Coming to America Saved My Life: A People Editor's Immigration Story
This story was originally published on January 31, 2017.
I am an immigrant. I was born in a part of the world most Americans once deemed dangerous and untrustworthy. Yet on Oct. 8, 1969, I flew from Seoul, Korea to Chicago, Illinois, and was welcomed planeside at O’Hare Airport by my mom (my dad was home in Iowa with my four older siblings). My parents, Gervin and Georgene Green, were as unique as their names, and were early adopters, so to speak.
Mom and Dad — with an assist from Congress — saved my life.
In January 1969, I was abandoned in the doorway of an empty building in Seoul, Korea. I was blessed with healthy lungs, even as a days-old infant and passersby heard me screaming and called the police, who took me to a local hospital. I spent the first four months of my life in that medical center, fighting infection after infection, before being placed in an orphanage. After six months in an overcrowded and unsanitary shelter, where infants slept on mats on the ground, not in cribs, I developed a severe staph infection. By the time my guardian (a fellow adoptee, age 7) and I boarded the plane to Chicago, I had boils from head to toe, and weighed 12 lbs. at 9 months old.
I was hardly the adorable infant most adoptive parents get to take home. Instead of going to my new home in Mason City, Iowa, I was immediately admitted for emergency care. Doctors told my parents I would not have survived for two more weeks without hospitalization. I was, to say the least, lucky.
Mary Green’s mother, Georgene Green, sweeping her off the plane at O’hare airport on Oct. 8, 1969
In 1965, the United States was entering into yet another war, this time in Vietnam. It was the country’s third extended military conflict in Asia in 30 years. Americans were not feeling particularly warm toward Asians, yet that year Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, to end discriminatory immigration practices based on national origin. It was not even possible to adopt an infant from the region until 1955, when both houses of Congress passed the Holt Bill legalizing it. In 1969, with the United States embroiled in Vietnam, had President Richard Nixon issued an executive order trying to supersede those Congressional acts, I would not have survived.
Instead, I was welcomed into a loving home, growing up with four older siblings (Jude, Joe, Tom and Chris) and one younger one (Therese, who is also adopted), where I was nurtured and given a chance to thrive. Like almost all minorities I’ve faced racism — been punched, kicked, denied service — but those times taught me to fight for equality.
My parents were devout Catholics who heard via their parish that many Korean orphans were in need of homes. They were staunchly conservative Republicans who believed in racial and religious equality above all else. They felt it was the duty of all human beings, not just Americans, to open their hearts, their borders, and their communities to those in need.
As a naturalized American citizen I have had the good fortune to be surrounded by exceptional — not rich, not famous, but smart, talented and compassionate — people who have always supported me. I have traveled from Iowa to New York City to work for PEOPLE magazine, to the south of France to cover the Cannes Film Festival, to Africa, where I witnessed a 5-year-old boy die because he could not receive a $1 shot, to Los Angeles for the Academy Awards, and to Ground Zero to cover the worst terrorist attack our country ever suffered. I’ve had the privilege of meeting everyone from Princess Diana and JFK Jr. to Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie, and reported on everyone from Pope Francis to Presidents Clinton through Trump.
My favorite stories by far, however, are about people who beat overwhelming odds. Of the hundreds I’ve worked on in my career, the two that stand out most are of a young Iowa girl who survived two heart transplants before the age of 10, and impoverished villagers in Malawi who turned drought-stricken barren land into a sub-Saharan oasis with help from Dr. Jeffrey Sachs.
In one of the final lucid conversations my dad and I ever had before he died from dementia, he said he knew it wasn’t always easy for me to grow up being one of the few Asian-Americans in town. “But we did the best we could for you,” he said. “And look at you now.” Thank you, America.