Choungja Lee knows the name of her birthplace—Pyeonganbuk-do in a northwestern province of North Korea—but she remembers little else about the time before she was taken at age 4 to South Korea.
She does, however, have strong memories of the South Korean orphanage where she and her brother landed six years later, as well the U.S. military camp across the street from it. Indeed, the camp played a pivotal role in the life of Lee, who now teaches the Korean language to U.S. servicemembers enrolled at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) in Asia. For many years, she taught some of those classes at U.S. Army Camp Page, the very same complex that was so influential in her life.
Soldiers assigned to Camp Page, in the city of Chuncheon, 48 miles south of Seoul, took the neighboring orphanage under their wing, helped with its upkeep, and informally taught the children English. The experience left a deep imprint that Lee says directly influenced her career path. In some ways you could even say she has come full circle. She said teaching is her way of honoring the soldiers who long ago helped her learn English.
The memories of her interactions with soldiers at Camp Page remain vivid, many decades later.
“The soldiers talked about their families. It was interesting because I could instantly understand what they were saying by seeing their family photos,” Lee said. “Visual aids do work!”
She recalls memorizing the names of the 50 states. She also remembers children’s songs in English.
“How I felt about the soldiers when I was learning things has become the gold standard of my own pedagogy for my soldier students. In my class, while I am teaching, I time travel back to that moment. There, I can reunite with the soldiers, only on the opposite side. Teaching is all about being together,” she explained.
Camp Page, also later known as K-47 Air Base, officially ended what turned out to be a 54-year mission in 2005. It had gained international renown in 1983 when a hijacked Chinese commercial flight was forced down at the base. The six defectors behind the hijacking were eventually resettled in Taiwan.
Lee does not know all the details of how she and her younger brother ended up at the orphanage, which remains in operation today. She was told that her father was executed by North Korean soldiers because “he was a landlord and that made him among the first priority for the communists to get rid of.” Later, the children were somehow separated from their mother.
Eventually they found themselves being driven to an orphanage by a U.S. soldier named John. He and other servicemembers at Camp Page frequently visited the children.
“We hardly understood what they were saying, yet we fully understood what they were trying to do for us. They were truly caretakers and caregivers,” Lee said.
Every Sunday, the children at the orphanage visited Camp Page where, Lee recalled, they were transported to “a heaven full of candies and cookies.” To this day, when she sees the candy brand from those Sundays—they continue be wrapped in the same packaging—she feels nostalgic.
She said the soldiers became her default family, softening the absence of her mother.
When Christmas rolled around each year, she remembers being amazed that “Santa already knew what I prayed for.” As an adult, she now recognizes that the Camp Page soldiers had been paying attention to the children’s interests and wishes. One of her favorite gifts was a bracelet from Santa.
“Santa, with big smile, in red, hugged me. I felt I was loved. How can I forget that moment?”
And the bracelet? “I still favor wearing it more than anything,” she said.
The orphanage was set up in a house that was ill-suited to accommodate a population of children. In particular, Lee said, bathing was a challenge because there were no shower facilities for the children. John and other Camp Page soldiers came to the rescue, erecting a white pavilion with multiple shower heads and clean water.
“It was exciting. We never stopped running around shouting and screaming. The memories are so vibrant,” Lee said.
She acknowledges that she did not understand the war unfolding around her. “The harsh reality of war never really sank into this little girl’s mind,” she said. “I firmly believed I was in good hands, and that the American soldiers were there to protect us.
“I did know that I ended up living in a city which was not my hometown, but I was too young to be homesick,” she added.
Following the war, a newspaper publicized a campaign to reunite parents with their children scattered all over the country. “Lots of kids gained contact from their parents and left the facility. I and my brother and few more kids were among the ones who failed to be found,” Lee said.
When she was 17, Lee decided to track down her mother. She took her first trip by bus back to Jecheon, the South Korean border city where she was taken at age 4. She figured it was a good starting point. She managed to find the house where she had lived, but there was no sign of her mother.
“We were spotted by a neighbor and he gave us directions to where she was. Long story short, we found mom!” Lee said. “[But] it was the most awkward moment in my life up to that point … We instantly realized that we were not welcome. That explained why we never had contact from her trying to find us.”
A Catholic priest encouraged Lee’s brother through high school. After graduation, Lee’s brother got a job, married, moved to Edmonton, Alberta, and became a Canadian citizen. Lee returned to the orphanage and eventually became an assistant nurse in a gynecology clinic run by the wife of the orphanage director.
“She was cold but an intelligent M.D., and I chose her as my mother over my real one,” Lee said. “My new mom motivated me to pursue a life of learning.”
Lee eventually married and had a son.
During her three decades at UMGC, Lee has used her childhood relationship with education to shape her teaching. Last year, she was one of only nine UMGC faculty members around the world to receive the Stanley J. Drazek Teaching Excellence Award, the highest honor the university bestows.
“I never stepped a foot into a regular school when I was a kid, and I did my GED all by myself. I know how hard it is to be a non-regular student, for I was the stereotype of it,” she explained. “Most of my students are soldiers. On the first day of class, I tell them, ‘I am ready to help you guys more than you guys do for yourself. Make some time, and I will be there wherever it is. This is my promise.’”
Lee’s son, who she said is supportive of her, lives in Seoul and knows how much teaching and her job at UMGC mean to her.
One evening in the fall semester of 2011, she taught her last class at Camp Page.
“We all went out of the classroom. Twinkling starts and a half moon were in the sky looking down on me, and it made me think of my childhood in this very place,” she said. “I see myself running and screaming in the shower, dancing and singing, a minister holding my hand and praying for me when I was sick, and a big fat Santa hugging me.
“My life started at Camp Page, and the last class was one grand finale of that chapter.”