The city of Panjing was waking up, still trying to forget the nightmare of the Korean war, when eight-year-old Kiki slipped through the orphanage gate into the day's first light. Her skinny arms formed a circle around a bundle of smelly rags. As the oldest in the orphanage, it was her job to wash all the diapers. She walked two miles to the river, where she beat the diapers clean with a wide stick and sloshed them around in the icy water. By midafternoon, she was heading back to the orphanage to hang them up to dry.
It was hard work, but Kiki didn't mind. Especially not today. Yesterday, the Swedish nurse told her: "Please help get all of the children ready. The foreigners are coming." On the way back to the orphanage, a string of kids followed Kiki, shouting, as they always did, "Toogee! Toogee!" She didn't look at them, and walked on, her thoughts focused on all that had to be done at the orphanage.
Kiki was used to people hassling her on the streets, and inside she believed that nasty word–toogee–was really her name, her true identity. In English it means foreign devil. "I thought I was the lowest you could get," says Kiki. "That I was worse than a dog or pig and that my face was twisted and grotesque." But it was her curly hair and big, bright eyes that made people hate her. To the Koreans, she was "a child of foreigners"--a "devil" fathered by an American G.I. She was a reminder of everything they wanted to forget.
Hope for a Future
The orphanage chimes echoed throughout the compound. "I hope we didn't forget anything," Kiki thought. She had spent hours scrubbing the babies, trying to make them as pretty as she could, even putting little ribbons in the girls' hair. "One of these babies is going to America," she said to herself, straining to hear the voices outside the gate. "And they're going to have a future."
The door squeaked open, and the worker motioned for the American couple to come in. Already they had been to six orphanages, looking for a little boy to call their own. They had already chosen a name for him, too: Stephen.
Fear and amazement gripped Kiki's entire 30-pound body as she stared at the couple towering in the doorway. She had seen foreigners before–American soldiers and Miss Erickson, the blue-eyed nurse who took her off the streets into the orphanage almost two years ago. But these people now passing through the gate weren't like any Americans she knew before. "They were the tallest, roundest and strangest looking people I had ever seen," recalls Kiki. Kiki watched, fascinated as the huge man picked up a tiny baby and tucked it under his arm. Then she saw something else she had never seen in her life: tears trickling down a man's face. As she was trying to figure out why, Kiki found herself edging closer to where he was. She stopped, frozen, when he looked at her with wet eyes.
He crouched in front of her and made noises with his lips she didn't understand as he spoke quietly to her in English. Her hair was more white than brown, teeming with lice. She was covered with boils and jagged scars. She had worms that sometimes crawled out through her ears or her mouth. Her left eye rolled around lazily in its socket.
Now suddenly the man's massive hand was coming toward her face. It landed softly on her cheek and covered her like a smooth blanket. He stroked her, ever so gently. "My heart did a somersault." Kiki remembers. "Inside I wanted to say, don't take that hand away, please love me." Instead, she yanked off the hand and spat on him.
A Dark Past
Before she came to live at the orphanage, when she was living on the streets, Kiki determined that no matter what anyone did to her body, they would never hurt her on the inside. When some farmers tied her naked to a tree and let their children jab different parts of her body with sticks to see how she would respond to the pain, Kiki learned not to cry. "You don't let people know that you hurt, because the more you let them know that you hurt, the more pleasure it seems to give them," she explains. "By the time I was six I was dead emotionally."
“That's when, in 1960, the nurse found her lying on a garbage heap and brought her to live in the orphanage. Two years later, an American couple came to adopt a baby.”
Every since her mother abandoned her–Kiki thinks she remembers her sending her away alone on a train when she was about four–she had been running from village to village. She slept in caves, or under bridges and roasted locusts on rice straw or sucked the marrow from the bones the butchers threw out. Kiki wanted to survive, and she kept hoping that her mommy or her daddy would be waiting somewhere for her. But many of the Korean villagers wanted to get rid of her. She was an ugly reminder of an ugly war.
A group of men once tied her to a waterwheel, hoping to drown her. Her mouth filled with mud and blood as she went round and round, thrashing and listening to the people laugh. Then, she heard a man's voice, deep and strong, telling them to stop. The man untied her and said to her, "Run, little girl, run. These people, they will hurt you." To this day she wonders if maybe he was an angel.
In the city, Kiki became skilled at snatching food from the marketplace. But one time, because she was carrying a little girl she had found on the street, she was caught. "I remember being grabbed by a man and pulled back by my hair. And he said, ‘It's that dirty toogee again'. He recognized me somehow." Kiki and the little girl were thrown over a wall into a bombed-out building that was infested with rats. "I held the little girl and rocked and screamed," Kiki said. "I fainted, probably out of fear. I don't know how long I was out, but when I woke up, I saw with my six-year-old eyes how the rats had eaten away at that little girl." Miraculously, someone rescued Kiki.
Soon after, Kiki contracted cholera. "At seven years of age, I wanted to die," Kiki recalls. "I knew what my future was, I hated myself and everything around me, especially the people. I didn't want to be abused anymore."
That's when, in 1960, the nurse found her lying on a garbage heap and brought her to live in the orphanage. Two years later, an American couple came to adopt a baby.
"You're not going to believe this," the man told his wife Judy on the way home from their visit to the orphanage, "but I have this feeling that we're supposed to adopt that little girl–the one who spit on me."
The wife laughed. She had that same stirring in her heart–and she felt it was from God. So the next day the Merwins returned to the orphanage and the little girl became their Kiki.
Suddenly Kiki had her own room and her own bed. And suddenly she had an identity. She was Kiki Lorena Miller. And she was an American. Kiki soon discovered that Americans like people who smile a lot. In a crowd of friends, she was always the bubbly one. As she grew older, she bleached her hair and talked her mom into buying her blue contacts, all so she would look more American. "But inside I didn't feel American or Korean, I was a dirty ugly toogee," Kiki admits.
Kiki's parents only knew the little about her past that the orphanage told them–just that she was found on the streets and that she was bi-racial. But the Miller's were troubled when they returned to Korea as missionaries after spending a year in the United States. Kiki, at 12, always sat in the back of the church with her arms folded, and refused to speak to Korean people.
She wanted to forget her past at all cost. But her outer facade of happiness was wearing very thin during her late teens. She began pulling away from everyone in her life, and whenever she talked about herself, it was always negative. "I was full of bitterness and confusion and pain inside," says Kiki. But she didn't want anybody to touch that, not her parents, and definitely not God.
One day her dad came up to her room, and sat at the end of the bed. He said, "I want to talk to you once more about Jesus." Kiki remembered thinking, "Hey, I'm a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to Jesus. I've been going to church most of my life, and I've been baptized. I don't need that anymore."
But Kiki listened to her dad as he spoke gently to her. He talked about how when Jesus left heaven for earth, that he was conceived outside of marriage by a virgin. "He also asked if I'd thought about where Jesus was born," says Kiki. "To me, the manger was just like the Christmas play every year. I didn't realize that it was a dark, dirty cave that never got cleaned out and that the only thing he had for a bed was a feeding trough." Kiki's dad went on to explain how King Herod wanted to kill Jesus when he was a child because of what he represented, and how later on in life even his closest friends rejected him.
Kiki began to cry as she realized how Jesus had been abused, and eventually even killed, so that He could identify with her. It was the first time she cried since she'd been thrown into the building with the rats. She prayed, opening up her life to God, asking Him to take her past, to forgive her sins and to make her whole.
That day was the beginning of a healing that's still happening in Kiki's life. When she married her husband Dan right out of high school, he knew she was adopted, but he didn't have an inkling of what her past really was. When Kiki began to have nightmares, Dan knew that they were more than just normal dreams. As Kiki opened up to him, they began to work through her past, and to pray together for God's help and healing.
Part of that healing has come since Kiki began sharing her story publicly. She has a special concern for women, who often struggle with their sense of identity, and have been in abusive relationships. Kiki is a regular speaker for women's groups and has travelled across the world to tell her story, even to Korea.
As she talks about her life, Kiki still marvels that she survived those childhood dangers and realizes how fortunate she is to be alive and doing what she's doing today. "You know, it was amazing, but every time I was in trouble, there was always someone who rescued me," Kiki recalls. "And each time the person would tell me, ‘Little girl, you must live.' I don't know if they were angels or just people God used, but I do know that God spared my life. He never gave up on me. And I've learned He never will."
Thank you Kiki, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Adara Bernstein and Story of My Life ®