by Sara Jones/Yoon Hyun Kyung, adopted from South Korea to the USA.
I have no photos of myself before I was 3 years old. I have a few photos after that age taken at the orphanage. Staff members took photos of children to send to sponsors or potential adoptive parents. In one of the photos, I am wearing a Korean hanbok but I am not smiling in any of the photos at the orphanage.
A few months ago, I came across a photo (not one of mine) that literally made me feel like I had been thrown back in time. The photo was taken in 1954 at a well. The well has high cement walls and a pulley system. Rusted metal drums sit nearby. Two young boys are drawing water while a little girl stands near them. The 1954 photo helped me visualize what life might have been like for me in Jeonju, South Korea.
Here’s what I see when I looked at that 1954 photo: I see an older brother, about 8 years old, a younger brother almost 6 years old, and their little sister who is 2 years old. They are poor, but don’t really know anything different. They live with their grandmother and father in a rural village in South Korea. Their father is the oldest of several children and some of their aunts and uncles are still quite young. They are all struggling through the economic disruption that has happened in their country. Their father worked in manual labor and was injured. So the boys help their father and keep watch of their little sister. The little sister is used to staying near her brothers. Sometimes the children go to day care and the boys sneak the little sister extra corn snacks. Her brothers are her protectors.
The children don’t know that their father is making an excruciating decision. Their father can no longer provide for them and thinks his only choice is to send them to the children’s welfare center. The little girl has no idea that she will be separated from her father or even from her brothers. The children also don’t know that their father will soon take them to a well and give them each a tattoo on their arm, using a needle, ink and thread. He is worried he will never see his children again. In the 1954 photo, the children are just siblings, sent to the well for the day’s water.
The children might have wondered why their father was taking them to the well the day he gave them their tattoos. The oldest son cries as his father gives him the tattoo. As the father gives his oldest son his tattoo, he says to him, “I will come back for you.” Before the father gives his little baby daughter her tattoo, he hugged her.
It’s been a long 3 years since I met my Korean birth family. The distance from the U.S. to South Korea feels longer and harder with the pandemic. The language barrier weighs on me constantly. How will I ever communicate with them?
Some things need no words. Like this moment 3 years ago of my Korean family and I at the well in Jeonju, where my father gave us our tattoos. Watch the video here.
The desire to know my origins is an innate and fundamental human need (and right).
My need to know my origins is akin to your need to breath air that keeps you alive.
We only know our origins are important when we don’t have it, or access to it. For people like me, this is our daily lived experience!
As an intercountry adoptee, I live my whole life trying to find who I come from and why I was given up / stolen.
It’s really hard to know how to go forward in life if I don’t know how and why I came to be in this unnatural situation.
My life did not start at adoption! I have a genetic history, generations of people before me who contributed to who I am.
We cannot pretend in this world of adoption and family formation that genetics does not matter, it does – significantly; I am not a blank slate to be imprinted upon; there are consequences to this pretence and it shows in the statistics of our higher rates of adoptee youth suicide!
One of most shared experiences amongst adoptees whom I connect with, is the topic of “feeling all alone”, “like an alien” and yet human beings are not meant to be isolated. We are social beings desiring connection.
Separation from my natural origins and the knowledge of these, left me disconnected and lost in a fundamental way.
My life has been spent trying to reconnect – firstly with my inner self, then with the outer self, and with those around me, searching for a sense of belonging.
As an adoptee, I can be given all the material things in the world but it did not fix the hole that my soul feels, when it has nowhere and no-one to belong to, naturally.
My substitute family did not equate to a natural sense of belonging.
I searched for my origins because my innate feelings and experience of isolation and loss drove me to find where I came from and to make sense of how I got to be here.
A few days ago, I was invited to attend the filming of Sarah Henke to cook with a famous TV Chef from Korea 전현숙. He came to Germany to interview Sarah, a KAD chef who works at a restaurant and recently earned the coveted Michelin Star. During the filming of the program all guests were interviewed and asked a panel of questions. One of the questions was, “When was the first time you ate Korean food and do you remember eating Korean food as a child?”
Remembering distinct tastes: In 1990, I was mistakenly sent to the wrong training program by the US Army. Months before my training took place, I had signed up to be an engineer but cooking became my new profession. I was surprised to learn I was attending the Army’s culinary school at Fort Lee, VA. One of my instructors was from Korea and his name was SFC Park. He immigrated to the US in his teens and had a thick Korea accent. My friends and I would laugh every time he would tell us to place food on the cookie “shit” (sheet). A few weeks into the culinary program I became one of the top students and was recommended by SFC Park to be one of the students allowed to take an advance cooking course and train under a Master Chef in the evenings.
Several weeks into my training, SFC Park pulled me aside and asked me if I liked Korean food. I answered truthfully and stated I never grew up eating Korean food and did not remember ever eating it. That weekend I crawled into SFC Park’s car and we headed to Richmond for the area’s annual Korean festival and I feasted on numerous Korean dishes. All the flavors were new but wonderful! I gorged myself with Bulgogi (BBQ meat), Kimchee (fermented cabbage) and Japchae (sweet potato noodle dish). One dish caught my eye as I passed dozens of dishes and it contained a tupperware of what looked like tree leaves. I was informed they were not tree leaves and were “delicious” sesame leaves called Kkaennip. I grabbed a leaf and popped it into my mouth and began to chew. As soon as I tasted the distinct flavored leaves, I knew instantly that I had eaten this before. My face was filled with excitement and I rushed to my cooking mentor and told him that I remembered eating the dish when I was young.
Remembering clothing: When I was 5 years old I visited my grandmother’s farm. It was a last minute decision and my grandmother had to rummage through the closet to look for clothing I could wear outside whilst following her doing her chores. I remember seeing her toss out oversized scarves, gloves and hats as they were pulled out of the closet and compared to my small frame. A cap immediately caught my attention as she pulled it out of the closet. It was an olive drab green army cap with ear flaps. I became really excited and I told my grandmother that I remembered seeing a picture of my father wearing a similar cap when I lived in Korea. My grandmother looked at me and smiled. She said matter of factly, “I think you have a great memory or a great imagination”.
In 1996, I enlisted into the Active Component Army and signed up to go to the location of my choice. I turned down a chance of attending West Point and a full ride scholarship to St. John’s University for a chance to enlist in Korea and find my biological family. Newly assigned medics to Camp Casey, located in Dong-du-chon, were sent to the clinic to have their skills assessed and given on-the-job training for 30 days before being allowed to work in their assigned unit. During my training, I worked with the pharmacist Mrs. Kim. She took a look at me and asked if I was Korean. I explained to her that I was adopted from Korea. I also shared that I was looking for my biological family and she told me she would try to help.
Fate had it that Mrs. Kim so happened to attend College with the director of Eastern Social Welfare Society and she forwarded her friend a copy of my adoption papers. Within the first week, I was notified they were able to locate my aunt and she immediately traveled to see me at my base to introduce me to my father. During my initial meeting with my aunt, I inquired about a picture of my father that hung in the entrance of our home when I was a small boy. She immediately withdrew a black and white photo of my father wearing the hat from her purse and gave it to me to keep.
Remembering activities: I was overjoyed to learn that I would be heading to Korea at my first duty station as a newly minted second lieutenant. During my second tour to Korea I had my third physical trigger that reminded me of my childhood in Korea before moving to the United States. One weekend I was walking through the streets with my fellow lieutenant buddies from the s1/506th Infantry (Band of Brother’s Unit) near our base at Munsan to find a place to eat grilled meat. We walked several blocks looking for picture of cows or anything that gave an indication the restaurant served grilled meat. We found a sign with a picture of a cartoon pig and cow so we went inside to order food. George, the tall thin West Point graduate, made cow noises to indicate that he wanted to order bulgogi. I laughed at him and told him that Korean cows did not make the same sounds as American cows. We had a good laugh over his antics and I noticed the restaurant was using round cylinder-shaped charcoal to cook our meat. I pulled my buddies in and told themof how I remembered my grandmother cooking on these things when I was a boy in Korea.
That same year I met with my aunt again and asked her about my grandparent’s kitchen. I told her I remembered my grandmother cooking on top of the charcoal and she told me it was true. It wasn’t uncommon for country people to cook on charcoals that were used to warm the flooring of the houses. The charcoal cylinders served a dual purpose. She was surprised by the detail of things that I could remember from my childhood.
What the experts say: A week ago, on my drive to work I listened to a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast. It is about how memory actually works and how understanding this relates to our relationship with the truth (podcast link is below). His multi-podcast lecture states that long term memories cannot be trusted. Individuals have a tendency to mask over memories with other stories that were told. The podcast indicates people are easily influenced by others and the environment around us and its not uncommon for our memories to change over time.
Jeffrey A. Vernon a physician summarized the podcast well by saying, “Literature shows our memories are more fluid and changeable with time than we’d like to believe; our memories are colored by our emotions both at the time of the event and the time of recall; and often contain details that never happened but, rather are “filled in” at a later point to “complete” the memory. The memory of our overworked brains often doesn’t have the attention span or processing power to constantly take in and record the entirety of life going on around.
I do agree with Mr. Gladwell and numerous studies that our memories become fragmented and do change over time. For instance, the fish I caught at the lake becomes bigger and the money I won at the poker game becomes greater. I do believe there are memories that we hold onto and can retain for the long term. Sure, some of the details can be fuzzy but the overall information is correct. We can often verify these important events with others that viewed the moment with us. I remember looking into my son’s big bright eyes when he was born. I remember being promoted to top position at the Korean Hospital in Afghanistan. I know these events to be real and validate them.
In Closing: I’ve spoken to several thousands of adoptees through face-to-face interactions and through social media. When I share my memories, many adoptees have expressed regret for not remembering their past. Many were several years older than I at adoption (I was 4.5 years when I was adopted to the United States). Some adoptees will question the authenticity when speaking about their adoption story because they have a hard time remembering details or events before a certain age. I don’t think individuals need to beat themselves up for not remembering anything. Sometimes the brain forgets in order to protect itself. I have witnessed this in the military. We often call the event battle fatigue, shell shock or combat stress reactions. It’s not uncommon for the brain to shutdown and forget things during stressful situations.
Lastly, children can age at different times. I’ve experienced this with my own children, where one child had high cognitive abilities at an earlier age than my other child. This could be another explanation about why people can’t remember – they simply were not at an age where their brain was developed enough to remember. I think it is good for individuals to dismiss their thoughts altogether because of this uncertainty. Memory dissipates and becomes foggy even for the smartest of individuals. If you feel that you recall something that nobody else does – keep it in the back of your mind and try to validate those thoughts as you learn more about the situation. I did and I was able to validate them to be true.