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Julie Henning discusses her journey through life with Pearl S. Buck

by Lori Goldstein

Julie Henning has recently published her autobiography, “A Rose in a Ditch,” the title referring to the fact that Julie, or Sooni as she was known in her native South Korea, was bloomed like a rose, somehow surviving the poverty which her mother and she suffered. 

Julie was only 14-years-old when Pearl S. Buck, the world-famous author of “The Good Earth,” asked her if she would like to come to America to be raised as her daughter. 

Julie did not have to think twice.

Her mother, Umma, had recently taken her own life to increase Julie’s chances of being adopted. 

Theirs was a life of subsistence in South Korea, with Umma often having to place Julie in orphanages primarily for her to be fed.

Umma knew that Julie would have a difficult future, because as the mixed-race child of an American G.I. father and a Korean mother, she would always be discriminated against by Koreans, who scoffed at Amerasian children.

Nonetheless, as the top student out of 600 in an all-girls’ school in Seoul, Julie earned her right to be rescued by the Nobel- and Pulitzer-prize winning writer. 

When I asked Julie to compare Umma to “Mother Pearl,” as Julie calls her, she told me that Umma “was a very intelligent woman. While she did not have book knowledge, she had such common sense. She knew what it was like to not have education, and therefore she aspired for me to have education.” 

Julie’s love for Mother Pearl was different: “At first it started as a child desperately needing a mother, I clung to her. As time went by I sensed that I was a comfort, a constant for her, and she showed me much affection and love.”

When I pointed out that even Mother Pearl, in her late seventies, acknowledged that she was more like a grandmother than a mother, Julie pointed out that she herself is a grandmother right now. “I love my grandchildren to pieces, and that intimate, caring relationship is what I had with Mother Pearl.” 

A typical day would involve Mother Pearl maintaining her daily discipline of writing from 9:00am to noon, after which she and Julie shared their “special lunches,” just the two of them. 

She tells me that Mother Pearl loved gardening, especially roses (ironically), and found weeding a mindless yet enjoyable way to relax.  “She taught me the love of gardening,” says Julie. “When I am outside working, I feel like that’s when I don’t have to think. I just enjoy the present moment of digging in the dirt. This was a gift Mother Pearl gave me.” 

I asked her what it was like to communicate with Mother Pearl, who did not speak Korean, when she first came to live at Green Hills Farm in Perkasie. 

Julie had been taught a year of rudimentary English in South Korea.

She knew how to write the English alphabet and say common phrases like “This is a pen” and “Thank you.” 

She fondly remembers the time when she asked Mother Pearl to sign a permission slip for a field trip to the zoo [which Julie pronounced as “joo”]. “Finally I said ‘animal house,’ and we both had a good laugh.” 

Julie sees Mother Pearl as a woman ahead of her time. 

She had spent 40 years living in China as the daughter of missionary parents. 

Her blond hair and blue eyes were a signal that she did not fit in. “I am from the East and from the West, just like Mother,” Julie writes in her book. 

Seeing the discrimination against Amerasian children, Mother Pearl established schools in several Asian countries so that mixed-race children could, through education, become productive citizens in their own countries. 

Julie tells me about the time that Mother Pearl attended a White House dinner in 1962 as a Nobel Prize honoree.

When she and President Kennedy discussed the situation between Japan and Korea, she explained to him the tensions between the two peoples, due to the 36 years of colonization of Korea by the Japanese people before World War II. “Mother Pearl understood the minds of Asian people and the minds of Americans,” Julie told me. “So when you have that good view of both sides, your understanding is deeper and more meaningful.  Even the way Mother Pearl talked about women’s role in society made her a woman ahead of her time.”

Julie’s autobiography reveals that even in elementary school, she knew, as Umma taught her, that education would be the key to her future. 

With an aptitude for mathematics, she worked for 25 years as a middle-school math teacher in the Souderton Area school district.

Her husband, Doug Henning, also taught on her team then became a pastor. 

Together they initiated a weekly Bible study program.

Julie is a deeply spiritual woman, who explains, “Galileo said mathematics is an alphabet in which God has written the universe.  Everything is mathematical, even now with this coronavirus, the predictions, the graphs. Each and every one of us is the alphabet God uses to write the history of grace and redemption. I wonder what, after all of this subsides, will be the lessons we have learned.” 

The first time that Julie returned to her homeland was in 2001, when Pearl S. Buck International (PBSI) asked her to present their Woman of the Year Award to Madame Lee He Ho, the wife of South Korea’s president. “I felt the joy of my mother’s love, the pain of rejection by some and yet, the goodness of people abounded everywhere,” she writes in her book. 

She told me, “I truly believe I am a product of God’s amazing grace in my life and also the generosity of so many people who have helped me, I did not get here on my own.” When I pointed out that she was a very strong person to have dealt with all that happened in her life, especially the loss of Umma, she said she saw that strength in her mother, she learned by her example. “I think about how many children like me still struggle in many Asian countries and even in America. My prayer is that I will be able to advocate more for the needs of the children.”

Julie has been a tenacious advocate – speaking to more than 350 churches and civic organizations, to schools beginning at the elementary level and up through to universities – about her life story and the extant discrimination against Amerasian children. 

Throughout her teaching years, she has taken 3,000-some students on a field trip to Green Hills Farm, which is now a national landmark.

In 1983, PBSI asked her to speak at Carnegie Hall. “That night, I prayed and hoped that there would be a better understanding about the plight of Amerasians,” Julie writes, “and that people in America would actively work to make our Amerasian lives better either here in America, or Korea.” She was also asked by PBSI’s director to testify at a Congressional hearing regarding the approval of the 1987 Amerasian Homecoming Act, which made it easier for Amerasians to immigrate to this country. 

There is no mystery as to why Julie Henning has been awarded PBSI’s 2020 Woman of Influence Award; she has been their unparalleled ambassador. 

With the publication of “A Rose in a Ditch,” available through Amazon, and its upcoming translation into Korean, Julie has much to be thankful for, and much to celebrate. 

That’s why she will likely be baking one of her favorite recipes – Pennsylvania Dutch “Funny Cake” Pie – which to her is inspired by a verse from the Bible: “Not all things are good, but all things will work together for good.”

Substitute the word ‘ingredients’ for ‘things,’ and you will understand the reference. 

In one bowl mix: 

½ c. sugar 

¼ c. cocoa powder 

½ c. hot water 

½ tsp. vanilla 

In a second bowl mix: 

1 egg 

1 c. sugar 

¼ c. oil 

1 c. flour 

1 tsp. baking powder 

½ tsp. salt 

½ c. milk 

½ tsp. vanilla 

In a ready-made piecrust, pour in mixture from first bowl. Sprinkle a handful or two of chocolate chips. Spoon in mixture from second bowl. Bake at 375 degrees for 45 minutes. 

PHOTO CAP: Julie Henning (left) with “Mother Pearl”

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