I wasn’t sure what my children expected when I booked our homeland tour to South Korea. Self-aware for teens their age, they were adolescents, nonetheless. Which is to say, given to opacity. My daughter, Julia, a priestess of Asian pop — from manga and anime to “J-pop” — claimed she was going for the fashions. My son, Lee, who’d spent years as the target of toxic Asian slurs, said he was interested in being there. As in, being Korean in Korea.
I wondered if either knew what they truly hoped to find, what insights they might gather from the trip. My own goal was simpler: to see the places where my children were born.
To my surprise, the latter proved elusive, whereas meaning met up with us at every turn.
An unexpected loss
My husband, Chris, and I were already world travelers when we adopted, and we looked forward to learning all about the children’s heritage. Lee and Julia, however, wanted nothing to do with it. At adoption-agency events, in particular, they acted up, or made it clear that they were bored. One day, when we went shopping at a local Korean grocery, I understood why.
“Am I going to meet my birth mother here?” Julia blurted out, hanging back.
Nonplussed, I assured her, “No, she’s not here” — only to feel the fraud. For all I knew, my daughter’s mother was the clerk who rang up our nori.
And I wished she were.
While Julia was wary of the stranger who might reclaim her, Lee was resentful of the one who would not. When it came to his birth mother, he produced limitless reserves of bile. Which he delivered by proxy to me. A reunion with his foster mother, who escorted a group of adoptees to the U.S., did nothing to assuage Lee’s longing for connection.
In time, the children came to trust that Chris and I would not be “sending them back,” that, come what may, we were a family for life. No one imagined that life might prove a weak link.
Chris died when Lee was 14, Julia, 12.
Lee grieved the way I did, spewing emotion. For a month, he was unable to return to school. I despaired: Would he have the stomach for life again? Would I? Roiling with anger, he lamented one day, “If my birth father hadn’t given me away, I never would have lost Dad.” I couldn’t argue with that. If Chris hadn’t swept me away in college, I never would have lost him either. Yet, at least we’d found someone worth the anguish.
For Julia, the bereavement was so big and so close, she could not make it out. Think: watching a horror film, your nose pressed to the screen. A year passed before she shed a tear. Then Julia began to see the picture — in nightmares. After one of these, she awoke crying, and confessed, “I’ve been pretending Dad was on a business trip.”
Reunions and revelations
Once she no longer was awaiting her father’s return, Julia asked to take a trip of her own — to Korea. To my surprise, Lee was willing, and I needed no convincing. I booked a homeland tour.
At the airport the morning of our departure, I was surprised to recognize one of our travel mates — the mother of the little boy who had flown with Julia to the U.S. 15 years earlier. Although we had not spoken since, I felt instantly at ease. There was also another widow in our group, with a son and a daughter. For the next two weeks, we warmed the seats next to each other during 10-hour forays on the bus, trading tales and understanding.
In Seoul, we began at the agency that had placed most of the children. After touring the infant ward and admiring the babies slumbering in bassinets, each child had a “file review.” When Julia’s caseworker unexpectedly revealed the names of her birth parents, I found myself scrambling for pen and paper.
The next day, during a question-and-answer session at a home for unwed mothers, Lee found himself scrambling for forgiveness.
We convened in a small dining hall, where a dozen young women were already seated around a long table. The home’s director briefly introduced each mother, then opened the floor to questions. One by one, we delicately probed their feelings, or praised them for their courage, in making their decisions and in facing us.
One adoptive mother pleaded for each birth mother to convey a photograph of herself with her infant, for a likeness would mean more to her child in the years to come than any other information. A 13-year-old boy with the grace of a Bodhisattva reassured the young women that he thought about his birth mother every day. When I asked whether the increasing number of in-country adoptions made their decisions any easier, one mother quickly replied that she preferred an international placement because it offered a chance of later finding her child.
Then, without waiting for the mic, Lee confessed, “I’ve been angry with my birth mother all these years.” His tone and impolitic slouch said as much.
I clenched. The young women riveted their eyes on him, awaiting a translation. At 17, he was not much younger than many of them.
“But now,” he continued, “after meeting all of you, I hope I can someday find her.”
The search is on
The group was staying for two nights in Pusan. Lee’s birthplace, in Masan, was only an hour’s drive away, so we planned to take a day trip. Julia’s birthplace was less accessible. I learned that a visit to Kangnung, on the northeast coast, would require breaking away from our tour group and spending a night on our own.
As I weighed the options, Julia made the decision easy. She had no interest in parting from the group — or, to be more accurate, a significant someone in the group. He was about her age, he loved J-pop, too, and he lived 20 minutes from our house in Maryland. Faced with choosing between the past and the future, she chose the future. So did I.
The first morning in Pusan, when the group was scheduled to tour the city’s docks, we set off by taxi on our pilgrimage to see Lee’s birthplace, accompanied by the tour’s translator.
We arrived in Masan to discover that the hospital had become a mental-health and geriatric-care center. Poring over Lee’s documents, Susan and the receptionist deduced that he wasn’t born at the hospital but transferred there after his birth, due to prematurity. The news in no way lessened my desire to see where my son had spent his first month.
As we toured the one unrestricted area, I imagined I was Lee’s birth mother on the day she left him in the hospital’s care. But, as hard as I tried, I found I could not begin to understand her state of mind. And that was, undoubtedly, a mercy.
On the flight home, I thought of how life resembled a game of hide and seek. A game of going missing. A game of finding people who find you. Several rows behind me, Lee was enjoying himself with a group of teen adoptees. Julia sat across the aisle from the boy who had traveled “home” with her 15 years before. Beside her sat her new companion. He’s been keeping her company ever since.
This story has been excerpted from the forthcoming A Cup of Comfort for Adoptive Families (Adams Media Corporation).