22 Apr

Afterthoughts

E and C at FDR Memorial copy

Erica from America: Afterthoughts

Looking back on it all, I don’t know what I was thinking. That I would go to a country of some 50 million people, with only 21 pages of documents, no hard clues, and actually find my birth mother? Even if I adjust that number to reflect women in the right age range who could have given birth to me (as young as 15 and as old as 25 in 1969), I estimate, by my rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation, that there are still over 4.5 million women who could be my mother on the South Korean peninsula. It would be a lot easier to find a needle in a haystack. (Top photo: me at the FDR Memorial in New York City.)

About eight weeks before I was scheduled to leave for Korea, the children’s book, Are You My Mother by P.D. Eastman, kept floating through my head. I had not read it in years, but I vaguely recalled that it was about a baby bird who was looking for his mother. I went out and bought the book. As it turns out, the mother bird leaves the nest in search of food for her soon-to-be-born baby bird. But she miscalculates her timing, and the baby bird, wide-eyed and full of energy, pops out of his shell while she is away. His first thought after being born is, “Where is my mother?” She’s not there, so he hops down out of the nest and goes off in search of her. The story is built on the supposedly humorous concept that the baby bird has to ask everything he encounters, both animate and inanimate, “Are you my mother?” The story has a happy ending: mother and baby bird are happily reunited. But there is a point in middle of the book, when the baby bird, after asking a kitten, hen, dog, and cow if they are his mother, is utterly baffled. He wonders if he even has a mother at all. But by the next page, all the self-doubt is gone. “I did have a mother,” exclaims the baby bird. “I know I did. I have to find her. I will. I WILL!”

babies on plane

Korean children arriving in the U.S. to be given to their new families.

I could not get that book out of my mind. At the same time two other images started forming alongside it. The first was of all the planes in the past five decades filled with Korean babies leaving Seoul and bound for the U.S. and Europe, and of all those babies deplaning and being randomly dropped into families and scattered all over the U.S. and Europe. The second image was of all the planes in the past two decades filled with those same babies, now all grown up, leaving the U.S. and Europe and bound for Korea, deplaning in Seoul and going around to random locations to ask anyone who was likely, or who would listen, “Are you my mother?”

I told my brother that the book had been haunting me. He hadn’t remembered it at all, so I recapped it for him. “Actually,” I said after a moment, “It’s just a silly, little entertaining, book, especially if you are three years old.”

“Yes, it is a little silly,” he agreed. “But, at the same time, it is so primal.”

* * *

Moffett Memorial

Bust of Samuel Austin Moffett, my great-grandfather, one of the first Presbyterian missionaries to arrive in Korea in 1890.

There was so much involved in this search and I have only touched on the surface of everything and everyone involved. Due to time and space constraints, I was unable to include all the stories and perspectives and nuances that I wanted to. For example, I did end up doing a television show, which aired on one of the morning shows and added a whole additional layer of tragicomedy to the trip. There is a another set of stories about my family friends, the Moffett family in Korea, and how the Moffett missionary heritage has created a vigorous and quite robust Presbyterian Church in Korea today. I am continuing to write these experiences and stories down and perhaps someday, at a later date, there will be another essay series.

There is a small chance that my birth family could start looking for me and, because of all the ground work that I have done, find me. I don’t think it’s likely. Certainly, I’m not counting on it. But if it does, I will cross that bridge, and tell that story, when that bridge gets built.

Erica in Pohang

In Pohang, visiting one of the palaces at night.

Interestingly, as I have written this, I have again come to doubt that I really did everything I could have done to find the woman who gave birth to me. Was I really the crackerjack detective I thought I had been in my meetings in Pohang and in Seoul? (After all, it is difficult to be that crackerjack detective when you are relying on other people to communicate for you.) When I left Korea last September, I said I was never going to go back to that country again. But never is a dangerous word. I have already started to compile a list of new questions should I ever change my mind. Who knows? Maybe I will decide at some future point that it is worth going back to ask that new set of questions. For now, though, I am very content to keep that list of questions in drawer, somewhere safe.

Writing Room

My room and my writing desk.

Finally, as I read back over this – I realize that it doesn’t even come close to covering all the ideas, stories, and experiences that I have had throughout my life as an adoptee. But I feel like the trip, the search, and the adoption experience, is like an infinite set of the Russian nesting dolls. I can keep opening and opening, and there will always be another doll nestled within, waiting for her part of the story to be told.

20 Apr

Golondrinas (Swallows) – When Will These Swallows Be Free To Fly?

Swallows1

Golondrinas (Swallows) –
When Will These Swallows Be Free To Fly?

Golondrinas (Swallows), written and directed by Aminta De Lara and running at La Mama through April 26, is not a long play. Yet it packs in such a whopping amount of potent and provocative ideas that there is a danger of walking out of the theater in a daze and stumbling into some innocent passer-by because your head is still back in the theater trying to sort everything out. (Note to theater-goers seeking light entertainment—this is not the play for you.)

So. Where to begin? First, there are the potent and provocative ideas. These include: an entire global system in need of renovation; the feminine nature of anti-totalitarianism; incestual sexual abuse; a dictatorial, repressive patriarchal government as fatherland; female fatherland as alternative; paternal abuse as a metaphor for a repressive dictatorship; the moral dilemma of killing; the existential nature of this decision. This play was born from the very troubling political situation in Venezuela over the past two decades. De Lara writes passionately both as an expatriate and a woman.

Swallows2Second, there is the play itself. De Lara is able to pack all these ideas into the roughly 80 minute running time because the play is essentially a dialogue between two abused sisters who arrive at their father’s apartment and discover him half-dead. Outside the apartment, protests are raging, conveyed through rear-projected images on transparent screens, which also serve as the walls of apartment. The ambulance can’t get through because of the protests. The sisters are stuck in the apartment with each other, talking, often fighting, about what to do with their half-dead father. Not much happens, but there is a lot of discourse.

The sisters are at odds with each other, both in terms of what to do with the body and in their own political views. Carmen Elena (Howard Collado) accuses Claudia (Robby Ramos) of not having a social conscience and of never being interested in politics. Claudia fights back, “Nobody in their right mind can possibly think that you can fix a country by letting the energy flow while, at the same time, voting and backing a lunatic with a plan like that.” Carmen Elena retorts, “I’ll say it again: What’s wrong is that you have no social conscience.” And so it goes for the entire play, in some variation or another. They could be talking about politics. They could be talking about their father.

Third, there are the casting choices. These were absolutely fascinating and what, in large measure, made the play so provocative. De Lara chose to have male actors play the sisters because she wanted “a way to demonstrate that gender is irrelevant, that the dichotomy of repression exists in each of us.” This worked in the sense that it heightened the awareness of gender as a factor in the conversation. At the same time, it wasn’t clear that it made gender irrelevant. In some ways, it seemed to give it even more relevance. It was difficult not to continually imagine how different the play would have been with female actors. On top of that, there was the simple irony of casting men for women in a play designed to highlight the feminine.

The half-dead father was not a physical presence, instead just a chair with its back to the audience. This imagined presence would seem to make him less potent, but it worked the other way around, making him even more potent since everything the sisters did or said revolved around his invisible presence. That he was an abusive male patriarchal figure made it all the more effective, especially if De Lara wants her audience to think about “balancing out our feminine.” It all starts here, she seems to be saying—in an apartment in Caracas with a father who still manages to control all those around him even though he says nothing, is invisible, and is half-dead to boot.

Swallows3Finally, there was “The Feminine Force,” a character played by Marion Elaine who floated through various scenes as a mostly silent, physical presence. This role seemed less successful at first, but upon reflection was an interesting addition. If her role was to speak to and balance out the feminine, then it worked. However, it seemed an odd choice to make her silent, and occasionally the question of her ultimate purpose still lingered. This seemed to be a directorial misstep as she moved in and out of the set fluidly.

All the action (or non-action) takes place in the apartment, with the invisible father at the back of the set, and the two sisters mostly at the front talking, arguing, and fighting with each other. This dense construction made the play feel much longer than it actually was. The acting, at times, felt strained, but we were watching two males play overwrought sisters who had been abused by their father. The roles were very challenging, and the two actors did more than well enough with them.

Swallows4The press materials suggest that the play has roots in Camus’ classic drama, The Just Assassins, but Sartre’s No Exit felt more appropriate. The depicted apartment on stage is small. The two sisters arrive there and are stuck with each other. As they talk, argue, and shout at each other, the audience cannot help but feel stuck in the same small room with them and their father. Meanwhile, outside we hear, and see from the photos on the transparent screens, the crowd protesting. The sisters want to escape. We want to escape. But we can’t. We are all in this small room together. At least until the final denouement when the lights come on and we realize we are free to go.

And so the audience is able to leave, but as one exits the theater in a daze, one wonders about the fate of the sisters and whether they, even after they have made their fateful decision, are able to escape that room. Outside that room the protests have stopped. Maybe the totalitarian regime is ousted from power. Or maybe not. But one can only hope that the country is able to escape its brutal past (its own version of that room), and open its doors to all of its countrymen and women—all the while remembering the feminine.

Photos by Jonathan Slaff:
1. L-R: Howard Collado and Robert Ramos
2. L-R: Howard Collado and Robert Ramos
Photos by Rosalie Baijer:
3. Marion Elaine
4.L-R: Robert Ramos and Howard Collado

Golondrinas (Swallows)
La MaMa’s First Floor Theater
74 East Fourth Street
Between 2nd Avenue and Bowery, East Village
Limited Engagement through April 26, 2015
Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.
Sundays at 2 p.m.
$18 general admission, $13 seniors and students
Ten $10 tickets will be available to every performance
on a first-come, first-served basis.

15 Apr

Not Found

Feeding Fish

9. Not Found

It may seem obvious, but the important thing about not finding is figuring out how to get to closure without closure. That process, necessarily, is highly individual.

Bus Ride

On the bus, going to the airport on my way home to the U.S.

During my active search, I was very worried about not finding and how I would deal with it. At the KAAN (Korean American Adoptive Family Network) conference, I heard one adoptee talk about not finding. He said that he had been an emotional wreck for months after returning to the States. I listened to him talk, and I heard his voice as he narrated the photos from his trip. He was clearly in control of himself, but even so, he seemed very fragile. I was worried that I was going to meet the same fate. To put so much time and effort and hope into something so integral to your existence, and then to come up with nothing…yes, that outcome was very worrisome.

In Korea I had allowed for the possibility of one, or more, major emotional meltdowns, but aside from a few minor hiccups (for example, Nancy at the coffee shop) and one major one (Sally asking me to leave), that meltdown never came. But I had also noticed an odd change in perspective during my time in Korea, which became apparent by the time I got to Pohang. I felt as if I had transformed from Erica Moffett, the adoptee, to Erica Moffett, the detective. It was as if Sohn Soon, my birth name, had splintered off from me and had disappeared somewhere into this world. It was surreal and often I would have to remind myself that Sohn Soon was not some random baby we were searching for, but actually me. It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out that this was my way of dealing with not being able to find the mother who had abandoned me.

Airport

At the airport – waiting for my flight.

For me, the process was also helped by the very gradual revelation that I was not going to find my birth family. By the time Sohn Soon had splintered off from me, I had already intuited that my search was going to come up dry, even though I hadn’t consciously acknowledged it. But—my conversations with George, the Holt adoption specialists, the policeman, and Sally—all unconsciously confirmed my intuition. Once I got to Pohang I was finally able to acknowledge that I wasn’t going to find my birth family. This was a natural evolution in the search. So here was my last imagined fantasy: Sohn Soon as a baby, but not the baby that turned into me. Instead, it was Sohn Soon who had died and had been set free to float away into the atmosphere, the ether—unencumbered by a birth family who had created her, or an adoptee who was created by her. And what made it all ok was that I, Erica Lee Moffett, the adoptee, was the one setting her free.

Seattle

On my ten hour layover in Seattle, one of the best days of my entire trip.

At the same time, I also have to allow for the fact that my particular experiences in Korea did not lend themselves to nostalgia about my birth mother, birth family, and birth country. By the fourth day of my trip, I was in no good mood. I was ready to leave the country, abandon the search, and forget all my troubles on a white sand beach in the South Pacific. While I stayed in Korea, there were quite a few times during the remainder of the trip when I wondered if I had made the right decision. Of course I had made the right decision But that didn’t stop the elation I felt when I finally left Korea and my flight had landed in the U.S. at 11a in Seattle, Washington. I had ten hours to kill before the red-eye back to New York, and, thanks to a colleague who gave me the perfect itinerary for a ten-hour layover in Seattle, that day ended up being the most enjoyable day of my entire trip to Korea. Ironically, it happened to occur in America. Or maybe not ironically. I can only speculate as to how that all contributed to Sohn Soon dying and being set free.

Back in NY

The first morning after returning, back in my apartment in NY.

Back in New York, it occurred to me that the emotional meltdown was just around the corner, having been delayed until some future point in time, and after I had returned from Korea. But once back, I returned to my life with relatively little fuss. I kept waiting for the warning signs of a breakdown (e.g., irritability, impatience, the onset of despair…), but they never materialized. On the contrary, I felt pretty good. In fact, I felt really good. I felt as if I had been set free to get on with the rest of my life.

However, just because I never had that emotional meltdown in Korea doesn’t mean that there was never emotional turmoil about the decision to search; or searching and hoping to find; or searching and not finding. I cannot emphasize enough that for my entire life, there was huge emotional turmoil around this. Turmoil that manifested itself in almost everything I did. And after I had made the decision to actively search, the turmoil intensified. If I was caught off guard, even a simple conversation could cause me to break down.

One day in late spring I was sitting in my office when a colleague walked in for a scheduled meeting to discuss a business project. This was just a few days after Holt USA told me that my search was impossible. She came in, shut the door, sat down, and then told me that she was adopting a baby and would be taking some time off once she actually got the baby. She had not known that I was adopted, nor had I known that she was adopting. We exchanged some surprise over this. I was very curious to hear how the agency was preparing her for life with an adopted child because I was developing a theory that the agencies are more interested in placing the babies than they are in preparing the adoptive parents to meet the uncommon challenges of raising an adopted child. She told me a few of the difficulties she had encountered, one of which was meeting the birth mother (hers was a domestic adoption). I told her I couldn’t even imagine doing that. She said that it had been, at times, very emotional. I started to tell her my story—that I was searching for my birth mother—but I only got halfway through the sentence before I started to cry. I was thinking about her meeting her baby’s birth mother, and of that birth mother saying goodbye to her baby, and then of my own birth mother, somewhere in Pohang, Korea, some 45 years ago, saying goodbye to me. And now, here I was, in my own halting quest to find her, deliberately searching for her at this point. We sat there for a moment, in silence, while I got myself together. Then we scheduled another time to discuss the business we had never gotten around to discussing.

Erica at Desk

Back at work in my office.

 

In reflecting on all this, I think that I escaped the emotional turmoil in Korea because I had suffered the emotional turmoil before going to Korea. For me, I believe it was the act of going to Korea that allowed me to close down that part of my life. Hence, the splintering of Sohn Soon from Erica Lee Moffett.

It doesn’t mean I never think about my birth family anymore. In fact, oddly, I think about them even more now (perhaps because I am able to think about it without the same amount of emotional pain). I still have all the same questions about who she was, why I came into existence, and what she and my father were like. But now I don’t feel that not knowing will kill me, something which I had felt for most of my life. And I no longer feel that the loss of my birth mother is overwhelming, something also, that I had felt for most of my life. This is a good thing. But at the same time, I am also sad about the closure. I still grieve, now in the most abstract sense, for her.

11 Apr

Review: It Never Hurts to Dream – Where Women Are Kings

Nigerian Woman

Nigerian Woman

 

It Never Hurts to Dream – Where Women Are Kings

Where Woman Are Kings is such a deliciously nostalgic title it is hard not to think of strong, intelligent women reigning over a beautiful land with exceptional wisdom and grace. Certainly everyone must be happy in this kingdom, right? Unfortunately, nostalgia must give way to reality, or at least the reality that Christie Watson conjures up in her second novel.

“There are three places where women are kings,” says Deborah, a Nigerian immigrant in London, in a letter to her son, Elijah, a seven-year old boy who, for reasons we have yet to discover, is separated from Deborah and has been shunted around from foster home to foster home. Those three places are Nigeria, childbirth, and heaven.

The plot is straightforward enough. Elijah, whose birth parents are Nigerian, has just been placed with a bi-racial couple that is ready to adopt him. Nikki, who is white, and Obi, who is of Nigerian descent, have tried to have biological children, but her blood clots have caused several miscarriages. Elijah is the beginning of their new life as a family, and we watch Nikki and Obi go through the challenges of adopting an older child who comes with unexplained physical and emotional scars. (The social workers have more of the explanations but will not divulge to Nikki and Obi for privacy reasons.) Nikki and Obi are full of love. They are also sincere and diligent. She is a carer by nature, and works at a shelter for abandoned dogs (hmm…could that reference be any more obvious?). He is a human rights lawyer and has a stack of books about post-adoption issues on the nightstand by his bed.

Watson assembles the narrative from three perspectives: Deborah, the birth mother; Nikki and Obi, the adoptive parents; and Elijah, the adoptive child. There are other people who help Elijah’s development along, including his cousin, Jasmin, who is the same age and becomes a talisman of sorts for him, as well as his Grandad, Obi’s Nigerian father, who has some of the most wonderful interactions with him. What keeps the reader engaged are two questions: one, why has Elijah been separated from his mother? and, two, why does he think he is inhabited by a wizard? Along the way, other complications develop which result in some fantastical, but ultimately tragic, consequences as the story comes to a close.

Where Women Are KingsWhere Women Are Kings is not really about those kingdoms where women are kings (or if it is, they are certainly not kingdoms that I would want to live in), but rather about the challenges of adoption. (A small case could also be made that it is also about the joys of adoption, but there isn’t much joy to be found by the end of the story.) Watson makes a good choice to represent all the voices of those in the adoption circle, and she is accurate in portraying all of the basic feelings from those perspectives. Elijah longs for his birth mother even as he is taken into his new family, but can’t vocalize that to his new parents. Instead, he is mostly compliant and settles into his new family life. Deborah, the birth mother, wants her son to remember her and his father, their birth country, and most of all that she loves him. Nikki and Obi are sad about the babies they have lost to miscarriage, but are determined to put that in the past and love their new child as their own even as that brings more uncertainty into their life. Watson represents the adoptive parents the best. Less convincing is the birth mother, especially as we discover more about her story. Even less convincing is Elijah, who is given only a few chapters from his perspective, and when he speaks, he sounds more like an adult impersonating a troubled and abused seven-year old.

Most disappointing were the reasons for the adoption and the wizard that ultimately takes hold of Elijah. In the end, the story played on many of the negative stereotypes that exist surrounding adoption: a child who is damaged and causes significant trouble; a birth mother who is mentally ill and whom the adoptive parents can come to hate; and adoptive parents who, in spite of everything, still love their child. I understand that there may be some truth to the Nigerian beliefs put forward in the novel, but it is unfortunate that they came together in this way.

Christie Watson speaks from experience. She has two bi-racial children, has adopted a child, has worked as a nurse, and has extensive experience in the foster care system. I don’t discount that her experiences informed this story and raise good issues. For starters, there’s the question of why it took so long for the foster care system to get to Elijah. But the story ultimately stretched the limits of believability (my eyes began to roll about two-thirds of the way through) and obscured some of the more basic adoption issues, such as how Nikki and Elijah are able to attach as quickly as they do, or how they should talk with him about his birth mother.

In fact, if Watson had seen some of these exact things in her nursing and foster care work, it would have been preferable to read about those stories as they had happened in real life. After all, many of the adoption stories I read and hear about fall into that category of “you can’t make that sh*^! up.” So why make it up when there are many real-life stories already out there waiting—even needing—to be told?

Adoption literature is in such a nascent stage, and the library is in need of good new books, both fiction and non-fiction. Where Women Are Kings will go on to those shelves, but it is not a book that may stand out. That is unfortunate because it seems a shame to waste the opportunity to add something more thoughtful to the discussion.

In full disclosure, I must confess that I am an adult adoptee who has struggled my entire life with not knowing who my birth mother is. Perhaps I may be too close to the subject material. And if the book is not to be read as an adoption story, then I can at least take a step back and say that Where Women Are Kings is a decently entertaining story, with colorful characters, some very tender moments, and even a final hope that it is in heaven where women will be kings.

Book Review: Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson

08 Apr

What About Sally?

Seoul city skyline

Seoul skyline – looking towards Mt. Nam.

 

8. What About Sally?

I am no longer in contact with Sally. I am very, very sorry about that because she did so much for me throughout the search and I am so grateful for all the time and effort she gave me. Even though I did not find my birth family, she was the one, I felt, who got me the closest. She connected me to Pohang, she got me the meeting with the policeman, who, as she said, “If he can’t find your birth mother, then no one can,” and generally, she made me feel great that there was someone on the ground in Korea who was really working with, and for, me.

shoppers

Seoul – Shoppers at Insadong, known for its art galleries.

We met up twice after I had moved out of her place. Both times were awkward for reasons I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say, I eventually realized that perhaps there were issues in her own life that may have affected what had happened between the two of us. I also accept the possibility that I may have projected some of my own birth mother issues on her.

Regardless, I wanted to leave on good terms. I sent her an email, ignoring the bad, and focusing on the good. I thanked her for all the help she had given me and told her that I never would have been able to accomplish what I had without her help. I never heard back from her.

Woman with Child Sculpture near Seoul Museum of Art.

My stories with Sally are both funny and sad, and I hope entertaining. But if I consider her as a representative Korean mother, say, someone who could potentially have been my mother, she represents the kaleidoscope of good and bad about coming face to face with your birth family. During the time that she was helping, she was supportive and determined and eager to help. But there was another side that emerged in Korea that I had not experienced in our phone calls or emails. Her Korean mothering and enforcing of the Korean culture and tradition quickly became very difficult to manage. And she wasn’t even my birth mother! Neither was she a “pure” Korean mother since she had spent over 20 years in the U.S. raising her daughters there before returning to Korea. She, better than most Korean mothers, would have known the culture I was coming from. I can only imagine how difficult it would be to reunite with a Korean mother who had never traveled outside of that country.

A flyer I had created with the hope that Sally would help me translate and distribute it.

In Korea, with Sally, I am sad to say that a very great chasm opened up between us. But if things happen for a reason, I suppose this happened so that I could get a taste of what it would be like to find my family and be absorbed into something that I hadn’t really asked for, even though I had, literally asked for it.

I had always wanted to know my birth mother, but I had also always been ambivalent about having an ongoing relationship with her. I am still ambivalent about that and, in that sense, not finding her was a relief because that was an issue I no longer had to worry about. Of course, I knew that if I found her, I was most likely not going to have a choice in relating to her. Unless she chose to reject me again, I was most likely going to be absorbed into her life and her psyche, her losses and her dreams. And her regrets.

Taking a photo

Taking a photo from the restaurant at Jongno Tower, near my hotel.

Over the summer, I had told myself that if I found her, I would establish my boundaries and stick to them. I would not allow her to take me to the saunas, or hold me for hours to make up for the lost time, or allow her to dress me, cook for me, shop for me, or do my hair for me. I would remain my own person. The person I had become after she had given me up.

I doubt those boundaries would have held up very well in practice, but I will never really know unless I find her. I am not unhappy with that outcome.

03 Apr

“I Can Feel Your Sadness”

Seoul – view from Pukchon.

 

7. Seoul – “I Can Feel Your Sadness”

My trip was coming to an end. I had started in Seoul, sat in Tapgol Park, traveled down to Pohang, and returned to Seoul. And with all the work I had done in the U.S. and in Korea, I had not found my birth mother. At this point, I knew I was not going to find her. Or my birth family. And I was fine with that. (Above Photo: Seoul – City Scene from Pukchon, Seoul)

Me - on a tv show

Me – on a TV show.

Two days before I was scheduled to leave, I met with Nancy, one of the television producers the policeman had put me in touch with. Nancy was a reporter for MBS, one of the major television networks in Korea. She had become interested in adoption issues recently, having helped with another “First Trip Home” trip for Korean American adoptees two years ago. Since then, she has volunteered with that group every year, and she has focused some of her television productions on adoptees looking for their birth families. She told me up front that she had already done an adoption story this year and that she wasn’t able to do any others. That was fine with me.

Seoul - entrance to Yonsei University.

Seoul – entrance to Yonsei University

We were at the Hyundai Department Store near Yonsei University, having coffee in Coffee Bean, one of the numerous chain coffee shops in Korea, in the basement of the store. Nancy gave me her business card and then asked the question that so many others had asked, “Why I was searching now?”

I started with the simple answer. “I had always been told it was impossible, so I never searched because what is the point in searching for the impossible?” But I also told her I had seen a movie earlier this year about a mother looking for her child who had been taken away from her, and that was why I had started searching now.

She nodded and immediately said, “Philomena.” I was surprised she knew it and had identified it so quickly.

“Yes. It was Philomena.” I told her that after seeing that movie, I realized that someone in Korea was wondering about what happened to me and I wanted to actively search to let her know that I was ok.

“You started to see things from her perspective,” she said.

Seoul – subway workers cleaning the station.

“Yes,” I replied. “I really hope that Korean culture can change to be more forgiving to unwed mothers. There were so many mothers who were forced to give up their children because of the cultural standards, and I feel that so many of them never wanted to give them up.”

Nancy talked about the problems of adoptees coming back and searching for their birth mothers because many of those women had eventually married but had kept that first baby a secret out of fear of being divorced. I had heard firsthand accounts from other adoptees of this. Korean society is so punishing towards the “unchaste” woman that a man could and would divorce his wife if he found out that she had had a child out of wedlock prior to the marriage. Clearly, adoptees looking for their birth mothers are a major problem for these women and that explains why many Korean women never initiate searches for their children. I thought it made a tragic situation even more tragic.

Nancy paused. She took my hand. “I really hope that you find your birth mother,” she said. “If you have the chance to go on another TV show I really think you should.” She was pressing my hand quite hard. She was trying to manage some very strong feelings and was losing that battle. She started to tear up.

Seoul street scene – fruit vendor

I thought, “Oh no. Please don’t cry. Because if you cry, then I’m going to cry and I have no reason to cry. Nor do I even want to. I came to Korea to find my birth parents. I didn’t find them and I am ok with that. And if I’m ok, then everyone else should be ok too.” Of course, by now, I was starting to cry.

“Why are you crying?” I managed to ask. “It shouldn’t be for me because I’m fine. I’m really ok about not finding my birth parents.”

“Because I feel your sadness,” she replied. “And because we have a responsibility to find your family.” She paused. “Even if you don’t find your birth mother now, I know that she is thinking of you. I know you will be with her some day.” Nancy looked at me gravely.

I was shaken. I hadn’t thought I was sad at all. Nor did I think, even if I allowed for the possibility that I was sad, that I was imparting that sadness on others. In fact the only reason I was crying was because she had started crying. But if I wasn’t sad, then why was she crying?

Seoul street scene – tea seller

Or was I sad? Maybe I was sad and just good at hiding it from myself. I had no idea any more.

In the recent years before coming to Korea, I had felt very sad about the loss of my birth mother. So sad that I had finally come to Korea to search for her. I had done everything I possibly could to find her in this foreign country, a country that had spit me out 44 years ago. And still, I had come up short.

Maybe I was sad about everything.