The following blog series will be dedicated to our Searching in Intercountry Adoption series. These individual stories are being shared from our Perspective Paper that was also shared with our Webinar, Searching in Intercountry Adoption by Adoptee Experts.
by Samara James, born in South Korea, raised in Australia
When I first moved to South Korea back in 2008, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to locate my birth family. How do you know whether you want to unlock the biggest mysteries of your life? How do you know if you are ready for it? For me, it was a curiosity, but for my Korean friends, they seemed determined to make the reunion a reality with an almost feverish determination. This is what really propelled the search for my birth family, and despite not really understanding what that would mean or preparing for what may happen, I agreed to do the search. Ann Babe, breaks down the attitudes toward gyopos into three types. She described the first as, “A person that’s older who is sort of angry about you being a Korean but not being fully Korean.” There are the “people who seem flummoxed and simply incapable of grasping your background” but then there are also those who are “very friendly and helpful” but sometimes “overbearing when they try to convert you or reform you” (Wiggin, 2010). My Korean friend (who was also my boss) was this third type. As an older sister figure to me in Korea (or unnie) she took me under her wing and introduced me to Korean life; eventually the reunion between myself and my birth family became her personal mission. My adoptive parents were concerned about me locating my birth family. I knew they didn’t really want me to do it. My mother used to watch movies about adoptees reuniting with their birth families and choosing to stay and live with them, as if they were horror movies, “You would never do that would you?” she used to ask me. I had always promised I wouldn’t but when I asked for my adoption paperwork, I knew in a way I was betraying them.
My paperwork was scarce to say the least, a piece of paper with my parents’ names dates of birth, the name I was issued by the adoption agency, and the province I was born in, translated into English that only led to dead-ends and we exhausted most of my options quickly. Leanne Lieth, founder of Korean Adoptees for Fair Records Access, explains, “Access to our Korean records is dependent upon whether the adoptee knows that there are duplicate or original records in Korea, that those records may have additional information… and that the adoptee has the will and tenacity to investigate across continents and languages with the often uncooperative and hostile Korean international adoption agencies. This process is arbitrary, inconsistent, and can drag out for years” (Dobbs, 2011). According to Dobbs (2011), “There are no laws sealing or regulating adoption files, which are technically agency private property. The agencies could burn the records if they wanted.” Eventually, my friend convinced me to go on a Korean reality TV show where adoptees can make a public plea for any information that may help to locate their families. Say your Korean name into the camera, she said. I had never used my Korean name before. “My name is Kim Soo-Im. If you have any information about my biological family”… the rest was a blur. Before I knew it, we had found them.
After declining to film the reunion on air, we drove to meet my birth family. I had no idea what I was walking into, or even where we were. I didn’t expect to have family, I thought I was an orphan but when I walked in the door, I was taken aback to see almost 20 relatives – mother, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents who were all crying inconsolably. I didn’t understand. My friend was so excited and I was completely at a loss for how to react. I didn’t have any questions prepared, I think I was still in a state of shock. All I could think was, why couldn’t I have stayed here? Why are they crying when they abandoned me?
My friend did the introductions in Korean, and it was only then I realised, she wouldn’t be able to bridge the linguistic and cultural gaps between us. I struggled to understand most of what was said, but a few things came through. I looked like my father who had died a few years earlier. I guessed by my mother’s age, that he may have been in his 40’s at the time. They couldn’t explain to me how he died exactly, but I inferred by their hand signals it was something to do with the chest – I hope it isn’t hereditary. I was told that I have two siblings (who were also put up for adoption) and I was the last of the three children to reunite with the family. My brother who was there, didn’t say anything to me that day. Apparently, he could speak English, but I guess chose not to. I have no idea what he was thinking or what his story was. My sister wasn’t there, when I asked where she was, the reply was “she’s gone”. I couldn’t figure out what ‘gone’ meant. Was she missing? Was she dead?
My birth mother plead with my friend to tell me that she regretted putting me up for adoption and that she tried everything to undo it. She didn’t know I was sent overseas. My friend looked so overjoyed, but I wasn’t sure what to say, I couldn’t understand. I thought she didn’t want me, I was told I had been abandoned after birth. I was prepared for rejection but regret, despair, shame, longing I didn’t know what to do with. I sat there silently for what felt like hours, then the family asked if I was staying to re-join the family and asked if I would help take care of my ageing mother. Everyone was looking at me expectantly. It was at this point I felt something shutdown inside me, and I told them that I was going to go back to Australia. My birth mother asked if I would sleep over that night and let her hold me. I declined. I wanted to enter that world, but I didn’t know how. It’s something that still haunts me. This part of my life had been closed for over 20 years, and for those moments when I opened it again, I didn’t know what to do. I had never felt so useless, so I closed it again as quickly as possible and I haven’t spoken to them again. This was 15 years ago.
Behar (1996) who talks about ‘roots’ and ‘routes’, asks how do you return to a home that is lost? How do you reckon with what you uncover? What are you really returning to? What does it offer? Digging through old paintings, I find a self-portrait from when I was a teenager. Half human and half tree, floating above a dark ocean. My roots are exposed and I’m crying the sea of tears that I’m floating above. If I was trying to replant my roots, I was experiencing transplant shock. I didn’t know how to process what had happened. Returning to my office after our reunion, I found a large box of dried squid on my desk. “It’s from your family, they really must love you” my friend exclaimed. I am still at a loss to what that means. What a cruel irony, I had spent my life trying to blend in with my peers in Australia, trying to belong as an Australian. It was all I ever wanted. But in those moments, I wish I could have been Korean. Korean enough to understand what my family was saying and the meaning and context behind it. Now I’m so Australian that it feels like I’ve locked myself out of that world.
15 years later, looking back from a point in my life where I realise the gravity of what I dug into and how it lingers in my subconscious as an unresolved part of my life. Now that I understand a little more about Korean culture, the adoption system, and the impossible choices my birth mother would have faced, I have finally come to a point where I want to try and reconnect with them again. I realise now that the birth family search is not about guaranteeing a fairy-tale ending, but it’s about opening yourself to something. This time I’ll go in with a completely open mind and heart, no expectations and an adoption specialising translator. I just hope my birth mother’s still alive so I can properly meet her this time.
Samara James (Kim Soo Im)
Behar, R., 1996. Anthropology that breaks your heart. The Vulnerable Observer.
Dobbs, J.K., 2011. Ending South Korea’s Child Export Shame. [Online]. Foreign Policy in Focus. Last Updated: 23 June 2011. Available at: https://fpif.org/ending_south_koreas_child_export_shame/
Wiggin, T., 2010. South Korea’s complicated embrace of gyopo. Los Angeles Times. [Online]. 14 February 2010. Available at https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2010-feb-14-la-fg-korea-return14-2010feb14-story.html.
Coming Next: Searching for my family in Romania