Zhen E Rammelsberg

These were Zhen E’s shoes when she arrived to the United States as a toddler.

Subscribe to Corridor Characters

Searching for an identity

One evening in late January 1974, a toddler was abandoned in a barn in Anyang City just south of Seoul, South Korea. She was discovered at approximately 11:30 p.m. by the Lee family who lived on the farm where the barn was situated.

According to the Holt International adoption agency, the little girl had a sign affixed to her clothing with her name and birth date. If the information is correct, the toddler had just turned 2-years old, two days before she was discovered in the barn.

Two scenarios seem most likely as to why the little girl was abandoned. Her family might have had other children and couldn’t afford to care for another one. Or, she was the child of a single parent, born out of wedlock, which was illegal in South Korea in the 1970s. It was also illegal to abandon one’s own child, so the parent or parents would need someone else to take the child to the police station.

The Lees did take the little girl to the Anyang City police station and the mayor declared the child abandoned. She was turned over to Holt International adoption agency where she was placed in foster care until an adoption could be arranged.

A short time later, a couple in Newhall, Iowa, were sent photos from Holt of two little girls who needed families. One was from Africa and the other from South Korea. The couple had a biological son and wanted to adopt a daughter.

The father remarked that the tiny Korean girl staring at them from the black and white photo looked so sad. But the mother knew instantly that she was her baby. In August 1974, the little girl arrived in the United States from South Korea and became part of Curtis and Joan McCallum’s family. The couple named her “Jenny,” the name of two maternal great-grandmothers.

Idyllic – until it wasn’t

About three years later, Joan, a school librarian, and Curtis, a teacher, moved to Van Horne, Iowa, to raise their family. Today, Jenny is Zhen E Rammelsberg (Zhen E is pronounced the same as Jenny). Looking back over her childhood, she says her parents created a wonderful environment for her to grow up in.

“I was raised with Midwest values where hard work, discipline and education are valued,” she said. “Early on, my mom recognized my interest in the arts and fostered that. I learned to play the piano and sew at an early age, and she would take me to theater productions.”

For most of her formative years, Zhen E was the only Asian and non-white person in her school and community. Initially, she didn’t feel different because everyone knew her adoption story. But when she got to high school and her world began to broaden outside of the small town, she was startled by the assumptions people made about her.

Her family had blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin. Her older brother was tall and looked like their father. People had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that Zhen E was a member of the McCallum family. Some assumed she couldn’t speak English and directed questions to her mother like, “Where is she from?” and “What is her story?”

Others complimented Zhen E on how well she spoke English and asked her how long she had lived in the United States.

Around the age of 16, she wanted to start dating like her friends but no guys – who were all white – would ask her out. In college, she encountered a reverse situation from guys who she said had yellow fever – they would only seek out young Asian women to date – which she said was just as bad of an experience.

“For the most part, my youth was wonderful and idyllic – until it wasn’t,” she remarked. “I used to pray I wouldn’t look Asian. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want anything to do with Asian culture. I wanted to look American and I wanted all things American.”

The turning points

These feelings would stay with Zhen E until she was about 35-years old. Then, a conversation with her son, Jordan, who is half Asian and half white, began to spark a change of heart. Jordan was about 16 and filling out a job application and had to check a box regarding his ethnicity. Zhen E asked Jordan if he thought of himself as more Asian or more white. His enthusiastic response was, “Asian, because I have kind of a cool Asian mom.”

It was an eye-opening moment for Zhen E as she wondered why her son was proud to be Asian, and she wasn’t.

“I realized my son had more Asian role models than I had growing up,” she said. “In the ’70s and ’80s, there was no one in my family, in my school, on TV, in the movies or on magazine covers who looked like me. When I went to college, I wanted to study broadcast journalism because Connie Chung (former network news reporter and anchor) was the only high profile Asian person in the country then.”

About five years after her conversation with Jordan, her personal journey continued when she attended Coe College. In a Sex, Race and Gender class, she wrote a number of essays delving into the racism that affected her life and the anger and hurt she was feeling. It was a cathartic experience.
“It’s taken me a long time to be ok with being Korean,” she said.

One of her first steps was to legally change the spelling of her first name from Jenny to Zhen E. Zhen is a Korean word that means “beautiful.”

In search of her birth family

Zhen E also finally acquiesced to her husband, Robert’s encouragements to travel to South Korea to try to find her birth parents and other relatives. Zhen E, Robert and Jordan traveled to Seoul in August 2016, and the couple returned to the city last May.

The search for her birth family, however, has been like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. There is no documentation of her birth, and Holt’s adoption records from the 1970s are virtually non-existent.

The Lee family who found Zhen E could be key to providing her with information about the people who left her in that barn more than 40 years ago. The Rammelsbergs went to Anyang City to the area where they were told the barn and farm were once located, but found neither. And they’ve not been successful, yet, in finding any members of the Lee family.

Zhen E continues to work with Holt and several other organizations like 325Kamra through which she did a DNA test. The results from that test turned up a list of people who could be her cousins. She plans to upload the data from her test results to search other sites.

“I’ve been told my birth parents are probably no longer living. But I’ve always had the feeling I have siblings out there somewhere,” she said. “And there is a medical possibility I might be a twin. I would like to find any siblings or other relatives.”

In a good place

Here in the Corridor, Zhen E continues to embrace her Asian heritage. She wore her hanbok, a traditional Korean women’s dress to an international tea event at the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids. And she has a role in an upcoming one act play, “A Thousand Cranes.” The play features all Asian cast members and is to be performed at Uptown Bill’s Coffee House and Neighborhood Arts Center in Iowa City.

The irony is not lost on her that at the time she’s become comfortable with who she is, our country is divided over what Americans look like, who are good Americans and who are bad, and who should be welcome in our country. But Zhen E sees more people standing up and speaking out against racist comments and acts today, as opposed to when she was growing up. That, she sees, as a positive change.

As for herself, she’s in a good place now.

“There are different definitions of Asian, and I didn’t have to be raised in the culture to embrace the type of Asian I am. I’m happy with who I am.”

Subscribe to Corridor Characters

Story by Annette Busbee, Photos by Sarah Bozaan