Graces’ Story: An Orphan’s Story in Korea
I really wish I knew when I was born and what my birth name was. I wonder where I was born and what my parents looked like. These thoughts have been deeply embedded in my heart and can’t seem to brush these thoughts off of my head. My English name is Grace. I asked Grandma (my orphanage director) what “grace” meant and she explained that when I was a baby, I was sick a lot and went to the hospital often, and that I was so thin despite eating food, so as she prayed to God she thought of this name for me.
I was told that Grandma moved 28 children from Busan to Soo¬pul¬won (the name of the Isabell Orphanage) in the province of Kwung¬Gi¬Do. Grandma protected us and devoted her love through her faith, her unforgettable love, which I miss greatly. When foreigners visited us occasionally, at least we were able to have treats, even though the treats did not fill us, and they also brought presents and pretty clothes for us to wear. These were the happiest days for us. Therefore, we counted down the days to foreigners’ visits. When Grandma was with us, we were happy, and we could even have snacks without feeling nervousness. (Editor note: “Grandma” Janet Whang, was not always present as she was raising funds to support the orphanage.”)
Instead of having wonderful childhood memories, I really do not care to remember the hard times living with the sorrow of corporal punishment and loneliness. As I reflect on my past, this reminds me of my painful past. I lived in an orphanage along with 26 sisters until I graduated from middle school. Out of 28 sisters, two were sent to a different institution when they were young.
As a child, I dreamed of becoming an English teacher. I wanted to study hard so I could achieve my dream of becoming a teacher. But my orphanage made my dream impossible. Whenever we came home from school, we could not have supper until we finished our chores, such as weeding, feeding animals, kitchen duties, and house work. Starvation was a regular part of our lives, and I dreamed of one day eating until I was full
My years in elementary and middle school, which I detest to remember, were filled with fear and trepidation [at the orphanage]. At least I always looked forward to school days. It was so nice because meeting teachers, playing with my friends without fear, and being able to study allowed me to forget my orphanage life for a short time. However, when it was the last period of school, my heart would start to pound out of fear, and my feet would be very heavy going home. When I got close to home, I did not want to go in, and I am sure that all of us felt this way.
Despite the couple, who were our caretakers, they taught us to live in fear, and I wish not to think of them because they were not nice people. When Grandma was around, they pretended to be nice to us, but when she was out of sight, they turned evil, and would beat us with thick sticks and punish all of us. Every week we attended church and listened to the pastor’s sermon, but rather than praising, I earnestly prayed that this bad couple would be gone quickly from our orphanage. My sad childhood continued as we continued to live in constant fear to the point I even wanted to run away from the orphanage. Whether it was at the church or in the orphanage, because of this couple, I think we were hungry for happiness.
Only a couple of girls attended high school and the rest of the girls were forced to leave the orphanage as soon as they finished middle school. How to find a job was a concern. Some girls were sent to work for families as live in maids, and some were sent to live in factory dormitories. I was sent to a clothing factory instead of to a family. They made us work all day without feeding us. One day, I was so hungry that at four in the morning, I ran away to go back to my orphanage, but when I got to the orphanage, [the caretaker couple] seeing what I did, they started screaming at me and started to hit me and told me haphazardly to leave.
Realizing I had no place to go, and having to face such harsh circumstances made me mad at myself, and the sadness and loneliness continued. My sisters did not receive any support from the government nor organizations and they had to live in the world completely broke.
At the end, I went to work for a family. I was very lucky because my master treated me well. I had room and board, and I earned money. I also began high school through radio broadcast high school. During the week I would study by listening on the radio, and on the weekend, I attended classes. My employers paid for two years of my high school education. They were genuinely faithful people. As I write this, I feel appreciation toward them for their hospitality and warm hearts.
When my orphanage sisters would visit me, my employer would tell me that they were welcome in their house. I especially remember when Julie visited me often, and that made me happy. Even though I did not have much to offer, I made an effort to show her my hospitality. During my third year with this family, our grandmother (director) passed away early in the morning. Before she passed away, there was a talk that she wanted us to get together because she had something to tell us, and that she was going to adopt us all. But her sudden death and timing of it made us suspicious.
Anyway, after working for the family for four years, I left them for a change in my life. So I began working at a factory where they had a dormitory, and I finished my third year of high school in 1988. My factory’s daily schedule, which ran three shifts, gave me enough free time, so it was so nice to take English classes and learned many other things. And I also conversed with coworkers and soon the constant fear I had developed during my orphanage disappeared. I was very happy.
At the factory, I met my future husband through dating, and we were married in 1989, when I was 26 years old. My married life was neither happy, nor unhappy. My husband lost his job due to a fire at his company, and I could not work because I had a child. It was a very difficult time. During this time, my previous boss, who I worked for when I was single, visited our apartment, and he offered both of us a job at his company. I went to work every day, and I would leave my three year old child at the child care center. My daughter would start crying not wanting to leave me when I was getting ready to go to work in the morning, but I had no choice. Even though it hurt my heart bad, my daughter finally adjusted to going to preschool, and I was so thankful that her adjustment was helping me out.
While we were working at the factory, we were received another blessing. I happened to be reading a newspaper and the word “apartment” caught my eye, with a description fit for us! However, I only had two days to gather up all the necessary documents. It was very difficult to work full time and complete these documents on time. So I talked to my boss, and surprisingly, he agreed to give me two days off. I shed tears of appreciation.
Suddenly, I remembered this phrase from, “The Sound of Music:” “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.” Knowing how desperately we wanted to have our own apartment, God truly answered my prayers. Having grown up with a harsh childhood, and having to stay at my dorm during holidays because I had no place to go was the reason I wanted this apartment all the more.
It required us to eat less and save money to obtain our own place to live. First, I was given an opportunity to work; second, I was given the opportunity to buy an apartment; third, my boss gave me an opportunity to earn extra money. As a side job, my boss allowed me to take extra materials from the factory to my home, so I could work on the sewing machine embroidering flower patterns. They were not hard. In fact, embroidering with the sewing machine was a lot of fun. Not only that, this helped me to build additional skills and experience. All this allowed me to pay for my apartment. Because he understood me, he provided us with many great opportunities to achieve many things.
My apartment was small but was plenty for three of us to live in. My daughter grew up in this apartment until she graduated from college. My orphanage sisters frequently visited my apartment. When my daughter was eight years old, her friends asked why she had so many aunts. Only then I explained to her the story of my childhood. She finally learned my childhood circumstance. Ever since then, my daughter was comfortable being around my orphanage sisters.
My sisters and their husbands visited my apartment frequently. Even though my apartment was small, I enjoyed seeing their many faces. My daughter grew healthy and beautiful. Her college was not prestigious, but we helped her with tuition her first year of college, and was able to maintain a scholarship for the remainder of three years. She started her job two years ago as a personal trainer.
Currently, we all live apart. Because my husband’s job is far away, he only comes home on the weekend, and my daughter has lived on her own since her graduation. I wish she would visit more often so I would not be so lonely, but she seldom comes home. Even though I understand her busy schedule, not having a close knit family makes me feel both lonely and empty. Right now, I am unemployed. I try to keep myself busy by doing things here and there. I try to practice making clothes and purses. Honestly, I am in preparation to learn sewing skills at an institution although I do not know when this will happen, but I want to do as much as I can so one day, I can open my own tailoring shop.
After I got married, the saddest thing was when I was asked why I did not have parents. About ten years ago. I was trying to make friends, so I opened my heart by sharing my past, and instead, word went around the factory that I was an orphan. This caused me to lose my job. I was devastated, so I went to church, but even in the small group, one person made derogatory comments about me. I was so angry.
Since then, I have not stepped into a church. I hated people so much that I wanted to leave Korea. Ever since then, I have not been able to open my heart to anyone. I want to free my heart and explore the world.
I want to meet friends, share conversation, travel freely, and I want to change my destiny. I want so desperately to meet a friend who truly understands my life.