Five years ago, I flew from Korea to America, retracing a journey I had made 23 years before. Only this time, I was the one carrying the baby. His name was Koo Jee Hyuk, and I was escorting him to his new adoptive family.
I had gone to Korea to visit Adela, a college friend, who lived in Seoul. I was born in Korea, and I had been adopted by white American parents when I was three months old. I’d always wanted to visit my homeland, but until that summer, I had never had the courage, time, or money to do so.
Toward the end of my stay in Seoul, I visited my adoption agency, Holt, with David, a bilingual friend of Adela’s. I inquired about escorting a baby, and we made arrangements for me to bring baby Jee Hyuk home.
On the day of my departure, I realized that I was nervous about being alone with an infant for 13 hours. I hadn’t had much experience with babies, but Adela assured me that taking care of him would be easy. “If the baby cries, it will be for one of three reasons: It’s hungry, it needs its diaper changed, or it wants to be held. Just try doing those things and it’ll stop.”
She stressed one precaution, though: “Make sure you burp the baby each time it eats. If you don’t, it could die.”
“Die?” I replied, flabbergasted. I’d never heard that before. I shuddered at the thought of having to tell the expectant parents that their child had died during the plane ride.
“Don’t worry,” said David. “I’ve seen babies on the plane going to be adopted. The flight attendants will help you. They love babies. Or maybe you’ll sit next to an ajooma [an auntie]. They really love babies.”
Before we left, we met Jee Hyuk’s foster mother. She was a short woman with wrinkles around her eyes. She cried and held on to Jee Hyuk as we got into the airport van. A lump formed in my throat as I watched her say good-bye to the baby she’d cared for as her son. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t speak a word of Korean. It didn’t matter, though — my friends spoke the language fluently, but they couldn’t find words to comfort her either.
A Long Trip Home
At the airport, Jee Hyuk seemed agreeable and content. “You look so natural holding him. It’s a little scary,” Adela said. David made goofy faces at Jee Hyuk, and made him giggle. We all remarked on what a wonderful baby he seemed, and how easy my flight would be.
“I bet he’ll just laugh and sleep the whole time,” Adela confidently predicted.
The moment I stepped past the metal detector, Jee Hyuk began to wail. It was as if he could sense my apprehension. I changed his diaper, then cradled him and sang to him as I walked around the gate, but he didn’t stop crying.
The adoption agency worker had specifically instructed me not to feed him more than once every four hours — and not to feed him just because he cried. But Jee Hyuk wanted to eat every two hours, and when the bottle was in his mouth, he was silent.
During the flight, the ajooma sitting next to me offered to hold and feed him, and he fell asleep in her arms. But when she returned him, I remembered Adela’s warning. Burping Jee Hyuk woke him back up, and then he started wailing again.
He cried as I changed his diaper, after I changed his diaper, as I walked with him up and down the aisle, and as I stood with him near the emergency exit. I silently begged him to stop, but that didn’t work. All I wanted was sleep, but Jee Hyuk cried for nine of the 13 hours we were on the plane. As soon as we debarked, he snuggled against my chest and slept as if he’d never slept before.
Too Soon, Time for Goodbye
Groggy from lack of sleep, I uncertainly glanced back and forth among the different lines at customs. A towering security guard approached me. “You have a baby from Korea?” he asked.
“Yes, this is Koo Jee Hyuk,” I responded.
“Follow me,” he said. He walked toward a glassed-in enclosure just to the right of the customs booths. I saw a middle-aged couple standing near a desk in the room.
“We’re not supposed to do this,” the guard said, as he opened the door, “But I adopted two babies from Korea. I know what it’s like.”
Jee Hyuk’s new mother raced up to look at her son. Her white skin and curly hair reminded me that I was no longer surrounded by people who looked like me. Before my trip to Korea, I had never known how good that could feel.
I considered handing Jee Hyuk over, but no one had prepared me for this part of the process. I thought about asking to see their paperwork. I also wasn’t ready to let him go. After the seemingly endless plane ride, this part was happening too fast.
“He’s asleep now,” I told them. “But he cried the entire ride.”
“Oh, you speak English?” Jee Hyuk’s new mother replied, visibly stunned. Of course, I thought, annoyed. In Korea, people were surprised to hear me speaking English without an accent. Getting the same reaction back in the U.S. made me angry.
As I unstrapped Jee Hyuk from my chest, I felt as if I were losing a piece of myself. Asleep, he was as heavy as a sack of flour, an entirely different baby from the one I’d tried in vain to calm on the plane.
“I have to go and find my luggage,” I mumbled, suddenly feeling the baby’s absence.
“Why don’t you meet us back here?” they suggested.
I was back from Korea, my birth country, a place that I had known only from reports I had done in grade school. The two weeks I spent there made me realize how beautiful Korean culture was, and how proud and friendly the people could be. I wanted to mourn my disconnection to it; I wanted to be alone.
“Sure,” I replied, then turned my back on them as I left the room.
A New Family
My limbs were heavy as I dragged my bags over to Jee Hyuk’s new family. Jee Hyuk’s new grandparents and sister were crowding around him as he slumbered in his mother’s arms.
“Do you want to hold him?” his mother asked me, handing him over before I could respond. She grabbed a camera from her husband to take a photograph.
I held the baby and tried to look happy. I had brought him to what many Koreans believe will be a better life. I’d looked at Jee Hyuk’s file on the plane and noticed that his parents had chosen not to keep his Korean name, the same decision my parents had made. I hoped he wouldn’t grow up unaware of Korean culture, without Asian role models, ignorant of Korean foods and traditions. I hoped he would not feel ashamed of his heritage, as I had for the first 22 years of my life.
I cradled baby Jee Hyuk in my arms and kissed his soft head, oblivious to the people streaming past us. “This is your home now,” I told him quietly. I looked up to see Jee Hyuk’s family staring at me. He’d been in America for all of 30 minutes, and I’d been holding him for most of that time.
“Someday,” I said. “Someday, I hope you will return.” I pressed my lips to his head one last time, closed my eyes, and handed him to his new mother.