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Adoptee discovers that you can go home again

Feb 06,2017
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As a child, Kim Dong-hwa was flown from Korea to the United States. Twenty-three years later, he was forced to return. [PARK SANG-MOON]
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Kim and his wife, Kendra Jeong, co-run El Pino 323 in Mapo District, western Seoul, a Mexican restaurant. El Pino is the name of a pine tree near his grandmother’s house; 323 is the area code of East L.A. [PARK SANG-MOON]
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Dishes on the restaurant’s menu include, clockwise from top left, chicken rice bowl, pork green chile and carnitas tacos. [PARK SANG-MOON]
June 18, 2002 was a momentous day for Korea. In a World Cup match held in Daejeon, the national football team defeated Italy 2 to 1, propelling it into the quarterfinals for the first time ever.

It was a momentous day for Kim Dong-hwa too - the worst in a life of continuous lows. Kim and his sister had been abandoned by their Korean mother in infancy. As small children, they were flown from Korea to the U.S. to live with a new mother and father. The adoption didn’t take. The pair bounced around, were physically and emotionally abused. Kim ended up running with a gang in East Los Angeles. In his 20s, he was convicted of gang related crimes.

Kim was expelled from the U.S. and sent to a native land he knew nothing about. He landed on the day of Korea’s victory over Italy.

Kim recalls his first glimpses of Seoul driving in from Incheon International Airport. “It was a sea of red,” he says. The national team’s uniforms were red and fans wore red to support them and celebrate.

“It was chaos here. I thought my mind was going to blow up.

“I thought I was in North Korea.”



To borrow from Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” happy adoptees may be all alike, but every unhappy adoptee is unhappy in his or her own way. For decades, Korea was the source of many of the world’s adoptees, happy and unhappy alike.

After the exceptionally bloody Korean War, Harry and Bertha Holt, an evangelical couple from rural Oregon, arrived in South Korea with a mission to take care of abandoned children. The couple urged a special act of the U.S. Congress enabling them to adopt eight children, successfully passing what is known today as the 1955 Holt Bill.

That started a wave of adoptions. From 1958 to 1968, nearly 6,700 Korean children were given up for overseas adoption, more than 6,000 landing in the United States. Many were babies born to Korean mothers and foreign soldiers. In the chaos of the times, it was unclear whether any of their parents were alive.

Even when Korea grew more affluent, it continued to export babies born to single mothers or divorcees. The adoption industry started to shame the country, and now domestic adoption takes up well over half of all Korean adoption cases: 64.6 percent out of 1,057 children in 2015, according to statistics from the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

In adulthood, many from that unique Korean diaspora have returned to the land of their birth for varied reasons. Some come in search of their birth mothers - quests that run the gamut of outcomes. A few came back to lobby against adoptions entirely, so traumatic were their upbringings. Others have stumbled onto interesting jobs or new vocations thanks to their connection to Korea. Part of Seoul’s growing cosmopolitanism is due to these returnees.

But Kim’s story is rare: he was an adoptee expelled by the U.S. and forced to confront a Korean identity he barely recognized let alone embraced. With his ponytail, tattoos, piercings and thick Mexican-American accent, Kim didn’t even consider himself Asian.

You can’t go home again, Thomas Wolfe wrote. Kim Dong-hwa was given no choice but to do so.




When Kim and his sister were flown out of their native land in 1979, there was every reason to consider it a flight to salvation. Korea was industrializing but it was still relatively poor and run under a dictatorship.

But salvation can’t be guaranteed, even in a Promised Land. Neither could love or happiness, as Kim was to discover - or even American citizenship.

The Friends of Children of Various Nations, a U.S. adoption service, found a family to take them in. Kim can’t remember how long it took to arrive in Portland, Oregon, or how their first experience with their new family went. He remembers it was short.

“It lasted a year I think.”

Kim and his older sister moved to Denver, Colorado, to live with their second family. That lasted longer, about five years, but it shouldn’t have. Kind neighbors called the cops one day and the foster parents were busted for physically abusing the children.

Kim and his sister were put into foster care, which comprised an entirely new kind of family. Most of the other kids were Mexicans and African-Americans. Many were gang members.



In 1986, he and his sister were placed with a third family in East Los Angeles, one of the least ethnically diverse and poorest areas of California. More than 95 percent of residents are of Hispanic origin. Their new father was a minister at a local church. Their new mother was a homemaker. Both were of Mexican descent. They had no children.

Kim’s new father bestowed on him a new name: Christian.

It was the last foster family they would know. It was also the worst.

“They were pretty abusive,” says Kim. “They hit us, beat us, punched me and my sister. I don’t know the reasons.”

He had a strong feeling his sister was being sexually abused.

“I knew people who were raped and how they act,” he says. “She started doing weird things, so … you know.”

Kim’s foster mom and dad were less brutal with him but only because he could fight back.

“They couldn’t do that to me,” he insists. “I would kill them. They would beat me from a distance, like with big sticks, and run away because I was already really violent and had connections to some gangs.”

His strongest emotional bond in adolescence was with his abuela, or grandmother. Kim felt she saw something special in him, and wanted to keep him occupied with activities that would separate him from his rough friends. She settled on food, Mexican food.

“She would show me her special ingredients and teach me how to cook,” he recalls. “I was naturally gifted with food.”

Kim’s grandmother gave him a nickname, “D,” short for diablo, which is Spanish for devil.

She meant it fondly, but it also had a ring of truth. “I was a pretty bad kid,” says Kim.

At school, Kim never hung out with Caucasians. Mexicans were the only community he ever belonged to. White people, he says, were nothing more than a “warning flag.”

“When I saw them coming, I ran in the opposite direction because I didn’t want anything to do with them. When I saw white people, I saw jail time.”

And Asians? “They were just nerds, dorky and skinny, and they didn’t know how to hold themselves.” He considered them “different.”

Until riots broke out in Los Angeles in the summer of 1992, set off by the acquittal of four police officers accused of savagely beating Rodney King, an African-American. Mobs looted and torched stores for six days, many of them run by Korean immigrants. Kim saw the violence in person.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow these people look like me,’” he says.

Later, his grandmother sat him down and popped the question.

“Do you know what culture you are from?” she asked.

“I didn’t really want to believe it, but she was like ‘You’re Korean.’ The first thing that ran through my mind was, ‘What the [expletive] is Korean?’”

The bad blood between Kim and his foster parents finally went from metaphor to reality. He was asleep at his grandmother’s house when he heard a conversation between neighbors on the sidewalk outside. They were talking about his foster father.

They were praising him.

Kim got up and stormed the six blocks to his parents’ house. He grabbed a hammer from the garden and called to his father, who came out of the house with a bat in his hand. Kim landed a strike on the side of his father’s head. His father collapsed.

Kim dragged him to the curb, determined to kill him. Male relatives restrained him. A neighbor called the police.

His father lost his hearing in his left ear, which Kim is still proud of. Kim got two years in juvenile detention. A boy several years older took Kim under his wing, gave him protection and taught him the ways of the streets.

“He was probably the only brother-like person I ever loved,” says Kim. “And he taught me to sell drugs.” Luckily, he wasn’t turned onto the drugs themselves. “It’s not what you see on TV,” he says. “In our gang, you cannot get high. We were all about making money.”

Kim believes his grandmother knew what he was up to, although she never said anything.

Then a fellow Korean adoptee got in trouble with the law and ratted Kim out. He was convicted of gang affiliation, possession of a firearm and assault and sentenced to five years in jail. Three years into his term, another charge of assault with a deadly weapon was brought up against him.

His lawyer suggested that he could avoid a lot more jail time by accepting lifetime deportation.

That was when Kim discovered he was not even a U.S. citizen. His first two sets of parents never completed the paperwork. His third couldn’t - they were illegal aliens themselves.

So was he.

Kim was going home.

“I didn’t care, really. I just didn’t want to sit in jail.”

The only person he wanted to say goodbye to was his grandmother. But he was afraid he might put her in danger because she too was an illegal immigrant.

His foster mother and father never again contacted him.



On June 18, 2002 Kim was flown into Incheon International Airport accompanied by two U.S. immigration officers. They surrendered him to six local police officers.

“They weren’t bad to me,” he says. “I just didn’t understand a single thing they were saying.”

Kim spent the first several months in Korea living on the drug money he made in the States, a “huge bag full.” He hopped around different motels in Seoul, spending his cash on women. He drank soju from morning to night.

“The first Korean I learned was ‘I’m Kim Dong-hwa. I can’t speak Korean,’” Kim recalls. “I remember practicing it over and over again.”

He thought he could never fit in. He used his otherness as a shield.

“I was really big,” says Kim. “I kind of had that gangster attitude in me, pretty angry. It was to a point where Korean street gangs or police didn’t want to [expletive] with me because I didn’t care.

“Back then, when Korean people thought you were crazy, they didn’t want to deal with you.”

But one day, a stranger penetrated his shield. Kim had woken up hungover and feeling grotesque. “My body didn’t feel right … That was my first time in my life I wanted to just die.”

He walked to a nearby convenience store, grabbed a bottle of soju and started taking gulps on a corner near Sindorim Station in western Seoul. Out of nowhere, a middle-aged woman approached him.

“She was like, ‘You’re too handsome to be acting like a drunk in public,’” says Kim. “I told her to [expletive] off.”

The lady yanked the soju bottle out of his hand, grabbed him by the arm and dragged him to a nearby church.

“I thought, ‘If any woman is crazy enough to grab me like this, maybe she has a purpose,’ Kim says. “So I didn’t fight back.”

Kim became the stranger’s mission. He considers her his guardian angel. Over the next year, the stranger found him a room to live in and introduced him to an American expat who taught him the grammar he should have learned in the U.S. He worked on his accent too. With a better way of speaking English, Kim managed to get work tutoring Korean students in English. He started making money.

All because of the woman he calls his “Sindorim mom” - the one and only woman he ever considered a mother.

Kim moved to Busan with a Korean-Canadian girlfriend but the relationship foundered. She accused him of cheating, and she was right. Kim stayed on in Busan. He continued teaching. He continued drinking. The drinking fuelled his anger and alienation.

“I was angry that I was in Korea, angry that I had to be around Koreans, to face people daily telling me that, basically, I’m not one of them,” says Kim.

It fuelled his shame as well. He thought of his grandmother in East L.A. and how disappointed she’d be in him. She had been proud of him for never succumbing to drugs. But soju was just as bad. He considered calling her but he knew she’d hear the soju slur in his voice.

Determined to fix his drinking problems, Kim asked an acquaintence to find him an alcohol rehab center. He ended up in a mental hospital instead.

He spent two months at that hospital and kicked his alcoholism. He also met his second guardian angel: Kendra Jeong, a Korean college student majoring in psychology interning at the facility. For the first time since Kim arrived in Korea, he felt he was being listened too.

“She was the only friend I had,” says Kim. “She was the only one I could speak to every day. She tried to understand me.”

In 2012, the couple moved to Seoul. Kim wanted to become a chef. As it turned out, Seoul was a promising place for him to pursue that dream. “I couldn’t find good Mexican food,” he explains.

Last August, he and Jeong - with the help of “a lot of loans” - opened El Pino 323 near Aeogae Station in Mapo District, western Seoul. (El Pino is the name of a venerable pine tree in East L.A. near his grandmother’s house; 323 is the local area code.) The reviews from expats on social media were ecstatic. “Amazing is the only way to describe it!” wrote one diner. “Chef D puts every restaurant claiming to be ‘Mexican’ to shame,” wrote another. Many nights, he has to turn customers away because he’s run out of ingredients.



Kim is now 43, although he believes his age was inflated on his adoption papers. His years in the U.S. are distant enough to feel like a past life. When he was deported, he was told it was forever - that he could never go back. He says he doesn’t care. He had no contact with his grandmother, who died in 2015, and has almost none with his sister.

Kim has never had any interest in finding his birth mother. The last thing he needs is another disappointing maternal figure. He still uses the nickname “D” (for Diablo) among friends, although Kendra calls him oppa.

Kim has found salvation by leaving behind his identity as a confused Korean-American or resentful adoptee.

“I have a Korean flag tattoo right here. “ He points to the left side of his chest. “When a foreigner talks [expletive] about the Korean people, I defend them.

“I’m a Korean-Korean,” he says, “who was dealt a bad hand in life.”

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]