In an earlier post in which I used Korean food as a metaphor for my
journey to figure out how to blend my Korean, Adopted and American
identites together, someone referred to this essay which I’d written a
few years earlier.
This piece was originally published in Transcultured magazine (published by Also-Known-As in New York) in 2000, shortly after I returned from my first trip back to Korea since my adoption in 1971.
On the airplane from Los Angeles to Seoul, Korea they
served Bibimbop for lunch. Thin slices of beef, seaweed, carrots,
cucumbers and other vegetables neatly placed in separate piles in a
bowl and served with a side dish of rice and tubes of sesame oil and
hot pepper paste. It was the first time it hit me that I was actually
on a plane, on my way to South Korea, to search for my birth family.
For months it didn’t seem real, even as I received my airline tickets in the mail, or read the Lonely Planet’s Guide to Korea,
or began eating kimchee and mandu at the Shilla Restaurant near my
house in preparation. I was like a bride planning her wedding day, with
little thought to the emotions I would feel once the big night was over
and reality sets in. Instead, I was so excited at being served Korean
food that I took a picture of it, to the humor of my Korean seatmate,
and followed his example as he dumped the rice in the bowl, added the
oil and hot pepper paste and mixed it up.
I had prepared myself to be shocked by Seoul and Korea. I thought
the senses would overwhelm me. I’d heard that other adoptees had
experienced long lost memories when they smelled certain foods or
recognized buildings or sounds. Maybe such things will happen to me, I thought.
But instead, I was surprised by how ordinary I felt.
As I walked down the streets, I thought my past would be pasted on my forehead – a big A for Adoptee.
There were little things caught my notice- standing in the "Foreigner"
line at customs, the loud way we laughed compared to the quiet demeanor
of the Koreans we were with, the traffic – but nothing about being in
Korea was making me feel unwelcome or uncomfortable.
I felt comfortable in my skin.
Whether noticed by the others in my group or not, I had a lot of
ambivalent feelings about searching for my family. While I told virtual
strangers – people at the Y where I work out, parents in the
parent-child classes I attend, friends of friends – I kept most of the
birth search plans quiet to my family members, especially my adoptive
parents. It’s not that I questioned my feelings towards them, but I was concerned about their feelings.
My parents have never openly supported my desire to connect with my
Korean-ness, not that they were forcefully against it either. It was
never discussed, even when I would point out magazine or newspaper
articles about a Korean Adoptee meeting their birth family. To my
knowledge they never read those articles, they certainly never
discussed them. Their feelings are that I’m American, raised American
and I should be satisfied to be American. Or maybe they were just
waiting for me to bring it up. My mother recently told me about a
co-worker whose 19 year old adopted Korean son was having "problems".
"Like you, he was never interested in being Korean until recently," she
I know she is referring to an incident that happened when I was
about four or five years old. My parents tell me I would cry whenever a
Korean person would try to talk to me. First of all, I didn’t know real
Koreans existed in the very Caucasian suburb I grew up in. Second,
since I was adopted at almost three years old, maybe I was scared they
would take me back to the orphanage – I doubt I was trying at that age
to "deny" my heritage. Or maybe I was just shy, and wary of someone
speaking a language I had learned to forget.
So, I played the role of the good orphan. I was grateful,
obedient, quiet, and did well in school. I didn’t want attention so I
did whatever I could to blend in. I despised questions over my
ethnicity or queries over my unusual family situation. It was painful
to be singled out.
Yet at the same time, I always wanted to know more and feel more
connected to Korea but I was afraid to hurt my parent’s feelings. I
felt so out of place as it was. And I had no other family anyway; this
was it. They were my only option. I was at least smart enough to know I
didn’t want to jeopardize the only place I’d been able to call home.
For many years, I never had a desire to meet my birth
family. I was satisfied with the thought that if my birth parents
couldn’t take good care of me, I was better off. I’ve never been bitter
about it since I’d always held on to the romantic notion that it was an
act of love. When pushed, I’d have answered that I was curious about
them, for medical reasons, of course, but that I considered my
adoptive parents my real parents. But when my daughter reached first
the age I was when abandoned at 14 months, and then the age I was
adopted, it really hit me what I’d lost. But even then, I assumed that
searching would be useless. I was abandoned at Taegu City Hall. There
were no records of family members dropping me off at an orphanage. I
just suddenly appeared, like Moses in the bulrushes. Whatever story was
behind my abandonment, I assumed I would never know. Ironically, it was
about this time that my mother became interested in charting her
family’s genealogy. Suddenly my mother "found" my adoption files in a
box in the basement. And it was soon after this that I found K.
K and I had first met as six-year-olds at the summer church camp our
families attended. For several summers we would meet up and pretend we
were twins, and given the fact that we were the only two Korean
Adoptees at camp, all the other kids believed us. Eventually, as it
often happens, we lost touch.
One day I was reading the current issue of Korean Quarterly
and I came across an article about an adoptee who was facing issues of
identity for herself and her family of four biracial children. Since
becoming a mother myself, this was something I had been concerned
about. I worried that I had nothing to teach my children about their
heritage since I had never known it myself.
It was my friend K. I contacted her the very next day. As we began
to catch up on our lives, I was struck at how similar our paths had
taken us – early marriages, children, stay-at-home moms, and now,
involvement in the Korean adoptee community for the first time.
It was she who brought to me an offer to go to Korea with 6 other
adult adoptees. Although my husband and I had planned to go to Korea
the year before, a new baby and tight budget had postponed the idea.
I wanted to go but was worried about one of the requirements. This
was to be a birth family search. It was to be adoptees only; no
spouses, children or adoptive parents.
There would be no need to explain why we felt what we did, no split
loyalties between wanting to preserve adoptive families feelings and
our own longings for birth family. We all knew what it was like to grow
up with those dual feelings. For myself, I had just come to a
willingness to want to meet my birth family, and now I was given the
opportunity to do something proactive instead of just thinking yeah,
I didn’t find any birth family while in Korea. People
ask me if I’m disappointed, and honestly I feel hostile when I’m asked.
How would they feel if they had spent countless hours and
dollars into a search only to come up with no proof that you existed
past the made-up date the adoption agency placed on your record? Of
course I’m disappointed.
I’m also frustrated at Korea’s lack of proper record keeping, and
angry at their cavalier acceptance of giving up their unwanted children
as if we were just another export from their country. I’m downright pissed
at the social attitudes that prevail still and keep Korea from making
the changes to eliminate the needs for orphanages and international
adoptions. I’m somewhat relieved that I didn’t have to deal
with the shock of finding my birth parents and I’m scared that someday
I will. I’m sad that I wasn’t able to experience growing up in a family
that looked like me. I’m thrilled that I finally experienced the
culture and food of my people. I am filled with a sense of pride at
being able to walk down the street in downtown Seoul and look like I
For the first time ever I was able to see myself reflected in the eyes of the people I passed by.
So now I am trying to process things. Instead of finding answers I
now have more questions. How do I incorporate the new me into the old
me? How do I try and transition the newfound sense of pride of being
Korean with my pride at being American? The blurring lines make me
Like the Bi Bim Bop served on the flight to Seoul a few weeks ago,
my life had always been compartmentalized into separate sections. There
was the orphan, the daughter, the wife, and the mother; the Korean, the
American, the assimilator, the rebel. But you can’t enjoy the dish by
eating it in its separate piles. To truly experience it you need to add
some rice and some heat and stir.