My name is Jennifer and I was adopted by an American family from South Korea when I was 3 years old. My parents were up front about me being adopted. It was pretty obvious that something was different because I didn’t look anything like them. Being 3 years old I spoke Korean and I didn’t speak any English upon coming to the United States. My parents were told by the adoption agency that I was with a foster mom and that she had a couple sons that I hung out with. Beyond that, though, they were given very little information. My first memory growing up was getting lost at a family camp in the U.S. when I was 3 years old. That was my first memory ever – it seemed as if all the other memories of Korea weren’t there anymore.
The first time I returned to South Korea was right after I graduated college in 2000. I went back for two months to participate on a tour for adoptees called the ‘Motherland Tour’ through Holt International adoption services. At that time I was living in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I was trying to decide what to do after college. I left in June and flew out with about 40 other Korean adoptees to do the Motherland Tour. I remember stepping off the plane and having hundreds of people in front of me that looked like me, that had black hair – it was like a sea of black hair. Back then I was also pretty tall in comparison to many of the people. It was a two-week tour and we went to see all the major sites and we also went to see the adoption agency. We went from Seoul to Kyeong-ju to Taegu and then to Pusan, and then to Jeju-do. It was really eye-opening because most of us couldn’t even use chopsticks. We would eat a lot of bulgogi (a beef noodle dish) and other things that weren’t very spicy and we could digest okay. Most of us hadn’t had Korean food until that point. It was just all completely new to me. I think that it was a lot to take in because it was a culture that I was completely unfamiliar with. I looked Korean, of course, but I couldn’t speak the language and people would ask me, “Why can’t you speak Korean?” or, “Where are you from?”- they just couldn’t place how I looked Korean but didn’t know the language or didn’t know the customs.
Everyone else who was on the Motherland Tour went back to the U.S. except for me. I stayed and I taught English at a missionary training institute. Being there was pretty neat because it was a real glimpse into Korean culture, much more so than I had had on the tour. After that, I went to work at a family camp (which was also in Seoul). We didn’t speak the language and weren’t totally familiar with the customs but were still able to do a multitude of things. For me, I think, in this environment, was the first time I had delved into who I was. Because for so long, being in a Dutch, Christian Reformed environment (where I grew up in Michigan) where I was told again and again, “If you’re not Dutch you’re not much” and having had a white family, being the only one that was adopted – it was very confusing. I would actually forget that I was Korean until I looked in the mirror and it would almost startle me. So being Korean adopted I had no idea what that necessarily meant. I understood what it meant to be adopted because there were other adoptees where I grew up.
I have been back to South Korea a total of four times over the span of 13 years. When I went back in 2000 I got to meet my foster mom and I spent some time with her. I went to her house to try to figure out if I remembered anything – where I used to sleep, where I went, the neighborhood – but none of it was coming back to me. I went back again in 2006 and wanted to have a completely different experience of Korea. I took a crash course in Korean language at the University of Washington because I wanted to come prepared. When I got to Korea I attended an adoptee immersion program at Kimhae University called the Inje Program. I also was working on finding my birth family during my four months in Korea. For my birth search I went back to Holt (the adoption agency) to look at my file again and they were like, “Oh, did we not tell you that actually you were adopted twice. So this is your whole story. I thought we told you this.” It was news to my American parents and it was shocking to me. While I realized that this wasn’t that uncommon it was still quite frustrating. I felt like it explained a lot more about myself and how things that happen when you are a child can have an effect for the rest of your life. I was put in an orphanage, adopted by a Korean family for a couple years, then sent to another agency, then foster care and lastly adopted by an American family in Michigan.
I continued by birth search and was invited on a TV show that wanted to do a special on an adoptee looking for their birth family. The TV crew came with me when Social Welfare Society (another adoption agency) took me to my orphanage. I was sitting there and I was looking through a stack of photos and found a baby picture of myself. I had never seen a baby picture of myself so I was like, “Wow that looks just like me.” I could have picked it out of anywhere. It was crazy because I’ve only seen myself as a 3 year-old – the one that Holt had taken and given to my American parents. I was kind of a mug shot, my hair was sticking up, I had a number, and it was black and white, and I looked really sad.
After that I decided that I was going to go on national TV on KBS on a show called ‘Achim-ma-tang’- it’s a reunion show where they have Koreans who find relatives who were lost during the Korean War. At the very end of the show they have an adoptee. After the show I went to leave my DNA sample for the station so if anyone called in and said, “I’m a relative” then they would check both of our DNAs to see if we were related. Later on, when I was back in the US, they had contacted me saying, “Oh you have someone that came forward so we need some more DNA” (because I guess they had lost it). And so I sent in a hair sample but, unfortunately, I never heard anything back.
My inspiration for going back to Korea was really trying to explore my identity. I didn’t really know what the Korean piece of myself meant. And so, having gone there and seeing Korea from very different angles and environment and situations and really getting to know Korean people and getting involved in the culture – I felt that that helped a lot to figure out, ‘What does it mean to be Korean?,’ ‘Why are they the way that they are?,’ ‘ Why has adoption happened?’ I think to kind of figure out ‘who I am’ was a very big piece of that. Also of significance was coming to peace with the fact that I was adopted.
I have been back as recently as 2007 and 2013, and I felt pretty at peace with the fact that I had made a full effort in finding my birth family. I think going there takes so much out of me emotionally, physically, mentally – so I actually felt that after going back this last time that I never want to come back unless I met my birth family or I bring my child someday because they will be half Korean. I felt pretty done. But then hearing my friends talk about how the way they went about their search and how much information they found has been inspiring. Through this, I think I realized that my search isn’t completely over and I thought it was. I realized that I didn’t go to an agency with a Korean native for them to look at the file. And I haven’t gone to the police station because I was told that records aren’t kept more than a few years. So now I’m trying to figure out what I can do from the U.S. to find out more.
For individuals who are considering going back to Korea, there are definitely a number of tour groups they can use. I would recommend starting this way as I feel it’s an easier way to see the country in a quick snapshot. If individuals are interested in doing a birth search there are a number of organizations that one can go through. I would also recommend trying to connect with the Korean community or other Korean students that will go back to Korea and you can meet up with when you are in Korea. I think seeing and experiencing the country through the eyes of someone that lives there day in and day out is a great way to go.