Seoul Searching, Rick Reilly, Time Magazine, August 28, 2000
After 11 years and 6,000 miles, we still hadn’t met our daughter’s mother. We had come only this close: staked out in a van across from a tiny Seoul coffee shop, the mother inside with a Korean interpreter, afraid to come out, afraid of being discovered, afraid to meet her own flesh.
Inside the van, Rae, our 11-year-old Korean adopted daughter, was trying to make sense of it. How could we have flown the entire family 6,000 miles from Denver to meet a woman who was afraid to walk 20 yds. across the street to meet us? Why had we come this far if she was only going to reject Rae again?
We were told we had an hour. There were 40 minutes left. The cell phone rang. “Drive the van to the alley behind the coffee shop,” said the interpreter. “And wait.”
When a four-month-old Rae was hand-delivered to us at Gate B-7 at Denver’s Stapleton Airport, we knew someday we would be in Korea trying to find her birth mother. We just never dreamed it would be this soon. Then again, since Rae was a toddler, we’ve told her she was adopted, and she has constantly asked about her birth mother. “Do you think my birth mother plays the piano like I do?” “Do you think my birth mother is pretty?” And then, at 10, after a day of too many stares: a teary “I just want to meet someone I’m related to.”
“When they start asking that,” the adoption therapist said, “you can start looking.”
We started looking. We asked the agency that had arranged the adoption, Friends of Children of Various Nations, to begin a search. Within six months our caseworker, Kim Matsunaga, told us they had found the birth mother but she was highly reluctant to meet us. She had never told anyone about Rae. In Korea, the shame of unwed pregnancy is huge. The mother is disowned, the baby rootless. Kim guessed she had told her parents she was moving to the city to work and had gone to a home for unwed mothers.
Kim told us the agency was taking a group of Colorado and New Mexico families to Korea in the summer to meet birth relatives. She said if we went, Rae’s would probably show up. “The birth mothers almost always show up,” she said. Almost.
We were unsure. And then we talked to a family who had gone the year before. They said it would be wonderful. At the very least, Rae would meet her foster mother, who had cared for her those four months. She would meet the doctor who delivered her. Hell, I had never met the doctor who delivered me. But meeting the birth mother was said to be the sweetest. A 16-year-old Korean-American girl told Rae, “I don’t know, it just kinda fills a hole in your heart.”
We risked it. Five plane tickets to Seoul for our two redheaded birth boys–Kellen, 15, and Jake, 13–Rae, me and my wife Linda. We steeled Rae for the chance that her birth mother wouldn’t show up. Come to think of it, we steeled ourselves.
At first, it was wonderful. We met Rae’s foster mother, who swooped in and rushed for Rae as if she were her long-lost daughter, which she almost was. She bear-hugged her. She stroked her hair. She touched every little nick and scar on her tan arms and legs. “What’s this from?” she asked in Korean. She had fostered 31 babies, but it was as if she’d known only Rae. Rae was half grossed out, half purring. Somebody had just rushed in with the missing four months of her life. The foster mother wept. We wept.