Songs of My Families: A Thirty-Seven-Year Odyssey from Korea to America and Back
Kelly Fern, Brad Fern, MA, LAMFT
One day when I was about five years old, a woman came in a car to take me away. She must have been an American from Lutheran Social Services, because she was wearing a skirt, and in the early 1970s most Korean women didn't show their legs. She must have been wearing nylons because I couldn't stop staring at the sheen of her skin. Her shins looked like they were made of plastic.
The car was huge. I had seen cars drive by, but it was my first time inside one. When the door closed and it was only the woman and me inside, I started to panic. I tried to get out of the car, but I was too small. I cried and called out for my mother, and then watched my Korean life vanish behind me in the back window.
The orphanage was large, scary, and official-looking. We called the women who took care of us "sisters." They were often rough and didnít show much compassion. They weren't cruel, but they weren't nurturing, either. After I saw other girls punished, I quickly realized that acting different was a bad idea. I'm still angry at the orphanage workers when I think of how they treated me, but I understand now that they were probably overwhelmed by the number of children they were responsible for.
Two of my friends in America are Korean adoptees. They talk about how their heads were shaved because of lice and how poorly they were treated because they no longer had families. Koreans judge themselves by how well they fill predetermined roles in their society and family. When you have no genetic parents, you can't be a daughter or a son. Youíre nobody's child. Thatís why so many Korean orphans were sent to America. In America, it's all about individuality. Americans judge themselves by how they carve out unique roles for themselves, regardless of blood ties or circumstances.
No one ever shaved my head at the orphanage where I stayed, but I was rarely fed much more than rice and broth. From time to time, we were given crackers. This was a step down from the food my Korean family had fed me. The sisters would also feed us powdery yellow tablets, which were probably vitamins. I can still see the big white plastic bottle they came in. I hated the smell, which was like musty, uncooked macaroni, but at least the tablets were something to eat. To this day, I can taste the bitterness they left on my tongue.
I remember a large room with yellow floors. One sister would walk around dispensing those horrible pills. A second sister always followed the first, letting each child drink water from a ladle dipped into a bucket. When it was time for a shower, we'd stand in a line, naked. My teeth chattered from the cold, and the dirt on my skin built up in water droplets like oblong beads. When the sisters were finished, we'd been scrubbed so hard that we looked like muddy lobsters. Then a cold blast of water would rinse away the soap and grime.
On the coldest days, the sisters gave us baths. One at a time, we'd step into the water and the sisters would scrub us with rough, red mitts that felt like sandpaper. The bath water had to be changed when one of the children had an accident, and the rest of us had to watch as the sisters spanked the guilty childís bottom or smacked her hands with a ruler. I hated those bathing sessions, but sometimes when I stood just outside of the washing area I could look down the hill at Seoul below. I would peek at the city when it was lit up at night and fantasize about the well-fed, happy families living in those beautiful, lighted buildings.
Even at that young age I understood that the orphanage was just a stopping point along my journey. I knew somehow that I wasn't going home and something very different, but worthwhile, awaited me in the future.
My best friend at the orphanage was Hyogi. She was a year younger than me, and always talked about her baby sister and how the two of them were going to live together in America. She and I would play doctor, or use pebbles and sticks to construct houses or draw faces, outside the main building. I cringe at the thought now, but I would I mixed spit with dirt and call it medicine, and spit into her mouth and challenge Hyogi to swallow her medicine.
Hyogi's mother visited the orphanage several times, bringing candy, fruit, and other treats for her to eat. At these times, I'd miss my Korean family. I'd wonder why they didn't visit me and bring me treats like Hyogi's mother did.
In an orphanage you're not alone when you cry at night. You can hear the sniffles and subdued weeping around you. I'd often lie in bed, thinking about what would become of me. I especially missed my father. I prayed to Buddha that my father would appear one day and offer gifts and say he was sorry for letting me go. He'd explain that it was all a big misunderstanding and beg me to come back, and plead with me to be his daughter again. And I would jump up and hug him and kiss him. Then he would take me home.
I wanted so much for him to come, take my hand, and guide me through this cold, confusing world.
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