Adoptee shares pride for Korea, drive to successPaull Shin spent most of his youth as a street urchin, begging for food in Paju, Gyeonggi province, after his mother died in 1939 when he was just four years old. With no one to take care of him ― his father left soon after his mother died ― Mr. Shin joined the packs of children during the Korean War who extended their arms towards trucks carrying American soldiers, asking for chocolate and gum.
He was fortunate: U.S. soldiers eventually picked him up and took him to a base where he shined boots in exchange for food and shelter. But the loneliness of his youth tore at him, and at night, he would walk up a hill and cry, lamenting the loss of his parents.
One day when he opened his eyes, he saw Dr. Ray Paull, an Army dentist, standing in front of him. “He hugged me so tight,” Mr. Shin recalled. After the war, Dr. Paull later adopted him and took him to Preston, Idaho.
Thus started a journey to the United States when he was 18 years old and a profoundly different life course than he may have had if he stayed in Korea. Now 70 years old, Mr. Shin became the first ethnic Korean state senator in Washington state.
He was first elected in 1998 by an all-white constituency. “I visited each and every one of the 27,000 homes in our district for nine months,” he said, describing his campaign trail. “I said the same thing over and over: That I have been blessed so much in this country and it’s time for me to give back.”
Mr. Shin’s second term expires in early 2007, but he plans to run for one more. A Democrat, he is currently chairman of the International Trade and Economic Development committee of Washington State. He is the true embodiment of a tragic beginning that turned into a fortuitous end.
On his first evening at the Paulls’ home in the United States, his adopted father asked, “What do you want to do?” Mr. Shin’s immediate response was, “I want to be educated.” Unfortunately, because Mr. Shin had never attended school before, no middle or high school was willing to accept him.
Dr. Paull suggested he take the GED exam, and for 16 months, Mr. Shin vigorously studied, saying, “I did not sleep more than three hours during that period. The hardest period of my life was first learning my A, B, Cs, but learning itself felt like a blessing for me.”
Mr. Shin recalled one time when he felt so frustrated in trying to memorize English vocabulary that he ate the dictionary, page by page. “An entire dictionary rests in my stomach,” he said laughing and patting his stomach.
His efforts paid off, and later he was accepted by Brigham Young University where he received a bachelor’s degree. He received his master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and doctorate from the University of Washington.
The proudest moment in his life was when he received his doctorate, Mr. Shin said. “My adoptive father held my hand and said to me, ‘When I first met you, you had dirty hands, but look at you now.”
He was a professor of international relations for 32 years, teaching at the University of Hawaii and Maryland University.
Although Mr. Shin was adopted by American parents, he kept his biological surname. But he took his adopted father’s last name, Paull, as his first name to honor him. He later married his wife Donna, and they became parents of two adopted children, both of whom are half-Asian and half-white.
While he was a doctoral candidate in the mid-1960s, Mr. Shin returned to Korea to search for his biological father.
He discovered that his father had remarried and had five children but continued to live in poverty. Mr. Shin confronted his father, crying out, “Why did you abandon your own flesh and blood? Where were you when I needed you?”
His father replied, “How can I abandon my own flesh and blood? I had no means to feed you, so I left to become a house servant. I felt helpless. Please forgive me.”
As he recalled this moment, Mr. Shin made an effort to suppress his tears, saying, “I'm sorry, this is quite emotional for me.” He continued, “Poverty is not a sin, and I realized that it was unfair of me to harbor bitterness towards my father.” Father and son hugged and reconciled, and Mr. Shin eventually brought his family ― his father, stepmother and their five children ― back to the United States to live with him.
Mr. Shin recently returned to Korea, and at a luncheon to welcome a traditional music group made up of Korean adoptees in the United States, the white-haired Mr. Shin thanked the hosts for inviting them.
“It's so wonderful to be back again,” he said excitedly.
Composed of 25 Korean adoptees and Korean-American children from age 4 to 20, the Morning Star Korean Culture Group was established by the wife of the pastor of Bethany Church in Seattle.
Mr. Shin has been a patron since then since 1990. He said the group enables adoptees to develop “a sense of identity” of who they are and learn more about their ethnic heritage.
The group visits Korea every year to perform with the gayageum, gaumungo and other traditional instruments and dance. Last Monday, they performed at the Gangdong district Hall, and the group is headed to Burma this week.
“Dr. Shin is a role model for everyone,” said Sue Hansen, a mother of four Korean adoptees, who is in Korea for the tour. “He has overcome such adversity and come so far. He is an absolute inspiration.”
Mr. Shin has continued his devotion to helping Korean adoptees settle in the United States.
“Korean adoptees living in white homes have a different identity than those of Korea-Americans,” he said. “There is conflict within the white family. ‘Who am I?’ becomes a raging struggle within.”
Mr. Shin said he always wanted to give back to society, so he also founded a group for adoptees in the United States, Korea Identity Development Society, or KIDS, and even organized summer camps for Korean adoptees to learn about Korea and to make visits back to their native land.
He has also been an advocate of Korean studies at the university level, lobbying to keep the Korean studies program at the University of Washington.
Once at a meeting of Korean adoptees in Dusseldorf, Germany, a Korean adoptee from Sweden grieved about the fact he was adopted in an all-white country and experienced racial discrimination.
Mr. Shin said, “I understand the pain. I know how it is to be adopted. But we must remember that yesterday is history, tomorrow is the future.”
by Choi Jie-ho
More in Features
[Shifting the Paradigm] With one epidemic under control, another is threatening Korean society
Kakao TV launches this month, takes on Netflix
[TURNING 20] In a sea of hate, change flourishes
Criticism of sex ed books for kids raises more questions than answers
When it comes to sex ed, this Danish author says just talk about it