The Story of a Korean War Baby
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.”)
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.
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.
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.
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.