Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A trip to remember

When I was little my one of my favorite movies was Annie. An orphan with an intriguing past goes from Miss Hannigan to Daddy Warbucks...like a fairy tale, right? I wanted to be like Annie, well, sans hairdo. But she was pretty lucky, it seemed.

Anyway, I know it's a little cheesy, but after my trip to Jeonju, I realize that I'm way more blessed than Annie! Really, I wonder how I got so lucky and I'm grateful every day for the blessings that my Heavenly Father has poured upon me and my family. I apologize if this gets really long or a little sappy. I'm writing to share these experiences but also as a way for me to remember everything that happened.

One of my goals in going to Korea was to visit my orphanage and take some gifts. But, what started out as a visit to the orphanage turned into a visit to my village in the country side of South Korea! I didn't meet any family (and I had not really wanted to...I didn't, and don't, want to bring up any possible embarassment or shame three decades later). But I had a day filled with little miracles and full of adventure!

Bisabel Baby House
(now Jeonju Baby House)One of the rooms at the Baby Home. About five infants were with this one lady only !

Our friend, Bong Seok arranged a meeting for us one morning at Bisabel Baby House, where Holt International (my adoption agency) had said I lived for six months shortly before I came to the states. Due to a miscommunication, he didn't have my information to give them. So we showed up there and the Holt worker, Mrs. Song, didn't really have anything.
She explained that the current Baby House (now known as Jeonju Baby House) was built three years after I left. The Baby House I lived in ran out of funds shortly after I left (about 1980) and they weren't able to raise enough donations to keep it open. So, they closed the Home. Holt gave a large donation to build the current Baby Home and it's a nice facility with lots of adorable babies. Because of the transfer, Mrs. Song was doubtful that we would be able to find my records, but she brought up a little ledger book and said maybe my name would be in there with a "date in" and "date out" entry.
A picture of the ledger

That was the hope. In the meantime, once she got my Korean name (Shin Myung Shin) and my birthday, she sent an employee to look in the records. Well the employee brought back this page with all sorts of detailed information! Mrs. Song started speaking in Korean, and our friend, Bong Seok tried to keep up and translate for us. It turns out that I was left at City Hall in Jeonju, a fairly big town when I was about a year old. It has my original name and birthdate (which is actually July 16, not August 15). Turns out Holt had a physician that would evaluate the babies before they were sent for adoption and he would estimate an age based on development, etc. I know that I was underdeveloped and at over a year weighted about 16 pounds. So he could have easily been off by a month. The paper had the name of the girl who dropped me off at City Hall; her name is Park, Young Mi. And somehow she knew me and was able to leave information about me with the Baby House. We also learned that my mother was unmarried and that Park Young Mi was from a town called Jeong Up, about 40 minutes away.

With the very sweet lady from Bisabel Baby House, Mrs. Song
Dr. Shin
Bong Seok's advisor when he was at Chonbuk University was a man named Dr. Shin. He heard my story and wanted to help us by driving us to the Baby House. This is a very kind gesture in Korea because not a lot of people have cars and we would have had to ride the bus and we had a box of gifts and Ava. So, we were grateful for his offer. Dr. Shin took Bong Seok, myself, Cash, and our friend Joy Steiner, Professor Steiner's wife (he was in charge of the BSU trip but couldn't be there that week but hoped that Joy could come and take pictures to document). In a little miracle, just the night before Ava had warmed up to Joy and Joy was a lifesaver that day. She took Ava and played with her while we were talking with different people.Ava loved hanging out with Dr. Shin and Joy

Anyway, as we were learning everything on my record, Dr. Shin's memory started churning. He realized that I was born in 1976 and he says, "In 1976 I was working as a middle school teacher in a small village. I was only about 7 miles from your town." He tells us that if I'm from JeongeUp then my parents were most likely farmers. So, he happens to be working right near my village in the year that I was born! And he remembers 1976 because there was a huge famine in the entire country. He said that people were starving, especially in the villages. He said that the famine was unreasonably cruel; farmers committed suicide and the people were so hungry. He and Bong Seok both said, "I think you're very lucky." "I think you're very fortunate." Mrs. Song said that she started working at Bisabel Baby Home almost at the beginning of the new home. She remembers that shortly before she started working there, the old home had about 55 babies. She said that 10 of the babies died. In our prosperity and ease and convenience and medicine, it's almost impossible for me to fathom! It's so humbling. And I wonder, why me? Why was I so lucky? I'm so grateful I was, but my heart breaks for those families who suffered so much. This video is of Dr. Shin revealing some of the details that he remembered and pieces of the information we learned from the records. Having him around for this day was invaluable. Hearing the conditions and feeling so overwhelmed, mostly with gratitude, you'll see I get emotional. By the end of this, everyone is the room was crying... even Bong Seok.

The Nopung Incident
When Dr. Shin said there was a huge famine in 1976 we all assumed it was a drought. However, it turns out the tragedy was not a natural disaster. He explained that for many years Korea had suffered from a food shortage and the government was concerned about how to feed the people. One of the things they did was try to develop a stronger species of rice. One of these species was named after the inventor, Nopung. He had created a rice species in laboratory conditions that yielded much more crop and it was an exciting thing. So, in 1976 the government strongly encouraged farmers (using some strong incentives) to plant this new rice. Most all of them did. Unfortunately, in natural conditions, the rice did not grow. In 1976 almost all the rice crops died. Add this to the shortages from the previous years and this was a calamity.

From the records we assume that someone, maybe a mother or likely a grandmother, took care of me for a year because I didn't get to Jeonju until summer of 1977. The most likely scenario is that after a year, they realized they just could not continue to take care of a baby. Imagine.

The former Bisabel Baby Home
So, after we learn all this, Mrs. Song asks us if we want to go and see the former Bisabel Baby Home location, even though the original building isn't there anymore. We do, so we all head out and end up in an old, old part of Jeonju. The homes there are preserved so they cannot add to or remodel them. It's like they're stuck in time. But, right next to them are the apartment buildings that took the place of the old home. There's just a small portion of cement windows that remain from the original structure. It was a really cool old neighborhood.

Cash found some graves on the hillside -- the Koreans bury their dead in the mountains and hills and place beautiful monuments on top. They're not all buried in one spot but seem to be scattered throughout the country. It's actually really beautiful.

As we were leaving Bong Seok (our translator) told me that he would like to go to Jeong Up and try to find the lady who dropped me off at City Hall, Park Young Mi. He said if it was ok with us he would go to the town over the weekend. Well, the Holt lady said, "should we all go?" Well...we figured, why not? So, we got a passenger van from her office and thankfully a GPS system and headed off into the countryside.Just a man we talked to on the streets to see if he remembered the Baby Home

On the street where I lived!

some of the MANY pepper plants we saw all over

Jeonge Up City Hall
We drove for about 30 miles and came to the town of JeongeUp, which is not a very big town at all -- sort of a one-main-downtown-street kind of town. Maybe a little like Declo, Idaho (if anyone has been there!) but a few decades ago. We went to the City Hall-type office and Mrs. Song tried to find out if a Park Young Mi lived there. They told us she didn't live there anymore but that her family was from a little village called Su Song. They gave us directions out there and told Mrs. Song who to contact.

Su Song
So, we loaded in the van, passed miles and miles of nothing but rice fields and pepper plants, got lost a couple of times, and came to a teeny-tiny village of about 100-200 people: Su Song. It seemed to be straight out of a picture in the 1930's. There was a cement rice storage buildling that would have been there.
There was a "resting platform" for the famers (behind the side covers).

As we're walking up the lane we hear someone yelling after us. (you can hear him at the end of the video...I wish I had turned around! It was a funny sight).

This old, weathered farmer in a white tank top is yelling at us. He says he's been waiting for us. Turns out, as with many small towns, the City Hall in JeongeUp called him. And, evidently he's the mayor. He takes us into his home and we all sit down and Mrs. Song explains to him what's going on and why we're looking for Park, Young Mi.

He just grabs his cell phone, the 30 page phone book, and starts calling people! He finds out that Park, Young Mi doesn't live in the village anymore but her mother does.
We find out that right now Young Mi is 46, which means that she would have been about 12 or 13 when she dropped me off. And we also learn that her mother's family name (women keep their own last names) is Shin... So, there's a strong possibility that this girl is a sister or relative, which would be why she knew detailed information about me.

The mayor's wife is watching and listening to all of this. At some point she realizes that the baby girl on the paper (me) is the same person as the lady sitting on her living room floor. So then she just starts staring at me! Bong Seok explains that she's looking at me to see if she can see a family resemblance to someone in the village. A few minutes later she calls her neighbor. This little grandma who has been beside herself this whole time -trying to figure out what in the world is going on at the neighbor's house. Joy said she kept peeking her head over the wall into the alley; she was probably about four minutes away from coming over anyway. So this little old grandma just plops down on the ground and starts staring at me. (the lady below in black) It's a little disconcerting and I feel like a circus show because this is many minutes while the mayor is on the phone.

And that's the end of the journey. The mayor says they weren't able to reach Park, Young Mi and if there's any w
ord he'll call Mrs. Song.But, as we leave, Dr. Shin says to me, in halting English, "those two ladies...they know something." He says maybe they will call, maybe they won't, "that is the way. Maybe it takes some time." "You understand these things?" I absolutely understand. Just being able to go and see the little village where I was from, where I could have grown up, was powerful. As we left, the mayor's little grandson was riding around on his old pink bike with his yellow crocs and was just as happy as could be to have all these strange visitors. He doesn't know that he lives differently than I do; he knows he has a fancy bike, a home, a family that loves him. Even so, it made me cry with gratitude as I thought about how it could have been me, living is this tiny village. And I would have been fine. But, I am grateful for my home, for Cash and our kids, for the Gospel truths that I know, and for my parents who sacrificed to adopt six children and give them opportunities we would not have had. I suppose this journey only strengthened my relationship and appreciation for my parents and helped me understand the sacrifices on both sides of the world.

Wow, if you read this far, thanks for caring about this experience and sharing it with me.


Rhiannon said...

What an amazing experience! Thanks for sharing, I had tears in my eyes just reading it! So happy for your journey and all the new details that you learned. So glad that you had the opportunity to go back and see and learn and have fun. And I'm also so happy the Cash was able to find a Mt. Dew! :) Miss ya'll!!

Alli said...

Thank you for sharing that amazing experience - it was sweet and tender!

Calise said...

Thank you for sharing your story... It is amazing!

J+S said...

Marissa, I am in tears. Thank you for sharing this amazing and beautiful experience. I am truly humbled and grateful at all of the blessings we have as members of the church. Thanks for the reminder.


Alisa said...

I'm SO glad you posted this. What an incredible opportunity! I'm just so happy that you guys were able to make a trip of a lifetime.

JeNeale said...

Reading this story after hearing it on Sunday only made me more grateful for your parents and that they brought you to this country and to my family. We are so blessed to have you. Your story is too full of "coincidences" not to have the Lord's hand in it. Amazing.

Lorinda said...

That was so neat to read. What an amazing trip and experience. Thanks for sharing!

IDBradys said...

Thanks for sharing your amazing journey. I'm sitting at the edge of my chair as I read this with tears streaming down my face. Yes, Heavenly Father knew you, loved you and watched over you in every step of your very young life.... It's great to read this and again be reminded of His love for us.

Trish said...

Wow...I echo each comment that has been made. Simply amazing. I am not surprised at all, though. You are amazing and the Lord knew we all needed you in our lives. XO

Lauralee said...

I wonder about so many things. Why were you born in Korea instead of the U S where you ended up anyway? Why was it so important for you to be born in Korea? What does Heavenly Father need from you that being born in Korea instead of the United States prepares you for or leads you to? What miraculous things will you accomplish in the Savior's name because of your unique heritage? Some would say that I shouldn't wonder about "mysteries" but I don't feel that I am. I just feel eager and excited to watch you continue to discover and perform your own specific mission here on earth. I miss you and love you.

taffi said...

I'm late in commenting - just I just wanted to thank you for sharing this - what an amazing experience. How wonderful.

The Hills said...

Ris, that was just amazing. I tried putting myself in your shoes listening and seeing what your life would have been like and then standing next to Cash and beautiful Ava...it made me get all choked up. Not that I don't think you'd have made a stunning farmer, but that your life would simply be so different. I find myself jealous that you got to have such a rare experience. I can't wait to see you and hear even more about the whole trip. Love you, Maren

Lataun said...

Wow! Seriously...loved reading about it. Thanks for blogging.

^becks said...

Hello! I was also in Bisabell Baby Home. I was there for most of 1975. I was about 2. I plan on going back this winter! So glad I came across your website.

Ian said...

My wife and I are adopting our son from Korea. We will be traveling soon and I want to know so much information about his life so I can one day share it with him, just like you found during your trip. I've been told that we won't know more than the paperwork we have today. But, hopefully one day he / we can take a trip for him to trace back where he is from, and hopefully his birth mother will be open to meeting him. Thank you for letting us ride along in your journey. I'm really happy for you that you were able to travel the path of your early life!

Eric & Penny Kunz Family said...

Taun told me about your story and told me to read. I read every word and loved. What a life changing experience and what an awesome attitude you have.

Anonymous said...

My daughter is also from South Korea, and was born in Jeonju Babies Home in 2005. Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful story.

Tamara said...

Wow..I just found out that I was there in 1973. Not sure how I feel about it yet. Thanks for sharing your story!

Jai Duk said...

I was there from 22 of August 1975 since 1976.