: A Korean Adoptee’s Life in a Chinese Family
By editor. Posted on Friday, August 7, 2009.No Comment
See the full article here:
Published in the Nichi Bei Times Weekly July 9-15, 2009.
By CAROLYN SURH
Special to the Nichi Bei Times
My grandmother, Nora Kim, was born in 1917 as Esther Yoon, the fourth child to Duggar Choi Yoon and Byung Hi Yoon in Upland, Calif. Her eldest siblings, Gilbert and Anna, were born in Korea, and her brother Paul was born in Hawai‘i. After Grandma was born, her mother fell ill and her father — we believe in a state of panic — hurriedly arranged an adoption of the new baby through the church. Her mother knew nothing of the adoption until she recovered from her illness.
Grandma was adopted by a Chinese couple, Tom Chung and Yuet Lan Lee, and re-named Nora. They had been married for several childless years, but after adopting my grandmother, they had three boys in succession: Daniel, Andrew and Wilbert. Grandma’s adoptive mother had been born in San Francisco, the daughter of a wealthy matchstick factory owner who then moved back to China. She remained behind in San Francisco, as she was an American and did not want to live in China where she would be “forced to marry some old Chinaman.”
Grandma’s adoptive father was a truck farmer, and she loved him dearly. Many of the stories she tells are about helping him bring produce to the market, or riding with him to the jam or Carnation ice cream factories. She had great fun with her brothers, helping to raise them and getting into mischief: “As kids, we used to drive my dad’s truck up and down the driveway when my parents weren’t home, and one day we knocked off part of a post. So we propped the post back up, and when my dad backed the truck down the driveway — what do you know — the post fell over. We jumped up and down and accused my dad of knocking it off!”
Grandma was raised Chinese American, speaking English and Cantonese at home and learning her father’s Toisan dialect at Chinese school. They lived on 9th Place in Los Angeles and would ride the streetcar to run errands. Her adoptive mother was very strict with her, a disciplinarian. Always “very fat,” she would chase the kids around trying to catch them for a spanking, and they would seek refuge under the bed, knowing her girth would keep them safe.
When Grandma was 12, her adoptive mother died suddenly. Her death was abrupt and shocked the family; she took ill for a short time, and then one night, her father called for a doctor because she had taken a turn for the worse. She died later that night.
After her death, her husband fell apart. In the area of Los Angeles where they lived, word must have traveled to Grandma’s Korean family about her adoptive mother’s death, because shortly thereafter she was called to her principal’s office at school. A woman and her daughter were waiting for her there, and introduced themselves as her mother and sister, Sarah.
“I didn’t believe them, I thought they were crazy!” Grandma had never heard of Koreans, much less suspected she was Korean herself. In her world, Asians were either Chinese or Japanese. Her mother and sister visited her again at school, and then were asked not to come back. “I would see my Korean mother once in a while, standing outside of the school gate, watching me. I was a little scared — I didn’t know what to do. I asked my aunt about it, and she told me to ignore them. Then she shooed me out of the room to talk to my father. I bet that’s what they were talking about.” Grandma learned later that her Korean mother would sometimes disappear from her cleaning shop to watch her in the schoolyard.
One day, the same woman and a man came to her house. They told her they were her parents, and would like her to come visit their home and meet her brothers and sisters.
Grandma asked her Chinese father when he got home if what they said was true, but he never addressed the adoption. He just said that maybe she should go and visit. So one day, she did.
Grandma met her brothers, Gilbert, Paul and Chuck, and her sisters, Sarah and Mary. The eldest sister, Anna, was already out of the house — married with a baby. Because her adoptive father struggled after his wife’s death and eventually lost the house on 9th Place, Grandma went to live with her Korean family. It was the beginning of the Depression, so people everywhere were struggling. “They were so poor at one point that Daniel liked to say they were living in a chicken coop.” Her Chinese father eventually moved the boys to Yuma, Ariz., where he worked as a farm laborer.
Grandma took a while to adjust to her new family. She found them strange, for it was her mother, Omoni, who ran the family business, a laundry. Her Korean father, Abaji, disliked having to clean other people’s dirty clothes, and would complain and cry until Omoni sent him home. He would cook dinner for the family, and sit and read the Bible and drink his “medicine,” whiskey. Omoni had actually been the coddled only daughter growing up in Korea, but worked very hard at the cleaning shop to support her family. She spoke very little English, and memorized all of her customers’ faces as a matter of record. When a customer came in to pick up his clothes, she would study his face, then “jump up to go get his cleaning. She was right every time.”
Grandma did not respect Abaji for his laziness and heavy drinking. He was also quick tempered and sometimes violent, and once pushed Grandma down after a disagreement about going to church. Grandma did get along well with her siblings, and became especially close to her youngest sister, Mary. Gilbert, the oldest brother, was already grown and had his own wholesale laundry business.
Grandma’s Chinese father never spoke directly to her about her adoption. One day, he handed her an envelope, inside of which was her birth certificate and adoption papers. That was the only gesture of recognition she ever received about being adopted.
After finishing high school Grandma went to live with her Chinese cousin, May, who was recently widowed and had three young daughters. She married my grandfather, Harry Surh, in 1937. He came from a mixed background as well, with a Korean father, James Woo Surh, and a Chinese American mother, Aurelia Lee, whose family’s first language was Spanish. The Lee family was from southern Arizona, having fled there after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, and as a consequence was deeply acculturated to a Mexican way of life. The family spoke Spanish natively and good English, but no Chinese. My grandparents moved to Tucson, where much of Grandpa’s family lived and where their first son, Jerry, was born. After the war began, they returned to Los Angeles and soon after, Grandma’s Chinese father died. My father, Tom, was born in Los Angeles, and the three Chung brothers came and lived with them in a house on East 20th Street.
Growing up, my sister and I always spent summers with Grandma in Los Angeles. She always made sure we visited with her siblings, both Korean and Chinese. We played with our cousins on the Korean side, and the grandchildren of her close Japanese American friends. Because Grandma’s second husband was in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II (a Japanese American regiment), many of their friends over the years were Japanese American. She always treated both sides of her family equally, and gave her grandchildren a strong sense of family and community despite bloodlines. Grandma, as any other person, had her ups and downs with both sides of her family, but has always unquestionably considered both her Chinese and Korean families to be part of her life.
Carolyn Surh is a freelance writer who lives in Oakland.
photo courtesy of Carolyn Surh