As a child, Saundra Henderson Windom, née Bang Sun, was unsure where in South Korea she was born, and she never knew her parents — a South Korean woman and a Black American soldier. In her memoir, Windom shares her experiences with conflicting identities and cultural dislocation. Read an excerpt from the book here.
From Mah San Orphanage to Holt Orphanage…
The orphanage, swarming with hungry mouths to feed, finds new ways to relieve the over-crowdedness. Non-Korean adults begin coming to visit pretty frequently. The first time they come, they take a few children with them. They come again and again, and the process is repeated. As left-behinds, we can feel that being chosen by these adults is a ticket to a better future. Welling in me now is a desire to be one of the chosen ones to go with the visitors. Desire turns into hope, and I begin to dream about being part of something — who knows what. My curiosity and imagination ignite and begin to burn brightly from the spark of being a part of whatever that something is. Deep inside, the loss and separation I feel for Sonyeon is transforming into a yearning for the chance to explore the dreams and hopes that such an opportunity might bring. Arirang, a six-hundred-year-old song, captures the indomitable spirit of Koreans. It is a song of the mountain that speaks of the belief in hope unseen, of having faith no matter how in despair one may be. The age-old folk song and the anthem of Korea genuinely reflect the deep Korean belief of transforming sorrow into hope, and so would I. I now embody the spirit of Arirang.
I further develop my assertive qualities. I need to be one of the children chosen to go with the visitors. One day, a new non-Korean man I’ve never seen arrives. He has a black mustache and deep-set, gentle hazel eyes that stare lovingly from under thick, bushy black eyebrows. I’m in acute observation mode, far more attuned to the world than most would expect. Hardship, you see, makes one grow up fast. My eyes are peeled, noticing everything about this man. I want to go with him. When he leaves, some of the children go with him, but I’m not one. The second time he shows up, I boldly push my way toward him. Standing in front of him, I make eye contact. I want him to see me. I want him to choose me. I’m so excited that I unblinkingly keep staring at him until he smiles at me. He has a friendly, gentle manner, and he genuinely seems to care about us. Not just in a mechanical way, but with sincere love and kindness.
Sensing his power to change my circumstances, I follow him around like he is holding the glass slipper to my better life. All at once, everyone is clamoring at him, begging him to take them away with him. Unfortunately, I’m not chosen over and over. However, I’m learning patience and faith. After a few more visits, my time finally comes. I’m one of the fortunate selected by the mustache man. I’ve been living in faith every moment of every day since I first met him, knowing that one day, he will choose me.
On July 7, 1957, I embark on a journey with the mustache man and the two others who are with him. We visit several orphanages between Masan and Busan, two cities in the district of Changwon in the Province of South Gyeongsang. By the time we leave Changwon, there are more than twenty children and babies in tow. We pile into a waiting vehicle and are taken to the train station where we’re bound north to Seoul. The 330-kilometer life-changing train ride we hope will help us escape our miserable existence of simply being born.
The two non-Koreans and the one Korean man in our party usher us onto the train. We settle in, and I’m getting very encouraged. This is for real! Many of the kids are restless and noisy, but not me. I sit quietly, feeling thankful. Often on our excursions, Sonyeon and I would see trains rumbling along. When we did, I would pester him about the metal boxes connected to each other that seemed to go on forever. The rattling noise and the loud woot, woot sounds they made delighted my senses, making me more curious about who or what was inside them. Now, here I am, inside one! I sit back and take great pleasure in experiencing this form of transportation, which is much faster, even if noisier than Sonyeon’s back. I’m aware I’m going farther and farther away from Sonyeon, and I feel guilty for being this happy. I wish I could tell Sonyeon what the train actually carries. I miss him so much.
I shift my thoughts. Now I’m torn between taking in the scenery outside the train window and observing the new strangers in my life. Outside will only be the barren, battered, bedraggled, and bombed-out scenery of the ravages of war, with miles of forlorn people walking down the dusty roads, heavy loads on their heads and babies tied to their backs. Would I trade places? The babies, snuggled up against their mothers’ back, even under dire conditions, are feeling the heartbeat of love, something I will never experience. I avert my eyes from the window. The strangers in my life are winning the battle of my decision.
Would I trade places? The babies, snuggled up against their mothers’ back, even under dire conditions, are feeling the heartbeat of love, something I will never experience.
All three chaperones have dark hair, not yellow or wiry like the military men I’d seen at the village market in our sea town. The Korean man speaks English and Korean, and I like that he can one moment communicate with the foreigners in English and then, without blinking, speak to us in Korean. In Korean, he tells some of the kids to stay seated and not talk too loudly. I’m hardly listening as I’m fascinated by the talk of the mustache man and young woman. I know this language from before when Sonyeon and I were near the soldiers. What they are saying, however, I don’t have a clue.
Like the soldiers, their bodies are fully clothed, and unlike us, they are proportionate, no big bellies or heads or stick arms and legs. I’m wondering how they get their food and clothes when one of the babies begins crying, interrupting my mental inspection and curiosity. The lady hushes the baby whose cry is likely from the severe cough that’s making it miserable. Reaching into her bag, she squeezes some red stuff in its mouth. Holding the baby over her shoulder, she massages its back. The other adults are also tenderly holding babies. Their affection, even from my distant seat, is heartwarming. Noting my intense stare, the mustache man smiles, making his thick, unruly eyebrows go up into a mountain peak. The baby he is holding gives universal approval and smiles too while reaching its little hands to touch the man’s mouth. I have never seen this kind of attention or empathy being paid to children like us.
When I arrive at the Holt Orphanage, I’m awed by its vastness. From the squat brick buildings, three or four bungalow-type structures, a chimney juts from the roof. There are many windows and doors. From the windows, the picturesque mountain range looks untouched by war and is calming. On clotheslines, rows upon rows of white diapers flap in the sunlight.
Along with the other kids who arrive with me, I’m taken to be processed into the system. I weigh a mere twenty-eight pounds for a kid nearing five years old and have a big, distended belly. There is no information from Mah San specifying any date of birth or who might have brought me there. Many kids arrive at orphanages with notes pinned to their flimsy ware, but not me. So, based on my teeth, height, and verbal abilities, which are quite advanced for my age, the young lady who was on the train with us and is now wearing a nurse’s uniform gives me a random birthdate, April 1, 1953. Go figure. Later, another document surfaces with a recorded date of August 1, 1953. This suggests, either way, that I was conceived during the wartime of 1952. My exact birthdate is unknown.
As it turns out, the man I traveled with to Holt is Harry Holt himself, founder of Holt Orphanage. The woman who wears glasses that accompanied him is his daughter, Molly, and she has the same warm, welcoming smile as her father. The translator, David Kim, is a Korean born in China. His family was there as Christian missionaries until their escape back to Korea during the religious cultural war.
At the Holt Orphanage there is a sense of family. When the mustache man is at the orphanage, it’s not unusual to find five or six of us grabbing for his hand while others straddle his legs and neck. We even call Molly and Harry by family names. Harry Holt is hal-abeoji (grandfather), and Molly is eonni (big sister). We love hal-abeoji and eonni. In fact, Molly is our everything, the official orphanage nurse, she has many other jobs: teacher, kitchen help, negotiator, and premier toilet trainer.
An excerpt from Orchestration, a memoir written by Saundra Henderson Windom, née Bang Sun. She explores her first years in war-torn Korea, before her adoption by an American family and her desire to reconcile her two cultural identities. You can purchase the memoir from your local retailer or online.