Relinquishment and Resilience: Uncovering the Past

미선언니 (Mi Sun, my older sister), 4th 이모 (my mother’s younger sister), me. 2006.8.19


Last weekend, I went to 신림동 with 미선언니 and 보림 (친구, Borim) to visit one of my imos (이모=aunt on mother’s side). It was meaningful, because Borim was the first Korean friend I ever had. We met at Creighton University in January 2001–the same month that my Korean mother passed away. (My Korean identity was reborn while at the same time my Korean mother was dying, unbeknownst to the both of us.) Borim also accompanied me when I met my Korean sisters for the first time in 2005. I wanted Borim to come with me last weekend, not only because I wanted to spend time with her, but I intended to ask my imo some specific questions regarding the circumstances surrounding my adoption.I first met 4th imo (I say “4th” because my family sometimes refers to her that way. She was the 4th child out of seven total to my maternal grandparents) last year at my grandmother’s 80th birthday celebration. I mistakenly blogged about her as being my “5th” imo. Anyway, she used to live very close to my mother. After I was born, she visited my mother daily in order to take care of Mi Sun while my mother cared for me. Last year when I met her, she gripped my hand tightly as she scrutinized my face (she loves to tell me that my face is the same as it was when I was a baby), tears rolling down her own plump cheeks.

At that first meeting, 4th imo questioned whether October 21, 1978 is my actual birthday. She insisted that it was an extremely cold day when I was born, and October in Korea is generally a mild month. None of my other relatives could confirm the validity of the date, so I began to wonder if October 21 was really the lunar date (which would mean that the solar date was somewhere around November 21).

Meeting my Korean family last year was always very intense, and although I was pretty committed to journaling regularly, it was difficult to sort through all of the stories my relatives told me. I didn’t know the specifics of my mother’s cancer, and I’d heard a vague account of my mother trying to reclaim me after taking me to Holt.

So last weekend, I went to visit 4th imo to see her house, eat some delicious food, and uncover some of the past. With the aid of Borim and my electronic dictionary, we were able to discuss many things in more detail.

4th imo lives in 신림동, close to Seoul National University. As we waited for 4th imo to meet us at the bus stop, Mi Sun said that she hadn’t been to 4th imo‘s house since her childhood. 4th imo eventually greeted us enthusiastically and walked us to her house nearby. It is small, but clean and decorated with photos and hordes of small knick-knacks (which always speak to me of fussy old ladies). 🙂 My uncle and cousins were absent, due to work and school obligations.

I’ve often wondered whether Holt or my parents gave me my Korean name, 현아 (Hyun Ah), because my two sisters have the same “middle” name (미선 Mi Sun and 미헤 Mi Hye). So I asked 4th imo about my name, and she said that I was nameless for a while. My mother told my aunt that she was waiting to name me. 4th imo said that 선아 (Sun Ah) was one of the names that she mentioned as a possibility. Then we discussed the fact that while it is common to have children named similarly (e.g. my cousins are 재은 Jae Eun and 재준 Jae Jun), sometimes parents choose to “break the rules” and choose totally different names.

After talking about my name, the topic of my birthday came up. 4th imo realized that she had probably been confusing Mi Sun’s birthday with mine (Mi Sun was born in November 1976), and October 21st is most likely my “real” birthday.

4th imo then began to reminisce about those days, and said that she was waiting for my 100-day celebration (a traditional party that celebrates infants’ good health in Korea). But my party never came, and when my 4th imo asked my mother about it, she discovered that my parents had taken me to Holt. My father was bitterly disappointed that I was a second girl, and he threatened to divorce my mother if she did not give me away. Eventually, my mother gave into my father’s bullying after I was two-months-old. They took me to the Holt Reception Center in December 1978.

My mother described to 4th imo about signing the papers that relinquished all parental rights, including the right to search for me in the future. 4th imo became extremely angry at my mother, and said to her “You should have given her to me to raise!” And so they went together to Holt in February 1979 in order to reclaim me, but Holt told them that I had already been adopted and was in America.

Which was a lie.

I did not go to America until September 1979, with my adoption finalized a few months prior. My story is not unique . . . I have heard many other stories with similar accounts of adoption agencies slamming the door in anguished birth mothers’ faces.

4th imo was very angry with my mother. She said that she didn’t talk to my parents for almost a year after they relinquished me. When Mi Hye was born, she was a very sickly baby, and 4th imo chastised my mother, “You know that Mi Hye is sick because you sent your other child away.” My female cousin was born shortly thereafter, and 4th imo cried bitterly in remembrance of me.

Over the years, 4th imo would watch the search shows on Korean television that showed Korean adoptees looking for their birth families. She was hoping to see me.

I asked whether she had any photos of me as an infant. My sisters’ family photo albums do not have any pictures of me. 4th imo said that she used to have a few, but they floated away in a sudden flood many years ago.

My mother was racked with guilt over giving me away. In 1994, she discovered large black spots on her skin that grew and grew. She was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in addition to a particular kind of leukemia (Borim originally kept saying that my mother had a “black tumor in the blood”).

Our father (who abused and fought with my mother and sisters daily) finally divorced our mother in 1998. My imos and grandmother have told me numerous times that despite my father’s handsome face, he was very cruel. After my mother passed away in 2001, he took all of the insurance money, leaving my sisters with nothing. My father is remarried and living in Incheon now with his young wife and son. I still have not met him and am ambivalent about doing so.

My family has told me that my mother wondered about me often. They all wondered what had happened to me. As she was dying, my mother was convinced that God was punishing her for having sent her daughter away.

I spent some time in 2005 naturally grieving for my birth mother. It was intense in the beginning, as I wrote about in a journal entry from that January:

I think I must be grieving for umma, for her hard life, for the pain she lived through, both emotional and physical. The pain that came from her husband, from losing a daughter. I’m grieving for the fact that I’m not going to meet her, that she never knew what happened to me, that I turned out okay.

I still think of my mother often, but that intensity has subsided. Although we talked about some serious and painful memories last weekend, the majority of my visit with 4th imo was happy and filled with smiles as she showed us photo after photo (after photo) of her family’s recent European tour. As we parted, she gave me a firm hug, and instructed that the next time I visit, I must spend the night and have time with my cousins.


International adoption is complex. What you’ve read above might indicate that I only associate my adoption with pain and sadness. Perhaps I am a “bitter and angry and negative” adoptee. The kind that adoption agencies point the finger at. I think it is incredibly glib and short-sighted to only look at the happy-happy-joy-joy aspects of adoption. Why does acknowledging the sadness associated with adoption automatically label me as being “negative”?

As the wonderful T.S. Eliot quote that Tharon & Della put on their blog says:

We shall never cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will to be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

As many others have written recently on their blogs, I reject the false dichotomy and reductive binary of “happy” vs. “angry” adoptees. I also do NOT believe that every adoptee ultimately “evolves” into re-assimilating to Korean society. Certainly, I do not ever see myself living in Korea again permanently. But some adoptees choose to do so, and I think that vilifying the adoptee community in Seoul without knowing them or speaking to them is ignorance at its worst.

Some of the reforms that Korean people are calling for in regards to international adoption include giving birth mothers a longer grace period in order to change their minds about relinquishing their children. Currently, such a grace period is practically non-existent (around seven days). In the U.S., birth mothers have several months to deal with the complex emotions accompanying relinquishment. Sometimes, it can take many months to determine whether a kinship adoption (such as in my story) is possible.

This questioning that I have is not about trying to re-write the past or to wish that my life had turned out differently. And it is NOT about rejecting my adoptive family and their love (on the contrary, coming to Korea and meeting my birth family brought me closer than ever to my adoptive parents). It is to acknowledge my mother. And it is to acknowledge the thousands of mothers and families that lost something in the process–as well as future birth mothers.

They have stories that are worth hearing.


At the KoRoot 3rd Anniversary party this July, I was privileged to be able to view a screening of Tammy Chu’s new documentary film (a working version), Resilience. The film was also shown at the G.O.A.’L Conference, with the following description:

Resilience tells the stories of Korean birth mothers who gave their children up for overseas adoption. The film explores the reasons and circumstances behind their decision, which was often due to lack of social welfare support and women’s rights. For the very first time, despite stigma and discrimination from their own society, birth mothers bravely come forward to tell their stories of loss, struggle, and ultimately, of courage and strength.

The film is incredibly moving and powerful. I highly recommend viewing it when the opportunity arises (Tammy is planning to submit the finished version at various film festivals world-wide).

Finally (whew! Long post. Knew it was coming, since I’ve hardly blogged this summer), I will share with you a column from a recent edition (2006.8.18) of the Chosun Ilbo, Seoul’s pre-eminent newspaper. The column is Oh Tae Jin’s “Weekend Letter–Finding the Puzzle Pieces Lost for Adoptees.” (In Korean, 조선일보, 오태진의 주말편지, English translation of column provided by G.O.A.’L) I think it shows that Koreans are looking critically at international adoption.

In the dark, young adults were sobbing; some sighing deeply, and some lamenting. 150 overseas Korean adoptees residing in Korea and abroad were watching Resilience, a documentary last Saturday evening. The viewing of the film was the last part of the three-day G.O.A.’L annual conference held in Daebang-dong, Seoul. The 38-minute documentary brings out in the open the hidden voices of guilt-stricken birth mothers, at whom a finger of blame is pointed.

Mother 1: “I got pregnant after coming up to Seoul to work. I left my baby in the care of my relatives, and I was staying in the single-mother shelter. Meanwhile, my brother put my baby up for adoption, not discussing it with me at all.” She is married with the man who is the biological father of the baby. A while ago, her son contacted her from France.
“I was afraid of not having any excuse for abandoning my son. I could spot my son right away in the airport. It was so good to see him, but it was heart-breaking to let him go back to France. I talk with him on the phone, but it is painful not to be able to see him. I have done nothing for him. I hope he knows that I’m praying for him all the time, and I hope he understands the situation and why I could not keep him.”

Mother 2: “I got raped in my room, while I was working at a factory at the age of 16. I left my baby in the care of my relatives, and then my mother told me that she sent away my baby to a rich Korean family. I went on a mad search for my son for years and then finally gave up. Just one day, my son came back from the U.S. It was my happiest moment. I was thrilled to see him again. He told me that he was missing me, too. I didn’t want to let him go, but . . . “

Mother 3: “I ran away from home to escape from my father’s abuse when I was a middle-school student. While I was working at a gas station, I got raped. I realized my pregnancy after 7 months. I went to the Han River to commit suicide. But, I couldn’t make it and just cried my eyes out. The nurse showed me the baby at the hospital, but I didn’t take a look at him and just let him go.”

Her face is blurred out, and she sounds young. “There was no shoulder to cry on to ease my pain of being a mother at an early age. I think of my son whenever I have a hard time. How tall would he be? What kind of personality would he have? I want to be proud of myself when I meet him. Although I’m not a wonderful cook, I want to make him food and take photos with him. I want to see him and tell him how much I love him. I believe he will come and find me some day.”

The documentary ended with the narration, “Mothers took if off their chests and gained hope and reconciliation.” It was adoptees who gave an outlet for birth mothers to tell stories that went unheard before.

Tammy Chu, a documentary director who studied film in New York, said “I learned mothers gave up their children in large part to society.” That is, adoption is more attributable to a patriarchal society and social ignorance rather than the lack of maternal love.

Korean adoptees who steered their lives toward the birthland established an association for overseas Korean adoptees seven years ago. They admit there is emptiness in the heart where the birth family, motherland, Korean language, culture, and people should have been. Adoptees feel confused until they learn what they have missed. Now, they become grown-ups and try to find the missing piece. I hope that Koreans will be able to help them learn about their mother country.

Adoptees share pains and dreams and rely on each other. They are trying to understand their mothers and the country that gave them away. They spend years volunteering at child-care facilities where they used to stay, while leading campaigns to promote domestic adoptions. However, it is regrettable that Korea, their mother country, is still giving up its children for overseas adoption. In contrast, Korean adoptees grow toward becoming proud members of Korean society.

I support adoptees who return to Korea and choose to stay. I support adoptees who prefer to live in our adoptive countries. Most of all, I support what Oh Tae Jin writes in the last paragraph: “Adoptees share pains and dreams and rely on each other.” (He refers to the establishment of G.O.A.’L and other adoptee-founded organizations.)

And I support being honest about the past, sharing our complex stories. Stories that cannot be simplified to good vs. bad, happy vs. angry.



Filed under Adoption (the industry), Community, Conferences, Korean Adoptees, Korean family, Life in Korea, Organizations, Policy

17 responses to “Relinquishment and Resilience: Uncovering the Past

  1. Amy

    What a great post.

    P.S. All the cool kids were born on Oct. 21st.

  2. This is so poignant, from beginning to end, Sarah. I believe that there are many, many more KADs who were not “abandoned,” as it says in our files, but were wanted indeed, by our mothers or extended family, who were inhibited and barred by societal/familial ignorance and external pressure.

    The 조선일보 article is encouraging to me, suggesting that Koreans’ consciousness on intercountry adoption is unfolding and moving toward self-advocating for change.

    It’s so wonderful that your imo is open about sharing her memories of you and your umma. I imagine those accounts go far in validating your personal history. *hugs*

  3. parkheidi

    last year was a really rough year for me. not only did i lose out on some close people, i was being yo-yoed around by either one of the following:

    a.) just me being neurotic
    b.) miscommunication or language barrier with my korean social worker
    c.) my b-mom’s situation
    d.) my b-mom’s decline to meet

    perhaps, too, i should get over all of the above, but haven’t had enough distance or time away from korea yet.

    i think living there for a couple years was somehow beneficial and blatantly difficult. sarah, your post is very powerful. i’ve been away from the blogs for a while, but i’m glad to see that you posted about tammy’s doc. i have yet to see it yet, but i remember having some good convos with her while i was going through a rough time. it was nice to hear your opinion about _resilience_.

    (can’t wait ’til your back in seattle)

  4. thanks, sarah, for this post, for sharing your experiences, and for speaking eloquently on the rights for all adoptees to be the authors of their own experiences, whatever they are.


  5. Sarah unni,

    What an amazing post. I’m almost crying here! T_T

    I think it’s mind boggling to hear the real reasons behind why we adoptees were given up for adoption and how utterly different they are from what we’re originally told by the adoption agencies.

    I am so glad that you were able to connect with your biological family and find out your own truths…

  6. Speechless.

    I’m truly awed by what you have chosen to do in life. Realize it or not, you are a source of great inspiration.

    Wonderful post, best wishes. *yakap*

  7. Sue

    This is my first visit to your blog, linked in from Ji-in. You have so much courage on so many levels–from uncovering to revealing. Thank you for the revealing part.

  8. i opened your blog up at work and am teary sitting here in my cube…i so wish i were there with you. this is – echoing others – a very powerful post. i’m glad you are open to sharing it. i am admittedly envious that you have your 4th imo to help put bits and pieces of your past together. but mostly i am so glad you can speak your truth and by doing so, you have encouraged me to speak mine. thank you!

  9. I am also put to tears with this post.

    I have been thinking a lot after this June about whether or not I am ready to do a search. For many years I have been very angry at my birth mother, but maybe it is time to let her tell her side of the story.

  10. Thank you, everyone, for your kind words and unwavering support. My blogging has evolved so much since I started a little over a year ago. While I was going through the most intense experiences from last year, I didn’t have enough distance to be able to effectively blog about it. I look at my posts from May 2005 and yawn. But now that I’ve had some time away from that crazy time and am able to revisit it in new ways this summer in Seoul, I feel more comfortable sharing.

    Amy–that’s true, the cool kids were all born on Oct. 21.

    지인언니–Your blog is what initially inspired me to be more open about my experiences with adoption here on “Outside In…” Hugs to you, too.

    H–I hope you can see Tammy’s film at a festival sometime next year. Maybe we can host a screening in Seattle…

    Jae Ran–Thanks for being an inspiration as well!! Gah, and I need to email you about NYC. Will do now.

    KT Mee Hee–I miss eating 팟빙수 with you! We’re due for a long phone call when I get back.

    jgvt–I always get inspired by |tahas| as well. When are you updating??

    Sue–thanks and welcome!

    Soon-young–I really miss you, woman, and I look forward to hanging out together soon in MN and Seoul.

    Lea–I know other adoptees who felt similar feelings of anger about their birth mothers, and I think it’s a natural reaction. You’ll have lots of support in Seoul if you choose to search someday…

  11. seriously, what a moving and awesome post! i am so so so happy you have your fourth imo and can learn about your past.

    it’s so important to hear your story, along with others, because it really illustrates the complexity and han and sorrow and frustration that families go through before and after adoption. and adoptees themselves, of course.

    the film sounds spectacular. i hope we can see it next summer at the IKAA conference.

  12. I have so much admiration for you, Sarah. What a good journey you are on.

  13. I sat down this morning to read your post and now I’m bawling over my coffee. Bringing to light the untold stories of deception and the pain they’ve caused is long overdue. Thanks for sharing and huge TRA hugs for your courage and honesty.

  14. Wow, phenomenal! I can’t believe all this information has been in your head and didn’t cause you to explode

  15. JennJin

    Sarah, your blog made me teary eyed. I finally sat down and read through it. Thanks for mentoring me through all of this. What you’ve told me has inspired me to speak out more – to other adoptees here at Inje, to the news cameras in our faces here, and to my family and friends. Could you send me some more readings like how you mentioned when I was at KoRoot? Have a great week of relaxation and I’ll see you next weekend.

  16. you found some of the words i could not; made eloquent what i could not. so i linked to your blog 🙂

    this was wonderful! thanks again and again and again…

  17. Mee Sun

    Hello, my name is Mee Sun. I was adopted from Holt when I was a year. It was a closed case adoption and I spent the next 20 years living in Philadelphia with my American family.

    I am currently studying abroad at Yonsei University for the spring semester. My main objective while in Seoul was to find my birth mother. I have photocopies of all my adoption papers but I do not have her name or social security number.

    This is my first time returning to Korea since my adoption. Do you have any advise about beginning my search? I don’t know where to begin! I have the next 15 weeks to accomplish a seemingly impossible goal. Please let me know if you have any information or ideas.

    I really love Korea so far. Everyone has been super nice and extremely helpful. I went from being the Asian girl in America to the American girl in Asia. I feel like a little person in a huge city. Please help!

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