Category Archives: Life in Korea

Interesting Weekend+

I wasn’t going to post until the end of the month, but the last four days have been extremely interesting, and I want to blog about it. Plus, I also want to procrastinate. (No surprise……. however, I don’t know when/if I will ever get around to addressing the things that I listed previously. I’m always doing that….making lists of things to blog about and then not doing it. One of the people I met this weekend said in her brief bio that one of her hobbies is making lists–which she regards as its own literary form.)

Anyway, I spent Friday–Sunday at the Wallace Falls Lodge for the opening retreat of the ACLF Community Leaders Program. I actually first heard about this program two years ago when I was apartment-hunting after first returning to Seattle from my year in Korea. One of the rooms I was looking at was in a condo owned by a Vietnamese American guy in the Central District. The room was too small, but he was nice and when I told him I was going to be starting at the Evans School, he recommended that I check out the ACLF program. I looked up the website, was intrigued, and made a mental note to look again another time. Later that year, the ACLF program coordinator (and Evans alum) sent a message to all current Evans students regarding a one-day ACLF conference in Shoreline. I attended and felt relieved to be in a room full of politically-active and community-minded APIAs. It was a great networking opportunity, and I loved being able to talk to the Evans alum who understood and sympathized with a lot of my frustrations regarding grad school.

I’d wanted to do the ACLF Community Leaders Program last year, but the majority of the program takes place during the summer, and of course I spent last summer in Seoul. So this time around, I am really thrilled to be able to participate in the program, mainly because I want to be able to network with other local APIA leaders in a way that goes beyond “hi & goodbye” (which is what I mostly experience at local events). Emphasis here being on “local” and “APIA”—I love networking & establishing relationships with other community leaders, but most of the people I meet are specifically Korean adoptees who are decidedly not local to Seattle.

So, I carpooled to Wallace Falls with two of the other participants, dozing off due to being exhausted from worrying about (yet not writing) my DP. When we arrived, many of the ACLF board members greeted us. One of them asked us, “Are you ready to have an intense weekend?!” Err…yes? I was a little surprised by the question, because I had the impression the weekend would be a relaxing time in the woods. The weekend did end up being more intense than I’d anticipated–although it wasn’t a bad thing, I think, as I’ll explain later.

I am NOT a fan of ice breakers, but the one we did after the welcoming dinner was the best one that I can remember doing. We each gave the background story and meaning behind our name(s). Even though the room was chock-full of people (there must have been at least 30+ people in the room), I was interested in every story. And I was struck how this was the first time I’ve ever been in a structured program designed for the APIA community as a whole. The diversity in the room was incredible. And even after the board members left and only this year’s CLP class remained (along with our facilitators), we were still a very diverse group (Chinese American, Korean American, Japanese American, Filipino, Vietnamese/Laotian, Pacific Islander, hapa/mixed, Iranian American, etc.).

It had been a long time since I’d been on a retreat (not since my AmeriCorps days) and even longer since I’d been on such a touchy-feely retreat. (Touchy-feely in the sense of emotional and personal… hanky panky ensued.) Probably not since my CCSJ days at Creighton have I been in a group that emphasized personal sharing so much. I definitely enjoy personal sharing; however, I left the weekend with little insight into what my fellow participants do in their professional/organizational positions. I’m hoping that I’ll learn more about that as we go along in the program.

Since the weekend was full of sharing our personal backgrounds/heritage/stories, naturally a lot of what I shared had to do with being adopted. During the names-ice breaker, I shared how my new Korean name is Mi-ran (in order to match my sisters, Mi-sun and Mi-hye). Afterwards, one of the other participants said quite sincerely how my story sounds so sad, and asked, “What was it like meeting your Korean family?”

I never know how to respond to this question (although I didn’t mind that she’d asked it). It’s not something that’s easily summed up into a one-sentence answer, so I usually just say, “It was complicated.” Throughout the rest of the weekend, I was a bit paranoid about coming off as the “sad adoptee.” (Like that photo of me in ColorsNW which seems manipulated to make me look like the “sad adoptee”–but it was eyeliner, not a tear!) The reality is that there is indeed a lot of sadness (if that’s even the right word) in my personal story and in a lot of stories about adoption–because there is a sense of loss, identity confusion, etc. However, I think the “sad adoptee” label can often be dismissive, and people can make the assumption that an adoptee’s acknowledgment of loss somehow translates to rejection of adoptive family, bitterness, lack of objectivity, etc.

I hadn’t been in a retreat environment like this since doing my year in Korea, and I realized that I hadn’t openly shared my stories from my current perspective to complete strangers before. Well, I have talked about my experiences, but usually I’m talking to other adoptees or classmates from grad school, or I’m in a more professional setting like an interview. Normally, I’m pretty calm when I relate my story, precisely because I want to dispel the image of the “sad adoptee,” and I don’t want to give the impression that I have “issues”–because then I fear I will lose credibility.

For some reason, though, on Saturday night, during our “personal symbols sharing,” the environment in the room made me feel extremely anxious about appearing vulnerable. I think it might have been the language we kept using about “safe spaces”—something that I value, but it contributed to the atmosphere of group therapy. My face felt flushed the entire time as I waited for the moment when I felt comfortable to share; others were tearing/choking up only mildly during their sharing. I ended up going after the other two Korean Americans shared; most of us talked about our families, and I was no different.

I brought this random folder that I keep in my room that is labeled “birth family” and has bits and pieces from 2004-2005 when I was in Korea. It has translated letters and email correspondence between my Korean family and myself as well as various photos (including a group picture of all the Korean adoptees from the 2004 Gathering). All the activities we’d done earlier in the day had been leading up to me talking about how I found my Korean family, so I started relating the story–a story I’ve told many, many times since everything happened two years ago.

My voice was shaking, though, which is not normal for me, and then I was horrified when I tried to keep talking and no words were coming out. I was talking about the irony of how my Korean mother passed away just six months before my first visit to Korea in 2001 and how I never had the chance to meet her. Before I knew it, I was crying in front of the group and ready to die of embarassment. And I’m not talking about just a trickling tear, I was actually trying not to sob while my eyes and nose were running. Everyone was incredibly supportive, however, and eventually I was able to finish the story while clutching tissues someone handed me and focusing on a log pole in front of me. There is something gutteral about the emotions surrounding adoption, I think, because it is such a major event in our lives that happens (most of the time) before we are fully conscious and self-aware.

I was worried about this public display of raw emotion, because the nature of this program is professional, and also I was worried about my aforementioned fears of being labeled “sad,” etc. I’m also a bit concerned because during the weekend I didn’t get to talk much about my involvement with the adoptee community beyond my own issues, and there were also no opportunities to talk about the complex transnational issues in adoption. But I trust that these opportunities will present themselves in one way or another during the next six months of the program. I’m hopeful that it was a good thing to have such an honest reaction in front of the other participants… long as they don’t think I’m crazy. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Overall, I am really excited about embarking on the CLP program. The retreat was a nice opening, and I was amazed how I was connected to almost everyone there through mutual friends. I continue to marvel at how small the active APIA community is in Seattle….


The other interesting part of the past few days was hosting Kim Park Nelson and Laura Briggs for a seminar on transnational adoption at my university on Monday. All the maneuvering it took to bring them both here paid off, because the seminar was thought-provoking and a nice break from my regular routine. We were even able to sell three copies of Outsiders Within. ๐Ÿ™‚ I hold a lot of admiration for both of these women for being so fiercely intelligent and unafraid of confronting the dominant (sentimental) rhetoric surrounding transnational adoption.

My Korean professor actually canceled our daily class so that everyone could attend the seminar (she even threatened to take off points if people skipped it.) And then she proceeded to ask some of the most interesting questions during the discussion period. There was also a Brazilian transracial adoptee in the audience who was visibly moved by the seminar and thanked all of us profusely for holding it. (A few of my Korean classmates left early, and it was obvious that they had been forced to attend. And one elderly white woman left in a huff–Laura guessed that she must have been an adoptive parent.)

So even though the seminar attendance could have been better (I especially wish that more of the faculty members who I know have adopted children had come), the seminar itself was meaningful for a few people, and that’s what matters.


I will end with a hilarious vignette that took place on Sunday night.

KPN joined a few of us for dinner & discussion at Tamarind Tree, a popular Vietnamese restaurant here in Seattle. It was KPN, two of my Korean adoptee female friends, and myself. We had a really great talk about a wide variety of topics–Kim’s piece in Outsiders Within, her course on Korean adoption at the University of Minnesota, issues within our community, etc.

All of a sudden, this random white woman approaches our table. She leans down and places her hands on KPN and JB’s backs. I think she must know KPN personally, so I look at her expectantly.

She says,

I’m sorry to interrupt, but I just had to come over here to tell you that you are all SOOO beautiful.

As soon as the words tumble out of her mouth, I immediately start laughing hysterically. I was laughing so hard, I couldn’t breathe. Meanwhile, KPN has a look of confused irritation and JB & HP have their lips pressed shut with disdain at the woman.

KPN eventually says, “Ok…….Thank you????”

I think the combination of my laughing fit along with the others’ annoyance gave the lady a definite “go-away” vibe, so she quickly apologized again for interrupting and then scurried back to her own table.

It was all so incredibly bizarre. The room was full of Asian people of varying ethnicities, including the restaurant servers and owners. HP and I were wearing rumpled fleece, and I still smelled of campfire smoke from the night before. Possible reasons for her approaching us:

  1. She’s an adoptive parent, and she was excited to see what her daughter might someday grow up to be (Sassy Hour ladies, you can feel me on this).
  2. She recently returned from a trip to Asia.
  3. The four of us really are that stunning.

I expect weirdness like that in Kansas City, but not Seattle….. guess it never hurts to have these kinds of reminders of what’s out there!

Everytime I think of that lady, I start laughing to myself now–I’m sure she’s glad to have had that effect on me.



Filed under Adoption (the industry), APIA Community, Community, Korean Adoptees, Korean family, Ranting, Seattle, Updates

Interview in G.O.A.’L Newsletter

The following is an interview that should appear in the next issue of the G.O.A.’L newsletter, The OAK. Describes more fully my internship.

Kelli: How was your overall experience being an intern at GOA’L this summer? Could you share with us what it was like being a summer intern at GOA’L?

Sarah: I had a fantastic experience working as an intern for GOA’L this summer! I worked Monday-Friday, 10am-6pm, during the same hours that the office is open to the public. Once a week, I had a meeting with my supervisor, Nicole Sheppard (GOA’L Vice-Secretary-General). Much of my day was spent on the computer, working on various projects (mainly a handbook for GOA’L employees). However, I also got the chance to meet and interact with a number of adoptees that came into the office. It was an incredibly busy summer for GOA’L (July and August averaged around 150 visitors per month). When the other staff members were busy, I usually answered basic questions such as how to apply for the F4 visa, gave directions to KoRoot, etc., to visitors.

Kelli: As an intern, what were some of your duties?

Sarah: My main project was working on a GOA’L staff handbook for current and future employees of GOA’L. The handbook describes the organizational structure, services & programs, administration and regulations of GOA’L. In order to write this major document, I had to interview each of the staff members several times. The handbook is designed for internal use only, but hopefully it will provide enough institutional memory so that as GOA’L continues to grow and change, the staff will be able to have actual documentation of its evolution. Also, the document I created this summer is Version 1.0, which can be updated (hopefully annually) in the future.

In addition to the handbook, I created evaluations for the GOA’L Conference and also compiled the information from the evaluations in a report. I also did some work for IKAA (International Korean Adoptee Associations) at the G.O.A.’L office in preparation for the Gathering in 2007.

Kelli: What was your purpose for doing an internship with a non-profit origanization, especially for GOA’L? How did you become involved with GOA’L? Was it an easy process to find an internship?

Sarah: I am currently in the middle of studying for my M.P.A. (Master of Public Administration) through the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington (located in Seattle). One of the requirements for graduation is the completion of at least 400 hours in an internship where we can apply the analytical and managerial skills we acquire in our school program. Since I am on the Board of Directors of Asian Adult Adoptees of Washington (AAAW), I have some experience working with grassroots Korean adoptee organizations. I chose to work with GOA’L for my internship because while I was living in Korea (2004-2005), I learned about GOA’L and met Dae Won and Nicole. During that time, I attended some GOA’L events such as the General Meeting, Christmas party and discussion forums. I want to support GOA’L because it was founded by adoptees, for adoptees. I also want to support GOA’L (along with AAAW) as a fellow IKAA (International Korean Adoptee Associations) member organization.

I knew that I wanted to work with GOA’L for my internship as early as autumn of 2005. Initially, I contacted Dae-won (GOA’L Secretary-General) about the possibility of working for GOA’L, and then he connected me with Nicole, who ended up being my internship site supervisor.

Kelli: What did you learn most from being an intern at GOA’L?

Sarah: I learned a lot of the intimate details of how GOA’L functions as an organization. As a small, nonprofit organization, GOA’L faces many obstacles in terms of capacity and fundraising, but they are still able to accomplish a great deal by helping many, many adoptees and their families.

Kelli: Is there any advice or tips you’d like to offer to adoptees who are interested in possibly doing an internship for GOA’L in the future?

Sarah: I would encourage any adoptee who is interested in interning for GOA’L to contact Nicole and Dae-won. They are really committed to developing future leaders in the adoptee community and are great mentors. The two of them have a staggering amount of connections and experience.

Kelli: What are some of the advantages or benefits of interning for GOAL? Didn’t it hurt you financially since it was a non-paid internship? How can one manage to work full-time as an intern without any financial assistance?

Sarah: By interning at GOA’L, you are able to support one of the pioneering organizations in the Korean adult adoptee community. In addition, it’s a great opportunity to network with adoptees from all over the world.

Unfortunately, my internship was unpaid, but GOA’L was able to provide me with lunch each day. Luckily, I was awarded a fellowship from my university in order to help cover my costs during my internship this summer. If not for this fellowship, it would’ve been very difficult for me. Although there was little financial reward from my internship, the other benefits more than made up for it. I would encourage anyone who is interested to try their best to find external funding sources for the internship (although it’s possible that GOA’L may be able to provide a small stipend one day in the future).

Kelli: Would you like to say anything more about your internship experience or say anything to anyone before we finish this interview?
Sarah: This was a great experience! It’s really solidified my commitment to the Korean adoptee community, and I hope to be able to better communicate what GOA’L is to other adoptees. I want to thank all of the GOA’L staff for being so supportive and welcoming this summer. Thanks to Dae-won, Nicole, Jin-kyung, Hoya, Joo-yeon, Felix, Eva, and JohnI’ll miss you! See you next summer for the Gathering!

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Filed under Community, Korean Adoptees, Life in Korea, Organizations

Where did the summer go??

My last few weeks in Korea were wonderful . . . quality time spent with family and friends. I was still very busy, but the insanity of mid-August was gone, thank goodness. Over the first weekend in September, I went down to Suji to visit my family. I made my first trip to a ์ฐœ์งˆ๋ฐฉ (jimjilbang)! Although upon entering the jimjilbang, I realized that I’d essentially already had a jimjilbang experience when I went to Olympus Spa in Lynnwood, WA last fall. (See my November 13, 2005 post–“Nude Girlfriend Bonding.” I can’t figure out how to link to archived posts. Yet another reason to switch to WordPress.) Basically, a jimjilbang is a large spa with several rooms. You can bathe in various pools, get a massage, sweat it out in dry or wet saunas, watch movies, and eat yummy Korean food. It was a strange experience showering with some of the female members of my family (my two sisters, grandmother, aunt, and cousin), but it was a pleasant alternative to the usual non-verbal activities we engage in together (eating, watching DVDs, eating).

Exterior of the ์ฐœ์งˆ๋ฐฉ in ์ˆ˜์ง€.

I just finished uploading photos from my last week onto Flickr . . . . It was a great weekend. Friday: dinner at Le Petit Paris (a French restaurant in ์‹ ์ดŒ owned and operated by two French Korean Adoptees), drinks at Ho Bar (no, it’s not like Hooters. Just a poorly-named drinking establishment.), and then dancing at both QVo (hip-hop) and M2 (techno). Actually, I think T.T.Y. and I were the only ones who did both clubs (the others wisely stuck to just QVo). Fitting, since only he and I were excited about running back and forth that evening. I’ll miss you, T.T.Y., you crazy Dane! Please be good to S., she’s a nice girl. ๐Ÿ™‚ And update your blog, mister, if you ever read this.

๋‚˜์ด์“ฐ Hair
Ni-suh hair!

Saturday ended up being an exact replica of my going-away bash a year ago . . . . samgyeopsal for dinner, drinks at The Lounge, dancing at S-Club. Cheesy as it may sound, The Lounge used to be like the Korean adoptee “Cheers” in Seoul (where everybody knows your name, blahblahblah), but people stopped going there this year. The owner ended up selling the bar, however, and Saturday turned out to be not only my last night but The Lounge’s last night, too. During its two years of existence, Santoki et al. provided much of The Lounge’s business. It’s like the end of an era this summer, because not only did The Lounge shut its doors, but my hairdresser at Juno Hair in Ewha is moving to Australia!!! ๐Ÿ˜ฆ I’ve been going to see her since my first trip to Korea in 2001. Ah, B. & N.–what are we going to do??

Last Night
Half of our group on Saturday night.

When I left Korea in 2005, I was a blubbery mess the week prior to leaving and the months following my exit. This time was significantly less dramatic, because I was only there this time for three months, and I’m getting used to going back and forth (Seattle . . . Seoul . . . Seattle . . .). However, as I was hugging people goodbye at 6 a.m. on Sunday morning before heading back to KoRoot to nap/pack, I did get a little misty. The solidarity I feel with my adoptee friends in Seoul (both old and new friends) is unlike anything else. Other adoptee events (culture camps, mini-gatherings, etc.) come close to replicating the Seoul solidarity, but it’s different. There is something about living and working in the motherland with people who not only share your experience but also share a passion for exploring Korean culture and adoptee culture that creates something . . . special. I miss it already.

(Want to write a KoRoot-related post sometime in the next few weeks. KoRoot: another intrinsic part of the Seoul experience for me.)

I feel a bit at a loss to fully describe what this summer meant to me. For me, it was not about a Korea-immersion, it was a Korean-adoptee-immersion. Working at G.O.A.’L, living at KoRoot . . . . The Korean adoptee community was everything to me this summer: work life, home life, social life. For as intense as that may sound, there were only a handful of moments this summer where I felt like the adoptee-ness was too much. I keep wondering if the day will come when I “burn out” on adoptees. Day hasn’t come yet.

I do, however, need a break from Korea. I love Korea (especially its films . . . definitely the coolest, hippest part of Korean culture. Aside from the SJ B-Boys–ow!!), but Korea also makes me tired. At this point, I feel that I will never become fluent in the language unless 1) I live for two years in a city outside Seoul; 2) I live with my Korean relatives; 3) I take an intensive language course in Seoul where I study Korean 5 hours/day. All of these options would mean that I would have to spend less time with adoptees and more time with Korean-Koreans, and for me, the trade-off is not worth it. I do want to be able to more fully communicate with my family, but I don’t wish to assimilate into Korean society. I still plan on taking 2nd-year Korean at the UW this year, but I’m going to stop feeling guilty about not speaking perfect Korean. Easier said than done!

So I’m completely not on a good sleeping schedule. After I arrived on Sunday, I slept for 16 hours straight. Last night, I only slept for 4 hours. My eyes popped open at 8 a.m. and I could not force myself back to unconsciousness. It is now almost 2:30 a.m., and I’m wide awake, due to a mid-afternoon nap. Who knows what going to Kansas City will do for me . . . .

Yup, going to Kansas City for a week: September 14-20. Time to visit all of my pregnant friends. ๐Ÿ™‚ Classes do not start until September 27th. So I will have lots of time to unpack in my new apartment I share with my Evans classmate. Although I’m taking my sweet time . . . having lots of unstructured time always means strange schedules for me.

Major accomplishments today:
1. Called SoniCare to request a new battery charger (what a rip-off of a toothbrush).
2. Drove all over Shoreline searching for a Korean-style laundry rack, but ended up finding one at Fred Meyer.
3. Did four loads of laundry at a laundromat next to our new apt.
4. Uploaded my pics.
5. Blogged.

Not bad . . . . still searching for my copy of American Knees, however, in my overflowing suitcase. ๐Ÿ˜‰

So I’m feeling surprisingly normal. Nice to spend September off of work, off of school, in my various homes—์„œ์šธ (Seoul), Seattle, Kansas City.

Incheon Airport
With my uncle and his wife. (While sitting with them and and my sisters at the airport, I had one of those moments where I realized, “Hey. They’re Korean. I’m Korean. We match. Woah.” Gotta get ready for Kansas City re-entry…..)


Filed under Community, Korean Adoptees, Korean family, Life in Korea, Updates

Relinquishment and Resilience: Uncovering the Past

๋ฏธ์„ ์–ธ๋‹ˆ (Mi Sun, my older sister), 4th ์ด๋ชจ (my mother’s younger sister), me. 2006.8.19


Last weekend, I went to ์‹ ๋ฆผ๋™ with ๋ฏธ์„ ์–ธ๋‹ˆ and ๋ณด๋ฆผ (์นœ๊ตฌ, Borim) to visit one of my imos (์ด๋ชจ=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 ์‹ ๋ฆผ๋™, 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). ๐Ÿ™‚ 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, ํ˜„์•„ (Hyun Ah), because my two sisters have the same “middle” name (๋ฏธ์„  Mi Sun and ๋ฏธํ—ค 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 ์„ ์•„ (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 ์žฌ์€ Jae Eun and ์žฌ์ค€ 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. Iโ€™m grieving for the fact that Iโ€™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 womenโ€™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, ์กฐ์„ ์ผ๋ณด, ์˜คํƒœ์ง„์˜ ์ฃผ๋งํŽธ์ง€, 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