My grandmother, Nora Kim, was born in 1917 as Esther Yoon, the fourth child to Duggar Choi Yoon and Byung Hi Yoon in Upland, Calif. Her eldest siblings, Gilbert and Anna, were born in Korea, and her brother Paul was born in Hawai‘i. After Grandma was born, her mother fell ill and her father — we believe in a state of panic — hurriedly arranged an adoption of the new baby through the church. Her mother knew nothing of the adoption until she recovered from her illness.
Grandma was adopted by a Chinese couple, Tom Chung and Yuet Lan Lee, and re-named Nora. They had been married for several childless years, but after adopting my grandmother, they had three boys in succession: Daniel, Andrew and Wilbert. Grandma’s adoptive mother had been born in San Francisco, the daughter of a wealthy matchstick factory owner who then moved back to China. She remained
behind in San Francisco, as she was an American and did not want to live in China where she would be “forced to marry some old Chinaman.”
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Grandma was raised Chinese American, speaking English and Cantonese at home and learning her father’s Toisan dialect at Chinese school.
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When Grandma was 12, her adoptive mother died suddenly. Her death was abrupt and shocked the family; she took ill for a short time, and then one night, her father called for a doctor because she had taken a turn for the worse. She died later that night.
After her death, her husband fell apart. In the area of Los Angeles where they lived, word must have traveled to Grandma’s Korean family about her adoptive mother’s death, because shortly thereafter she was called to her principal’s office at school. A woman and her daughter were waiting for her there, and introduced themselves as her mother and sister, Sarah.
“I didn’t believe them, I thought they were crazy!” Grandma had never heard of Koreans, much less suspected she was Korean herself. In her world, Asians were either Chinese or Japanese. Her mother and sister visited her again at school, and then were asked not to come back. “I would see my Korean mother once in a while, standing outside of the school gate, watching me. I was a little scared — I didn’t know what to do. I asked my aunt about it, and she told me to ignore them. Then she shooed me out of the room to talk to my father. I bet that’s what they were talking about.” Grandma learned later that her Korean mother would sometimes disappear from her cleaning shop to watch her in the schoolyard.
One day, the same woman and a man came to her house. They told her they were her parents, and would like her to come visit their home and meet her brothers and sisters.Grandma asked her Chinese father when he got home if what they said was true, but he never addressed the adoption. He just said that maybe she should go and visit. So one day, she did.
Grandma met her brothers, Gilbert, Paul and Chuck, and her sisters, Sarah and Mary. The eldest sister, Anna, was already out of the house — married with a baby. Because her adoptive father struggled after his wife’s death and eventually lost the house on 9th Place, Grandma went to live with her Korean family.
Click here to read the whole thing! And marvel at the relative openness of adoption at that time -- the birth family knew at all times where she was. Still, not the halcyon days of yore -- she was not told she was adopted or Korean until she was 12 and her adoptive mother had died.