A woman frantically threw handfuls of cash in the van window as we tried to depart the restaurant driveway.
Our translator explained it was for my parents. She was thanking them for adopting us, the children of her country. My parents were shocked, moved and embarrassed; I think they gave the cash to Geon Christian Children’s Home, which we were visiting. I was probably hungry, having eaten sparingly in a traditional Korean restaurant as an 11-year-old adoptee only recently adjusted from Minute Rice (thank you, Filipino family members). Later that week, my parents cried in the hallway of the orphanage my brother and I had lived in; I felt awkward and emotionless, though I did want to bring a baby home (some things never change). In short, the trip to South Korea had heightened my adolescent sense that I was not Korean, and the meaningful encounters such as the one with the restaurant owner were nearly lost on me.
Now, one day, I hope to go back.
There are many things that would motivate an adopted individual to search for biological family members.
Some adoptees have never felt at home. The jarring experience of changing worlds, with new language noises, new kitchen smells, new relatives and new biases and dangers was never comforted to the degree they needed, whether they were 7 months or 7 years old. I am now in contact with adoptees from South Korea who have had an array of experiences. Those who have been the most hurt were adopted into a family only to be rejected by them, over and over again. Their appearance, their existence, their curiosity about their story and their place in the adoptive family is offensive, often juxtaposed against biological children or cousins, and it is no wonder that these adults have sought identity in their country of origin, hoping that somewhere, somehow, they could belong to a group of people–that they too could find a home. Their adoptive families expect them to be grateful, white, and subservient. It is a devastating environment to be forced to call family.
On the other side of the spectrum, other adoptees, have almost always felt at home. I have been so lucky and blessed and I was biased for many years to see adoption with only rose-colored glasses. I do acknowledge that probably for many reasons, I didn’t want to look at being adopted, and being Korean, very much. I’ve described my childhood unease about my differences previously, having attached strongly to my (adoptive) parents and gained a sense of self-confidence, and loyalty, as a result. I didn’t want to stand out; I wanted to be in charge and stable. I subconsciously knew that it felt risky to raise questions and point out differences (other than my propensity to tan) and I wasn’t willing to step in that space because there was no felt/freed need to do so for a long time. I’ve always lacked curiosity, from the name of a spotted bird species to my adoption history, and while we celebrated my adoption each year and were welcomed to ask questions, I did not. I was not other-ed but I also did not, for a long time, identify as a minority, as Korean, as different. I shrugged off any other-ing and even racist comments and I overlooked my own past.
Moving overseas to an international school where Koreans were the second highest demographic did not stir my Korean interests but sustained my passport culture allegiances or lack there of. I embraced learning about Kenyan cultures, and international perspectives on the United States, but I still did not allot much thought to my pre-adoption life. My brother, on the other hand, started hanging out with more Asian friends, of which there were very few in Oregon, and my Kenyan sister adopted the use of chopsticks, Korean lunch totes, and wanted, for a time, to be Korean.
As a kid, I thought it was a good thing when my white family members or friends would say that they forgot I was Korean. Now, I have outgrown that need and desire more for our conversations.
It was not until I watched the adoption of my youngest three siblings from Kenya, gave birth to children, attached to a Latina foster daughter, and started to notice my own age that I began to wonder…is she alive? Does she worry? Are there other siblings? What is my medical history? Is my kid’s epilepsy genetic? What might my hair become in the next 20 years? My sons have questions; we’re learning together bits and pieces of Korean culture since living next to Koreatown and having more Korean friends. Unlike my surroundings growing up, everyone here is from somewhere else and looks different from one another; differences are talked about all the time. My children want to talk about other far off places and the stories that led them to Los Angeles like their classmates. I can tell them what I remember from Oregon and Kenya; I can’t tell them all I have seen and carried since before then.
I believe it is the attachment and healthy differentiation with and from my parents that has allowed me to arrive at the questions and uncharacteristic curiosity in time. For the past few years, I have stepped into spaces in search of biological answers–not out of urgency and gap but out of gratefulness and security; this is a humbling and unique gift.
The attachment that begins in the womb and is nurtured in those early months of life is inestimable and it was wrong of us to ever think that adoption into a better home or family was without grief and scarring. Attachment begets attachment. Broken attachment imperils future attachment. The self-soothing and sense of the world that is explored with first cries, first hunger pains, and first dreams stay with a child; no baby is a blank slate. No little one falls into open arms without baggage and loss and tender places. I could not believe how many times social workers told me “she is just a baby” when they took our foster daughter after almost 9 months. I was 6 months when I arrived home.
Often with a baby in my own arms, I have learned more about the hard and beautiful months of transition into my adoptive family. My parents have answered questions about my sleep, my unexplained behaviors, my attachment, that I had no words for before. They’ve shared how hard it was to receive a baby with scars, knowing something bad had happened. They’ve shared their own questions about my birth mother, and foster mother–questions which only this journey, my pursuit, might answer. I’ve spoken with therapists about self-soothing and the coping mechanisms I started to develop in a room full of surrendered babies on the other side of the world. I’ve listened to the dark side of adoption, and know it is all too frequent. I’ve watched as each of my siblings, all 5 of us adopted at different ages, from different paths, and 2 different countries, have wrestled with this topic–always a part of our fabric whether we see it or not.
I have sent DNA samples to three directories, the latest of which is maintained by the Korean police. The South Korean Consulate in Los Angeles is the first in the United States to take samples and mail them weekly to Asia and adoptees are flying in from all over the country for their appointments. My sweet, Korean hairdresser has known for years that I am looking for ways to search but limited to English, and she sent me a text a few weeks ago about an ad she had read in the Koreatown newspaper. She would love to help me find some answers, and is willing to use her Korean literacy and her church, community, and family connections should they come in handy. Her job is to cut my hair, but she’s accepted a small and important role on the side.
This also feels like a small and important job on the side for me. I’ve slowly stepped in to the doors I’ve found and only time will tell if there will be any answers; I remain so thankful for the safety from which I raise the questions. I’m thankful for my family who supports these steps, the winding road that has led me here, and for all I continue to learn about the intricacies of adoption, interracial adoption, and Korean adoption.
We are all complicated and growing and tender; let’s keep space for each other.