For Orphans of the Forgotten War, the Past Is Shrouded in Questions
He is a grown-up now. Yet every time Thomas Park Clement gets a fever, his mind spins backward. He doesn’t know why, but he sees bombs exploding in a dark sky. He sees rifles leaning against a wall, lighted by the strobe-like flashes. He remembers being too small to stand up steadily, trying desperately to get high enough to look out the window at the lights. And always at these times, he hears “a noise so loud that it is deafening.”
He remembers his mother, although not precisely. “It is winter. My mother walks me to the corner of a busy street. She kneels down and makes sure my coat is buttoned very securely. She tells me to look away, not to look back. It is early morning. I stand there, watching the street fill with people. By the time I turn back, she is gone.”
He never saw her again. He thinks he was 4 or 5 at the time.
For a while, he’s not sure how long, he became “dust of the streets,” a label given to thousands of orphans who roamed South Korea, filthy and in tatters, with no food or shelter, not even a name or birth date to call their own.
Clement is 48, or thereabouts. The Korean orphanage where he landed assigned him an age and a birth date based on his height and his teeth.
He was not alone. There were 200,000 orphans of the Korean War eventually adopted from such orphanages, experts say, most of them to America. Almost all were adopted by white families, many of whom lived in areas where Asians were not common. This became the first mass wave of international, interracial adoptions ever on the planet, the forerunner of all those that have since become commonplace. And yet, until recently, little was known of what happened to those children who arrived and became, in a sense, the test cases for all those who were to follow.
There was, in fact, silence. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was considered a wildly radical concept to adopt a child from one country and culture into another. Parents who did this had no desire to draw attention to themselves. A low profile also suited the goals of adoption in that era: to completely assimilate the child as quickly as possible. The Korean children were supposed to become so Americanized that they would disappear into the fabric of society without a sign of ever having been “different.”
Their stories are not typical because nothing is “typical” about human tragedy. Each Korean child left to fend for himself--and each parent--could undoubtedly have told a compelling tale, if they hadn’t been too frightened and if anyone in the world had cared to listen.
But it was 1950 when the Korean War broke out--only five years after the end of World War II. The world was weary and focused on an escalating battle between the former Soviet Union and the United States, between Democracy and Communism. The Korean War, sometimes dubbed the Forgotten War, was a result of that power struggle, only now being reconciled by the two Koreas.
Dr. Luke Kim, professor of psychiatry at UC Davis, survived the war in which his mother was killed. “There is an old Korean saying: When a whale sneezes, the shrimp get killed,” Kim says. “In this case, Korea was the little shrimp.” Korea was caught between the two whale superpowers who divided the country at the 38th Parallel, ostensibly to bring independence to the land that had been occupied by Japan for more than 30 years. The former Soviet Union got the north, the United States the south. But instead of democracy, which Kim says all of Korea was led to expect, the warring whales created three years of havoc. Cities were “turned to ash,” Kim says.
Children roamed the streets for a variety of reasons. Some lost parents to bullets, bombs or enemy abduction. Some were abandoned by ill or injured relatives, or by starving loved ones who believed the children had a better chance of survival without them.
Still others, like Clement, were born of liaisons between Korean women and American or other U.N. soldiers. These “mixed-blood” children were Korea’s true outcasts. In the strict Confucian belief system of that country at that time, experts agree, lineage meant everything. Bloodlines mattered most of all. There was no future for a child of mixed heritage. Or for a mother who was raising such a child. If she were to keep the youngster with her, she too would be cast out. They would both starve to death, or worse.
GIs Step In and Start Orphanage
So the children wandered alone until they were swept up by compassionate adults and deposited in what were often makeshift orphanages.
There were 18 such homes in Seoul toward the end of the war, says George Drake, a war veteran whose 326th Communications Reconnaissance Company started an informal orphanage “because so many little ones were begging on the streets, often carrying smaller children on their backs. We had tough Marines and soldiers crying.” The GIs took over an old house to shelter some kids, supporting them with their own pay and packages from home. Memories of the children and their GI benefactors have continued to haunt the retired college professor. He maintains a Web site on the subject (https://www.koreanchildren.org) and has created a Korean War Children’s Memorial that will be dedicated--in a park in his hometown of Bellingham, Wash., in August 2001--"to the children we could not save.”
Grace Kim of Davis, Calif., had just graduated from high school in Seoul when war broke out. She went to work in an orphanage that had quickly filled to capacity. The experience remains vivid. She had 50 children in her care, she says. They were cold, hungry, traumatized, cried for their mamas and had nightmares every night. There was not enough food, clothing or blankets--and not enough of Grace Kim to go around. “They needed me to be their mother, sister, teacher--to hug and love and teach them. How could I do all that for so many? But I tried.” She prayed that they would reunite with lost families or be adopted into good homes. Anything was better than what they had, she says. And what they had was a blessing.
Many were adopted and became all-American kids who now had all-American names like Sue, Mindy, Tom and Dick, bestowed on them by their new moms and dads.
Mindy Holt, a mortgage banker in San Bernardino, was born in 1959, according to the agency that placed her in a Whittier home at about 9 months. “The only thing I know is that I am half Korean and half I-dont-know-what,” she says with a chuckle. For most of her life, she adds, she never really cared. Her adoptive father is “Cherokee Indian and Irish; my mother is Jewish. My brother, also adopted, is German and Irish. We were a happy little United Nations kind of family as I was growing up.” Although she has no interest in trying to find her Korean family, she says she recently joined an Internet club for Korean adoptees because she wants to know “what happened” to produce the person that she is.
Susan Soon-Keum Cox, born in 1952, was the 167th child to be adopted from Korea to an American family, the adoption agency told her. She arrived in Oregon at 4 1/2 with some memories and some questions. “My parents could never tell me who my mother was, what had happened to her or to me. I always knew I was born because of the war, always felt connected to the war because I literally would not exist without it.
“It should not be called a forgotten war. So many thousands of lives were affected, perhaps even more than by Vietnam.” It is not just a matter of soldiers killed, she says, but of history changing. “Look at the war’s extended influence. It caused the first wave of international, interracial adoptions--an entire social institution was created that today, 50 years later, has a global context.”
The grown-up Cox has unearthed part of her personal history because she is one of very few adoptees who has early photos and knows her birth name. Cox learned that her biological father was a British soldier, and that her mother went on to marry a Korean man and produce two sons. Cox contacted her two half-brothers, who had never been told about her before their mother died. “I was my mother’s secret.”
Some adoptees have memories of Korea and their parents; others have none. Some have reconnected with their Korean roots as adults; others have no desire to do that. Some are angry at the war, the social system, the circumstances of their lives. Others are delighted with what they consider their good fortune. Some adoptees landed in wonderful, loving homes. Others were unknowingly sent into abusive situations. And still others wound up in families that were adequate but left them vaguely wistful at what might have been--if only they had been adopted by someone else.
Brought Up in White, Middle-Class America
David Nakase, president of the Assn. of Korean Adoptees of Southern California, arrived at age 2 in the Van Houten family of Monrovia. Nakase says his upbringing was “basically white, middle-class, middle America.” There were certainly other Asians in California, he says, but they were invisible to him. He wanted to assimilate totally, “because as a child, you want to identify with your parents. I adored my American father and brother. I wanted to look and be exactly like them.”
Nakase grew to be more than 6 feet tall, became athletic, and got used to people staring at his features and asking, “What are you?” Meaning what nationality. At 28, he packed the passport photo of himself as a baby and went to Korea looking for his biological mother. More than one woman claimed the honor, he recalls. He spent one month with the woman he decided probably was his biological mother, although no DNA tests were done to confirm it. She told him that his father was a Canadian soldier who rejected him as looking “too Asian.” Nakase has not maintained that relationship. At 44, he is married, has three children, and his adoptive mother “lives for her grandchildren,” he says.
He has adopted his wife’s last name, he says, because his kids and his wife all look Asian. Having a name to match their appearance causes one less complication in life.
Susan Allen remembers accidentally cutting her wrist as a child while she played with a broken bottle. “I remember my father carried me to a doctor and carried me back. I remember he took me there again, to remove the stitches. But I cannot remember his face. I cannot see it.” Then the war came. She has no idea why she was found alone, how long she had been that way or who found her. She does not know her original name. “I only remember crying very hard, and other people crying on top of my crying, and a lot of very loud noise all around me, which was probably gunfire and bombing.”
She remembers being scooped up and put on a plane that took her to an orphanage on an island. She was about 4, was given a name and an age by the orphanage, and spent the next four years being “hungry, terribly cold in winter” until Ruth and Raymond Campbell of Chula Vista, Calif., adopted her. They were both 60, had five grown children and eight grandchildren by the time Susan arrived at age 8 or 9--the first grandparents ever to adopt.
“They were good parents. They tried to raise me the way they had raised my brothers and sisters in the Depression. Super-strict, super-religious. But times were different by then. My bedtime was 8 p.m., even in high school. It was awful. It was not a normal childhood.” At 17 she married and had two children. Twelve years later she divorced. “Then I met this wonderful man I married 21 years ago, had two more children and life has been great,” says the 52-year-old Chico resident. She is involved in the Korean American Adoptees Network, and through that connection has recently discovered the existence of early photos of herself in the orphanage.
Adoption Simply Wasn’t Discussed
As for Tom Clement, the boy whose mother left him on a corner after lovingly buttoning his coat: He was rescued by a nurse, given an approximate age (5 to 7) at an orphanage, and happily adopted by the Richard Clement family of Charlotte, N.C. He gained three American siblings and a rich, loving family life, he says.
He also faced some problems unique to his situation. Although he loved birthdays--all the presents and the fuss--"deep down I always knew it wasn’t my real birthday, that I didn’t even know how old I really was. It reeled me right back to my past.” When kids taunted him about his race, he says he didn’t want to bring those problems home. “In my family I was completely loved, completely safe.” The fact that he was adopted or Asian was never discussed because he was just a brother and son. “Home was a completely sterile and safe zone. You don’t want to contaminate it with some garbage from outside, with the toxic dirt of prejudice.”
Clement has a psychology degree from Indiana University, two electrical engineering degrees from Purdue University, is married, and is president and chief executive of Mectra Laboratories, where he invents and manufactures mostly laparoscopic medical devices. He is so close to his adoptive family that he has no desire to search for his birth parents, he says. But he is involved in things Korean. On his last trip there, he donated $200,000 worth of medical equipment to a hospital and lectured on how to use it.
His adoptive mother has died, but he speaks to his father almost every day by fax, phone or e-mail. Sometimes they forget he wasn’t born into the family: “When I phoned Dad to say my wife had had twins, he said, ‘That must be from her side of the family. We have no twins in ours.’ I told him, ‘Dad, I’m adopted.’ He said, ‘Oh. I forgot.’ ”
Bettijane Levine can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.