25 Feb

Why Did You Wait So Long?

My foster mother in Seoul - the same day Aunt Eileen came to visit

Me, with my foster mother in Seoul in early 1970.

 

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)

Receipt for me signed by my father on June 25, 1970 when they picked me up at the airport.

Receipt for me signed by my father on June 25, 1970 when they picked me up at the airport.

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.

At 4 months old, Aunt Eileen visiting me in Seoul at my foster family's home.

At 4 months old, Aunt Eileen visiting me in Seoul at my foster family’s home.

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?

From the adoption file - Blair & Patricia Moffett on top; Sohn Soon on bottom.

n From the adoption file – Blair & Patricia Moffett on top; Sohn Soon on bottom.

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.

Erica's parents

My parents, Blair & Patricia Moffett.

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.

Erica Moffet’s story will be running each Wednesday on Woman Around Town. Click to read The Introduction and “Why Are You Here?”

18 Feb

Seoul – Why Are You Here?

Tapgol Park

Tapgol Park – Seoul, Korea.

 

1. Seoul – “Why Are You Here?”

It was eight o’clock on Sunday morning in Seoul, late August, and already it was hazy, humid, and very sticky. The late summer insects, whatever they were and whatever language they spoke, were up and buzzing about like an eager church choir. The heat, haziness, and stickiness were only going to get worse as the day went on. I am not afraid of hot, sticky, and humid. I spend August in South Florida where it is exactly that. But this was different. This was Asian city heat and humidity, laced with pollution, encouraged by thousands of kimchee pots being opened for the day, and confirmed by the knowledge that you are sharing the heavy air molecules with some 25 million other people in a very crowded space. In South Florida, in late August, the beach is a brilliant idea. But in Seoul, there was no beach to be found.

Pagoda

Wongaksa Pagoda in Tapgol Park in Seoul.

Instead, I was sitting in Tapgol Park (photo, top), a little public park in the northern part of Seoul which houses Korea’s second National Treasure, the ten-story Wongaksa Pagoda (above). I was sipping a Starbucks quad grande americano and eating a very dry scone, also from Starbucks. I was attempting to regain some form of normalcy, having arrived in Korea four days prior, and having been unexpectedly asked to leave (albeit very nicely) my host’s apartment the day before. I had spent the entire rest of the day looking for a new place to stay, then packing up, moving out, moving in to the new hotel, and unpacking again. By evening, desperate for a decent glass of wine, I had ended up at the Westin Chosun Hotel, exhausted and dispirited, paying $30 a glass for the wine, and trying to work out how I was going to manage the rest of my trip in Korea without my host, who was also supposed to have been my guide and translator.

I still had no solutions. The scone was awful and the coffee was making me sweat even more. I was in no good mood. Not for Seoul. Not for Korea. And not for the hot, sticky Asian humidity.

Two American guys walked into the park. Even if they hadn’t been speaking American English, their Caucasian faces, their short, clean haircuts, and their casual gaits would have given them away. They walked past me, into the heart of the park, and sat down near the pagoda. They were deep in conversation and didn’t even notice me, another fellow American. Here in the park, I was just another Korean woman drinking a coffee, eating a scone, and blending into all the other Korean people wandering around.

Korean tourists getting photos of an interior building at Gyeonbokg ung Palace

Korean tourists taking photos of an interior building at Gyeonbokgyung Palace.

In my no good mood, I looked at these two guys and wondered why anyone would come to Korea. Why, without any connection to the country, would someone deliberately be a tourist here? People go to China and Japan for the rich cultural history; Thailand and Bali for the beautiful beaches; Australia and New Zealand for fun and adventure. But no one goes to Korea unless you’re related to someone. Or unless you have to. So what were these two strapping young American guys doing here, sitting in the middle of Tapgol Park in Korea, a country that no one visits unless you’re related to someone, on this hot August morning?

My coffee was done. The guys were still deep in conversation. And I had determined that the only way I was going to get an answer to my question was to ask. So I got up, walked over, politely stood in front of them until they looked up, and asked them if I could ask them a question.

If they were taken aback by a “Korean” woman speaking flawless American English, they took it in good stride. “Sure,” they replied, and looked at me expectantly.

“Great. Well…” I said. “I’m just wondering why you are here.” They continued to look at me, still expectantly.

“I mean,” I tried to explain, “What brings you to Korea? Because I don’t understand why anybody comes here. I mean no one says, ‘I want to go to Korea for vacation, right?’ So…why are you here?”

Kimchee pots at Gyeonbokgung Palace (just for display)

Kimchee pots at Gyeonbokgung Palace (just for display).

They looked at each other for a second. One of them said, “I’m here on business.” The other added, “I’m just visiting since he’s here. I’ll stay in Korea for a week and then go to Japan.”

“Oh. Ok.” I should have been excited because their answers had immediately proved my point. I was vindicated, but the quickness of it was anticlimactic. Also, I was not prepared to continue the conversation. What was I supposed to say to them now?

“I’m Erica,” I said. “I’m from New York.”

The one there on business was Adam. The one visiting was Micah. They were from LA and Micah had just gotten off the plane from LA earlier that morning. “Oh, you must be tired,” I said. He said it wasn’t so bad just yet. I told them I had been there for three days already. There was a brief pause, and then Adam wised up. He gave me a quizzical look.

“So why are you here?” he asked.

Korean Guards at Gyeongbokgung Palace

Korean guards (in costume) at Gyeongbokgung Palace.

I looked at them for a few seconds. Then I took a deep breath and said, “I’m adopted. And I came here to search for my birth family.” I wanted to add, “Top that!” but I didn’t. I could see that they were trying to imagine what it would be like not to know your parents and then to go to a foreign country and start looking for them. I didn’t want to interrupt their train of thought.

“Wow!” Adam said.

Though they didn’t say it, I think they were having trouble wrapping their brains around the entire concept. Which, I have to say would not be an unusual reaction. Even I, having lived this situation my entire life, was still having trouble wrapping my brain around this concept. Though now I was finally in Korea trying to do something about it.

Adam finally organized his thoughts. “And what…well…what are you doing for that?” he sputtered. “How do you go about finding your birth family?”

I gave them the basic tutorial on how to search for your birth family. “First you contact your U.S. adoption agency to ask for your records. Hopefully they give you some piece of information like a name or an address that you can use to start searching. But usually for Korean adoptees born prior to 1980 (though even that is no guarantee) the conversation goes something like, ‘We have no information that can lead to your birth family. A search for them is impossible. We are very sorry.’ Then your best option is to come to Korea and meet with the adoption agency in person. If you’re lucky, they’ll let you look at the records yourself. You want anything that wasn’t given to you over the phone. Name and phone number is best. Even an address of where you were abandoned is useful.”

Two Men at a Park Near Tapgol Park Playing a Board Game.

“Oh…and if, having done all of that, you still have nothing, you can try the media. Occasionally one of the television stations will do a segment on adoptees looking for their birth families. Someone suggested that for me because I don’t have a lot of information in my file. But I don’t know. I’m not really sure if I want to be on TV talking about all this and potentially finding my family and having them film the reunion…”

I stopped. That was a lot of information. A lot more than I usually give out to random strangers in a public park in Seoul, Korea.

“Wow,” Adam said again. He asked if I had met with the agency yet.

“No,” I said. “That’s tomorrow’s business. They’ve already told me that I don’t have a lot of information. But we’ll see. I’ve heard of a few cases where there’s supposedly no information, but once you show up in person at the agency, suddenly, like magic, they’ve found a name and a phone number that wasn’t there before. Who knows? Maybe that will be me, and then I won’t have to go on TV.” I grinned.

We all looked at each other for another minute, and then we were done. I told them it was very nice to meet them and they said the same. I wished them a good rest of the trip. They wished me luck and said they would be watching for me on TV. I laughed. “Don’t hold your breath,” I said. And I left them sitting there, pondering my predicament, as I walked off into the Seoul humidity in search of my birth family.

Erica Moffet’s story will be running each Wednesday on Woman Around Town. To read the introduction, click here.

11 Feb

Introduction: “Are You My Mother?”

Erica Moffett – 2014 at the HorseTrack in Hollywood, Florida.

 

Introduction to “Are You My Mother” Essay Series

It must have been serendipity. Last year, in early December, I placed a call to Charlene Giannetti. I am a Korean-American adoptee, and I had a story to tell; she is the editor of Woman Around Town, and she is always on the look out for stories to tell. She was also (serendipitously!) the mother of two adopted children, which I discovered when we spoke.

At Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, NY in 2008.

Charlene and I had met several years earlier when she was launching the website. She had written a profile of me as an ultra-distance open water swimmer. In 2008, I had completed the Triple Crown of open water swimming by completing the Catalina Channel swim (the other two legs were the Swim Around Manhattan and the English Channel). She came to my apartment in 2009 to interview me and I became her first Woman Around Town.  (See the story.)

Now, I was coming back to Charlene to ask her if she would be willing to listen to my story, not as an open water swimmer, but as a Korean-American adoptee who had gone back to Korea to search for my birth family.

Coincidence, fate, serendipity…whatever you choose to call it…both Charlene and I believe that there is still a need for new and current voices to be heard discussing the adoption experience. She asked me to send her a draft of the story when I was finished. The following essay series is the result of that interaction.

As an adoptee, I feel that the adoption experience is very misunderstood. I find this amazing, given our hyperactive media-driven culture where it seems that every experience and subject has been trotted out, talked about, and trod over to death. But somehow, adoption got buried beneath all the trotting out and trodding over. This, I believe is because most people simply do not know what the adoption experience is or means for the adoptee, the birth parent, or the adoptive parent. And if they don’t know what the experience is or means, then they certainly won’t know how to talk about it.

In some ways, it is ironic that Charlene interviewed me for my Triple Crown swimming achievement. At that time, I was one of 30 people in the world who had accomplished that feat (since then, many more people have gone on to complete it as it is a coveted, but achievable goal—me being proof of that!). However, even though it is a very small group of people who have achieved that goal, I find that pretty much everyone can relate to the experience, even if they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do it themselves.

From the adoption agency – me at 3 weeks old (my mother’s handwriting is at the bottom of the picture).

As one of the 200,000-plus Korean adoptees sent away to be raised by another family in another country, I am in the company of a much larger group than the Triple Crown swimmers, a group that continues to grow at a much faster rate. Since my adoption in 1970, there have been hundreds of thousands of other transracial adoptions (in January, Maggie Jones reported in the Sunday New York Times Magazine that over 100,000 Chinese children have been adopted since the late 1990s). And that doesn’t include the many thousands of domestic adoptions that continue to occur. But even though the numbers of this group are far larger than those of the Triple Crown swimmers, I find that hardly anyone can relate to this experience.

This is my story about going back to Korea to search for my birth family. I am just one voice of many, but I hope it illuminates, even if only a little more, the adoption experience.

Erica Moffet’s story will be running each Wednesday on Woman Around Town.

04 Feb

“Are You My Mother” Essay Series

“Are You My Mother? is an essay series about my trip back to Korea in 2014 to search for my birth family. It is being published every Wednesday at www.womanaroundtown.com. The Introduction was published on Wednesday, February 11 and below are the essays that have already been published. New essays will be added as they are published until the series finishes on April 22.