earlier. I feel grateful and privileged to have served and made a difference in the lives of so many people. In addition, I am grateful to have had my work recognized, as a recipient of the Mercy Patient Satisfaction Excellence Award.
I bring the same level of intense dedication to my work as an artist as I do to my work in the field of medicine. As a physician, I witness a lot of human suffering, and I had been asked by several patients to help them die to end their suffering. In some ways, it appears there is no shortage of suffering around us. Fortunately, there is also plenty of beauty around us, if we actively seek it out. Therefore, I want to call attention to qualities of joy, beauty, healing, harmony and optimism through my art. The colors I like to use in my paintings are very vibrant and passionate. My art is anything but subtle, because I would like to experience life to the fullest. Each day we are given is a precious gift, and we have no guarantee of tomorrow. Those who have seen my artwork describe it with many wonderful and effusive adjectives — “Amazing!”, “Healing!”, “Absolutely beautiful!”, “Stunning!”, “Brings joy”, “Love your work!”, “Vibrant!”, “Passionate!”, “So colorful!”, “Brightens my day!”, “Such energy”, and “I see happiness, serenity and excellence!”
As I seek to make a difference in the world for those who are suffering, over the past two decades, I have supported many organizations that help impoverished children, refugees, orphans and victims of domestic abuse. I am also planning to do more work to help others, particularly to help girls in impoverished countries have access to education.
You have firsthand experience with the U.S. immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
First, I would improve the efficiency of the U.S. immigration system. Currently, the process takes too long. My family was forced to wait in suspense for six long years before being granted permission to enter the U.S. Second, there should be a greater level of transparency as each application is processed. Third, I would encourage the implementation of an immigration system based on merit, making it less difficult for people with higher education and skills to come to the U.S.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American Dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Have a goal and be clear on WHY you want to achieve it. In my case, my two compelling goals were to learn to speak English and to become a physician. I was propelled to achieve these goals because of the hardships my family and I endured. I resolved that I was not going to accept the racism, poverty and marginalized status that I encountered here in the U.S.
- Determination and discipline. If your “Why” is absolutely compelling, you will find the strength to push yourself through, no matter how high the mountains in your way may be. I exercised determination and discipline in my own life by tape-recording all the lectures during my pre-med studies, because I couldn’t understand the lectures. It meant sacrificing everything, to get into and then get though medical school and beyond. It meant choosing to major in Chemistry simply because it required the least amount of English, compared to other subjects, although I actually had no interest in Chemistry. It also meant holding multiple jobs at once, to put myself through college and medical school because my parents couldn’t pay for any part of my education.
- Believe in yourself even when others think your dream is completely out of reach. Even when you can’t imagine mentioning your dream to anyone else, protect your dream and keep it alive despite all the obstacles.
- Remember that education or training is your ticket to upward mobility. No matter what happens, no one can take the knowledge and skill that you gain from education and training away from you. If you have to choose “Plan B” because of unexpected challenges, you will still prevail. When I arrived in the U.S. unable to speak English, I had to make practical choices. Studying anything in the arts would have been a risky luxury but I always kept my “Plan A” — to become an artist — in mind. I always knew that this is my true identity, and I always knew that I would find a way to make it happen. In my case, my decision to pursue my “Plan B” — a career in medicine — worked out wonderfully. Art has always been in my DNA, however, and in my soul. I always knew that I had to find a way to be both a doctor and an artist, although the “detour” took to achieve this goal took much longer than I ever expected.
- Be willing to assimilate. If you are an immigrant to the U.S., whatever your reasons for coming to this country may be, it’s important to embrace the new reality and adopt a new attitude. Although it was my parents’ decision to immigrate to the U.S., and not my own, I decided that I wasn’t going to live as a “forever-foreigner.” I resolved that I would assimilate to the American culture, despite the fact that it proved to be a very long, painfully difficult process. For me, it started with picking out my American name, “Susie,” and making a commitment to learn to speak English. For me, this meant choosing to attend a college hours away from home, which provided a total immersion in the English language. On the campus of the elite college I attended, I spoke very limited English. Also, I felt completely out of place amongst a predominantly white student body, most of whom came from very privileged backgrounds. This period of “identity crisis” continued for approximately 20 years of my life. Ultimately, you need to get comfortable with yourself and embrace your new identity as a citizen of your adopted country. Once you achieve your dream, ideally you will want to discover something larger than yourself and a way to give back to your society. I believe that giving back is what gives meaning to your life.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
- Universities in the U.S. still attract some of the brightest minds from all over the world. Many of these students then end up staying in the U.S., after they finish their study. For example, in 2017, 81% of the graduate students in engineering programs and 79% of the graduate students in computer science programs in the U.S. were international students. There’s almost no other country that attracts that kind of brain power.
- The U.S. is still a land of opportunity, like no other. This is a country where a child of a single mother on Food Stamps can grow up to be a president of the country. Barack Obama achieved that dream. This is also a country where someone lacking a college education can become a CEO of a highly successful company.
- Americans have always been generous. When a good cause receives media attention, people rally together to support others in need. There are countless examples of this kind of generosity, this force for good. The critical factor in mobilizing this level of support is getting media attention. If media or social media covers a child or a family in desperate need of help, people open their wallets to provide the needed support.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. ☺
Without any hesitation, I would say I would love to meet with Tony Robbins. He has mastered the formulas for success and personal growth, and he has empowered more than 50 million people through his books, seminars and videos. I’ve been studying and applying Tony’s programs for the past two decades, and I attribute much of my success to what I’ve learned from him. What I’ve learned from Tony has been life changing for me and for millions of others around the globe. I would love to meet Tony Robbins in person, to say “Thank you.”
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
I can be found on Facebook and Instagram — @SusieSharpeArt
And people can see my artwork and contact me through my website –
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!