This is definitely a change from my poetry. I wanted to share my dad’s story somewhere, someway, somehow… I know my dad’s life story better than anybody, including my mother. I started drinking with my father when I was 9 years and at age 24 I became sober. In my sobriety I confronted the domestic violence I grew up in. The emotional and verbal abuse I received from my father. In order to move on and forgive I have to understand my father’s life and it has never been easy. My dad had to understand his mother’s life like I’ve had to understand his. I meant for this to be shorter than what it is but I found the more I wrote the more I was healing. I can’t excuse my dad’s alcoholism and the domestic violence but I can forgive him because today he is trying to be a better husband and father. He is an amazing and loving grandfather. None of his grandchildren have ever heard him raise his voice or seen him drunk.
Facing My Father’s Childhood
I grew up glued to my father’s “stories of Korea.” My dad laughs at these stories. When he tells them everyone laughs and misses the details of child abuse. One of his favorite stories is when his mother, my Halmoni, caught him in a lie and blacked out in a drunken rage. She beat him mercilessly until her arm got tired. She rested then found a belt to beat him with until her arm, again, got tired. In hindsight, he knows she was experiencing flashbacks and that for half a day he was in fetal position being beaten by her because of the demons she had to fight.
My Halmoni’s life is literally fought over in history books. She was a survivor of military sexual slavery during World War Two, or better known as a “Comfort Woman.” Much of her story is lost in translation and, at the time, in my father’s refusal to believe an outlandish story. My Halmoni died in 1992, the same year other survivors came forward with their stories. My father still feels guilty about not believing her when she disclosed to him and his friend/translator what happened. When World War Two ended she made her way back to Korea. Her parents accepted her back so long as she worked in Seoul as a prostitute – she was “damaged goods” and the least she could do for the family was sale herself. My father maintains that his family was very close and that my Halmoni “took pride” as their only source of income.
With sincere pride I say that my Halmoni was a prostitute because she was a survivor and fighter all her life. Her blood and spirit flow through me and now my nieces. There is only speculation of the paternity of my father. To further speculation, my Halmoni “served” Korean and American soldiers; rare for prostitutes to do. Most of the time she knew who his father was and could point him out; other times she would shrug her shoulders and stop any speculation. For what it is worth my father identifies as Korean American.
My father was born in Seoul, South Korea during the final years of Syngnam Rhee. In 2009, I visited my father’s final orphanage, Pearl S. Buck Foundation. They were kind enough to give me pictures of my father and copies of documents they had on him. His year of birth was listed as 1959, 1960, and 1961 on different documents. When I returned to my apartment I called my father immediately. I was very excited with all the documents and pictures I was given. I thought my father would chuckle with me about the three different years he was supposedly born. It was my father who taught me to laugh at painful memories, or just pain in general. My father always knew he was born in either 1959 or 1960 – he didn’t know 1961 was ever a possibility. During our Skype conversation he did not laugh, chuckle, or smile. It confused me. There were other painful memories I uncovered while at the orphanage that he laughed at or shrugged off but the three different birth years were somehow more painful. I soon realized it was because he never had a real birth certificate. He was the son of a prostitute and was not worthy enough to be given a real Korean birth certificate – the year 1961 reminded him what Korea thought about him at the time.
By the time my father was born my Halmoni was more than a prostitute. She sold American products on the black market. She had her own home in Seoul and a farm in her village, Gim-je, (southwest Korea). Her parents were provided for, her siblings were in school, and she was a feared by her neighbors because of her drunken temper. My Halmoni lived right next to the military bases –my father can recall hearing propaganda from North Korea. They moved around but never too far from the base and never below northern Seoul. When they visited Gim-je his family doted on him – his grandfather would carry him on his shoulders. His mother’s only sister was very affectionate toward him. He played with his cousins all over Gim-je. When his grandparents, aunts, and cousins visited Seoul they were still a loving family. My dad remembers being in Namdaemoon with his grandparents and his feet had gotten tired. His grandfather put him on his shoulders the rest of the trip – his grandfather was tall and slender and very affectionate as well. My father clearly had a special place in his family’s hearts. Nobody shamed or denied him. His grandfather was the only male in his life and the fact he was not ashamed of my father meant a lot. Even today he says he wishes he was not adopted because of this extended family he had and the affection he received from them.
My father was born with a deformed left hand and crooked eyes. The first orphanage deemed my dad “unadoptable” because of his deformities. He was about three or four at the time. The second orphanage paid for my dad to have his hand fixed and later did the best they could for his eyes. Even in the orphanage, where there were surely other children of prostitutes, my father was ostracized. He was always by himself and the orphanage’s teachers were cruel to him. One day his mother came to visit him and he begged to go back home. She brought him candy, which helped him make friends. She gave him toys that were taken away from him by his teachers. She brought him clothes. She visited throughout the week. Despite sharing his American candy my dad quickly was ostracize again. Eventually my Halmoni took him out of the orphanage and thought she could keep him.
As I said, my father had surgery on his deformed hand. Two of his fingers were clubbed together. The surgery left him with a thumb and three fingers. When my father went to his new school he was tormented because of his hand. My father admits to crying all the time because of it. He tried to hide his tears from my Halmoni because he was scared of how she’d react… she could’ve beaten him for crying or she could’ve caused a fight between the teachers and parents. My Halmoni beat up several people for mistreating my father. He didn’t like that, (though he laughs very mightily about it today). One day, she did discover him crying after being roughed up by other children. He can’t recall if she was intoxicated or not but her reaction surprised him. She listened to him cry about his hand and how unfair life was to him – he thinks he was 5 or 6 at the time. She held my father’s hand and rubbed it gently. She assured him there was a reason his hand was different than others. My father vividly tells this story and it is my favorite story.
Daily life with my Halmoni meant watching men, of all races, beat and rape her. My father witnessed it. He tried to intervene but would always get hurt. Still he tried. When my Halmoni could no longer bare that her only child was witnessing the attacks she would take him to a new or old orphanage. Only recently have I learned my father was raped by American soldiers at an orphanage he frequently went back to. Orphanage staff provided him and other children to paying American pedophiles. When I asked if his mother knew about it he was adamant she could never had known because he never told her. In hindsight she probably would have been the only person to believe and protect him. Witnessing his mother raped and beaten regularly made his sexual abuse “normal.” Being ostracized by everyone made it impossible for him to tell any adult that could have helped him. He was the perfect victim.
If my Halmoni did not visit my father in the orphanage he would runaway back to her. He started to figure out how to get back home after he was 5 years old. If he did not see her in a week he would runaway from the orphanage. My Halmoni taking him from the orphanage or my father running away to her went on until he was nine years old. One day when she returned home she found my father outside her house; for hours he had waited for her. He had been missing from the orphanage for a week. Intoxicated, she looked at him and said, “I guess you have to live with me.”
At age 9 hardly an orphanage would work with my Halmoni and father – he was “too old.” However, Pearl S. Buck Foundation decided to help. They mostly worked with mixed race Koreans but occasionally made exceptions. My father was an exceptional case. They wanted to help him get adopted as much as they could – they even marked him as having sandy blonde hair, (my father’s hair is very black), they said he had white skin, (my dad has bronze skin), and that he was in perfect health, (they left out his missing finger, deformed hand, and crooked eyes). Despite their omissions, embellishments, and lies the foundation was still certain my father would not be adopted. My Halmoni and them agreed my father could live with her while they waited to see if anyone would adopt him.
My father can remember every belt and shoe he was beaten with by his mother. He can remember every man’s face that raped and beat her. Still, he was happiest when he lived with her. When I first started to cook Korean food he started to tell me new stories about my Halmoni packing him lunches. My cooking, though very delicious, was not as good as hers but the closest he’s ever had. While concocting different recipes in the kitchen to impress him, I learned that at age five my father started hopping trains and paths all throughout South Korea. It started off as running away from the orphanage to get back to his mother but when he was home he wanted to be adventurous. He was a lonely child and wandering throughout Korea kept him out of his mother’s wrath for a little bit. A relative caught him once riding the trains instead of going to school. He was beaten badly by my Halmoni but it never stopped him from traveling.
I have had to come to understand my Halmoni’s love for my father. When I started realizing the hilarious stories my father told were actually stories of horrible child abuse I had to really question the woman. My father has always told me I am a lot like his mother. Realizing the abuse my father endured I could not find it to be a compliment. I made the mistake of blaming her for a heart condition I had since birth and for my own violent temper. My father will never admit my Halmoni did anything wrong or was there ever anything wrong with her. The ugliest fights between the two of us involved my Halmoni – whether it was my blaming her for my poor health or pointing out the child abuse. In light of her flaws I have come to realize it is a compliment to be like her. Despite the horrors she endured she was a survivor. I cannot even begin to imagine what she went through. I cannot judge how she coped or turned out. When I look at the only picture we have of her I see a beautiful survivor who did her best.
Other than happy stories of food my father loves to talk about my Halmoni terrorizing men and women in her neighborhood for mistreating him. After a boy twice his size attacked my father and made fun of his hand, my Halmoni went to his house and dragged his mother outside. She then waited for his father to get home and beat him with a heavy stick she found while waiting. She did the same thing when a girl in my father’s grade beat him up. However, when she found out it was a girl who beat my father up so badly, she went back home and beat him.
In fifth grade my father stopped going to school. My Halmoni stopped forcing him. He spent his time adventuring Korea by day and stealing his mother’s Malokki at night, (my dad started drinking at age five on accident. My Halmoni sent him to refill her bottles. On his way back home he got thirsty and indulged. By the time he arrived home he very intoxicated and was beaten when he sobered up. It didn’t prevent him from drinking again). Shortly after my father dropped out of school my Halmoni was shocked by the Pearl S. Buck Foundation – they found a family in Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA to adopt him. According to my father, my Halmoni stayed intoxicated for days before she told him. The only thing she wanted most for him was the most painful event in her life, I believe. It is just a hunch though. For weeks his entire family stayed in Seoul while all the paperwork was completed. My Halmoni never received any education, she could barely write her name. On different documents her name is written as “Kwee-sun, Kyu-sun, Kee-sun, Kwee-soon” and so forth. Her sister had to help her.
August 1971 my Halmoni and her sister took my father to the airport. A Pearl S. Buck Foundation caseworker met her there. She held my father’s hands in hers and kissed him goodbye. Before she could turn to leave he made a vow that he would return to her like he always did. When my Halmoni did turn around she did not look back despite how my father hollered for her. He held onto that hurt for a long time.
In high school I was very obsessed with Korea and tried very hard to understand my father. I decided for a school history project to do a documentary on him. My father grew up in Korea under Park Chung-hee and while the country’s GNP was lower than Ghana’s. During this time I was still wrapping my mind around the fact that my Halmoni was a sex slave to Japan. For the documentary I pushed my father hard on his stories and even harder on what he knew of his mother’s life. Up until I was sixteen all I was told by him was she was a slave to Japan. In my mind I pictured my Halmoni working on a Japanese plantation – similar to African slaves in America. The truth horrified me.
Park Chung-hee has always been a worthy opponent to study. His building of the Korean economy while severely oppressing the people under a military dictatorship represented both my father and Halmoni. My Halmoni hustled hard to feed her family as did my father. While they provided and hustled they were oppressive forces in the household. In college I used my father as a primary source for numerous papers I did on Korea. At this point I had fully accepted my Halmoni’s life and understood the trauma she went through battling PTSD alone. I “moved on” not wanting to know any more of the horrors, (it was far too much to process), so I obsessed over North Korea and Park Chung-hee. I believe my father was relieved that I did not want to hear about the screams that made no sense to him as a child or her later disclosure. One thing that bothered me was the allegations Park Chung-hee supported the Japanese Occupation of Korea. I asked my father once if his family ever mentioned Park Chung-hee while sharing their hatred for Japan between each other. His response made me realize how low in society my family was:
“We did not ask questions. We did as told. My mom sold American crap on the black market and my aunt was more scared of her doing that than being a prostitute. I don’t think she fully understood anything about laws and government. She couldn’t read anyway. Our only focus was surviving. As long as we had food and shelter we were happy. Who cared about that man?”
A Caucasian family adopted my father in August 1971. For the first time my father had a father. It was very new to him. He had a new mother, an older brother, and an older sister. For some reason, my grandfather absolutely wanted to adopt a Korean child – an older Korean child. He was a World War Two Veteran stationed in Finland, France, and Germany working as a medical technician. Prior to my father’s adoption my grandfather drank quite a bit. He sobered up during my father’s adoption process.
Upon arrival my father’s new family put teaching him English as their top priority. He sustained more abuse by his new sister and mother when he spoke any Korean word. My aunt’s husband once told me he suspects my father knows a lot of Korean but the “old school way of teaching English” has left him scarred. When I started learning the language I was disheartened by my father not wanting anything to do with it and his discouragement when teaching my nieces and nephews small words. When we have gone out to eat at Korean restaurants or to our favorite Korean store he gets embarrassed his mixed race daughter has to translate for him. He keeps face as the Korean speaker obviously looks at him with pity. There is one word in Korean my father has never forgotten “Omma” – mom.
Although my grandfather changed his life for my father his wife was angry about the adoption. She did not support it and made it clear to my father that he was not her child. My father blames himself that she felt that way – he had a lot of behavioral problems. He never spoke to his new family about what Korea was like – they didn’t ask and he was scared to mention anything Korean. My dad did find comfort and refuge in one place- next door at his paternal grandparent’s home. His new grandmother and him became very close. She wiped his tears and was where he went to hide from his family’s wrath. When she passed away my father didn’t cry. We went to her funeral and he looked at her with a smile. He explained to me, “When you have no regrets and know how much someone loved you, you don’t cry because they died. You’re happy for them.”
Despite the love he received from his father and grandmother my dad was still very troubled. At his private Lutheran school he embarrassed my grandmother with his atrocious behavior while my grandfather showed him the greatest amount of patience – neither parent was afraid to use physical abuse to punish him. My mother and I have wondered how much of my father’s anger has come from his adoptive mother and how much from his biological mother. It is clear his adoptive mother never wanted him. After my grandfather died she wrote my father out of the will. Each child was supposed to inherit $250,000 but she felt her “real children” deserved it. My very few memories of her are dull and there was never a connection to her. My father has never cared or been bothered by the disinheritance or the lack of affection she showed us. He still blames his behavior on why she was bitter towards him.
My father dropped out of high school the moment he was old enough to. While in school he met my mother’s sister. When he visited her apartment he found a picture of my mother and predicted she would be his wife. My aunt vowed they would never meet. Instead of trying to meet my mother through my aunt he befriended her brother. My mother is Native American and Caucasian. When I go in depth about my heritage my audience is disappointed to learn my parents met in high school instead of a great exotic story. After manipulating my uncle my dad met my mom. Shortly afterward he joined the Navy and straightened up. The Navy spoke to my father’s love of adventure. In the Navy my father discovered his love for cooking and his lifelong career.
They Navy provided structure for my father. He was able to achieve his dream of starting his own family and later his own business. My biological brother was born in 1983. I discovered in my brother’s baby book my father attempted to write in Korean his birth name “Oh Jin-soo.” Instead he wrote “Oh Jin-soon.” It was enough proof for me that my father remembers a lot of Korean but still fears speaking it. I was born in 1986. Despite the violence at home my father was still proud to have a family and carried tons of pictures of us.
In 1988 Seoul held the Olympics. My father was still in the Navy. He was deployed to different countries throughout Asia. While in Japan a Korean colleague took my dad on a three week excursion to Seoul. In the Navy my father finally met other Korean Americans. They swapped stories and he revealed his vow to my Halmoni. His friend tracked her down, (she was still a prostitute). He surprised my father on board a Navy ship they were given access to. My father and Halmoni looked at each other unsure they were truly reunited. My Halmoni saw my father’s hand and knew it was her Jin-soo. She walked to him and took his deformed hand into hers and kissed it. She told him she was right many years ago when she explained his hand was deformed for a reason. With the help of his friend my father explained she had grandchildren and he emptied his wallet. My picture struck her. For the first time my father saw her giddy and at peace – his friend told him she said her life was complete now that she had a granddaughter to live through.
For three weeks my Halmoni would not let my father out of her sight. She only allowed his friend to join them during the day. At night he stayed with her and they were able to communicate through gestures and facial expressions. For three weeks my Halmoni spoiled my father with affection – going as far as bathing him and picking out his clothes. It scared my Americanized father but he finally accepted that she was making up for the guilt she felt. My father and his friend tried hard to explain she had no reason to feel guilty but to feel good that she acted in his best interest. He always knew, despite the violence, that she loved him.
The violence though… the more affection she showed him the more it brought back the memories of being abused. He questioned her about things she said during her black outs and things she would relive in front of his eyes. He remembered her saying she was a slave to Japan but he now knew not every Korean person her age expressed they were enslaved. During a very intense lunch my father grilled her. His friend tried to ease the intensity that was in the air. Eventually, his friend heard the abuse my father experienced and felt for him. My Halmoni cracked and told her story. Japanese soldiers were in her village demanding either daughters or sons to “serve” in their army – My Halmoni was sacrificed. She spent time in a “brothel” where a Korean “mama” groomed her then sent her to a country she never learned. She was repeatedly raped by Japanese soldiers for roughly a year. My father and his friend accused her of lying. My father felt she was making excuses – extreme excuses – to justify the violence and “whatever it was” she was dealing with. He resolved she would never tell him the truth. When other survivors came forward it was too late for my father to apologize to my Halmoni but he was able to forgive her.
Despite at the time not believing her, my father and her kept in contact up until her death in 1992. In between the time of their reunification to her death she sent me clothes, shoes, robes, and blankets – my brother got a jacket and candy. My Halmoni tried to learn English and was able to speak very broken English over the phone. The last conversation she had with my father she told him she was having heart problems. Where my Halmoni rests is still unknown to us. I never had the chance to meet her. I understand my significance to her being able to die in peace despite all her life suffering as a woman who spent her entire life as a sex slave. I witnessed my father cry after their final conversation. My mother explained to me that my father’s “mommy” had gone to Heaven and it saddened him. Shortly after this conversation, that I didn’t understand, I started to feel the presence of my Halmoni. My father told me more often that I was my grandmother’s granddaughter – short tempered, stubborn, and I scared him because of my similarities to her.
My father has struggled with alcoholism all his life. Until I was 26 my father was still violent. We have had our problems healing but today I see him making an effort for the first time. It took cutting him out of my life completely and my mother finally kicking him out for him to “wake up” to what he made us endure. He gave up drinking for three weeks to show he did care to have me a part of his life. He still struggles but he has respected my sobriety and my request to never contact me while drinking. We’re still healing and building a relationship. It has surprised us both how much we have in common and do know each other. Last year we had an intense confrontation with each other. Not over our past but I had fallen into a severe depression and started to have flashbacks to the times I was raped. I never disclosed to my parents what had happened to me. Somehow my father figured it out. He tried very hard to get me to discuss it with him and it was when he disclosed to me what happened to him in the orphanage. He then confided in me that no one knew him better than me, especially now that he had officially told me everything – he never thought he would tell his children what happened to him. For the first time, since my studying abroad in Korea, we talk on the phone regularly. He still laughs at his childhood and painful periods of life. The shoe his mother beat him with, the belt, her resting – it’s still funny to him. I have a hard time laughing with him anymore because I understand now he was a victim. Like his mother though, he is a survivor.
 Oh, Jin-soo. Interview taken from a college paper I wrote on the Korean economy during the 1960s. 2006.