Written by Misty Ann Edgecomb, Junior Researcher ’08-09
It’s difficult to see the echoes of old Seoul amid the neon and concrete caverns of a 21st century megalopolis. Lights blot out the tired, bullet-scarred buildings, and every day, cockeyed little tile-roofed neighborhoods are razed to make room for new high-rise apartments, stacked like dominoes all the way to the horizon. This is a city that wants to forget. But over the past year, I’ve found bits and pieces of wartime Korea hidden amid a maze of nameless dog-leg streets and in the shadowy corners of countless libraries and archives. They have vividly brought to life the story that my husband and I came here to research; that of my father-in-law’s life as a war orphan on the streets of Seoul. Five-year-old Jimmy, one of the more than 10,000 children who were orphaned or abandoned during the Korean War, was adopted by a bachelor soldier named Paul Raynor shortly before the war’s end in 1953. His story, and that of others like him, is the genesis of international adoption as we know it today:
Seoul — August, 1953: Small fish flick their tails, sending sun-sparks through muddy indigo water that stretches for miles; blanketing tender rice shoots and mirroring the broad morning sky. No planes break the vast blue quiet. No smoke rises from the craggy mountains that crown the valley. Distant bombs no longer crack and rumble over their peaks like a swelling summer storm.
The war is over.
A boy with stiff brown-black hair, round hazel eyes and a serious frown slips off his shoes and slides his toes into the watery sky. The little fish fly away, sending ripples though the reflected clouds. But Jimmy watches. Jimmy waits, even as fat black leeches attach themselves to his legs and begin to feed. He squints at the hazy expanse’ standing completely still, until the minnows, overcome by curiosity, begin to nibble at his wormy white toes and play hide-and-seek with his shadow.
He wriggles a toe and the fish take flight, a blur of sparkle and shine. Jimmy scurries after them, arms and legs churning, sending glittering sprays high into the air as he crashes through the morning calm. He darts… weaving left and right, splashing through the irrigation ditches that intersect the field… just a half-step behind the shimmering scales. He could catch them if he wanted to, scooping them up with a net or even his quick little hands. He could fry them in a tin can over an open fire; make himself a good meal. He’s done it before.
But Jimmy is an American boy now, with a pocket full of American dollars. Raynor sometimes sends money so Jimmy can treat himself to grapes and gum in the marketplace. He sends letters and kisses from Jimmy’s new grandma. He’ll have a bed of his own and a bike to ride at the American house, Raynor says. “American boy”… “America house numbah one”… Jimmy repeats the words to his friends with a broad grin and a puffed up chest. He writes them in letters to his new “No.1 Grandma,” putting his faith in the carefully penciled words. He likes the way they sound. They sound like Raynor.
It’s easy enough to slip through the orphanage gate and scramble down the hill. With hundreds of children in their care, none of the nurses notice one less stomach to fill, one less grubby face to wash. The orphanage is overrun with the human cost of war, the mixed-race GI babies whose mothers give in to poverty or pride and leave their burdens by roadsides or at marketplaces, tucked into wicker baskets like cabbages. Mrs. Grace Rue, who runs the orphanage, finds them on the doorstep; some, like Jimmy, have the wrong kind of eyes, others are marked by blond hair, or freckles, or fuzzy black curls and skin that’s just a shade too dark.
“Send to father’s country,” one mother said.
Maybe someday, when bombed-out roads have been mended, and civilian airplanes are flying across the Pacific. Maybe then, government officers will be willing to listen to a missionary nurse. But for now, Mrs. Rue’s orphanage will have to do. Rice fields flank the squat, utilitarian brick buildings of the Seoul Sanitarium and Hospital Orphanage and its eight acres of gardens on the outskirts of the city, where nearly 300 unwanted children tend sweet potatoes and soybeans and row upon row of leafy greens for hundreds of gallons of home-brewed kimchi. The city is a steely blur in the distance, and beyond, ancient, humpbacked gray-blue hills embrace the plain as it explodes with raw new growth.
It feels safe. Protected.
Jimmy likes being outside. He can breathe outside. He isn’t used to long aisles of beds packed tight with two or three boys to a bunk. He hates waking at night to the sharp smell of urine from a dozen wet mattresses. He pulls his blanket tight over his ears to drown out the midnight terror of a dozen boys and girls reliving a very grown-up war, and he tries to think about America. Everyone there is big, like Raynor and Gary Cooper and John Wayne. They all wear cowboy hats when they ride their horses and drive their cars. They only take baths when they feel like it. They eat as much Spam and chocolate as they want when they go home to their big houses. They read funny books and watch movies and smoke cigarettes. They don’t have worms in their bellies or bugs in their hair. They never wet the bed. They aren’t scared of anything.
When the sirens would scream and Jimmy had to run through the streets with his helmet and canteen to sit in a foxhole, hugging his knees close and eating crackers out of his mess kit until Raynor carne to tell him that everything was okay; he wished he could be big and brave. There’s a hillside near the orphanage where the dirt rises above Jimmy’s shoulders and he can look right into the deep, dark holes between the rocks. The oldest boys say that snakes live in those holes, and they dare each other to plunge their hands deep inside. When the big boys are around, Jimmy throws his shoulders back, and walks tall and slow, sauntering along like Raynor in his uniform. When he’s alone, he runs as fast as he can, skidding on the gravel and looking straight ahead down the path. He doesn’t want to see any snakes.
Sometimes, Jimmy wakes very early and sneaks out of bed, moving gently so he makes no noise, like an Indian in the movies. He stalks the perimeter of the long, narrow brick building where the boys sleep; one slow step at a time — toe-heel, toe-heel, to muffle the crackling grass — searching the ground for his little birds. Swallows live in the shadow of the flat roof, streaky brown and white birds no bigger than a man’s fist. The babies just fit into his cupped palm. He finds one every few days, a limp little ball of feathers that fell from its nest when it tried to fly. He hides it in a box and feeds it bits of grass and rice leftover from his breakfast. He strokes its downy back and whispers softly, trying to tell the little bird how to flyaway. But it’s no use. They always die and leave him alone.
Someday soon, he won’t be alone. Raynor will come back. Jimmy tries to remember how long he’s been gone. When he squeezes his eyes shut, he can picture his friend leaning over the door of his Jeep for one last hug and explaining that he had to go back to his country, America, for a while so that Jimmy’s country, Korea, would let them live together. He remembers how Raynor waved and smiled and said he would come get him and bring him to America. Raynor promised. He’ll come back.
Jimmy just wishes he knew when.
Last week, an orphanage kid was adopted — a tukki, a half-breed like Jimmy — a boy with Korean eyes and fiery orange hair that makes people’s mouths fall open when they see him in the marketplace. He got a whole pile of new clothes and toys, and then he disappeared. All the other boys tell Jimmy that they want to be adopted. Jimmy wonders if he wants to be adopted, too. Ah-do-puh-tud-uh. He rolls his tongue around the strange word. He’s not sure what it means, but he knows that it brings new shoes and little metal cars and candy.
Maybe it’s better than America…