In my life I have spent 5 Christmases outside the United States. It was, of course, quite an experience. Three of those Christmases were spent in Italy where the holiday is of course celebrated as much as it is here. One Christmas I spent in Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. I was on the island of Roi-Namur on the atoll and it was entirely populated by other Americans. The Marshallese have their own religion but in their own way they do celebrate a form of Christmas. But one Christmas was spent in Korea in 1968.
I arrived in Korea in early December 1968. I was just 19 years old and in the US Army there. I was just settling in when at a formation one morning volunteers were being sought to go and visit the company’s orphanage. I later found out that there were more than enough orphanages in Korea to allow every company to have its own. I would estimate that number to be around 1000. I volunteered. I do not remember exactly why, but I am guessing it was more because I had nothing to do than anything noble.
The day came and I would say there were about 10 of us who were going. Korea in those days was very different from the way it is now. Even though the hostilities between north and south were not actively acted up, the peace was a very nervous one and small conflicts still happened. Because of that we were told we had to check out our M-16 rifles from the armorer and take them with us. There was, we were told, always the possibility of being ambushed. To that end at jeep with a 50 calibre machine gun mounted on it led us to the orphanage and a second truck carrying several MPs trailed. We were told, upon our departure, that the orphanage sat right on the DMZ which is why such heightened security was necessary. Things got very real very fast because of that. Still, it did not occur to me that I was in a war zone and had to be told that I had been four years later at another assignment.
The trip to the orphanage was uneventful. I did not know what to expect when we got there. The building we arrived at was a small cinderblock building of one story. My assumption is that is was of western construction since building in the Korean countryside, such as we were in, were seldom of such construction.
The orphanage was run by French nuns who, fortunately for us, spoke English. Most of us could speak neither English nor French. My French was passable but I feared testing that.
We had brought with us enough gifts that each child would get one and a lot of food to have a celebration while we were there. The kids knew of our coming and were excited to see us. They crowded us as we entered the building. They spoke nothing but Korean, of course, so we had no idea what they were saying but that did not matter because we could see in their eyes that they were no different from any child we knew back in the U.S.
Shortly after we had gotten everything inside we congregated in a room to meet with the children. I looked around the room and I quickly caught sight of one little girl who quickly grabbed my heart and has left me heartbroken. Unlike all the other children, she had blonde hair and blue eyes but with other Korean features.
At the time in Korea, the Koreans were culturally quite conservative. Women were not allowed to date without their family’s permission and sex before marriage was absolutely prohibited. Any women who engaged in extra-marital sex was immediately branded a whore and shunned by all society. At that time orphans were almost always were the children of unmarried mothers. Korean women would almost always send such a child to an orphanage rather than have the extra weight of societal condemnation. Such children had a tough time as they grew up. They were not readily accepted into society. Still, a few smart moves on their part and they could sidestep such issues and gain a fair level of acceptance.
But a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes had very little chance at that time. For her, it was an absolute case of wearing a “Scarlet A” on herself. In talking to one of the nuns I found that her very survival was at risk once she left the orphanage. I inquired about getting her sent to the U.S. and adoption but of course my being single, and without means, made that impossible.
The image of that little girl was burned into my memory. The helplessness and hopelessness of it changed my perspective on the world forever. When I returned to the U.S., December 20 1969, I brought with me the recognition of how little we Americans understand and appreciate other cultures, particularly non-western cultures.
From 1970 to 1973 I was stationed in Italy and the opportunity to visit an orphanage there was afforded me one Christmas. I jumped at that opportunity and I still have vivid memories of that visit as well. But those memories are mostly happy and the children of that orphanage had an equal chance when they grew up.
It is hard to understand how much we have, even those here who struggle in poverty, until you visit a country such as Korea and experience abject hopelessness. Each Christmas I appreciate how much I have and that is why I want for nothing.