How the Truth Can Hurt — or Heal
I attended the “Koreans and Camptowns” conference in Berkeley, Calif. last month after learning about this first-of-its-kind event from my friend Deann Borshay Liem, the documentary filmmaker who helped pioneer the event and whose storytelling I greatly admire. Frankly, I was hesitant to attend the conference because I knew the majority of attendees would be Korean-American adoptees. Would I fit in as a mixed-race Korean-American raised by his biological parents?
But thanks to Deann, I was able to quickly set aside my reluctance. She assured me that my story was just as relevant to the conference because my parents, Lee Chong Sun, born in Gimpo, and Arnold Cannon, an American serviceman from Iowa, met during the Korean War—a common backdrop for many adoptees’ birth stories.
And after connecting with several Korean-American adoptees, all with remarkable and often heartbreaking stories, I came to see that adoptees, having been excluded by both the country in which they were born and their biological parents, aren’t ones to exclude others. As they openly shared about their lives with me, they were curious to learn about mine.
Enduring a Stigma
Since I was a child, my mom and dad have shared stories about the stigma they faced as an interracial couple in war-torn Seoul. During this brutal chapter in world history, a romantic relationship between a Korean woman and an American G.I. was viewed with contempt from both cultures.
As a Korean woman, you were considered a disgrace, the lowest of the low, if you were with a soldier — a view undeniably shaped by the dominant Christian values and perceptions surrounding prostitution in Korea at the time. Koreans were supposed to marry Koreans — no questions asked, no exceptions. They as a people had fought too hard and too long to preserve their identity, leaving no room for the blood of other ethnicities. My parents learned about this stigma the hard way. Whenever they were seen together in Korea, the locals spat horrible epithets such as yangalbo (yankee whore).
The U.S. military wasn’t exactly thrilled by the idea of interracial relations either, according to Dad. He remembered a rumor that had spread before the war: If an American soldier were caught mingling with a Korean woman, he would be castrated and his testicles put in his mouth. Dad got busted once trying to sneak Mom onto the military base in a Jeep. An Army colonel pulled up a tarp from the back of the vehicle and found Mom curled up underneath. The officer threatened to court-martial Dad before he let them both off the hook because he thought he knew one of my mom’s girlfriends.
Despite all this, somehow love conquered all. They eventually married and until death did they part. Before my father passed away in 2004, he and my mother wove a fascinating and much-to-be-honored personal history spanning 53 years — from strife-struck Korea to sunny California to Midwestern America with six children and countless grandchildren. Today, some of these grandchildren even have kids of their own.
A New Story Emerges
Now in my late 40s, I thought I’d heard all the war tales my parents had to tell, but I recently learned I was wrong. When I told my mom about the conference, all of the wonderful connections I had made, and how companies like 23andMe have established DNA databases to connect adoptees with their biological families, a new story emerged.
“You know, Mr. Ferrell* has a mixed-Korean daughter,” she said, referring to my Dad’s old Army buddy who also served in Korea.
“Really?!” I responded, wide-eyed. “Tell me more.”
I remembered Mr. Ferrell well. When I was a kid, my parents, younger brother, and I would travel via RV between where I grew up (Indiana) and where I was born (California). Mr. Ferrell was married to a woman he met in Europe a couple years after the Korean War and they had three children. We’d stop in and see the Ferrells on these exciting cross-country trips. They lived roughly midway between our Midwest home and the Golden State.
“Mr. Ferrell had a Korean girlfriend … Susan,*” Mom continued. “And Susan had a daughter with him.” I pressed her for more details.
“So what happened to them? Did he leave them in Korea?” To this, Mom nodded, somewhat reluctantly.
“He used to ask your dad and me how Susan and the little girl were doing.”
This was fascinating but also troubling to hear, especially after meeting several adoptees at the conference searching for their biological parents. Knowing this “secret,” I now grapple with a colossal dilemma. Should I contact Mr. Ferrell, whom I know is still alive and continues to keep in touch with my mom, and encourage him to submit his DNA so a mixed-race woman somewhere out in the world with a Korean mom named Susan might discover her father? I know it’s a long shot and I could risk disrupting a happy home by exposing the truth, but my heart aches for this woman who might have been longing to meet her biological father for decades. If I keep quiet, I could be letting this sorrow continue. And time is not on my side. Mr. Ferrell is well into his 80s, so I need to decide quickly.
What would you do?
*The names have been changed to protect identity although the photographs are featured here in hopes that someone will recognize the mother who had to give her baby up for adoption.
Photos, all taken in Suwon, 1952, courtesy of Lee Chong Sun
Click on the links below to read more about the Koreans & Camptowns Conference:
Paul Lee Cannon is an award-winning journalist whose work has been published in Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and KoreAm Journal. In 2000, Paul successfully reunited his mother with her sister after more than 40 years of separation. His essay about being mixed-race Korean will be featured in the forthcoming anthology, 1/2 Korean: Our Stories, due out in 2016. Learn more about Paul at paulleecannon.com.