Dear Adoption, What Now?
I sat and watched the KTX train attendant roll a coffee cart down the aisle as she looked around at the passengers. I looked around and noted the various business men and women sitting in the train car on their way to Seoul. They were going about their daily routines and I wondered where they were going and for what purpose? Purpose. Did I have a purpose? 48 hours ago I thought I had a purpose. I knew who I was and what I wanted out of my life. But now…I wasn’t sure. What now? What do you do when everything you’ve dreamed of has come true? Where do you go from there?
29 years ago, my birth mother made the decision to give me a better life than what she thought she could offer. I was born as Min Deul Rye (민들레), only to be renamed K87-2513 when my mother relinquished me to the adoption agency. A few months later I was put on a plane to Honolulu, Hawaii, where I was renamed again and lived with my new family.
I grew up knowing I was adopted, especially since I looked nothing like my adopted mother. I didn’t think much about it, but I did grow up wondering about my birth mother every so often – what she looked like, if we had similar personalities, if she ever thought about me, would I have had a better life with her, did she have a better life without me, did she love me? While I knew these were questions I may never know the answers to, they always stuck with me, and in the quiet moments I had, or when I saw a mother and daughter laughing together, those thoughts would make their way to the forefront of my mind and leave me with an unexplained longing.
My adopted parents loved me the best way they knew how and did the best they could. I went to a great school and had every opportunity anyone could ever dream of, but there was always something missing – a shadow that hung around my shoulders, always weighing me down, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I went through years of therapy, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication, investing in the wrong relationships, always seeking approval from others and hoping I was “enough,” trying anything and everything to fill the loneliness and inadequacy I had felt, hoping that I’d just “grow out of it.” But in reality, all of these things were just square pegs I was trying to fit into a circle of a void. How could I move past this? How could I continue on with my life? What now?
I did go on with my life. I went to college, graduated, got a job, and got married, thinking that I should just be thankful for everything I had. I had learned to put my feelings aside and bury them. Crying helped no one and wasn’t productive. I had learned to be strong. Or what I thought was strong. But maybe it was just the walls I put up around me that were strong.
Shortly after my 28th birthday, I had managed to get a hold of my adoption file from my adopted mother, thinking maybe I would find some sort of validation now that I had it. The only thing that I had obtained was curiosity. I had never been so interested in my adoption. I reached out to the adoption agency almost a year later in hopes of satiating the growing curiosity I had about my birth mother. I had little hope of a response and expected no outcome as others had told me the search would take months or even years, if it even yielded any results. My initial request to the agency went unanswered for 42 days. 20 days later, I received the email that they found my birth mother. I wasn’t ready.
I was encouraged to write a letter to her to tell her about myself. We exchanged letters and a few photos, and she provided me with my birth sister’s email address, which started a chain of communication between my sister who speaks very little English and myself, who speaks very little Korean. Before I could go any further, I decided to do a DNA test to confirm our genetic match. Once it came back positive, I made the decision to meet my mother and sister. In 3 months, I’d finally meet them face-to-face.
I felt no anxiety in the weeks and months leading up to my trip. I felt good, in fact. Things in other parts of my life were lining up and I had very few worries. The 3 months passed quickly, and the flight to Busan was easy. We were scheduled to meet the following day at 5:00pm. I woke up on that day feeling no different and spent the day strolling through Gwangbok-dong and Gukje Market.
At 4:36pm I heard my Kakao notification. My birth sister. “We are near coffee shop. Heart beat…” I had arranged to meet my birth mother, her new husband, my birth sister, her husband, and her son in one of the hotel’s conference rooms to be away from the prying eyes and ears of hotel workers and strangers. As I sat in the conference room, I looked around – water bottles and cups had been set out. There was a tissue box on a counter against the far wall. I made sure to move it onto the table and sat facing the door and waited. All of the composure I had maintained for the last five months had all of a sudden abandoned me. My entire world had finally come to a screeching halt. I panicked. What was I doing? Why was I doing this? There was nothing wrong with the life I was living. I started to hyperventilate. I realized in that moment that was the biggest thing to happen in my life. A culmination of almost 30 years. I felt a wetness on my cheeks. Tears. I wanted to run.
I heard voices outside the door. I stopped breathing. A hotel worker opened the door. My sister’s son walked in first, holding my sister’s hand. I looked at my sister. Looking at her was like looking into a future mirror with a different haircut. It was eerie. A man entered next – my sister’s husband. Then her. My mother. She looked different than the picture she sent to me. Her hair was shorter, she looked older. I sat in my chair and awkwardly waved. I mentally slapped myself – so much for a first impression. The hotel worker looked uncomfortable so she slipped out of the room and closed the door. My mother walked toward me. I stood from my chair. She looked at me and began to cry. She immediately hugged me and sobbed into my shoulder. I froze – it was so awkward. She continued to sob, “mianhae…Aigoo, mianhae.” She was sorry. She kept saying it over and over. Something in me broke. I started to cry and I hugged her back. We stood like that for what seemed like an eternity. When I finally pulled away from her she told me again, “mianhae.” “Gwaenchanhayo,” I told her. It’s okay. I realize I must sound ridiculous with my terrible Korean. “Aigoo…gwaenchanah?” My mother slapped my arm lightly as she looked at me and frowned. She reached up and removed the necklace from around her neck. I know she said something in Korean, but all I heard was, “Omma give to you.” She put it around my neck. “Omma, ani…” I objected to the gift. She ignored me and continued fastening it around my neck. She looked at her handy work and nodded, satisfied. How could I tell her I was allergic to gold? I didn’t. I reached up and touched it around my neck – her first gift to me. I teared up. What was happening to me?
After lots of awkward staring at each other and broken Konglish conversation with translator apps, we went to dinner. Thank goodness for food. Little talking was required as my mother continued to encourage me to “mahni mogo,” until I couldn’t eat anymore. We said goodnight and my mother hugged me again. “Saranghae,” she said. I stared at her. Did she just tell me she loved me? I didn’t know how to respond. What now?
My family wanted to spend the next day together and I agreed. We spent the day sightseeing and drinking coffee. It all felt so easy and so natural compared to how I felt with my adopted family, where everything felt forced. I felt relaxed and elated. I finally felt like I fit in. People walked past us and knew we were family. A mother and her two daughters. Is this what family felt like?
The day passed quickly and as we finally parted ways, I broke down. Was this it? When would I see them again? We had finally reconnected and I felt like we were being ripped apart and I was leaving a part of my heart with her. Would I ever be whole again? I cried as I hugged my mother. I told her I loved her, “saranaghae, omma.” She nodded and I hugged my sister and my mother’s husband. “Uljima. Appa saranaghae,” my mother’s husband told me. Don’t cry, Dad loves you. I cried harder. In less than 24 hours I had gained a mother and a father. Our goodbyes were rushed as the hotel valets ushered my family to leave. I walked through the hotel lobby trying to keep it together. As soon as I got into the elevator and the doors closed, I sank down into the corner and sobbed harder than I think I ever had in my entire life. What now?
As the train from Busan continued on its way toward Seoul I couldn’t stop crying. I thought back on the last 29 years of my life and how quickly things had changed. I realized I felt whole. The emptiness and longing was no longer a part of me. I loved and felt loved. How was it possible to love someone I had just met, to feel that instant connection? And how was it possible for someone to love me that much? I looked out the window and watched the scenery change as the train hurried on its way. In a matter of 48 hours my life was now entirely different. Even though nothing had changed, everything had changed. Everything was different, I was different. I am different.
Where do I go from here?