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!”
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.”
* * *
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.
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.
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.