'What is important is that I survived': South Korean adoptee describes his journey to US
Editor's Note: November is National Adoption Month. This is the fourth in a series of articles exploring adoptions in the Berkshires.
PITTSFIELD -- The boy who would become a man named Thomas Park Clement was born in the height of the Korean War, the son of a Korean woman and an American military man.
When he was 4 1/2 years old, his mother dressed him in a coat and hat and told him to look down the road in one direction and to never look back.
Biracial offspring, though many in numbers, were shunned after the war. Alone on the streets near Seoul, South Korea, he roamed.
"There were small groups of children who supported each otherŠ I had no idea how long I was on the streets," said the man.
Recently, the man who said he knew only 25 English words when he was found by an orphanage and later adopted by a family in the United States captivated an audience of nearly 60 people at Berkshire Community College.
Today, Clement has found many victories: He is the president and CEO of a medical device manufacturing company, Mectra Labs Inc., in Bloomfield, Ind. He is an inventor who holds 37 medical patents, with six others pending. He and his wife, Wonsook Kim, own Truepeny Publishing Company (truepeny.com), which helps adoptees publish their stories. He and his company have also done much philanthropic humanitarian and medical work in Korea. He also still finds time to play guitar with his rock band, and a director, Jackie Choi, created a documentary film about him.
In his 2012 biography, "Dust of the Streets: The Journey of a Biracial Orphan of the Korean War," Clement writes that the details of his origins -- his parents, his racial heritage, his birth date -- are not important.
"What is important is that I survived. I survived because there were people who loved me and protected me at certain critical times of my life," he said.
Among the very first people to demonstrate to him that critical expression of love were his adoptive parents, June and Richard Clement.
It was 1958, and Clement was approximately 6 years old. Though he had boarded a plane to safety, flying from Korea to a New York state airport, there would be other challenges to face.
"I boarded that plane and [had] fallen asleep in one country. When I arrived in New York, it's like I woke up stupid. I could no longer understand anyone, and no one could understand me," he said.
Three months after Thomas arrived in the U.S., the Clement family -- which included siblings Carolyn, Richard Jr. and Leslie -- moved from North Carolina to Mountain Drive in Pittsfield. Richard Clement was an executive at General Electric.
Thomas Park Clement struggled with academics from his early days at Williams Elementary School when neighbor Dorothy Van den Honert helped by tutoring him, until he went to Berkshire Community College and met Professor Woody Prince -- all of which is detailed in his book.
"Here I was in first grade, a kid who had spent his days running wild in the streets of South Korea, who was now expected to be sitting at a desk all day. I couldn't sit still. I was all over the place. I must've been cute though, because I made it to second grade," Clement told the audience at BCC.
Though, as he grew older, he found his own likes -- nature, science, athletics and rock ‘n' roll -- Clement said he maintained an inferiority complex. He would make electronic devices out of parts he found discarded in a GE dumpster, yet his combined SAT test scores in high school amounted to a 540.
Clement said a pivotal point in his life and newfound confidence came during Prince's experimental psychology classes, where he had the freedom to conduct experiments and was encouraged to speak his mind in class.
"He told me I was intelligent. About 40 years later, I realized he was right," Clement said.
Clement says orphans and adoptees can carry a sense of inferiority, abandonment and disregard for a long time. Though he didn't mention it during his presentation, his wife told The Eagle that Clement mentors and counsels many adoptees.
"A lot of adoptees have a sense of feeling alone and being an outsider," she said. But giving them a chance to share their stories can help adoptees grow and discover self-worth.
"It's important for them to have that kind of journey," said Kim, who Clement often credits along with his family for supporting him along his own way.
In his book, Clement writes: "Throughout my life in America, my father always said to me, ‘Tom, try to be the very best you can be; do that and we will support you 100 percent.' It was the knowledge of this kind of commitment from my adoptive family that has allowed me to flourish as a human being."
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