What I will tell you. . .
I would never tell you that you should search for your birth family. Deciding to do a search is a very personal decision and you have to be in the right place. You have to be ready for the challenges and the emotional, as well as financial, and even physical, turmoil it can cause. (Although how can you ever be ready for something so intense? So personal.) It’s not in any way a simple or straightforward process even when it is.
I have searched for my birth family. That’s what the first few months of this blog are all about. But it took me 32 years to get to the point where I was ready. For most of my life I was against searching. I was interested in my adoption and my Korean-ness from a cultural rather than biological standpoint. Let me explain.
I spent 7 years figuring out what being Korean meant to me, from about age 19-26. It began with an education of recognizing that the person people saw me as being on the outside was completely different from what I felt I was on the inside. It began with a didactic lesson from someone who had grown up during the race riots in Brooklyn in the 1980s that I was a person of color in the United States, and then the social context of what that meant. It was a forced harsh awareness, and then introduction to Asian American and Korean American culture through movies, and Asian parties, and language classes, meals in Ktown and Chinatown, and celebrating holidays and weddings with my Chinese and Korean friends in New York City.
The process took a lot of questioning. A lot of tears. A lot of experimenting. It took 2 trips to Korea that included a period of living there for 4 months. It took dating both Korean and Chinese men. It took deep self recognition, realization, and acceptance. It was hard. And at times painful. And confusing.
It wasn’t until I moved home to Boston and started writing about this process for my M.A. thesis that I started to make sense of it all. Then after graduate school ended I took hold of my unexpected free time and threw myself into 3 Asian American organizations in Boston to see what ones would stick: AARW, a local political organization that’d been around for more than 2 decades; ASPIRE, a somewhat new social-oriented career development and leadership organization for Asian American women; and Gund Kwok, a martial arts performance dance troupe for Asian American women.
Gund Kwok was the one that resonated the most with me. I became alive with the physical challenge. I rose to the leadership and responsibility opportunities that were being thrust at me. Most importantly though, I found role models who were strong physically, socially and emotionally. Women who were mothers, grandmothers, and ambitious career-driven people who had positive unflapping senses of who they were ethnically. They showed me who I could be and pushed me to be more.
I developed a strong sense of myself. I found my niche in my home, Boston. I felt good about who I was. I got married. I got into a good job. I’d done some hard work of figuring out who I was and was happy with the way things were going.
Coming to the search decision
In visits to my grandfather I noticed the aging process was hitting them hard. I also noticed my parents were looking into their faces and seeing their own mortality in their parents’ eyes. I watched that and thought “I want that.” I want to know where I come from. I was that peace of mind. I want something.
And at the same time, my friends were all starting to have their second child. I’d been asked a ka-zillion times when I planned on having kids. And I was so sick of the question. The truth of the matter was I needed to know where I came from–who I came from– before I could start my own family. I had some questions and I needed some answers.
So I changed my mind. And in the winter of 2009 I initiated a search through my adoption agency’s U.S. branch. They sent me my file as a PDF and I spoke to a social worker there, also an adoptee. Then my position got cut at work due to budget cuts. Suddenly I had an expanse of free time. I found a program for Korean adoptees to search for their birth families. I applied and was accepted. Within a month I planned to head to Korea.
The search was hard. And completely unexpected. It required a lot of digging and detective work. A lot of waiting. A lot of begging. A lot of rejection. A lot of being vulnerable to the kindness of others. It took a lot of creativity and a lot of chance. And a lot of asking for help.
There were huge emotional highs and lows; where I’d get news that seemed like finding her or them was imminent! Then I’d hit a wall and the devastation would be inexplicable. There was no way I could have prepared for what happened. There was no way I could have not been surprised by how willing people were to help me. By how much work it would involve. By how many stories there are out there of adoptees searching. By how complicated the whole process can be.
What I will tell you. . .
I believe that even if you decide not to search, all Korean adoptees should make a trip to Korea at least once in their lifetime. I’ve gone three times. Each time has been completely different and unexpected. This time I went thinking I was in a good place; I knew who I was and what being Korean meant to me and all that. But really, the country, my visit, threw me on my ass once again. It may sound trite, but each time I go is a complete and utter life-changing experience. It’s like going into a war zone and coming back a changed person. Or going through a the lifespan of a really tumultuous relationship where you’re spit out and left not knowing which end is up.
I met a lot of adoptees on this trip from Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Norway, and all of us spoke about this same feeling. It’s intense to go “home.” It’s at times amazing, at times lonely, at times leaves you speechless. It’s the people. The food. The speed at which the country moves. The sites. The history. The culture. But most of all the people.
There is so much about returning to the place you were born that “you” can’t put into words. I’ve tried to here on my blog with photos and videos, but there’s really no way I could capture nearly the half of it. It touches you. It grabs hold of you and feels like it becomes part of you; a real living, breathing part of you. It’s hard to pull yourself away.
It’s something you just have to experience for yourself.
And I hope you will. When you’re 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 or 60. . . it’s never too late.