Larisse

LARISSE

Do you want to be happy?

 

Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay
Gone are my friends from the cotton fields away
Gone from the earth to a better land I know
I hear their gentle voices calling, Old Black Joe


I’m coming, I’m coming, for my head is bending low
I hear their gentle voices calling, Old Black Joe

 

Why do I weep, when my heart should feel no pain
Why do I sigh when my friends come not again
Grieving for forms now departed long ago
I hear their gentle voices calling, Old Black Joe

 

I’m coming, I’m coming, for my head is bending low
I hear their gentle voices calling, Old Black Joe

 

Where are the hearts once so happy and so free
The children so dear that I held upon my knee
Gone to the shore where my soul has longed to go
I hear their gentle voices calling, Old Black Joe

 

—lyrics of  “Old Black Joe”

 

First Home

 

I am Amerasian.  My Korean name is Yung Su.  I am half black and half Korean.  This is what I remember when I was five and a half years old.  I had three brothers, Yung Giree, Su Yong Yee, and Myong Myongani, and one sister, Chun Su, and my parents, who were very kind to me.  Our house was a restaurant with four rooms.  I learned later that our house was a house of ill repute.  Sometimes the police came on a raid and we ran for our lives out the back door.  Often I saw girls dressed up in traditional Korean clothes wearing make up, sitting with men and serving them on the coffee table in the restaurant.

Sometimes my siblings and I played a fun game of running into the marketplace to see what we could grab.

 

One night a man spent the night at our house.  He slept in the communal room in which our whole family slept, next to me.  He pulled me into him. This was not a good memory.

 

On the playground, an older teenage boy pulled me against him too.

 

Even though monks came to our house and we said Buddhist prayers, the restaurant also celebrated Christmas.  We knew it was a holiday and that we had to behave and be good or we wouldn’t get something from Santa.  We didn’t know who Santa was, but we knew he put nuts in our shoes if we put them outside the night before near the chimney.  It is dark outside and we have to go behind the house to put our shoes on the chimney.  I am afraid to think of a stranger on our chimney, so I never do it.  I put my shoes out, but I never go to get them back in the dark.  My father always asks for the head of a horse or a cow.  He never gets that.

 

My father has a job wallpapering and also making paper lanterns.  He drinks a lot of alcohol.  He beats my mother and that scares us.  One time he threw a table and beat her.  He was always kind to the children, though.

 

My mother makes rice wine there although it is illegal.  She tries to commit suicide three times in front of me and sometimes she pretends she is dead.

One time when she was trying to jump into our well, she fell down and hit her head.  When I saw her, she had a gash on her head and was lying down on a cot.

 

My mother has a hard time with me.  My mother also never takes me with her on trips.  She gets very angry and spanks me or beats me and then she cries.  If I wet the bed, I have to put a basket that is used for grains on my head and run through the village with no clothes on.  The people in the village can beat the back of the basket with a stick if they want to.  It doesn’t hurt if they do that.  The basket almost covers me.

 

My sister sometimes repeats what other children say about me.  They call me a name that means “nigger” in Korean.  It’s kam dung ee.  That word hurts my feelings.  My sister tells me that they say I am African.  I understand that it is bad to be African.

 

My mother goes away now for two days.  When she comes back, she asks me if I want to be happy.  I know she wants me to say yes.  She gives me the choice.  I understand that if I go to live somewhere else, I will be happy.  So, the next day I say goodbye to everyone in my family.  My mother takes me to an agency and someone from the agency takes me to the orphanage. I wear my best clothes: a red jumper and a white blouse.

The Orphanage

In the orphanage, there are three groups of children: the babies, the 4-5 year olds, and the 6-12 year olds.  After 12 or 13, they say you won’t be adopted.  The younger children sleep in cribs of bamboo.  The older ones sleep on cots of bamboo or on the floor.  When I get there, they think I’ve had pneumonia, so they make me sleep with my head against the door, not facing the other children so I won’t contaminate them.  That is lucky for me because when I wet the bed, the heater nearby dries me off so I don’t get in trouble for that.

 

I am seven years old, so I’m in the group with the oldest children.  There are about 24 of us.  We are all Amerasian.  Half of us are part white and half are part black.  This is because of the American soldiers, I find out.  There is one 100% Korean girl.  She has a disability, and no one thinks she will ever get adopted.  She is mute.

 

They tell us we are going to get to go to America or Hawaii, so they are trying to get us used to using English.  They have us call some of the workers “sister” and the others “mommy.”

 

It’s Christmas time and we’re going to go to the army base to see the soldiers.  One little boy, who has the lightest skin color, is chosen to wear red pants, a red sweater, and a red hat.  He doesn’t want to.  So “sister,” as we were taught to call her (a girl of about 16 or 17), shoves him to the ground so hard that his face starts to bleed.  When he gets up, he has a big bruise on his forehead and cheek that are swollen.  After that, he puts on the clothes.

 

All of us are physically and emotionally abused in the orphanage.  There are dolls that the American soldiers have given to the orphanage on the walls.  We aren’t allowed to touch them or play with them.  There is a toilet brush that is used as a decoration on the wall too.  If the worker called “sister” doesn’t think we are asleep, she hits all of us on the head with it, except her favorites.  There is also a wooden stool that she beats us with.  Sometimes as punishment we have to put our hands above our heads until they tell us we can put them down again.

 

We take baths together in a huge tub that looks like a swimming pool.  Yesterday the little mute girl wasn’t moving fast enough, so the “sister” hit her on the head with a cup that we use to wash ourselves with.  She hit her so hard that her head busted open.  The blood was all over.  She was fired today.

 

The children who look the most white are treated better than the ones who are half black.  The teachers have their favorites.  I am never one of them.

 

We are at the army base today.  I look at the long tables with white tablecloths on them filled with plates of hard candies.  Some have jelly inside and some have chocolate.  They sparkle like jewelry.  There is a huge Christmas tree there, too.  They make us eat American food—turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce.  We aren’t used to it, but we have to eat it in order to get our Christmas stockings from Santa.  We have to sit on his lap and then he will give us a red plastic stocking filled with an orange, an apple, one pair of socks, and candy.

 

The soldiers come and visit, especially during Christmas.  They bring candies and dolls.  The nuns hang the dolls up high on the walls because we can’t be trusted to play with them.  The dolls are not to be touched.

Now I will tell you the doll part:  The house next door to the orphanage has a barbed wire fence with a hole in it.  I like to play in the field next to the hole.  I peek through the hole imagining what the world might be like outside.  One day, I see the body of a doll lying close to the hole.  The doll—with one arm, two legs, and no head—had been tossed aside.  For days, I squeeze my skinny arm through the hole desperately trying to reach the doll.  It is just beyond my reach.  Finally I find a stick, poke the doll closer and get the doll to the hole, grab it, and pull it out.  I hide the doll under my arm, in my armpit, so the nuns won’t find it and throw it away.  Because I am very, very good and not likely to get adopted, there are hours when no one pays much attention to me during the day.  During this time, I wash the doll and use some fabric to make her a molded head, an arm, and a pretty dress.  I tell her all my secrets.  She knows everything.

 

I hear there is another orphanage.  That one has all Koreans.  They never get adopted.

 

Last summer in the woods, “sister” taught us some American songs.  She hit us with a long willow stick if we sang the wrong words.  We didn’t know what they meant.  The songs were “Old Black Joe” and “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

 

Yesterday, “teacher” pulled me out of the line in dance class.  I was ushered into the cafeteria and a black man was sitting in the dining room.  I had to sing “Old Black Joe” to him.  I didn’t know why.  That man took me out to lunch.  I didn’t know what to say to him.  All I knew was “sister” and “mommy” so I said nothing.

 

I imagine that all Americans are either black or white.  At the orphanage, they said if dark people adopted you, it would be better because they were nicer than white people and we would get fewer beatings.

 

Today a social worker told me I was going to be adopted.  I was going to get to go to the United States.  She said another social worker would take me there.  I can’t believe how lucky I am!

 

The United States

I don’t recognize my new father as the man who I sang to in the cafeteria and who took me out to lunch.  He isn’t in his uniform.  When I see my new mother, I am worried.  She has on red nail polish and makeup on her face.  Only prostitutes like those in our restaurant did that where I came from.  I am hoping that she will beat me soon; then I’ll know that I won’t be sent away.

 

My sisters have light skin.  They aren’t dark like the soldiers.  The oldest are twins.  My younger sister is three years younger than me.  They are sweet and wonderful.  They told me they wrote me letters and sent them to Korea, but I never received any.  We all have names that start with the letter “L.”  My father taught the sister closest to my age how to say two things in Korean:  Ahpple, which means hurt, and Benzo, which means bathroom.  She says those two words all the time to me.  She is becoming annoying very fast.

 

My first Christmas with my new family is at the Ford Ord military base.  There is a lot of commotion.  There is a Santa Claus, decorations, a tree, and lights.  My sister LaVerne made cookies for Santa.  I know we have to behave and go to bed early.  I am still afraid of Santa Claus because he is a stranger.

 

It is morning and there are presents everywhere.  There are even presents for me.  I got a bowling set, lots of clothes, and a stuffed dog that I saw in a store and told my new mother I liked.  I still have the stuffed animal my new mother gave me for me my first Christmas.  I named it after an uncle.  Its name is Bok Don Ye.

 

There are many new customs I am learning in my new home in the United States.  Everything is different.  I try hard to be good.  I especially want to please my new father because I am afraid if I am bad, I will be taken away from my family and then I won’t be happy.

 

Last night, my sister was sick.  My new father is giving her a rubdown to get rid of the fever.  Now he is doing the same to me although I’m not sick.

 

My sister is still sick so she crawled into bed with my mom.  My dad crawls into my bed and is doing bad things to me.  He tells me not to tell anybody.

 

It took me 20 years to tell.  He is a decorated sergeant in the army.  He is famous now for his bravery in the war.  I confront him after my mother dies.  He admits that he did it, but doesn’t apologize.

 

I will never forgive my father, but I love the United States and am very proud to be a citizen.  Every 4th of July, I lead a group of friends and family on a march around the neighborhood.  We sing American songs, bang pots and pans, and carry the American flag.  At the end of the march, I dance in a circle around a big firecracker that we light in the middle of the street, and that starts our 4th of July festivities.

“Onward, Christian Soldiers”

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,

With the cross of Jesus, going on before!

Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;

Forward into battle see His banners go!

 

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,

With the cross of Jesus going on before!

 

At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee;

On, then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!

Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;

Brothers, lift your voices, loud your anthems raise!

 

Like a mighty army moves the Church of God;

Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.

We are not divided, all one body we;

One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.

 

Onward, then, ye people, join our happy throng;

Blend with ours your voices in the triumph song.

Glory, laud and honor unto Christ the King;

This through countless ages men and angels sing.

 

 

Larisse is 60 years old now and still makes dolls.