I was born the child of a diplomat in South Korea. My parents were more or less of the Mad Men generation, so my actual upbringing was outsourced to a nanny I called Miss Kim.
Miss Kim fed me and changed my diapers and took care of me when I was sick. She sang Japanese songs to me and told me about the various folk gods. She spoke to me in a mixture of Japanese and English. She yelled at me. She defended me from strangers—once she even beat off an intruder with a broomstick.
But for the longest time, I didn’t really know her full name, Kim Kang-Hee. She was only Miss Kim, who my father hired when he showed up at his door one day, covered in lice and weighing less than 100 pounds. No one asked her about her past. My parents just took her in and she helped raise me from the day I was born.
A few years later, we left Korea and we took her with us to Japan when my father was transferred there. As we moved about Japan (Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe), she moved with us.
I spent my first 10 years with her until my father became the head of the Japan Society, in New York. He left her in Japan. I cried. My sister cried. Miss Kim cried. She begged us to take her, but my parents left her.
Later, on her own, she came to America with the Japanese ambassador to the US. She had become the nanny to Japanese society. She got rich. She bought a house in Maryland.
After my parents divorced and my father lost his shirt in the tech bubble, she became richer than my parents. She visited me in New York with the ambassador’s daughter, who had a baby. The ambassador’s daughter gave me a present and told me as the original person raised my Miss Kim, I was like her child’s older brother. I agreed. I still agree.
But who was Miss Kim? One Christmas I asked her. She visited my family, made sushi to eat alongside the turkey and Tofurky. (See next)
She was repatriated to Korea after the war. But repatriated to the North. During the Korean War, she had to carry her brother on her back, some 500 miles through the battle lines.
She carried her bother because he was too young to walk well—but also because of landmines. If was better if she was blown up, her father thought. Better than if the son were to die.
Her mother was strafed (a war crime) by the Americans as they walked on a road with other refugees. She buried her mother by the side of the road. She stopped believing in any god after her mother died and swore she would make it on her own.
She didn’t want to talk about the years between the war and when she showed up at my parent’s house—it’s a blank period. God knows what hell she went through in Seoul as she supported her father and brother and South Korea was emerging as a country on its own. She also, it should be said, barely knew any Korean. She was an ethnic Korean but had grown up in Japan.
She only said she hated her father who treated her badly but took care of him and supported him. She also put her bother though school.
And this isn’t talked about much in my family, but Miss Kim helped keep my father from beating us. He’d beaten my sister so much, she has permanent damage to her spine. But my sister is older than I am and she didn’t have Miss Kim around to protect her.
My family took her in but we treated her like a pet, I suppose. I loved her, but my parents abandoned her in Japan. Still, she made it to America with a little bit of help from my father.
She died an American. America let her in, first on a work visa then after a decade, she became a citizen. She was more determined, more amazing, more appreciative of this country than anyone I knew.
Her death was noted by the Grand Chamberlin of the Emperor of Japan.