2. “Why Did You Wait So Long?”
I was in Korea to search for my birth family. It was the culmination of a very intense six months of deliberate and active searching. But the search had started long before I arrived in Korea. It had, in fact, been an unconscious, unrealized desire for all of my life. For as long as I can remember, I had always had the desire to know who my birth mother was. I just never knew how to act on that desire.
Before I started to actively search, this is what I knew about myself: 1) I was born on November 18, 1969 somewhere in Seoul, Korea; 2) My Korean name was Sohn Soon; 3) I was abandoned on the steps of a police station with a sign saying, “Please take care of me”; and 4) I lived with a foster family in Seoul until I went to the U.S. seven months later. (Top photo: Me and my foster mother in Seoul)
In a very real way, my life began, not on November 18, 1969, but seven months later, on June 25, 1970, when an airline stewardess carried me off the plane in New York and handed me over to my new parents, Blair and Patricia Moffett. From the airplane I was born. That is the point in time from which I can trust the stories about me. There is no speculating, no imagining. And there were eyewitnesses. On the plane, I was the only baby, out of at least a dozen other children to be adopted, who had not slept the entire 18-hour flight. When the stewardess found my parents on the tarmac and handed me over, she told them that. My father said she looked exhausted. “Good luck,” she added, before walking away. My mother told that story for years. I like that story. It is my birth story.
I have a naming story too. How my parents had to name me, but didn’t have time to do it together before they needed to send the papers back to the adoption agency. So my mother went through the baby name book and marked all the names that she liked, and my father, when he came home, went through all of the names she had checked and marked the ones that he liked. And in the morning, they decided that I would be Erica Lee Moffett.
According to Wikipedia, Erica is the feminine form of Eric, deriving from the old Norse and containing two elements. The first element can either mean ‘one’ or ‘some,’ or also, ‘fair’ or ‘tradition.’ The second element derives from *rik(a)z meaning ‘ruler’ or ‘prince,’ or, from an even older word meaning ‘powerful’ and ‘rich.’ The name is thus usually taken to mean something along the lines of ‘one ruler,’ ‘autocrat,’ ‘eternal ruler,’ or ‘ever powerful.’ I love the name Erica.
I have no stories about my Korean name. I have no stories about my Korean birthday. In fact, I have no stories before my American birthday off the plane, save for one day in March 1970 when one of my adoptive relatives who was then living in Seoul came to see me at my foster mother’s home. Aunt Eileen was the first member of my adoptive family to hold me. But that story belongs in my American life.
As for my Korean life, I have a mother and a father and a family. I was born somewhere and someone named me. But without any stories to confirm or deny anything, that life has been severed and lost, like a limb that has been amputated. I can feel vaguely where it should have been, but it’s not actually there and it has no shape or substance.
No one would seriously equate adoption with alchemy, but there is a little alchemy involved. One day I am Sohn Soon. The next day I am on a plane and, when I deplane, I am Erica Lee Moffett. Same person, different name, different nationality, different culture, different language, different family. Different everything. This person has been transmuted.
But from what?
* * *
I had waited over 40 years to start actively searching for my birth family. A family friend, Sally, who lived in Korea and whom I had recruited to help me with the search asked me, “Why did you wait so long?”
The simple answer was that I had always been told that it was impossible. I had been abandoned and I would never be able to find my family. Therefore, I never searched. What is the point in searching for the impossible?
But there was also a more complicated answer. I had always felt that searching would be an act of betrayal to my parents who had adopted me. Because of them, I was, without a doubt, living a much better life than the one I would have had if I had stayed in Korea. So I repressed the need to search. I was not going to be the ingrate who betrayed her family by searching for her birth family.
My parents were not responsible for placing these pressures on me. I have since discovered they never felt this way or wanted to convey that attitude. At the same time, I never talked with them about it, and neither did they with me. It is a difficult conversation to start, so this I understand. But it is unfortunate, even after all we have learned about adoption in the past 50 years, that I, or they, never knew how to start the conversation.
If there was anything overtly responsible for the pressure, it was, I believe, societal pressures derived from misunderstood assumptions about adoption. Offhand comments made to me throughout my life, intended to make me feel good, only reinforced the outsized guilt I carried around, as well as the ugly potential to betray. Things like, “Oh, you’re so lucky,” or “You hit the adoption lottery jackpot,” or “You’re the model Korean adoptee,” reflected so many of the misconceptions. These, to say the least, did no good in allowing me to untangle my innate desire to search from the cultural pressure not to betray my parents.
A few years ago, though, I began to be aware that these pressures might be wrong. I had started reading accounts by other adoptees, most of whom had searched. I realized that my need to know was actually not an act of betrayal, but an act of completion. It was also, completely natural. To repress that desire is to repress instinct.
Slowly and tentatively, over the past few years, I was able to start speaking of that desire to a few other people. Eventually, I found the confidence to tell my parents that I was searching for my birth family. They were very supportive and, in this, I will admit that I am lucky. For there are many adoptees whose parents are not understanding or supportive and this only adds more pain and confusion to what is already a highly anxious and fraught process.
My first attempt at active searching began in late August 2012 when I wrote to the Holt USA Adoption Agency and asked for a copy of my file. I waited over three months for a response because they had to contact Holt Korea and Holt Korea was too busy in the summer to handle new requests. Several months later, I received an email informing me that there was not enough information to search. They said they were sorry about that. “So that is it,” I thought. “Everyone had been right all along. There was no point in searching because there is nothing to be found.” I filed the email away and went on with my life.
Then I saw the movie Philomena, and I was, in a word, undone. Philomena was not my mother. I was not her child. But I felt her pain in having her child taken away and not knowing where he had gone, to whom he had gone, or what had happened to him. That despair of wanting to know and not knowing was a mirror image of the desire that I had to know my birth mother. And it was magnified now by my own deep desire to have my own children. “How,” I wondered, “could my own mother have given me away?”
Enormous sadness followed me around the next few days. I tried not to think about the movie or Philomena because I would inevitably start crying. But I didn’t know what to do. Holt USA had already told me that finding my family would be impossible. What was the point in trying again?
But after a few days, my mind began to clear. I began to wonder whether I had tried hard enough two years ago. When I received the response from Holt, I had simply accepted what they had said. I hadn’t even followed up with a phone call. Had the agency told me everything? I began to wonder where exactly the orphanage was located and who had worked there in December 1969. If I could just get to the orphanage, then maybe I could find something else.
Now I felt an urgency to get to the orphanage. I was 44 years old and already I was on the wrong side of time to have my own biological children. The longer I waited, the more likely it would be that I would also end up on the wrong side of time to find my own biological mother, or anyone who knew her, before she died.
A month later I made another phone call to Holt USA and asked to review my file one more time. The active search for my birth family had begun.