This is an essay about my trip back to Korea in 2014 to search for my birth family. It was published at www.womanaroundtown/livingaround in ten pieces in early 2015. Below are the links to the essays as they were originally published at womanaroundtown. Or, to read the series in its entirety, all ten essays are reproduced in full below the links.
2/18/15: “Why Are You Here?” http://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/living-around/erica-from-america-seoul-why-are-you-here
2/25/15: “Why Did You Wait So Long?” http://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/living-around/erica-from-america-why-did-you-wait-so-long
3/4/15: In Pohang, A Baby Girl Was Born. http://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/living-around/erica-from-america-in-pohang-a-baby-girl-was-born
3/11/15: Pohang: A Cold Case Reinvestigated. http://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/living-around/erica-from-america-pohang-a-cold-case-reinvestigated
3/18/15: In Preparation for Pohang. http://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/living-around/erica-from-america-in-preparation-for-pohang
3/25/15: Seoul: Days One, Two, Three and Five. http://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/living-around/erica-from-america-seoul-days-one-two-three-and-five
4/1/15: Seoul: I Can Feel Your Sadness. http://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/living-around/erica-from-america-seoul-i-can-feel-your-sadness
4/8/15: What About Sally? http://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/living-around/erica-from-america-what-about-sally
4/22/15: Afterthoughts. http://www.womanaroundtown.com/sections/living-around/erica-from-america-afterthoughts
It must have been serendipity. In early December 2014, I placed a call to Charlene Giannetti. I am a Korean-American adoptee, and I had a story to tell; she is the editor of Woman Around Town, and she is always on the look out for stories to tell. She was also (serendipitously!) the mother of two adopted children, which I discovered when we spoke.
Charlene and I had met several years earlier when she was launching the website. She had written a profile of me as an ultra-distance open water swimmer. In 2008, I had completed the Triple Crown of open water swimming by completing the Catalina Channel swim (the other two legs were the Swim Around Manhattan and the English Channel). She came to my apartment in 2009 to interview me and I became her first Woman Around Town. (See the story.)
Now, I was coming back to Charlene to ask her if she would be willing to listen to my story, not as an open water swimmer, but as a Korean-American adoptee who had gone back to Korea to search for my birth family.
Coincidence, fate, serendipity…whatever you choose to call it…both Charlene and I believe that there is still a need for new and current voices to be heard discussing the adoption experience. She asked me to send her a draft of the story when I was finished. The following essay series is the result of that interaction.
As an adoptee, I feel that the adoption experience is very misunderstood. I find this amazing, given our hyperactive media-driven culture where it seems that every experience and subject has been trotted out, talked about, and trod over to death. But somehow, adoption got buried beneath all the trotting out and trodding over. This, I believe is because most people simply do not know what the adoption experience is or means for the adoptee, the birth parent, or the adoptive parent. And if they don’t know what the experience is or means, then they certainly won’t know how to talk about it.
In some ways, it is ironic that Charlene interviewed me for my Triple Crown swimming achievement. At that time, I was one of 30 people in the world who had accomplished that feat (since then, many more people have gone on to complete it as it is a coveted, but achievable goal—me being proof of that!). However, even though it is a very small group of people who have achieved that goal, I find that pretty much everyone can relate to the experience, even if they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do it themselves.
As one of the 200,000-plus Korean adoptees sent away to be raised by another family in another country, I am in the company of a much larger group than the Triple Crown swimmers, a group that continues to grow at a much faster rate. Since my adoption in 1970, there have been hundreds of thousands of other transracial adoptions (in January, Maggie Jones reported in the Sunday New York Times Magazine that over 100,000 Chinese children have been adopted since the late 1990s). And that doesn’t include the many thousands of domestic adoptions that continue to occur. But even though the numbers of this group are far larger than those of the Triple Crown swimmers, I find that hardly anyone can relate to this experience.
This is my story about going back to Korea to search for my birth family. I am just one voice of many, but I hope it illuminates, even if only a little more, the adoption experience.
Seoul: Day Four
It was eight o’clock on Sunday morning in Seoul It was late August and already it was hazy, humid, and very sticky. The late summer insects, whatever they were and whatever language they spoke, were up and buzzing about like an eager church choir. The heat, haziness, and stickiness were only going to get worse as the day went on. I am not afraid of hot, sticky, and humid. I spend August in South Florida where it is exactly that. But this was different. This was Asian city heat and humidity, laced with pollution, encouraged by thousands of kimchee pots being opened for the day, and confirmed by the knowledge that you are sharing the heavy air molecules with some 25 million other people in a very crowded space. In South Florida, in late August, the beach is a brilliant idea. But in Seoul, there was no beach to be found.
Instead, I was sitting in Tapgol Park (photo, top), a little public park in the northern part of Seoul which houses Korea’s second National Treasure, the ten-story Wongaksa Pagoda (above). I was sipping a Starbucks quad grande americano and eating a very dry scone, also from Starbucks. I was attempting to regain some form of normalcy, having arrived in Korea four days prior, and having been unexpectedly asked to leave (albeit very nicely) my host’s apartment the day before. I had spent the entire rest of the day looking for a new place to stay, then packing up, moving out, moving in to the new hotel, and unpacking again. By evening, desperate for a decent glass of wine, I had ended up at the Westin Chosun Hotel, exhausted and dispirited, paying $30 a glass for the wine, and trying to work out how I was going to manage the rest of my trip in Korea without my host, who was also supposed to have been my guide and translator.
I still had no solutions. The scone was awful and the coffee was making me sweat even more. I was in no good mood. Not for Seoul. Not for Korea. And not for the hot, sticky Asian humidity.
Two American guys walked into the park. Even if they hadn’t been speaking American English, their Caucasian faces, their short, clean haircuts, and their casual gaits would have given them away. They walked past me, into the heart of the park, and sat down near the pagoda. They were deep in conversation and didn’t even notice me, another fellow American. Here in the park, I was just another Korean woman drinking a coffee, eating a scone, and blending into all the other Korean people wandering around.
In my no good mood, I looked at these two guys and wondered why anyone would come to Korea. Why, without any connection to the country, would someone deliberately be a tourist here? People go to China and Japan for the rich cultural history; Thailand and Bali for the beautiful beaches; Australia and New Zealand for fun and adventure. But no one goes to Korea unless you’re related to someone. Or unless you have to. So what were these two strapping young American guys doing here, sitting in the middle of Tapgol Park in Korea, a country that no one visits unless you’re related to someone, on this hot August morning?
My coffee was done. The guys were still deep in conversation. And I had determined that the only way I was going to get an answer to my question was to ask. So I got up, walked over, politely stood in front of them until they looked up, and asked them if I could ask them a question.
If they were taken aback by a “Korean” woman speaking flawless American English, they took it in good stride. “Sure,” they replied, and looked at me expectantly.
“Great. Well…” I said. “I’m just wondering why you are here.” They continued to look at me, still expectantly.
“I mean,” I tried to explain, “What brings you to Korea? Because I don’t understand why anybody comes here. I mean no one says, ‘I want to go to Korea for vacation, right?’ So…why are you here?”
They looked at each other for a second. One of them said, “I’m here on business.” The other added, “I’m just visiting since he’s here. I’ll stay in Korea for a week and then go to Japan.”
“Oh. Ok.” I should have been excited because their answers had immediately proved my point. I was vindicated, but the quickness of it was anticlimactic. Also, I was not prepared to continue the conversation. What was I supposed to say to them now?
“I’m Erica,” I said. “I’m from New York.”
The one there on business was Adam. The one visiting was Micah. They were from LA and Micah had just gotten off the plane from LA earlier that morning. “Oh, you must be tired,” I said. He said it wasn’t so bad just yet. I told them I had been there for three days already. There was a brief pause, and then Adam wised up. He gave me a quizzical look.
“So why are you here?” he asked.
I looked at them for a few seconds. Then I took a deep breath and said, “I’m adopted. And I came here to search for my birth family.” I wanted to add, “Top that!” but I didn’t. I could see that they were trying to imagine what it would be like not to know your parents and then to go to a foreign country and start looking for them. I didn’t want to interrupt their train of thought.
“Wow!” Adam said.
Though they didn’t say it, I think they were having trouble wrapping their brains around the entire concept. Which, I have to say would not be an unusual reaction. Even I, having lived this situation my entire life, was still having trouble wrapping my brain around this concept. Though now I was finally in Korea trying to do something about it.
Adam finally organized his thoughts. “And what…well…what are you doing for that?” he sputtered. “How do you go about finding your birth family?”
I gave them the basic tutorial on how to search for your birth family. “First you contact your U.S. adoption agency to ask for your records. Hopefully they give you some piece of information like a name or an address that you can use to start searching. But usually for Korean adoptees born prior to 1980 (though even that is no guarantee) the conversation goes something like, ‘We have no information that can lead to your birth family. A search for them is impossible. We are very sorry.’ Then your best option is to come to Korea and meet with the adoption agency in person. If you’re lucky, they’ll let you look at the records yourself. You want anything that wasn’t given to you over the phone. Name and phone number is best. Even an address of where you were abandoned is useful.”
“Oh…and if, having done all of that, you still have nothing, you can try the media. Occasionally one of the television stations will do a segment on adoptees looking for their birth families. Someone suggested that for me because I don’t have a lot of information in my file. But I don’t know. I’m not really sure if I want to be on TV talking about all this and potentially finding my family and having them film the reunion…”
I stopped. That was a lot of information. A lot more than I usually give out to random strangers in a public park in Seoul, Korea.
“Wow,” Adam said again. He asked if I had met with the agency yet.
“No,” I said. “That’s tomorrow’s business. They’ve already told me that I don’t have a lot of information. But we’ll see. I’ve heard of a few cases where there’s supposedly no information, but once you show up in person at the agency, suddenly, like magic, they’ve found a name and a phone number that wasn’t there before. Who knows? Maybe that will be me, and then I won’t have to go on TV.” I grinned.
We all looked at each other for another minute, and then we were done. I told them it was very nice to meet them and they said the same. I wished them a good rest of the trip. They wished me luck and said they would be watching for me on TV. I laughed. “Don’t hold your breath,” I said. And I left them sitting there, pondering my predicament, as I walked off into the Seoul humidity in search of my birth family.
“Why Did You Wait So Long?”
I was in Korea to search for my birth family. It was the culmination of a very intense six months of deliberate and active searching. But the search had started long before I arrived in Korea. It had, in fact, been an unconscious, unrealized desire for all of my life. For as long as I can remember, I had always had the desire to know who my birth mother was. I just never knew how to act on that desire.
Before I started to actively search, this is what I knew about myself: 1) I was born on November 18, 1969 somewhere in Seoul, Korea; 2) My Korean name was Sohn Soon; 3) I was abandoned on the steps of a police station with a sign saying, “Please take care of me”; and 4) I lived with a foster family in Seoul until I went to the U.S. seven months later. (Top photo: Me and my foster mother in Seoul)
In a very real way, my life began, not on November 18, 1969, but seven months later, on June 25, 1970, when an airline stewardess carried me off the plane in New York and handed me over to my new parents, Blair and Patricia Moffett. From the airplane I was born. That is the point in time from which I can trust the stories about me. There is no speculating, no imagining. And there were eyewitnesses. On the plane, I was the only baby, out of at least a dozen other children to be adopted, who had not slept the entire 18-hour flight. When the stewardess found my parents on the tarmac and handed me over, she told them that. My father said she looked exhausted. “Good luck,” she added, before walking away. My mother told that story for years. I like that story. It is my birth story.
I have a naming story too. How my parents had to name me, but didn’t have time to do it together before they needed to send the papers back to the adoption agency. So my mother went through the baby name book and marked all the names that she liked, and my father, when he came home, went through all of the names she had checked and marked the ones that he liked. And in the morning, they decided that I would be Erica Lee Moffett.
According to Wikipedia, Erica is the feminine form of Eric, deriving from the old Norse and containing two elements. The first element can either mean ‘one’ or ‘some,’ or also, ‘fair’ or ‘tradition.’ The second element derives from *rik(a)z meaning ‘ruler’ or ‘prince,’ or, from an even older word meaning ‘powerful’ and ‘rich.’ The name is thus usually taken to mean something along the lines of ‘one ruler,’ ‘autocrat,’ ‘eternal ruler,’ or ‘ever powerful.’ I love the name Erica.
I have no stories about my Korean name. I have no stories about my Korean birthday. In fact, I have no stories before my American birthday off the plane, save for one day in March 1970 when one of my adoptive relatives who was then living in Seoul came to see me at my foster mother’s home. Aunt Eileen was the first member of my adoptive family to hold me. But that story belongs in my American life.
As for my Korean life, I have a mother and a father and a family. I was born somewhere and someone named me. But without any stories to confirm or deny anything, that life has been severed and lost, like a limb that has been amputated. I can feel vaguely where it should have been, but it’s not actually there and it has no shape or substance.
No one would seriously equate adoption with alchemy, but there is a little alchemy involved. One day I am Sohn Soon. The next day I am on a plane and, when I deplane, I am Erica Lee Moffett. Same person, different name, different nationality, different culture, different language, different family. Different everything. This person has been transmuted.
But from what?
* * *
I had waited over 40 years to start actively searching for my birth family. A family friend, Sally, who lived in Korea and whom I had recruited to help me with the search asked me, “Why did you wait so long?”
The simple answer was that I had always been told that it was impossible. I had been abandoned and I would never be able to find my family. Therefore, I never searched. What is the point in searching for the impossible?
But there was also a more complicated answer. I had always felt that searching would be an act of betrayal to my parents who had adopted me. Because of them, I was, without a doubt, living a much better life than the one I would have had if I had stayed in Korea. So I repressed the need to search. I was not going to be the ingrate who betrayed her family by searching for her birth family.
My parents were not responsible for placing these pressures on me. I have since discovered they never felt this way or wanted to convey that attitude. At the same time, I never talked with them about it, and neither did they with me. It is a difficult conversation to start, so this I understand. But it is unfortunate, even after all we have learned about adoption in the past 50 years, that I, or they, never knew how to start the conversation.
If there was anything overtly responsible for the pressure, it was, I believe, societal pressures derived from misunderstood assumptions about adoption. Offhand comments made to me throughout my life, intended to make me feel good, only reinforced the outsized guilt I carried around, as well as the ugly potential to betray. Things like, “Oh, you’re so lucky,” or “You hit the adoption lottery jackpot,” or “You’re the model Korean adoptee,” reflected so many of the misconceptions. These, to say the least, did no good in allowing me to untangle my innate desire to search from the cultural pressure not to betray my parents.
A few years ago, though, I began to be aware that these pressures might be wrong. I had started reading accounts by other adoptees, most of whom had searched. I realized that my need to know was actually not an act of betrayal, but an act of completion. It was also, completely natural. To repress that desire is to repress instinct.
Slowly and tentatively, over the past few years, I was able to start speaking of that desire to a few other people. Eventually, I found the confidence to tell my parents that I was searching for my birth family. They were very supportive and, in this, I will admit that I am lucky. For there are many adoptees whose parents are not understanding or supportive and this only adds more pain and confusion to what is already a highly anxious and fraught process.
My first attempt at active searching began in late August 2012 when I wrote to the Holt USA Adoption Agency and asked for a copy of my file. I waited over three months for a response because they had to contact Holt Korea and Holt Korea was too busy in the summer to handle new requests. Several months later, I received an email informing me that there was not enough information to search. They said they were sorry about that. “So that is it,” I thought. “Everyone had been right all along. There was no point in searching because there is nothing to be found.” I filed the email away and went on with my life.
Then I saw the movie Philomena, and I was, in a word, undone. Philomena was not my mother. I was not her child. But I felt her pain in having her child taken away and not knowing where he had gone, to whom he had gone, or what had happened to him. That despair of wanting to know and not knowing was a mirror image of the desire that I had to know my birth mother. And it was magnified now by my own deep desire to have my own children. “How,” I wondered, “could my own mother have given me away?”
Enormous sadness followed me around the next few days. I tried not to think about the movie or Philomena because I would inevitably start crying. But I didn’t know what to do. Holt USA had already told me that finding my family would be impossible. What was the point in trying again?
But after a few days, my mind began to clear. I began to wonder whether I had tried hard enough two years ago. When I received the response from Holt, I had simply accepted what they had said. I hadn’t even followed up with a phone call. Had the agency told me everything? I began to wonder where exactly the orphanage was located and who had worked there in December 1969. If I could just get to the orphanage, then maybe I could find something else.
Now I felt an urgency to get to the orphanage. I was 44 years old and already I was on the wrong side of time to have my own biological children. The longer I waited, the more likely it would be that I would also end up on the wrong side of time to find my own biological mother, or anyone who knew her, before she died.
A month later I made another phone call to Holt USA and asked to review my file one more time. The active search for my birth family had begun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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. ”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?
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.
“What About Sally?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
For Korean adoptees searching for their birth families, it is more common not to find than to find.
According to my conversation with Ellie at Holt Korea, less than 20 percent of adoptees are successful in finding birth families, a number that seems ridiculously inflated considering all the obstacles put in front of adoptees searching. (I have tried to reconfirm this statistic with Ellie, but have not received a response from her.) My gut says that number is closer to one or two percent. But numbers aside, most of the stories I had read about were of adoptees who had found and all the problems that occurred with that outcome. So what about not finding?
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.
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.
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.
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 itineray 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. I can only speculate as to how that all contributed to Sohn Soon dying and being set free.
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.
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.
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.