On a cut foot (or an interview with my dad)

My father spent about a year in an orphanage while growing up in post-war Korea. In 1961, he cut his foot: seven years old at the time, he was playing in a river with other children from the orphanage when he stepped on broken porcelain. It cut deep and broadly– leaving him with a good amount of blood and very little medical care, first aid or otherwise.

The orphanage itself didn’t have any medical staff, so he had to be transported to a nearby US military facility. There, they stitched him up and sent him back to heal up. Overall, he felt that the roar of the transport vehicle and the white coats of the military docs made him feel very safe. For him, this meant the world because most other aspects of his life were incredibly unstable.

His fractured family had to send him, his brother, and a sister away: his father thought they’d be better off there, than with him. Throughout my questions and his stories, he very carefully mentioned ‘his time in the orphanage’ or ‘with the other children,’ rather than ‘while I was in the orphanage’ or ‘with the other orphans.’ This small bit of distancing language, half a century later, implies something and I haven’t been able to put my finger on what.

The orphanage itself essentially a military-style barracks filled with about a hundred other children and about as many cots, they had to march in formation to the nearby school for daily classes, about five miles away. There, they sat in classes with other children in the district (coming from mostly stable households and families), ate a bit of cornbread provided by the US government for lunch, and then marched the five miles back at the end of the day.

Within the orphanage, there was an odd colloquial insult with a sordid past: “you’ll have bloody stool!” which I imagine in Korean it feels a bit more aggressive. My father didn’t know why they’d use such a specific phrase until later: A year before his arrival, a deadly flare of diarrhea spread through the orphanage and a number of children died of dysentery, a violent loss of fluids that alters blood composition and leads to shock and death, unless treated. The treatment was limited, or needed to be administered rapidly, so if afflicted, there was a probable progression to death. Life at the orphanage was life at the fringe of society.

From a developmental perspective, these events occurred at a deeply formative stage of his life. He would be finalizing ideas regarding self-worth, while abandoned by his paternal and maternal figures. The Korean War left a lot of marks in the country for a long time– his father was an alcoholic, deeply disturbed in the wake of the conflict, and his mother left the family because of him. The manager of the orphanage was cruel or indifferent to the children. Few caring adults in his life, except for the foreign ones encountered in this foot laceration.

This incident was his only exposure to medical care for a while, since he left the orphanage about a year later, to rejoin his father and siblings. Eventually he would reunite with his mother, only to have his father abandoned the family for good. Life didn’t stabilize for a while, until he eventually immigrated to America with his wife and established his own family.

From a personal perspective, this interview was a deeply humbling experience. Learning about a profoundly formative period of my father’s life is a trip. Looking back, it explains some of his underlying character and habits. That kind of instability early on leaves an impression on an individual, both good and bad, both conscious and unconscious. He spent a lot of energy ensuring that his children never experienced anything like he did.

I only found out about his time in the orphanage because a few weeks ago I casually asked him, “What’s your favorite scar?” He mentioned that the one on his foot wasn’t his favorite, but had an interesting story. Then, he told me the outlines of the tale above, off-handedly mentioning the orphanage. I soaked up the information, saving a flurry of questions for later: an assignment from medical school gave me the perfect reason to dig deeper– interview a family member about an illness or disease, and how it made them feel.

On a lazy afternoon, my father and I went to Wal-Mart to purchase ceramic pots for my houseplants, and I peeled back some of the onion layers to find out more about this rocky time in his life. It’s likely I would’ve gone another five years, or perhaps my whole life, without knowing about this pivotal chapter, if I didn’t ask him that silly question about his scar.

I am quietly coming to terms with the idea that I’ll only ever know a bit about my parents. They were strangers before they met each other, they had no idea how to be parents when they brought my big sister home, and this is the first time they’ve ever had to grow old, feeling their joints and bones gently deteriorating. I’ll never know so many of their stories, either because they don’t know how to tell their children, or because they don’t know how to tell them aloud– some of the most important and interesting stories of the world will go unspoken.

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