Translated book gives adoptees access to post-war Korea

3 March 2022

Dr. Cho's memoir about Korean War orphans, abandoned children will be published in English in May, shedding light on why they were sent overseas to new families

Retired pediatrician Cho Byung-guk, 89, came to understand why some ethnic Korean adoptees search tirelessly for their birth parents and strive to figure out why they were sent overseas to new families, while interacting with numerous adoptees during her five decades of work.

"Every year at Holt Ilsan, we had groups of visitors from overseas. They were adopted by parents mostly in the United States and Europe when they were babies, so most of them don't speak or read Korean," Cho told The Korea Times.

Once their stays ? which could be for days or weeks ? end, there is one thing many of these adoptees do: they buy Cho's 2009 memoir, which is written in Korean.

"Although they don't understand Korean, they purchased the book and took it home with the hope that some of their Korean friends or neighbors could help explain those stories," Cho said.

Cho's memoir, the title of which translates literally to, "Grandmother Doctor Puts Down a Stethoscope," in English, tells the numerous stories of survival and death of Korean War orphans and abandoned babies she cared for, first at a charity hospital in war-torn Seoul, and later at a clinic set up under the Holt Foundation ? a nonprofit organization now known as Holt International.

The foundation was established after the war by the late Harry Holt to enable adoption of Korean War orphans to families overseas.

Cho has witnessed firsthand how adoptees try to piece together the clues to their adoption histories as part of their search for their roots.

Although the stories in her book are not their own, Cho said, the book seems to strike a chord with them as it gives narrative to the circumstances under which a number of Korean children were left parentless or abandoned, put up for adoption and sent overseas to live with new parents.

As a mother of three, the doctor said, she felt strongly for them. She said that international adoption, which began after the Korean War, was inevitable to give them a second chance, noting that the possibility of malnourishment and poor healthcare conditions in the country back then could have otherwise cost some of them their lives.

Knowing the adoptees' tireless search for their roots, Cho realized she also had a growing desire within her ? she wanted her memoir to be translated into English, so Korean adoptees could learn about the origins of overseas adoption in their place of birth, even if they don't know the Korean language.

Encouraged by her longtime friend, Molly Holt (1935-2019), Cho contacted Susan Cox from Holt International Children's Services to ask for a bilingual translator to help have her memoir published in English. In 2011, Cox introduced Cho to Jessica Jeong, a Korean American, as an ideal candidate for translating the text. The next year, Jorgensen completed an initial translation of the book. However, the official publication of Cho's memoir became a waiting game. It took over 10 years for the English translation of the 2009 memoir to be published by The Adoptee Group under the title, "Before Adoption… There Was Dr. Cho."

It will be officially released in May to mark Cho's 90th birthday.

A tear-jerker, the book vividly depicts post-war Korea's meager healthcare infrastructure and dismal outlook. Cho, at the time a young pediatrician who had recently graduated from medical school, was witness to the near-total devastation of the country. "Mothers abandon their babies because they cannot provide for them and many abandoned and orphaned children roam the countryside. In Seoul, child beggars and abandoned babies are so common that they are scooped up every day and taken to Seoul City Hall for distribution to hospitals or orphanages," Cho narrates in the translated memoir.

Many volunteers, mostly Korean adoptees and a son-in-law of Linda Holt, one of the daughters of Harry Holt, had a hand in proofreading, editing and publishing Cho's memoir over the past 10 years.

Sara Salansky, a Korean adoptee and founder of the KAD Village website, designed to help support adoptee-owned businesses, professionals and artists, is one of the key contributors to bringing Cho's memoir to light for English-language readers.

Cho first met Salansky in March 2019 when the adoptee visited Holt's Ilsan branch and spent time with the pediatrician during her stay there.

Knowing Cho's book was being translated, Salansky assisted in its editing. Since then, she had checked regularly to see if progress was being made in its publication, and found out in November 2021 that the translation was finally done, but that Cho was struggling to find a publisher.

"I contacted Dr. Cho to see if I could help her publish the book," Salansky said in an email interview with The Korea Times. "I really wanted to get it published before her 90th birthday, which is May 2022. Because of the deadline, I really was aggressive in trying to get this accomplished for her. I partnered with The Adoptee Group to help publish the book."

Learning of her early birthday gift deeply touched Cho.

"Upon hearing the great news, I was so thankful. I wondered how she came to know my birthday though," she said, thanking all the people involved for their persistent support, which made the publication of the English version possible.

Cho said she is excited about the publication of her memoir in English, hoping that it might help adoptees understand Korea's tragic history, especially the Korean War and post-war poverty that were reasons many children were orphaned and abandoned.

Salansky shared Cho's view that adoptees' understanding of Korea's post-war conditions through the book will help them gain insights as to how their lives came to be mired in the nation's turbulent modern history.

"There are a lot of adoptees who have a lot of differing opinions on adoption…? good and bad and anti- and pro-adoption ? and they really need to know why in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, adoptions occurred, and read stories about what the hospitals and caretakers were confronted with on a regular basis, so they can put themselves in their position and wonder what the best solution was at the time," she said.