How It Is Not That Simple: The Emotional Costs of Doing a Birth Search

Throughout different times in my life, I have had numerous thoughts about my birth mother. Sometimes it happens when I am doing the most mundane things. The other day while eating breakfast, I noticed my face in the mirror, the creases along my eyes and I wondered if she looked like me when she was 47-years-old. Every so often, I imagine my life reunited with my birth mother. With all the lost years between us, would my birth mother want to have a relationship with me? And how would I be able to deal with the unresolved hurt and trauma that I have buried for years? Perhaps a meaningful connection is not even possible. The loss would be too great. 

When I was younger I rarely thought about my adoption because it was never discussed. My parents never sat me down and told me I was adopted. However, I knew I was  adopted considering I was, and am, the only person of color in my family. When people realize that I am a Korean adoptee, usually I am asked whether I have done a birth search or have met my birth mother. On the surface this may seem like a simple straightforward question, but underneath the answer is much more complicated. When I reply no, that I have never tried, it usually unearths feelings of regret, guilt, and sometimes sadness. 

While exploring my Korean identity, a birth search was something that I would occasionally think about but I chose not to pursue, mostly because other Korean adoptees I knew experienced fractured reunions. Some adoptees have discovered the birth mother wanted to keep her baby but the pressure from her family was too severe and was forced into adoption. Others have learned about family members who relinquished the baby sometimes without the birth mother’s consent. Oftentimes, if the birth mother was located, she refused to meet, leaving the adoptee once again rejected. Seldom did I hear about the happily ever after endings featured in the nightly news stories. 

In spite of these feelings, five years ago, I decided to contact my adoption agency. I am not sure what prompted my decision. Perhaps it was the assumption that my birth mother could be in her seventies with grown children. Possibly she could have grandchildren, and she may be more open to a reunion. Days later I received an email with my adoption paperwork. I didn’t know how to feel or what to expect. I wished there was an instruction manual on what to do when a person receives a 20 page document describing the first six months of their life, but there is not one.   

Yet, I knew whatever information was included (or omitted) in my file could potentially alter the course of my life or leave me incredibly disappointed. My adoption, like all Korean adoptions during the 1970s, was closed. Did I really think it would be that simple? Did I hope to discover my birth mother’s contact information, and there would be an instant family reunion? I was abandoned on the street in a city of three million people. Was I completely naive? I was not even sure if my birthdate was accurate. I can not help but be angry that she did not leave her name, or even a note. Maybe she never intended to be contacted.

As I try to piece together the fragments of my birth story, I have so many unanswered questions. A part of me understands that it is unlikely I will ever have the opportunity to experience a relationship with my birth mother or I may never know the circumstances that lead to my adoption. There are many losses that come from adoption, but not knowing who my birth mother is remains my deepest heartbreak. 

Mother

In my mind we sit across from each other in a crowded restaurant. The curve of your back reflects against the dark moonlight, a printed silk scarf holds the wisps of your gray hair away from your face.

You gaze tenderly at me and I slowly memorize the lines around your brown eyes, the shape of your small hands. I imagine that I see a reflection of myself; a glimpse of my truth revealed in the corner of your smile.

I hesitantly ask what you said to me when you held me for the last time. Did you kiss me before you walked away? Maybe you don’t remember until the persistent silence of your mistake never lets you forget.

In my dreams I call out to you, but when I wake you are never there.

How could I possibly think that you love me?

Words of forgiveness stay buried deep inside my mouth so instead I chase your shadow in my poems; let the grief shatter like broken glass

leaving fragments of myself behind

and wait for the answers

I know will never come.

A Better Life

I met a young American couple

eager to love

who signed their names on the dotted line

The documents read: 

A sweet baby girl who needs a loving family 

The birth mother wanted 

a better life for her daughter.

Countless rows of

black haired babies

born on the other side of the world

Asleep in rectangle cribs 

each with assigned names-

Burden, Mistake, Orphan,

ready to be shipped overseas.

I’ve been told my adoption saved me

I’m a miracle-

lucky to be alive

How could anyone know 

that I would grow up to be

invisible?

And when I saw my face in the mirror

I knew that

I could never belong.

The woman asked with conviction, 

Certainly you had a better life, though?

I politely smile

And tell her

the happily ever after ending

I know she wants to hear.

A Beautiful Song

For Jung-In, a Korean domestic adoptee, who was 16 months old when she died from child abuse on October 13, 2020. 

A broken arm

and fractured

bones

with bruised legs

your listless body 

shattered like glass 

beneath the dark sky

***

Day after day

the walls closed in 

the panic in your screams

the lonely cries

turned to silence

***

Didn’t the adoption agency 

promise you a safe and loving family?

An adoptee isn’t a commodity

to trade in

get a refund

or cancel for free

gutted and thrown away

there isn’t enough rage 

to fill the empty nights

***

In my dream

I cradled your broken body on my chest

the slow rising 

and falling 

of our breath

tethered by

our deepest wounds

you didn’t cry,

instead, you sang a beautiful song

which carried you far from this world

your spirit set free.

The Day You Were Born

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I imagine your first piercing cry 

as you entered this world

Your birth mother’s silenced

screams 

bore down 

fists clenched tight

Her outstretched arms

reached for you

Delight turned to panic

as the words of Confucianism 

entangled her thoughts

How can I possibly keep him?

***

Her dark eyes 

captured with fear

The stale smell of antiseptic 

against her blood stained sheets

a flood of shame 

as your strong legs kicked about

finding your place in this world

***

A boy with love 

full of wonder

She exists in your being

Did my birth mother take care of me?

Holding space 

inside the hard questions

I softly close my eyes 

and breathe in 

her sadness.

I See You, I Hear You

I had never seen a Black person until I attended a private Christian school in North Minneapolis. I recall looking out the window of my parents’ station wagon driving down West Broadway Avenue. Scattered store fronts and restaurants lined the block. Black people stood highlighted on the street like statues-permanent fixtures in the backdrop of my Whitewashed world. I drove this same route for three years. During that time my family never talked about race. Race didn’t exist.

Like many transracial Korean adoptees, I grew up racially isolated from others who looked like me. My neighborhood, my school, and my friends were white. There was a period of time when I was so entrenched in White culture that unless I looked in the mirror, I forgot that I was Korean. One Halloween my friend and I dressed up as Madonna and I thought, How can I be Madonna? I’m Korean. I realized the color of my skin made me different from my family and if my parents didn’t see race, then how did they see me?

Child development research shows that by six months old infants are able to discriminate the differences in skin color. By two years old they are able to name colors and apply this to skin colors and by five years old children categorize by race and express bias based on race. When people claim they don’t see color or that all lives matter do they think this absolves them from racism? Or if they see it, it has no meaning to them? Being color blind contradicts how we develop as humans and disregards the fact that we live in a racialized world and have been socialized to believe that white skin is better.

When I learned about the murder of George Floyd, like many others, I felt so much rage. But I wonder when the protesting is over and the hashtags have disappeared how will I take my anger and use it to dismantle anti-blackness in my family, in the Asian American community, in my classroom, and in my neighborhood? It’s not enough to be angry. It’s not enough to put a Black Lives Matters sign in my front yard or post Angela Davis quotes on my Instagram. To be an anti-racist I must show up. I must listen. I must continue to do the hard work if I want my son to live in a just, safe, and humane world free of racism and hate.

I haven’t stopped thinking about George Floyd. How must it have felt to have a violent angry knee on his neck. I think about the eight minutes and forty-six seconds of pain he endured before he cried out for his momma. I think about how in that moment his soul summoned all the mothers of the world and I imagine us holding him up chanting in unison, I see you. I hear you. I see you. I hear you. I see you. I hear you.

Many Desires From Home

img_0838-1Like many Korean American adoptees growing up in America, I was curious about my birth country and hoped one day to visit. Many adoptees take advantage of the popular homeland tours that their adoption agencies offer. I never had any real intense interest in doing a birth country tour. I just assumed that one day I would visit Korea on my own. It wasn’t until the adoption of my son that I had the opportunity to return to Korea. How do you emotionally prepare for a reunion trip? There wasn’t a guidebook that told me how to do it. How was I expected to feel? I wasn’t quite sure. The only certainty I had was that I would no doubt feel an extraordinary sense of belonging, but also a profound feeling of loss.

The euphoric sense of belonging happened immediately when I landed and walked into the densely crowded Hongik subway station. Here I was greeted by a sea of black haired and brown eyed chatty high school students who rapidly walked towards me. My initial thought was that everyone looked like me. It felt entirely surreal to be surrounded by people who physically resembled myself.

However, the more time I spent in Korea, the more my sense of belonging started to wane. This was especially evident when I tried to communicate by using my textbook broken Korean. Many times the servers at restaurants handed the English menu only to my white husband or when it was time to order ignored him and talked directly to me. Once while I rode the subway a woman started a conversation with me. I looked at her and replied, “Sorry, I speak English.” I’m sure people thought, She’s Korean. Why can’t she speak it? I felt like a foreigner. I was a foreigner.

There’s a place in Seoul, Korea called Namsan Tower. This tower sits atop a mountain and has spectacular panoramic views of the city. When I reached the observation deck and looked across the vast mountains over my birthplace, the stress from the week overwhelmed me. I started to cry. My husband asked me what was wrong but I didn’t know. Maybe I grieved for the life I could’ve had in Korea. Perhaps I felt regret for being in Korea and not searching for my birth mother or maybe I was disappointed because I realized that Korea would never feel like home.

When I think about my son’s adoption, I have these moments of irrational fear that he will resent me because I was the one who removed him from his birth country. He will be angry with me because he will never fully know his culture and not be Korean enough. The truth is that my son’s birth mother made an adoption plan. If he hadn’t joined my family, he would’ve been adopted by another family. He didn’t choose to leave Korea. The choice was made for him.

I understand that even though I was born in Korea, I will never be Korean. I will always feel like a stranger when I visit Korea. It will never feel like home. Nevertheless, the deep longing to return to the place where I began still remains strong.

FAQ: Adoption

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Because I’m adopted, I’ve had a number of uncomfortable conversations filled with unwanted questions about being adopted. Now my son is starting to experience these same conversations. Like the other day when a complete stranger approached us in the grocery store and proclaimed, “He’s so cute. Where did you get him?” How am I expected to respond? Do I reply he came from my stomach or from Korea?

“Your son is so lucky to have found you,” is a phrase often used by others to describe how my son should feel because he joined my family. The assumption is that I saved him from his sad awful plight and gave him a better life. Or am I the lucky one because he’s my son? The reality is that luck has nothing to do with my son’s journey and how he joined my family. Adoption is much more complicated than that. There is grief and loss experienced by my son, his birth mother, and myself. Should I take these remarks as well intended compliments? Some may say that I’m being too sensitive but if you are an adoptee, adoption is very personal and likely to be filled with many strong emotions.

Even now as an adult adoptee, I still haven’t quite figured out the appropriate ways to respond when these awkward conversations happen. Do I walk away, ignore the person, share information, or educate? I know that I should take on the educator role, but some days I simply don’t have the space to care about what a stranger assumes about adoption. I want to walk away, but then I don’t because I am reminded that my son is internalizing these comments and paying close attention to how I respond.

I understand that because my son is adopted, people will ask him to share personal details about his adoption. Maybe the only thing I can do is empower him to feel proud about being adopted and know his story so that when he is faced with the uncomfortable question, “Where did you come from?” He can confidently reply, “I’m adopted. I was born in Korea. How about you?”

In Your Time of Need

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I have a photo album filled with pictures of my son from the day we first met him in Korea. The pictures include his foster mother and my husband and I playing and holding him. To be expected, we are all smiling and filled with incredible joy on this happy day. Lately, however, when my son looks at these same photos; it triggers both confusion and sadness.

This week was a particularly hard grieving week for my son. He usually enjoys looking at his photo album, but on this particular day when he looked at the picture of himself playing with his yellow toy bus, he was completely inconsolable. He ran to the door, pointed to my car, and cried omma (mommy). Even though I read all the books related to adoption and grieving and have first hand experience as a transracial adoptee, I still wasn’t prepared for this. I was taken completely off guard. How do you explain to a grieving two year old that he can’t get in the car and see his foster mother? Or explain how his life in Korea had to end so he could begin his new life with me. I stumbled through my words fighting back my tears and eventually managed to explain that it’s okay to be sad. I reassured him that one day he will fly in an airplane to visit his omma and play with his bus. Now every time he sees or hears an airplane he looks at me with a huge grin and confidently says omma.

During the first few months after my son joined my family, he loved to sit on the arm chair of the couch looking out the window in the porch and watch the cars and buses drive by. I used to think this was because he is obsessed with vehicles, but now I wonder if he sat there hoping and waiting for his omma to return. Some days he clearly misses Korea and has deep memories like when he insists on wearing his favorite shirt that smells like his foster mother or when he opens the refrigerator door, points to the jar of gochujang and says omma with a wide happy smile. My heart breaks every time he says her name and the only words of comfort I can say is that she can’t be here, but she still loves and cares for him.

I understand that because my son is adopted he will experience tremendous grief and loss throughout different stages of his life. As he gets older, his grief will change and our conversations will become much more complicated to navigate. But I also know that no matter how much I comfort him in his time of need, I can’t take away his grief. It will always be. 

 

Moments

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There were many emotionally challenging days during my two trips to Korea. However, one of my most profound experiences was the day I visited the Baby Care Room where my son stayed before being placed into foster care.

On this particular day there were 25 babies to one caregiver in a small room the size my living room. At any given moment there were multiple babies who cried. Some cried because their bottles had fallen and needed to be propped back up on their blankets in order to be fed. Most babies cried simply because they needed skin to skin contact in order to be lulled back to sleep. I was told that I could stay and hold the babies for only a half hour. I stayed for over an hour. When it was time to leave, I walked back into the crowded sidewalk and stood there and cried while my husband wrapped me in his arms. Grief came over me in heart wrenching guttural sobs. I cried for my son. I cried for myself. I cried for the tiny week old babies who I had just held in my arms.

Sometimes when I lay next to my son and watch him fall asleep, I think about his time in the baby care room. I wonder who was there to comfort him when he cried. Did anyone hold him in their arms and look into his eyes when he was fed? When he stirred who was there to lull him back to sleep? I understand there isn’t anything I can do about missing those first weeks of my son’s life. Nevertheless, the grief is still strong. Now I am the one who gets to comfort my son, but only because he had to first lose his birth mother and then his foster mother. And it’s in these still quiet moments when I am acutely aware of our loss.