Go You Own Way, A Korean adopted by Swedes, senior Mari Andersson found a place on the court.
EMMA LANTOS/SENIOR STAFF
By SEUNG Y. LEE
DAILY CAL STAFF WRITER
Thursday, April 7, 2011
If you were to walk past Mari Andersson, you might not even notice her. She is 5-foot-5, has a short, jet-black ponytail and distinctly Asian features – hardly characteristics that set her apart from thousands of other girls at Cal.
But talk to her, and odds are, you might never find anyone with her kind of story.
When Andersson, now a senior on the Cal women’s tennis team, was only four months old, she was adopted from South Korea by a Swedish couple. One of about 9,000 Koreans to have ever been adopted in Sweden, she ended up in a town of about 5,000 people.
But no matter how much she loved Swedish Idol or how often she ate risgrynsgrot at Christmas, the color of her skin made her stand out.
“I’m not really special here even though I’m not at home,” she says of Berkeley. “Whereas where I am home in Sweden, where everything should be normal, I’m special.”
All her life, from northern Europe to the western United States, she never felt she fit in completely. Now at 24, as she prepares to make her leap into the real world, Andersson is left with a lingering question:
Is there a home for her where she will no longer stand out?
Perhaps the only time she did was during the first four months of her life. Like every baby in the hospital, she was Korean. And maybe if she had never been adopted, she could be listening to K-pop or gossiping over Korean dramas.
Adoption is a common practice in Korea for orphans and children in poverty, even in the late ’80s, when Korea was one of the richest nations in the world. Although the reasons why Andersson was adopted are unknown, her biological parents gave their daughter to two Swedes, never to see her again.
“I did think about what might have happened, but the difference from the life I have now to the life I would have if I wasn’t adopted is so big,” Andersson says. “I can’t imagine what it would be like.
“I’m sitting here, with a full scholarship, playing tennis in Berkeley. The odds are small that I sometimes can’t believe it.”
Leaving the busy metropolis of Seoul, Andersson arrived in the small town of Bastad. A quiet, beautiful town on the western coast of Sweden, near the Danish border, the place has a strong Scandinavian ambience, like something out of a postcard or brochure.
It was almost destiny that Andersson picked up tennis. Bastad has the most courts in the nation and has hosted the Swedish Open since 1948. In Sweden, Bastad is Tennistown.
She was introduced to tennis at age six by a friend of her mother and was immediately hooked. After winning her first Swedish Championship at age 12, people quickly recognized her potential.
“There were a lot of professional tennis players, like (former World No. 1) Stefan Edberg, watching,” she recalls. “It was the first time I won something really big. I really liked that feeling I had when I won.”
While tennis provided a path for Andersson to maximize her athletic gifts, it also shielded her from insensitive racial remarks.
“I learned to ignore comments early in my life,” she says. “But I have a couple of friends who were also adopted from Asian countries, and I think they experienced a harder time being Asian in Sweden.
“And really, if you are the best one in tennis, your friends are not going to make fun of you.”
As a teenager, her days were spent on the tennis court either practicing or in tournaments. She was focused on becoming the best tennis player she could possibly be, and hoped to play professionally after high school.
But gradually, she changed her mind. She loved it but did not want to sacrifice her education for it; in Sweden, collegiate athletics do not exist. She had only two options for her tennis career after high school: go pro or abandon her career. Ultimately, she decided to quit tennis after competing in tournaments around the world for two years.
But months later, a middle route appeared. That path pointed westwards, across the Atlantic Ocean.
Go west, young lady, it said. Go to America.
Before she quit, she thought that collegiate tennis was for players who weren’t serious about the sport. But she was willing to compromise after realizing she couldn’t live without playing.
“I emailed every program I can find the address for,” she says. “But for some reason, I just wanted to go to a school in California.
“I really first heard about Berkeley through the TV show ‘The O.C.’ I thought it had to be famous since it came out from a TV show.”
Thanks to a personal connection with Morten Christensen, the Danish assistant coach of the Cal men’s tennis team at the time, Andersson was able to get a hold of Bears coach Amanda Augustus. She joined the squad in fall of 2008 despite applying late in the summer.
Berkeley opened her eyes in a new direction. In Sweden, she had no interest in her past. She had no memories of Korea or known relatives there. The only bridges were her physical appearance and a stack of adoption papers.
That changed at Cal. After growing up in Sweden, where people weren’t as interested in her background, she found Americans’ diversity and curiosity to be a delightful surprise.
Now, Andersson believes she has matured enough to embrace her forgotten history. After exposure to the diversity in Berkeley, she wants to know more about Korea and to rebuild those broken links.
While Andersson has never been to Korea, she had encountered at Cal more Koreans than she ever had. The high Asian population can be a bizarre sight to any Swede travelling in America for the first time. Just ask Mr. and Mrs. Andersson.
“They were waiting for me, and when I saw them they were amazed by how many Asian students that were here,” Andersson says. “Three times, my mom thought she saw me, but it was someone else.
“A mother should be able to recognize her own daughter, but it was so unfamiliar since they never saw so many Asians.”
After three years of tennis at Cal, Andersson is ready to hang her racket up for the last time. After winning the NCAA doubles title in 2009 with Jana Juricova, she hopes to win one last title in the NCAA tournament next month.
In the less immediate future, Andersson hopes to go back to Korea. When that day comes, maybe then she can find the key to unlock answers about the life she never knew.
Maybe then, her story will come full circle.