I was born on July 16, 1953, a “Korean War Token”, as I always referred to myself. To my understanding, I was dropped at the Seoul Sanitarium and Hospital Orphanage when I was 5 years old, in 1958. I had been ignored and suffered from malnutrition when I arrived at the orphanage. All of my fingernails had fungus under them all the way back to the roots and I still had cradle cap. It took a couple years of treatments before my fingernails fully filled out to look normal. To this day, I have no clear memories of anything before the orphanage, and life seemed to start when I was adopted in 1959, by my American parents in College Place, WA.
All my life, I had told myself that I really didn’t care about my birth family and that my adopted parents were what I considered my real parents. Later in life, I found that was not really true, and a desire to find my roots started to surface. In the last few years, I had taken a DNA test in the US with no luck at connecting to my mother or any blood connections in Korea at all. Just recently, we planned this trip to Seoul to enjoy a vacation and try to connect with my heritage at the same time. This trip was my first visit to Seoul, since I left in 1959. Here are pictures of the flight to and from Seoul.
My wife Sandy, and I, arrived in Seoul, on Monday evening, September 12, 2016, and stayed the JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square Seoul hotel. We were so happy with this choice for our stay! We slept for about 12 hours in the heavenly beds that you always find in the JW Marriott brand. Our room number was 806 and the Executive Lounge is on the 10th floor. Pool and Exercise Facilities are also on the 8th floor. The Executive Lounge is complimentary for Marriott Gold and Platinum Elite members, and has a really nice assortment of breakfast dishes, fruits and drinks. The lounge opens at 6:00AM and food is put out at about 6:30AM. The welcome we got everywhere in the hotel was exceptional, to say the least.
We found out, right after we arrived, that Wednesday thru Sunday was going to be Chuseok holiday in Korea, and everything would be closed. Since we were short on time to try and find my old adoption records, we started right away on Tuesday. We decided to head up to the old Seoul Sanitarium Hospital, now called the Sahmyook Medical Center. The Seoul Sanitarium Hospital was built by Dr. George Rue in 1936. The Seoul Sanitarium and Hospital Orphanage (called Sung Yuk Won) was started by his wife, Grace Rue, in 1952.
We talked to a lady at the information desk at Sahmyook Medical Center and told her we were looking for old adoption records from 1959. She seemed quite excited, and took us down the hill to the small building where the archived records are kept. In this little wooden building there were four other people, one who helped us quite a bit (her name is Lee Sung Yeon, aka Emiky). After a little time of checking on the computer, Emiky told me they found 129 pages of digital documents in my records! I was completely shocked. Emiky put the documents on a small USB drive, so we could take them back to our hotel and look them over.
Many of the documents seemed to be letters from my adopted mother leading up to, and after the adoption. Included were pictures of my childhood, some of which I didn't remember seeing before. The biggest discovery was when we found a handwritten note, in Korean. We could read enough of the note to see that it had my Korean name, Woo Young Duk, and birth date, so we knew it pertained to me. Amy Kim, in the Executive Lounge, spent some time helping us translate the note. We found it had my Korean mother's name, Woo Bul Soon, and address when I was dropped off at the orphanage in 1958, and we were very excited, as I had never seen any of this before. Amy stayed, even as they were closing, and helped us translate that address into a new Google address format that can be recognized and helped us find it on the map. We even did a Google walk around and saw the building online! Our previous plans of this being a vacation with sightseeing and shopping, were quickly readjusted to now start a search for any family I might be able to find. I had done DNA tests in the US, earlier in the year, but nothing had shown up on my mother’s side at all, so we had no plans to really look for my family, except to try and find my adoption records. With this discovery, our trip now seemed to develop a life and plan of it’s own.
The next day (Wednesday), we were already booked to go on a tour to some of the palaces, the Korean Village, and other places, so nothing happened on our search on that day. We were amazed with the beautiful way that Seoul is such a beautiful blending of the old and new. It takes almost no time at all, to fall in love with Seoul and Korea.
On Thursday, we decided to use our taxi driver Sunduck (who had driven us from the airport and spoke pretty good English) as both our taxi driver and our translator. We first went to the three-story building that we believe to be where my mother's original house was. The original house was long ago replaced by a 3-story brick building, which has a shop on the first floor, with the second and third levels as the living area. We went up to the top floor and talked to the family living there now. They did not know my family, but they led around some streets in the neighborhood to talk to people that had been there longer. We started drawing quite a crowd of people following us as we started wandering through the streets, and as people heard what was going on. Finally we met an elderly lady who looked at my mother's name on the paper, and she said "I remember that family". Unfortunately, she didn't know where they are now.
Later, our taxi driver, Sunduck, recommended we should go over to the Incheon Police department, about 10 blocks away. Since it was still the holiday, we only found a few people on duty. One was Police Detective Hwang Hak Sun, who took an immediate interest in our case after hearing my story. He promptly threw my wife and I, and Sunduck in his police van and took us back to the neighborhood. Again we drew quite a crowd of people that seemed to be fascinated at the story and events. Detective Hwang talked to the same elderly lady and others, but didn’t find out too much more. We went back to the station and he asked us to meet him at the station again on Monday morning, when everything would be open again. We thanked him profusely for the help and headed back to the Marriott.
When we got back to the hotel, we were quickly greeted by the Concierge staff who immediately wanted to know how our search had gone. To help facilitate our search, they presented us with a phone to borrow, to make sure we’d have connectivity as we traveled around more on our search. They welcomed me to call them is I needed language translation, or any help at all. I have to say that ever since we had arrived and found my adoption papers, the whole hotel staff seemed to know what was happening each day, and asked us the next day’s plans. Sometimes we’d tell the concierge staff downstairs what we’d uncovered that day, and by the time we got to the Executive Lounge to relax, they were already congratulating us, because the word had traveled that fast through the staff!
A couple of days into our search, we got a nice note from the General Manager, Matthew Cooper, telling us he’d love to meet us. We figured it was something he did to make his Platinum guests feel welcomed, so we were prepared to share with him, how awesome his staff was. Instead, it turned out he had heard of our story from his staff, and he wanted to hear more about the whole chain of events. We must have chatted for about an hour, and it was a wonderful talk. Without going into too much detail, I was able to get out of him that he too works with Korean Orphans now, so this was an event that was especially close to him. I have a huge amount of respect for Mr Cooper and what he has done, both personally, and with this JW Marriott. Marriott would do well to clone this General Manager.
Friday was used as a shopping day, and we spent some time trying more foods and shopping for presents and other things. We explored all the different foods we could, and got tons of socks to take back as presents to family and friends. They are all adorable.
Saturday we went to the church service as the SDA Church that is located right below Sahmyook Medical Center, in the SDA Sahmyook Language School. As an interesting side note, this language school was started in 1969 by my brother-in-law, Dr Dean Hubbard and my sister Aleta Hubbard, with others. Dr Hubbard was the first director from 1969-1971. After church, several elders in the church had heard about our story and wanted to help us go find the original site of the old orphanage. A couple of them had been there long enough to know about where it was, so they put us in a van and drove to the site, where we wandered for a few blocks in the back roads. An old gentleman in that neighborhood had live there for a long time and took us to the exact spot, which now has a daycare center on the site now. This area is all now covered with buildings, where back in that time, it was all fields. It was quite emotional to be back on the same spot where I was adopted from.
Sunday was the day we picked to visit the military base and Dragon Hill Lodge. We then went to the Korean War Museum. We spent several hours there and found it to be very emotional for us. I found so many things that touched my deep inner feelings about my origin and early years in Korea. This is such a marvelous museum of the Korean War and shows Korea’s desire for a reunification of North and South, and rejoining of lost families.
Monday morning, we met our taxi driver Sunduck downstairs and headed back to the Incheon Police Department. Detective Hwang met us and got us connected to the policemen who did an online search for my records, and my mother’s records. They didn’t find anything on either of us. They mentioned that her name (Woo Bul Soon) might be a nickname and that might be why it didn’t show up. They had me file a missing persons report on her, and wanted to get my DNA in their database, but because of backlog, they couldn’t fit me in before we were scheduled to leave Korea. Sunduck had the good idea to go back to Seoul and try the larger Seoul Police Department. That turned out to be a good idea, because they were able to get may DNA test taken in about 30 minutes. They said that will take 30 days or more, to get the results back and have them sent down to the Incheon Police Department. At least the process is started now.
Tuesday was our last full day in Korea, so we started to wind down and do a little more shopping and eating in local restaurants. We both love Korean food and have been in heaven, food wise, on our whole trip here. We will miss Korea a lot!
Wednesday we left Korea, and have communications that we will continue, with many people we have met here. The lady we met in Sahmyook Medical Center in the records, Lee Sung Yeon, has become FaceBook friends with me, and we have been able to get the records of 3 orphans from Rue’s Seoul Sanitarium and Hospital Orphanage adoption records, sent to them via email, and we are working on a 4th now. I hope to be able to help other Korean War Orphans find their past as well, and this link to the Rue’s Orphanage is helping a lot. I also have made many friends at the JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square Seoul, that have been so helpful, and I hope to keep those connections alive as well, for our many return trips.
This story hopefully will continue on, in the near future. Stay tuned for more
Here are the names of some extra-helpful people at JW Marriott Dongdaemun Square Seoul:
Matthew Cooper (General Manager), Branden (Assistant Concierge Manager), Eddie (Concierge Supervisor), James (Concierge), Lucia (Concierge), Tina (Front Desk Guest Service Agent), Jessica (Front Desk?), Min Ku (Executive Lounge Guest Service Agent)
And the wonderful helpful people at Sahmyook Medical Center:
Min Hyung Lee (International Affairs/Supervisor), Lee Sung Yeon (Records), Lee Bo Mi
Mr Cooper, thank you and your staff again, for a stay that will stay in our minds forever. It will always be appreciated!