Tracing My Korean Roots – Story of an Adoptee
I was born in Pohang, South Korea, a mid-size city on the southeastern coast, about an hour and a half by bus from Busan, Korea’s second largest city. When I was four years old, my younger brother and I were adopted by an American family from central Massachusetts. We arrived in the US a few days after Christmas in 1987.
Besides my biological brother who I was adopted with, I also have a younger sister who was also adopted from Korea but from a different Korean family, as well as a younger brother and younger sister who are both biological to my adoptive parents. I grew up in predominantly white suburbs in central Massachusetts and Cape Cod. Most of my family is white and 99% of my friends growing up were white. I was often teased about the way I looked and for being Asian. I would be called names and be accused of eating cats and dogs. I was confused and struggled with being Asian on the outside but white on the inside. I had no connection to my Korean roots. I had no sense of an Asian identity.
When I got to be in my late teens and early twenties, that was when I really began to explore my Korean roots and adoption story, and started to build a sense of Asian identity I was comfortable with. I studied Asian American studies in college, made Asian American friends, took Korean language classes, and became actively involved with the international Korean adoptee community. One of the things that really surprised me was learning how many Korean adoptees there are around the world. In fact, it is estimated that there are more Korean adoptees around the world than from any other country (estimates range from 150,000-200,000). It was very interesting for me to learn that there are thousands of Korean adoptees from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France, and other places around Europe and the world.
A couple years ago, I decided to search for my birth family in Korea. I had always wanted to find them again but had been too nervous. In the fall of 2009, I was informed by my adoption agency that they had found my family. In December of that year, I received my first letter from my oldest uncle and aunt (my father’s oldest brother). We exchanged a few letters over the course of the next few months. I learned that I had three uncles, all my father’s brothers, and several first and second cousins. My birth father had passed away before my brother and I were adopted, and there was no contact from our birth mother. This was disappointing, but I was very happy to at least be in contact with my relatives.
In August 2010, my brother and I traveled to Korea for the first time since our adoption. It had been almost 23 years since we left. While there, we attended a week-long international Korean adoptee conference in Seoul, spent four days in Busan with friends, and met our relatives for the first time since leaving Korea. We met almost all of our biological father’s side of the family: all three uncles and aunts, several first and second cousins, and a few relatives that I don’t even remember how we were related. We also had the opportunity to visit our home city of Pohang and see the area where we used to live. Unfortunately, there was still no contact from our mother, so we didn’t have the opportunity to see her while we were there.
The trip to Korea was both great and a little frustrating. Although this was my birthplace and home for the first four years of my life, I was like a foreigner in a country which I knew little about. The basic Korean language I knew from previous classes didn’t get me very far, and I always had to speak to my relatives through a translator. However, I really enjoyed the trip, especially traveling with friends, eating all the great Korean food, experiencing the culture, and, of course, meeting my birth family again.
A few weeks after returning to the US, my brother and I received some surprising news. My family and adoption agency in Korea had found our birth mother. We also learned that she was re-married and we had a half sister and half brother. She sent us a couple photos and we have since exchanged emails. I hope to go back to Korea soon to meet her in person.
Today, in addition to my day job as Green Programs Director at the Asian American Civic Association (AACA), I serve as Treasurer for Boston Korean Adoptees, Inc. (BKA). BKA is an all volunteer-run, all adoptee-run organization that provides social events and programs/services for adult Korean adoptees, as well as educational services to the general population about international and Korean adoption. Some of the things we’ve been involved with include an adoption film festival last fall, leading workshops at adoption conferences, collaborating with other adult adoptee groups, and offering regular events for our members such as social dinners and book club. BKA continues to grow and hopefully we will be able to expand our programs and services. My involvement in BKA and the Korean adoptee community in general has been a great experience, especially meeting all the diverse Korean adoptees from around the country and the world.
May is Asian American Heritage Month. Many Asian American adoptees feel a strong connection to the larger Asian American community. This would include the many American adoptees from Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, India, and other Asian countries. To me, being Asian American means to be both Asian and American. It is not about one or the other, or some artificial litmus test to see if you’re “Asian” enough or “American” enough. Rather, it’s about how each of us uniquely blends the two parts to make ourselves. My personal story is one example of the wide variety of experiences that encompass what it means to be an Asian American. Every story is unique and different. Today, I am proud to stand up and say that I am an Asian American.