by Shim Hyun-chul
By Lee Hyo-won
Adopted by a loving American family at the age of six in 1979, Aaron Bates returned to Korea as an American soldier and began a search for his birth family. Years later, Bates was finally able to reunite with his biological father, who was a death row inmate.
But the fact that his father was a murderer did not bother him.
"Love never fails, love conquers all", the adoptee told The Korea Times Tuesday at a Seoul hotel, while visiting for the release of the film inspired by his story "My Father"
, starring Daniel Henney
and Kim Young-chul.
"I try to see everything on the positive side. I couldn't wait to spend time with (my father). I said, well, this could be my last time. I didn't want to waste a golden opportunity", said the devout Christian, recalling the time he was about to see his father for the first time in 2000.
In 2003, a KBS documentary entitled "My Father"
touched the hearts of many as it traced Bates' search. The film version has fictionalized parts "but it captures the essence of my life", he said after watching the film for the first time Tuesday evening.
"The only thing I asked (the makers of the film) is that they show the utmost respect to my father, to the victim's family, to my family and to have those positive results like adoption works, family values and love.
"The movie was truly heartfelt; I don't cry often but I choked up", he said. "It was fantastic". Bates met Daniel Henney
for the first time Tuesday evening and said "He's not just a pretty face. He's very emotional in his role, he really thinks about his role and really understands… The two actors (Daniel Henney
and Kim Young-chul) were exceptional… The other actors are very important too, like the guy who plays So-young (Kim In-kwon
"I'm still in awe this is really happening. It's a great privilege", he said. "I hope (the movie) does wonders, not so much financially, but transmitting the message about love, forgive and forget, and you don't need to be blood to be part of a family", he said.
"Growing up, I was blessed in everything. It was just like being part of a (normal) family... When you love someone so much you don't see what their eyes, skin color are like. I'll never get rid of my skin color, my eyes… But if someone's really that keen about it, it bothers them, then I just don't associate with them. Those people are biased and they have their own prison _ they can't look outside the box", he said.
In the movie, James Parker could no longer date his Caucasian girlfriend because her parents thought he was "different". Bates, too, broke up with a girlfriend because she did not want mixed-race children.
While stationed in the Unites States army base here, Bates was assisted by his KATUSA (Korean Augmentation Troops to the U.S. Army) buddy Kim So-young (personified on screen by Kim In-kwon
) to search for his family.
Kim also flew in from Canada for the movie premiere, and Bates said the character Joseph, modeled after his friend in the film (Kim In-kwon
), impressed him.
After Bates had left Korea and was undergoing special training in Washington, he received news about his biological father. He had to wait a few months to meet his father, until his training ended and he got special permission from the army to return to Korea.
Before the reunion the two corresponded through letters. Bates knew his father was in prison, but it was en route to the reunion, at the Gwangju train station, that he learned his father was on death row. "It was shocking. Yes, he is a murderer. But we have a story because of our situation. I want to emphasize, though, that (the movie) is not about him. It's more about the relationship", he said.
"When people dwell in the past, it consumes you", said Bates, an optimist who does not feel anger about past evils. "The fact that I could see my dad, that I could hold him, knowing that my search was not in vain, and if he died tomorrow, if he were executed tomorrow, I was very satisfied to know that I was able to hold my father. Not only for my sense of self-gratification, also for (my father).
"(My father) is in prison, he's in despair". Bates explained that the man suffers "two imprisonments" from his own guilt and physical detention. "But now he has hope. If I were in that situation, I would love to see my son for the last time, and knowing that everything's OK".
depicts the reunion, as it was in real life, a hectic affair with incessant camera flashes and reporters asking the bewildered young man to bow to the father in the traditional style, hug him and say I love you'.
"Yes, it was (theatrical)… But looking at the bright side of things, if it weren't for (the media) I wouldn't have been able to hold my dad for the first time; it would have been behind the glass". The media attention allowed the two to meet in a special room.
Yet, the KBS documentary also revealed a DNA test that showed Bates was not biologically related to his father. Bates' father Seo was married to Bates' biological mother at the time she gave birth to him. Although the two may not be blood-related, Bates said, "When you love someone so much, it really doesn't matter".
"I went to see my father (last Monday), but they wouldn't let me, saying I'm not his real son". Fortunately, before leaving Korea in 2001, Bates had listed his name under the family registrar. Only when he presented the paperwork did the prison grant his visit. "Everything happens for a reason", he said.
When asked about what enabled him to share his extraordinary yet very private story, Bates said, it was so that he could "share with people… My life is beautiful. I'm an adopted kid, I have a loving family, adoption works, to give hope to kids like me. The media is a very powerful tool".
Bates has been out of the military since 2002, and now works as an insurance agent. Bates' incredible life experience does not end with "My Father"
. The man stands firmly on two feet despite suffering a disc problem last year, which usually results in one being confined to a wheelchair. He lives in Arizona with his wife and nine-month-old son.