Her classmates never knew the nightmare she'd endured.
Jeanhee Kang, now 55, moved to Midwest City in 1982 and enrolled at Rose State College, fulfilling a dream that had sustained her for years. The prospect of getting an American education, of becoming a success, was all that kept her going when the darkness around her drew too close.
Kang, who was then known as Chin Hui Isleib, kept quiet about her past. She was ashamed, embarrassed. If the other students knew what she'd done … well, she feared she'd be an outcast.
She'd been one before.
That was then. Today Kang is a successful businesswoman and the author of “Run Away: One Woman's Story of Resilience,” which recounts her desperate efforts to escape South Korea and make it on her own in America.
She will be signing copies of her book, written with the help of ghost writers due to her imperfect English, at 2 p.m. Sunday at Full Circle Books in Oklahoma City. As part of her trip, she has arranged also to speak to classes and sign books at Rose State. Kang shared her story in a series of email exchanges with The Oklahoman.
No longer keeping secrets, Kang is using her experiences to encourage other women that nightmares can turn into dreams.
Kang grew up in South Korea during the 1970s, a period of repressive political and social mores. Girls wore uniforms everywhere and weren't allowed to watch foreign films or go to coffee shops. They were supposed to remain chaste and untouched until they married someone chosen for them by a matchmaker.
Her life changed at age 15 when she embarrassed a boy she knew, she said in an email to The Oklahoman. Angry, he lied and told her parents that he'd seen her kissing a boy.
When she returned home, “my Dad slapped my face and called me a whore,” she wrote. “My Mom didn't stand up for me, either. Up to that point, I was near-perfect daughter.”
Crushed that her parents didn't believe her, wounded by their condemnation, she wept long into the night. Gradually her sorrow turned to anger. If she was to be treated like a trollop, perhaps she should act like one.
That night, she went to see a neighbor boy on the pretense of returning his copy of “War and Peace.” They began a relationship that continued until she became pregnant. She aborted the child but was expelled from school.
“My life was over!” she wrote. “I was … never to be able to undo my mistakes or make up in any way. Koreans gave up on me, and I was never going to be able to recover from it.”
She shaved her head, thinking that she would live among monks in the deep forest. But she worried they wouldn't accept her, so she turned her attention to escaping to America. She knew she had few options.
“Only way for me (to) come to America to go back to high school and to start my life over was to be a prostitute and find GI (who) would fall in love with me to marry me,” Kang wrote. “If there were other way, it was near-impossible dream.”
At 17, she allowed a pimp to sell her to a brothel near the U.S. Air Force's Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek City, she wrote. Within six months, she wrote, she convinced an American serviceman to marry her. They were wed in October of that year.
Building a new life
In 1975, the couple moved to the U.S., and she enrolled in high school, first in Missouri and then in Arizona.
This new world was like nothing she'd seen before. There seemed to be no rules. She could wear anything. Her teachers didn't use corporal punishment. Everything was amazing and wonderful … except the food.
“So greasy,” she wrote. “I wasn't used to it.”
She spoke little English, so school was difficult. Life at home wasn't great, either. Over the next several years, she wrote, she had children, got divorced, remarried, divorced again and was left to take care of her children alone.
A friend lived in Midwest City, so Kang moved there in 1982. She had no car and little money; her family survived on food stamps. But she walked to her classes at Rose State and graduated in May 1984 with an associate degree in elementary education.
“I felt I was vindicated,” she wrote. “What I had endured as (a) teenager was … a heavy burden on … my shoulder until I graduated from Rose State.”
Her life wasn't perfect — she said she suffered an abusive relationship after graduation, among other hardships — but she had reached a significant milestone.
Today she owns a company, Wedding by Muse, and plans events at a Mississippi country club. She legally changed her name from “Chin Hui” to “Jeanhee” so her name would be easier for her readers to pronounce.
She hopes to sell the movie rights to her book and is determined to see actress Lucy Liu cast in the lead role.
She is also working on another book. Its working title: “Run Away #2.”