WHY NOW? WHAT SPARKED MY SEARCH INTO MY PAST?

I keep asking myself: Why now? What made me decide to finally go to my birth country of Korea for the first time at the age of 48 (last year)? 

We wore our hanboks to Gyeongbokgung on the last day of our visit! Felt amazing (and gets you in free!)!

It felt like the perfect storm of Impulse (My 2017 Year of Yes and vowing to experience everything), Vulnerability (My 2018 Year of giving in to feel everything), and absolutely my Mindful Midlife (My 2019 Year of trying not to regret anything). While it looked like a sudden whim, my decision built slowly. Along the way, roadblocks sent me down deadends, speedbumps slowed me down, but I’m stubborn and love a good mystery – I needed to see this journey to the end. Surprises rewarded me along the way.

 

OK, this is a Korean pothole not a rabbit hole, but I loved the pattern!

  • DNA SENT ME DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE: When I finally did my DNA to see where my other non-Korean half originated from, I became fascinated by all of my cousin connections!  I read their faces, over-reacting when I noticed any similarities. I’m not really interested in meeting most of the hundreds of cousins, but it amazes me to now see the generations of people that I’m linked to. I’m curious to learn how my ancestors travelled around the globe to wind up where I magically came about in Korea.
    Roadblock: There aren’t that many Asians (from the US and especially not Korea) in all 3 of the big DNA companies: FamilytreeDNA, Ancestry, and 23 and me. The companies are just now trickling into Korea and Korean Asians have their large national ancestry ledger and don’t feel that they need DNA to tell them about their relatives.
    Speedbump: It’s hard to navigate your genealogy as an adoptee because the minute you surprise someone with your existence, they clam up.
    Suggestion: If you’re trying to find relatives, test with all 3 companies and download your raw data into other larger databases.  Many people test 1 time because they are only curious about ethnicity so you could miss large chunks of your genealogy that could be listed in a different database. Leave DNA in the area you’re from. In Korea, the database connects the police departments if there are any matches. Also, enlist professionals – or, as I call them, DNA Angels.
    Surprise: When the Angels got involved, they shot a laser that parted the seas of cousins to find people so fast it made my head spin.

We were able to meet Molly Holt – daughter of Harry Holt who started my adoption agency.

  • INFORMATION OVERLOAD: My neutral attitude towards putting much effort into finding ancestors centered around the number of decades that have passed since I left Korea – not to mention the required language I’d need to communicate what little story I knew. I felt no reason to NOT believe the story in my file and assumed that the record keeping would be poor if files even still existed.
    Roadblock: As an infant found abandoned in the street by a police officer, this enabled me to be logged in the Korean Ancestry Registry – though with a family name given to me by the police. However, no note indicated whether my birth year was accurate, or where I came from.
    Speedbump: Different information existed at the US vs. the Korean Holt International offices.  In some areas, they filled in the blanks from the other file. I learned I’d lived with a foster family and started out as the youngest in the family (before I became the oldest in the family I grew up in). In other areas, the files contradicted each other.
    Suggestion: Ask for all of your files and get translators involved if necessary. Request immigration files through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). I saw pictures I’d never seen and read snippets about my preferences and my day as an infant that shed light on my current behavior and preferences. My inner child wept with gratitude after learning that I’d been so carefully cared for by a foster mother. It also wept at the hint that my history could be woven with that of another adoptee listed in my file.
    Surprise: Turns out one of my files mentioned which orphanage I came through which suddenly changed my birth city to Busan. My file also hid the name of the person who turned me into the agency. A woman.

We learned to make kimchee from a master! I now love fresh and fermented kimchee!

  • MINDFUL MIDLIFE: At the age of 48, I felt an urgency inside sternly warning me that my life would feel wasted if I never visited my home country. Considering all I have and everything I’ve done, perhaps that sounds harsh and even a little selfish. I started to feel as though I lived to meet this society’s markers, but that my life didn’t feel like my own if I didn’t chase after my roots and learn about Korea.
    Roadblock: Korea’s complex culture – they’re just starting to put down the large stigma associated with adoption. The dark veils of secrecy in our adoption files – to help us move quickly into new lives – still hides much of our histories. Conversations are still awkward, and explanations still hazy. It’s unsettling to me when people apologize.
    Speedbump: The relationships that yielded mixed Korean adoptees is vast and still ongoing. It felt shocking to learn the whole history when only searching for my first 8 months. Overall, I’m at peace with the past because I can’t change it. We all harbor  messes somewhere in our families.
    Suggestion: Go when the time feels right. I wasn’t confident beyond every doubt, but failed to convince myself that I should not go. I recognize it’d have been a much different, more superficial and touristy trip had I visited when I was younger or a different crowd, even full-Koreans (who travelled a different historic path towards adoption). I feel like I would most likely have deflected, not absorbed, the impact of my trip back.
    Surprise: Though almost a half-century old, I found my inner child somewhere along the journey in Korea.  I’m now conscious of her existence and learning to care for her.

 

Beautiful Bomunsa temple at the top of a steep hill in Incheon.

In my opinion, adoptees looking for their history hope to answer questions, feel their roots, find their center and perhaps shed light on their purpose.  Of course, family members may be a part of this discovery, but for me, that would be secondary to learning my story. I would love to make connections, to see behaviors and facial expressions, but not in a sense to replace the family I have. This is just my experience, every adoptee’s journey and story is unique and their own to share.

So why now? It’s been a year and I’m finally unravelling and untying the threads of information that connect me to my home country. More than anything, I want to get it out and make sense of it. Though I’ve fully touched my Korean history and feel myself rooted in that country, I still haven’t married my Korean and white sides here in America. When I do Korean things, it still feels like a field trip for me: Spend a day in the life of a Korean woman!

The famous 💩 Emoji cookies and the cafe where you drink out of mini toilets! We stuck with the delicious cookies!

Since October is #Blogtober, and I love me a strong deadline, I’m using this as a means to try to push the rest of the story out! I look forward to sharing more of the surprises and stories with you! It may be slightly messier than usual just to get it out. I appreciate you staying with me through this exercise!

What about you?
Have you researched your genealogy?
Did your family come here from another country?
Have you visited your birth country?
Are you adopted?
Have any additional questions? Ask in the comments!

#Blogtober #Day1 #Adoption #Adoptee #KoreanAdoptee #KAD #MixedKorean #MyHistoryIsAMystery #ancestry #heritage #DNA #family #relatives #writeyourtruth #SeoulSearch #memoir #personaljourney #OMagInsiders #makesmewander

MY FIRST TRIP TO MY BIRTH COUNTRY WAS MORE THAN I EVER IMAGINED

RED EYE TO SEOUL

Red Eye to Korea: I left on 8/29 and arrived on 8/31?!

One year ago tonight, I was on a plane to Korea for my first visit to my birth country in as many years as I’d been alive thanks to Me & Korea and their Hapa Mosaic Tour It’s taken me a year to find words to share my experience in writing because the journey was so much MORE than I expected.

While I immediately squeezed out two pieces for the Korean Quarterly and for the Me & Korea 2018 newsletter, I felt that was talking to a captive audience. But when trying to explain my trip to anyone else, I felt like I was swimming, fighting to keep my head above water, trying to keep sight of the shore but not knowing which side to cling to as the waves of information and memories kept coming.

This trip changed me, I can feel it. Now, I have so much more than I did before.

Sunlit Sisters Center

We traveled to Pyeongtaek to visit the Sunlit Sisters Center, a social club for halmonies (grandmothers) who had been comfort women.

MORE HISTORY
While growing up, a small sliver of me held onto the fantasy that I’d return to South Korea only to find I was a long-lost princess.  Walking through the streets of South Korea with a group representing a living chapter of many countries’ histories felt even better than any Princess fantasy. Right now, I’m fortunate enough that the full span of that history is present as I am able to meet Korean Adoptees (KADs) sent away during the first-wave of adoptions right after the Korean War to those towards the end of this story – as Korean intercontinental adoptions slow down.

Camptown

This was the border of the camptown in Bupyeong. Now a grassy park.

MORE SCARS
Our realities reveal huge discrepancies between what we were born into and what we grew up with – no matter which country we were adopted to. I’m still bothered by the heart ache over what little support exists, even now, for single Korean pregnant women. I want to bang my head over the irony of the national registry that everyone must be on yet that won’t record children if there is no father – unless they were found abandoned in the streets which means they’ll be assigned to one. I’m haunted by the fact that while I was in the USA consumed by the color and excessiveness of wanting my MTV, my birth country was still drowning in a bleak ravenous poverty.

The Statue of Peace - Seoul

This statue speaks volumes and has a 24-hour guard to protect her.

MORE TURMOIL
Turns out as a Hapa (mixed Korean) adoptee I’m a part of multiple layers of a controversy interweaving many countries’ histories – that most refuse to acknowledge. Since the Korean War, there have been Comfort Women in camptowns, the commercial areas adjacent to US military bases in Korea.  These women are government-sanctioned workers there for the enjoyment of the soldiers (to put it as mildly as possible). The media tries to paint a picture that there are only a few left and that the 122 won a lawsuit winning a case against the government, and approximately 57 won small financial restitution so we should all be happy and move on.

This history did not end when the Korean war ended. When I was born in the 70’s, there were still approximately 20,000 women serving 60,000 soldiers (Kingston/Japanese Times).  Another article estimated that it was closer to 46,000 women in 1969 who earned $70 million dollars (Jeffrey/United Methodist Women). Women wound up there for many reasons: those illegally trafficked, those trying to feed their families, perhaps trying to do their part to get more of the US money to help Korea crawl its way out of poverty, or perhaps repaying their own debts. However, the country didn’t consider the by-product of this idea – the mixed Korean babies in a culture strictly valuing pure bloodlines.

Vintage Camptown in Bupyeong

It was fascinating to see that in the past almost 50 decades, not a lot had changed in this area.

MORE COMPASSION
In my heart, I have to forgive the past and, as Oprah would say, give up the hope that it could have been any different. Bottom line, I know I am fortunate to have been the result of one brief encounter that created me. My birth mother kept me for 2 months then I was treated with care as I quickly transitioned from Korea to America. I arrived to a family who welcomed me and loved me. Nobody else can tell an adoptee how lucky they should feel. But I can tell you how it gives my life an incredible feeling of purpose to know that despite the odds that were stacked against me, I’m here.

I also cannot comprehend how it felt or assume how I would have behaved while living through the war, being separated from my family as a teen to fight a battle in a foreign country, or living in a country so poor that giving up a child to feed the others seemed like a reasonable decision. I cannot comprehend the societal pressure that causes someone in the family to turn over their mixed baby to restore stability to their place in society. I grew up in a country with different origins, history and culture than Korea where I almost cannot imagine life any other way and it’s not my place to judge others.

Investigating my roots

L to R: Me, the employee of the Nam kwang orphanage with my 48-year old files on the table in front of him, our translator.

MORE DETAILS
During the months leading up to the trip and while on the trip, I learned more details about my past. I learned that I was from Busan, not Seoul. I learned that I was turned in by a woman – my translators feel this was most likely a relative.  I’d always believed I was abandoned in the streets and found by the policeman as my mass-produced adoption papers stated. I learned that my birthday is correct or super close to what I thought it was. I learned that I grew up as the youngest child in a foster family for a few months. Though there was no way to remember any part of this, I felt like my inner child felt redeemed now that I clung to these tidbits.

DNA sample Seoul Police

The very first day we all left DNA samples in the Seoul Police station

MORE DISTANCE
At the same time, I’m even farther away from my history. Though DNA has overwhelmed me with hundreds of cousins and a thriving family tree, the majority are from my caucasian side. Though I’ve tested with 3 companies, these companies don’t have many people from Korea in their databases. The companies just aren’t commonly represented in Korea. Though, this is starting to change. There are some organizations like 325Kamra that give free tests to Korean Adoptees, nationals and to military GIs.

The women who could be our birthmothers, may not want their families to know that they had a child previous to their current relationship due to the culture that still exists in Korea.  They don’t want their children to reunite with them because their shame for what they did for work, or for giving up their children, is too large to bear. I’m telling the birth moms that your children do not care and simply want to connect with you. Our only string of hope was leaving DNA samples in the police station in Korea hoping that eventually family members will do the same.

A Day in the Life

It was amazing to see how the lives of busy mothers (our gracious host families) in Korea mirrored ours.

MORE LIKE ME
For years, part of my resistance towards traveling to Korea centered around a fear of rejection. I stand out and thought I would be shunned because I’m not full-Korean, I know nothing about being Korean and am an adoptee.  To my relief, there was not one time on the trip that I did not feel welcome. No side eyes, no indirect whispers, no bad feedback to my attempts to bow or greet people in Korean – nothing. I loved that we spent time with adults who lead similar lives. My KAD friend and I spent time with two Korean BFFs who loved to shop and to eat – perfect!  They took us under their wings with gusto and showed us around town walking many store blocks and shoving spoonfuls of food in our mouths.

2018 Mosaic Hapa Tour

So much comfort was found in being surrounded by other beautiful mixed Korean faces!

MORE CONNECTION
The ability to take this journey with other KADs was a gift.  We instantly connected over our mass exodus and desire for information though recognized the significant differences from our childhoods living here and the various routes making up the rest of our lives. I was grateful to have this community of sisters and brothers who understand and get parts of me without any explanation.

DMZ Border of Hope

The DMZ represents a painful separation of families and these ribbons send messages of hope to other family members and hope for reunification.

MORE PAIN
Other people’s energy tends to saturate me so sometimes their pain overwhelmed me. Sometimes I felt guilty that I couldn’t help carry their pain, and that I didn’t experience the same level of loss on any conscious level. We shared stories, we cried to each other, sometimes our crazy family dynamics manifested in wild unexpected ways. It’s a frightening and painful thing to experience that many people feeling so raw and torn open but a beautiful thing to witness at the same time.

Pearl S Buck's typewriter

We owe it to ourselves and to those who come behind us to uncover our pasts and share our truths!  (Pictured: Pearl S. Buck’s typewriter)

MORE PURPOSE
I feel as though I’ve been given this amazing fresh lump of clay to mold and shape into something amazing. So far, I feel the power of our KAD shared truths. The more we “older” KADs talk about our journeys to Korea, our birth searches – if we’ve done them, or even just what it feels like to not relate to our birth culture because we’ve been raised in another one – the more strength and guidance there is in our KAD community.  My new goal is to help others uncover their truth, find peace with what they find and discover their paths in life as well. I’m still shaping my vision for how to do this, but I’m excited and anxious about the possibilities!

Turns out I'm from Busan

Turns out, I come from Busan which is really funny if you know me and fish…

MORE GROUNDED
One KAD explained our transition so well – that we all left Korea by falling through the Narnia wardrobe into fantasy worlds where we grew up, but the minute we step back through the wardrobe returning to our birth country, we return to our inner child at whatever age we left. I’ve learned to sense my inner child and am learning how to care for her. I tended to just stay busy thinking that if I was still moving forward then I must be ok. I have spent my life always moving, adapting and settling into new normals whether self-enforced or by forces beyond myself. Building thick walls to compartmentalize my conflicts while operating in constant survival mode isn’t healthy and wears me out. I’m working on incorporating time to be still for writing or reflection.  My inner child now lives with me after we reunited in Korea.

MORE MYSTERY
For every step I drew closer to my past, an obstacle got thrown in my path. While I had an address in my file that the person who turned me in left as a “home residence,” who knows if the name or the address was correct.  When we drove to the address, the rubble of the neighborhood littered my path. Our early histories are being demolished with the urgent need to modernize Korea.

The trip introduced us to the colorful, bustling Korean culture, Korean and American history, and our individual histories. I look forward to recording the rest of my trip and really diving in to capture every event and every emotion along my journey.  My history is a mystery.

What about yours?!
What do you know about your history – whether you’re adopted or not.
Have you done DNA testing?
Did you have any surprises along the way?
Tell me more!

#koreanadoptee #kad #Korea #Seoul #Busan #Bupyeong #Pyeongtaek #ComfortWomen #KoreanWar #history #Adoption #Adoptee #Camptowns #DNA #Geneology #BirthSearch #MixedKorean #Hapa #MosaicTour #MyHistoryIsAMystery #SeoulSearch #MakesMeWander

WHAT NOW?!

Recently I got some Big News and at first curiosity bubbled over as I wondered “What now?!” Part of me itched to hurry and tell somebody because the news was too big not to share! Part of me craved to be still, sit and simmer on the information to allow me to maintain control of the situation and to figure out what purpose it serves me. I’ll admit, I followed my curiosity down the online rabbit hole snooping some but also to help shape my idea of “What this all means!”

My original motive for taking a DNA test was to figure out what my other ½ was since I didn’t have that information when I was adopted. When that can of worms opened, family spilled out – as I knew they would.  Right away the database paired me with a few 2nd – 4th cousins.  While that sounds really close, (2nd is almost as good as 1st, right?) realistically 2nd means that, if we’re lucky, we share great-grandparents. So you can guess how distant 4th cousins feel. Exhilarated, I snooped some close matches online searching for any obvious commonalities on their online profiles.  I’ll admit, too, I sat staring at the little envelope button (below the red arrow) and continued to simmer on the whys and what ifs. How would this be received by the recipient?

familytreedna-matches-www-makesmewander-com-what-now

The reason I’d never really considered looking for biological parents growing up was because I simply believed it was an impossibility. In my mind I’d painted a tale of a military guy on a weekend furlough looking for fun in the country he was stationed in that wound up having a side consequence he never knew of. Whether this is part of the script they tell us to help us “cut ties” with our home country or something I made up to protect myself from potential disappointment, I’m not sure. Since my exposure to other adoptees was super limited and nobody else offered a different picture – I just sat within this reality.

Since then, I’ve read a few books and joined a few online Korean Adoptee groups that paint a very different possibility and changed my perspective enough to be open to communication with a relative if they reached out to me or if were a direct match. I would love to let Korean relatives know that their selfless decision to let me go turned out well. I don’t aim to blow anyone’s vision of what their family unit looks like with a surprise relative from a far land.

ancestry-test-www-makesmewander-com-what-now

While contemplating this new branch of my family tree and how to prune it, I took another DNA test. While attending a blogging conference this past summer, Ancestry.com was there and when they heard I had a 2nd – 4th cousin match on my first round of matches, they said “Here, take this test, our database is one of the largest, maybe we’ll get even closer!”

ancestry-matches-www-makesmewander-com-what-now

They brought forth a different cousin – but a 2nd or 3rd!  After the usual online snooping, I wasn’t any further to finding any information on this new person. Also, the closest people from the first database didn’t overlap this new sprinkling of relatives.

To go all in, I also downloaded the raw data and threw it into a Korean adoptee specific database (but truly have no idea how to navigate it).

What now?  

  • I know that I want to go to Seoul, South Korea.  I know it’s super far and if I’m going to go, I’d want it to be a meaningful trip, not just a tourist trip.
  • It could be cool to trace some lineage to answer “behavior or biological” questions.  
  • As an INFJ, I’m not seeking to have a pile of “relatives” to flood my inbox since I can barely keep up with my own family!

One of the folks in an adoptee group I joined explained it perfectly that we adoptees have blind spots that exist and that we wind up richer by allowing ourselves the curiosity and tenderness towards our own past to let it grow and flourish, thereby overtaking the shadows that have followed us, knowingly or not.

heart-shadow-www-makesmewander-com-what-now

Perfect picture from Pixabay

What about you?
Have you taken a DNA test?

Were you adopted or just researching ancestry?
Any surprises?
What’d you do next?

 

 

 

MAPPING OUT ME

Growing up, one classmate told people he was born on a star. We laughed it off but, underneath, I empathized. I knew very little about my Korean origins, many moons from where I landed in America.

korea map

WTF: Wow, That’s Far!

Alien and alone, I tried to make sense of my differences without all the information. Being ½, Asians don’t think I’m Asian. Most people think I’m Hawaiian. Most Hawaiians think I’m Haole. In my family, those of us born outside the country outnumber those born inside (Stand down, Trump).

During my daughter’s recent assignment displaying flags of her ethnicity, though her genetic variety left very little white space to fill, again the reminder that the mystery extends to her generation. So, I signed up for an autosomal DNA test.

vkc flags

Because I am female looking for information on the man’s family (but with no access to them), I did “Family Finder.” It provided my specific DNA markers and a snapshot of areas reporting similar DNA patterns.

No surprise, I’m 50% Asian! It’s exciting to see that my love of Chicken Paprikas, Outlanders and the drive to visit Ireland may be intrinsic, not just a product of my environment. Am I now 1 gazillionth in line for the British throne and ineligible to marry Harry?

image

Truth: they’re all foreign to me.

The website fascinates me with details on people’s global migration explaining how my markers reach Madagascar and beyond. I’ve always wanted to “Eat our way around the world without leaving LA” but now have a more personal path to map.

image (1)

Crack open that Korean cans of worms… who shares my DNA.  Since I’m not currently conducting pursuing leads, I simply check in sporadically to see (as more people test) if anyone joined my tribe.  So far the closest match were 2nd – 4th cousins, and many 3rd – 5th.  The fact that I can’t tell the difference between 2nd cousins vs. cousins twice-removed causes me more anxiety than who appears in my feed.  Though I’ve seen some similarities in a face that could complement mine, my kids disagree.

Though so far not life-changing, I’m glad I learned this information to strengthen the weave of my tapestry of life experiences making up ME!

sarah

OPENING A KOREAN CAN OF WORMS

As soon as I clicked the “place order” button, A warmth spilled out from my chest and enveloped me. You know that feeling when you splurge on some guilty indulgence, just what you need at that moment to make your life complete. Others question “Do you really need that?!” Doesn’t matter. You deserve to do nice things for yourself for once.

Well, what I’d ordered as my long-overdue gift to me was a DNA test. …and if I ordered in the next 15 minutes, it came with a free can of worms at no extra cost.

Obviously in the ongoing debate between nature vs. nurture – we’re more than just where we come from. For me, it’s never really been a void – sure it’s been been a drunken party game to “Guess Sarah’s ethnicity” and a running joke that my kids are already a Heinz 57 mix – so why dilute that perfect recipe. But lately I want to fill in blank spots in my history as well as check more boxes than just “Asian” on the next personal profile form.


According to familytreeDNA.com, the test I took is an autosomal test designed to find relatives on any ancestral lines within 5 generations. Autosomal DNA is a mixture of DNA received from both parents (about 50% from each) and is unique to each person. Assuming my birthmother is from Korea (being that I was born there) then the rest is from my birthdad.

…And, the bonus can of worms.

WTH: What? This’s Healthy?!

Putting my information into a huge database enables connections to occur. Connections between people with similar DNA patterns. Some voluntary – for example if I joined an on-going Korean Adoptee Study – some involuntary – if an email pops up indicating that my neighbor’s DNA patterns imply we could be family. I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew.


I took the test August 4th after viewing an amazing story about family and Korean adoption called Twinsters. Through these shared experiences and this specific action I am constructing my history. Now that I did my cheek swabs I can’t wait to find out the results.


My results are in! Place your bets…

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