Growing up, I remember making a pact with myself. As an adopted child I promised to find my family in Korea, but how exactly that would occur remained a mystery to me. I luckily had the unconditional support of my American family, even if they were stumped by my vague plan.
I later came out as a trans woman in 2003. I was also fortunate enough to receive an outpouring of love, acceptance and support from family and friends.
But there was always one barrier to my life of intersecting identities that I struggled to overcome. I could never find the will to move forward with my transition — taking hormones or surgery — despite the opportunity to do so. And my hesitation was largely due to my unknown family living far away in Korea.
Like me, more than 200,000 Korean babies and children have been sent overseas. But less than 3 percent of us are able to find our families. The odds were clearly not in my favor. But what if I did find my family after all these years? And how would they handle meeting a young woman instead of a baby boy who should have grown into manhood? I was left with few ideas to reconcile my concerns.
In 2010 I had the opportunity to return to Korea for the first time. I was thrilled, nervous and reminded of my childhood pact. My time spent in Korea was life-changing, but the prospects of finding my family were less than promising. I visited my adoption agency seeking information. I was instead greeted with prickly resistance.
I had been warned of this institutional reluctance in advance. But I was still angry at their lack of understanding and support. So I took a defiant but calculated risk: I secretly copied down information from my file when the agency representative left the room to retrieve a business card.
It was my last day in Korea, and I was still reeling over the newly acquired information. After finishing breakfast with two friends, I abruptly asked them to go on an adventure with me.
“I want to look for my family today,” I told my friends sitting at the table. “Will you come with me?”
My friends quickly agreed. Before we left, I made the decision not to wear anything that would out me, just in case my search proved to be of some success. I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t know anything about my family. I wanted to have the chance to get to know them first before I felt safe and comfortable enough to come out as trans. But I needed time to navigate the labyrinth of cultural and language barriers.
So I wore jeans and a T-shirt instead of a dress. I put away my jewelry. I pulled back my long hair into a ponytail and didn’t wear any makeup. I looked at myself in the mirror and found someone else staring back.
We took a short subway ride to Seoul’s suburbs and looked for a local police station. I politely asked for help, but the officer behind the desk refused, offering a lengthy bureaucratic response. “A search process takes at least 10 days or longer,” the officer dryly explained. “Fill out this form and we will contact you if we find anything.”
The respectful banter went on for about 30 minutes. Then I lost it.
“Help me!” I shouted at the officer, who jumped back in surprise. My voice cracked, and I began to cry. “I am an adoptee,” I explained through my tears. “I need to find my parents. I have waited all my life for this moment. I’m supposed to leave tomorrow, but I can’t go without knowing my family is fine. Please help me!”
Something in the police station changed after my emotional breakdown. The officer consulted a national database. She called other police stations in the country. Officers were dispatched to knock on doors. And to our surprise, my mother had been located less than an hour away from the station.
“She wants to meet you,” the officer reported. “She is already on the way with your older sister. They should be here in an hour.”
My friends and I waited in front of the station. Soon two women emerged from a car and began to walk in our direction. I stood in front of two women with faces that mirrored my own. With an awkward bow, I introduced myself to my Korean mother for the very first time.
“Hello, Mother,” I said in broken Korean. “It is nice to meet you. My Korean is not very good. I am very sorry.”
I could feel years of emotions rushing to the surface. I also felt ashamed that my first words sounded more memorized than heartfelt. I bowed my head and began to uncontrollably sob.
But my mother looked past my language skills. She released a guttural wail that I had never heard before and rushed to hold me in her arms. “You’ve come home! My baby is home!”
All I could do was weep in my mother’s warm embrace.
That night I extended my stay in Korea for two more weeks. My family and friends back home were ecstatic with the news. Stay in Korea, they encouraged. Enjoy the time with this part of your family that you finally found.
In the flurry of activity, my friends and I stored my luggage containing all my dresses, skirts, jewelry, makeup and heels at the hotel. I wasn’t ready to come out to my Korean family. I couldn’t mentally or emotionally process anything beyond the fact that I was sitting next to my mother, who wouldn’t let go of my hand. I first needed time to soak all of it in.
My mother cooked a big meal on my first day staying with my newly found family. She timidly placed a bowl of seaweed soup in front of me. Eaten on birthdays, the soup is consumed by pregnant women and represents the first food passed on from mother to infant.
“I know it’s not your birthday,” she gently explained, “but this is your first meal that I have made for you, and it felt right.” Tears slid down my cheeks over the symbolism held in the bowl of soup.
I was quickly introduced to several of my family members, including my grandfather, who decided to present me with a Korean name. After a few days at his favorite fishing spot, my grandfather named me Hyun-gi, roughly translating to “bright ground.” He selected the name in honor of finding my way back home and finding my place in the world.
The time spent with my Korean mother allowed me to experience her uncanny intuition. She quickly figured out what I liked to eat. She knew when I would wake up or when I needed to stretch my legs and go for a walk. She could even somehow anticipate the emotions spinning around my head. She was just like my perceptive mom back in upstate New York.
But one day my mother’s instinct took me by surprise. She sat me down on the couch. “Hyun-gi,” she said calmly through my friend, who volunteered to translate for my family. “I have a question: What is worrying you? You seem worried about something. You can tell Mommy.”
I wasn’t exactly sure of what my mother meant, and I shrugged it off. But she gently persisted. “There is something deep in your heart that you haven’t told me.”
My mind briefly flashed to my gender identity, which remained a secret. But how could she know? Most of my belongings were still stored at the hotel, and I had nothing on me that would out me as a trans person. I pushed away my initial alarm.
“There are plenty of things you don’t know about me yet,” I replied smoothly. “But we will learn more about each other as time progresses on.”
“May I offer a hint at what I am talking about?” my mother carefully suggested. “Please don’t be offended by my hint. But I don’t think you will be.”
I nodded with tense curiosity and waited.
“I think it has to do with how pretty you look.”
A shiver went down my back as the words left my mother’s mouth. I asked my friend if she had translated correctly. She quickly nodded. We were both stunned.
“What should I do?” I asked my friend as dread began to course through my veins. “She seems to know something. How is that even possible?”
I turned back to my mother, who was waiting for someone to speak in Korean. “Mother,” I began but immediately trailed off. I could feel my insides churning and looked away.
My mother held on to my hands. “It is OK,” she said. “What is on your heart?”
Silence filled the room. “I can’t tell you,” I finally replied. “I’m afraid of what will happen. I don’t want to lose you when we have just met.”
“I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”
“Are you sure you want to do this?” my friend nervously asked. “What do you want me to translate for you?”
Time seemed to stop. I sucked in a deep breath and shook my head. “No. I need to do this on my own terms. I need to say this in my own words if I’m going to tell her who I am.”
I turned to face my mother, who was still waiting patiently. I looked down at her lap, where she held on to my clammy hands.
“Mother,” I slowly repeated in Korean. “I am not a boy. I am a girl. I am transgender.” My face reddened, and tears blurred my vision. I braced myself for her rejection and the end to a relationship that had only begun.
Silence again filled the room. I searched my mother’s eyes for any signs of shock, disgust or sadness. But a serene expression lined her face as she sat with ease on the couch. I started to worry that my words had been lost in translation. Then my mother began to speak.
“Mommy knew,” she said calmly through my friend, who looked just as dumbfounded as I was by her response. “I was waiting for you to tell me.”
“Birth dream,” my mother replied. In Korea some pregnant women still believe that dreams offer a hint about the gender of their unborn child. “I had dreams for each of your siblings, but I had no dream for you. Your gender was always a mystery to me.”
I wanted to reply but didn’t know where to begin. My mother instead continued to speak for both of us. “Hyun-gi,” she said, stroking my head. “You are beautiful and precious. I thought I gave birth to a son, but it is OK. I have a daughter instead.”
She then asked if I wanted my grandfather to rename me something more feminine. She insisted that I feel comfortable and at ease. No, I said to her in Korean. I wanted to keep my name for its meaning. I couldn’t help but feel a mixture of shock, disbelief and a spark of hope.
To this day I am astounded by my mother’s supernatural intuition despite the language and cultural barriers that still exist between us. I felt a great sense of relief when she helped me come out.
My mother started to show her acceptance through simple acts. She would brush my long hair after I took a shower. She gave me a facial to soften my skin. She asked me if I had any boys chasing after me. We finally went to retrieve my luggage containing the rest of my belongings.
I showed her pictures of my life back in the States. At one picture she exclaimed, “Look at your legs! You have legs like Sharon Stone!” She turned to my stepfather and beamed. “Hyun-gi inherited those legs from Mommy.”
Soon after, my mother asked about my appearance. “I have a question,” she announced while setting down a plate of freshly sliced pears and a fork. “You are a girl. Why do you still dress like a boy?”
“I was originally afraid of what you might think,” I replied while jabbing a pear slice. “But I also wanted you to see me before I made any plans to change my body. You never saw me grow up. I felt this was the least that I could do.”
There was a brief pause before my mother spoke. “Thank you,” she finally replied with misty eyes. She cleared her throat and smiled. “Now eat up. I don’t want your family in New York to think that I didn’t feed you well.”
I maintained an androgynous appearance during the time spent with my family, despite their surprising acceptance. Even my stepfather was supportive. “It’s better to have more daughters anyway,” he shared when my mother told him the news.
But I wanted to treat the coming-out process slowly and with respect. I didn’t want to rush anything with a family that was still largely unfamiliar to me. Decades of life experiences were crammed into a couple of weeks. I wanted to give everyone ample time to adjust.
On my last night in Korea, my mother took the family out to one of her favorite restaurants. I sat down at the low table wearing jeans and a T-shirt with my hair pulled back. She spoke warmly to the wait staff as the rest of us ate.
My friend leaned over to translate in between mouthfuls of noodles. “Your mom is talking about you,” she reported. Then suddenly the expression on her face changed. “She just introduced you to the waitress as her daughter.”
I almost choked on my noodles. I slowly looked up at the waitress, who offered a smile and a friendly wave. I responded with a slight bow. That night I began to understand my mother better. She truly saw me as her daughter regardless of what I wore or looked like.
Almost two years have past since I last saw my family. My Korean mother and I regularly keep in touch through weekly Skype video calls. And both my Korean and American parents have spoken to each other. They have exchanged gifts and are eager to meet each other in the near future.
My relationship with my Korean mother has gradually become more relaxed. She now cheekily refers to me as her “sassy girl.” My younger siblings call me “big sister.”
Over time I have explained more of my life to my mother, including my work in the LGBT community. In turn she has responded with a strong sense of curiosity. I once described my work at GLSEN. She followed along slowly, repeating the words aloud in Korean: Gay. Student. Safety. School.
I nodded encouragingly. She nodded back at me and proclaimed, “OK! Good!”
I have also found my mother to be quite modest when she talks about her own life. I discovered that she is active in her church as a worship leader and volunteers in the soup kitchen. But I also learned that my mother boldly told her pastor and church friends about having a trans daughter living in New York City.
“It’s not an issue,” she said, unfazed. “You need to come to church with me on your next visit.”
I don’t take any of these touching moments for granted. But it was only a few weeks ago that my mother told me that she had been watching a Korean talk show solely about trans people. The television network canceled the program due to mounting pressure by some anti-trans viewers.
My mother pivoted the conversation to ask about my own transition. “Do you want to?” she asked.
I was surprised by her question but offered a general idea of what I might want to do as she listened intently. First, hormones. Then I’d consider my options for surgery.
“This is a good plan,” my mother stated.
I was about to change the subject, but my mother interrupted me. She leaned in closer to the computer screen. “My daughter, you are beautiful.”
My cheeks flushed at the unexpected compliment. But I was suddenly reminded of my naïve childhood pact and that somehow everything I had hoped for had come true. I had found my family in Korea and had come out as trans. I no longer felt the insecurity or fear once associated with my reluctance to begin taking hormones or consider the idea of surgery.
And in that moment I realized that it was because of my mother in Korea. Her love had given me the final affirmation to move forward and become the person I was always meant to be.
I could feel tears begin to well up in my eyes. The time was right after years of waiting. I could begin the next part of my transition. And I could now do it with the support of my entire family living in both the States and Korea.
“Thank you, Mom,” I said, quickly wiping away my tears.
“For what?” She looked surprised by my reaction. “Why are you crying?”
“Just for everything. I love you. OK?”
I wasn’t sure if she picked up on my personal epiphany, but I’d like to believe that my mother’s intuition filled in some of the blanks. A smile replaced the look of concern on her face. “Mommy loves you. Jesus loves you, too. Please pray to Jesus, OK?”
I laughed. “OK, Mom. I’ll thank Jesus for my nice legs.”
“Oh, you sassy girl!”
See photos from my first meeting with my Korean family:
The Search For My Family In 24 Hours