‘Not like a fairy tale’
Some happy news, some sad, as daughter, abandoned as infant, reunites with Korean birth family
The April 21 Westside Pioneer told the story of Korean-born Rebecca Masters as she was about to go back to her native country for the first
time since she was an infant in 1976. The Pleasant Valley resident was going to take a week away from her husband Sam and her four
daughters to meet her birth family and hopefully find out more about what had happened back then, and why her family had left her
anonymously - with serious, unexplained burn injuries - outside a Seoul police station at the age of 3 months.
Reflecting recently on that week-long visit, Rebecca said she was happy to have had the opportunity to see her “real” family at last and to find out more about her past. “It was hard to say good-bye,” Rebecca said.
But it's also true, as Sam pointed out, that the visit was “not like a fairy tale. It's a human tragedy that's difficult for us to understand.”
To this day, Rebecca's oldest sister (who was 14 at the time) feels guilty because she was supposed to be watching the infant on the fateful day Rebecca was burned. “She was inconsolable,” Rebecca said of visiting her. “She cried and cried.”
Rebecca learned on her trip that the family was quite poor (and its members are still far from rich). In 1976, they were living in a one-room shack or tent, with a fire inside to cook with. Some soup was on. Somehow little Kim Young Hee got too close, and the fiery hot liquid spilled onto her stomach and legs. To compound the injury, the older sister apparently picked her up in such a way that the burns got worse, to the point of being life-threatening. “There's a crease in my stomach that makes me think it might even have exposed my inner organs,” Rebecca said.
Another non-fairy-tale factor is her father, who died in 1986. From what the family has told her, he had alcoholic issues, forcing her brother to take on more responsibilities. He was apparently present when she as a baby got burned, but the blame still fell on her oldest sister.
Unable to afford major medical treatment and fearful for her life, the family decided to leave the baby at the police station, in hopes that care would be found for her. This was no minor decision, Rebecca pointed out. “The family is the core in Korea, so adoption is very shunned.”
Rebecca was to live about 30 years - raised in South Carolina as Rebecca Parham - before finding any clues to her past. That was when her mother, Kang Sook Ja, phoned her from Seoul, with the help of an interpreter, after tracing her long, lost daughter through the agency that had handled her American adoption.
They traded communications for about five years before Kang Sook Ja revealed that she was sick with asthma and did not know how much longer she would live. That was when Rebecca began planning her trip.
Her older brother, Kim Yeoung Su, who she did not previously know existed, met her at the airport, and during her visit took her to see family members and showed her the city's historic sites. He is 53, and very traditional. “He wouldn't let me pay for anything,” Rebecca laughed, “not even a pack of gum.”
She spent the nights in her mother's small home, and ate Korean food exclusively. “There was a lot of rice, noodles and vegetables, and we had kimchi [a type of pickled cabbage] with every meal,” Rebecca said.
The language barrier was handled part of the time by volunteer interpreters, but Rebecca was on her own her last two days because the student interpreters she'd hoped to use were taking exams.
She's been studying Korean in an online class, but “the language is so hard.”
One word came in handy, the Korean word for “husband,” which Rebecca recognized. The word was used by her brother to indicate to Rebecca that he was giving her husband Sam a present.
It was no small gift. Rebecca had seen the box of obviously high-quality eating utensils on display in his house when she first arrived, and it's her understanding he's had the set for 30 years. It has the insignia of the Republic of Korea's Marine Corps, in which he had served. Her brother also gave Sam a baseball-style cap with the same insignia.
Rebecca believes he decided to give Sam things that were so precious to him as a sign of respect and to “strengthen the bond” between the distant families.
“It will be an heirloom for us,” Sam said. “I know it meant something to him.”
Westside Pioneer article