5. In Preparation for Pohang
If the trip to Pohang had not produced the outcome I had wanted, it was not for lack of preparation beforehand. Once I decided to go to Korea, I did as much work as I could to make the trip as productive as possible. In my mind, the best outcome was to locate my birth family before the trip, so that I could spend the time in Korea meeting them, rather than searching for them.
I wanted to do this on my own because I was still hesitant to tell anyone I was searching. But I realized very quickly that I was going to need to find someone on the ground in Korea if I was going to make any progress at all. Notwithstanding the phone calls I was going to need to make, I was going to need help just reading half of the documents in my file since they were in Korean. I needed someone who spoke the language, who was familiar with the customs and culture, and who could make phone calls and inquiries on my behalf.
There was a family with whom my parents had been friendly some 30 years ago, but had moved back to Korea about 25 years ago. They had two daughters, the eldest of whom had graduated a year ahead of me in high school. I hadn’t spoken to the family or the daughter in over 20 years, but a few years earlier she found me on Facebook. I had thought of her because her father had been an architect in Seoul and I thought he could help me locate the orphanage in Seoul (this was still the time when I thought that I had been born in Seoul). I emailed her, told her what I was doing, and asked if she could help. Though she was very willing, her Korean was not good enough to have the conversations I needed to have. However, she said she would ask her mother who “was good at these sorts of things.” Her mother was Sally.
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.”
Erica Moffet’s story will be running each Wednesday on Woman Around Town. Click to read The Introduction, Seoul – “Why Are You Here?”, “Why Did You Wait So Long?”, In Pohang, a Baby Girl Was Born, and Pohang – A Cold Case Revisited.