This has all the tragic workings of an after school special, but there is no other way to state the beginning of my life. I was found wandering the streets of Pusan at a very young age, between 1.5 to 2 years. A woman found me and took care of me for a few days, but since she had her own children, she wasn’t able to adequately provide for me. I was taken to an orphanage, which I have no recollection, and after this I was placed in a foster home for six months. Then the real journey began, which I don’t remember either, on my flight to the United States. My new family lived in the Midwest, so I grew up with four distinct seasons, and some Midwestern values.
While my newly adopted city (not so new anymore) has nowhere near the population of Pusan back in the 1970s and definitely not now, it provided a safe environment. The debate of nurture versus nature is a good question to ask. While my adoptive parents who I consider my only parents in every sense, I still retain biological DNA from my South Korean roots and the other roots I recently connected to. Without my adoptive parents I surely wouldn’t have survived, but without my biological parents I wouldn’t have been born. I have personality characteristics and traits that can only come from one’s bloodline. I’ve always been my own person trailblazing my own path. I recognize the need to honor those long lost blood relatives who entered my family tree long ago. Influence from others have come from many walks of life, alive and dead, so thank you to all of those involved. You know who you are because I’ve told you.
Over twenty some years ago this guy verbally attacked me and quite viciously because I wrote on a Yahoo forum of how I was against the dog eating custom in South Korea. He swore and carried on from behind his computer how stupid I was for looking down upon South Koreans. This is when I set the record straight for him, as I’m not one to shy away from sticking up for myself. You can guess how the conversation went from there. He never replied back. My strong beliefs in animal rights arise from my biological father. His extremes had lasting effects on me, and led me to the unwavering viewpoint: there is no justification for animal abuse based on someone’s culture.
I went back to South Korea in 1995 with my adoptive mother, as well as a group of Korean adoptees and their parents. As any South Korean who doesn’t speak their native tongue fluently, I relied on guides to drive me to destinations and translators so I could understand what was said. You know how weird it is to visit your birth country and not know the language. I had more than I wanted of South Koreans approaching me thinking I spoke Korean. I got the same thing when I visited K-Town in Los Angeles. While I took a few Korean courses, I have since forgotten it. There has to be a good reason I bought that thick box carrying CDs full of Korean words that’s still sitting on the kitchen table. I’m still holding hope that someday I will return to South Korea to teach English.
I visited the major tourist cities of Seoul, Pusan, Kyongju, and Panmunjeom. The destinations most remembered are the Haeinsa Temple, Olympic Stadium, Seoul Tower, Itaewon Market, and DMZ. I learned a few things along the way. Korean mothers still had to give up their children in order to remarry in the mid-1990’s. The intense level of shame was equal for some of the Korean fathers too. It was safe to say that while South Korea was a beautiful country with beautiful people, there were pockets of it that I wished were less traditional. I admit walking around and being in the majority instead of the minority was one of the greatest emotional feelings. It felt good to see more dark-haired people and only a handful of light-haired people, including one British guy who lived there and my mom. It felt like I was home in a way, but it also felt I only half belonged because I was clearly different.
Because South Korea has values rooted deeply in honoring elders and adhering to familial customs, women are sometimes viewed as lesser than men, children are sometimes viewed as property, and the men sometimes have high demands and pressure placed on their shoulders. My biological father was traditional in every sense. I would offer him the worst father prize in the short amount of time I knew him. Yet, he continues to remain a part of my life, even though it is about the size of a tiny sliver you would find in your foot.
While sitting on the steps of the hotel smoking a cigarette (yes, I was a smoking fool in 1995) in Seoul with another female adoptee, a very insistent older Korean male ushered us inside the hotel. Had I read up on the customs of South Korea, I would have realized I should not have been doing this in the first place. And here I thought I was doing a favor to my long-lost people’s lungs, but no, I guess not. The fact you can still get slapped on the face for smoking in public in front of an elder says a lot about South Korea’s diehard customs. I find it very difficult to accept it is okay to hit a child based on culture. It never seemed right to me. Justify it all you want, but this doesn’t go without consequences.
As I’ve gotten older (funny how time increases speed when you leave your thirties), I’m done thinking about hypothetical possibilities if I stayed in South Korea. I’d probably be unhappy with traditional parents, but would I know any different? I guess I’ll really never know. I’d probably have the same struggles as today, but on a much greater level. Would I have rather had a functional biological family? Yes, but I didn’t get that choice. It was a blessing to go from being alone on the street to where I am now, and although there have been times I question why this all happened in the first place, I’m aware of greatness life has to offer.
I had the privilege of listening and seeing Henry Rollins up close and personal when he spoke about his book, Occupants, at the Annenberg Space for Photography. I had the book signed. I got a picture of us together. I never said one word to him. What an idiot looking in hindsight, but I kept tossing back and forth in my head if I should talk to him about North Korea. Jeez, what an awkward moment. I don’t think I was star struck. Okay, maybe a little bit. How could be such a cool guy I completely respect be so convincing being the white supremacist in Sons of Anarchy? Great acting! I’m certain this also went through my mind. I remained silent and took pictures of my roommate with him.
We both had one thing in common, and that was visiting the Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjeom. As instructed by the tour guide on my visit, we weren’t supposed to make eye contact with the North Korean soldiers. They were far removed from me mentally speaking although physically close, but looking back I wish I had paid a little more attention to the whole experience. The highlight was walking in one of the four Infiltration Tunnels. The South Koreans call them Tunnels of Aggression as they were found entering into South Korea from the North. Our guide disappeared, which I assume he left because he’d seen this hundreds of times, leaving us in the semi-dark to absorb what ifs and what would probably never happen. One of the U.S. military officers stationed there said the two Koreas would never be reunited, not in his lifetime, but no one really knows for sure what will become of the North and South.
I’m not going to delve too deep because I’m not the spokesperson for North Korea nor am I knowledgeable to the point of being considered an expert. If I have any focus, it is on the suffering of those caught in the middle, so to speak. This includes the families torn apart during and after the Korean War. The Korean children left without either or both parents. The result of half Korean children when American soldiers landed on the peninsula, which led the way to adoptions of full-blooded Koreans by other countries.
The political tensions between South and North Korea will always be a revolving door even if unification occurs. Outlying countries such as Japan and China pay more attention when tensions are heightened. The United States always has an interest in South Korea’s welfare. This is one of those times as each country politically maneuvers around each other as the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang inches closer and closer. It is difficult to find common ground when governments are in complete opposition. There seems to be some hope as the two countries will walk together under the same flag during opening ceremonies. Let’s face it that North Koreans have basically the same DNA as South Koreans. Will these peace talks progress? Will the current North Korean citizens suffer less over time?
I’ve always loved the rain and water. I’ve always loved a crisp fall day. I’ve always loved the newness of a spring day. I enjoy the four different seasons. I’m not too fond of heat. I prefer a cloudy day versus a sunny one. So what am I doing living in California in the land of earthquakes and fires with very little rain? I’m wondering the same myself, but I will say since calling Los Angeles my home for eleven years I’ve grown too accustomed to the warmth to move back to snow, ice, and cold. I’ve been spoiled to wearing tank tops during the winter, inside and outside. This doesn’t mean I won’t visit, which I’m soon doing. It’s going to be a bittersweet moment as this might be the last time I get to see the house I grew up in, but I’ll be able to put more closure on other parts of my life since moving to the United States.
I’m a person who knows a lot of general things about my biological parents, but nothing where I can hold it between my fingers. I don’t remember their given names. I have no pictures of what they looked like. I can tell you my biological father was charismatic and had the capability of being a good person. Instead, he ended up being vicious, cruel, and extreme. He was the ruler of his family. You did what he said. No questions could be asked. If you didn’t follow the rules, you were punished verbally and physically. If you challenged him, you got more punishment. I learned quickly not to do things wrong twice in a row. My biological mother’s nature was of the gentler and kinder side. She remained on the outskirts of my life, quiet and unassuming. I had limited interaction during the short time with her, but because of her I was able to hang onto hope as a broken child before leaving South Korea. The bottom line is you never know how strong you are until you’re tested. You never know how much you’ve lost until it’s gone.
There are times I wonder if I would have the same views today if I had stayed in South Korea. Some would be the same, but others would be less so. Was there a reason I was chosen by the social worker to live with the people I now call my parents? I used to think so and hope so, but now I know so. Was there a reason I was spared a lifetime of violence and pain? I used to think so, but now I know so. It would have broken me into a thousand pieces had I stayed with my biological father. He was never able to find a happy medium being an authoritarian figure. I’ve always lived for myself, but never far away are those that weren’t as fortunate. Los Angeles has provided me the ability to discover the person that’s been hidden the last ten years or maybe it was myself changing and growing. My life has completed full circle with a positive ending in some ways, but in other ways it’s just begun.