Shared Stories: My Family's Journey to Korea and Manchuria

Seeking economic opportunity in the years before World War II, Nobuyo Avery’s father moved his family from Japan to Korea, and then to Manchuria. They did not return to Japan until the end of the war. In this piece, Nobuyo recalls bits and pieces of her childhood. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns

By Nobuyo Avery

Being a farmer’s second son, my father left home and worked as a salesman’s helper as young as age 13 or 14. He sold kimono and obi material, and he sold medicines, carrying a bag on his back and going from house to house. He thought he knew how to make money, but was unsuccessful in all the efforts he tried.

From early the early 1920’s to 1945 many Japanese people began searching for opportunities. Some Japanese moved to Hawaii, South and North America, Korea, and then Manchuria, seeking opportunities as farmers, businessmen, or engineers.  

My father dreamed to be rich making silk from the silkworms when he and other men went to Seoul, Korea, a new land for Japanese businessmen to prosper and succeed.  Our dad failed in the rice and charcoal shop and almost went bankrupt in business in Korea.  

Four of us were born in Seoul, Korea, and the fifth child, a boy, was born in Manchuria where we lived to the end of the Pacific War, or World War II.

Because my birthplace is not Japan but Seoul, Korea, I have been misunderstood and treated as if I were a Korean native. The U.S. government had to make sure that I was not a communist from North Korea when I came to the United States, asking me if I really was of Japanese nationality.

I often wondered why I must repeat that my parents are from Japan, and they happened to live in the foreign country. People did not understand that Korea and Manchuria were part of Japan until the end of World War II.

During the years in Seoul, Korea, my oldest sister remembers speaking in their language and playing with Korean children. She also recalls carrying brother on her back and babysitting for mom. Other people praised her for her works. I was too young to recall any of those years.

Recalling stories of my birth, I heard so many times my parents saying, “When you were born we were expecting a boy.” My oldest sister was 3 and another one was 2. My father must have been wishing for a boy. I had a complex that I should have been a boy for a long time.

It was common in those days to end girls’ names with “ko.” At the time of selecting my name, my dad had a new idea. “We named Yasuko and Jyunko, so the third daughter will be named Nobuyo instead of Nobuko.”  

The Chinese character “Nobu” is also pronounced “shin” or “shinjiru,” meaning: trust, faith, or believing. So I was stuck with the unusual name Nobuyo.

I was a very healthy baby and sucked my thumb for comfort. This habit lasted until I was age 8. One brother was born when I was 15 months old. Mom was really busy with the newborn and caring for three daughters besides helping her husband’s business in selling charcoal and rice. I am sure that my thumb helped me to sleep and calm me down.  

My oldest sister comments, “When you were a baby, you sat quietly with the dirty diaper without crying.” I did not fuss or complain when I was wet or messy, knowing that mother was too busy with caring for younger brother or customers in the shop. What a good baby I was!

My father decided to move to the new land Manchuria and open a new business. We moved from Korea to Hoten, Manchuria, when we were 5, 4, 2, and 1 years old. I cannot help but wonder how difficult it was for our parents to move with four little ones. Our youngest brother was born when I was 4.  

The winter in Hoten is very cold. After it snowed, there were piles of snow on the sidewalks here and there, and they were frozen solid.

One fine day young children were using the mound of snow piles as play areas, climbing and sliding. I joined them for fun, but my leg slipped and my face fell on sharply frozen snow that cut deeply above my right eyebrow. I was maybe 4 or 5 years old. How upset and worried my parents were to see my face covered with blood!

Mother must have used iodine after washing my wound with hydrogen peroxide to let it heal naturally. That was the first aid kit for her. I have a scar today to remember that accident.

Recently I met a Korean woman whose father was a successful silkworm businessman in the 1940’s. My father could have been a pioneer in this silkworm business.