In Their Own Words

Korean adoptees talk about finding their birthparents.


Since the end of World War II, over 100,000 Korean infants and children—approximately one out of twelve Korean Americans—have been adopted into American families. While there are no statistics documenting what percentage of them have been reunited with their birth families, it’s clear that the number is growing steadily. As the oldest and largest population of transnationally adopted people in the United States, their experiences of search and reunion shed light on what the future may hold for younger generations of adoptees from China, South America, and other parts of the world.

When you grow up in a culture you can read cultural cues and subtleties. You can read a situation and you can make reasonably sound gut-level judgments about people and situations. But when you are going to a completely different culture, you have to learn everything new.

Yet if you look the same as everyone else, then they have the expectation that you will automatically click right into the language and culture and understand what’s going on and be able to read Korean people’s behavior like Koreans can. The expectations for adoptees in Korea are of course much higher than they are for complete foreigners just based on physical appearance, which is completely unfair, but they can’t tell just by looking at us that we were raised, for the most part, by white Americans.

It’s under these circumstances. . .that we are trying to re-enter contemporary Korean society and build relationships with people who are both completely foreign to us and who are also our families. Neither we nor our families are guaranteed to be people who are patient, gifted with languages, and culturally flexible, or possess the economic means, time, and lifestyle necessary to actually build a relationship over these almost insurmountable barriers. Nor are we guaranteed to be psychically strong enough to handle the extreme stressor of a reunion in our lives, especially after the adoption and separation itself takes such an emotional toll on mothers and adoptees.

—Jane Jeong Trenka, author of the memoir The Language of Blood and coeditor of Outsiders Within: Writings on Transracial Adoption

I’ve been in reunion for ten years. When I see my birthmother I’ve definitely seen the pain and the hurt a little bit less, but it still is there. And I wonder if it is still valuable for her to see me. I know she feels guilty and I know she feels shame and that it’s an awkward relationship because she knows that in some ways she failed. I’m there to let her know that everything is okay. But I also question whether or not it is helping her.

The second time I met my birth mother, I wanted to give her money. I was with a second-generation Korean American gentleman and he said, “No, you can’t do that.” And I asked, “Why not?” I didn’t have a lot—I was 25 years old—but I wanted to give something. And he said, “I can’t explain it, but you just can’t do it.” So I ended up going with him and taking my birth mother to a Korean barbeque, which is an expensive meal in Korea, and she just ate a small little bit of rice and water and didn’t touch any of the meat. And she asked, “What kind of parent am I letting you pay for this meal?” And that’s when I got it: Nobody could have explained it but just from observing her I understood that in Korea you take care of your child, even if that child is 25 or 30. That is the relationship. For me to give her money would have lowered her status as a parent. Now that I’m married it’s different and I can give because it’s like I’m a different kind of person. But one needs to be respectful of all of these cultural nuances.

—Hollee McGinnis, policy director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research and advocacy institution.

When we first met I thought, “Wow, I could have had this parallel life in Korea and it would have been a lot different.” It was the best choice for my dad to put me up for adoption. I could definitely see where he was coming from and what he thought would be the best option for me. But I don’t really dwell on it because it’s not my life. In truth you can’t regret that other life because it’s not yours. I think of both my families as one unit. I feel pretty comfortable saying, “I’m going to see my family,” but it kind of confuses people because I don’t distinguish between my Korean dad and my American dad because I see them both as my dad. They feel like one family to me. It feels like my family has grown. Really all my connections to Korea have made me a better person.

—Daniel Martig, an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota

When she was dying, my mother told one of my brothers, “You have a sister and she went to America.” But there was no context for that statement. And so when my brother asked their father—who was not my father—what she meant he just said, “I don’t know.” That happened quite some time before I found them.

[Having a relationship] is not easy because they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Korean and they live in Korea and I don’t go there very often. But certainly I’m in contact with them when I’m going to go. I have friends who are willing to be go-betweens for us and send messages back and forth. It’s not an easy relationship just in terms of logistics.

The difficulties are much less emotional because we are siblings [and not child and parent], but even so there are many. For example, I had so many questions to ask them such as, “Why was I adopted?” And they were really quite puzzled by this because other countries aren’t so open about their feelings and emotions on any level—and certainly not about something as intimate as adoption. You cannot just transfer Western culture and feel like this is the way it should be.

Susan Soon keum Cox, vice president of public policy and external affairs at Holt International in Eugene, Oregon

Adopted children whose birth parents named them deserve to carry that piece of their heritage with them, as it is one of the few parts of their birth histories they can lay claim to as part of their very own, real, authentic, true-life stories. Adoptees, such as myself, whose names were given to them by social workers, nurses, or orphanage intake workers may find that although those names don’t represent a piece of their birth histories or bloodlines, they nonetheless represent pieces of their rightful histories.

Of course others among my fellow adoptees will feel differently—perhaps ambivalent or otherwise less attached to their pre-adoptive identities, as I have at various stages of my life. But for me, today, Ji In, although not a name given to me by my umma or abeoji, is as real a part of my Korean heritage as I’ll ever have.

It reminds me that I am who I am today because of the choices made for me by other people. It represents to me the wrongs done to my umma and many, many others like her that left her with no freedom and no chance to give me a name that linked me to her or to my sisters. The fact that my Korean name is dissonant among the matching names of my three Korean sisters, whose names fit together as harmonies in a chorus, is a scar on my flesh that I bear proudly and with a sense of profound loss. We do not match, but we know why.

—Ji In, a Hawaii-based writer and editor and the author of Twice The Rice, a blog that in part explores her experience as a transnational and transracial adoptee