Searching Seoul documentary

Me (on the right) and Kim, Korea 2000 "Seoul Searching"

I received a phone call today from a news director at KSTP-TV (Channel 5 in the Twin Cities). In June, the station is going to re-broadcast an Emmy award winning documentary of myself and my friend Kim that originally aired in June of 2000, called "Searching Seoul."

This documentary profiled the two of us as we went to Korea for the
first time, and our birth family search, including an appearance on the
Korean television show, "Achim Madang."
Achim Madang, is one of the most popular television shows in South
Korea, and is a show in which people look for long-lost loved ones. It
has increasingly become one of the most visible ways for adoptees to
find birth family or birth family information.

Many adoptees have found birth families by appearing on Achim
Madang. The show is very controversial, because it is highly dramatic
and focuses so much on emotions (you will see many, many shots of my
teary-eyed face). I was told by the Korean producers before the show
began that the more I cry, the better it will appear to the broadcast
audience. They didn’t have to tell me, the combination of stress and
anxiety of appearing live on KBS‘s
#1 most watched show (- forget about the internal drama of publicly
appealing to my birth family) – was more than enough to get the
waterworks going.

In a week, Kim and I will be shooting an update for this
re-broadcast. As we were talking today about this re-hash of the past,
it occured to both of us that a two-minute update can’t possibly
capture how much this trip changed us, and what different people we are

When I went to Korea in 2000, I was a stay at home mom. My kids were
then 2 and 6 and I had only recently begun to really delve into my
transracial and international adoption "issues." I was working hard to
figure out why so many things in my life just weren’t going the way I
wanted. That trip to Korea was a catalyst for change. I consider it to
be one of the defining moments of my life.

That isn’t to say that everything was roses when I returned home. It
was the opposite, in fact. Because now, I had to face this reality that
who I was when I left was not who I was when I returned. I saw
everything completely different. Things I had skirted around before
Korea were my obsessions upon my return.

Issues such as race, my status as an adoptee, knowing I’d never fit
in in Korea, the realisation that as I left, thousands more children
would be leaving Korea as citizens no more. Split loyalties between
wanting to be part of my adoptive family yet wanting to find my birth
family. I had such a difficult time re-entering my life. Things could
not stay the same.

My adoptive parents are incredibly loving and well-meaning. They
have never once looked upon me as being anything but their daughter,
and for that I am quite fortunate. My parents have also never once seen
me as being Korean, and I mean that in the literal sense. Yes, they didn’t deny I was born in Korea, but I wasn’t Korean-American, I was just American.

Growing up, my parents did not incorporate a single thing about
Korea in our family’s life. The only acknowledgements I received were
from my maternal grandmother, and her sister, my great aunt. My great
aunt, for example, once sent me an embroidered silk pillow that a
visiting Korean scholar had given to her. I was twelve years old, and
to this day, it was the only visible acknowledgement of my Korean
heritage by any member of my adoptive family. In sixth grade, I did a
social studies report on South Korea. My parents had absolutely no
interest in my project. They did not help me with it, or encourage me.
I ended up doing this project completely on my own, and that was the
last time I showed interest in my native country until I was thirty
years old.

My adoptive parents were very hurt by my trip to Korea in 2000 and
my choice to have a documentary crew follow me. How could I have
prevented this hurt? I couldn’t, because we had never communicated about my adoption or my ethnicity.
My parents had absolutely no idea that I’d ever want to visit Korea.
Literally, they were shocked. Especially since for the twenty seven
years I’d lived as their daughter, I’d never brought it up, too afraid
that I’d hurt their feelings. What none of us realized was that I was
protecting their feelings at the expense of my own. It took me until I
was thirty years old to be able to place my needs at a higher priority
than my adoptive parents feelings.

Even today, six years later, we don’t really talk about it. The name
change was an even bigger challenge, as they felt it was a purposeful
attempt to reject them and what they’d done for me. It took a long time
for them to realize that changing my name had more to do with me and not them. What I wrote about my face matching my name was something they’d never considered, and did not think was important.

Of course, it couldn’t be important to them, because as Anglo-Americans, their faces do match their names.

I was thinking, as Kim and I were talking about our show being
re-broadcast, that the search is never over. I’ve come to believe that
I will go to Korea many more times in my life, and each time I will
discover something new that I will have to incorporate into who I am.
That’s the process and the journey.

I will forever be "Searching Seoul."

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

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