Koreans & Camptowns: Reflections of a Mixed-Race Korean

By: Cerrissa Kim

November 4, 2015

I’ve often stood out from the crowd, and not in a way that made me feel like a rock star—far from it. Growing up in a rural town filled with dairy cows and Caucasian farmers, and then in a bedroom community lacking ethnic diversity, I was the sole Asian kid at school until fifth grade. To my classmates, I was a slanty-eyed chink. Jap. Gook. Yigger. They’d never even heard of Korea.

I don’t look like my Irish/Scottish American father, nor do I have the distinctly Korean features of my mother. Like many mixed-race people of my generation, I was Asian to the outside world, but not Korean enough to the Korean side of my family. I’ve looked for faces that resembled mine in some small way everywhere I’ve gone. I’ve scanned crowded spaces and deserted diners—anywhere I traveled—hoping for camaraderie with others who might make me feel my appearance was normal.

This past September in Berkeley, California, I opened the doors to the David Brower Center, slightly nervous and excited, I stepped into a room filled with mixed-race Korean Americans attending the one-day Koreans and Camptowns Conference. Even though I grew up with my biological parents, I still carry the scars—physical and emotional—from being ostracized and bullied for looking different from the other children in my bucolic California communities. Many of the people attending the conference were Korean adoptees (KADs) who had even more reason to search through crowds to find someone who resembled them. Not only were most KADs raised in places with no other KADs or Koreans, but they also didn’t look anything like their adoptive parents and other family members.

During and after the Korean War, camptowns were established outside of military installations, offering locals a way to earn a living— including entertaining soldiers with nightclubs and prostitution. Many of the mixed-race children born between the 1950’s and 1970’s were conceived and born in these camptowns, fathered by American and other Allied soldiers. Their mothers, the camptown women, were marginalized by society because most of them came from poor families and had to work as cooks, maids, sex workers, or other low-paying jobs to support themselves as well as their parents, grandparents and siblings. These women often waited for fathers of their children to return, hoping for a way out of the grueling camptown life. But more often than not, this didn’t happen, either because the soldiers were uninterested in going back, or because the military made it difficult—or even impossible—for them to return and marry Korean women.

Once they had a child, these women were faced with trying to keep their children in a land with no support for single moms—a place where their children would be ostracized and seen as a blemish upon society. They were told their children would find acceptance and peace in America, and for many, this was the only reason they could bear putting their children up for adoption. Over 200,000 children were sent abroad for adoption in the six decades following the Korean War.[1] Over 40,000 of these children were mixed-race.[2] During the Korean War, President Syngman Rhee reportedly referred to mixed-race children as garbage that the country needed to get rid of even if it meant dumping the children into the ocean. President Rhee was known for an ideology that embraced one nation, one race—and mixed-race children didn’t conform to the societal model.

These children were usually not orphans. Though some were babies when they were given up for adoption, the children were often older, ranging in age from two to ten, with living mothers in the camptowns and fathers alive and well in America. At the conference, a mixed-race KAD who started a search for her biological mother approached me after I spoke on a panel of mixed-race Korean-Americans sharing their personal stories. After hearing that I was born in Ujeongbu, she wanted me to ask my mother if she might have known her birth mother, since her birth certificate listed an address in Ujeongbu too. The woman told me she had been adopted at the age of 13 but had no recollection of her time in Korea. One can only imagine the possible hardships she might have endured and the trauma she went through after being separated from all she knew.

Milton Washington, a mixed-race KAD of African-American and Korean descent, also spoke on the panel with me. He recalled his Uhma (biological mother) and knowing she loved him. He ran around the camptown with a gang of children, returning to his Uhma each day. Giving a child up for adoption is difficult, but giving a son or daughter up after caring and bonding with them for years—a child who felt the warmth of a mother’s arms folded around them in the chill of a winter night— is excruciating.

The Evolution of the Koreans and Camptown Conference

Minyoung Kim describes herself as a typical Korean. Born in Korea to Korean parents, she had always liked children and wanted to help them in some way. While in college, she started volunteering for the Holt Adoption Agency. There she met many birth mothers and escorted several babies from Korea to adoptive parents in America. In 1999, she came to the United States to study and landed a job at the Korean Embassy in Washington, D.C., where she met many KADs in the area with American parents who wanted their children to learn about their Korean identity. Kim began teaching culture and language classes to the children on Saturdays. These adoptees were not mixed-race but rather ethnic Korean children who had been given up as babies. She promised herself that one day she would bring at least some of the children back to Korea so they could learn more about their homeland—a promise she fulfilled in 2012 when she happened to reunite with some students and took them to Korea on specially designed tours.

When Kim met Katharine Bradtke during a business trip to Boston however, these tours began to change. To Kim, Bradtke looked Caucasian and also a little Korean. Through Bradtke, she learned the term hapa, a word originating in Hawaii to describe people of mixed-race. Though the pidgin term started as a pejorative for mixed-race children of guest plantation workers from Korea, China, and the Philippines, she learned it’s now often used with pride by mixed-race Asian Americans as an identity marker.

Prior to meeting Bradtke, Kim hadn’t known any mixed-race Korean American adoptees. When she had lived in Korea, she had often heard mixed-race people referred to with racial slurs, and had seen them unaccepted and ridiculed by Korean society. After meeting Bradtke, Kim came to believe that mixed-race adoptees should also have the opportunity to return to Korea, the land of the morning calm, and connect with their birthplace.

She told the government-run Korean Adoption Service (KAS) about this mixed-race population of adoptees who were much older than the previous groups she’d brought to visit, and explained why she thought they should be given a special tour. KAS and the government officer-in-charge told her to proceed with a group tour and even agreed to fund a large portion of the cost of the trip. The first Mosaic tour of mixed-race KADs took place in October 2014. The first trip consisted of 25 KADs—men and women born in the 1950’s & 60’s. Many of them had a few memories of Korea, which were often horrible recollections of a time when they couldn’t go out during the day because they were told to be afraid of what people would do to a mixed-race person. Some remembered the orphanages or being given up by their birth mothers. While a few of the Mosaic tour participants had been to Korea before, for most of them, this was their first time in Korea since their adoptions.

After the tour, one of the participants, award-winning documentary filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem, felt she had reason to believe the area of her birthplace might be different from what she had always thought it to be. She asked Kim to accompany her on a personal tour to look into her past. Upon their return to the U.S., Borshay Liem proposed a conference devoted to mixed-race adoptees. Both women thought the conference could offer mixed-race KADs an opportunity to learn more about the camptowns that developed around American military bases during and after the Korean War—the places where many of them had been conceived, born, or brought in by well-meaning people who thought there would be more acceptance of their mixed-race background. The conference would highlight the intersection between American military presence and Korean society while also exploring the lives of the mothers and children who lived in the camptowns and offering a historical context as to why thousands of mixed-race children were sent overseas for adoption.

Although Kim had already established a nonprofit for her KAD tours, there were no funds for such a conference. She and Borshay Liem set about finding money to support their cause. Fortunately, the staff at UC Berkeley’s Center for Korean Studies became fascinated with the idea and funding was secured for the conference as a collaborative project between the center, Me&Korea, MU Films, and The Asia Society-Northern California Center. With a venue allowing up to 180 people, Kim initially wondered how they could fill up such a large space, but she soon found out there were many mixed-race people looking to learn about their past and meet others similar to themselves.

Past and Present Collide

People travelled from all over the U.S. to attend the Koreans and Camptowns conference, with a few guests and speakers even making the trek all the way from Korea. Three academics of Korean descent presented: Grace Cho, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Staten Island College, who discussed birth and death in the camptowns; Elena Kim, associate professor of anthropology at UC Irvine, who offered a historical perspective on adoptions from the Korea to the U.S.; and Sue-Je Gage, associate professor in the department of anthropology at Ithaca College, who presented  about Korean-Amerasians and the everyday politics of belonging.

When I asked Gage, a Korean-Amerasian[3], how becoming an academic who studies this subject for a living has affected her personally, she said she was drawn to study this subject because of who she is but she has also changed through her studies. Coming from humble beginnings as the daughter of a single Korean immigrant mother was difficult at times. Though her mother was technically married to a U.S. soldier when she first arrived in this country, he rarely gave support to the family. Gage and her mother quickly realized America was not the ideal place they had envisioned. Though she was always provided for, money was not plentiful. Despite times when school was challenging, for a myriad of reasons, Gage persevered and become a Fulbright scholar, using her scholarship to spend a year abroad teaching English in Korea.

Her time in Korea wasn’t easy, but while she was there, she began to understand more about herself, her mother, and Korea. She tried to learn as much as possible about people on the margins of society—shamans, mixed Koreans and their Korean mothers, non-Koreans, the camptowns, and the people inside them. After she finished her year in Korea, she knew she wanted to study mixed-race Koreans.

“I realized through studying with different professors in graduate school, not just in anthropology, but also sociology and political science, that there was everything right with studying “my own people” and that questioning “truth” and “authoritative knowledge” was part of the responsibility of being an academic,” said Gage.  Since 2002 she’s been working with Amerasians and their families in a spectrum of relatedness that isn’t always biological.  Her work and the people she’s worked with have helped her remain humble. “I listen because I don’t know the answers, but I can try to put pieces together through the stories that are shared with me so that I can better understand myself, my family, and the people I study, hoping that what I learn along the way helps others.”

Finding One’s Biological Roots

Many mixed-race Korean-Americans find themselves wanting to know about their biological origins. Most KADs of Amerasian heritage know of fellow adoptee Thomas Park Clement. Clement was part of the early wave of mixed-race adoptees. He became a scientist and inventor who donated one million dollars to make DNA testing kits from 23andMe available to all KADs and U.S. military servicemen who served in Korea as well as their relatives, in an effort to help people find their biological ties. Clement understood that what adoptees are looking for has to do with connectivity and he has seen how much effort and heartache goes into searching. He wanted to offer something that could help adoptees in their search. Though he wasn’t looking for his biological family for emotional reasons, as a scientist, he did want to know about his biological family’s health in order to more accurately assess his own biology. Due to his generous donation, it’s been estimated by the end of 2015 about 1,000 applicants will use one of his donated kits and become part of the DNA matrix that his funding helped put together.

For conference attendee Bee Dalton, whose birth name is Lee Ji Soon, DNA testing has helped her find members of her biological family. She had been looking at DNA testing for over five years, but at the start of her DNA investigations, the cost was prohibitive and the testing abilities limited. But over the years DNA testing has become more reasonably priced and the capabilities of the tests more advanced.

Dalton started her DNA testing before Clement funded it, but now she helps with his project by processing inquiries and making sure DNA kits reach those interested in taking the test. The hardest part of the project has been getting halmonies in Korea tested because they lack access to DNA testing and resources.

For Dalton, her DNA odyssey paid off. On Sept 17, days before the conference, a cousin called and introduced himself saying his mother was Bee’s father’s half-sister, and he welcomed her to the family. “He was very kind and said his family believed family was family and he asked me to call his mother,” said Dalton. When she talked to his mother Sophia, Sophia told her when her brother returned from Korea, he showed her, a girl of 10 or 11 then, a photo of his girlfriend. The girlfriend was a beautiful Asian woman and he said he loved her. “Sophia told me I had six younger siblings and one of them wanted to talk to me,” said Dalton.

The next day, her half-sister Kathy called and said that her father had told her and her siblings if someone half-Korean ever came around claiming to be their brother or sister, it was true. He told his children he had loved a woman in Korea when he had served in the military there. By the time his tour of duty ended, she had become pregnant so he went AWOL to find her and marry her. But he got caught by the MPs and put in the brig. After he was released, he could only find her parents, who told him that she and the baby had died in childbirth. When he went to the cemetery and couldn’t find markers for their bodies, her parents said their bodies had been dumped in the sea. Hearing this, he couldn’t do anything else but return to the U.S. where he eventually started a new family. He died without ever meeting his oldest daughter. “I get choked up every time I tell the story,” said Dalton.

In January 1966, Dalton’s mother gave her up to KAS in Seoul because she could no longer care for her. Dalton was five years and three months old at the time. She’s putting her DNA story out in the world to give hope to others that they too might find their biological parents. “DNA sometimes provides answers where there seems to be none,” said Dalton, who urges everyone to get tested. “The more people in the database, the more likely there are to be matches.”

Katharine Bradtke has also been successful with her DNA search for her biological father. Bradtke, an active member in the mixed-race KAD community, helped with ideas for the first Mosiac tour and participated in the tour with other first-wave mixed-race KADs in their 50’s and 60’s. One of her tour suggestions was for the group to visit a famous mixed-race African-American Korean R&B singer named Insooni. The meeting with Insooni, which took place at a school for mixed-race children that she started and supports, became one of the highlights of the trip.

Bradtke started her identity search three years ago. She went to Korea to attend a conference of KADs and started to look into finding her biological family there. “In the beginning, I didn’t get anywhere, nothing about me was found by KAS. At the KAD conference in Korea, I was featured on one of the last episodes of a show called I Miss That Person that was produced by the Korean Broadcasting System. It was a show that featured family members and friends searching for anyone who was missing, often families split apart from the Korean War, sometimes adoptees like me,” said Bradtke. But Bradtke still made no connections to her family on that trip.

On September 30th, days after the Koreans and Camptowns conference, she got a hit on the DNA database Ancestry, showing a connection to a first and second cousin as well as their family tree. On the tree was a name close to her father’s and a birth year that fit. She did a quick search of military records of that name but couldn’t verify her potential biological father’s Korean service. Eventually, she got contacted by a cousin who told her that she had half-brothers, they had a half-sister, and one of the family members even had a photo of what he believed was Bradtke and her mother. No one has been able to locate this photograph yet, but she hopes it surfaces because she has never seen a picture of her biological mother who gave her up when she was two years old.

A Fulfilling Experience

Dayna Choi Fischer, the talented photographer hired by KoreanAmericanStory.org, snapped individual photographs of attendees all day long. I noticed how she concentrated on capturing the essence of each individual with every shot she took. I never felt pretty as a child, and I’d venture to say I wasn’t the only mixed-race person who struggled with feelings of inadequacy about their looks and where they fit into American society. But here, amongst people who embraced me—each looking different but also somehow alike—who listened intently to my mother’s life journey and my origin tale and shared their own stories with me and one another, I saw beauty in each person and felt a sense of belonging.

These newfound friends welcomed me into their unique community. I was now linked with people who accepted me for who I am, knowing exactly where I have come from and the circumstances surrounding my existence. During the course of one day, I made powerful emotional connections that I’ve always longed for. Most people I spoke with at the conference experienced many of the same feelings I did.

We agreed that learning about the social and political history of adoption in Korea was enlightening but painful, as were watching the video vignettes of the women, now the age of a halmoni, tell harrowing stories of living in the camptowns, losing the children they loved, and being discriminated against by Korean society even today. Almost the whole room dabbed at their eyes with tissue when they listened to Jai Song Seo, a stately elder with snow white hair, tell stories of the children who lived at the St. Vincent Home for Amerasian children in Incheon and their placements into homes in America.

Attendees were moved by Jung Joon Lee’s presentation of Myungduck Joo’s photographs of the mixed-race children at the Harry Holt Memorial Orphanage and the imagery closely related to Joo’s work—photographs of camptown sex workers and GIs. Some attendees were disappointed that important sessions like the one about DNA had to be cut short due to time restrictions (morning sessions ran long so some of the afternoon sessions had to be trimmed). Many people wanted to see more of the halmonies featured in the snippets of video, having just learned the importance of getting the elderly women’s DNA tested and hoping they might one day have the chance to feel the support of a community that doesn’t view what they did to survive in the camptowns as shameful or disrespectful.

I think everyone would agree that the spirit of acceptance and friendship was prevalent through all aspects of the conference. Some mentioned there have been other successful KAD events, that served mostly as vehicles for networking and socializing, but had hardly any educational components. This conference was different though, as it was open to all mixed-race Koreans, not just KADS, and provided the chance for attendees to learn something about themselves as well as the history of the first generation of mixed-race Koreans and how and why they came into existence.

“The conference went beyond my expectations and imagination,” said Minyoung Kim, excited that it impacted so many people in such a deep way. “The day after, my husband told me he feels this is not the end, this is just the start of a long journey.” I think he’s right. DNA testing, hapa and KAD tours, an accepting mixed-race community, a stronger connection to other Korean Americans and Koreans in Korea, this conference, and future events will all lead to new adventures.

[1]Michael Shally-Jensen, Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Social Issues, Vol. 2, Criminal Justice,(Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2011 ), 772

[2]Hyung Gu Lynn, Bipolar Orders: The Two Koreas Since 1989, (New York, NY: Zed Books Ltd., 2007),84

[3] The original definition of Amerasian was used to describe a mixed-race person born in Asia to a U.S. military father and an Asian mother.

Click on the links below to read more about the Koreans & Camptowns Conference:

Koreans & Camptowns: Photo Essay  by Dayna Choi Fischer
How the Truth Can Hurt — or Heal  by Paul Lee Cannon

Photos by Dayna Choi Fischer for KoreanAmericanStory.org

Cerrissa Kim creates stories harvested from the rich, multi-cultural experiences of her Korean/Irish/Scottish ancestors. Scripting fiction is her passion but while she finishes her first novel, loosely based on her mother’s life story, she works as a magazine features writer and nonprofit director. An alumni of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, she lives in the heart of Sonoma County wine country with a husband who hails from Norway, their two sons, and a cadre of rescue animals. She regularly makes kimchi with her Uhma, who is teaching her the secrets of her family’s Korean cuisine.