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A Letter from a Stranger
Seoul, Korea, October 2002.
Michael Hamil, 25, looked at the folded white paper his buddy Charlie Knox, a clarinetist with walnut skin, had just handed him as the two men headed to the dressing room down the hallway. The six-member band The Returned — made entirely of half-Korean half-American people who had been adopted by American families as toddlers but returned to their motherland as adults — had just finished their weekly Friday night performance at the New Age Theater in Yongsan District.
"What's this?" Michael asked Charlie.
"An American priest asked me to give it to you backstage a minute ago."
"An American priest?"
"Yep! He was tall and looked dignified, with white hair and a bald spot on the top of his head. He reminded me of Hemingway in photos I've seen."
"Why didn't he give it to me himself?"
"You were busy talking to that cute chick with a boy's haircut. Remember?"
"Hmm ... I don't know any priest who might want to leave me a note, American or Korean. I'm not Catholic."
"He must know you somehow. Open the note and read it."
Charlie was a year older than Michael. The two met during the Adoptee Home Visit Program, a ten-day event three years ago, here in Seoul, hosted by international adoption agencies and the South Korean government. The purpose was to give young Korean adoptees a chance to visit their motherland and learn her history and culture with no cost to them. The Home Visit Program included a ten-day stay in a five-star hotel where they attended classes during the day that included watching educational films about South Korea's recent history. In the evenings, a dozen Korean folk musicians and dancers in their colorful traditional dresses entertained them.
Michael and Charlie bonded like two brothers after the orientation. Whenever they were together, they talked. They were both infatuated by music, since they both played in a band. Charlie, a half-Korean half-Black American, played in a bar every weekend in a predominantly black community in northwestern Chicago, while Michael played guitar and sang, for fun, with a few friends in a suburb of Austin, Texas, mostly at a park on weekends or in a private home. After the ten-day Home Revisit Program ended, Charlie and Michael each returned to their homes — Charlie to Chicago and Michael to Austin.
But their friendship didn't end there. They corresponded through emails, sometimes on the phone. One summer evening, Michael learned of Charlie's fear of death when he called and talked about a drive-by shooting that killed two of his friends earlier that day. "Death is no big news here in this neighborhood," Charlie said on the phone, his voice dark and subdued. "The two guys were sitting and smoking on their porch two houses south of me, when gunfire from a moving car killed them both instantly."
All Michael could say was, "I'm so sorry ..."
"The sad thing is that we blacks were persecuted by whites long and hard since an ancient time ago, but these days, blacks are killing blacks. Isn't it sickening? Our enemies are not whites; they're our own kind. Hey, Michael, have you thought about going back to Seoul someday? I don't think there are hardly any blacks in Korea. I wanna get away from here, an all- black neighborhood!"
Two years later, they found each other in Seoul again, this time, to make music together.
* * *
The dressing room was lit with white florescent ceiling lights. Tall and wide mirrors on the wall made the narrow room twice as wide. In a chair before the mirror, Michael opened the letter Charlie had given him, the letter that had supposedly been delivered by a white American priest, while Charlie stood next to him and looked on.
I enjoyed your concert. Your band touched your audience with its unique charm and compelling stories. I was particularly touched by your number, 'My name is Orphan'. You've courageously told the whole story of your birth and life journey as an orphan, including your graceless childhood on a Texas farm and why you returned to your motherland, all in one song with poetical verses.
Let me introduce myself: I'm Father Patrick Anderson, a Catholic priest who knew your father, Father John Dolan, well. In fact, your father was my mentor when I was in seminary, and later, he and I worked together as spiritual brothers and colleagues at Sonam College, the first Catholic college for both men and women in Korean history, which your father had established in 1961. I taught philosophy for seven years, between 1965–1972. As you might already know, your father passed away a quarter of a century ago, probably while you were in Texas. It was shortly after the Vietnam War ended; and I learned the news of his passing in Milwaukee as a prison chaplain. (God willing, someday I'll tell you why I returned to the States against my will.) I now live here, near Seoul. I want to meet you and get to know you. Please contact me at Sochun Catholic Church, Sochun City, Gyeonggi Province. (Tel: 82-674-6866)
May the Lord be with you and give you peace,
Father Patrick Anderson.
Michael felt the blood rushing to his head. He knew nothing about his father except for what he had read in the note his birth mother had written; the note that had come with him to his new home in Texas when he was four years old saying that his father was 'a very important man doing important things for the Korean people'. The note had been inside a manila envelope — along with his passport and birth certificate, which only showed his mother's name as a single parent.
"What does it say?" Charlie asked impatiently, awakening Michael to the reality that he was in the dressing room, still holding the note from his father's old colleague. "Read it yourself," Michael said as he handed Charlie the note.
Between the two of them there were no secrets. During the Home Revisit Program, while traveling to historical places, Charlie had revealed to Michael that his Korean mother could have been a prostitute who abandoned him in a trash bin, and it so happened that a Catholic nun nearby heard him crying and delivered him to an orphanage.
"Wow, Michael!" Charlie said as he handed back the note, his walnut face lit with a smile, showing his white teeth. "I wish someone shows up with a note like this telling me who my father was, even if he was just a bum. I know nothing about my parents."
Michael wasn't comforted by what Charlie said. "To be honest, Charlie," he said coldly, "I don't feel exuberant about knowing that my father was a priest and that he did important things for whoever!If he was such a great man, why was I abandoned and sent away thousands of miles like an unwanted package? I remember the miserable day I was handed to a woman in a red dress and had to leave my mother for good. Don't tell me that a four-year-old can't remember much. I do remember many things that happened to me when I was still with her."
Charlie paid no attention to Michael. "I envy you, buddy. If I were you, I'd be dancing like this!" Leaving his clarinet case on the dressing table next to him and opening his arms wide, he twirled around, swaying his hips, saying, "Praise the Lord, the King of Heaven! Thank you for sending me an angel to tell me who I am, thank you, thank you ..."
Michael said nothing as he stared at Charlie's silly act.
"Hey, we should celebrate, buddy," Charlie said, dropping his arms and becoming serious. "How about going for a beer? Or a glass of Soju (rice wine) will do. It's your choice."
"No, I'm heading home. I'm tired."
Charlie seemed offended. He picked up his clarinet case and turned to leave. "Call me anytime, Michael, if you want to talk," he said before he stepped out of the door.
Cold early winter air swept in and Michael felt a sudden chill on his back. Three other guys were in the room, he now noticed, changing into street clothes, each talking about something that happened on the stage, annoying Michael as he tried to collect his thoughts. His half-Korean, half-American face in the mirror looked back, his lips tightly sealed, forming a rigid line, while his dark-brown eyes glowed with intensity. He was lighter skinned than most Koreans and at least a head taller than most Korean males. But, his eyes were brown and his hair jet black, like other Korean males.
"Michael Hamil," he said to his reflection, "your father was a Jesuit priest who founded the first Catholic College for both men and women here in Korea. How do you feel about it?"
He cracked up. Why should it shock me now, when I've never met him or will either? Before this day, he had not thought much about his father, but he thought about his mother often, because he remembered her quite clearly. They lived in a Buddhist temple, in the women's quarter where men hadn't been around. Like all other nuns, his mother wore a light-gray gown made of stiff cotton under a wide-brimmed straw hat and worked in the field, like others, leaving him with an older nun who watched a dozen children, some born of the nuns, some abandoned by unwed mothers like Charlie's.
Michael's memories of his mother somewhat faded as he got older, but he still remembered her warm embrace and her smell — the smell similar to the soap his mother had used whenever she gave him a bath in a wooden tub in the kitchen. And tonight, here in the dressing room, his mother was closer to him than any time before, perhaps because the priest's note revealed unbelievable news. He tried to imagine the priest who handed Charlie the note. Do I remember seeing a priest in the audience? He didn't remember seeing any man in black who wore a white Roman collar.
What did Father Patrick see while he listened to our concert? Michael wondered.
The theater had been completely packed that night. The concert began with The Promised Land in the Far East, which Charlie had composed and sang in sextet, which sounded somewhat like African Gospel songs: 'We've come a long way, friends; and we'll walk together, thick and thin; til' we find our promised land in the Far East.
Don't ask where the promised land is; it's there, friends, at your fingertip. Just open your eyes and see ...'
Then, Karla Morris did her one-person play. She had golden-yellow hair and pretty, dark Asian eyes. In an ear-piercing voice, she recounted the day she lost her mother in a park at age three.
'Omma (Mother) where were you?
I looked for you for hours in the park ...
I was scared when I couldn't find you! The mother of the little girl I was playing with, the lady in her Korean dress, looked for you too, and when you didn't return, she flagged a passing police car and told the police officer that you abandoned me.'
'The police officer took me to the orphanage full of sick kids. They gave me a new name, Sook-hee, because I can't remember my name. I don't know how long I was there, Mother. One day, months after I got there, I was sent to America with a different name, Karla Morris. I don't know why. Omma, I wish you'd told me why you couldn't raise me and took me to an orphanage yourself. But I'm back to Seoul. The park is still there, but I can't find you where I last saw you. Omma, will I ever see you again?' The actress bent her head and wept bitterly.
The audience applauded, some wiped tears, and some shouted 'Bravo!' and whistled too.
Then it was Michael's turn. While strumming his guitar, he sang:
"My name is Orphan. My father was a zealous man who was doing great things for Koreans, my mother wrote on a note that followed me to America. This is what I figured: My father planted the seed of love in my mother but bitterly regretted it. 'Satan, leave me,' he cried and told my mother never to come see him again. My mother and I lived in a Buddhist temple, but when I turned four, she handed me to an orphanage that sent children to America, with my photo, birth certificate, and her tearful note that read, 'Son, I can't keep you, please forgive and don't look for me."
"But I never forgot her. She was with me in that big farmhouse in Texas, in the smell of soap in the washing room, and the bedroom I slept in with other boys who did farm work. Mother, you were my only home where I felt loved and safe. Someone out there, if you know where my mother lives, please tell her I'm looking for her."
He received a loud applause, as he always had. After intermission, a half-Korean half-American woman in her early 30s gave a video presentation about 'The Korean Adoptee Revisit Program'. She talked about the history of orphan adoption services that had placed 250,000 Korean orphans, since the war ended in 1953, to some 15 different countries, mostly in the United States, and was still going strong. She showed many black and white photos of the orphans, each with a white nametag on their breasts and holding the hand of an adult, waiting to board an airplane at Kimpo Airport.
The performance ended with the announcement of the next performance and asking for donations.
How did Father Patrick find me? Michael wondered.
A loud banging on the door startled Michael. Before he responded, the door flung open and the husky Korean security guard named Song stepped in. "Why are you still here, Mr. Hamil?" he said in Korean with authority. "It's past midnight!"
"I'm sorry! I ... I sort of ..." Michael stammered.
"I was about to lock the building when I saw the light under the door! I could have locked you up until seven tomorrow morning!"
"I'm glad you didn't, Officer Song!" Michael jumped to his feet, quickly picked up his guitar leaning against the wall, and took his black jacket hanging on the back of his chair. Seeing the priest's note on the dressing table, he grabbed it and headed to the door.
"Good night, Mister Hamil!" Song said as Michael passed him.
"Good night, sir!"
The full moon in the cloudless sky seemed larger and brighter than he had ever seen before, and millions of stars twinkled in their mysterious languages. By contrast, the shadows of the trees on both sides of the street were dark and spooky as they swayed in the breeze. Michael walked towards the bus station, whistling the melody of 'The Promised Land the Far East'.CHAPTER 2
The noise of the apartment maintenance crew dragging metal trash bins on the concrete outside his window woke Michael. Remembering the letter in his coat pocket, he looked at his alarm clock on the nightstand. 7:16 AM? Would it be too early to call him? He had no clue what time would be a good time call a Catholic priest, yet he couldn't wait. Rising from the bed, he walked to his closet in his pajamas and dug out the note from his black coat.
He dialed the number. "Father Anderson speaking," a man's baritone voice resounded from the receiver.
For a moment, Michael didn't know what to say. His throat was too tight, and his hand holding the phone receiver trembled. "Father Anderson," he said, "I hope I'm not calling you too early. I'm Michael Hamil."
"Oh, hello, Michael! Thank you for calling!" The voice in his ear was warm and unhurried, as if he had been expecting for Michael to call.
"I received your note. Thank you so much. I want to see you as soon as you'll allow me. When would be a good time for me to come?"
"I'm about two hours away from where you performed last night, Michael. However, driving at this hour in Seoul is not wise, because of rush-hour traffic. Wait until around 9 o'clock, then you can get here in Sochun in two hours. And plan to have lunch with me here, at my place, so we have plenty of time to visit."
"That's very kind of you, Father," Michael said, somewhat relaxed. "I can't wait to see you, Father!"
"Same here," the priest said. He then gave him the driving instructions and Michael jotted them down.
"I'll be looking out for you around 11 o'clock," Father Patrick said. "And drive carefully!"
"I will, Father. See you soon."
After the phone clicked off, Michael didn't move, still holding the phone receiver against his ear, as if he thought the priest might say more. It seemed unreal that he'd soon meet him, a priest who had known his father since his seminary days worked with him later too, at the college his father had founded, here in Seoul.
At 9 AM, Michael drove his Hyundai Sonata out of the parking spot in front of his apartment on the first floor and headed south, remembering Father Anderson's warning 'Drive carefully'.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Returned and Reborn"
Copyright © 2019 Therese Park.
Excerpted by permission of Austin Macauley Publishers.
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