On Monday, I made the much anticipated journey to Korea Social Services (KSS), the orphanage where I lived as a baby for almost four months.
Little did I know that my life would change in a way that I didn’t think was possible.
The 45-minute long cab ride seemed more like 45 hours. I was so nervous. So worried. What if I was late for my appointment? What if the social worker at the orphanage forgot about our meeting? What if the navigation system in the taxi stopped working and the driver got lost? What if my Korean money somehow got a life of its own, jumped out of my purse, and flew out the window, and I couldn’t pay for the taxi? What if I got into a fatal car accident on the way there?
After an eternity, we finally arrived and were ushered into a meeting room to await the social worker's arrival. I only had enough time to glimpse at one or two of the yellowing, 1970’s photos of Korean children and their adopted “white” families. I’ve got those same photographs of my parents and sister at home - complete with the wood-paneled walls, brown-tinted eyeglasses, and bad 70’s hairdos.
The social worker arrived only a few seconds later, introduced herself to Andy and me, then placed my file on the middle of the desk. PARK JUNG SOOK, it said in black marker.
First, she gave me some copies of my little black and white baby pictures. I’d seen one of them before in my mom’s old jewelry box. But the full-body picture was new to me.
“You were chubby baby!” she exclaimed. She was nice enough to not mention “ugly baby,” too. But, I was happy to understand that fat = well-cared for.
Next, she went through my paperwork. I’ve already seen the English copy at my parents’ house, stating what I already knew – that I was found at Wooie Police Station on September 29, 1976 and immediately brought to KSS.
I then asked a few questions about what the economic and social conditions were like at the time. In the mid 1970s, South Korea was as poor, economically, as the North – if not worse. She explained that in the absence of any kind of birth control or family planning, most families had five or six children. Unwed mothers had it really bad. Still do, apparently as only recently has the government started to assist these women, even though society isn’t yet ready to fully accept them. And, for those who were too poor for health insurance and therefore proper medical care, there were maternity clinics with midwives throughout the city (such clinics apparently no longer exist, as health insurance is now socialized for all South Koreans).
And then, I don’t quite remember how it happened, but all of a sudden, Kim Chee was telling me that I wasn’t actually abandoned at a police station. That is just the “official” story for the government documents. Rather, a 33-year old woman married to a 36-year old man gave birth to me at a maternity clinic. Because this couple was very poor and already had two daughters, they couldn’t afford another child. So, a day after my birth, I was handed over to KSS.
Just like that.
No documents or paperwork. Only the story from one of the maternity clinic workers, handwritten in Korean on the back of one of the aged, yellowing papers in my file.
Apparently, in the absence of any real documents, the social worker who typed up my file just made up the police station story. Probably quite a common practice at the time, since my sister’s file says verbatim, the same story – only replacing Wooie Police Station with Incheon City Hall. She’d actually been moved from the Star of the Sea Catholic orphanage in Incheon to KSS in Seoul, a few months before my parents adopted her.
She then explained that if I want to do a search for my family, I can make a formal request to KSS. The orphanage then contacts the police, who search their records and hopefully find a match. Apparently, with proper documentation, including exact birth dates and correctly-spelled family members’ names, the chances of finding a match are around 90%. In my case, it’s only about 20%. Then, there’s still the possibility that the family, upon being contacted, does not wish to have any contact with me. In some cases, especially where the rest of the family may not be aware of the child’s birth, the guilt and shame prevent the birth mother from wanting to make any connection. But, in my case, my oldest sister must’ve known and remembered that her mother was pregnant… unless my birth parents told her that the baby was stillborn, I’d think that she’d know that somewhere out there, another sister may exist. And, with the strong internet presence now in South Korea, I feel like the chances should be pretty high that my two older sisters have some kind of Korean facebook or myspace kind of homepage.
And, if the police search and internet searches turn up nothing, there’s a special organization called GOAL (Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link) which also provides a host of search and reunion services and apparently also does some kind of show on national TV, the name of which roughly translates into “I miss the person.” On this show, adoptees reach out to the Korean public with whatever kind of info they might have about their birth families. The TV thing is a last resort since dealing with the media is like selling your emotions so rich business people can make more money. Apparently it’s proved successful in a handful of cases, but I don’t think this is the right path for me. Hopefully, I won’t have to even consider it.
It’s odd. This whole time I’d always assumed that my biological parents were dead. The alternative was to go insane with wonder over the endless possibilities. I never really let myself think or hope that my birth family could be alive, and even if they were, I was convinced that there was zero hope of finding them. When confronted with the question, as I have been countless times in my life, “Don’t you want to find your birth parents?” I’d always answer that, well, I just don’t think they are alive, and even if they are, I don’t know what finding them and meeting them would do for me. Perhaps if I hadn’t been raised in a loving family, I’d have felt differently – as if there was a hole or missing piece of my life that needed to be filled for me to be at peace.
I’d given this same answer so many times before that I didn’t even have to think about the words – they just flowed out of my mouth like a tape-recorded response.
But now, everything has changed.
Sure, my birth parents could indeed be dead. And, given that they were poor and without healthcare, at this age, even if they are alive, they’re probably in very poor health. But, suddenly I’m a million steps closer – actually only a few steps away – from finding them. And knowing that I have two older sisters who are hopefully still alive… I just can’t turn back now. I want to know more.
So, I immediately told the social worker that I wanted to search for my family and would send the formal request as soon as I got back to Switzerland.
The rest of the visit to KSS seems like a fuzzy dream. We made a tour of the KSS grounds, and I took pictures of the now empty buildings, one of which likely housed me for those few months. I saw the old, empty kimchi containers, buried in the ground in one corner of the yard. And, I visited the newly nursery, now home to five sleeping babies. Oh, how sweet the babies were! I would’ve taken all of them home if I had the chance. Each had its own little white crib with a bottle of milk in the corner. One of the babies was sleeping on the floor – its little head turned to the side, so its chubby little cheeks were shmushed up. I kept thinking of the insanity of couples who endure one after another failed IVF procedure, which only results in wreaking havoc on their marriage. Or the couples who pay thousands of dollars for fertility treatments, only to abort half of their “litter of fetuses” just so they can give birth to “their own” litter. And yet, here are five perfect little babies – already living on this earth – just waiting for anyone with a heart big enough to give them a chance at life. It breaks my heart.
After some final pictures of the Kim Chee and me standing in front of the orphanage, we said our good-byes and I caught a taxi back to the hotel.
My head was spinning the whole way back. Andy’s hand was holding mine tightly. He remarked, “How come there was no crying? I thought there’d be lots of crying…” But, how can I cry when I don’t fully understand what just happened? My heart was pounding in my chest and the bright sun burned my eyes. I closed them. I needed time to absorb everything.
Unfortunately, when I got back to the hotel room, I discovered that I’d lost the camera. Somehow that’s when the crying started. I felt like I’d lost everything that had just been found – that I’d undone everything that had happened at the orphanage. In a matter of seconds I went from such a high to such a low.
But after taking a few moments to collect myself and realize that all I’d lost were photos that could be retaken and images of the orphanage that I could easily get from the internet, I became calm... and then elated, once again. So many emotions.
All I wanted to do next was tell my sister and parents about the news. My parents would be asleep but my sister might be online. I went to the free WIFI café next door and saw Dawn on Skype. When I chatted with her about the news, she freaked out. OMG, she typed. OMG.
We talked about how this news changes everything, even though nothing has really happened. I’m still an adopted Korean orphan, now a 30-something adult. I’m still the beloved daughter of Pete and Linda from Minnesota. And, I still don’t know with complete certainty the truth about my birth family. But, what I’ve found is new kind of hope, which before I’d never allowed to exist.
No matter what happens in the future – whether I find any of my birth family or not, what I do know is this: I’m lucky enough to know that who I am isn’t borne from the knowledge of who gave birth to me.
Rather, I’m simply an amalgamation of experiences, memories, travels, friendships, luck, sorrows, all woven together with the love I’ve received from my family and that I share with others. A love that, someday, I hope to share with my own adopted children.