News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 12, 2010

Mark Bennett: Story of Jeannie Ji’s journey puts human face on link between Korea, America

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Americans read, watch and hear news reports of the tension on a peninsula surrounded by the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea.

That land is split into two countries — high-tech economic power South Korea (officially the Republic of Korea), and its mysterious, communist neighbor North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Many Americans’ knowledge of those places is limited — based, perhaps, on little more than “M*A*S*H” reruns.

For Jeannie Ji, North Korea is the country her parents fled on foot through the bombs and gunfire at the height of the Korean war. Her mother carried the smallest of their 11 children in her arms, and Jeannie in her womb. South Korea is the country where the Ji family settled after walking 100 treacherous miles, sporadically because of the conflict, from 1951 until 1952. Along the way, three of Jeannie’s siblings died from gunfire. Bullets also riddled her mother’s leg, and she often pulled shrapnel from the scars throughout the rest of her life.

Her mother taught her toughness. She died when Jeannie was 18 years old. Jeannie’s father gave her wisdom and a strong work ethic. She was just 13 when he died. Both parents always put the needs of others above their own. Always.

Jeannie left South Korea in 1972 as a 19-year-old, settling first in Robinson, Ill., and later in Terre Haute. Today, she’s a successful businesswoman, owner of Jeannie’s Galleria, a Terre Haute store, specializing in electronics and appliances, as well as high-end home furnishings and interior design.

Her youth in Korea, though, still shapes her outlook and approach to life. Jeannie has revealed her difficult journey in a frank, poignant autobiography, “Butterfly,” published and released last month by AuthorHouse. It attaches a human face on the connection between Korea and the United States with unvarnished narratives of her experiences.

Two-hundred and 50 people showed up to her book signing last month in Terre Haute, nearly 150 more than she expected. Many old friends and acquaintances from Robinson and Terre Haute already had read “Butterfly.” “They said, ‘I feel like I really know you now, Jeannie,’” she said. “And they all said, ‘I had no idea.’”

Her story is an eye-opener, but not only through her depiction of life in Korea in the 1950s and ’60s. Her first encounters in the United States culture can tell Americans a lot about themselves, too. With high expectations of this country and its people, she quickly discovered the human flaws and frailties also present in the U.S. She worked in a blue-collar setting at a Robinson factory, saving money to fulfill her father’s wish for her to go to an American college and learn piano, while struggling to understand the slang and vices of her co-workers.

The daughter of a Buddhist mother and a Christian father in Korea eventually became a Jew in America, and a U.S. citizen.

The clash of cultures is familiar to Jeannie.

In “Butterfly,” she writes:

“I am always different, no matter where I am. When I am in Korea, I am not Korean. (Korean people agree, as they think I do not look or act like a Korean.) When I am in Indiana and Illinois, I do not look or speak like an American. When I am in a Jewish community, I still do not fit in. But I am still Jeannie. That is who I am.”

Much of that identity comes from her parents, particularly her father. That name, Jeannie, is one example. Her birth name was Jong Oak, which was amended three months later to Jong Wan, meaning “perfect complete.” Then, as a teenager, she qualified for the Olympic Trials as a high jumper, hoping to make the South Korean national team. After their first train ride ever, to Seoul, she and her father stayed in a motel, and watched the American comedy “I Dream of Jeannie” on TV.

Her father shouted, “That is you; you are the Jeannie!” He liked the character’s humor, innocence and confidence, and wanted his daughter to have those same qualities. The name stuck.

Jeannie hasn’t forgotten her roots, even after nearly 40 years in the U.S., where she raised her family, learned American customs and opened businesses in Robinson, Terre Haute and, recently, Las Vegas. She returns regularly to South Korea to visit her mother’s mountaintop grave. Her father was buried on the family’s farm, which he’d purchased from his best friend, using only a handshake as a receipt, Jeannie explained. When her father’s friend died, his children reclaimed the farm and wanted Jeannie’s father’s grave moved. Unable to pay for reburial, Jeannie and her brother had their father’s remains cremated and scattered the ashes in the Yim Jen River, where he and Jeannie used to fish together.

That’s where the butterfly comes in.

When her father, Ji Keum Young, died in 1966, Jeannie’s mother, Seo Ha Ok, conducted a Buddhist ceremony to learn what he would be in his next life, according to that religion’s beliefs. They were told he would become a butterfly. Jeannie refused to believe it.

Years later, when Jeannie’s oldest son was a first-grader, he asked about his grandfather. “He is a butterfly,” Jeannie quickly answered. That spring, a butterfly flew into the house, and the boy screamed, “Grandpa is here!”

Now, the sight of a butterfly makes her feel as if he’s alive and speaking to her.

Through her early years in the U.S., she often dreamed about her father’s wish for Jeannie to bring her younger brother, In Ge, to America, too. She worked tirelessly to fulfill that hope, writing President Jimmy Carter numerous times until finally connecting with Carter and succeeding in 1979. (Her brother and his family continue to live with Jeannie, who is now divorced and a grandmother.)

“As soon as In Ge came here, my father never came into my dreams again, except as a butterfly,” Jeannie said, smiling as she sipped coffee last week in a southside Terre Haute restaurant.

He’s never far from her thoughts, though.

“You become who your parents are, and you don’t even know it,” she said. “And as I get older, I realize I’m like my father.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or