My return to Korea was one of introspection, healing, and a newfound understanding and acceptance for who I am. It was a culmination of years of emotional labor, working through the abandonment issues that have plagued me throughout my life.
Being adopted by white extroverts, I never “fit” in my adoptive family. Round peg, square hole, and all of that. It was clear to me from a very early age that I was and always would be different. Not just by skin color, but by an intrinsic factor of me being Korean. While Korea is not my home, I have never felt more at home than I did walking through the streets of Seoul.
One of the most poignant events of my trip included a seemingly mundane discussion with a shopkeeper. As she discussed items in her shop, she commented that I have “a Korean face.” Little did she know how much that comment would mean to me. I have waited what seems like an eternity to be acknowledged in that way. It was one of the many unexpected instances where I felt like I belonged. While my home is in the US, my heart belongs to Korea. I know this much is true.
Seeing My Mother’s Korean Face
I have known for roughly 7 months that my mother owned a restaurant, but I was unaware of the name or location until I returned to Korea. Less than 24 hours from when I Ianded, I had met my search counselor from GOA’L, my caseworkers from NCRC, and discussed going to the town where my mother’s restaurant was located.
Through some wily detective work, the GOA’L counselor was able to figure out the location and name of the restaurant. They messaged me the Naver page, full of pictures and blog posts about the restaurant. For the first time, I was able to see pictures of my mother. While they are not the best pictures as they were from patron pictures, they were more than I had before. I could see the resemblance that the caseworker spoke of last July. The expression on her face is one I know well, it is the Korean face I see in the mirror every day.
I was told that because the town is very small, it would be talked about that a foreigner was visiting. I don’t speak Korean so it would be obvious that I was not from the area. They relayed that there was a risk involved by going. After seeing the pictures of the new restaurant, I made a conscious decision not to go. My feelings about my mother aside, at this stage I did not want to jeopardize their business by visiting.
While I don’t owe my mother anything, I also know how hard it is to build something on your own. On a human level, I couldn’t risk having that destroyed by my visit. It was the right decision for me at the time, it is one I know I can live with, without regret.
Searching for My Father
The information about my mother was unexpected. I know the NCRC caseworkers still hold out hope that she will respond to me, however, I don’t believe she ever will. With that, the reason for my trip was to try to find information about my birth father. Since I declined to go to the town where my mother’s restaurant was located, I was able to go to my birthplace-Anyang. The NCRC caseworker was able to match the church stamp from my adoption file to an actual address in Anyang.
I was shocked at how many churches were in Anyang. The sheer number of them was a complete surprise. When we arrived at the church where I was born, I had a strong sensation of deception. I am not sure what happened or why the church moved but was told churches in Korea have been marred by corruption issues. The church where I was born was Shinsung church. After it moved, it became Samsung church, and then the church that it is today. The minister of the current church did not want to help or get involved, which made me question why. To rid oneself of helping and being a minister no less, it seems like he knows or is hiding something.
What makes the minister’s action stand out is that we visited several local businesses and churches in the area. The other ministers were extremely helpful, one even looking in their congregation’s phone book to see if someone might know something of the church. The last church we stopped by, a woman’s son went to kindergarten at the church where I was born. He didn’t remember the name of the minister, but this was one of the first few leads that we received.
A Stranger’s Kindness
One of the businesses we stopped by was a local realtor. As he listened to the NCRC caseworker explain what we were doing, he pointed to a family picture on his wall. He had a daughter my age. He was motivated to help. The kindness in his face and compassion in his eyes is something I will never forget. While we were there, he gave us a peach juice drink. He also made some calls to people that he thought might be able to help.
Over the weekend, he was able to connect the NCRC caseworker to someone who owned a business in the building where Shinsung church was located. She remembers hearing about an unwed mother living in the rooftop of the church with her baby. She was able to place my mother and me at the church. I wasn’t relinquished right away. There is still a chance others might remember us as well. She doesn’t remember the name of the minister of Shinsung church but remembers he was in his 50’s when I was born.
It was surreal walking around with flyers of pictures with me-as an infant, as a toddler, and one recently taken last fall. Like a missing person flyer with said person in the flesh. I didn’t have a lot of expectations going into the active search, only hoping that the information might be shared and eventually lead to something. I do not know if my birth father was from Anyang, but perhaps someone might remember him as he and my mother met through the church youth group.
Where There is Life, There is Hope
The search continues for my father and more information. We will attempt to contact the Presbyterian Church of Korea to see if they have any record of Shinsung church and/or the pastor. Given the potential issue of corruption, I am not exceedingly optimistic about how helpful they will be. I hold out a modicum of hope that a family friend of my father will see the flyer or hear about it. Through the mudang, I have been told that I have 2 half brothers through him. I hope that I can eventually connect with them at some point.
Where my mother is concerned, I will stop actively trying to connect with her. NCRC and GOA’L don’t understand why she refuses to respond. They also seem to hold out hope that she might eventually, noting that she hasn’t responded: “don’t ever contact me again.” Theoretically, they are correct. Energetically, I don’t get the sense she will change her mind.
I am a believer in nature over nurture. When I make up my mind, my decision is set in stone. Very little can be done to change it. My silence speaks louder than words. I believe the same can be said for my mother, which is why I am confident with my assertion. She knows I was in Korea, she made no attempt to contact NCRC.
NCRC believes she just needs more time. Realistically, she’s had my entire life to come to terms with whatever guilt, shame, or loss she may feel or have felt. I have my issues to work through, I refuse to carry her burdens as well.
A Greater Sense of Self
As an adoptee, identity plays an integral role in my life. Who I am and what defines me. It has taken me a long time to get to a point where I stopped letting others define me. People love putting others in boxes, they love telling someone they’re not doing it right. Who is to say how one should define themselves or live their lives? It isn’t for anyone else to decide.
It is still a work in progress for me to accept me for who I am and what I know to be true for me. Returning to Korea has afforded me a greater sense of self, a better understanding of qualities that are innately a part of my being. While I can’t change the past, I can’t help but think how different I would have been had I been afforded the same acceptance by others, acceptance by family. Instead of trying to get me to conform in some way, acknowledging that a large part of who I am, the core of who I am, is Korean. Not just in passing, not just in theory, but in reality.
Being Korean is who I am. It always has been. It always will be.