Archive for October, 2009

The Story of a Korean War Baby

by on Tuesday, October 27th, 2009


Ida with her mother

Ida with her mother

This is an interview my friend Ida Hart and I did about ten years ago when she was in Korea looking for her mother. Ida is now a high school science teacher in Los Angeles. (Please check out the link at the right titled “South Koreans Struggle with Race” and “Adopted from Korea and in Search of Identity.”)

 Ida’s story

I was born in Korea in 1953, the year the cease-fire agreement was signed.  My mother is Korean, and my father is a black American soldier. I grew up in a Korean village, and everyone knew that I was mixed.  My mother and I were generally shut out of Korean society. Sometimes I was called a “nigger” or “blackie.” Some mothers would not let their children play with me, and when I became old enough to go to school, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t go to the same school as everyone else. Years later I found out that they had created a separate school for us, the Institute for Mixed Blood Children. I don’t remember being particularly unhappy. A young child who has the basics—food, clothing, shelter, a parent—doesn’t really pay much attention to such things. But when I was eight years old I was sent to live with my father in America.

Ida as a child

Ida as a child

It’s my understanding that Koreans didn’t accept mixed blood children, although you see a lot of diversity in Korean facial structures. Korea did not want us and didn’t have the resources to take care of us. There was also the feeling that the United States should take responsibility for the war babies. In1982 America did finally pass the Amerasian Act. There was no similar law for European war babies, but I think that the European culture was probably more accepting, except when the father was black. In Korea there was also more discrimination against the children of black fathers. I’m now in Korea doing a background search and trying to find my mother. 

In my case history, it states that the villagers put pressure on my mother to send me away. “You should let that child go to America. It would be much better for her over there.” In my file there’s a letter from a teacher at the Institute for Mixed Blood Children saying that my mother was in a lot of emotional pain and unable to make the decision to send me away. But the teacher felt that, in time, she would let me go. He said he really felt it would be best for me. That sort of thing doesn’t mean very much to a child of seven who is very dependent on her mother. She was the only stable figure in my life. I remember changing my mind many times about whether or not I wanted to go. I don’t think I ever accepted the fact that I would be separated from my mother. So in my heart “we” were going. 

The separation was very painful. Now that I’ve gotten my hands on documents and letters from social workers and teachers, I can understand my mother’s agony. She would go back and forth. One minute she would say, “If you’re not good I’ll put you on the plane tomorrow.” The next she would cry and swear she would never let me go. I think her inability to deal with it was part of the reason it was so very difficult for me. Finally, a year and a half after she signed the papers, the social workers made another trip to pick me up. I think it was an impulsive act on my mother’s part. She said, “Take her.  Just take her.” I was thrown in the car, but I jumped out. To this day I don’t like big, black cars that look like Chevys.

When I did my background search, I had proof that it really did happen and was not just a nightmare. The social worker was very proud of the agency’s only car because there were very few cars in Korea at the time. She showed me some photos, and sure enough, there was that big, black Chevy. So I knew it wasn’t a figment of my imagination.   

In my last days here, I was petrified. It was all just a blur. My mother followed the social workers to Seoul, and she appeared at the agency, begging them to let her see me one last time. They finally consented, even though they suspected she would try to take me back. We never actually got to talk to each other. I saw the car pull up, and she got out and started toward the building. I started screaming and crying, and then she started screaming and carrying on. Then the social workers saw that the meeting would not work out, so they dragged her back in the car and drove off. Of course, I was terrified.

I think that’s part of my search. I would like to ask her whether she wanted to take me back or whether she wanted to tell me it would be all right. Seeing them drag her away, never getting that final message from her, terrified me. What was she calling to me so desperately about? Was I being sent away to murderers? I just remember being violently ill. 

I didn’t know about the other incident. My mother had been to the foster home where I was being kept. She was seen pacing back and forth in front of the house with her baby on her back, trying to work up the courage to come in. The social workers got me out of the house. My mother brought the police, I guess in a final attempt to get me back. The social workers showed the police the official release forms. The next day my mother appeared at the agency very apologetic. I think she had wanted to know for certain that the social workers were really doing what they said they were. You can imagine a poor villager not familiar with bureaucracies. There were a lot of stories about children being kidnapped and sold into houses of prostitution and of people buying children. That was not that uncommon in those days. But when my mother saw me in the foster home and heard the social workers talking to the police, she knew that they really were going to send me to my father in America. A few days later I was on the plane. 

My father is my natural father, but he had no paperwork to prove it. When he came to Korea, he already had a wife back home, so he couldn’t marry. He made a point of telling me he had married my mother in a Korean ceremony. At that time the U.S. Army was not offering soldiers any form of assistance. Even if you wanted to be a father to your child, they would not help, and often they discouraged you from getting married or acknowledging your child. So my father went to the agencies, and they decided to help him. The only way to do it was legal adoption. He had to go through the entire scrutiny, from the examination of his bank account to the social workers’ coming to his home. Most important was getting his wife to agree to the adoption. Then he was not even able to come to the airport to meet me. He had been working for this event for many years, but he had to wait for his next official leave. That was how rigid the army was. 

A Quonset hut on the US Army post

A Quonset hut on the US Army post

Of course I experienced immediate culture shock.  I had thought the U.S. was going to look like an army post with neighborhoods of Quonset huts. That was the only concept I had. I didn’t have books, TV, or movies in Korea. My black American family was the biggest shock. There was nobody I recognized. When my father did make it home on leave, I recognized his voice. Later I found photos of myself at the age of three or four sitting on his lap. In letters he had written, he said he remembered me yelling “daddy, daddy” in Korean over the fence around the army post. 

So I settled into life in Nashville, Tennessee. My family was a strong extended family. We weren’t rich, but we had more than many people did. Not everyone had a telephone, a car, or a TV set, and we had those things. The family business sold cosmetics for black Americans. We had a sales force of about a hundred black people who sold door-to-door. We bragged that we paid a higher sales commission than Avon, the big, white company. My family had a lot of racial awareness and pride.   

In 1961, much of the South was still segregated—schools, restaurants, public transportation—and there were signs up saying “whites only.” I didn’t understand it because I came from a homogenous society where there was little overt racism, although there was a rigid class structure. And, of course, people worked very hard to get rid of mixed race children. 

On the whole, I found black people to be more accepting because there’s such a mix. Within my own family, there’s an uncle who is jet black and an uncle who looks white. My father and his sister had a lot of Asian features, and I heard my grandmother was part Cherokee. My family looked for signs of my father in me. Even though I had been raised in an Asian culture and did not speak English, from time to time they would see certain movements and gestures that were very like my father’s, and they would say, “Yeah, that’s Chester’s daughter all right.” I often heard that as a child. 

I had a very sheltered life in Nashville, and there was more acceptance than rejection. But I was in for another shock. People often think I’m Asian or maybe American Indian. Hispanics walk up to me and start speaking Spanish, and a lot of Filipinos think I’m a Filipina. But some people can tell immediately that I’m black. Since I learned English and grew up in the black community, I have all the mannerisms, the speech patterns, and the cultural outlook of a black American. So I came from a village where I was called “blackie” and “nigger” and was put in all‑black schools where a few kids called me “Chink” and “Jap.” But I always remembered that other students would speak up and defend me.    

 I didn’t really feel offended. I just didn’t understand what this was coming from.  Why? The color prejudice within the black community was also confusing to me. I remember this dark brown girl in my class. I thought she was so beautiful. She had the most beautiful skin and big, soft eyes. I once mentioned she was pretty, and people just laughed, “Oh, no, she’s so black! She looks African.” 

Nashville was all black and white. There were no Asians, other than probably a few professors at Vanderbilt University and a couple of doctors. I remember I saw some Asians once downtown—they might have been Japanese tourists—and I followed them, but I was afraid to approach them.

When I was in high school, the desegregation of the Nashville school system was the hot issue. In 1970 I had a white teacher for the first time. I was a junior. Then the following year they started busing students to integrate the schools. At that time we thought it was the best option. Otherwise, it would take many years for the neighborhoods to become mixed. I think now the problem is more obviously a matter of economics. 

For seniors busing was voluntary. About fifty to a hundred white students volunteered to come to our school, and I remember working with a student task force called Volunteers in Action. We wanted to ease racial tensions and to help the desegregation. It seemed pretty exciting just to talk about racism.  It had been such a taboo topic for so many years, and I was fascinated with it. Working against racism became my mission. I felt that easing racial tension was my key to being accepted on a personal level.   

In 1972 I went to Antioch University. Now, I had always been pushed toward college, and I knew there had to be a place where I could feel comfortable. Antioch was my first choice. I was accepted and given the full-scholarship financial aid package that I needed. I was attracted to the cooperative education program, which was a five‑year, work-study curriculum. The department matched students with jobs in a variety of fields throughout the country.  

At Antioch I discovered something that really drove me crazy for a long time.  I’ve been hurt by both races, and I’ve felt betrayed by both races. The civil rights movement had started in 1955 with Martin Luther King, but it became militant in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with Malcolm X, Angela Davis, the Solidad brothers, Cathleen Cleaver, and the Black Panther Party. In the black community there was talk of a black revolution. It was a very intense time politically. You had to take a stand—either in the King camp or the Malcolm X camp. Of course, the university was in an uproar.

Antioch University had made a commitment to racial diversity. They had a program called New Directions, which aimed to diversify the campus by bringing in people normally not represented in a white, upper-class college. When I got to the university the black community and the third-world community were separate. There was a lot of talk about different strategies against racism, and there were a lot of arguments about it. We had our Marxist-Leninist camp. We had our black militancy camp. We had our third-world camp. It was very divisive.                 

I was given an upperclassman as a counselor, a black student from Los Angeles.  My parents took me to Antioch, and he met my parents.  He invited me to an orientation for black students, but when I walked in some students thought I had gotten lost, and they told me it was for black students only. My counselor happened to be there, and he walked up and said, “Look, I’ve met her parents. She is black.” From that whole time on, I felt that I always had to prove my racial heritage. I felt I always had to find some way of working it into the conversation—to justify why I was at this black student rally or working on this black cause. It was uppermost in my mind, no matter what. A lot of people simply could not get over how I looked. 

There was a lot of peer pressure to be separatists. If you were a student who had white friends, you were excluded by the majority of black students, who called you an Uncle Tom. A lot of white students were seeking racial diversity too, but the price their black friends had to pay was exclusion by the black community. In the student cafeteria there was a little island of black people. You could sit there all the time or not at all. I disliked that pressure intensely. 

I became a third-world activist. I could understand the problems of people of color and the racial discrimination we all experience as Hispanics, as Native Americans, as Asians and as black Americans. I thought that we needed principles to unify us, rather than to divide us. So I began to work for the formation of a third-world student collective, which was established in my third year. 

 At the same time, the Asian student collective began to be very friendly and out-going with me. I was many years from Korea, but I still had this fear. I also wasn’t sure which of my memories were real. I felt a deep sense of dread every time Asians approached me. In the back of my mind I always felt dishonest because I wasn’t what I appeared to be. So I felt—yeah, they’re inviting me to their dinner. But once they hear me talk they’re going to see that I’m really black, I’m not Asian. So I avoided them for a long, long time, even though they kept saying, “Come to our Asian pot luck dinner.” 

For me it was repulsion-attraction. I finally went, but I had a severe physical reaction. That’s when I realized there must have been something in my past that I didn’t want to face. I could not go in that house. I was just like my mother walking around the foster home where I was staying. As I approached the door, sweat poured out of me, and I shook. It was also scary to feel my body going through these reactions. I don’t know how I ever opened that door and walked in. You would have thought I was facing the electric chair. Thank God, they didn’t see that they had made a mistake and ask me to leave. It was the opposite. They seemed really glad to see me and made me feel welcome and encouraged me. 

Years later I discovered that it was the Asian student collective that had supported my admission to the university. The Student Selection Committee always includes student representatives. The Asian collective had pre-selected my application, read my biography, and pushed my application through. Finding that out removed some of the fear, and it began to open the door.

Ida at home

Ida at home

The third-world collective brought in speakers who talked about the Asian American experience, including the concentration camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. There were Hispanic speakers, people who had worked with Caesar Chavez. We brought in people who had worked in the Asian movement and in the women’s movement. I really enjoyed all our activities, and I was proud to be on the committee. It was truly an eye-opener.           

Of course, I was still trying to make some sense of the things that had created my pain. My life had been so deeply affected by racism, so it was a remarkable experience to begin to understand some of the forces at work. It helped to begin to answer the questions I had and helped me to get rid of my own prejudice, my fear of Asians, and my worry about being accepted. 

It’s fear that causes racism—fear of things that are different from yourself. In Los Angeles I get fewer questions about my background and fewer strange stares. You say, “I’m Korean—black Korean.”  And they say, “Oh, yeah, OK.” The racial and cultural diversity is one of the things I love, even though it causes a lot of problems. If we are exposed to other people and confront our own fears and prejudices, then we can begin to solve the problems. I even have this far-fetched idea that, when we as individuals become more accepting of other races, there will be fewer wars, and we can have world peace at last.

The Great Flood, Part 2

by on Monday, October 19th, 2009

Fe washing the mud away--Photo by Harriet Sewell

Fe washing the mud away--Photo by Harriet Sewell

Being in a flood can change your entire relationship to water: you hesitate around puddles, you shriek when accidentally splashing water on yourself, you hear the sound of rushing water in your sleep, you get anxious when it rains—which is unfortunate during rainy season. Mary still has flashbacks of calling my name and hearing only rushing water, while I remember going out the gate first and yelling repeatedly, “Come on, Mary. We have to get out!”

Then there’s the flood mud. We had the thin, slimy stuff that can be washed off with a hose and scrub brushes, not the thick kind that has to be shoveled out. It was still awful. The stench filled the house and clung to everything, including books and clothes above the water line—which was about five feet above the floor. We were told the mud carried rat feces and snakes. And of course it left behind bacteria and mold. I wondered whether my empathy with the Katrina victims—many of whom are still not adequately resettled—had to do with more than an affinity for the music, food and people of New Orleans and South Louisiana. As if I knew it could happen to me.

Sodden stuff--Photo by Harriet Sewell

Sodden stuff--Photo by Harriet Sewell

More sodden stuff--Photo by Harriet Sewell

More sodden stuff--Photo by Harriet Sewell

Our house was uninhabitable. The built-in cabinets below the water line disintegrated immediately. The recently repaired parquet floors in the back were warped and broken. Almost all electric outlets were suspect. The upholstered furniture became home to disease. Some of the solid wooden furniture looked salvageable, some didn’t. We lost cameras, books and electronic equipment. Mary despaired for her master’s thesis. However, we discovered that Filipinos had a wealth of information on how to dry out water-logged electric appliances. And of course many people were very helpful.
Exercise equipemtn after floating around  in the kitchen--Photo by Harriet Sewell

Exercise equipemtn after floating around in the kitchen--Photo by Harriet Sewell

Two days after the flood, there was a special meeting of the Rotary Club of Loyola Heights—which, I hurry to say, is a relaxed, fun-loving, service-oriented group nothing at all like the American organization my dad belonged to in the 1950s and 60s. Mary was among the four members who were flood victims. As the microphone passed from one person to another, her friend Rose said to me, “This group is getting too serious. You tell your story about escaping in your swimsuit.” Later we were offered clothing, a few small appliances and the use of a truck and crew when we moved into a new house.

Much of the meeting was devoted to helping the residents of Brookside, a community where Rotary had been offering on-going assistance in housing and education. It was completely swept away by the flood. Members were collecting money for food and supplies, cooking and distributing food themselves and trying to relocate the community. This was clearly not a relief effort where three-fourths of the contributions went into the pockets of the rich. I decided to get involved after we were resettled. (More on this at some later date.)

A helper surveys the mess--Photo by Harriet Sewell

A helper surveys the mess--Photo by Harriet Sewell

The next day Rose took us to see two apartments which were unacceptable for different reasons—one cheap but dismal; the other small, overpriced and in one of those wrapped-in-ribbon apartment house complexes.  Afterwards, when she saw all of our surviving stuff, Rose said, “Oh, well, you need a house!” She made a phone call, and the following day we looked at what was soon to become our new home. It’s half of a giant duplex, and it once housed two non-governmental organizations, one after the other. Downstairs, there’s a garage and porch immediately inside the gate. The front door opens to a large office area with desks and cubicles on the left and living room and dining room on the right. Further back are two kitchens, bath, and conference area. Upstairs are four bedrooms and two baths. My immediate thought when looking at the office space was that I was meant to start teaching classes at home, but who knows? The space could be useful for a variety of things. It may also be temporary.

A neighbor's wall with cushions drying--Photo by Harriet Sewell

A neighbor's wall with cushions drying--Photo by Harriet Sewell

So now we had a place, but we found moving very different from before. For example, normally, if you want to pack clothes from your closet, you get a box, set it on the floor and fold the clothes nearby—maybe on the bed—and put them in the box. After a flood, the floor will be wet with puddles or standing water, the bed sodden and stinking. There’s no place to set the box anywhere in the house, and the even the clothes above the water line need to be washed or dry cleaned first. Those below need to be washed two or three times by hand before they can be washed by machine—if the machine is working or if the laundry service will accept them. All other aspects were equally complicated. Most of the dishes and pots and pans were carried out of the kitchen and washed in the courtyard, where appliances and Mary’s motorcycle were repaired. A move which under normal circumstances would have taken a week will take over four weeks, not including much of settling into the new house.

We were very fortunate to have wonderful people helping us. Several days Ken and Harriet, two expat friends, drove up from Makati—maybe three hours’ round trip—to spend the day helping with the cleanup, prying photographic prints apart and letting them dry and hauling stuff to the new house. Fe, our housekeeper, and her husband Jessie slept in the “driver’s room” over the garage and worked almost around the clock, taking off only a minimal amount of time to deal with their own house, which was also flooded. Jessie took a four-weeks’ leave of absence from his regular job, and they both recruited others. We asked about the young men who rescued us, but only one appeared, a tricycle driver I was eager to thank with words and a large tip.

What proved more beneficial than I’d expected was my previous move down from Korea, when I’d hired professional movers. The Koreans showed up with a moving van, uniformed crew and packing crates all bearing company colors and logo—except for the boss, who drove a car, wore a white shirt and carried a clipboard. It took them three or four hours to box everything up. Their Filipino partners had a scruffy-looking truck and a crew in jeans and flip-flops, but they were equally efficient. They had me standing behind the truck with the clipboard, checking off ninety-eight boxes of stuff and giving directions about where to put them. Which meant that we now had a wealth of sturdy cardboard packing crates. The move would have been impossible if we’d had to scrounge for empty boxes in supermarkets or post offices.

At the same time all this was going on, Mary was trying to contact friends and neighbors on her cell phone. (Mine was stolen from the driver’s room within twenty-eight hours of my leaving it.) Eventually, everyone was accounted for. They all had stories, their own or someone else’s: being trapped on the roof or in an upper story for hours, being trapped in water under furniture, renting a jet-ski to rescue family, swimming to rescue family, playing hostess to neighbors and pets and then having to clean up after the animals, marching through water with dead people and animals floating by. Many people were cooking for and feeding refugees.

We learned that Xavierville 1 was flooded in part because water had been released from a dam too quickly and in part because a creek which should have provided drainage was clogged with an illegal squatters’ settlement four stories high. Of course, it’s now clear that the floods have wiped out most of the nation’s farmers and a large percentage of the small businesses that make up almost all of the nation’s economy. Lack of investment in infrastructure is only making the situation worse.

A personal concern of ours was our inability to contact the landlord. The papers with his address in Canada had been swept away. For days his bank was closed. The homeowners’ association had no address for him. His niece’s phone number didn’t ring. We did contact the real estate agent, who said that in cases like this the lease was usually cancelled and the three months’ advance rent and security deposit returned. When the landlord finally appeared—he’d been in Manila all along—we reached a friendly agreement. We’re leaving the house is as clean as our crew could get it.  

All this time we were sleeping in relative comfort in the student hotel down the street, where we had a large three-bed room with bath for the two of us and the cats, along with housekeeping services, Internet access and a coffee bar downstairs. The cats were very quiet and very loving with us and with each other. No territorial disputes or hissing and very little running around like crazy in the middle of the night. Just hiding when the door was opened and fighting vigorously against being put back in the cage. I did take them to the vet for a shot of antibiotics, since their fur had been thoroughly drenched in the filthy flood water. At the hotel we tried to rescue some things from permanent loss. Mary dried books and papers, and I went out into the hall one night and laid out many rolls of photographic prints on the floor to dry.

October 10 was the one-year death anniversary of Mary’s beloved husband Walter. Her friend Rose arranged for a mass at a local church. Several of us went and offered flowers and contributions for the flood victims. It was a nice service, but of course an emotionally draining occasion for her. The following day she was a member of a friend’s wedding and had to appear in a long gown with the proper shoes and makeup and hair and nails and all that. Not at all easy to do with a migraine, but she managed. She looked magnificent.  

Several people have asked what we lost. We did lose a lot of stuff—although not the two Cuisinart food processors, which I put side by side on the microwave, or the desktop computers, which I heaved on top of tall furniture. The cords I hastily wrapped around the top of the computer desk and the monitor I shoved onto the wire shelf stayed. One of Mary’s notebooks suffered from being used before being sufficiently dried out, and she lost two still cameras and a video camera.  

My Minolta 700-X’s and Canon AE-1, along with the lenses, were submerged in muddy water. There’s a digital mini-camera somewhere too. I know the mechanical parts of the cameras can be cleaned—the electronic functions would be another matter—but maybe even where labor is cheap it wouldn’t really be worth it, given the increasing difficulty of processing film, particularly slides, and the fact that my eyes can now use autofocus. It’s sad to think of parting with tools that at one time seemed extensions of your arm and your eyes, essential to the way you see the world and express it to others. 

Oddly, I don’t think anyone has asked what we gained. And that is a clearer perception of what is important and what isn’t. The pettiness which can clutter any relationship and the self-centeredness which can warp anyone’s thinking for a time, all that seems to have been washed away. My sister-friend of twenty years and I may have said “I love you” as many times in the last three weeks as we did in the past three years. We have been abundantly blessed with other friends. We are very fortunate, and we know it.

The Great Flood, Part 1

by on Sunday, October 11th, 2009

Until September 26, Xavierville 1 was a tranquil, middle-class “subdivision,” or gated community, in Quezon City, Metro Manila. It was a safe place of medium-sized and large houses, each house behind its own gate. There were coconut palms, bougainvillea climbing over walls and lush tropical foliage. Some houses were well tended, some streaked with the dark mold found in the tropics. Probably every household had domestic help—maybe two maids and a driver who also helped out with the gardening—but unlike the posh neighborhoods there was a community pool, not a private pool outside every living room. Apart from mild concern about an especially heavy rain, my interest in the weather was limited to enjoying it in the pool.

On Saturday the 26th I woke up around 10:20 thinking it was Sunday, when I was supposed to take a cake to birthday celebration. The wind and rain outside looked a bit worrying, so I sent a text to a friend who advised against going out. All right, I thought, I’ll put the cake in the freezer. From the kitchen I went to the living room to look out at the courtyard, where water was collecting. I reassured myself it wouldn’t get into the house. It never had. But it continued to rise. Ten minutes later I woke up my housemate, Mary, and she drove her motorcycle from the garage one step up onto the tiled living room floor.

The water crept into the house toward Mary’s study, which was just off the dining room. She yelled directions as we tried to get the computer unplugged and get wires, equipment and papers for her master’s thesis onto the dining room table. When the water rose up the two steps going up to the rooms in the back, I dashed to my own study and unplugged the computer, laying it on the top of a tall bookcase, moving the external drive and the scanner to safety, wrapping the wires around the top of the computer desk and forcing the monitor between the two shelves at the top of the desk, where I told myself it wouldn’t stay. It was a struggle both against time and against the voice in my head. I couldn’t find my camera bag.

The second time I got a mild shock while unplugging cords, I yelled to Mary to turn off the electricity. One by one I carried the fireproof box with my important documents, a change of clothes, a backpack with passport and bank information and two terrified cats into the living room—where each time I stumbled over the motorcycle submerged in the muddy water—then outside and up the tricky circular staircase to the “driver’s room” above the garage. Down below, the big refrigerator was floating waist-high in the kitchen, and water had risen to the edge of the dining room table. I took Mary’s computer and heaved it on top of the wardrobe in my bedroom.

Less than an hour had passed since I’d sent a text to my friend about the weather, but it was clear that we had to get out. What to wear in a flood? I put on my modest Marks and Spenser swimsuit, went back upstairs to the driver’s room for my backpack and the cats. I had to fight to get them both into the carrier. Each time I got one in, the other would pop out and dive under the bed. I pulled someone out by the tail, hoping I wasn’t causing physical damage. Then I looked out at the flooded courtyard. There was shouting on the street. Could I climb over the gate and maneuver my way through the spikes at the top?

In front of the gate the water was at mid-chest height, well over the latch. After a struggle it yielded. Outside, several yards away in the brown, swirling water, a young man stretched out his hand as a signal that he was there to rescue me. I told him I had to go back. I yelled to Mary—who later said she couldn’t hear me over the sound of the rushing water—and fetched backpack and cats from the driver’s room, ignoring the internal advice to roll up the dry clothes and put them in the backpack. I didn’t want to take the time.

Outside our gate, the young men in bathing suits who were going around rescuing people put the cage on a small, brightly painted raft and gave me a floatation device made of bamboo poles tied together. One held my backpack on his head as we swam or walked the distance of two houses to the subdivision entrance. No guards were posted at the guardhouse. The adjoining street was underwater but still navigable. We stood on the sidewalk and watched it rain. Mary followed a few minutes later in the tee-shirt and boxer shorts she’d slept in, but she went back for her purse and some essential medications. Our rescuers advised me to stay put. When she returned, the water in our subdivision street was over her head.

For maybe half an hour, I stood on the curb wondering what we should do next. The only refuge I could think of was a hotel I’d stayed in twice, but it was some distance away, and I didn’t know whether we could get there or whether I could talk them into accepting the cats. Other people stood around soaked but under umbrellas. Tricycles (motorcycles with sidecars) came, turned around and left. Water was too high on the other side of the intersection. People were friendly, and I was certain that eventually I’d be advised what to do.

A gate opened across the street, and a woman invited Mary and me to her house—later she told me she’d looked out and wondered what that woman was doing out on the street in her swimsuit. We could not have been more grateful for her kindness or more apologetic for getting water on her tiled floor. Our hostess provided a couple of dry housedresses, and she sat at the table with us while her maids served us a hot meal.

I was afraid to let the cats out, but after the boy growled I discovered that, in addition to being crowded together in one carrier, they were lying in two or three inches of water. I explained that, yes indeed, these were very special cats, Russian Blues who were litter mates, a boy named Raku and a girl named Sasha, born in Russia and purchased in Korea. Quiet, affectionate, non-destructive and easier on Mary’s allergies than most breeds. I might have exaggerated a little. However, I got two bowls of canned fish, a bowl of water and permission to let them out in the maid’s bathroom off the kitchen, where I fed them and toweled them down. I couldn’t get them dry. The girl cowered on the wet floor behind the toilet, and the boy growled from time to time. Otherwise, they were silent. Ordinarily they would have been pleading and demanding to be let out.

From time to time, Mary trembled with shock. I kept apologizing for talking too loudly in response to our hostess’s questions, but I couldn’t stop. We explained that we had both taught in Korea for some time, that Mary was studying at the University of the Philippines and that I was working on a novel. Mary talked about the death of her beloved husband Walter a year before and the agony she’d just suffered at having to leave his ashes behind in the house. “He would have thought I was crazy,” she said, “if I’d drowned because I was trying to save that heavy urn.” After lunch I sat in the entryway for a while and sobbed. I think it was mostly gratitude for being alive, but I was also seeing water rising over books, photographs, cameras and furniture. I lay down for a while but was unable to get any rest. Mary started trying to make cell phone contact with friends and neighbors.

Later our hostess said that a young man had appeared at the door, probably in hope of getting some money in exchange for having rescued us. She’d told him I was asleep. She and her daughter left for church, which she assured us was just around the corner. Her maids would look after us. When she returned, she fed us again and said other people from our subdivision were evacuating to a new “condo” down the street. I wasn’t allowed to leave money for our rescuer—no, no, she’d just tell him we left. We got loaded up in her car, me barefoot in my swimsuit and a donated jacket, Mary in her borrowed housedress. I had the backpack and the cats. She had a collection of plastic bags with medications and other items which proved useful.

Studio 87 was a sort of resident hotel for students—given the prices, I imagine it was built for foreign students. It did not take credit cards, but I had enough for one night in a three-bed room with bath. In the office our former hostess bought me some plastic flip-flops so I wouldn’t have to go barefoot. Again we were effusive in our thanks. We all exchanged hugs, including the maids, who seemed quite uncomfortable with it.

In the lobby the cats remained silent. I mentioned them to the manager and I promised to pay for any damage, but it wasn’t until we were upstairs and in the room that the staff discovered them and balked. I must have looked a pitiful sight, a flood refugee in my swimsuit and donated flip-flops, ready to return to the flood-ravaged deep of night rather than part with my cats. After a call back down to the manager, they were allowed to stay provided they didn’t leave the room.

In the convenience store next to the hotel, the radio was broadcasting an emergency rescue program. Babies and elderly people needed to be rescued from rooftops, and someone’s departed relative needed to be picked up by a mortuary. The television in the hotel lobby showed relief operations underway, crowded shelters, lines of refugees wading through muddy water with a few possessions and maybe a baby floating in a basin beside them. Mary continued to try to locate friends and neighbors with her cell phone. She spoke with her daughter, who sent emails to most of the contacts on my mailing list saying we were safe.

On Sunday, still in my swimsuit and flip-flops, I spent an hour or two locating a bank machine. The inter-bank system was down. I finally walked down a main street to a branch of our bank. Since the maximum machine withdrawal is 4,000 pesos (about $80) at a time, I kept feeding the card into the machine—desperately, like a gambling addict, as if money were all that would keep us safe. After seven withdrawals, I forced myself to quit. And I did that only because in the past I’d been unable to take out money during holidays because some greedy person had gotten there first.

Once empowered with funds, I took a taxi to the hotel, paid for a week’s rent and set off again to buy kitty litter, cat food and a few other things. The supermarket was packed with people loading up on water and food, but there was no run on kitty litter. People were friendly and considerate. I stood in line for the cash register and asked people to tell me which was shampoo and which was something else because I couldn’t read without my glasses. I explained that the swimsuit was all I had to wear and told my story. I was still shaking from time to time and could hardly stop talking.

The woman behind me translated my story into Tagalog for the benefit of others in line. She talked about having to rent a rubber boat to rescue relatives who’d been on a rooftop for eight hours, including a baby who was now in the hospital. Then she bought me two gallon jugs of water and gave me a ride back to the hotel. We parted like two newly-found best friends.

I had always wondered about people who could survive catastrophe and remain fairly level-headed, helpful to others and grateful. Oddly, that seems to have been the case with us. We haven’t exchanged one harsh word since the beginning of the rain. The cats have been amazingly good—perhaps they’re grateful as well. Almost our entire subdivision was flooded, which means that the homeowners will probably be unable to get a decent price for their houses. Many of them—including a family in the same hotel—were trapped on a second floor for eight or ten hours. Worse, thousands of homeless people who had little before the flood are now truly desperate. By comparison, our loss is not so much a tragedy as a major inconvenience.

Everyone we’ve encountered has been friendly and helpful—the young men who rescued us, the woman who took us in, the manager and staff of the hotel and the people in the grocery store. That goodness and generosity continues in Part 2 of this story.

Please check out the great photoblog linked to this site.