American composer George Gershwin made his name known to the world with his symphonic poem “An American in Paris” in 1928.
It’s a vibrant musical sketch of the French capital — with Gothic cathedrals, historic monuments and architecture, and the calm and broad Seine flowing through the city.
While listening to Gershwin’s most loved composition you can easily imagine the young American composer strolling along wide boulevards lined with well-groomed trees, elegant shops, perfumeries and tall sculptures guarding the entrance of parks and public buildings.
While my husband and I were vacationing in France, particularly in Paris the last two weeks, I often thought about Gershwin and what he might have seen in Paris 90 years ago. In the mid-1960s, I was a young penniless music student in Paris for two years, which eventually landed me a job in the Kansas City Philharmonic, and I moved here with a cello and a suitcase in the fall of 1966.
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But in Paris nearly 50 years later, I was a stranger again. The shops I had passed many times were still there, but whenever I looked at my reflection in a window, instead of my young face, an old woman’s looked straight at me, asking what happened to me. The cruelty of life!
Today, many young Asians seem to live in or visit Paris, including South Koreans, but back in the 1960s, I didn’t see too many. I only associated with about 50 Korean students, both men and women, including my brother John, who was a seminarian preparing for his ordination to priesthood at the time. On a Sunday each month we attended Mass at a small church in the Latin Quarter where a Korean priest served as a guest associate pastor. Afterward, we had lunch together and shared our longing for home and exchanged the latest news.
There was a sense of unity among us. Most of the students returned to Korea after completing their studies in their particular fields and contributed to the newly developing Korea, but a handful went to North Korea through East Berlin and we never heard of them again.
Though Paris served me as a transitional place between my native home in Korea and my new home in America, Kansas City is where my heart is. In fact, Oct. 1 was my 48th anniversary of my grand discovery of America.
My first days in Kansas City were not a smooth sail. On the first day of the orchestral rehearsal a week after my arrival in Kansas City, I learned in dismay that the Philharmonic was on strike. My downtown apartment not only had roaches but wasn’t a safe place for anyone. Before my two months in America were over, the resident who lived right above my apartment was fatally shot by his girlfriend.
I am glad, however, that I’ve seen major changes in Kansas City while I’ve lived here. The downtown area had a major facelift in the 1980s, and the Power & Light District with modern hotels and restaurants have now moved in. The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is one of the jewels of downtown Kansas City.
What would George Gershwin see in Kansas City today if he visited?
Retired musician and freelance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.