Disclaimer: Every adoptee’s story and journey is unique. Adoptions, especially international ones, are complicated and consist of many moving parts that move differently or not at all depending upon the parties involved. Although this is how my journey unfolded and its timeline, please know that this is not true for everyone.
Additionally, when I set out to write this post, there was so much I wanted to include but didn’t–namely personal feelings, my adoptive parents’ reactions and roles, more specifics about my birth mother, etc. Since the mere telling of the process of finding my birth mother resulted in this long post, I will be recording and posting a follow up video that addresses some of those things as well as any other questions. If you have a question that you’d like me to answer, comment it on this post or comment on my Instagram post for this blog entry using my handle: Becoming_boulder.
In order to fully understand how this particular journey to find my birth mom all came about, you need to know that this all began in June of 2020.
Following the horrific and criminal deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, I found myself deeply immersed in analyzing my own race, my positionality, privilege, and role in the world. In this reflecting, I was really struggling and having a difficult time because I felt hopelessly pulled between my two identities: Asian and adopted.
I was deeply triggered by many of the conversations happening around me and found it difficult to know from where to engage because of complicated feelings around my own race and adoption.
The result of all this tension, anxiety, and immobility was to retreat into myself and finally commit to having the tough conversations and finding the answers to my own story that I had put off for so long.
When I was back in late elementary school, I remember really wanting to know more about my birth mother. I was bullied horribly, and the insecurities that caused made me want to know more about where I came from. I think I wanted a place to put my feelings: something or someone to blame, aside from myself, for why I was so belittled by peers and teachers.
I remember that my parents kept a box, way high up on a shelf in the office closet. In that box was all I had from my life in Korea. There was a copy of my Korean birth certificate, some pictures of my back when I was a few months old to document “Mongolian spots,” a picture of me and Mrs. Jin, my foster mom whom I lived with until I was six months old, and a small packet of papers that contained minimal information about my birth parents, along with letters from the Eastern Child Welfare Society and Parsons Adoption Agency.
At the time (this was circa 1998-1999), there were restrictions on adoptees being able to locate their birth parents. Both my adoptive parents and I were under the impression that a search would not be possible because records were closed and sealed for the protection of the birth mother and her family (having children out of wedlock like my mother did was highly frowned upon). And so, we never pursued a search.
Since then, until this past June, I had put it out of my mind and dismissed the idea under the thought that such a search would be impossible. I knew of people who tried to look for their birth parents and were unsuccessful –those searches only resulting in heartache and even more feelings.
I honestly don’t know what compelled me to dive down the rabbit hole on June 3, 2020 to see what would happen. I think part of it was just desperation and exhaustion from feeling like I was going to explode from all the conflicting emotions I was feeling regarding being a Korean-adoptee in the midst of all that was going on in the world.
And so, I typed “Eastern Child Welfare Society” (ECWS) into Google, browsed the tabs until I found “post adoption services,” and sent an email.
Since I still believed it would be basically impossible to locate any of my birth family, in my initial email I merely gave some background about the year I was adopted, the agencies, and I said that I was interested in trying to track down any records from either country pertaining to my adoption. I had heard from some other adoptees in the past that they found out some records had been falsified or “lost” to allow them to be adopted by US citizens despite the children having other family members being willing to care for them. I was curious if this was the case for me.
ECWS responded to my email and recommended that I go through Parsons Adoption Agency, as they were the domestic agency that processed my adoption, and they gave me the contact information for a woman named, Suzanne, whom I contacted immediately.
Suzanne got back to me by the next day with all of the forms I needed to fill out to begin my search. These forms basically asked for as much information regarding your adoption as possible (names, places, dates, etc.) and also asked questions to pinpoint and clarify exactly what information you were seeking and how you would like the information delivered to you since confidentiality is important. I also needed to submit a copy of my passport and sign a permission to release information.
In addition to the formal paperwork, Suzanne mentioned that the agency likes adoptees to write a letter to the birth mother and include pictures. She said that the letter could be as general or specific as I’d like, but that the letters often helped to initially open the lines of communication should the birth mother be found.
I wrote a letter about a page long, introducing myself. I included a little bit about how I grew up, some of my accomplishments, what I was doing with my life now, and some pictures from milestones such as graduations and my wedding.
After I sent along all of the information, I took a deep breath, closed my computer, and walked away.
I didn’t really expect anything to come of it, and at the very least I expected to wait at least six months to a year before receiving any word. I knew that the process was complicated, plus with both countries being in the middle of COVID, I imagined that things would move at a snail’s pace.
Well, they didn’t quite move that slowly because exactly a month later, I got another email from Suzanne. She heard back from ECWS on the Korean side and gave me the information they passed along.
Although it was sparse, the info included my mother’s blood type, and her location at the time of my adoption.
They said that the contact number for my foster mother was unavailable and that it was not possible to find my birth father because my mother had not left any of his information at the time of my birth.
What piqued my interest the most was the fact that they said they did locate the address of my birth mother through the National Center for the Rights of the Child, and they sent her a certified mail which was returned to them because the carrier “visited the address twice but didn’t meet anyone and no one contacted the post office for a certain period of time.” They ended by saying that they sent another certified mail to her again.
Once again assuming that this was the end of the road, either permanently or for quite some time, I held on to the little information that I did have, and tried to go about life. I felt rather numb to it all. I think that I didn’t want to get too excited, but I also wasn’t too disappointed that there wasn’t much to go on since that was really what I set my expectations for in the beginning.
However, a little less than a month later, Suzanne emailed once again with more information from ECWS. They were successful with the second certified letter that they sent.
Suzanne had copied the ECWS email message and it contained a very brief and choppy anecdote about my birth mother and her story.
For such a short bit of text (merely five sentences), it weighed about a thousand pounds emotionally. It told of multiple marriages, lost children, a car accident, domestic abuse, half siblings, and a familial history of depression (this answered one of my specific questions that I put on my initial forms). I will not get into too many of the exact details here because it is my birth mother’s story, not mine, to tell, but learning of all that tragedy in less than one hundred words was a lot. Most importantly though, was the last sentence; it said my birth mother was open to communicating with me.
Because the letter from ECWS was a little hard to follow, I sent Suzanne some follow up questions which she passed along.
I wanted to know if my birth mother or any of her other current family members spoke English. I also wanted to know which of the several men mentioned in the previous email was my birth father. Learning that she was remarried with children now, I additionally wanted to know if her current family knew about me and that I was placed for adoption.
In mid-August I received the most important email from Suzanne. In it contained a photocopied, handwritten letter from my birth mom, along with some photographs. While I couldn’t immediately read the letter because it was written in Korean (I don’t speak/read Korean and apparently none of my family in Korea knows English either), but I could open the pictures.
I will never forget the moment that I first saw her face. I did not expect to be hit with the wave of emotion that I was when I could finally put not only a face to a name, but a face to my face. The very first picture I opened was the one below, and I immediately started sobbing on the floor while staring at my laptop. My husband was in the den working, and I texted him with, “When you get a break from your next meeting, I need you.”
He almost immediately came running in, asking an alarmed, “What is it!?” upon seeing me crying in a ball. All I could do in that moment was turn the laptop screen to face him and say, “This is my birth mom.”