Voices of Adoption: Korean Adoptee Perspectives

Jamie Kemp

Learning to Trust

The odyssey of an adopted Korean, ending in her own back yard

Learning to trust is a very hard thing to do whether you are adopted or not. In my case, I am adopted, and adoptees, I believe, have a more difficult challenge to face. This is the story of the challenges I faced, and the reasons why.

I was left by my birth mother at the age of two and a half, and was then shuffled around to various homes until the age of three and a half, when I was finally placed with my adoptive family. From the information available to me, I estimate that I stayed in seven or eight homes in that one year.

Consequently, I apparently learned at a very young and crucial age, that people left me without any reason. These feelings of rejection were re-enforced each time I moved to another home, and with the rejection came feelings of mistrust. Subconciously, I carried those feelings with me and brought them into my childhood and adult relationships, especially with my adoptive family. In addition to the burden of mistrust, I grew up always wondering about my 'ghost' past and my 'ghost' country of Korea.

When I volunteered at Children's Home Society of Minnesota for a Korean adoptee panel this past spring, Jeff Mondloh (in post-placement services) asked me if I had been back to Korea yet, and if I wanted to go.

My response was "I would love to go, but it is so expensive to do it and I don't have a thousand dollars to burn right now." He then explained to me about the Holt Korean Adoptee Summer School which costs only $200 for three weeks, everything included, plus $300 of your airfare.

Within the next week I applied for the program via e-mail. Then, about a month later, I received a phone call that I had been accepted. Even though I wanted to go to Korea more than anything, I was a little undecided. I had some fears about going, the cost was still high for me, I would need to take time off work, and arrange for care for my three-year-old daughter. Jeff took the time to talk to me more about going, and within the next week I had made up my mind, and made all the arrangements to make it possible.

So now I was left with the question, " What is my main purpose for going?"

At first my main purpose was to go and learn about Korea with my own two eyes. Not just from books or the stories all of my adopted Korean friends told me. I had always had the burning ambition to experience Korea for myself and to walk away with a better understanding of what happened 23 years ago.

But something happened inside me as I let it all sink in that I was actually going to Korea. I thought to myself 'Why not try to find this person listed in your file since you're going to Korea anyway?" Every year since I was maybe 13, I re-read my file from top to bottom. In it, there was one intriguing piece of information. The name and address of a woman, Mrs. Kim, 315-Sassamoon 2 Dong, Dobong Ku, Seoul, S. Korea. She was named as the woman who cared for me for a two-month period, the person who was asked by my birth mother to care for me. The information I had was that my birth mother never came back so I was then regarded as abandoned.

Immediately, I started my own search for her, contacting Catholic Charities to send me more information regarding my adoption. I then contacted Social Welfare Society to set up a date to meet to review my file and to visit the address and the police box where I was left.

I then worked on my search for a month and a half, spending 10 to 15 hours per week contacting various organizations, trying to see if I could find this woman. I wanted to find her so badly because I knew from information from other adoptees' searches that children are nearly always taken to the orphanages/police stations by a family member or a close friend. On top of the time I spent on my search, I had to work my full-time job during the day, my part-time job at night, and also spend every moment I could with my little girl. I was only getting three to five hours of sleep per night during the last couple of weeks before I left for Korea. I think my determination grew because it never sat well with me that she was just some lady who cared for me. If that is all it was, why would she have gone to the trouble of leaving a name and address? There had to be more to it. I had to find out the truth.

During my search for Mrs. Kim I went through some deep emotions. Like many adopted Koreans who search for birth families, I was emotionally ripped apart, and had my strength and ambition tested to the limit. Doors were closed continually in my face. People told me what I was doing was impossible. At each door slam, I would cry for two or three seconds, then I would get up again and try to to think of other avenues to search. I had no help in doing this.

As I retraced my steps backwards into the past, I found that my fear of abandonment became real again, not as a child, but as an adult. I stared at my file, realizing that for an entire year of my life, from age two and a half to age three and a half, I had been alone without any family, friends, or even any "real" name. My name was changed with each new home, as if I were a puppy dog. That was a really hard thing for me to face and deal with.

It was at this point that I realized I did now have people to turn to - my "real family." Those of us who are adopted know that our "real" families are actually our adoptive families. For the first time in my life, I realized that I needed to ask for their help and support. That was a tough thing. In the past, they always gave it to me whether I wanted it or not. They gave me that love and support without even needing to think about it, and I thought to myself 'Wow I can actually trust them and let myself fully love them for the rest of my life.' For the last 23 years I had always rejected their love. Now it was time to grow up.

When I was young, I felt that if I wasn't their perfect child that I wouldn't have a home any more. This was simply not true. During my teen years, I challenged their love continually. I rebelled at everything and anything I could. I would purposely test them to see if they would pass or fail and they would always pass. So then I would get angry at them for passing and then test them again. They never left my side, and although there was a time in my life when they had to show me tough love, they never left me or stopped loving me. I kept thinking, "Why do you still want me to be your daughter? I am not acting like a perfect child any more, why do you still think that you love me?" I kept thinking "When are you going to leave me?"

My poor mother kept saying the words, "Jamie, you are my daughter. I chose to adopt you. Adoption is always a chosen thing. I will always be here as your mother and I will never leave you." She said those words for many years until she was blue in the face. I could never get myself to believe those words. Nothing she could ever say would have been good enough for me at the time I was rejecting them. Deep down inside, I always wanted and needed their love more than anything in the world, but it was much safer for me to deny it.

For me, the fear of another abandonment was a very real and scary thing. I couldn't let myself get too close to them but now since I was ripping open many old wounds that needed to heal, I made the discovery that they are not the enemy. They are my family and they will forever be there for me no matter what. They have proven their love for me for every day of the last 23 years, and during my search, I realized finally that, without them, I would have been nothing but a lost child with no family to call my own.

I learned so many new things while I was in Korea. I learned that women are not treated as people. When a married couple gets divorced the father has all the rights to the children and can strip the mother away from her children. She has no say in anything, and when the father takes the children away and finds himself in a difficult situation he can place the children for adoption without the mother's knowledge. The rate of alcoholism is very high in Korea among men. Many die of cirrhosis of the liver at a young age.

In Korea, many families are poor and young girls from poor families hang out with prostitutes after school and sell themselves to earn more money to buy the things they want. Women are discriminated against in both big ways and small ways. For example, it is considered disrespectful for young women to smoke out in public on the streets, so they must smoke in the bathroom stalls or in a bar or coffee shop.

There isn't any social welfare system in Korea to help young single mothers. If pregnant women are young and unwed they are ostracized from their families. Most pregnant single women keep their pregnancy a secret, and eventually find a birthing home for unwed mothers.

We visited an unwed mother's home during the tour. I was deeply moved by these young women and shocked at the same time. The shocking part is seeing how young they are. I remember all of the adoptees on our tour sitting with their mouths hanging open in disbelief as we sat across the room from the unwed mothers. They were some teenage girls sitting in the front of the group acting like little children playing. We were all reflecting that this could have been the same situation with our own birthmothers. It all hit way too close to home - the realization of the maturity level of these girls who were about to become mothers was too hard to swallow because we were the end products of this, being sent away for adoption.

The most moving part of the visit with these young women was when most of them said they wanted their babies to be sent overseas. Their reasoning, they said, is that if they grow up in the West they will know they are adopted, and their birth mothers may be able to meet them some day. In Korea, if children are adopted domestically, the chances that the birth mothers will meet their child again are very slim since the Korean family will more than likely never tell them they are adopted. The main reason for them choosing to do overseas adoption is because they can't bear knowing their child is only within a six-hour distance if they do a domestic adoption. They said they would wonder constantly as they walked past children on the streets whether that was their child.

scream out on the subway and on the bus "Are any of you my birth mother?" I could hardly bear the thought that I am in such a small country, so close to her and I can't even find or recognize my own birth mother. The amount of pain the birth mothers must go through is ten times worse, so I truly understood why they choose overseas adoption.

But the one thing that should not go unnoticed is that these women place their child for adoption with an immense amount of love and thought. These women have choices to either place their child over seas, domestic adoption or care for the child on their own. If there was no unwed mother's home these women could die during a child birth, isolated by the stigma of unwed motherhood.

During my home stay in Seoul for one evening, I learned so much about a typical poor Korean family. Another tour member and I stayed with a family of five in a very tiny apartment with two and a half bedrooms, a small kitchen and bathroom. Our meals consisted of a bowl of rice, three different kinds of old kimchi, pickles, anchovies and a potato dish. The family consisted of a 15-year-old girl, a 14-year-old sister, a brother age 9 and their parents. The father did not greet us because he was out getting drunk with his friends and was too hungover in the morning to take us to church, and when we got back from church he had already left to meet his friend. We did not meet her mother because she was taking care of a sick relative. So it was just all of the kids plus the grandmother.

The part of Seoul where they lived had streets littered with some garbage and smelled of sewage. The family had little furniture, and mostly sat on the floor with mats and blankets if they wanted to watch TV. It was easy to tell why there were three children, with two older girls and a younger boy. The son had his own photo album while the girls did not have one. He was prized and very spoiled. The whole experience made me appreciate the life I have now and my life growing up. Not only did I feel gratitude for just the obvious material things, but for the physical and mental presence of my parents in my life, being there, always showing me how much they love me.

One of the more beautiful things I observed about Korean families, both rich and poor, was how intimate and close they can be to one another. It did make me think and wonder very much how much I had missed not being brought up in Korea. Some nights it made me very sad that I never had the chance to be close to my own birth family, and that I did not have any choice or say in their decision to send me away. But at the same time, I could not disregard the fact that I already have a very loving family back at home in the United States who have always loved me unconditionally and will continue to do so until the day God separates us.

reason is that it brought me closer to my family and made me appreciate my life in the United States. Also, I learned so much about my "ghost country of Korea" culturally that made me understand more about why adoption is considered the best option for some families. As part of the tour, we were taught about the whole process of adoption in Korea, and we had an experience to see it first hand to make it more real for us.

Another reason for the importance of this trip is that I found Mrs. Kim, the woman who brought me to the Bookboo police box.

It turned out that in my adoption file, they had the original Bookboo police box report and in that report was Mrs. Kim's full name. When I visited the police station, I asked them to look her up. We found her. After my social worker contacted her, she said she wanted to meet with me.

I arranged with the social workers and the tour program to meet with her the very next day. I immediately called my mom and dad and told them I would soon meet with her. They were very happy and excited for me. I wished that they could be with me for the meeting. I had so many anxieties about meeting her but I also knew that I would forever regret it if I didn't do it.

Through her, I found out the whole truth about what happened to me. I learned that Mrs. Kim is my birth father's eldest brother's wife -- my aunt on my birth father's side by marriage. The day we met, I could tell as I walked through the door that she was carrying a ton of guilt. The look on her face told me that she thought I was going to resent her for giving me up. But I didn't resent her in the least.

In fact, my emotions were of extreme happiness to finally be able to see her and hold her hand. I immediately burst into tears as I saw her for the first time and I just grabbed her and held her tight. She too was very tearful, telling me in Korean, 'you have the same big eyes that you did when you were little.' She kept touching my arm and my hair, sizing me up and down every second. She couldn't let go of my hand. I felt like that small child all over again, all I wanted to do was be held by her like she used to when I was a toddler. All I could do was cry out all of my emotions of frustration for the past 23 years -- always wondering who I am and who did I come from? I wanted to be close to her and get to know her, but it was very difficult because of the language barrier. We had two social workers translating for us so she was eventually able to tell me everything.

After our meeting I went upstairs to clear my thoughts and I saw a triangle of birds that flew over the tops of the trees. I took that as a sign from God, that He planned things this way and I said a prayer to thank Him for answering my pleas.

What happened to me 23 years ago is a very difficult story to share, but here is a brief summary. My birth father and birth mother were married when they had me, and during their marriage my birth father was never home. He was always out and ended up with another woman. He also never gave my birth mother any money for living expenses. He would bring her some bare necessities from time to time. She became pregnant with my younger sister and things became very difficult. She did not have any family at the time, so she left me at my birth father's mother's home in the middle of the night while I was sleeping and never said a word to anyone.

I was then placed with my aunt and uncle because he is the eldest son and the eldest son is responsible for the entire family. My aunt, Mrs. Kim, cared for me for about four months and during that period she tried hard to get him to take responsiblity for me but it always fell upon her in the end. Her family at the time was very poor so she could not take me in as her own.

I was told by her that my birth father passed away ten years ago, and he maintained a very distant relationship with his side of the family since his divorce from my birth mother. They did, however, find me on the family registry along with my birth mother.

Now I have my birth mother's name, and I am trying to locate her and let her know that I am waiting to meet her again. The process is very long, very slow, and it's hard to be patient when I am so close to finding her.<

Through this search, and during my trip to Korea, I have been turning my thoughts to God more often, and I am beginning to trust in Him a little more each day. I think I have a cookie cutter image of being a Christian. I am very afraid if I commit myself to God fully that I will fail. The fear of failure and rejection is still a very big thing to overcome, even when it comes to God's promises. I know that I have a long journey ahead of me in discovering my past, present and future. In that journey, I hope to overcome my fears and replace them with hopes and dreams to walk with the Lord some day, in trust and at peace.