An Orphan’s Odyssey: From South Korea to Minnesota and Back Again

 


OUTSIDE SEOUL, on a train platform in Uijeongbu, his mother shields him, tucking his tiny body against hers, as people spit and throw garbage. She tells him not to listen, but how can he not? They scream and shake their fists — some from the train’s open windows, others from the crowd that closes around him like a fist. He is only three years old, but that doesn’t stop them. They don’t like the color of his skin. They don’t like the curl of his hair. They don’t like that he exists, his mother Korean, his father black.

This is his first memory.

HIS NAME WAS CHAR SU THEN. His name is Eric Charles Poole now. He isn’t sure how old he is. He isn’t sure about a lot of things. That’s why we’re flying to South Korea — to unearth what we can of his lost history.

Eric is an athlete, and he looks it. Not tall, just shy of 6 feet, but broad-shouldered, thick-limbed. He attended the University of North Dakota on a football scholarship, and these days he jogs and plays pickup basketball. Maybe it’s because of this he has trouble sitting still. Always stretching, motioning with his hands, pretending an empty water bottle is a football and spiraling it into a trash can.

Somewhere near the North Pole, he paces the aisle and leans over me to peer out the window. Far below, ice floes reach off into the distance, seamed by black water. They’re breaking up, colliding — like his memories. “The closer we get, the more stuff comes back to me,” he says. “But it’s hard to know how it all fits together.”

AFTER MORE THAN 20 HOURS of cars and planes and buses, we find ourselves walking through the neon-lit streets of Seoul. It feels as far as we can get from Northfield, Minnesota, a nice, ordinary town where Eric lives a nice, ordinary life. He’s a pilot. He has a wife, three kids, and a yellow Lab. He loves old-school hip-hop, SportsCenter, and Michael Lewis books. But he has another life — a secret, extraordinary life — that he’s been weighed down by and is carrying around with him. And after five years of friendship, he asked if I could help him rediscover it.

He shares memories with me as we move through the city, stepping aside as scooters zoom past, navigating alleyways busy with vendors selling mung bean pancakes, pork intestines, chicken feet, octopus on ice. He remembers a river. On one side of the river was a U.S. Army base. On the other side was his mother’s home, one of many thatched- roof, dirt-floor shacks clustered along the banks. Eric is similarly divided. His father was stationed at the base. His mother was a prostitute who entertained soldiers at a club.

He remembers his father being tall, his long arms hoisting Eric into the air and onto a roof. It was supposed to be a game, but Eric cried, a little boy begging to be let down, leaning toward the edge, hoping someone would be there to catch him when he fell.

He remembers the funeral. Everyone in the procession wore white. They marched through the streets, carrying the casket, like a slow-moving river. The women wailed. The men chanted, their voices low and grinding. Eric trailed behind uncertainly. “I don’t think I really understood what had happened,” he says. “It was too much to understand.”

He was the one who found his mother’s body. When she worked nights, he sometimes slept at a neighbor’s, and he came back one morning to the smell of charcoal. A small heating and cooking stove had filled their one-room home with smoke. Coughing, his eyes burning, he found his mother curled on a mat. When he nudged her shoulder, she did not respond. He thinks he was four years old. She was in her late teens or early twenties.

His memory here becomes a conflicting maze of images. He knows he spent some nights alone. He knows an old woman cared for him, but her silver-haired husband was a heavy drinker and would punch her and throw her against walls and chase Eric off. As best as he can recall, he lived in the village another two years — surviving off handouts, eating sesame leaves that grew wild, persimmons plucked from a tree outside a Buddhist temple — before being swept up in a police raid on homeless children. 

THE HOLT ORPHANAGE is located in Ilsan, an upscale suburb northwest of Seoul. In the morning, when we get to the train, the first thing we see is a giant netted driving range adjacent to a mall packed with European-themed coffee shops that runs up against a towering range of luxury apartments.

Eric recalls a small village, dirt roads, rice paddies walled by thick forests. Now there is only concrete, glass, and steel. “I would never guess this was the same place,” he says.

His wife, Mary, is with us. They knit their fingers together as they walk. In so many ways, Eric’s childhood seems mythic, a huge, sprawling story. His close friends have heard some of it, but Mary has heard it all. They’ve been married 17 years but together for 29. “This is different than someone telling you a story,” she says as we approach the orphanage gate. “This is starting to get real.”

We wander across what looks like a college campus, and aside from Eric’s occasionally muttering, “I can’t believe what’s happened to this place,” no one speaks. The noise of traffic gives way to birdsong. Roses perfume the air. We wander a path edged by a stone wall, and Eric runs his fingers along it as if afraid to lose his way.

He remembers his first night at the orphanage and how the children in the beds around him screamed and shook with seizures. He remembers digging through the medical clinic garbage and using the needles he found there as arrows to fire from home- made bows. He remembers the older boys making the younger ones fight for their entertainment. He remembers a Korean folk song, “Arirang,” that’s about sadly sending someone away, and he hums a few bars of it now.

These days, the orphanage specializes in the disabled. A man with a towel shoved in his mouth stumbles by, and a woman with Down syndrome shakes our hands and asks us to take her picture and says, “Hello, hello.”

Bertha and Harry Holt were Oregon farmers who adopted eight Korean War orphans and were so moved by the experience that they founded the Holt Orphanage in 1956. Their gravestones spike a hill on the campus, and their daughter, Molly, runs the facility. We meet with her now, in a modest brick home located on the grounds, and she cocks her head and says, “How old are you anyway?”

“Supposedly in my late forties. But beats me,” Eric says. “Cut me open, count the rings!”

“Oh, we had a lot of boys like you. Your birthday was the day you showed up here. Then we gave you a good, hard look and guessed your age.”

Molly sinks into a recliner and says, “Sit, sit. Please.” She has a stout build and a silver helmet of hair and looks like someone who would bring a macaroni casserole to a church potluck. “It makes me so happy when we find nice families for the children,” she says. “You ended up with a nice family?”

Eric flinches but manages a smile. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, not wanting to disappoint her. “Oh, that’s wonderful,” she says. “We had so many black boys. And it wasn’t easy to place them.”

Eric nods, but his attention is drifting. Molly’s vision of the orphanage doesn’t align with his. He was not happy here. He does not feel grateful.

But it did feel like a refuge from the rest of Korea. “We were the island of misfit toys,” he says. There was a fence that surrounded the grounds, and sometimes he and the others made a game of crawling over it and shouting, “I’m free!” before rushing back. Because they feared what was out there. 

But one day he and his friends kept going. They climbed the fence and followed a road that cut through a rice paddy to visit a store and buy Popsicles and ice cream. The local school had just let out, and the students arrived at the same time as the orphans. “There were five of us,” Eric says. “All mixed-race. And these schoolkids walk in and spot us and immediately start in with the teasing and the shoving. And things got out of control from there.” They threw punches, rocks, and bottles. One kid was dragged away and stomped by several others. “This was a complete melee,” he says. “A bloody mess.”

Our conversation with Molly is interrupted by a man named Ill-Nam. “Charley!” he yells. “Charley!” He too was a Holt orphan. He was never adopted, and so he never left, working for Holt as a maintenance man. He instantly remembers Eric, calling him by his childhood name, and drags him into a back-slapping hug. Tears dampen his cheeks as he repeats the name, “Charley, Charley,” like an incantation.

Ill-Nam is thick-waisted, square-shaped, with a face that putties over to one side with a deformity. His ears are twisted and undeveloped, so he yells when he says, “Charley!” He barks out sentences that Molly translates for us. Apparently he still has a photo of the two of them, their arms around each other, framed in his apartment. He digs out his phone and asks me to take a photograph of them. He can’t take his eyes off Eric, as if in disbelief that he actually exists.

Eric feels similarly. There is something about Ill-Nam that both depresses and reassures him, the same as when we search the Holt photo archive and discover snapshots. A black-and-white version of Eric climbs a play structure. A sepia-toned version of Eric crouches before the grave of Harry Holt. Eric lingers on a photo of himself seated on a bed while another boy strums a guitar. “That kid might as well be someone else,” he says. “I don’t know him.”

He later tells me that he never felt Korean. “I was so ostracized there,” he says. “Everyone told me, from the very beginning, I was an American. Kids sired by Americans were the responsibility of Americans. So getting to the U.S. was the goal.”

This mind-set was only encouraged by Sgt. James Singley — a U.S. serviceman who was stationed nearby and visited the orphanage often, a man Eric refers to as “the only element of hope in my childhood.”

Molly remembers him. “Singley, Singley!” the boys would chant when he showed up at the orphanage. “But he only wanted to be with the black boys. Some people criticized him for that, but it was the black boys who needed him most.

He had a husky body and a thick caterpillar of a mustache. He would greet Eric with a quick kiss and take him and the other boys for drives in his Jeep. He taught them English and gave them candy, toys, money, music, but more than that, a sense of family. “Unconditional love,” Eric says. “He gave us so much. He was like a superhero to me, to all these destitute kids. I don’t know what his motivation was, but I always wondered if he might have been my father. I thought of him as a father. I guess I…wanted him to be my father.”

BETWEEN 1966 AND 1969, a series of clashes erupted between North Korea and South Korea and the U.S. — what came to be known as the Korean DMZ Conflict. This is, as best as we can tell, when Eric was born, during the highest surge of U.S. armed forces outside of the Korean War. Bases are staggered throughout the country, many of them clustered near the DMZ, where the majority of African-American troops were stationed. Brothels mushroomed around them. On our trip, when Eric tells people his mother was a prostitute, they use the word gijichon. We don’t understand what they mean at first. It will take many days of questions before we do, before we understand fully how Eric is the product and survivor of war.

For now we have only a single piece of paper to guide us. It’s as close as we’ll get to a map, this stained, wrinkled orphanage admission form. From it we know that Eric lived in Uijeongbu, north of Seoul, and this is where we go, hoping to find his father’s Army base, his mother’s brothel, and the river that cut between them.

Uijeongbu is grittier than Ilsan, with sun-faded signs and smog-tortured windows. We go to the city hall first, where the clerks make every effort to help us, despite the privacy laws. Eric’s birth was never registered, so he officially does not exist. His mother’s records are therefore unavailable to him.

But a clerk waves us over to his desk. He spends the next 15 minutes negotiating satellite images based on Eric’s memories. He jogs the screen this way, zooms in, zooms out, jogs the screen another way, finally homing in on a location less than a mile away.

We follow our phones, mapping our way through the streets. And then we cross a bridge that spans a grassy channel of water. A temple, raftered with dragons, squats nearby. An Army base topped with barbed wire rises in the near distance. And an alleyway of shacks huddles along the water. “I think we’re here,” Eric says.

Texas Alley. That’s what people call the shantytown where Eric grew up. “Texas,” we’re told, is slang for brothel. Some of the buildings are neatly kept, and others are roofed with tarps or windowed by chicken wire. There are kimchi pots, barking dogs, a sewer smell. People step out of doorways to stare at us. 

Eric goes to the river. We cross the stones linking its banks, and cross back again, and this is the way his memory works. “There used to be a dirt path here, and I remember men pushing these two-wheeled handcarts along it. And there was a persimmon tree over there.” He heads one way, then another, leaving uncertain tracks in the sand.

We knock on doors. We approach older men and women, show them the form, and ask if they recognize the names listed on it. Eventually we end up sitting on the floor of the home owned by the woman who acts as the unofficial mayor of Texas Alley. She offers us aloe juice, listens intently to our translator, and pulls out her cellphone.

Old women parade into the house. Their eyes are bagged and their legs bowed. They wear floral shirts and polyester pants, crouching like toads and speaking rapid-fire. One remembers Eric’s mother calling his name, “Char su, Char su,” in the evenings. Another begins chattering into her phone.

“Wait,” Eric says. “Who’s she talking to?”

“A man who grew up here at the same time as you,” our translator says. “He lives in Charlotte now.”

“North Carolina?” Eric says and checks his watch. “But it’s four in the morning there.” Soon the phone is in his hand, and his face creases with confusion. “Hello?”

Everyone goes silent and listens to the stuttery, awkward conversation. The man on the phone is disoriented because it’s the middle of the night — and Eric can’t believe he’s speaking to someone who firmly links him here. “This is so surreal,” he says more than once.

They don’t remember each other, but they remember the same things, the same people. After his mother died, Eric bounced around, living briefly with another prostitute. She is the one who dumped him at the orphanage, so her name is on the form. Eric mentions her name, and the guy says he knew her. As Eric asks more questions, his voice goes from surprised to solemn. Because the memories are locking together painfully. Eric needs some air, some space to move, so we thank the women and return to the river, where he trudges up the bank, toward the Army base — and with every step, he slows, as if something is pushing him back. The barbed wire gleams. Eric walks the perimeter, then climbs a rise so that he can see inside. But no one is there. The grounds are empty except for rusted equipment. In the shadow thrown by the wall, a garden grows.

HE WAS EIGHT YEARS OLD when he moved to New Hope. A family from Minnesota had picked him out of an adoption catalog. “New Hope,” Eric says. “Can you believe that?” And the name aligned perfectly with Holt’s mission. “They were all about hope,” Eric says. “That’s what’s they preached. We’re going to get you out of here — and get you over there — and over there, everything’s going to be better.”

Which made his arrival in America so painful. “This boy’s not Korean,” his adopted grandfather said when they brought Eric home from the airport. “I think he’s a pickaninny.”

Eric, for his part, expected everyone in America to be black. Like Singley. Like the other soldiers he encountered overseas. But Minnesota was overwhelmingly white, and he was one of only three black kids at his elementary school. “I had been told that America was the land of milk and money,” he says. “But I went from being marginalized in one world to marginalized in another. And… I suppose I had expected my family to love me like Singley did.”

They didn’t. “They never got to know me, never asked me what I had been through or what I needed,” he says. “All they preached was gratitude. They browbeat me with this constant guilt. ‘You should feel so fortunate we adopted you’ — that was their stance. And when I didn’t do what they wanted, when I didn’t conform to their expectations, I was punished and shamed.”

For a few years, Singley stayed in touch, sending Eric postcards, photos, mixtapes made from his time as an Army disc jockey. “So here I was, living in lily-white Minnesota, listening to this rich black music Singley sent me. I’m talking about Parliament-Funkadelic stuff. It was a huge, definitive part of my life. And so was Singley. Even when he wasn’t with me.”

He’s dead now, we later learn. He died in 2002. “I don’t know why I waited so long,” Eric says. “I never got the chance to thank him for the difference he made in my life.”

At school, he was teased about his race and his broken English. He got into fights, one time beating a boy down, and “even though he was crying for me to stop, I couldn’t.” That, he says, was the beginning of the end of his relationship with his adoptive parents. Their approach, then and in the years to follow, was punitive. “I was accused of everything. Of acting too black. Of using drugs. But especially of being ungrateful.”

The family had two other adopted children, Korean sisters, and they also fostered an Ethiopian boy named Ben. “He was my big brother, the person I connected to most,” Eric says. “He taught me about Pan-Africanism and introduced me to Afrocentric music and philosophy. I remember him defiantly arguing on our behalf, yelling to our parents, ‘We are not your slaves!’ ”

The family thought Ben was a damaging influence on Eric, so they sent him away. Soon after that, one of the sisters ran off to join a carnival. “So all around me, everyone was escaping this toxic environment, and I took a cue from that,” he says. He spent much of junior high couch-surfing in the homes of friends.

Yet it was also during this time that he gained confidence in himself, because of athletics. He references a school track meet as a turning point. He won every event. “And all of a sudden everyone was looking at me differently,” he says. “I went, just like that, from being ostracized to being idolized. I finally figured out how I fit in.”

Then, one winter in high school, soon after Christmas, his adoptive parents flatly told him he couldn’t live there anymore. He called his friend and football teammate, Chuck Poole, who drove over and picked Eric up. “And that was it,” he says. “I never went back.”

In Chuck, he found a brother. In Big Jim and Barb, he found parents. In the Pooles he found the unconditional love he had been seeking since he’d said goodbye to Singley so many years before. “Salvation is kind of a dramatic word, but that’s what I got from them.”

But Eric still panicked, a few years later, when he was a freshman playing football in North Dakota and the coach announced Parents Day to the team. During halftime, everyone’s families would gather at the 50-yard line, and the announcers would call out their names. “And that’s when it dawned on me: Who the hell is going to come for me?”

The Pooles did, standing midfield with Eric as a stadium full of people applauded. That’s why he calls them his mom and dad. That’s why he eventually took the name of Poole.

Through the Pooles, he forged a family. Through football, he found a way to finance his education. Through the Navy, he launched a career in aviation. He came from nothing and built a scarred but beautiful life. He is the definition of a self-made man.

THE REALIZATION DOESN’T COME all at once but steadily, as we talk to more and more Koreans. Eric’s mother was part of a state-sponsored program. She was a giji- chon — that word we’ve been hearing over and over again, only now we know what it means. She was one of thousands of women who catered to American soldiers during the 1960s and ’70s. The government created and managed the prostitution network — poor women recruited to work in bars and brothels as a “patriotic” service — and only this January, a South Korean court declared this a human rights violation.

“I am the son of a prostitute,” is how Eric thought of himself before, but now that statement feels more complicated. He believes his mother was mixed-race as well. Not black but white, her skin lighter and her hair brownish. “It could be,” he says, when recalling his first memory — that moment on the train platform — “that she was the one getting spit on, more than me.”

He remembers walking in on her, after she entertained a client, as she crouched over a brass bucket to clean herself with river water.

And when he asks some of the old women who live in Texas Alley, the ones with long memories, the ones who might have worked with her at the brothel, “Is there a cemetery here? Would they have buried her?” they say no. There are no graves. No evidence the women were ever there. “They would have burned her,” a woman says. “And they would have put her ashes in the river.”

As Eric stands over its waters now, studying his warped and rippling reflection, he feels something wash over him: understanding.

MAYBE IT WILL BE CATHARTIC, telling your story. That’s what people say to Eric. Maybe it will help others, give them hope. “But I have my doubts,” he says. When I talk about how heroic and miraculous and inspiring his life is, he says, “Come on, man. Lay off. You’re going to make me sound like Jesus or something.”

Don’t be the white anthropologist, is what he’s saying. This isn’t about the plight of adoptees or about Korean history or about race relations in the United States. “I suppose people will read into it whatever they want, but it’s just the story of my life.”

Eric asked me to share it because I’m his friend. Because he wants to cement his history for his kids. And because its fragmented pieces didn’t make any sense to him.

“To be honest, everything in my life felt uncertain until I got to JetBlue.” And maybe it wasn’t just the job, and the joy he got from it, but the control he felt as a navigator, always knowing the way.

That’s what telling this story is about. That’s why we traveled halfway across the world. That’s why he spent all these hours with me, sorting through the broken memories. “I wanted to find as much information as I could to fill in the void. And I have.” By charting the course of a life that had otherwise made him feel lost.

The longer we explore Texas Alley, the more Eric questions whether we’re in the right place. It does and doesn’t align with the vectors he remembers. The temple, the river, the base, the well. The brothel. And the hill, the one with a bunker on top of it. This especially bothers him. Because there is no hill. He keeps shaking his head as we try to figure out where his home might have been. We knock on doors, peer through windows, hoist each other up to peek over gates. It isn’t right. His compass is off.

One old woman says his house must have been here, showing him an abandoned shack, but he says, “No. It was on the opposite side of the alley, up against the river.” And another old woman points out a cemented-over well, and he says, “No. It was between my house and the brothel.”

The sun is so bright it hurts, and Eric slumps on a shadowed stoop. “I’m done. I’m ready to leave.”

But then we find another old woman, and she points to the highway spanning the river. They knocked down a hill to make way for it, she says. And they knocked down half of Texas Alley with it, including the club where his mother worked.

It is then that Eric understands. After searching all afternoon, it at last makes sense. He realizes that Texas Alley has been hacked in half, dismembered by the highway, and his eyes suddenly widen and he hurries along, almost jogging. He crosses a road and dodges through traffic and enters a park.

He spends a few minutes pacing. And then approaches a tree twisting from the top of a rise. This is the spot. This. He is certain of it. His home was here. His story begins here. He palms the rough bark and takes in the river, the temple, the base, the bridge that stands where there was once a hill. “Roots,” he says in a hushed, disbelieving voice when he curls an arm around the tree. “I’ve got roots.”