Review: Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation

imgresMemoirs are tricky business. I have known for a long time that I would never attempt to write a memoir because they are so difficult. They must draw the reader in, excite without being overly melodramatic and yet be approachable so the reader can relate and empathize. Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation by Soojung Jo, meets these criteria in both ways.

I first came upon Soojung Jo’s writing when she was blogging at Faith and IllusionsI’m not quite sure how I stumbled upon her blog, but I recall being interested in her take as both a Korean adoptee and as an adoptive parent. I was disappointed when she stopped blogging, but found her through other social media sites and remember when she reunited with her Korean family. Ghost of Sangju details her reunion but for me, it is her description of her childhood with her adoptive family that was most engaging and relatable.

imgres-1The book begins with a prologue describing the horrific events that led to her birth and relinquishment and segues into how Soojung/Raina is found by her omma, her birth mother. The remainder of the book intersperses segments of omma’s letters to Soojung with narratives of her childhood, time in the military, and being a mom. As you get to know Soojung, little by little, you also get to know her omma. Like many Korean adoptees who were adopted to rural white communities in the U.S., navigating life as a perpetual outsider, even within a family’s enveloping love, was difficult. A few sections stand out in particular. Soojung describes her adoptive mother, in particular, with such tenderness that as a reader, I could feel that maternal love emanate from the page. As a mother, I also appreciated the way Soojung describes her pregnancy and new parenting as an adoptee.

Although I have not reunited with my Korean family, I have had many friends who have, so Soonjung’s descriptions of her reunion – while unique to her family – were strikingly similar to other narratives of reunions heard firsthand or read from intercountry adoptees. That Soojung’s descriptions in this book of feeling like an outsider, of compartmentalizing her emotions, of being overwhelmed with a birth family’s desire to make up for lost time, and dealing with hurt adoptive parents are similar to many Korean adoptees’ narratives speaks to how adoption practices have largely discounted and minimized the emotional tolls that relinquishment and adoption place on everyone involved.

In the prologue, Soojung writes, “Omma has had many years to live with her ghosts…she has tasted every flavor of loss, but she never swallowed bitterness. The only reason I know about her story – our story – is because she never sowed those seeds of hate and despair.” Soojung Jo’s omma has indeed had many years of living with her ghosts, as I imagine many birth mothers, birth fathers, and extended birth relatives do; and we cannot forget that adoptees also live with these ghosts whether or not we know them. From outward appearances, Soojung is a “successful” adoptee judged by her strong leadership and business skills, distinguished military service, loving parenting and even adopting herself – yet even all these accomplishments cannot erase the losses that are inherent in adoption. An important lesson is gained through reading this memoir: that grief and loss must be acknowledged, and secrets brought to light.

Ghost of Sangju is a valuable contribution to the adoptee-memoir canon, and I recommend that adoption professionals and prospective adoptive parents in particular read this book. It might be difficult to read and tempting to discount Soojung and her omma’s story as only one story; it is one story, but it resonates because it is, in fact, many of our stories. It is time that these narratives are honored and validated, so that birth families and adoptees do not have to exist, as Soojung writes, as “a spirit suspended between two worlds and two families, to be forever in between.”

Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation will be available soon through Gazillion Strong. For more information, click here.


Friday links

This week's links include two stories of Korean adoptees who received unexpected information about their birth families, and two stories of international adoption corruption.

1. This story is a good example of how we cannot always assume that children are voluntarily relinquished for adoption. This is not the first time I have heard that a woman leaves her child with the father and either the father or the father's family member places the child for adoption. In fact, I personally know two Korean adoptees where this is what happened.

From the Harrison Times: A long journey to the past.

Willie Whitescarver — once known as “Jo Kyung-Nam” — is flying
back to his native South Korea this month for the first time since he
left in 1957 as a 2-year-old. He’s going to meet his birth mother, whom
he hasn’t seen in 52 years.

The story of how the little Korean boy ended up in an orphanage
is a complicated one. According to Choi Chun-Hak’s letter, she was
married to a man who had been married twice before and had three sons.
After their marriage and the birth of their son, now known as Willie,
Choi’s husband’s second wife came back to live with her husband’s
family. Choi, who “wanted to become a worker for God,” was
uncomfortable with the situation, and left Willie in the care of his
father’s family while she went to school to study theology. At some
point, without Choi’s knowledge or permission, Willie was taken to an
orphanage, and Choi was not able to locate him and lost track of her
little son for 52 years.

2. This story is one that I have really been trying to keep my eyes on. A friend of mine who blogs at Uniting Distant Stars has been trying for a very long time now to get people's attention to the corruption involved at WACSN. Heather once volunteered at WACSN and was good friends with the founder, Maria Luyken, until Heather questioned what she saw as unethical and illegal adoption practices happening.

From Front Page Africa: Freedom at Last: 37 Liberian Kids Survive Illegal Adoption; Trafficking Denied

Members of the Liberian National Police take children freed from the West African Support Network Thursday.

Liberian children who have been kept at the West African Children
Support Network (WACSN), an adoption agency for several months without
access to their parents in violation to a Liberian government
moratorium on adoption have finally gained freedom through the efforts
of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, Save the Children, Don
Bosco Homes, the United Nations Children Fund and other local and
international agencies as they are now in the care of Don Bosco Homes
after been released Thursday.

Children have been placed in the temporary care of Don Bosco Homes, a
local children rehabilitation center for care until they are reunited
with their families.

3. From the Irish Times comes this story about the arrest of Vietnamese officials for fraudulent adoptions.

Six Vietnamese health officials and charity workers in the northern
province of Nam Dinh have been sentenced to jail for arranging over 300
fraudulent adoptions.

While the vast majority of
adoptions from Vietnam are legitimate, there have been question marks
over some unscrupulous operators after the US embassy in Hanoi last
year accused the Vietnamese authorities of failing to properly control
the country’s adoption system, and said it had found evidence of
corruption, fraud and baby-selling.

The officials were found to have filed false papers to allow as many as
266 babies from poor families to be adopted, many by parents in France,
Italy and the US.

4. Last week I wrote about "motherland" tours. In this link, reporter Jenny Hurwitz and her sister, both Korean adoptees, go to Korea on one of these tours and experiences the heartache of looking at their adoption files.

From the Times-Picayune: Reporter returns to orphanage, learns truth about birth family.

5. Finnish study says internationally adopted youth feel "at home" in Finland.

From the Helsinki Times.
Personally, I would like to see more information about this study. What
age were the participants? I'm actually quite skeptical.

else I see often in studies of international adoption in European
countries is this common theme of how international adoptees are seen
as being "better" than immigrants. I find that piece quite disturbing.
There is an article in the Laura Briggs/Diana Marre anthology titled "We do not have immigrant children in this school, we just have children adopted abroad."

Children who are adopted to Finland from abroad grow up identifying
themselves as Finnish, according to new research. For adoptees whose
appearance sets them apart from native Finns, growing up different can
be a trying experience. The study also found that, in general, Finnish
attitudes towards international adoptees are more positive than towards

“In group interviews, some adopted youths even said that their
cohorts considered being adopted as a cool thing,” says researcher
Heidi Ruohio, whose study on the experiences of international adoptees
in Finland was published by the Family Federation in August. She also
conducted in-depth interviews with adult adoptees who have grown up in
Finnish families.

        full article is here.


Here is a story from the Korean Herald about the film Resilience by filmmaker Tammy Chu. It premiered this past weekend at the Pusan International Film Festival.

I, along with Mr. Harlow's Monkey and my two kids, had the extreme pleasure of meeting Mrs. Noh in 2007 and participated along with her in the first-ever birth mother protest. Just now, I was looking at a photo of my son playing with her daughter outside the restaurant where we shared lunch together along with several other Korean mothers who relinquished their children for international adoption.


'Resilience' looks at often-ignored mothers of adoption.

By Matthew Lamers and Shannon Heit

Behind the glamour of adoption, new beginnings and happy reunions,
there is another, darker side of loss and separation for birth mothers,
birth families, and adoptees that is often left out of the discussion.

Popular culture mostly fails to take up the issue from the
perspective of the birth mother. What factors forced the decision to
give up her child? Were there other options? How has she coped since?

Filmmaker Tammy Chu asks those questions, but also considers the
feeling of separation from the side of the adoptee and the sometimes
life-long journey to find identity and belonging.

The official film website is here.

Sound familiar?

"It doesn't matter where we live":

Nisha, now a petite 26-year-old with a quick smile, was adopted from
Goa by an all-white family at the age of six months and raised in “the
white part of America”, as her father Randy puts it. The couple never
taught Nisha anything about her birth country or culture, though they
did retain her name and abided by one request the birth mother had
made: never to cut Nisha’s hair. She didn’t cut it until she went to

"Because love is all you need":

Stephanie says she figured “everyone would love each other”
and that would be enough for Nisha to adjust to her adopted life in the

"It's awkward approaching people from my child's culture. Besides, s/he's American now"

“I didn’t know any Indian people,” her father says. “And I guess I
probably wouldn’t have known how to approach them even if I did. Would
I say, ‘You know, my daughter’s Indian. Would you mind if she hangs out
with you?’”

Though she didn’t realize it as a child, it bothered Nisha when she
grew up and realized she had never been exposed to her own culture.

"My child will let me know if s/he wants to learn more about his/her culture" :

resented her parents for never trying to teach her about where she came
from. The resentment bore down on her and when it was time to pick a
college four years ago, she moved miles away from her family in
Sacramento to San Diego. When she finally told her parents how she felt
two years ago, they were shocked, unaware of how much pain the adoption
had caused her.

Her parents never thought her looking different
mattered. To them she was simply a part of the family they had waited
years to get.

"My child and I are close, s/he can tell me anything!" :

Nisha loves her family, but admits she feels closer to her friends.
She feels she can never be really open about her feelings to her family
and that sometimes it’s more simple not to say anything to them at all.

"My child has the best of both worlds, culturally. She is a bridge between American and [insert ethnicity] cultures":

For Nisha, it is just easier to talk about herself to people who
understand what it is like to have a white person question her American
citizenship, or to people who can make a joke when she feels dumb that
an Indian family walks up to her and speaks in Hindi and she can’t

Skin Deep: Adopted
by an American family 25 years ago, Goa-born Nisha Grayson is coming
back ‘home’ in search of her birth mother and herself.

From Live (Wall Street Journal)


Coming this fall. Resilience. A film by Tammy Chu.


Myung-ja Noh had no choice in giving up her baby for adoption. Her relatives took her baby to a hospital, which then contacted an adoption agency that came and took the baby away.

At the time, they believed adoption was the best option since she was young and poor.

Devastated, she searched for her son for years but was unable to find him.

She says she spent years being lost, and was never able to recover from losing her son. “If given the choice, I would never give up my child. I want to tell mothers not to give up their children for adoption and instead raise them, no matter how difficult it is… Losing my child is something I will not get over for as long as I live.”

Official film web site here.

Chinese adoptee discovers he was not abandoned but lost

Thanks Millicent for the link. From the Baltimore Sun. This actually happens a lot more often than people think. I know of a number of Korean adoptees who discovered they were not "abandoned" but got lost. People often think this could never happen, but you need to look at it in greater context. In South Korea, for example, where there are few surnames, where people are often called by titles and not first names, and where addresses are extremely long and difficult to learn, it is not at all unfathomable to me that people can and do get lost and a young child would have no way of knowing how to name his or her parents and/or address. I've heard firsthand accounts by people who were separated in busy markets or train station platforms from their older siblings or parents and never found them again.

A new mission to China
: An Easton woman helps her adopted son trace his birth parents — and the contradictions of his mysterious youth

Julia Norris

The boy was near age 6 when he was abandoned in 1998. Police found him under a bridge in Luoyang, a city in eastern China. Unable to learn how he got there or where he came from, officers deposited him at a busy orphanage in town.

That was the story Julia Norris heard two years later, in June 2000,
when she visited the orphanage. That was still the story in April 2001,
when she returned to adopt the boy and bring him to America. And it
remained the story this spring as Christian Norris finished 10th grade
at Easton High School, where he plays lacrosse and has a crew of

Then, in late May came the e-mail that suddenly recast the narrative of
his young life. Christian had not been abandoned. No, he'd simply
gotten lost, the result of a tragic mistake. So said the boy's birth
parents. And now they very much wanted to meet the young man.

You can read the article here.

Colombian adoptee helps adoptees search

An article from

Crossing borders: A family quest

One woman’s search to find her biological parents across an ocean has led to a network to help other foreign-born adopted children.

When international adoptee Marcia Engel set out to find her biological parents, she found that the system wasn’t geared to helping her—and that intermediary bodies were even exploiting her quest.

Her response was to create a network to give families the opportunity to reunite without having to resort to paying for help.

“I wanted to have this free registration system,” said Engel. “It is important that adoptees and their parents have the option to search for one another. Currently, parents and adoptees have little information and they always experience bumps in the road, dead ends.”

Engel’s newly launched Adoption Angels Network ( is part of her initiative, Plan Angel, created after a long and torturous search for her biological parents.

Read the whole article here.

Long-lost half-brother trying too hard

I feel sorry for the poor bloke who only wanted to have a relationship with his birth family. How tragic that he's just a pest to his sister and mother.

From Sunday's Ask Amy

Dear Amy: A year ago I was contacted at work by a man who told me he was my half-brother.

confronted my parents and learned that I did indeed have a
half-brother, who two months before had gotten in contact with my mom.
She had given the baby up for adoption at birth.

When he
learned about me, he wanted to contact me, but she asked to hold off so
she could tell me after she digested his entering her life. Instead, he
tracked me down at work and called while concurrently sending me a
two-page e-mail.

It was creepy and extremely upsetting.

His approach bothered me, as did his lack of respect for my mother's wishes.

mom and I agreed he seemed harmless, not out for money. He was looking
to connect, as I imagine many adopted children might, but he acts on
impulse and with disregard for our feelings.

I decided to tell him not to contact me again, and my mom broke off contact with him too.

Six months later, I got an e-mail from him apologizing for upsetting me and reiterating all the reasons he had gotten in touch.

I wrote: "Thank you for your apology, but I'm not interested in a relationship, and if I change my mind, I'll contact you."

It has been another six months, and he just e-mailed me again.

I want this to stop, but I don't want to engage him.

could block his e-mail, but I almost feel like I need to know if he
contacts me in case this turns into something more and I need evidence.

How should I handle this?

Only Child

Read Amy's response to Only Child here.