FINDING SEOUL 4
Stepping from the foggy foyer of my memories into the brick and mortar world of White Lily is like entering a world of virtual reality.
Everything I see makes sense, but it feels unreal and intangible. I breathe deeper, open my eyes wider. If I could dig my bare toes into the ground, scrunch the earth between my toes and somehow immerse myself in my surroundings I would. If it wouldn’t be rude, or be weird, I would walk off by myself for an hour or two, sit in the middle of the lawn somewhere, let the past find me.
But that’s impossible, because White Lily is no longer an orphanage, but a Montessori school for underprivileged children of working parents. Sister Theresa smiles as she explains. “Both parents work all day and the children need looking after. Most of them are minorities--from countries like the Philippines.”
And there are lines of them; adorable in their matching yellow hats and backpacks, walking in noisy, orderly rows from one building to the next. Seeing them, hearing their tiny little voices, I’m caught in a time-warp. I’m walking in step with them; on the way to the chapel, the playground, the front lawn. The past is in front of my face.
I want to ask Sister Theresa so many questions, but I’m afraid of how self-centered I will sound. What do you remember about me? What was I like? I’ve always had this sense that I was a favorite child…was I? Did one of the sisters or one of the helpers take me on a field trip all by myself (because I have a memory of this)? And if she did, why did she?
As we walk further onto campus, Sister Theresa talks cheerfully about the buildings we pass and I try to listen to her words, but my eyes are telling me so much more. You know this, they tell me. You’ve seen this all before:
The graceful stone statue of The Virgin Mary surrounded by flowers and climbing green things.
The courtyard in front of the building where I dined and slept and daydreamed.
The cylindrical cement tower in the center of campus. The way the ground slopes up and away from it.
The sanctuary where Sister Theresa confirms I had come to pray, and to celebrate special occasions, dressed in a traditional hanbok.
Inside her office, Sister Theresa is in constant motion, each movement a reflection of her mind, flipping, flipping, flipping, through the rolodex of information she wants to pass onto me.
A swish of skirt as she flies to a pile of magazines. Each thin book is filled with stories she has written, the cover art by another sister who is clearly gifted with paint and brush. Each page tells the story of a Lily looking for answers.
“Here,” Sister Theresa says, pointing to a black and white photo of a handsome Korean man in a suit. “He has been back to Korea more than thirty times to find his birth parents.”
Others have appeared on TV, most have submitted what little information they possess--their given name (if they were given one), where they were abandoned, a grainy baby picture--to the local papers. The effort is a shot in the dark, but there isn’t much else they can do.
Most babies stayed one to two months at White Lily before they were adopted. “Three months here, was a long time,” Sister Theresa says.
“You were here two years and five months.”
I let that sink-in. Two years. Five months. I’ve always known this, yet, set against the average one to three month stay of other children, my own time here now sounds like a life sentence.
She brightens. Sister has remembered something else. She hurries to the hall outside her office and comes back with two large photo albums, the sticky photo paper long since yellowed. "You should be in many of these."
I gaze on the volumes like lost treasures, unearthed. I stare. I scrutinize each page. I identify myself in just two, think I see my sister. Many of the pictures are blurry, or taken so far back (as to capture the entire group), it is impossible to discern individual features in the sea of little bodies and shiny black hair.
“Why did we stay so long?” I ask.
“It was because there were three of you,” Sister Theresa says, as we sit in her office later that night. “Holt (Adoption Agency), wanted to place each of you right away, but we insisted, you be kept together.”
Photo of Hana at White Lily Baby Home