Ten Thousand Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan

Ten Thousand Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan

4.3 18
by Elizabeth Kim

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They called it an "honor killing," but to Elizabeth Kim, the night she watched her grandfather and uncle hang her mother from the wooden rafter in the corner of their small Korean hut, it was cold-blooded murder. Her Omma had committed the sin of lying with an American soldier, and producing not just a bastard but a honhyol—a mixed-race child, considered worth


They called it an "honor killing," but to Elizabeth Kim, the night she watched her grandfather and uncle hang her mother from the wooden rafter in the corner of their small Korean hut, it was cold-blooded murder. Her Omma had committed the sin of lying with an American soldier, and producing not just a bastard but a honhyol—a mixed-race child, considered worth less than nothing.

Left at a Christian orphanage in postwar Seoul like garbage, bleeding and terrified, Kim unwittingly embarked on the next phase of her extraordinary life when she was adopted by a childless Fundamentalist pastor and his wife in the United States. Unfamiliar with Western customs and language, but terrified that she would be sent back to the orphanage, or even killed, Kim trained herself to be the perfect child. But just as her Western features doomed her in Korea, so her Asian features served as a constant reminder that she wasn't good enough for her new, all-white environment.

After escaping her adoptive parents' home, only to find herself in an abusive and controlling marriage, Kim finally made a break for herself by having a daughter and running away with her to a safer haven—something Omma could not do for her.

Unflinching in her narration, Kim tells of her sorrows with a steady and riveting voice, and ultimately transcends them by laying claim to all the joys to which she is entitled.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
As a small child in Korea, Elizabeth Kim witnessed the murder of her mother, Omma, by Omma's father and brother. Labeled an "honor killing," Omma's death was considered justified because her child, the author, was born not only out of wedlock but also of mixed race (the father was a American G.I.). Considered "less than human" by her family, Kim was sent to an orphanage where she was eventually adopted by an American Christian Fundamentalist couple. But in California, Kim's life was no less full of manipulation, racism and ostracism. It is not until, as an adult, she leaves an abusive husband and sets off to raise her own daughter that Kim is able to come to terms with herself and her past. Hearing Kim read her own story adds a palpable level of intimacy to this uplifting chronicle of endurance and the healing powers of love. Knowing that the very voice heard is that of the sad and confused little girl, matured into a successful adult, is eerie. Yet there is comfort in knowing that she is alive and well and now able to share her incredible tale. Based on the Doubleday hardcover (Forecasts, Mar. 20). (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
This unflinching, beautifully rendered work is part treatise on "honor killings," part heart-wrenching look at how a soul can be twisted into self-hatred.
Entertainment Weekly
Dorothy Rompalske
Using carefully crafted, elegantly restrained prose, Kim reveals a history so full of unsettling detail, it might have been indescribable in less capable hands.
Biography Magazine
Andrea Behr
The reader's jaw drops at the horrors this woman suffered, and it pretty much stays dropped throughout the book. But there's a lot more than horror here. Kim has managed to create love and beauty by facing her experiences and meditating over them, and she offers what she learned as a gift to any reader who toughs it out with her.... she has the gift of telling her story with such clear-sighted, humble honesty, and such compassion, that it's just fascinating and compulsively readable as it is devastating. I was in tears by the second page but didn't put it down until I finished it.
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
There is a Buddhist saying that each life is filled with 10,000 sorrows and 10,000 joys. In Kim's first book, a grueling memoir of her childhood, one is blinded by the sorrows and left yearning for at least a hint of joy. During the Korean War, Kim's mother committed the ultimate sin of bearing a honhyol (a mixed-race child), who in the eyes of Korean society is worthless. To pay for her crime, Kim's mother was killed by her own father and brother as little Elizabeth watched from a bamboo basket where she had been hidden. Kim's own life was spared, but she was abandoned at an abysmal Christian orphanage where she had to wait, alone and terrified, to be adopted. Kim was eventually taken in by a childless fundamentalist Christian couple in the US who abused her both mentally and physically. To make matters worse, Kim (with her half-Korean, half-Western features) was rejected by the midwestern community that she was forced to become a part of. Her parents eventually orchestrated her marriage to a man so abusive and controlling that it is a wonder she ever escaped—but Kim finally took control of her life and set off with her newborn daughter to make a fresh start. This did not come easy. She suffered through physical and emotional pain, poverty, depression, and failed relationships. After a while this litany of despair may begin to weigh heavily on the reader. Kim has an undeniably awe-inspiring story of survival to tell, but she tells it in such a reductionist manner that the reader is overwhelmed by events without having time to reflect on their deeper meaning. Kim liberally laces her text with her own poetry, as well as that of writers she admires, but even this does notallowher work to soar with the lyricism she is striving for. A fascinating, tragic tale, hampered by lackluster prose.

Product Details

Doubleday Publishing
Publication date:
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1 ED
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5.84(w) x 8.58(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

On the night Omma died, it seemed as if the Land of Morning Calm held its breath in disbelief at the horror visited upon its children. The gusty December wind stopped blowing and the bitter cold settled down, unmoving, in our little house. The air was thin and brittle.

Omma prepared a special dinner of bean curd in chili and garlic with our usual rice and kimchi, and quince tea. She was more animated than usual, and talked to me as if I were a grown woman and an equal, not her small child. Her crumpled silk skin looked feverish, and her eyes darted to and fro as she talked.

Omma told me that somewhere in the world it would be possible for me to become a person. She explained her Buddhist belief that life was made up of ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, and all of them were stepping-stones to ultimate peace. She said nothing ever truly ended, not even life. Everything continued in a pattern of night to day, dark to light, death to rebirth. Omma said honor was found in following one's heart, not in other people's rules. She talked about power. It might be possible for a woman--even a nonperson--to have power, she said.

When dinner had been cleared away and the floor swept, Omma filled the large, blackened iron pot with water and put it on top of the heating pit until it was comfortably warm. She bathed me carefully and quickly so I wouldn't get cold, then dressed me in a clean hanbok, an ankle-length cotton skirt with a short, wrapped bodice. She brushed and braided my long, curly dark hair, which usually was covered with a white scarf. She handed me a folded piece of rice paper covered in fine writing and said that before first light the next day Iwas to leave the village by the dirt pathway, carrying the paper, until I found someone on the main road to show it to. Bewildered but accustomed to obedience, I simply nodded.

Omma grabbed me fiercely and crushed me to her body, pouring out a torrent of love in whispers. She told me over and over how precious I was, how beautiful and perfect. She told me she valued my life more than her own. She told me I was her beloved.

Omma released me and pushed me a few inches away, then told me to step inside the large, woven bamboo basket beside our bed, which we used for storage space. "Whatever happens, be absolutely silent, and remain here until just before first light," she said. Eyes fixed on her face, I obeyed silently, crouching down in the basket. Darkness descended as she closed the lid.

As the next hour or so wore on I sat cross-legged in the basket, watching the candle flame flickering through the slats of bamboo and seeing slivers of Omma as she sat motionless in front of the little wooden Buddha. Her sonorous chanting filled the room, the pure sound rising and falling. I waited, wide awake, tense and afraid.

The candle had burned low and the room was in twilight darkness when hurried steps outside sliced through the quiet, and voices filled the room. I was aware of a confused tangle of noise and movement and I pushed my face toward the slats, adjusting my view through the half-inch-wide gaps so I could better understand what was happening.

I recognized the voice of Omma's stern-faced father, a village elder who had never once spoken directly to me. I recognized the voice of Omma's elder brother, a loud young man who was an important village leader.

Both had done an unprecedented thing that afternoon: They walked up to Omma as she was working in the rice field and spoke to her. We were working quickly, trying to keep ourselves as warm as possible. I straightened up for a moment, aware that someone was coming, and was amazed to see my grandfather and uncle walking toward us. Since they were elders in the village, I knew this was a momentous occasion. Omma stood up, rubbed her tired back, then bowed and waited silently for them. The men did not bow but began speaking immediately in clipped tones. All three kept their voices low, so I didn't know what was being said, but I watched from a distance as they talked. All looked angry; my mother looked at the men with contempt. None of them bowed when the conversation was finished.

And now these men were crowded into our tiny home. With them was the young wife of Omma's brother. She didn't speak, and her head remained bowed. The men were wearing the high net hats that marked their importance as village leaders. Omma's father was a swarthy, barrel-chested man with a stern slit of a mouth and deeply etched lines down his cheeks. Her brother was taller and lighter-skinned. Omma's sister-in-law was wearing a stiffly starched white hanbok.

Omma's brother did all the talking. He told her the family had discussed the matter again since presenting demands to her that afternoon in the field, and he, his father, and his wife were there to carry out the plan. A family had offered to take the honhyol--me--into their home as a servant. They had seen me at work in the rice fields and decided I was now old enough to be useful around the house and also to be betrothed. The people making the offer planned to fill two needs at once: Add a servant to their home and find a future wife for a young man in their employ.

From the impassioned demands of Omma's brother, it appeared a sum of money had also been promised. Though they held respectable positions, our relatives were poor, as was everyone in the village, and the chance of reaping a financial windfall and ridding themselves of the family's shame--all in one move--must have seemed like an incredible piece of luck.

Omma remained kneeling before the altar. She didn't move a muscle, but her voice was steel.

She told the men that her feelings hadn't changed since the conversation in the fields, and that she would never sell her daughter into slavery.

What People are saying about this

Dave Pelzer
Ten Thousand Sorrows is a magnificent tribute to the power of forgiveness. Elizabeth Kim writes with clarity, honesty and power about the enduring longing for a mother's love.
Dave Pelzer, author of A Man Named Dave

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Kim is a journalist in California.

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Ten Thousand Sorrows: The Extraordinary Journey of a Korean War Orphan 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing life story. After finishing the book, I felt instictively drawn to experience anew the power of compassion and tenderness. If we could only live with the full intesity with which Elizabeth Kim celebrates love and joy, perhaps then we would not take for granted the simple happiness of knowing that we are loved. This book is among one of the best memoirs I have read--you will deifnitely be moved and empowered.
Willow99 More than 1 year ago
Loved this book so much !! Elizabeth Kim has a very unique style of describing her past events and how these events have affected her. She has an individualistic way of applying adjectives. The words just flow like the wind; in such a beautiful way. She has brought out the obvious in the characterizations from person to person. She also had the strength within herself to expose the ones in her life, who have drastically pushed and pulled her emotionally. There is no holding back for this woman, regarding the diversified experiences that have occurred in her life. God bless her ...
Prof-Su-san More than 1 year ago
I waited until Ihad time to read this small book, and I read it from cover to cover in 1 4-5 hour sitting! The story is not new to me, but each time I read another Korean suvivors story I get a better understanding of this elusive culture. Altho I have lived in Korea and taught there for nearly a decade South Korea and her traditions are like layers and layers of the thinest tissue wrapping something small, precious and unique, unbelievably unique. Anyone considering adoption of a child from another country should read this account. Anyone considering really living in ROK should read this account. Kim tells her story candidly but with a naievity that is almost as frightening as the story... I would love to retrace her steps....and those steps of others in similar situations, no one can know what it is like to be a nonperson....no one should ever feel like this and yet many of these feelings still underpin the traditions and cultural practices of various countries - and if one bothers to understand the historic culture of Korea altho what happened to Kim was/is barbaric it is the result of a country that has been abused and bullied and stripped of it's clothing and left naked many times...as Paulo Friere says 'There are oppressors and the oppressed and there is very little difference between them, when the oppressed are oppressed they declare they'd never treat any one like that, but when they rise above their oppression and their oppressors they in fact inflict the same ... an so the cycle goes.' Kim and others like her are paving the road to a new way a new path...of healing and hurt and honesty and somehow being better people despite all..
Guest More than 1 year ago
There's no doubt that Elizabeth's childhood was one of extraordinary tragedy and her personal memoir of the years to follow, equally heartwrenching. Still, the most traumatic blow to her young life occurs in the beginning of the book when her mother is tortured and killed by her own father and brother in this supposed 'honor killing' which she claims is an acceptable practice in Korea. I am a Korean, and after having checked and double checked with my relatives and theirs who are of the same era and some of similar rural background, I am convinced that this is absolutely not true. I have a need to clarify this fact as they are (as I'm sure all Koreans who know of this would most definately be) abhored by such ludicrous accusation about our culture. There is no such thing as honor killing in Korea.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one cool book... I'm korean, and after reading this book, made me realize what I take for granted. I learned alot more about the korean culture. I recommend everyone to read this awesome book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Doubleday released a press statement back in November 2000 that admits they did not have sufficient evidence to have stated that there is a tradition of honor killings in Korea, a practice that became a 'hot topic' after the media reported it in some countries like Pakistan and Turkey. The most Doubleday will do is promise to change the text in the next printing so that the term 'honor killing' is not used. Well, then, they never should have published it. I am a Korean American with an M.A. in East Asian Languages & Cultures, and I can attest that this book is grossly distorted with some of the worst stereotypes about Asia. While some readers may cite the author's right to her own memories, particularly in America as an adoptee, the entire basis of this book's sensationalism revolves around the 'honor killing' incident in Korea, and in that vein, Kim crosses the line of one's own personal memory into outrageous statements of 'fact' about Korea. Despite people's protestations that this is JUST a memoir, let me remind you that the book purports to tell the 'truth' about Korean culture. Ms. Kim is not giving her subjective opinion here; she is making a ludicrous accusation about an entire culture. There is a HUGE difference between saying that 'Women experience discrimination in Korean society,' versus killing women in Korea is 'not murder, they are honor killings, sanctified by tradition.' Ms. Kim is quite literally stating that Korea permits and endorses the killing of women for the sake of family honor, a gross error even if it were a work of fiction. This is NOT memory, but a statement to be read erroneously as FACT. But Americans prefer to blur the difference as a 'fine point.' But is it fair for Ms. Kim to attribute a barbaric and backwards cultural practice to Korea that doesn't exist to her 'memory' as a child when she cannot even remember her name, her age, her town, her mother's name, etc.? Strange how she can unequivocally 'remember' a detailed Korean cultural tradition when she can't seem to remember the basic facts that allow anyone to verify her story. Plus, her mistransliterations and her numerous mistakes about the Korean language and culture make it doubtful that she is culling anything from actual memory, but from cultural guidebooks she has read in her adulthood. Domestic abuse and violence against women have occurred in every country, including this one. But if I were to write a memoir about the death of my mother in the U.S. and attribute it to America's 'honor killing' tradition, I would be publicly ridiculed and have zero chances at finding a publisher who would buy it. I could not hide behind the weak excuse that 'this is my life' or 'this is my memory,' because the facts are simply wrong! But I guess it's OK to say it about Korea since we are so ignorant about it and form our opinions about other countries from racist propaganda, TV stereotypes and bad books like these. The Associated Press already printed an article about the controversy surrounding this issue, and numerous Korean scholars, experts and several national magazines have pointed out egregious errors in the story and the distorted misrepresentations, particularly in the first 1/3 of this book. One scholar has collected more than 15 pages of errors! Korea, like any country, has its problems and its cultural sticking points. But ignorance of this magnitude is inexcusable. The majority of you who are defending it, quite frankly, do not speak, read or write Korean and know very little about Korea. There are a few who DO know about Korea and think that it's OK to criticize Korea for it's male-dominated society with this simple, minor 'gaffe.' That is a mistake. To allow this misrepresentation to continue is to perpetuate gross misunderstanding and ignorance that insults and slanders the people and descendants of Korea, including myself. But rather than discern the truth, we would all rather have a 'good read' at the expense of
Guest More than 1 year ago
Whether in Korea or America Elizabeth Kim was destined for a life of slavery, shame and Buddhism. Her story confirmed so many beleifs I already had, particularly how cruel, selfish and judgemental Christianity is and that the only way to move on is to except the pain, face your fears and be true to yourself. This is an amazing book of self discovery, everyone should read this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
it IS an 'extraordinary journey of an Korean War Orphan.' but the main focus is the ::journey:: not of being a korean nor being an orphan although it plays a major factor in its story. the will to endure such pain and hardship is admirable. the love and compassion for the unfortunate should be learned. Ten Thousand Sorrow not only tells the story of the life of a Korean Orphan but also teaches us the value of love, family, and search for identity. everyone must MUST definitely read this book
Guest More than 1 year ago
Elizabeth Kim's stylistic strength is the child-like simplicity of her telling of a story that should never have to be told. Caught between two worlds, she is injured by both. Does the story go on too long? If it were shorter, readers would want to know how she's doing now. Well, she tells us, and gives us as happy an ending as life could make for such a horrible start. Yet she really reveals herself, and her love for her Mother. What a fighter, what a survivor. This is a 'pro-life' story of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, all through childhood. It's not easy to take some of the scenes. But here she is, in a way a 'bridge' spanning two cultures, determined to live despite the contempt she faces, first from one world, then from another. I would recommend this book for adults.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is real- the character defines herself through a very diffcult and important years of 'childhood' life. This book will make the reader to really feel the importance of love.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Kim has written a wonderful parody of the new trend for self-pitying memoirs - the hilariously over-the-top title alone is reason enough to buy the book. But even cleverer is the way she takes ho-hum childhood unpleasantness and elevates it to the level of trauma. She had to wash the dishes growing up! The other students in class didn't like her book report! The reason I know this must be a parody is that Kim cleverly strews the book with tip-offs that the story is not true. For example, she says she was watching The Elephant Man on television with her husband in the mid 1970s, years before the movie was even released in theaters. She also parodies the growing gullibility of memoir readers by leaving out all names, facts, locations - the story has a fairy tale feel to it which I'm sure was intentional. Thank you, Elizabeth Kim, for a very entertaining read -
Guest More than 1 year ago
Being married happily to another person who grew up in this country with the prejudice faced by one who is half-Korean, half-Caucasian, we both sobbed and rejoiced along with Elizabeth as she recounted her life-long struggles with self-image, love, the cruelty of dogmatic religeon, and gradual self-fulfillment. We've both fallen in love with her, and wish only that we could somehow tell her so. Daniel and Ben
Guest More than 1 year ago
Being an avid reader of Asian non-fiction, I was excited to run into Ten Thousand Sorrows and since I am also Korean I was anxious to relate to some issues. I think it's a great plot...Elizabeth Kim went through terrible hardships and I thought it would be very interesting to read. It's been over a month since I bought the book and I still can not get myself to finish it. I keep picking it up to finish, but I find myself rather selecting other books first. The first few pages were enjoyable, but I think it's very repetitive and I just could not stand the way she kept emphasizing her goodness and how she did this and she was the perfect child and she didn't do anything wrong and she seems to remember every single detail. It's hard to believe that everything is true and although it is a very sad story, it seems largely exaggerated. I would recommend people to borrow this book from the library, but don't go out of your way to buy it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an amazingly personal narration that cannot fail to reach any reader. The author has used simple and powerful language to describe the horrors she has been through as well as the fragile links that helped keep her afloat. My heart goes out to Ms. Kim and her daughter and wishes them well. Amazingly, the author has skillfully avoided using the the book to lambast others with blame. The inner strength demonstrated by the author seems to have been dervived from her short but sweet life with her Omma.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I couldn't put down the first part of the book wondering how difficult life must havebeen for her. However, I couldn't read through all the Christian teachings in the middle. It seemed to drag on forever. As she enters adulthood and marriage, I felt sorry for her again. Then all of a sudden, her life travels rather quickly through the pages and the book was over. I was left wondering how she got the name Kim, what became of her daughter (her strength), and what is crrently doing. I thought her story should be a calling to the lives of Asian women and the struggles they bear in their home countries.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoy reading the memoirs, especially when the story is about an Asian woman. Like Memoirs of a Geisha and Falling Leaves, I really enjoyed reading this book. When I was reading the author's childhood both in Korea and in the U.S., my heart just went out for that little girl and wanted to make everything better for her. She went through so much physically and emotionally, and yet, she overcame all those obstacles and became a strong woman. I strongly believe that her Omma would be very pleased the way author survived and not giving up her life. Also, I would like to give my hands to Leigh, who supported her mother the whole time. I have read this book in three hours first time, and at this moment I am on my second reading of this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a superb and excellent book that I enjoyed immensely because of the author¡¯s willingness to completely share her very personal story. Hers is one important story of the 200,000 children of Korean descent who were adopted overseas. Elizabeth¡¯s dual voices show: the professional journalist voice in the clarity and depth of her narrative and the poet¡¯s voice that transforms her work into one that shows the reflecting pool of her life in it¡¯s many subtleties and textures. It is the storm of chance that creates and propels Elizabeth¡¯s life. Through her narrative, we can imagine Elizabeth as a child born into difficult circumstances (a mixed race child in Korea), adopted by American parents who are exceptionally difficult, and her difficult and torturous adulthood. After reading the book, I imagined Elizabeth¡¯s story as one of a little girl rowing in a small dinghy caught in a storm of biblical proportions: lightening flashing, sea sick high waves, driving sheets of rain, and violent and shrieking winds. We root for her as she rows forward through the storm of life; we cringe with fear on her behalf on the battering that she takes from the life waves; and we applaud her search for the calm seas and the shores of sanity. The warm glow from her birth mother¡¯s spirit is the lodestar that guides Elizabeth, and this spirit provides us hope that perhaps there is a whisper of chance that Elizabeth will arrive on the shores of sanity and love. As I read the book, I feared for Elizabeth, the child and the adult, and hoped that her experiences in her tortuous life have not embittered her, that her scars both physical and emotional have healed. Perhaps that is too much, for surely her experiences would have left most of us bitter, angry, and emotionally distant. Perhaps the great emotional wounds that she has suffered neither the time of healing or even the healing herbs of the Centaur would provide the necessary healing properties. And against all hope, against all logic, against all reason, we find out if Elizabeth triumphs and provides us, the reader, that most important and wonderful graces that life provides us: hope. With all my being and soul, I believe that Elizabeth¡¯s birth mother¡¯s spirit would be both happy and proud of her achievements in life and this wondrous book. Peter K. Kwak
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was great. I read this awhile ago, but the portrait of the orphanage still sticks out in my mind. Also, I could not believe the amount of racism she faced as a half-American and half-Korean child. Her mother protected her, and its this love for her mother that makes it hard for her to adjust to her life in America. While I understand that she didn't want to hear the fundamentalist view that her mother, since she was not a Christian, was going to hell, I felt that besides this, her fundamentalist's parents offered her a much better life. It horrifies me to think what type of life she would have had if she stayed in the Korean orphanage, what kind of life the other orphans faced. The book ends on a hopeful note, though, as she develops independence, enabling her to raise her child with love & maintain a job.