Ada Kim: Voyager. Mother. Polyglot. Kindheart. Born Jan. 10, 1930, in Harbin, Manchuria (now China); died March 19, 2019, in Vancouver, of heart and stroke issues; aged 89.
Ada Kim was the daughter of ethnic Koreans born in Russia who fled the Russian Revolution and initially settled in Manchuria. Ada had a rich and varied education. Despite the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Ada’s father managed to enroll her in Tientsin’s French convent school where the nuns taught in English. However, in Grade 5 she had to go to a Japanese school. The same year, her mother died, and she was cared for by a Russian nanny and then a Chinese amah. In 1943, when she was 13, her father sent her to a girls’ school in Seoul, Korea. (Ada had a fond memory of sneaking into the dean’s library to read a purloined copy of The Forsyte Saga.)
Ada picked up languages easily and was especially fluent in Russian, English and Korean. (When she was 77 and lying semi-comatose in the hospital, the doctor learned Ada’s first language was Russian. He addressed her loudly in the language and she sat bolt upright.)
During the Korean War, when Ada was in her early 20s, she fled to Cheju island and later Pusan where she treated living in a farmer’s shed as an adventure. In Pusan she worked briefly as a translator for the American military before moving to their publications department. It was there that she met Max Kim – and spilt ink on his pants. “I was so embarrassed and didn’t know what to say," she wrote in a biography for her family. "After that, I tried to avoid him. But maybe that’s what drew his attention to me.”
Ada and Max wed in 1956, and were married for 48 years until his death in 2004. In 1968, they left Seoul for Canada to secure a better life for their three children, Peter, Kyong-ae and Camie. They arrived in Edmonton and headed to Fort McMurray, Alta., where Max had a job. Ada wrote: “We found ourselves in the wilderness and I was looking at the tall pine trees stretching all along the lonely road. It was awesome and beautiful. So, this is Canada, I thought. And I loved it."
A year later, Max was offered a job in Vancouver and the family packed up their old GM Beaumont, bursting with sleeping bags at their feet, a two-foot-high teddy bear, luggage on the roof rack and camping gear in the trunk. Hitchhikers waved them by.
Ada worked as a bank secretary and she loved to hike with Max, play the piano, read, do crossword puzzles, knit and bake. Her freezer was always stocked with homemade pumpkin loaves that she distributed to all. She was kind without fanfare: Meeting friends at a coffee shop, she often brought a boiled egg for the homeless man outside the shop.
Ada could be overprotective, scolding her children, even as adults, over something she deemed too risky, such as heading to an unfamiliar part of the city without knowing where to park beforehand. But she also nurtured her children’s interests, and when her daughters backpacked solo all over the world, she never protested and kept her worries to herself.
Ada approached the world with a mischievous air, but gently and never meanly. She is loved and missed.
Kyong-ae Kim and Camie Kim are Ada’s daughters.
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