BY ERIN SULLIVAN
Times Staff Writer
TAMPA — Kimi Springsteen asks the waitress if she's new, because she knows all of the other servers at Thai Thani in Channelside, one of her regular restaurants. She also knows the managers. Springsteen, the vivacious Asian-American affairs liaison for Hillsborough County, seems to know everyone, everywhere, from former governors to immigrants struggling to navigate this new country.
"I love people," she said.
She and her husband, Jim, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, have two sons and six grandchildren. She has lived in Tampa since the late 1970s and founded the Asian-American Coalition of Florida in 1982. The nonprofit promotes the culture of Asian ethnic groups and hosts Asia Fest each year, which will have it's 30th celebration on Saturday.
She has held the Asian-American liaison post with the county since 1994 and continues working nights and weekends out in the Asian community, sometimes hitting events, sometimes acting as a social worker for those who need help. One of the many inspiring things about this steadfast, passionate woman is her age, of which she is proud.
"How old are you?" the Tampa Bay Times asked.
"Seventy seven," she said.
This fact is difficult to believe.
"How is that possible?"
Springsteen laughed. She is petite and perfectly put together, her short, dark hair and jewelry and outfit just so, her skin beautiful. She is healthy and strong.
"You look decades and decades younger. What is your secret?"
"I think it's actually my genes and attitude of life," Springsteen said. "I always have been brought up to be happy and good to people. And positive thinking. … If your attitude is negative, it can affect you physically."
She is anything but negative. She is warm and genuine, hugging strangers without hesitation. She asked for this interview with Times to take place over food. She said a relaxing meeting over meals is a tradition of her homeland, Korea, which she's spent more than 50 years trying to educate people about. As a college student in Texas in the early 1960s, she was shocked that all anyone knew about Korea were images of war refugees. She couldn't find anything in the library of the country's history.
"The people were sweet," she said. "But they all thought I came from some uncivilized country. I was very hurt."
Springsteen grew up as one of seven children in a privileged family in Seoul. When the Communists of North Korea invaded South Korea, Springsteen's family became refugees, walking for months until they found a camp where they could stay, the youngest her 5-year-old sister and the eldest her grandfather, who was in his 80s. She was raised with the philosophy of Confucianism, which she describes as being based on high ethics, morals, loyalty and humbleness. She was raised to give to others, which she's devoted her life to doing. But she still has a difficult time accepting anything in return or asking for something. As they passed through villages, she tried to beg for food, but she couldn't. She was so ashamed. But, still, she remembered having hope.
"When war broke out, we were very patient and calm, that's the way we were brought up," she said. "Of course it was a nightmare. We didn't know where our next meal was coming from. We didn't know where we were going to sleep that night. And we were just walking to try to get away from Communism ...
"But we also felt secure because my father, my grandfather, they always said, 'Everyone is facing this. It's temporary. We just have to be patient and we will be fine.' Mentally, we were okay. But we were physically suffering. We were so hungry."
At this, she takes a large bite of her Pad Thai, a noodle dish.
"I love food!" said Springsteen, whose husband of 48 years once sincerely asked her if she had a tapeworm, because she could eat and eat and not gain weight.
"I didn't know what hunger meant," she said of the war.
She said she appreciates her life, the bad and the good. After the war, she went to college in the states and then returned to Korea. There she met her future husband, who was stationed outside of Seoul. They married and were stationed throughout America and Korea before ending up at MacDill Air Force Base. She has visited Korea every year and is worried about the increasing threats from North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-un.
"I am concerned," she said. "They are so unpredictable. … It's like children with matches."
But she said people there generally are not panicked. A few years ago, when another threat came from the North, she called her brother, who has now passed away. She has two sisters living.
"He laughed," she said. "He said, 'We don't want to give them the satisfaction (of being scared) and we will have a normal life. We are going to go on. They have been doing this for decades. They are not going to ruin our lives. We are going to enjoy our lives.'"
She said she thinks American society has become more understanding of different cultures, but there are still many misconceptions which she works to ebb.
"We still have a long way to go," she said.
She has been widely recognized for her work, but said her most prized award is from the Florida Korean War Veterans Association for her work with veterans. She said she wouldn't be working so hard in this role if she wasn't passionate about it.
"I enjoy this job," she said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3405.