Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Reading Scheduled in Seoul

Fulbright Forum 
  7:00 P.M. on Friday, August 21, 2009 
R.S.V.P. by Tuesday, August 18

The Korean-American Educational Commission warmly welcomes you our eighth Fulbright Forum of the 2008-2009 program year with Fulbright Junior Researcher Misty Edgecomb.  

"Small Fish: Searching for Wartime Seoul and the Birth of International Adoption"

Open to all, the Fulbright Forum serves as a periodic gathering for the Fulbright Family at large, including past and present grantees and friends of Fulbright.  Please reply to Emily Kim Goldsmith (executive.assistant@fulbright.or.kr) by Tuesday, August 18 to confirm your attendance.  Regrets do not need to RSVP.  This month's Forum will be held at 7:00 PM sharp on Friday, August 21 in the 6th floor conference room at the KAEC Building in Mapo-gu, Seoul, with a snack reception to follow in the 3rd floor administrative offices.  Please visit the KAEC website for maps and directions (http://www.fulbright.or.kr/en/kaec/map.php).  

To respect both the audience and presenters, late arrivals will not be allowed to enter after 7:05 PM.


Summary: 

Tens of thousands of Korean children were orphaned or separated from their families when war gripped the peninsula in the early 1950s. Choi Kyung Hyun, born in Seoul in 1948, found himself among them, spending his days on the streets rather than in school, and sleeping at the home of a local prostitute. The child of a Korean mother and an American soldier father stationed in Korea following WWII, the boy who called himself "Jimmy" had no place in Korean society of the time. Without a Korean father, he appeared on no family record, so legally speaking, this mixed-race boy did not exist. But Jimmy found a family in Paul Raynor, a 24-year-old bachelor American soldier from rural South Dakota. Raynor violated direct orders, risking court martial, to sneak Jimmy into his billet and secretly adopt the boy under Korean law. Such adoptions were then banned by Army policy, and American family law had few provisions for single fathers. With Seoul in chaos just 50 or so kilometers from the front lines, and much of the nascent Republic of Korea government still being organized, navigating the Korean system wasn't much easier. At one point, Paul seriously considered just sneaking Jimmy home in his rucksack. Ultimately, his perseverance paid off, and Jimmy's was one of just four international adoptions recognized by the American government in 1953. This historic adoption and its contemporaries paved the way for thousands of American families to adopt from overseas, prompting countless cultural and societal shifts (some good, some bad) and forever changing the practice of adoption and the definition of family.

Biography:

Misty Ann Edgecomb
 is a journalist from Maine, who has spent the past three years researching and writing Small Fish: War, Fatherhood and the Birth of International Adoption, the story of her father-in-law's historic adoption from Korea. She heard the story of Jimmy's adoption from her husband, Caleb Raynor, on their first date 11 years ago, and has been fascinated with finding out the truth behind the family legend ever since.Edgecomb held staff reporting  jobs at the Bangor Daily News and the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle before returning to graduate school at theUniversity of Oregon in 2006. Small Fish was begun as her graduate project, and has been expanded during her time as a Fulbright junior research grantee in Seoul. She hopes to find a publisher upon her return to the United States this fall. For more information, visithttp://smallfishbook.blogspot.com.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Seeking Choi Un Sun

With my time in Korea running out, I'm finally on the trail of those who made this adoption happen. I've spent the past year working around the edges of this story, researching the locations and the context, and the experiences of others ... but in essence, this is what we came to Korea for - to trace Caleb's dad's story. Jimmy's immigration files arrived from the United States today, and as I'm looking through the photocopies, I'm just amazed at the wealth of information and all the potential leads. 

We now know the address where Paul and Jimmy lived at Seoul City Command, so I plan to go exploring later this week to find out what that neighborhood looks like now. We also have an address (which Caleb's grandpa told us may well have been a fake) where Caleb's dad was supposedly born. Paul went to see a laywer (whose name, I now know thanks to the immigration file, was Moon Kwang Il) for assistance in tracking down where Jimmy was born since that information was needed to process the adoption. Moon came back with an address, so Paul went out looking for the location. It was an empty lot, in a neighborhood where all the homes had been bombed into oblivion, so Paul always suspected that Moon selected it as a location that he could lie about without getting caught. Either way, I'm going searching for the spot.  

We have a wealth of new names - translators, witnesses, government officials, and maybe even the name of the prostitute (although she says she's a "rice dealer") with whom Jimmy was living when Paul met him. There's a testimony from her, describing how she came to find Jimmy and why she decided to allow Paul to take him. It may be more clever fakery by Mr. Moon, or it may be the truth. The only way to find out is to attempt to track some of these people down. At the very least, I hope I can figure out whether anyone with these names ever actually existed. 

Finally, the documents mention a woman named Choi Un Sun, who would have been about 80 years old in 1953. She claimed to be Jimmy's maternal grandmother, and told the story of his mother's death. Is this more fakery to facilitate the adoption of a child with no knowledge of his origins or could this actually be accurate? Caleb's grandpa did tell me about sending an Army translator friend out to the markets with pictures of Jimmy, in hopes of finding the boy's family, and he said that they located Jimmy's grandmother, and that it was from her that he heard about Jimmy's American father. If the story is true, might Caleb be able to use this information to find distant relatives here in Korea??? I know that after 50 years, finding any of these people is a long shot, but today, after endless months of dead ends and disappointment, the potential glimmering there amid these photocopied pages is nothing less than exhilarating!

Below, I include images of what I believe are Jimmy's original Korean adoption papers and family register. I hope to have them translated soon, in case they contain additional details that were not included in the "official" Army translation done in 1953. The copies are a bit fuzzy, and I think there are Korean letters and Chinese characters, as well as some Japanese text, so it could be a little tricky, but definitely worth the the effort!



Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Treasure Hunt

Last week, I learned that 18 months of waiting were worth all my worry, when my mom called to tell me that the immigration file we'd requested from the US government was sitting in our Post Office box! These 42 pages of history are an incredible resource, including such documents as the family register that was created for Jimmy at the time of his adoption, testimony from various family members and neighbors in Seoul regarding his paternity and the fate of his late mother, and the original adoption papers processed by the Korean government in 1953. We've been trying to acquire many of these same documents since our arrival in Seoul last fall, with no success, since we lacked some of the critical details that would be necessary to search the Korean  government databases (such as Jimmy's parents' names and the address where he was born). I know that others have faced this same frustration as they seek to trace their own history, so thought I'd tell you a little about how we did it:

If you were adopted to the United States and subsequently became an American citizen, you have an immigration file, and have a right to a copy of that file. I assume there are similar procedures to follow in Europe and elsewhere, but unfortunately my knowledge of the law is limited to the US.

Go online to the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. You want to download the G-639 form, which is available at www.uscis.gov

This form is for a federal Freedom of Information Act request. It's a tool used primarily by journalists, but is available to all citizens. As you fill out the form, be sure to check the box for "all of my records" to ensure that you get everything in your file.

If you have naturalization documents, visas or other resources that might include information to help locate your file, include photocopies. 

Once the form is complete, you'll need to go sign it in the presence of a notary public to have your signature officially notarized (FYI: many chain copy stores offer this service).

You can ask for your request to be expedited, but chances are, you'll probably have to wait at least a year - you have to prove that someone's life is at stake to get your documents quickly. (Our request for speedy processing was rejected.)

Send the completed form to:

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Department of Homeland Security
National Record Center
P.O. Box 648010
Lee's Summit, Missouri 64064-8010

I called the office several times to check on the status of my request and always found the staff to be very polite and helpful. Although fees for copying are sometimes charged for particularly large amounts of information, Jimmy's records were photocopied and mailed to us at no cost.

Good luck!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Where it All Began


I got up early this morning, 59 years — to the moment — since the start of the Korean War, the event which put everything about my husband's family's story in motion, to just look out my windows and think about what dawn on that rainy Sunday morning in 1950 must have been like. The attack was completely unexpected. In fact, many of the South Korean troops stationed near the 38th parallel were home on weekend passes, visiting their families, when heavy Soviet-made tanks crawled through flooded rice fields to invade what is now South Korea. I've stared into the gun barrel of one of these monsters at the National War Memorial here in Seoul, and I can imagine the horror of seeing it rise over a hill, bearing down on a soldier who expects a lazy, routine morning of guard duty. 
Since I have family in town, visiting from the United States, I had the opportunity to return to the DMZ just two days ago, and was a little surprised (given the lack of concern among my Korean friends and those I know in the American military) to see that security has been ramped up since we visited in April. Barbed wire still barricades the riverbanks, and guard towers dot the shore, strategically positioned to look out at North Korea on the other side of the Imjingang, a tributary of the Han River that bisects the city of Seoul. But now, there are soldiers in the guard towers that were abandoned earlier this spring, and a tank sat on the side of the road, men with camoflage paint smeared on their cheeks, keeping watch over the placid water. Tourists still hike deep beneath the DMZ to explore a tunnel blasted through solid granite by the North Koreans in the 1960s or 70s to facilitate a sneak attack on Seoul, but the video that these visitors watch no longer talks about imminent reunification and reconciliation. The world is waiting for a predicted missile launch from North Korea sometime in the next few weeks - a long-range scud missile that will reportedly soar over Japan, toward the Hawaiian Islands. Here in Seoul, North Korean officials are quoted in my morning paper as saying that they will "wipe America off the globe" if United Nations efforts to stop illegal arms trafficking continue. The Kang Nam, a North Korean ship believed to be full of these weapons is somewhere near Hong Kong, leading a slow-speed marine chase that could prompt a return to the war that never really ended. In July of 1953, a truce was signed to end the fighting, but no treaty to formally end the war was ever signed. It makes me wonder whether North Korea's million soldiers believe that they are, indeed, still at war. 
I remembered to bring my binoculars to the DMZ this time, and so I was able to look directly into the expressionless face of one of these soldiers. As I raised my binoculars, he raised his, and we peered at one another over twenty-odd yards of concrete, his face filling my viewfinder - jaw tensed, mouth fixed. Was he curious about me or simply doing his duty? Was that tension in his face inspired by hate or fear? The DMZ is a strange place, made even more odd by the tension that grips the globe in light of recent threats. Below, I've reposted a piece I wrote for my personal blog (a series of digital postcards I write for my family) after our first view of North Korea in April:

Driving by razor wire and guard towers for miles and miles puts a tourist into a very strange state of mind. When you're surrounded by armed guards, with cameras trained on your every move, you can't help but whisper. Your motions become slow and small and deliberate. You pose for photos, but you're afraid to smile. 
Everything just feels wrong. 
The buildings within the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone along the border between North and South Korea don't look particularly threatening. They're mostly standard 1950s-era military construction and looked a lot like parts of Loring Air Force Base, near where I grew up. And the North Korean soldiers, peering at you through binoculars, seem less frightening the the stone-faced ROK (South Korean) guards who are both protecting you and making sure that you don't make an errant step or gesture. If some fool had made a run for the line, I have no doubt they would have shot him. You're permitted to take photos, but not to wave or point or otherwise show any interest in these people a few dozen feet away - too much chance of ending up in a North Korean propaganda video, or so they say.
We took a tour arranged through the USO with American soldiers as guide-guards (and minders). It was actually surprising how frequently we were able to take pictures - I'd expected a blanket prohibition. Of course, at one point, we were herded into a "photo area" - a little box painted on the ground, selected because it didn't offer any angles from which one could actually take a photograph of North Korea ... But some of the oddest views simply can't appear in this movie. The little spotted deer that leapt out of the trees and bounded off toward the border (the DMZ actually harbors some rare animals and plants since it's mostly been left alone for 50 years) - the rusty signs hanging about two feet from the road, warning you that the idyllic forest you're looking at is full of land mines - the bridges and overpasses wired with explosives so that they can be destroyed and made into barricades at a moment's notice - the local people who tend their rice fields just a mile or two from one of the most heavily defended borders in the world.
On several occasions, we were taken to overlooks where we could just barely see (it was a particularly hazy, smoggy day) the North Korean village within the DMZ. The name is technically Gijeong-dong, but the Americans call it "Propaganda Village" and the North Koreans call it "Peace Village." There have been stories about painted skylines, like old movie sets, which may have been true in the past - but they do look like real buildings now. Supposedly if you look through binoculars, you can see that the windows have no glass, though. (I'm bringing my binoculars when I go back!) The guide said that all the lights in the village are turned on and off at the same time every day, and so there's a suspicion that no one actually lives there - but who knows? For years, they told people that the large North Korean building you can see in the Joint Security Area was just a facade, but that's been proven false. And none of our guides happened to mention that just below the rise where we were taken to view the DMZ, there's a giant fortified concrete bunker with gun towers and tanks - that's the view we present to the North Koreans - but no one likes to talk about it.
It is possible to take tours of a village within North Korea - though the restrictions are pretty severe - no photos, no talking to people, no interaction. The tour had been shut down in recent months, due to mounting concern over the satellite/missile launch (which occurred just a few days before our DMZ tour) and two journalists who were taken prisoner, but we're going to look into it, and we'll definitely blog about the experience if we get there!
Until 2004, there was a propaganda war here, with North Koreans blasting recordings from their side, and Americans and South Koreans fighting back with pop songs. Both sides ultimately found it too annoying and agreed to a cease-music. Instead, we now have flag proliferation. The South Koreans put up a big flag in their village, so the North Koreans had to top it with a pole that's more than 500 feet high and a flag that's so heavy that it can't actually flap and threatens to collapse under its own weight if it rains.
Communist soldiers have crossed the line over the years - most recently in 2006 - but it seems to be more a matter of testing boundaries than any actual attempt at hostilities. There's a fascinating story about how a tree trimming attempt in the 70s led to fighting with fists and axes; and a story about a Soviet diplomat who defected from a Communist DMZ tour in the 80s; but most of the time, it's just weirdly quiet - very tense people staring at one another for days and days and days on end.
On our way home, we stopped at a tunnel that was dug under the DMZ by the North Koreans, and was one of four that have been discovered since the 1970s. Drilled out of solid granite, it was damp and cold and we kept banging our heads on the ceiling. I couldn't imaging marching through miles and miles of these sorts of tunnels - actually, picturing North Korean soldiers trying to manage a unified goose-step in such close quarters was pretty funny.
But the strangest part of this strangest of days may have been when we watched a video about the DMZ before entering the tunnel - it kept talking about reconciliation as though it were already in motion, and described the DMZ over and over as a "place of peace" where happy animals frolic (playing hopscotch with the land mines, I presume) and people can come together --- I kind of snorted and started to laugh out loud, before I contained myself. Place of peace? Really?
That does sum up our experience, though. The DMZ isn't real. It's a place of mutual delusion, where we pretend not to be at war, while training our weapons on one another. It's a place where you can't wear certain clothes or wave or gesture, because that might not be the "right image" to present to the North Koreans; and Lord knows the kind of shenanigans the North Koreans get up to in their ongoing performance of flashing lights and fake buildings and giant flags for the benefit of the guards standing a few hundred yards to the South. It's smoke and mirrors, cloaking a very frightening reality that I hope we never have to face again. 
And it's fascinating.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Now and Then


I wanted to share some photos from my visit to the site of the Seoul Sanitarium and Hospital Orphanage, run (in the 1950s) by Seventh Day Adventist Missionaries George and Grace Rue. Jimmy spent a few months staying with the Rues in the summer and fall of 1953, while Paul was in the United States trying to arrange for him to get a visa to immigrate. Mrs. Rue was a friend, with whom Paul had worked on charitable efforts to help street kids and other war refugees. Back then, the orphanage was located on the outskirts of the city, surrounded by rice fields that Jimmy remembers playing in. Unfortunately, the dormitories where Jimmy would have slept were torn down a few years ago, but a number of the original buildings remain. Today, it's smack in the middle of eastern Seoul, a modern hospital surrounded by high-rises. The contrast is amazing! 

(1) An aerial view of the compound in 1960, before the city grew up around it. The original hospital is the large white building at the center, while the Rue's red-brick house is located at the hospital's southwest corner.
(2) The hospital compound in the 1960s. The large white building is the original hospital. These would have been the sort of rice fields that Jimmy remembers wading through.
(3) George and Grace Rue on the front steps of the hospital in 1951.
(4) The old hospital today, which is still in use as a maternity ward now named for Dr. Rue.
(5) Mr. and Mrs. Rue's house today. You can see the modern city in the background.

Note: All historic photographs are courtesy of Sahmyook Medical Center, whose staff has been tremendously gracious.






Thursday, May 14, 2009

Adoption Day

video

The photos in this slideshow are all from an event held last weekend in Seoul to draw attention to the plight of unwed mothers in Korea. Sponsored by a group called Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoptee Community of Korea, the intent was to promote alternatives to international adoption. The large puppets represent unwed mothers crying for their lost children.

Korea observed Adoption Day last week. That, in itself, was a bit shocking --- that there is demand for such a day on the calendar seems slightly odd to an American. But in the years since my father-in-law (Jimmy) was adopted, tens of thousands of Korean children have boarded planes for new lives and new families all around the world. Last year alone, 1,264 children were adopted internationally, according to government statistics. At the very beginning, quite a few of the children were like Jimmy - the mixed-race children of wartime unions who had no place in Korean society of that time. But since the 1960s, the vast majority of children who are adopted internationally are 100% Korean. For decades, the country has been providing children to be be raised by American and European families, but as Korea's economy surged; the country began to feel uncomfortable with its international reputation as a "baby exporter." And to complicate matters further, Korea's birthrate is strikingly low. Without shifts in family planning or immigration policy, the nation's population (like that of Japan and many Northern European countries) will begin to fall in coming decades. Hence; Adoption Day. National leaders created the holiday four years ago in hopes of promoting domestic adoption of Korean children by Koreans.

Today's Korean adoptees are almost all the unplanned children of unmarried women --- women who Korean social service agencies say have few choices. Culturally, single mothers just haven't been accepted. One adoptee-activist I spoke with compared the situation to that of the United States in the 1950s and 60s - women are shamed into giving up their children. Some talk of foster care as a solution for struggling families (a Korean system wasn't introduced until 1995), others want to promote acceptance of single moms and build up programs to offer them financial and emotional support. Government leaders often point to recent statistics suggesting that more Koreans are choosing to adopt. And a significant number of adult Korean adoptees have entered the debate, some arguing for the right of a child to be raised within the culture of its birth and calling for an end to international adoptions. Supporters of adoption counter that the timing just isn't right - so long as there are still Korean children in need of homes and parents overseas who want them, adoption agencies should facilitate. The "best interest of the child" can be a very complicated proposition.

For me --- immersed in the very beginning of this international adoption era --- it's fascinating to see how many of the same societal and cultural issues that led to adoptions like Jimmy's may also lead to the era's natural end.  Historically, Koreans adopted children from outside the father's bloodline only rarely; and even today, some couples who adopt go so far as to fake a pregnancy to create the illusion of a biological child to continue the family line. But they also feel a fierce pride in their cultural and ethnic identity --- something borne of centuries spent fighting off invading armies that goes far beyond any sort of patriotism the United States has developed in its (comparatively) short history. That identity suffers when the country is perceived as not being able to care for its own children. National leaders have set deadlines for the end of adoption from Korea, but the dates keep shifting, as cultural change is coming more slowly than some had hoped. It's been fascinating to observe all that's happening now - all the good and bad that ultimately grew out of these early adoptions. I'm writing primarily about the 1950s, but history doesn't exist in a vacuum (OK, sometimes it does, but then it's really, really boring!), and I find the connections between the past and the present fascinating. Korea has been a model for international adoptions worldwide over the past 60 years, and Korean policy could have a tremendous impact on the thousands of children being adopted by Americans each year, from China and Africa and Central America and Eastern Europe. I can't predict what's going to happen, but I have no doubt ... it all starts here.

For more information about the wide range of adoptee perspectives, check out the groups that sponsored some of the events I attended this week:

TRACK (Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoptee Community of Korea): www.adoptionjustice.com

ASK (Adoptee Solidarity Korea):

GOA'L (Global Overseas Adoptees' Link):

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Children's Day

video

I had the opportunity to visit an orphanage here in Seoul on Children's Day (May 5th), and wanted to share some of my photos with all of you. As I spend hours at my desk, writing about this little four-year-old boy, it's sometimes easy to forget just how little that is. Having the chance to just spend time with these kids has really helped bring him to life for me. I'd be feeding the toddlers and thinking, "This is how old Jimmy was when his mom died," or playing with the older boys and girls and thinking, "This is how old Jimmy was when he was going down to the market by himself." As many of you probably know, most children who are in Korean orphanages today come from single moms who feel that they don't have any other option (more about that in tomorrow's post ... ), but seeing a mixed-race little girl in the orphanage - perhaps the child of a GI just like Jimmy - really got me thinking about how so much about Korea has transformed since the 1950s, but how below the surface, much remains the same.