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  • Kim Thompson

About Holt Camps…

This piece originally appeared in the now-defunct Gazillion Voices in August 2014 when the writer was in her fifth year of living in Seoul. It has been updated seven years later in August 2021, four and a half years after leaving Seoul, to reflect the passage of time etc.

The image above is from Holt Heritage Camp at Camp Lane in Oregon 1986. Stacey, Kim, and Tara are seated fourth row up; second, third, fourth in from the left.

I carry with me a bundle of letters. A bundle of letters that I have carried with me every place I have lived in this world—from Lake Worth to London to Mittersill to Vilnius to Minneapolis to Seoul to Portland and to every city/country in between. In this bundle, which I always keep in a place so that if there is a fire I can save them, are letters from Tara Bilyeu Footner. Tara and I met when we were 9 and attending Holt Heritage Camp in Oregon for the first time in the summer of '86.

We became lifelong pen pals, and I would dare to say, some 36 years later, we are lifelong friends. When I am asked about my experiences at Holt camps, I cannot speak about them without first mentioning my friendship with Tara, and when I think of Tara I think of Stacey. The three of us all met that summer at camp, and though sometimes months, or even years, can elapse in between, we are still in contact. I value this, and I always will.

Holt Camp 1986: Monica Mayberry (Counselor), Stacey (left), Tara (2nd from right), Kim (right)

The first thing that comes to mind when I recall Holt Heritage camp is the friendships. My friendship and correspondence with Tara as we were growing up kept me from feeling so isolated. To know as I wrote her in Oregon from my home in Florida about things such as what it would be like to meet my “birth mother” or what she felt when she thought of her “birth mother” or being adopted…to know that I was not alone in my thoughts/feelings helped me to not only keep sane, but to be honest, it probably at times helped to keep me alive. And so, yes, I do have Holt Heritage Camp to thank for this.

Holt Camp at Camp Harlow 1988. Eugene, Or. Stacey (2nd row up, 10th in from right), Kim (2nd row up, 9th in from right), Tara (front row, 3rd in from right)
Counselors and staff Holt Camp ’94. Kim (2nd row, 5th in from left)

My memories of attending camp are nothing but happy and pleasant ones. I first attended at the age of 9 when Holt Heritage Camp was held at Camp Lane in Oregon, and then was a camper when it was at Camp Harlow in Eugene when I was 12. I returned as a counselor in ’94, just days after graduating from high school. I loved my camp counselors—Monica and Julie Mayberry—I loved being a counselor to my cabin of the “8-Non-Blondes,” I loved the friendships, and I loved being around faces that looked like my own. I am amongst the few 200,000 Korean adoptees who can say that not only have I seen Susan Cox dressed up as a giant crawdad, but I have been “anointed” by Susan Cox dressed up as said crawdad for being one of that summer’s good or best campers. I am of the generation of Holt campers in Oregon who crushed out on Chris Linn and John Bae. I was like so many campers who go away from their first experience at a Holt camp saying things like: “I never knew that Korean boys were so cute”; “I feel prouder of being Korean/Cambodian/Indian/etc. than before camp”; “I’ve never had any friends who were adoptees before. I’m going to miss everyone”; and…“I realize how lucky I was to be adopted.” And this is where the genuine sweetness of memory pauses for me as an adult. This is when the other reality of my life kicks in…when the me that is here now, who until my late 20s still identified as “white on the inside, yellow on the outside”; who spent eight years living in Seoul; who has dealt with Holt Korea and other adoption agencies in Seoul and Daegu and seen and experienced first-hand how corrupt their practices are; who was directly lied to by the adoptee search case worker at Holt Korea and was called “a bitter and ungrateful adoptee” by her when I asked for my umma’s name and address… It is then that I view my experiences at camp in a different light. Not in a “bitter” light, but in the light of one who can both appreciate the goodness of an experience and still analyze and critique exactly what it was I was experiencing. I have my bundle of letters, my very sweet memories, and my very dear friendships—all of which I will always be grateful for, all of which I will always cherish. But now, I also have my realizations and experiences as an adult who is engaged in her identity as a queer Korean-American-adoptee. These realizations and experiences do not taint what I cherish. Instead, they help me understand the importance of loving a moment for what it was whilst still being able to critique that moment for what it was. I am now able to tell my story of my experiences at Holt Heritage camps in a more complete manner. When I made kimchi with my 할머니 in the way that she learned from her mother and her mother learned from hers in the hanok that three generations of my family lived and grew up in, I was reminded of how Holt told us in “Korean Cooking Class” at camp that kimchi is made by digging a hole and burying the head of cabbage in the hole for months.

No one spoke of the kimchi 온기 (clay pots). No one spoke of the fact that these days you’re more likely to just make it in your kitchen or that you’ll just go to Hanaro or Hyundai department store and buy it, store it in plastic kimchi containers, and stick it in a kimchi fridge. It would be when I was out in Seoul with friends, and on the very rare occasion would order bulgogi and grill it, or had it served on a hot stone platter, that I would be reminded of how we were told in cooking class that “all” Koreans eat bulgogi almost every day and that they eat it cold. I asked my good Korean national friend about this when we were hanging out one night in Seoul, if eating bulgogi like this was some kind of “old-fashioned practice,” to which she responded, with a rather horrified look on her face: “NO! Who told you that? That’s disgusting. Is that what people do in America?” It was when I would find myself in Insadong with someone who was visiting and I would see the hanji (traditional Korean paper made from mulberry bark), that I was reminded that in “Korean Arts and Crafts Class” at camp we were told that basically mulching shreds of newspaper and other scraps of paper in a blender was akin to hanji.

Holt Camp, 1986. Campers performing in hanbok to Arirang for family and friends on the last day of camp.

It was when I NEVER once saw a circle of children dancing in hanboks to the traditional Korean song of "Arirang" in all my years in Seoul and exploring the nooks and crannies of Korea that I would be reminded of how we were taught this song and dance at camp and were told that this is what children did in Korea—with the implication that this was a pretty regular occurrence. All of which had created an image in my mind as a child, of a country filled with boys and girls in traditional garb dancing about in circles to "Arirang," pretending to fill their imaginary baskets with flowers pretty much non-stop. Instead, what I would see as I walked to my local GS25 편의점 were children running, screaming, and kicking soccer balls or riding their bikes up and down the side streets, whilst the latest song by YG Entertainment’s latest sensation blasted from the 편의점. To be fair, all of these bits of misinformation could be written off as minor cultural mistakes that anyone could make from having read poorly researched tourist books written by authoritative white men one too many times. (Nonetheless, it is worth noting that to this day my friend, who told me about bulgogi not being eaten cold, remains horrified at the thought of heads of kimchi just being plonked in the ground to ferment in the dirt and feels that it’s really too bad that we were told such things. She would tell me that it was good that I lived in Korea so that I could “find out the truth.”) However, there were bigger truths about our Korean identity that were not just merely misconstrued, but omitted.

Things like: the existence of yellow fever; the exotification of Asian women in the West; the demasculinization of Asian men in the West; the sexual, emotional, verbal, spiritual, and physical abuse that can happen in adoptive families; how addiction, depression, and suicide are very real issues in the adoptee community; LGBTQ+ identities; how our very bodies will develop and what we can expect; how attachment issues impact romantic and platonic relationships; how internalized racism is a very real thing; etc. Whatever the argument might be for these topics being too heavy for a week of fun at camp, if they were able to find the way to talk to us about our mothers giving us up and show us videos on how physical abuse occurred in privately-run Korean orphanages, thereby “making us even more fortunate to have been saved by Holt,” they could have found a way to give us the tools we would need to thrive in the predominantly white settings that most of us were growing up in. Witnessing the aging of my umma and my 할머니 reminded me how as a child I had never actually seen what my very body might begin to look like. I think back to when Stacey, Tara, and myself were 9 and mortified, as only 9-year-old girls in the States can be, at the thought of using the communal showers at Camp Lane. As we lay in our bunks, which spiraled up the walls of our cabin, we talked about this “shocking” revelation that our bodies were not going to develop like our adoptive moms. We spoke in serious, giggling whispers, about seeing one of the older female campers come out of the shower. “Can you believe she was ok showering without wearing a bathing suit?” we gasped. And then confiding in one another the even “scarier” realization, which was that our areolas were going to look a lot different than we’d ever seen before. “They’re sooooo big…and…brown,” we giggled before falling silent…and then one of us saying: “That’s not what my mom’s look like… are we going to look like that?”

There are two ways to view this realization. One is that it was in some way sort of endearing and oddly beautiful, and that because of Holt camp we finally came into this all-important awareness. The other is this: what kind of way is it to grow up, where in 1986, when computers took up entire rooms and 24/7 access to information that the Internet provides did not exist, where by the age of 9 we had absolutely no clue as to what it looks like to be a 15 or 22 or 47 or 63 or 80-year-old Korean person? I have multiple ways of viewing my experiences at Holt Heritage camps.

One is that I still carry all of Tara’s letters, and when Tara came to Seoul, we drank soju, and ate forms of gogi (meat) that far surpass the boring tourist cliché of bulgogi. We had a lot of great laughs talking about camp. We reminisced over how when we were 12 we got in trouble for excluding Stacey; how she was really sweet and funny, and we were probably little shits to her sometimes. How when we were 9 we salted the slug outside of the girls bathrooms; how we remembered the A-frame building at Camp Lane; the names of the “boyfriends” we had at camp; how we were so appalled at the thought of communal showers at the age of 9; how we loved Chris Linn; how so-and-so was such a little snob but we couldn’t remember why; how we have photos of Susan Cox dressed up like a crawdad; how we had so much fun doing this or that; how it would be great if one day Stacey, Tara, and myself could all meet up…how being a counselor was a very positive experience for me, and that the things we talked about as campers at 9 and 12 I heard my campers say to me when I was 18.

“The 8-Non-Blondes” cabin. Holt Camp 1994

And there is the other way, in which I remember being at camp and watching a video on orphanages in Korea and being told that if you aren’t adopted by 18, you are turned out of the orphanage; that most girls end up as prostitutes, usually in the seedy red light districts of Seoul, and then as prostitutes they would often end up pregnant and would abandon their children on Holt’s doorstep. I remember going home after camp and asking my adoptive mom with a sense of horror: “Is it possible that my ‘birth mother’ was a prostitute?” to which she replied: “Oh no…I’ve dreaded the day you would ask this.”

I remember it being made very clear that we were VERY LUCKY to have been adopted, because well, we all know what happens after 18 to Korean orphan girls. I remember being told how lucky we were to not have grown up in Korea, how our lives were so much better. I remember understanding the importance of my being grateful for not having grown up in Korea. I remember that we were told our ummas gave us up because they loved us. I remember being told the “beautiful story” of how Harry and Bertha Holt saved all the “poor war babies,” and then over time, the rest of us…how Bertha Holt, aka “Grandma Holt,” would come to our last day of camp, usually dressed in hanbok, and she would hug us, and I just knew I owed my life to her.

Printed hand-out given to counselors (and campers) at Holt Camp 1994

I do not recall anyone ever mentioning that “the war babies” were mainly mixed-race children who had been abandoned, along with their ummas, by their American GI fathers and by Korean society; that starting in 1945 when the U.S. military took over “comfort stations” in Korea all the way into the 1990s, the U.S. military and Korean government regulated prostitution in areas surrounding U.S. army bases to specifically service American soldiers.

Not a word was mentioned about the known and proven fact that adoptions in the '60s, '70s, and early '80s often involved child brokers hired by Holt Korea and the other agencies, who would coerce women into giving up their children or would work with another member of the family to “kidnap” the child.

No one ever said anything about how Korea, left desolate by the war, went through an economic recovery known as “The Miracle on the Han” during the early '50s and was far from a “bad place” to grow up.

We were not told the truth that to this day 90% of ummas, who are pressured by agencies like Holt, Korean society, and their families into giving their children up for adoption, are single unwed mothers.

Nothing was spoken about how Holt Korea, which is currently housed in a large shiny blue-tinted glass building paid for in part by the profits from the exporting of Korean children to the West, “just so happens” to be, and has for decades been, located at the top of a street that has long been known as one of the red light districts in Seoul.

Susan Cox never warned us as campers or counselors that if you one day question Holt and its version of events you WILL be labeled as “bitter” and “ungrateful.” …And for me…for me…more importantly... What they didn’t tell me was that actually my umma had been housed in 1975 at one of Holt Korea’s “secret” single mother homes called “Capok”—a place that they still deny any real knowledge of in terms of what it functioned as, but that I can say for certainty what it was because SHE told me.

What they didn’t tell me was that they told her this was her only option—that if she loved me she would give me up.

What they didn’t tell me is that they unabashedly lied and said that my date of birth was unknown, when in reality the birthday they “assigned” to me was always my real birthday, and they always knew that because they were housing her at THEIR shelter for unwed pregnant mothers and at least one of them was with my umma the day that I was born, making sure she signed the paperwork to relinquish me.

What they didn’t tell me is that she knowingly, with fully informed consent and intent, wrote her name and address so that if I ever wanted to find her I could.

What they didn’t tell me was that she returned to Holt looking for me and all they would say was that I was gone.

What they didn’t tell her is that Holt Korea and Holt International blatantly lied and told my family I was found abandoned on the doorstep of a hospital, and that they had no records of my umma’s name or address. What they didn’t tell her was that the name she very specifically and thoughtfully chose and gave to me as a sort of “blessing/protection,” they would claim to be some random name that they, Holt Korea, made up for me.

What they didn’t tell her was that when I was growing up—during my late teens and 20s—I would regularly write Holt International asking for information, who would then in turn write Holt Korea on my behalf (or so they said), and they would always tell me that there wasn’t any.

What they didn’t tell her was that I was always looking for her when she thought I had moved on.

What they didn’t tell her is that her child would never forget her, that her daughter would always love her, that her daughter would one day turn heaven and earth upside down to find her, that post-reunion would just be a real bitch…that she would regret the decision that Holt Korea guided her into making as a young 21-year-old girl and that Holt International helped facilitate by brokering her daughter to a family in the States. What they didn’t tell us at camp is that chances were our mothers never wanted to give us up. They didn’t tell us that true love does not equate abandonment; that growing up in the rich white West isn’t better than growing up with your blood.

They didn’t emphasize to us that there is NOTHING wrong with referring to your umma as your “real mom” or your “first mother” instead of as your “birth mother.”

They didn’t mention that Holt Korea and Holt International work as separate entities, and Holt International, which for their 2020 Annual Report alone publicly declared 23,841,393 USD in total assets, will constantly try to wipe its hands clean of whatever run-around Holt Korea puts you through when you are searching.

They did not explain that Holt International refuses to take responsibility for any unethical practices that Holt Korea may or may not have been involved in, and that neither corporation does any real work to promote family preservation in our motherland(s). In fact, they just never talked about the concept of family preservation at camp.

They never assured us that questioning the practices of your agency doesn’t make you “bitter” or “ungrateful.” They never affirmed to us that you can truly LOVE your life and the people in it, but still question and call out practices that are corrupt, unethical, and for-profit. However, what they did tell us at camp was that the friendships we would make there would be important. I have a bundle of letters and 36 years of friendship to testify to just how right they were about that.

Holt Camp 1988. Tara 3rd in, Kim front.


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