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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

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FALLING INTO STEP WITH KOREAN ADOPTEES

AKA | SF hosted a warm reception to greet everyone to the weekend!

My flight instinct kicked in the moment I entered the room filled with Korean faces. It’s nothing against them, and all about me, because I came from Korea too. However, I didn’t grow up in Korea, nor with Korean culture. My rational mind reminded me that, most likely, neither did they. We represent a handful of 200,000 Korean adoptees (KAD) adopted away from our birth country since the 1950s. From my perspective, adoption positively impacted my life and I’m grateful for the path I’m on. As a writer, or maybe as an adoptee, I felt I couldn’t fully reconcile my current story without a full grasp of my backstory. So after 47 years, I stepped into the room to start my journey to unravel my first 8 months.

Visit IKAA.org for info on the next event!

Obviously, I didn’t just wander into San Francisco, happening to arrive at the annual IKAA* conference reception (this year hosted by the AKA|SF**). I’ll explain my “Why now?” later because the question peppered me regularly leading up to and throughout the weekend. I yearned to spend a weekend getting introduced to my Korean Adoptee clan. I hoped that a full weekend would encourage me to get past the surface amusement of familiar appearances to find deeper connections. I steeled myself to feel the emotion of adoptees’ various experiences, especially those brave enough to share less positive adoption stories.

During my first lap of the reception room, I fought to lower my guard. I thought the high concentration of people with shared history would comfort me as if we shared a silent language. Yet, it unsettled me knowing these KADs could feel my deepest self without having to show my most personal card, “I’m adopted.” That was usually the last card I’d play at a social gathering and I’d toss it playfully into conversation, watch it flutter, then fall out of the conversation.

My newest, fastest FUNtastic friends!

Somewhere during my second lap, the impact and protection of being surrounded by so many others sharing my history crumbled my guard. My heart swelled validating my disparities felt growing up, aligning me with my path and rewarding my timeline. I scanned the 200+ faces for the friendliest, which fortunately I found sitting down making it harder for her to turn to walk away. She took me in, made introductions and in no time it felt like she and I, and everyone else I met, were meant to cross paths.

The next day offered a full schedule of informative programs detailing different paths for KADs to take with their personal adoption story. Heartfelt testimonials from adoptees farther along their DNA searches or journeys home to Korea provided valuable information and perspective. Post-adoption support programs initiated conversations about the experiences unique to transnational adoptees, offering me a new level of comfort and some validation knowing we shared these internal conversations with fellow KADs. Many adoptees translated their internal conversations into beautiful, moving expressions of art.

The many sessions were so informative, it was tough to choose which ones to attend!

Between sessions, my mind wandered:

I wasn’t the oldest person here:
The significant number of 40-something year old first-time attendees pleasantly surprised me. The increasingly noticeable pull of the second half of my life now took an uphill turn as I started this new journey to peel back more personal layers.

KAD faces:
Before this weekend, I prided myself in my ability to recognize who “my people” were but there were so many variations of beautiful faces introduced to me that my heart split wide open wanting to study and greet them all, and collect them as long-lost keepsakes. I hope the intensity with which I admired our similarities and differences didn’t freak any other KADs out!

People’s stories:
Some adoptees have memories from Korea, others (like me) don’t. For some adoptees, the unsettling part of their journey did not end when placed with their adoptive homes. Both their strength to share their stories and their resilience to survive them were honored. Some adoptees shared stories of hope after clearing through their tangled backstory and shared reactions of the people now, unexpectedly or not, traveling this new trail with them.

The truth is out there:
What little history we know about ourselves from our adoption papers could be incomplete or fabricated. As I learn more about the Korean society and the poverty experienced after the war, adoption as a profitable business, and the status of single moms to this day in South Korea, it’s no surprise to learn that many mothers did not want to put their babies up for adoption but felt no other options – or someone forced their hand. This is not just optimistic me hoping for a fairy tale ending, (that is the long-lost Korean princess story echoing in my head). Now, as a mother myself, IF that were the case, I’d want to give that woman some closure. It all worked out well.

The beautiful variety of HAPA stories really spoke to my heart!

I fit in:
Being half-Korean brings with it it’s own special set of circumstances. Physically and culturally, we’ve straddled the line – not being Asian enough for our home country, and, in my case, not white enough for my adoptive country. Through DNA matches, I might encounter family with no prior knowledge of a Korean relative. The Conference offered specific discussions for us Hapa adoptees. We half-Koreans left feeling whole.

Cloudy forecast:
While conference resources help KADs find clear answers to their questions, the knowledge still unravels mixed emotions on both sides. We come from a country still sorting their comfort level with their justification about our adoption story. While originally aiming to solve a post-war problem, for some, the feeling of exporting so many babies was seasoned with a sprinkling of shame. Now a slight curiosity exists regarding welcoming those of us raised in America back to Korea to see how this unique perspective and global upbringing might impact our birth country. The KADs recently started returning to our homeland, curious to learn their history, eager to embrace their roots, yet always with the knowledge that on some level, this country rejected them.

In the end, I left with clearer perspective and with tools to guide me down a newly revealed path. I felt energized sitting with 236 Adoptees from 26 states, representing 6 countries. Fellow KAD, film-maker Deanne Borshay Liem explained the experience perfectly that together we “Celebrated our future by honoring our past.” It is not taboo to go into our past to retrieve what may be forgotten.

This gathering welcomed KADs from the first group of adoptees in the 1950s to now! So grateful to be part of this group!

My next steps involve doing research on my past through various channels to retrace my brief time in Seoul. Largely present in my peripheral view, a visit to Seoul beckons to me. The government and various other agencies, now realizing the importance of introducing adoptees to their homeland, offer trips partially or fully funded through grants. My attention aims towards the Hapa Mosaic Tour that introduces KADs to Korea with itineraries specific to the half-Korean experience.

This eye-opening and heart-filled weekend went too fast. I still need to carve out time to process my next steps. The Mosaic Tour application (due Jan. 15) suggests a to-do list of things in the meanwhile to obtain the maximum information before taking such a large physical journey into my past. I also want to continue to simmer over everything that I experienced over one weekend and get together through other KAD gatherings. I am grateful for the people I met, the experience, information and camaraderie. I feel as though I’ve fallen into step with my sisters and brothers. I must sit still and figure out the shift that occurred. …but it is good.

Though we met in San Francisco, I look forward to keeping up with my fellow Angeleno KADs!

*International Korean Adoptee Association
**Association of Korean Adoptees | San Francisco

Korean Adoptees May get a FREE DNA test through 325Kamra.org

img_0542-1

All photos (except photo booth) courtesy of my new friend and fellow Korean Adoptee, Allen Majors.  Thank you!!

#AKASF20 #IKAA #yearofsayingyes #kad #hapa #ShiftHappens #bepresent #bestill #KoreanAdoptee #SeoulSearching #omaginsiders #yearofquestions #myhistoryisamystery #makesmewander

What about you?!

  • Are you adopted?
  • Are you actively researching your past?
  • Have you been successful with your search?
  • Where did you start?
  • Any helpful resources?

PJ WILDERNESS – MY DESTINATION: SEOUL SEARCHING

The way I manage to end almost any “debate” with my ever-increasingly cynical and tall teen-age son is by reminding him that I’m the fairest Mom in the world and would never ask him to do something I hadn’t done before. (Yes, even the litter box).  So, in that same spirit, I’ll share my Destination brainstorming...

Committing Myself
I recently had the opportunity to take a temporary detour from my life, although with limited mobility.  I regularly indulged in many things I’d love do to if I had more time in the day.  Recognizing how fulfilling they were to me, now that I’m at the eve of returning to my life, I’m panicking about how to keep going: Reading, Writing (a book, if I was not afraid), Immobility (Meditation), and movement – walking or swimming.

Additionally, I’m entertaining a mindful midlife, without heightened crisis, and there are some things that no matter how hard I try to look past them, they stand in my way.  I need to have this still time to let them come forth, be heard, find resolution, then stand aside and allow me to really move past them.

Lastly, I’m looking to get in touch with my Korean culture of origin. If money was no object, I’d be on a plane immediately, but for now I’m building a reasonable plan. Hope I didn’t overbook myself for this journey!

SeoulTalking to Myself
WHO: Most will be solitary because I need to dig deep below my surface, my persona and myself.  However, I love support groups to a) help me realize I’m not crazy and b) to help hold me accountable.  I will definitely reach out to Korean adoptee networking groups or non-profits – including the agency I was adopted through. My kids will be along for some of the journey too so they can learn to be in touch with themselves by watching and learning.

WHAT:  To get more in touch with me, I want to keep writing – working on building up the blog so eventually I can write full-time both to keep me sane and earning a living would be amazing. I need to stay in touch with my creative side and perhaps use this journey as a story line somehow.  To get more in touch with my ethnicity, I’ll visit Cultural Centers, museums, restaurants, networking through the non-profit.

I already visited the Korean Cultural Center (Los Angeles)

I already visited the Korean Cultural Center (Los Angeles)

WHERE:  Here in Los Angeles to start.

WHEN:  I aim to visit Korean cultural centers/exhibits 3-4 times/year, but stay in touch with myself more regularly to make sure I’m on the path I want – rather than just blindly barreling towards an end goal.

At KCCLA, I learned the bedroom origins of a chest my parents bought me!

At KCCLA, I learned the bedroom origins of a chest my folks got me!

WHY:  What started me on a more active journey was reading: Seeds from a Silent Tree: An Anthology By Korean Adoptees.  It’s a collection of writing from adoptees that, for the first time, revealed my shared history with others.  I’m not searching for lost family, but a common history.  I’d love to help others by supporting non-profits geared to assist with searches and adoptions. I want to pay the opportunity forward to other adoptees. It’s important to me to learn about Korean life from Koreans, not just the American impression of Koreans. I have supportive Korean friends, but currently prefer anonymously learning as I go.

Korean porous pots used to make Soy Sauce and Kimchi. I will use them for decoration.

Korean porous pots used to make soy sauce and Kimchi. I will use them for decoration.

My son asked me, “Why now (that I’m old)?” I answered that any time is a great time to learn more about ourselves and our history. Also, I hope to pass along the tradition of being still to my children so they learn to check in with themselves to honor their path in life. Whether it’s a tool to assist them with fighting peer-pressure and bullies, or to help them find a career in an area they’re passionate about, sometimes they have to learn to be still and by themselves. We all do.

Korean Artist: Young-Il Ahn Umbrellas

Korean Artist: Young-Il Ahn
Umbrellas

What’s next in this journey along the PJ Wilderness?