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Ellen’s Accessories: An Immigrant’s Story

The year was 1952, and the “forgotten” war had morphed into a stalemate, concentrated in and around the Korean 38th parallel. Names designating battles like White Horse, Old Baldy, Triangle Hill and Mig Alley were becoming inked into the history books in blood as the casualties on both sides mounted. Intransigent military commanders, government leaders and politicians representing at least twenty different nations—including the U.S., China and Russia—jockeyed for an ever-elusive advantage as the carnage multiplied. And it was into this tragic milieu that a little girl, then named in Korean Maak-Nay (translated into English as “the last girl”) but much later adopting the American name Ellen, was born to a family of seven siblings.

The tenuous cessation of hostilities brought about by the 1953 signing of an armistice did little to bring stability or comfort to Ellen’s family. Frequently displaced from one area to another, they experienced hardship after hardship, food often a luxury, security nonexistent. As she grew into girlhood, Ellen wasn’t permitted to attend school, having to work instead at menial tasks to contribute to her family’s survival. Girls weren’t valued, seen more as a burden and a liability. Simply put, life for Ellen was nothing more than a daily struggle to stay alive. With tears in her eyes she once described to me how as a child she had stolen small handfuls of rice from a shop, just enough to quell the gnawing hunger in her belly. Such images of desperation and shame were seared onto her memory like a branding iron on young flesh.

Eventually, however, a ray of hope presented itself—a young man, bilingual, dedicated to helping Korean people who wanted to emigrate, offered to write letters for her to philanthropic entities in America. At age 25, having saved a small reserve over the years, coin by coin, and having taught herself the rudiments of reading and numbers, she secured a sponsor and made her way to America. She took any job she could find and, during her free time, pored over the dictionary to further her English language skills. Clinging to her Buddhist faith, she nevertheless became conversant in many religions. After five years, with a deep sense of accomplishment, she proudly met the requirements for American citizenship.

Over time, she focused her attention on retail opportunities and, amazingly enough given her educational disadvantages, completed two years at a community college. She was drawn to the sphere of women’s fashion and up-scale accessories and secured sufficient backing to open a handbag, scarf and designer-jewelry shop. She mastered quickly a knowledge of the tastes and preferences of the well-to-do and catered appropriately to their purchasing habits. Her business acumen proved itself, and, as success became manifest, she expanded the shop, at its peak employing eight people.

Ellen conducted her business with grit and resolve, refusing to be intimidated by anyone or anything: surmounting a severe brain injury incurred during a robbery (with the emotional support of her beloved pet dog Moe); on one occasion holding a shoplifter at gunpoint until the police could arrive. Her work ethic left little time for social pursuits and Ellen never married, although she had a boyfriend for a while. She broke off their relationship when she came to the conclusion he lacked ambition, could be deceitful and exploitative with her and allowed alcohol too much room in his life. Not one to possess any tolerance for drug dependency, she expressed no regrets and only recently learned of his untimely death.

Asked about what she sees in American society today, she expressed harsh criticism of the youth who steal for amusement or demand “safe spaces” at college. “They’re soft,” she declared, “don’t know anything of real hardship.” She supported Donald Trump in the recent election and agrees with building a border wall. “They must come in the right way,” she asserted definitively. What America needs now is jobs. One must work hard and honestly for what one wants and gets in this life would be her credo, and she’s the living embodiment of it. Now nearing retirement in her mid-sixties, she’s a woman of appealing beauty and pride, easily taken for a lovely Asian in her forties. To have the opportunity to occasionally stop by her shop on the main thoroughfare and visit a bit is always for anyone an education and a treat.

I thought of Ellen the other night when attending a lecture and book signing at a nearby library. The speaker was a black woman about Ellen’s age, a professor at a southern university who had recently authored a book on “white rage” and the so-called truth about our “racial divide.” Her presentation consisted exclusively of bashing white America for all the problems black Americans face today and then some. Delivered with a sugary-sweet façade, it railed on in a litany of half-truths, sins of omission, distortions and outright falsehoods—in my humble opinion—directed at white society. Beginning with Ferguson, Missouri, and the riots there, the professor leapfrogged back and forth from the Civil War era to Obama and Trump and current “voter suppression” as well as much in between, providing a most skewed interpretation of the “facts.” It was all I could do to keep my seat and not walk out.

Absent was any mention of the white Union soldiers (both my great grandfathers included) who fought (and so many died) for her black people’s freedom, white people enabling the Underground Railroad to rescue black slaves, white people of means helping fund the Harlem Renaissance for black artists, whites voting for the passage of civil rights legislation and the white vote making the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the first black POTUS possible. No, rather she painted the whole white race with one brush representing the lowest racist element in existence, revealing rather what lay in her own heart instead of what lies in ours.

But the most disheartening thing of all was to see, during the Q & A, that the young people (of Ellen’s critique) had lapped it all up like dogs licking vomit. The word “clueless” came to mind, and I wondered what Ellen would have thought of it all. The little girl born in a horrifically war-torn land who accepted and overcame every obstacle that confronted her—race, culture, education, poverty, language, sexism, religion and injury—and, paraphrasing William Faulkner regarding his hope for humankind, not merely endured but prevailed, holding nothing in her heart but gratitude.

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Mark Scheel
Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.

2 comments to Ellen’s Accessories: An Immigrant’s Story

  • Don Frankel

    Everybody lives their life and has to live with it too. Ellen gets to live her life with a deep sense of pride that there really no words for. Who would you want to be?

    It would hardly be appropriate to say anything in that book lecture? Was it? You’d probably get shouted down. But I’ve asked this question more than once here and never got any kind of a logical answer. So maybe if you ever see her again in more of a one on one situation, ask her to give you a definition of a “black” person and or a “white” person? I’d be real curious what she or anyone else for that matter would say.

  • Thanks, Don. Yes, coming to know Ellen as I worked on this piece, I found my admiration and astonishment only kept growing. What a resilient and determined and perseverant lady. Ah, that black woman. I should mention that many of the political philosophers I admire most are indeed black: Sowell, Williams, Steele, Parker, Elder, Boddie. A good counter to that woman’s book on “white rage” would be Steele’s book White Guilt. I can only wish some of these black writers had been present and challenged her premise.

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