29 Mar

On The Wisdom of Base Jumping…

Base Jumping Off Of One World Trade Center

Well, it’s certainly nothing like swimming the English Channel
she said with absolutely no hint of irony and not a shadow
of humor. “Who would want to base jump
off of One World Trade Center anyway? What
a dumb idea.” As if swimming the 21-plus miles from England
to France in 60-degree water for over 14 hours
was a much smarter one. Ha! he thought. If base jumpers
are now competing with English Channel swimmers
for dumb ideas in this world, the base jumpers would win,
hands down, and simply for efficiency. Channel swimmers, well
those stubborn, purposeful swimmers, they’d still be stuck
in the water, swimming stroke after stroke in the dark and aiming
vaguely for France while the base jumpers –
those who made it down alive anyway –
would have been long gone, drinking up a storm
at some nondescript local bar serving cheap beer, waiting,
and waiting for news of all those swimmers crawling up the beach
goggle-eyed, wobbly on their feet, and with lips too salted
to speak about their great swim from England to France.

- Erica L. Moffett

25 Mar

Seoul – Days One, Two, Three, and Five

Me and the policeman at his office at the Missing Persons Bureau.

 

6. Seoul – Days One, Two, Three, and Five

Two days after my conversation with George (see my previous story, In Preparation for Pohang), I was in Seoul. I was staying with Sally and we had arranged meetings with the policeman and the adoption agency for my first full day there. We planned to go to Pohang a few days later and were going to organize that trip while I was there because, according to Sally, “Koreans never make plans that far in advance. If you do, they won’t think it’s that important and they will cancel on you as soon as something else comes up.” I, being American and Type A, didn’t like having those loose ends dangling, but Sally had been immensely helpful up to this point. I trusted her on this, too. (Photo above: Me with the policeman at his office at the Missing Persons Bureau.)

Day one it was rainy, warm, and humid. We met the policeman at the Missing Persons Bureau, where we were shown into a small room that looked a lot like a Korean bedroom with cabinets on the walls and mats on the floor. We sat down on the floor mats. I was wearing a sleeveless, black and white print, tailored dress, and while we were waiting, Sally pulled out her light green windbreaker and handed it to me. “We are much more conservative here in Korea. Women dress so much more modestly here.” The room, being so tiny, and given the rain and humidity, was stuffy and hot. I had worn my dress to be comfortable in this weather. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to put on that jacket. But Sally insisted and I didn’t want to be rude, or disrespectful, so I put it on.

Once the policeman came, the conversation, all in Korean, went very quickly. Every few minutes, Sally would turn to me and explain what he was saying. I don’t know much Korean, but I do know that “obsoyo” means “no” or “non-existent,” as in “don’t have.” Sally would ask a question, and the only word I would catch in his long answer was “obsoyo” or “obso.” This pattern repeated itself over and over during the meeting. I assumed he was telling Sally what George had warned me about three days earlier, and I was right. New and concrete information on me which he could follow-up with, was non-existent. Moreover, information which I had previously thought good, was now suspect. My birth date, for instance, he could not verify and said I couldn’t assume it was correct.

“But why,” I thought, “would someone make up a birth date?” I was disoriented, in the same way that I had been when I discovered that I had been born in Pohang and not Seoul. I had come hoping for more information and instead I would be leaving with less.

He had run my DNA through the adoptee and missing persons database, but nothing had turned up. This was not surprising since most people in Korea do not voluntarily put DNA samples into that database. But he also said that my DNA would be in the system permanently, so there was still a possibility I could match up with someone in the future.

In the Hongdae section, one of the trendy university sections in town where GOAL is located.

Near the end of our meeting, he suggested the media because there wasn’t a lot more he could do on his end. He knew producers at all of the stations and started calling them immediately to see if they would be interested in carrying my story. I was hesitant. I find reality TV distasteful and I felt this was only one step above that, exploiting the entire adoption situation. But Sally thought it would be a good idea and, by that time, he had already left messages at two of the stations. On the third call, he got someone live who said they could be interested. He and Sally told them my brief story. Then he gave them Sally’s number so they could follow-up with her. I expressed my doubts, but he said the shows weren’t trying to exploit the adoptees or the parents. He still felt it was the best chance to find my family. I decided that I would play it by ear.

But now, he and Sally were worried about the timing of my meeting with the post-adoption specialist at Holt, scheduled to occur in two hours. If the TV station did want to do a story, they would not be able to film my meeting with the agency, which they would surely want to do. He recommended that I postpone the meeting until the following week. Sally agreed, so I called and rescheduled the meeting to the following Monday.

With the afternoon now free of meetings, Sally and I went for a quick tour of the War Museum. Then she went home and I went out to sightsee.

GOAL offices – on the fifth flour of the building.

Day two, I made my way over to the office for the Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (GOAL) located in one of the trendy university areas. GOAL was in the final stages of organizing a “First Trip Home” for twenty adoptees, who were all supposed to arrive the following week. The sole purpose of that trip was to conduct birth family searches. Normally, GOAL would have been able to do what Sally was doing for me (act as guide, translator, advocate), but because of the upcoming trip, all of their resources were being used for that. I had already discussed that with them earlier in the summer, and had told them it wasn’t a problem because Sally was helping me and she was doing a great job anyway. I met most of the staff, including George, and they gave me a bunch of pamphlets they had produced about searching and finding and adoption policy in Korea. I thanked them, and once I left their offices, I walked around the area a bit, had a late lunch and then went back to Sally’s.

Day three, Sally was out for her regular morning walk when I woke up. I got up and made some coffee. When she returned, we ate breakfast, and after we had finished, she said that she needed to tell me something. She looked very serious. “I think you should find another place to stay,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “Ok.” I tried to keep a poker face, but I must have showed some surprise.

Holt Agency – Post Adoption Services Office in Seoul.

She explained that it was her daughter’s last week in Korea (her daughter was over for the summer, with her two children, staying at her husband’s family’s place), and she thought they weren’t visiting her because I was there. She gave me a few thoughts about where to stay. Then she got up, went into her bedroom, and shut the door. I sat there stunned.

I assumed I was to be out of the house as soon as I could, though I did not want to ask and have her confirm that. Instead I got out my computer and spent the next few hours scouring the Internet for a new place to stay. It didn’t help that it was the last week in the summer before school started, one of the busiest travel weeks in the year. But I eventually found a hotel that, on the Internet, looked clean and was in a good neighborhood. I jotted down the name, address, and price and studied the subway map for the best way to get there. Then I walked down the hall and knocked on Sally’s door.

“Yes?” she said as she opened the door. I told her that I was going out to look at a hotel. She looked surprised. “Oh! Do you want me to come with you?” she asked.

“Oh no,” I replied. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”

I found my way to the hotel, viewed the room I would stay in, found it clean and acceptable, paid for it, and went back to Sally’s to pack up and move out. As she was walking me down to the street to catch a taxi to go to the hotel, I brought up what I had been dreading to ask all morning.

“What about Pohang?” Even before she opened her mouth, I knew what the answer was going to be.

She told me she could go if I really needed it, but she was older now and she tired so easily and thought it would be better if she stayed in Seoul. It would be good if I could get to my family’s connections in the church. There would be lots of young people willing to help me with knocking on doors and talking to people. And there was also the television show. If they were going to do the show, they could go down too.

I nodded, as she flagged a taxi for me. I knew I could get to Pohang and find the orphanage and city hall on my own (though admittedly it would be much more difficult by myself), but once I was there, how in the world was I going to have a meaningful conversation with anyone about my abandonment and subsequent adoption without someone to translate? That conversation went far beyond the standard useful language guide at the end of the Fodor’s travel books telling you how to order in a restaurant or ask where the bathroom was.

A taxi pulled up. I opened the door and shoved my bags in.

“Do you have the address of the hotel?” she asked. I showed her what I had written in my notebook. She told the taxi driver where to go and how he should get there, and then we said goodbye.

I climbed into the taxi and as we pulled away, I fought off the urge to burst into tears, even though that is exactly what I wanted to do. I told myself I shouldn’t cry because if I did cry that would mean that what had just happened actually meant something, and I wanted so desperately for what had just happened not to mean anything.

Even in my highly emotional state, it was obvious to me the quite ironic meta-story that was playing out. Forty-four years ago, my birth mother (or someone in my birth family) abandoned me, and now, when I had finally worked up the courage to go back to Korea to search for her, the one Korean person on whom I had become utterly reliant, abandoned me. Intellectually, I knew it was absurd to link the two events. This was nothing like what had happened to me and my birth family. There was no reason to commingle Sally’s asking me to move out with my mother’s abandonment 44 years ago.

But the peculiar thing about rejection with adoptees is that, at any time, a completely unrelated rejection can be commingled with the first one. It can either be conscious or unconscious. Sitting in the taxi, I was highly conscious of both rejections, as well as the irrational commingling that was taking place. But that didn’t make me feel any better.

And that is how I ended up at the bar at the Westin Chosun hotel later that night, drinking overpriced wine. That is why I was in no good mood the next morning, day four, sitting in Tapgol Park when Adam and Micah strolled through. It was hot, humid, sticky, and I wanted out. But I still had eleven more days to go, in a country that no one ever visits unless you’re related to someone.

* * *

In the next 24 hours, I pulled it together. I had contemplated getting on a plane and spending the remaining ten days on a white sand beach somewhere in the South Pacific. But I still had the meeting with Holt Korea scheduled for the following day and I figured I should at least show up since I had traveled halfway around the world for it.

Day five, I made my way over to Holt Korea to meet with the Ellie, the post-adoption specialist.

With Ellie, at the Post Adoption Services Offices in Seoul.

Ellie, in addition to being the post-adoption specialist, was also a Korean adoptee who was born without a cranium and given up by her parents because they couldn’t afford the medical bills for corrective surgery. Instead, she grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan in a Jewish family and had numerous operations to restore her skull to a functional and normal looking head. Though still, after all the surgeries, she had ended up with a big nose that people could never reconcile to her Asian face. She had returned to Korea a few years ago, converted to Christianity, and now in her role as a post-adoption specialist, spends most of her time meeting with returning adoptees to help them find their birth families.

When she brought out my file, she confirmed what George and the policeman had already told me. There really was no additional information for me. I pushed and prodded just to make sure she wasn’t hiding anything, but she had nothing. And I believed her.

I used the rest of the time to ask her about the children today who are never adopted and she told me how enormously difficult their life is because Koreans shun the illegitimate and handicapped, and then the government makes it official by stamping their registration papers with the orphanage address so everyone will know for the rest of their life. “It’s so terrible,” she said. “They have no chance at having a good life.” I nodded and thought about all those children and all of their mothers who had given them up.

When we were done, she told me to go down to Pohang anyway. It would be good because I could visit some of those places where I had been in my first few days and try to feel that experience. “But,” she warned me, “Don’t go down there expecting to find your family. You will only be disappointed.”

Erica Moffet’s story will be running each Wednesday on Woman Around Town. Click to read The IntroductionSeoul – “Why Are You Here?”“Why Did You Wait So Long?”In Pohang, a Baby Girl Was BornPohang – A Cold Case Reinvestigated, and In Preparation for Pohang.

22 Mar

Review: The Feast: Not a Lot of Food but Plenty of Voices

Feast1_Bjorn Bolinder

The Feast: Not a Lot of Food, but Plenty of Voices

 

The great “man versus…” conflicts in literature have been: man versus man; man versus nature; man versus society; and, man versus self. Now, with the World Premiere of Cory Finley’s The Feast at the Flea Theater (directed by Courtney Ulrich), we can add another one to the list: man versus toilet. Man versus toilet? Really? How does this add anything to the great “man versus…” conflict discussion?

Well for one, it allows for comedy, that great breaker of categories. Not that this one lacks for drama either, but it’s drama couched against an increasingly absurd reality taking place within Matt (Ivan Dolido) and Anna’s (Marlowe Holden) apartment. Or rather, in their toilet. This allows for some very funny moments, starting with Matt, a painter (of art, not houses) who is bothered enough by the noises he is hearing in his toilet to complain to his very corporate girlfriend Anna, but not bothered enough to call the plumber to come fix them.

Feast2_Bjorn BolinderInstead it is Anna, the ever so practical and caring girlfriend, who calls the plumber (Donaldo Prescod), but neglects to tell Matt. When the plumber shows up at the door, Matt, wearing Anna’s navy blue silk robe, promptly gets into an argument with him about whether he should even be there at all. They come to an agreement, the toilet is “fixed” and Matt is ready to get back to his life, which, as he later affirms to his therapist is great. “Things could not be better!” he exclaims. The toilet has other plans.
To clarify, it’s not actually the toilet which is in conflict with Matt, but rather, the voices contained within the toilet, and the people (or is it creatures?) associated with them. (For those not scatalogically inclined, including this reviewer, don’t worry; this play doesn’t even go there.) The conflict moves from the toilet to Matt’s mind. It seeps into all of his relationships, beginning with the plumber, and moves on to his therapist, his agent, and finally a co-worker of Anna’s (all played by Donaldo Prescod). Also, not surprisingly, Anna and Matt end up having relationship difficulties.
Matt can’t understand why the voices exist, and he searches for guidance in the very place that the voices came from. He goes in, head first. Things begin to spin. There is a feast and a great painting; enlightenment and a misunderstanding. And then there is a storm. From all this, Matt is able to find middle ground between the toilet and the reality of his life. The voices have disappeared, for the time being. But the plumber may be needed again.Feast3_Bjorn BolinderThe play is concise, efficient, and humorous with a good dose of the fantastic. But it all comes together and engages. Donaldo Prescod was terrific at inhabiting the four different roles against Matt, and Ivan Dolido, as Matt, was very expressive in going through all of the emotions the toilet brought out in him. Marlowe Holden, the corporate suit, felt a little flat, but hers was the more challenging role, having to play the corporate stiff who was passionate about “deliverables.” A few staging oddities (such as not clearing wine glasses or the food) were more than offset by the set design, the scene delineations, and especially the way that the audience and actors engaged in looking at the paintings.
The press materials describe The Feast as “an eerie comedy,” but it is less eerie and more cautionary in a humorous manner. Sure, it is absurd to have voices talking from the toilet and going straight to Matt’s head. But haven’t we all heard voices in our head at some point (even if they were our own), and wondered who said what and what our reality really was? It can’t be too far-fetched, then, to imagine the voices coming from somewhere else, say, a toilet.In the end, Finley has not really added a new genre to the “man versus…” conflicts. Instead, he has cleverly incorporated all of the conflicts (man versus man, versus nature, versus society, versus self), into one—man versus toilet—and has arrived at an ambiguous, but very tenable conclusion. At a running time of an hour, what more could you want in a play featuring a toilet with voices?
The Feast, which opened on Sunday, March 15, runs through April 6 at The Flea Theater.
Photos by Bjorn Bolinder
1.Ivan Dolido, Marlowe Holden
2. and 3. Ivan Dolido
18 Mar

In Preparation for Pohang

Me in South Africa – 2009.

 

5. In Preparation for Pohang

If the trip to Pohang had not produced the outcome I had wanted, it was not for lack of preparation beforehand. Once I decided to go to Korea, I did as much work as I could to make the trip as productive as possible. In my mind, the best outcome was to locate my birth family before the trip, so that I could spend the time in Korea meeting them, rather than searching for them.

I wanted to do this on my own because I was still hesitant to tell anyone I was searching. But I realized very quickly that I was going to need to find someone on the ground in Korea if I was going to make any progress at all. Notwithstanding the phone calls I was going to need to make, I was going to need help just reading half of the documents in my file since they were in Korean. I needed someone who spoke the language, who was familiar with the customs and culture, and who could make phone calls and inquiries on my behalf.

There was a family with whom my parents had been friendly some 30 years ago, but had moved back to Korea about 25 years ago. They had two daughters, the eldest of whom had graduated a year ahead of me in high school. I hadn’t spoken to the family or the daughter in over 20 years, but a few years earlier she found me on Facebook. I had thought of her because her father had been an architect in Seoul and I thought he could help me locate the orphanage in Seoul (this was still the time when I thought that I had been born in Seoul). I emailed her, told her what I was doing, and asked if she could help. Though she was very willing, her Korean was not good enough to have the conversations I needed to have. However, she said she would ask her mother who “was good at these sorts of things.” Her mother was Sally.

One of the documents in my adoption file (Family Register ).

Sally said she would be glad to help. I was eager to get started so I sent her my file and told her that my first goal was to locate the orphanage. She started doing her own legwork in Korea. I continued to work stateside.

I placed another call to Holt USA to inquire about the orphanage. The U.S. post-adoption specialist told me that the location of the orphanage was completely lost, along with any contact information of anyone who had ever worked or been associated there. Then she told me that there was no point in contacting City Hall either. They would have thrown away any records they had. I got the feeling that she had had this exact same conversation with many other adoptees and that she wanted to get me off the phone politely, but as quickly as possible.

“But you must have some general knowledge of where Pohang orphanage was in Seoul,” I said. “At the very least, I want to be able to look at a map of Seoul and know where the orphanage was in the city.”

“You have to realize,” she said, “that Seoul was completely destroyed after the war, and the city was being rebuilt all the time. Streets were demolished and addresses had been changed. Records are gone. It was so long ago. What you’re looking for is impossible. ”

One of the documents in my adoption file (Certificate of Orphan Status ).

I replied that it was impossible for an entire orphanage to disappear into thin air, without some record, or knowledge of anything. “Even if the streets had changed,” I argued, “there would have been people who worked there, people who lived around there, people who would have known where that orphanage was. There would have been news reports when it had been built or when the street was going to be razed. Unless you’re working with the CIA, entire buildings and organizations do not simply evaporate into thin air!”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it’s frustrating, but you have to understand that back then…it was so so long ago…well I mean, I’m not saying that you’re old…but you have to understand that back then no one bothered to keep records like we do today.”

“Fine,” I said. I thanked her and hung up.

Several days later, Sally emailed me to say that she had located the orphanage. It was in Pohang, not Seoul, and it was still in existence, though now as a welfare organization for single women. The biggest news of all was that she had spoken with the current director, Mrs. Shin.

The post-adoption specialist at Holt, to her credit, must have done some additional homework because I received an email from her about a week later telling me what I already knew. I am glad she acknowledged her mistake, but it was too late. Sally and I were off and running on our own.

Summary of Korean SurNames – Wikipedia.

She explained my name to me. “Sohn is the family name and Soon is your given name. It means tender,” she said. She paused for a brief second. “Are you tender, Erica?” I snorted out a laugh. Impatient, stubborn, competitive, determined, inscrutable – these are all words that I and others associate with me. Tender was not among them.

“Hardly,” I responded. And we both laughed.

However, it was odd that I only had two names because Korean names always consist of three names: a family name plus two given names (e.g., Ban Ki Moon; Kim Yu Na; Park Jae Sang, aka PSY). This was a new question to ponder. Who would have named me with only one given name? Had it been a joke? She also said that Sohn was not a very common family name. We concluded that it must be my family name because, hypothetically, if some random person were naming an abandoned baby, he or she would have probably stuck to Kim, Park or Lee, the three most common family names in Korea which comprise over 50 percent of all family names. This sounded like a big clue. If Sohn was that uncommon of a family name, then couldn’t we just look up all the Sohns in Pohang and start calling them?

If only it were that easy. Korea doesn’t maintain a directory like the white pages in the U.S., so that would be hard, if not impossible. More problematic was that we didn’t know if Sohn was my father’s or my mother’s name, and there was also the possibility that my father didn’t even know of my existence. Most problematic was that we still had no idea where the name had come from, what it represented, or who had given it to me.

Historical Map of Kyongju – road to Pohang is at the top left.

We learned from Mrs. Shin that Sohn was also a name associated with the yangban (the ruling class in the 1800s) in the Kyongju area, just west of Pohang. But this piece of information could also have been created by an orphanage director eager to offer up something useful. True or not, I wanted to hire a private detective to search for all Sohns in the Pohang/Kyongju area and ask everyone if they had had a relative who had abandoned a baby girl in late November 1969. But private detectives are illegal in Korea. It was a good American idea, defective in Korea.

I was dying to get my hands on the hospital records for November 18, 1969 to see if there was anyone with a family name Sohn who had given birth that day. But of course, with all the privacy concerns today, hospitals won’t provide any information without a name and a registration number (the rough equivalent of a Social Security number), neither of which I had. Moreover, if my parents were poor, they never would have been able to afford a hospital birth. It was a moot point though, since I was never going to see those records.

My notes from a conversation with Sally.

Sally also found a policeman in Korea who specializes in helping adoptees and birth families reunite. Legally, he is not supposed to do this but after reuniting one adoptee and birth family early in his career, he has come to see this as his mission in life. So he skirts the rules and continues to moonlight on cases like mine. Sally gave him my adoption files to review. He asked for a sample of my DNA so he could run it through the database. When I got the request, I pulled out ten strands of hair, making sure to get the roots, and cut down five fingernails. I put them in separate ziploc bags, labeled each of them very carefully with both my American and Korean names, and sent them over.

By the middle of the summer, I felt like I had a lot of new information. But it was deceiving. What I had was a lot of information that could not be confirmed or denied. It was also frustrating. My impatience, determination, and competitiveness were all surfacing and I felt like I should be farther along.

2014 KAAN Conference – Adoptee Photo.

In addition to all this, I attended a conference sponsored by the Korean American Adoptive Family Network (KAAN for short). I was nervous about going. In the past I had shied away from associating with any other Korean adoptees because I had always been the lone Korean adoptee in the environments I inhabited, which made me feel unique. (It also, many times, made me feel misunderstood, but I was comfortable in that unique, misunderstood position.) I could not imagine being in a room with dozens of other people with the same “unique” experience. But I knew I should go and meet other people who were searching or had searched to see if there was something else I should be doing. As it turns out, I was doing all, and more, than what most people were doing, so I didn’t learn anything new on that front. But in its place, I got over my fear of being in a room full of other adoptees and discovered that I found a lot of comfort in meeting other people who had been through the Korean adoption experience.

The other thing I had done stateside was to contact Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (GOAL for short), a Korean adoptee organization located in Seoul and run by Korean adoptees. They have lobbied for rights for Korean adoptees in Korea and provide a number of services for adoptees living in Korea. But their most popular service, hands down, is helping adoptees find their birth families. They have accumulated a great body of knowledge on this. They know all the post-adoption specialists at the agencies, and all the extra little “tricks” to try to get more information, and they can provide good advice on how to relate to the family once you find them.

I uploaded my file to their Web site for review, and George was assigned to work with me. Over the course of the summer, I had several conversations with him about my file. He was not very sanguine about my prospects. I told him what Sally and I had found, and he said that was all good. The problem was that I didn’t have much else in addition to that.

Sunrise in the mountains around Kyongju.

My last conversation with George was two days before my flight to Korea. He had gone through the file again and he warned me not to expect anything because I had nothing concrete in my file to follow-up on. The best case would be a name or a phone number. The worst case would be an address of where I had been found. I had neither.

“That’s too bad.” he said, “Because if you have the address or general vicinity of where you were left or found, then we can make up flyers, go to that area and knock on doors to look for people who would have been living there during that time. Especially in smaller towns, it is amazing how many elderly people are still living in the same place. But in your case, we don’t even know where to start knocking.”

As he told me all this, I felt as if air was slowly seeping out of me.

All spring and summer while searching, I had been riding the proverbial emotional roller coaster. Each conversation, whether it was with the adoption agency, Sally, George, or other adoptees who had searched, brought an overwhelming crush of emotions. At any random moment, I could start crying just thinking about the search; the anticipation of finding; and the anxiety of what to do after finding. To try to prepare for that, I read and re-read books of adoptees who had searched and found. I watched any movie I could find on adoption. I scoured the Internet for stories of reunions and of birth mothers. I couldn’t stop myself. I could not get enough of reading and watching and talking to people about adopting and searching and finding. I knew this only intensified the roller coaster trajectory, but it helped prepare me for the possible endings and how I would handle them. Through it all, I was excitable, nervous, and anxious about the actual possibility of finding and meeting my birth family, my birth mother in particular. I knew success was going to be unlikely but I had still maintained hope that I would be successful.

When George told me that I didn’t even have enough information to start knocking on doors, that hope disappeared. Just a few days before, I had finished making up my own fliers to hand out. Now there was no need even to bring them with me. The futility of the entire search sank in. I knew that I was not going to find my birth family in Korea on this trip.

I called up a friend and told him what I had just heard. “I don’t even know why I’m going anymore,” I said in a tone located somewhere between forlorn and dejected. There was a long pause.

“Well look,” he said gently. “You’ve been thinking about this your whole life. It’s clearly something you need to do. Even if you’re not going to find them.”

Erica Moffet’s story will be running each Wednesday on Woman Around Town. Click to read The Introduction, Seoul – “Why Are You Here?”, “Why Did You Wait So Long?”, In Pohang, a Baby Girl Was Born, and Pohang – A Cold Case Revisited.

15 Mar

Encounters with the Jellyfish

2015-02-23 11.51.00

Petit & Grand Pitons (the cove is nestled between the two)

The most recent one was in St. Lucia, in late February 2015. I was in the cove between between the two volcanic Pitons, those two pointed green mountains that adorn every tourist brochure for the island. On the evening of our first day there, I went for an impromptu swim with my swim partner, Andrey.

It was only half a mile or so, not long in open water swimming terms, but long enough to qualify as one of the most scenic swims of my life (swimming around the Cape of Good Hope and around Manhattan also make the list). The water was a clear, deep indigo blue and, less than 100 meters on either side of us, were the two sharp volcanic peaks rising straight up from water. The light was transitioning from day to dusk. The air temperature was 70 degrees fahrenheit (versus the 15 degrees back in New York City). I couldn’t imagine any other place I would rather be.

Except that, as we stopped for a break at the end of Petit Piton, we noticed that we were getting pinpricks all over.

“It must be pieces of jellyfish that have broken off and are being washed into the cove,” I said knowingly to Andrey.

We started swimming back to the boat, and by the time we got there, the pinpricks were became more frequent and sharper. “Leave it to the jellyfish,” I thought, “to ruin the swim.”

jellyfish1

The rash by the third day had subsided a little.

Everyone in our party had gone into the water and gotten pinpricked. Once back on the boat, we compared our jellyfish sting marks. Mine were among the worst. And they continued to worsen. While everyone else’s jellyfish stings dried up and disappeared that night, mine just deepened and reddened and became terribly itchy.

I wasn’t in agony, but I was discomfited. I was also alone in my misery. The rest of the party would look sympathetically me as I scratched and scratched the red rashes that had materialized on my skin. Eventually, someone convinced me to take an antihistamine. The itching finally started to subside. But I still had the sting marks, over three weeks later.

“Ahh, it’s nothing,” I told them. “It’s just part of open water swimming. I’m used to it.”

* * *

The worst one was in South Africa. It was 2005, and I was going to swim around Cape Agulhas, the most southern point in Africa.

Swimming around Cape Agulhas is not a must-do swim for an open water swimmer. For one, it’s not particularly challenging, with a modest distance (4.7 miles) and moderate temperatures (approximately 60-65 degree Fahrenheit water). A decent swimmer, depending on currents, should be able to get around it in two-plus hours. But it’s also a hassle to get to, being at the most southern point of Africa. And, it’s a hassle to arrange everything, like the day to swim, the boat, the pilot, the crew. So Cape Agulhas remains relatively unswum.

I had gone to Cape Town to train in cold waters for a potential swim across the English Channel. Since I had already traveled the 4,800 miles to Cape Town, it didn’t seem that much more of a hassle to add another 110 miles to get down to Agulhas. And, after the difficulties of exiting my job in New York and getting down to Cape Town and finding a place to live and figuring out how to drive on the wrong side of the road, the difficulties of arranging the swim around Cape Agulhas didn’t seem all that difficult.

I was also enchanted with the concept of swimming around the bottom point of Africa. At that most southern point, there would be nothing between me and Antarctica except the warm Agulas current battling it out with the cold Benguela one. Currents that had, over the centuries, wrecked, and sank, hundreds of ships. Currents that were also famous for attracting a rich and varied marine life. I was fascinated with the idea of swimming in those waters.

2015-03-15 22.31.04

The town, Agulhas, at the bottom point of Africa.

When I arrived in Agulhas, a desolate town at the end of the continent, I was not thinking about jellyfish. What I was thinking about were the large predators that were definitively known to inhabit those waters. All of South Africa is known for its great white sharks, but I had heard that the waters around Agulhas were “particularly sharky.” I was anxious. Even though there has never been a case of a shark attacking a swimmer swimming next to a boat (which I would be doing), and even though I would be swimming with an electric shark repellant device, I was still anxious. After all, there is always a first time for everything.

I was with Peter Bales, my crew member and representative from the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association in Cape Town. He was responsible for ensuring that my swim was official, meaning that I had swum the distance I said I would swim; that I hadn’t received any help from anyone while swimming; and that I swam in a bathing suit, goggles and cap without any swimming aids. We went to meet Trail, a fisherman in Agulhas, who would be the boat pilot for my swim. We walked into the front hallway of his house, and immediately on display, were two dozen pictures of great white sharks with their jaws wide open. Their sharp jagged teeth were very visible. I took a sharp, deep breath. Trail laughed.

Some of Trail's photographs of the great white sharks he has tagged.

Some of Trail’s photographs of the great white sharks he has tagged.

“I’ve caught and tagged over 200 great whites,” he bragged. I nodded. This was not really a conversation I wanted to continue.

“But you don’t need to worry,” he said. “I know their patterns. And where you’re swimming, they don’t really come.” I nodded again. His friend George came in behind us. George and Trail had grown up together, and George was going to be helping Trail on the boat.

“And if any come,” George announced in a thick South African accent, “we’ll just push them away. All you need to worry about is swimming.” I nodded again.

 

 

 

 

2015-03-15 22.30.17

The morning of the swim

The next morning, we got up early and went out to the boat. The sea, thankfully, was relatively calm. The sky was immense and layered with long silver, grey, and white clouds. We started to make our way to the starting point.

I was quiet in the boat. The dinner discussion the night before had finally moved away from the great whites, but it was still hard not to think about them patrolling the entire coast of South Africa, from Durban all the way up to Namibia, with a special concentration around Cape Agulhas.

My anxiety was not helped by the fact that this was my first, real, solo swim. All my prior swims had been with other people, either as part of a race or in a group. But, here, down at the bottom tip of Africa, it was just me and the boat. In just a few minutes, I was going to jump into the water and swim by myself in waters that had snapped steel tankers in two and that sheltered long, sinewy predators that like to attack slower moving creatures.

All this I was contemplating when I heard Peter suddenly call out. “Erica, I think we have a problem.”

I looked up.

2015-03-15 22.32.18

A brief glance at some of the blue bottles.

“How well do you do with blue bottles?” he asked.

“Blue bottles?” I said. “What are those?”

He pointed to the water. It was an apt description. I saw strings floating in the water with translucent blue bottles about the size of of a giant gumball attached every six inches to the strings.

“What are they?” I asked. “I’ve never heard of them.”

“They’re a type of jellyfish,” he responded. “Do you know if you’re allergic?”

 

I looked at him blankly. I am always the first to get bitten by mosquitos. I have a terrible reaction to poison ivy. I had had some mild encounters with jellyfish at Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York, and a terrible reaction to the jellyfish in the Strait of Gibraltar. But those encounters were with normal jellyfish, not a jellyfish that merited a special, and exotic name, like blue bottles.

“I don’t know,” I said dumbly.

“They can be very poisonous,” he explained. “If you’re allergic, you might not be able to breathe.”

“Do you want to swim?” he added.

That, I felt, was a trick question. Of course I wanted to swim. But my swim had been predicated on swimming with the great whites. Not the blue bottles!

He and I looked at each other for a minute. He said that we’ve come all this way and that I might as well get in the water and swim. He said that if it looked like I was really having trouble, he could always pull me out.”

“Ok,” I said, somewhat reluctantly. “That sounds like a plan.”

It was, I knew, the best plan. Despite the relative easiness of planning this swim, this was going to be my best shot at completing it. Trail fished by day and wasn’t always available. The weather would not necessarily be this kind the next time. I was here now, in my swimsuit, on the boat, ready to swim. The only thing standing in the way were the blue bottles.

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At the start of the swim, I was procrastinating getting into the water.

The starting point was located right next to a shipwreck. Trail moved the boat in as close to shore as he could. Peter gave me his instructions about how to get to shore, and what I needed to do to start. The water had started to kick up by now, and I was a little more nervous. Trail, George and Peter could see that I was procrastinating. Peter finally realized he might need to help me get in. “Do you want me to help you swim in?” he asked.

Finally, I smiled. “Oh! Yes, I would really like that!”

We both put on our caps. He jumped in first, and I followed. He swam with me, close to the shore, and then told me to swim out to the shore and walk out, making sure to clear the water. I was supposed to raise my hand when I was ready. That was the signal to start the clock. He swam back to the boat. I swam on to the shore, walked out, raised my hand, and then started my swim.

In the water, all I could think about was the blue bottles and when I would run into them. On the remaining time on the boat, after Peter had pointed them out to me, I had secretly hoped that a great wave would come and suddenly wash the blue bottles away from me. Of course that didn’t happen.

It took an hour before I ran into them.  They were impossible to fight. It was as if I was swimming through strings of Christmas lights, except the lights were little blue bottles emitting tiny little electic shocks. They wrapped themselves around my arms, my legs, and my torso. I would free myself from one strand, only to wrap myself up in another. I could feel the stings, but they weren’t that bad. They felt like all the other jellyfish stings I had encountered before: sharp, but fleeting, pinpricks. My body was being pinpricked everywhere, but I seemed to be swimming fine and I could breathe. So I kept going.

I finished the swim. I didn’t see any great white sharks, and my encounters with the jellyfish only lasted five or ten minutes. The swim took me two hours and three minutes, and I was the third swimmer to have swum it. Even though it is not a must-do swim, I am proud to be able to say that.

The first day there were some welts on my skin, but they didn’t bother me that much. The second day, there were more welts on my skin, and now they were beginning to itch. The third day, my whole body turned into an angry red rash (fortunately only my body, not my face). Everything itched, and I was in agony. I was on the verge of becoming crazy.

I called up a swimming friend who was a doctor and begged him for an answer. “Blue bottles,” he said. “Yes. Those can be really bad.”

He sent me to a pharmacist, who looked at me and said, “Hmm. A lot of toxins must have gotten into your skin.”

“Toxins,” I thought. “Toxins in my body. All from these little blue bottles that could be mistaken for blue Christmas tree lights. All from wanting to swim in the same waters as the great white sharks.” I took the medicine and prayed that it would start working immediately rather than the twelve hours that the pharmacist had told me it would take.

The pharmacist was right of course. It took about twelve hours before the itching subsided, and another 12 hours before the red rash began to recede. I started to feel normal again.

Normal enough, anyway, to start planning my next swim.

11 Mar

A Cold Case Reinvestigated

Statue of Mother & Child on the grounds of the current Welfare Agency for single mothers.

Statue of Mother & Child on the grounds of the current Welfare Agency.

 

4. Pohang – A Cold Case Reinvestigated

I had said good-bye to Adam and Micah, the two young men I met in Tapgol Park on Sunday, August 24, and in the next three days, I scrambled to get a new game plan in place since Sally, the keystone of my original plan, was no longer able to help me. Because my father’s family has had a long history of Presbyterian mission work in Korea, I was able to tap into a large network of ministers and missionaries who were willing to take up where Sally had left off. (Top photo: Statue of Mother and Child on the grounds of the current Welfare Agency for single mothers).

Me, Andrew & Pastor Kim

Me, Andrew & Pastor Kim.

Steven was the 21-year old son of a professor at the Presbyterian College and Theological Seminary, which had been founded by Samuel Austin Moffett, my great-grandfather in the early 1900s. Steven, at his father’s request, was gracious enough to agree to accompany me to Pohang and be my guide and translator. There was also Pastor Kim, an assistant pastor at the Pohang Presbyterian Church, the largest church in the city with over 10,000 members. This connection would prove invaluable since he was able to get us meaningful meetings with City Hall, the police station, and the orphanage.

Steven and I met at the Seoul train station on Thursday morning, August 28, to take the high speed train to Kyongju. Pastor Kim met us there and drove us the 40 minutes back to Pohang. Fortunately the heat and humidity had broken by the time we arrived because Pastor Kim said that in the summer, the humidity combined with the mill’s exhaust was more than oppressively awful. Having just escaped the Seoul humidity, which didn’t even include a steel mill’s output, I believed him. Pohang, I thought, would be like merging Corpus Christi with Pittsburgh: little coastal city meet the big steel mill and good luck to all those living there.

* * *

I wish I had some great story to tell about my trip to Pohang. I want to be able to say how amazing it was when reality collided with fantasy when I accidentally bumped into my birth mother walking on the beach as she was getting ready to swim in the ocean, and immediately we both knew it because it was like looking into a mirror. But I have no great story to tell.

Downtown Pohang, looking at POSCO steel mill. The sea is to the left.

Downtown Pohang, looking at POSCO steel mill. The sea is to the left.

It turns out that for all the anticipation that had built up over 44 years, the actual trip to my birth city was fairly ordinary. I went, I saw. I asked questions. I talked to people at the orphanage. I talked to people at city hall. I talked to people at the police station. I went to the train station and thought about whether someone would have left me there. There were no grand outbursts of tears. There were no sharp realizations or insights. Instead, I had become like a detective, investigating the circumstances of a Korean baby girl named Sohn Soon, who was born somewhere in or around Pohang on or about November 18, 1969 and then appeared at Pohang City Hall Social Section on December 9, 21 days later.

In fact I was not like a detective. I was a detective, able to conduct my investigation with cold, clinical detachment. This I was not prepared for. Because earlier in the year, back in New York, when I had first started searching, it had been difficult to talk to people about the search without being overwhelmed with emotion. But somehow, by the time I got to Pohang, I had detached. I was no longer searching for my origins. Instead, I was searching for the origins of some random baby named Sohn Soon who had been abandoned in Pohang. Though I wasn’t prepared for this separation of selves, I was happy to slip into the role of skeptical detective.

And what did the detective work uncover? Unfortunately, not a lot. We started at the orphanage, which had shut down as an orphanage in 1970 and re-opened as a welfare organization for single mothers. It had been founded in 1948 by Park Kyung Ho who served as Director until he died. His daughter-in-law, Mrs. Shin, now ran the organization, and we met with both her and the assistant head of the organization. From previous conversations between Mrs. Shin and Sally, I already knew that the records had been lost in a fire. So the only hope we had was to identify someone who had worked there at the time who might be able to remember something. But I intuited, as I listened to the tone of the conversations flying over my head in Korean, that there was no one else alive who would be worth talking to. I was right. It was a dead end.

Photographs of Pohang Orphanage in 1969; the photo on the lower left is the building I would have stayed in when I arrived.

Photographs of Pohang Orphanage in 1969; the photo on the lower left is the building I would have stayed in when I arrived.

I did learn that my name was attached to me before I came to the orphanage. Mrs. Shin said that if I had come to the orphanage unnamed, her father-in-law would have given me the family name of Park, his own family name, which was standard practice. So we all concluded that I must have come in as Sohn Soon. But this wasn’t enough of a clue to get us any farther.

Mrs. Shin took us to the original location of the building where I would have lived once I had been brought over from City Hall. The building had been torn down long ago, but they had built a new one, which now served as a playroom for the children. The orphanage had already been scheduled to shut down before I had arrived which was, most likely, the reason that I was sent to Holt after only two days and not kept in the orphanage. “It is too bad you were only here for two days,” she said, “because even if we were to find someone who worked here back then, they probably wouldn’t remember a baby who had only been here for two days.”

We walked back to the main building and re-examined my very thin adoption file. It was only 21 pages, half in Korean and half in English, and we went through every page, over and over, looking for some clue to point us somewhere else to find out more information. We went over that file so many times it eventually resembled a worn out, old pamphlet that had been read one too many times. But in the end there was nothing else to be found. It was like trying to pull water from stone.

Entrance to Pohang City Hall, Social Section, 4th Floor

Entrance to Pohang City Hall, Social Section, 4th Floor.

After the orphanage, we went to City Hall, to the Social Section, the department responsible for processing abandoned children. City Hall had no records either. They had also been destroyed in a fire. (Fires, I was learning, were exceptionally common at any place that housed adoption records. It didn’t seem to matter whether the records were located in Ireland, Queens, Vietnam, China, or Korea; somehow the fires always seemed to seek out the records of those abandoned children.)

At City Hall, we did the same thing that we did at the orphanage. We pulled out the file and put on our detective hats. We asked questions, we pored over the file, we tried to find people who would have worked there when I was there. The only person they could think of was the man who headed up the department during that time. But he was retired now and living in America. And very old. Someone knew his daughter so they called her and got his number and were going to try him later that evening. But it was too long ago for him to remember anything.

After City Hall, we visited the Police Station. They also had no records, though there was no fire this time. They simply would have destroyed the records after five or ten years. And it is likely, they said, that even if they had kept the records, they would not have recorded an abandoned baby.

Pohang Train Station

Pohang Train Station.

Finally we went to the Pohang train station because that was a popular place to leave babies who were either not wanted or could not be cared for. We didn’t know if this was the place where I had been abandoned, but we went there anyway, just so I could imagine it.

On Friday, we went back back to the orphanage and discovered that one of Mrs. Shin’s childhood friends, Mrs. Paek, had actually worked at City Hall Social Section during the time that I was brought there. They had gone to high school together and she had gotten a job with the social section after graduating. Finally! Here was a living person who might be able to tell us something. She was going to come over and talk to us.

Mrs. Shin, left, the director of Pohang Welfare Agency, and her assistant.

When she got there, we eagerly asked her what she remembered about taking in abandoned babies at City and how they decided where to take them. She looked blank for a second. “It was so long ago,” she replied.

I tried again, “Do you remember who would have taken me over from City Hall to the orphanage?” She shook her head. She was very nice, and she wanted to be helpful, but it was clear she could not remember anything about the work that she did back then.

I wasn’t defeated. But I was deflated. And Steven and I were going to have to leave shortly to catch our train back to Seoul.

* * *

One of the current buildings at the welfare agency – now a playroom for the children.

Before going to Pohang, I had written up questions that I wanted to find answers to: Who ran the orphanage? Who were the caretakers? How many babies and children would have been there? Where were babies typically left? How many babies were abandoned on average during a given month at that time? Would I have been one of one? One of five? Or ten or twenty? What would have happened to those other babies? How did the orphanage work with City Hall? How did they work with Holt Adoption Agency? How far away from City Hall was the orphanage and how would I have gotten from City Hall to the orphanage? How would I have gotten to Seoul? Who would have taken me?

After two days of talking to everyone we could think of, I had very few answers to any of these questions, let alone anything that would lead me to the identity of my birth family.

It turns out that without any records, without any knowledge of where I was left, without any confirmation of my name or birthdate, without any eyewitnesses, there was very little detective work to be done.

It was just another case of an abandoned baby, gone cold.

Erica Moffet’s story will be running each Wednesday on Woman Around Town. Click to read The Introduction, “Why Are You Here?”,  “Why Did You Wait So Long?”, and In Pohang, a Baby Girl Is Born.

08 Mar

In Remembrance of Uncle Sam and His Great Escape From the Chinese Communists

On Thursday, March 12, the Moffett family will gather at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey to attend a memorial service for Samuel Hugh Moffett. He was my father’s uncle. My great-uncle. He was also my father’s second cousin once removed, and my second cousin twice removed. But in the Moffett family, we simplified family relations. To most of us, he has always been, Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam was born on April 7, 1916 in Pyongyang, Korea, and he died on February 9, 2015, fourteen months shy of his 100th birthday. He was the third of five brothers born to Samuel Austin Moffett, one of the first Presbyterian missionaries in Korea. My grandfather, also born in Pyongyang, was the oldest of the five brothers. And because Samuel Austin Moffett’s second wife was also the cousin of his first wife, my grandfather and Samuel Hugh Moffett were simultaneously half-brothers and second cousins. It has been said that the five brothers liked to joke around that they were not half-brothers and second cousins, but instead three-quarter brothers.

Uncle Sam was a missionary, preacher, historian, professor, and ultimately, a Presbyterian statesman. But in my mind, he was first and foremost, a great storyteller. On Thursday, the memorial service should not be a sad occasion, but instead, a joyful celebration of his long and very productive life. We should not be sad that he has passed away, but instead, happy that he passed away peacefully and rejoice in his ability to touch so many people during his lifetime. But in all this celebration, there is one thing I cannot be joyful about. And that is for the loss of the great storyteller and all the stories that lived within him.

Uncle Sam was an American, but his stories were not the typical American ones of white picket fences, carefree picnics, apple pies, and Fourth of July parades. No, having been born in Pyongyang in 1916, his stories were of the exotic. In fact, they were not just stories, they were full-blown tales—peppered with Korean words and Korean tigers; the Taedong river; the Japanese, who did their best to kill his father and eradicate the missionaries and the church; and later, of his life in China and his own battles with the communists who, like the Japanese, could not tolerate Western religion and earnest missionaries.

In our family, there is a legendary story of Uncle Sam proving that George Washington was a Korean. He told this story sometime in the early 1960s, in Korea, and both of my parents who were in Korea at the time, heard him prove it. They still talk about that story today, and how brilliant it was. Unfortunately, that story is now gone. The legend of that telling lives on, but no one wrote the story down and now there is no one else to tell it. Even if someone had written it down, it is doubtful that anyone would have been able to tell it like Uncle Sam.

The last story I heard Uncle Sam tell was at a Moffett family reunion in 2010. My notes are very slim, but here is what I piece together from them. If you are reading this and you know Sam, close your eyes and imagine, once again, his great voice recounting this. If you don’t know him, imagine a, still mischievous, 93-year man, with a soft, but solid preacher’s voice, and an innate, true historian’s desire, to tell a really good story.

* * *

“The year was 1949. After getting my Ph.D., I decided to go to China instead of Korea. Mao was in power at the time.

“You see, it really was very difficult being my father’s son. Dad had died, but his influence in Korea was still very great. I could become my own person much better in China. So in 1947, I went to language school in Beijing and taught at Yenching University. But eventually I ended up in Nanking, teaching at the seminary there. Soon after I got there, the state department closed. Things were not looking good. The Mission decided that families with children should go. I stayed, but we were on the wrong side of the line. And I was always very careful what I was saying. From Reader’s Digest, we knew that the communists could come in and kill the foreigners at any time.

“Then, there was also a rule that no foreigners could teach for more than two years. And after two years, they arrested me for embezzlement and I was taken down for a people’s trial. I was sent to a dark room. I don’t know for how long. Then, one time, a guy came into the room and spoke in Korean to me. They had me adding up long pages. I lost track of the days.

“One day, they brought me out for the people’s trial. There was a huge crowd assembled. Someone, he must have been the man responsible for running the trial, he was shouting for at least an hour to the crowd. He must have been laying out the case against me to them. Finally, he stopped. He asked them, “Is he guilty? This running dog of the imperialists?”

“The crowd shouted, “GUILTY!”

“I wasn’t worried about being found guilty. Because what really counted was what the man was going to say next and what he was going to charge me with. Was it going to be espionage? Or sexual sin? I was really hoping for embezzlement because the punishment for that was much less than the others. Then he asked the crowd and they all shouted, “EMBEZZLEMENT!”

“I was so happy I almost shouted “Hallalujah!”

“After it was over, the man walked past me and said, “I was a graduate of Nanking University.”

“They took me back in, and asked me to sign a letter saying that I had $100 and that I would leave tomorrow morning. I went home and packed. I looked all over for the money, but all I could find was $97. I knew that if the communists stopped me on the way out and saw that I only had $97 when I was supposed to have $100 that I could be arrested again. But I didn’t have time and I didn’t have the money. The next morning I took my things and went to the train station to catch the train which was going to Hong Kong.

“At the station, I met Guinness, one of the British missionaries. He and his wife were sending their son, Oswald, out of the country, and they asked me to watch him on the train to Hong Kong. That first night, I wanted to say prayers. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew my papers were going be examined sometime. With us, there were also three Methodist women. They played bridge all night.

“We finally got down to Canton. The communists boarded the train and started examining all the passengers. I still only had $97 and the letter stating that I had $100. While we waited, I started talking to Oswald. He looked at me and he said, “But I have three dollars in my pocket. What do I do with it?”

“Well! I took the three dollars and told him everything woud be fine. And when the communists came around and examined my papers, everything was fine.

“When we got into Hong Kong, the one thing I really wanted was a milkshake. And so I went and got one.”

* * *

Though there will be many ways to remember Uncle Sam, I think this one is as good as any. Uncle Sam, in Hong Kong in 1951, after being tried and found guilty in a people’s trial in communist China, and being allowed to leave the country alive. His arriving in Hong Kong, and spending perhaps one dollar of the precious one hundred dollars that he had in his possession on a milkshake. I hope it was vanilla, and I hope it was the best milkshake of his life.

 

04 Mar

In Pohang, A Baby Girl Was Born

I Love Pohang – from the International Fireworks Festival.

 

3. In Pohang, A Baby Girl Was Born

All my life, I thought I had been born in Seoul. But once I started talking to Sally, a friend who had lived in Korea for a long time and was helping me search, we determined that I was born in Pohang, a little town on the southeast coast of Korea, quite far away (by Korean standards anyway) from Seoul. This news was disorienting, but also strangely exciting because it was the first piece of information that started to fill in my Korea story.

I had never heard of Pohang but I quickly made its acquaintance. Today it is a city of roughly 500,000 people, sitting on the southeast coast of Korea, about 50 miles east of Daegu, Korea’s fourth largest city, and 75 miles north of Busan, Korea’s second largest city. Mountains provide a natural border on its western side and the eastern edge is defined by a large bay leading out to the Pacific Ocean. Veterans of the Korean War may know Pohang as the northern anchor of the Pusan Perimeter that ended up being critical to holding off the North Koreans in the early part of the Korean War in the summer of 1950.

POSCO in Pohang

POSCO in Pohang

Today, if anyone today is familiar with the city, it is most likely because of POSCO, one of the world’s largest steel producers, and the engine of the local economy. In Korea, it seems that the city is also known for its Homigot Sunrise Festival opening each new year, as well as an International Firework Festival, in which nations compete for the best pyrotechnic display.

In 1969, Pohang was not a place of war, producer of steel, or showcase for fantastic fireworks. I’d like to say it was a quaint little fishing village, but its population, about 50,000 back then, disqualified it both as quaint and as a village. But it was still mainly known for fishing. POSCO’s mill hadn’t even been built yet. The company had been formed just a year earlier as a joint production of the Korean government, which believed that the country needed a domestic steel producer to spur growth, and Taegu Tech, one of the largest tungsten producers in Korea. It took four years to build the mill, which began producing steel in 1972.

Pohang Steelers

Pohang Steelers

I am fascinated that POSCO and I were born just a year apart, mainly because my mother is from Pittsburgh, also historically known as another big steel producer. It is an uncanny coincidence. Even though my mother has shed most of her Pittsburgh ways, having spent now the majority of her life elsewhere, the one vestige that remained vitally alive is her support for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Once a Steelers fan, always a Steelers fan. And that went for the entire family, whether through birth, marriage or adoption. And, as I am learning about Pohang on Wikipedia, I discover that they have a professional soccer team named the Pohang Steelers. It is only coincidence, but it feels ordained.

Steelers’ connection notwithstanding, Pohang is important because it is the city where I was abandoned. I also believe that it is the city where I was born, though someone has pointed out that I could have been born in the country and then taken to the city after my birth. This is plausible since my birthdate on the adoption records is November 18, 1969, but the first known location of me in the adoption record is on December 9, 1969: “To PoHang Orphanage from City Hall Social Section.” That leaves 21 days unaccounted for between my birthday and my appearance at City Hall. So I may very well have been born in the country, but until I have confirmation of that, I am claiming Pohang as my birth city.

Page from my adoption file.

I have always had fantasies about my birth mother, but they tended towards the highly unrealistic and embarrassingly mawkish. Once in my twenties, I attempted to write a story about meeting my birth mother. In that fantasy story, she was the one doing the searching. I had made her wealthy and worldly, and she had found me. She was coming to the U.S. and had asked to meet me at a luxury hotel bar in New York to tell me that my father was very ill. She was requesting that I come back to Korea with her so that he could meet his only daughter. At the end of the meeting, I rejected my birth mother’s wishes to go back with her to Korea. She was crushed.

Discovering that I was born in Pohang allowed me to update my fantasies. They were still mawkish and unrealistic, but now, I had the right city in which to place them. In 1969, POSCO would have been recruiting men to help build, and then work in, the mill. Surely my father would have sought a good job from the new mill, eager to get away from the fishing life. I’ll make him a company man, some brash young gun who was very good with the girls, got a job on the mill floor, worked his way up the company ladder, and retired some fifty years later.

And my mother? I like to think that she left Pohang to escape the memories of a baby she abandoned in that city. If she chose to go elsewhere, Daegu, or Busan would have been likely candidates. But I picture her as a big city girl, going off to Seoul, and making it big. She could have done anything.

As for the two of them, I’ll make them high school sweethearts who had too much fun one night and then paid dearly for it. Or I could make my father a complete bastard, married, and seducing my naïve teenage mother, promising to take care of everything, and then not making good on any of it. But there’s no fun in making up a depressing fantasy about your origin. I’ll stick with the mawkish.

My dad – teaching me to love the water.

I am definitely making my mother a swimmer because I am a swimmer and I like to think that this is something she passed down to me. If she went to the nearby beaches and swam in the ocean, that would explain why I became an open water swimmer. I am also in love with the idea that I was born in a fishing village because I have always been fascinated with fisherman and their ability to read the water the way I read a book. And I loved that I was born in a seaside town because I have always loved the ocean, the sky, and the beach. Of course I was born in Pohang, not Seoul. “How could I not have known this my entire life?”

Creating your own story is fun, but it is also dangerous. It is too easy to pick and choose and invent a story based on tenuous links to the known one. I am an open water swimmer. But it is disingenuous to say that I got my love of open water swimming from my birth mother. If I am honest, my love of swimming most likely came from the swimming lessons that my adoptive mother signed me up for when I was three years old. I don’t even know if my birth mother swam. Moreover, when I first started swimming in open water, I was terrified of being eaten alive. I definitely did not love it. But I love imagining the connection because it links my American story to my Korean story.

2012 – At swim practice at Asphalt Green, New York City.

If I hadn’t modified my mawkish tendencies in the 20 years since writing that story, I had at least matured a little and realized that my birth mother was not going to come search for me. And if she was, she certainly was not going to ask to meet me in the bar of a luxury hotel in New York City.

I needed to put the fantasies to rest. Not only did I need to search, but I needed to get on a plane and go to Pohang. And in July, I booked a ticket to Seoul. I arranged to stay with Sally, who agreed to come with me to Pohang to visit the orphanage and city hall, and throughout all of the planning over the next few months, I held out a hope that I would be one of very few adoptees to reunite with her birth mother.

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