Chapter 1: The Summer of 2000
It all began with the simplest of gestures, a gift from my parents and a chance to rediscover the heritage I never knew. My parents approached me before my last year of High School was complete to see if I was interested in attending a “Motherland Tour” that was hosted through Holt International, the same adoption agency that had coordinated my being sent to the United States in 1983. I never had much of an interest in learning about my nationality, having grown up with very little contact with other Koreans. So when my parents asked if I wished to go as my senior graduation present I didn’t hesitate to say that I would. As a boy that had grown up in a rather large protective bubble this was an opportunity of a lifetime.
The plane taking me to Korea was departing out of Seattle, Washington and was the meeting point for the other participants on the tour. I arrived a day early along with some of the other adoptees that were coming from out of town. Many individuals ended up meeting us at the airport the day of the trip since they were living on the west coast. This was my first real experience with Asians from other parts of the United States and having been raised in Mississippi and Tennessee for my whole life my southern accent was embarrassingly apparent. The very bright side of the trip was the male to female ratio of women my age, the advantage in numbers heavily favoring the women. I was confident this was going to be a great trip upon seeing this.
I wonder looking back upon the frame of mind of many of the members on that plane. How many were hovering at 45,000 feet trapped with their thoughts and fears? I had no apprehensions prior to going to South Korea that summer. My adopted parents and I had a strong relationship and they had been very open about my adoption. It wasn’t exactly a relationship that could be hidden due to the differences in race and because of that I believe my parents were very honest with what information they had about my past. Unfortunately that past included less than ten sheets of paper that told my life story prior to being adopted. It was a story that began in that orphanage in Busan, South Korea and no amount of wishing could ever cause the previous chapters of my life to magically appear.
It is a hard thing to live life knowing you were not wanted. Many adopted children share this realization with each other, but we hate to be compared to one another. We want to be individuals so bad after being forced to be just that, individuals. Pushed out to try and shine alone it isn’t hard to believe that we might loath to be compared to “he or she that was also adopted.” I am grateful that my mother and father decided to adopt me and saw something in that face staring back at them. I imagine I was one among many they looked at. Their decision to choose me and the life I had lived to this point was solidified in the confidence I had as a person. I knew who I was on that flight to Korea and I had no idea that the image I had of myself was about to be shattered.
We landed in the middle of a sea of Asian faces. It was overwhelming for me and a large part of that was the absence of white and black skin. I suddenly felt like I belonged, but at the same time I felt very much a foreigner in my own country of birth. It is a difficult relationship to describe unless you live it and living the life of a tourist in your own birthplace is a little embarrassing. We were indeed a bus full of picture taking “out-of-towners” and I remember feeling noticeably uncomfortable a few times because of this apparent feeling. There was no “return” feeling for me and the discomfort from just that realization should have been a rude awakening of what was to come. I believe the presence of the other members on the trip caused me to get over my embarrassment far faster than I would have alone.
The trip followed a planned schedule as we made our way from Seoul south towards Busan and Cheju Island. We traveled by bus a lot which was an eye opening experience into how bat shit crazy Korean bus drivers are. I swear I lost a few years of my life during those terrifying hours on the bus and I will forever have memories of the impossible U-turns those drivers made! We crossed Korea visiting Buddhist temples and museums, learning about the culture and traditional Korean way of life. It very much was apparent that the whole trip was gauged at trying to paint our birthplace is the best of colors. This was obvious when we made an unexpected stop in front of a building where a group of expecting mothers was waiting to meet us.
There are intricacies to Korean culture that they as a people like to use as excuses for burying issues they don’t wish to address. This particularly frustrating habit is one I would encounter several times through my life, but in this instance this characteristic was highlighted to me by the inclusion of this visit. We met a group of expecting mothers that were in the process of deciding to give up their children for adoption. I believe that the coordinators of the trip believed that this interaction would serve two purposes. It would show these expecting mothers that “all adoptees end up happy” and it would also give the adoptees a face to the woman that may have given us up. The sad part is that I suspect some executive thought this was a great idea and in reflection I couldn’t disagree more. I remember the meeting being awkward, since almost none of the adoptees spoke any Korean, and forced. It very much had the appearance of being for “appearance.”
I think that meeting really added to my whole perception of the trip up until that point. It felt cosmetic, touristy, and was probably why I viewed the trip in such a way. Their basic setup was created to present the adoptees on the tour with a view of their motherland, but at the same time it was a very controlled trip. There was a director of Holt with us, his name was David, and each day was plotted like a novel. Prior to going on the trip we had each filled out a packet with basic background information on us. The coordinators thus knew the limitations for the group, such as the fact that none of us spoke Korean or had ever been to the country since being adopted. This fact made it easy to dictate what we did on the trip and what we saw.
We were each asked in the paperwork if we would like to visit our orphanages and see where we came from. I had originally said I did not want to go because I had already seen my records and did not feel a need to visit an orphanage I had little wish to see. I found out that I was not the only person on that adopted from Busan Orphanage so in the end I changed my mind and went on the cab ride with the other two adoptees to an inconspicuous building we were told was our “homes.” I have never been thrilled about orphanages and hospitals, the feel or smell of the places make my skin crawl. I remember the same feeling when walking into the building that held the shadow of my past. I was unaware at the time that those innocent steps would be the start of a hopeless quest for answers.
We sat waiting our turn to see the open book with our translator and the director of the orphanage. An album that held our entrance photos and documented our “processing” into the orphanage was sitting in an office waiting for us to gawk at our past. I had already seen the picture waiting for me, so I was less apprehensive, but there was still an awkward atmosphere around the group. When it came my turn I smiled and nodded at the photograph I had already seen and began to make my planned turn to the door when a motion from my translator stopped me.
His hand reached over the left page of the book and a finger pointed at a line drawn from my photo to the one below. He spoke rapidly in Korean and a certain note of urgency in his voice caught my attention. Turning to me he placed his hand on the book and said “there is a line drawn from your entry to the girl below you. The footnote here says that this is your “Noona” or sister. The director is trying to find out more information, I am very sorry you had to learn this way.” I remember tears, papers being shuffled, and more tears. With a few sentences my world had been rocked and I struggled to understand why I suddenly felt lost. It was only the start of a realization about the harshness of life that would come close to killing me.
A second book was placed in front of me and I waited to see what Pandora’s Box awaited me within these pages. I was still in shock at this point, but these moments I won’t ever forget. It was a visitor registry that they were showing me and the line they had circled held my mother’s name and address. The director gathers, from what I do not know, that my mother came back and got my sister have had a change of heart. He was very sympathetic though and I will forever be grateful for his kind offer that I did not take. He said “she doesn’t live far, I could take you there.” He could take me there, he was ready to go with me. What might have been had I talked over my translator who hurried said that it was against Holt International policy for an adoptee to approach their birth mother in such a way. We would need to speak to David who was the director of the trip.
I am not sure why I didn’t demand to go. At only 18 years old and having been raised in a fairly strict family it can be assumed that I just went with what the authority at the time said. “It isn’t allowed” sounds fairly simply to understand. There was still a great deal of shock going on internally and I am fairly certain I was crying periodically throughout these revelations on my life. Before I realized what was happening we were back on our way to meet the rest of the group and my small window of opportunity was closed. In all fairness there is no guarantee that had I gone with the director that day I might have met my mother, but there is a far better chance I think that I might have seen her face. Regardless, there is no going back in time and I don’t think meeting my mother was first and foremost in my considerations at that point.
As I sat there with only my sorrow as my only comfort I believe that I thought of many things. Meeting these new “important” members of my life I don’t think was one of them. The reaction of the rest of the group, the response of my parents, and the possible change in relationship I might have with my adopted family were definitely on my mind. No one can really know how they would respond in a similar situation unless they had actually thought about and considered it, but who places themselves in such situations hypothetically out of boredom? The strings that held me together as a person were loosened a little that day, but I wouldn’t realize just how much until more strain and time had been placed upon them.
We met the rest of the group at a hotel for lunch. They were all happy and chattering having just seen some museum or other tourist attraction. It was quickly noticed that I was sitting with my face down on a table and the translator obviously rushed to report what had happened at the orphanage to David. I felt a hand on my shoulder and concerned eyes asked me if I was holding up ok. You can never truly tell the heart of another person, but I believe he was sincerely asking me. At such a young age and not being one that loves attention I put on a brave face in front of David and the rest of the group. I told him I was fine and even nodded my head in understanding that the “search process” had to wait till we were back in America.
I shoved my pain to the backseat of my mind and forced myself to have fun the rest of that trip. This shall be ironic later on in life, but I think I truly wished to have a good time while in Korea. It was my first time out of the country and there were a lot of other Koreans my age on the trip. This was a foreign concept to me. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee most of my life and had very few Asian friends in my life. Having gone to a school that was mostly black and belonging to a family that was white there were very few people I had met that could relate to me racially. Korea was such an eye opening experience for me that there were indeed other Asians in the world and even places where there were only those of my kind. I believe I appreciated the world a lot more from that trip.
I also developed a strong taste for alcohol. We stayed in a number of hotels throughout Korea that were all very high quality. Technically we were told not to drink alcohol if we were not twenty-one, but no one listened to that “rule” because the legal age in Korea is eighteen and that is a very loose age in most parts of the country. Our nights were filled with kimchi topped pizza from Pizza Hut and every kind of alcohol you could imagine. I met a new friend named soju on that trip which is the favorite liquor of Koreans. I think my tastes buds really connected with the food there, but more importantly I tried to drink away this new feeling of sorrow I wasn’t prepared to recognize or deal with at the time. The growing ball of emotion that I felt hardening from being ignored was not something I was mature enough to deal with.
I don’t remember much of the rest of the trip. It was kind of an alcoholic haze of denial and that is exactly what was intended. There were some great people on that trip and some bonds were formed that might have lasted for a lifetime. The reason they didn’t was mainly because my focus in life shifted that day in Busan when I found out about my past. I have always made friends easily in life, but keeping those friendships has been hard because a disconnect was created internally on that homeland tour that can never be healed. That disconnection to wanting or needing certain relationships in life was directly associated to my mother and the pain from realizing her rejection was only slowly beginning to haunt me. I would have the rest of my life to consider the “whys” and “how” of everything, but the pain did not wait on a start gun before making its presence apparent.
I spent a lot of nights in tears of frustration during the remainder of the trip up until the day we flew out. The frustration was from knowing I was about to leave the answers I sought, but I saw no way of finding them alone at that time. It would have to wait till I returned and got the help of my parents. They would know what to do, they always did. I spoke to my parents briefly before departing on the plane and they told me my friends had inquired if it would be alright for them to stop by and say hello when I got home. My mother’s voice held a hint of concern as she could not tell my state of mind or how I was holding up, but I was still putting on brave faces so I placed one on again and said that was fine.
We left Korea with a dinner and a small celebration, but my heart had already gotten on the plane. When my body joined it the following day I shut the world out with headphones and endless music. I flew back to Seattle and then connected on to Memphis and my waiting family. My mother’s face is still in my head when I recall returning home that night. Her look was a mixture of concern, love, and a determination to ensure nothing was going to change. I admire now her strength during my journey, both her and my father’s, I am not sure how I would have held up having a child I raised searching for his biological parents. Their support during this period of my life cannot be overstated.
A few of my friends met us at the house and I handed out some small gifts from my trip and told some small stories to be polite. I was exhausted and just glad to be back within my familiar surroundings. There was an instant feeling of “that was a bad dream” syndrome happening and I embraced the comfort of knowing that all my problems were an ocean away. The love and physical presence of the only family I had ever known helped to push the demons away for a time. Thoughts of college and being roommates with my best friend Tim were gradually growing as the primary focal points of my life. I welcomed the distraction and did not realize that the added stress was definitely not what I needed. I should have faced my struggles then, but instead I shrugged the trip off a little and told my parents “there is a whole process.” I then immediately shelved the whole idea. I was definitely not mature enough to deal with it at this point in my life.
Chapter 2: Unhealthy Distractions
College was everything I was told it would be and more. It was a mixture of unhealthy distractions, finding attractions, and growing from a self-conscious teen to a more confident adult. I am not sure about the confidence part, but there was definitely some growing happening. A love for alcohol sprouted quickly and the only thing that kept me from turning into a freshman dropout was a hellish outbreak of acne for the first time in my life. I had a few pimples in high school, but apparently the stress of the past several months and the new college diet was enough to make my face explode. It caused me to become somewhat of a hermit for the first year of college, which probably in turn helped me to focus as much as I could on my studies. Unfortunately my facial issues also kept me closeted with my depression and unsettled thoughts around my birth mother.
I don’t remember the exact day I decided to find them. I am sure it was a well thought out decision contemplated over a bottle of something cheap and freely partaken from. My search was not well planned or thought out and much of that was due to being uneducated in the search process. There were also limited resources for finding lost family members in comparison to today, in 2001 there were few reliable agencies helping adoptees in their search. It is even harder to find reliable help when the country of origin differs from the United States. I ran into numerous issues finding people willing to devote the time needed to assist me in my family search. There were some Koreans that reached out and responded to my emails and I was even told my story was put into a local paper. Nothing came from these attempts and my frustration mounted.
One night I began an email to the director of the orphanage who had originally offered to take me to find my mother that day. I still grappled with not having accepted his offer and the guilt from missing that opportunity would aggressively bubble to the surface each night.