Songs of My Families: A Thirty-Seven-Year Odyssey from Korea to America and Back
Kelly Fern, Brad Fern, MA, LAMFT
As I write these words, I have lived on this earth for forty-five years. For almost six of those years, I lived in Korea with the name Myonghi. For the other forty years Iíve lived in Minnesota with the name my American family gave me, Kelly Jean. I believed that my biological mother was dead, that I had no siblings, and that my Korean father had abandoned his family to find a job in Seoul, never to return.
Five months before I began writing this book, because of a one-page letter from Korean Social Service, I learned that I had three older Korean sisters and two younger brothers. I discovered that my biological father was still alive and had never abandoned the family. I found out that my mother gave me up because we were all starving. I also learned that my family had been searching for me for well over a decade.
Itís hard to explain what itís like to be ripped from your family at five years old and sent to the opposite side of the planet, to a place where nobody understands you and few people look like you. Iím not sure I understand it myself.
When people find out that I was adopted from Korea, they typically tell me how lucky I was to go from starving in Asia to thriving in America. And, generally, the sentiment is true. Times were hard in Korea. In our home, a few hours' car ride south of Seoul, all of my family slept in the same room on mats.
I vividly recall being four years old, crawling across the floor in the middle of the night to check my grandfather's mouth for food. My grandfather often made a chewing, smacking sound with his mouth when he was asleep. I knew before going over to him that his mouth was empty, but I was so hungry that I went anyway. I would whisper in Korean, "What are you chewing on, Harabuzhi?" Of course, he didnít answer, because he was sleeping. So, with that nagging, hollowness in my stomach, I'd quietly return back to my sleeping mat and dream of apples.
It's difficult to describe to someone who hasn't starved how you think about food all the time. Instead of wishing for toys or bicycles, you wish for rice or eggs. When food is available, you savor every morsel. Even today, I still have that feeling of poverty hanging over my head like a cloud, as if anything good is bound to end. There may be food to eat today and a warm place to stay tonight, but tomorrow, who knows?
I remember, when I was about four years old, walking down the gravel road by my house and seeing a rotten apple lying in the dirt. I must not have had anything to eat for quite a while because I had that bottomless feeling in my stomach. I picked up the apple and brushed it off, turning it until I found the least rotten part. Some of it was too nasty to eat, but I ate what I could and threw the rest away. I recall being sad that it was not a whole, fresh apple.
In other ways, however, I actually thrived in Korea. I remember the sound of river water running over stones and watching the sunlight dance across the rapids. My sisters and I washed the laundry in that beautiful river. My oldest sister's hands were supple, young, and strong as they worked the fabric against the rocks.
My sister would cook over a fire. Our kitchen was a small room separate from the rest of the house. You had to walk outside and around the corner to get to it. The kitchen door was kept open on warmer days to let the heat out. The oven was made of clay, with a cast-iron top and a large opening in the front for the firewood. I would squat near the oven and stare into the fire as it grew. The flames would reach out of the opening, licking the air with their jagged tongues. Other times, we cooked over a fire in the yard. I loved helping, especially when we cooked my beloved eggs. I'd watch the flames tease the black pan as the eggs sizzled and turned white.
I'm thankful for those good memories of Korea, and I'm equally thankful for the American doctors who rebuilt my rotting teeth and deteriorating gums. Iím thankful for my American mother and father, who cared enough and had enough money to take care of my many physical problems, all brought on by malnutrition. I'm thankful for being treated for the intestinal parasites, and the modern medications I was given. And I'm thankful for my husband and my two children, whom I love beyond all imagining.
But when I hear that word "lucky," I sometimes want to ask, What child feels lucky to give up their father, mother, sisters, and brothers?
When I finally heard my Korean mother's voice again on the phone, when she cried so hard that she couldn't go on, and when my sister started to weep, too, so intensely she could barely speak, I knew how much I had been loved and how painful it was for them to let me go. I realized how much I had missed, and how my mother must have wept the day I was taken away.
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