Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Full Circle—Korean adoptees returning to Korea

Seoul, South Korea at Nightime.

Full Circle—Korean adoptees returning to Korea to adopt their own children are rediscovering the joy of their own experience
By Laura L, assistant editor

Lenee and her daughter, Nicole, sit in the morning sunshine outside Holt’s office in Eugene, Ore., for a quick photo shoot. Shutters click and flashes pop, as the proud mother looks down at her daughter. Their intimacy is obvious.

The two snuggle and laugh, hardly aware of the cameras. To many Western eyes, they appear to be related by birth, but this mother and daughter share something else—adoption. It’s not known just how many adoptees like Lenee have adopted children like Nicole—but while the numbers aren’t large, they are significant in reaffirming the value of adoption. Recently I spoke with four Holt adoptees to learn about their experiences in becoming adoptive parents.

You can hear the excitement in Tami’s voice as she ticks off her son’s name:“David N__ Minkyu. David, and that’s after David of the Old Testament and David Kim [Holt’s President Emeritus who helped guide Holt since Holt’s inception in Korea]. N__, and that is after my grandparents, my mom’s parents.… And Minkyu, that is his Korean name. And then our last name. So he has something from all sides of the family.”

So far, Tami and her husband Scott have only seen photos of David. He will be their first child, and Tami can’t wait. It turns out she doesn’t have to; a few weeks after we talk she calls to say they have just gotten travel permission. Scott and Tami left for Korea a week later and arrived home with David on Aug. 16.

Tami, who was adopted at 11 months of age in 1959, always wanted to adopt. “I pictured adoption as just another way of creating a family,” she says. Her parents had two birth daughters, aged 16 and 17, when they adopted Tami and her older brother from Korea. “I truly think they were not ready to finish parenting at that time.” Tami didn’t tend to notice she was different from her sisters or parents until someone pointed it out. Her parents were ahead of their time, she asserts, and they took her to Holt picnics and were very open with her about her adoption.

Theirs is a close family, and Tami’s siblings were “ecstatic” when they learned that she and Scott were going to adopt. At a family reunion she recounts a stunned silence initially and then pandemonium. “Everybody in tears and screaming and hollering and yelling. They were just excited about it. I think it’s also affirming to my parents… because it says that they made the right choice. And that we think they made the right choice.”

Coming to that choice was natural for Tami. At 19, she went on one of Holt’s earliest Motherland Tours in 1977. “In retrospect I would say that it was the turning point in my life. That it really helped me understand where I came from and to understand more about Korean culture and society and be able to embrace that part of me.” Embrace it she did, becoming for awhile a Holt social worker, counseling other families about their adoptions, and directing Holt’s Heritage Camp for several years.

Tami says that Scott wasn’t ready to adopt after their marriage. At David Kim’s 70th birthday party last September, however, Scott was so moved by the speeches about David’s contribution to the lives of children that he abruptly changed his mind. “And my husband said, ‘You know, I’m being really selfish… I think we need to adopt.’ Of course you could have pushed me over with a feather.” They started the process immediately and got their referral in June.

As a social worker previously and someone involved in adoptee activities, Tami has thought about the ramifications of being an adoptee adoptive parent.

“I want David to grow up with a good sense of self and of his birth parents. That he would understand and appreciate the sacrifices that his birth parents are making by choosing adoption for him. To understand that choosing adoption is not a throw-away or a give-up sort of situation but a choice that truly is made out of love. I want him to have a sense of pride and attachment to his Korean heritage. I think that’s important, that he not necessarily wallow in it or embrace it fully but that he understand that it is a part of him, and that it’s a good part of him. I want him to understand that in any situation he goes into that he’s loved. Because my family did that for me.”

Tami also describes how the bond between them will be unique. “I think that’s an advantage that I will have as an adoptee adopting, that I can truly say to my son, ‘I understand.’ …I understand what it’s like to question and wonder about birth parents, and that sort of thing, and what it’s like growing up not looking like your parents. I’ll have credibility in his eyes.”

Lee would probably agree to that, but he’s having too much fun being a dad to think about it. Since he traveled to Korea with his wife in November 2001 to receive their daughter Susan, he’s pretty much been over the moon. “Excited,” “unbelievable,” and “wonderful” are words that keep coming up in our conversation.

A few days after we speak Susan’s adoption becomes final, so she has been home for six months exactly. As Lee reflects on his motivations for adopting, the same thoughts come through that I heard from Tami. “In my mind it was almost automatic. It was just kind of an inherent fact that I was going to adopt when I got married.”

Lee’s road toward marriage and family came just a bit differently than most. He was adopted at age 8 in 1975 from Holt’s Ilsan Center in Korea. He remembers when he was told about his adoptive family vividly.

“Oh yeah. I remember that day, because we walked past the school with some of my friends, and somebody told me that I was going to be going to America. When I saw the picture of my family, of course I was excited,” he laughs. “I think I remember running around the orphanage!”

Lee had been waiting a long time for a family and still has memories of Ilsan and Korea. After he was adopted he participated in Heritage Camp, where he met Holt Vice-President Susan Soon-keum Cox, also a Holt adoptee. She told him that he could go back to Ilsan and volunteer, and that’s exactly what he did in 1988 and then again in 1993. On his second stint he met a beautiful young Korean housemother who worked at Ilsan. Needless to say, they later married.

Back in 1994 as a doctor doing his residency, Lee could not yet afford to think about children, but when he and his wife finally decided to try, they could not conceive. Lee sees it as a bit of fate. “And you can say, ‘Oh my gosh, you can’t have your own biological children.’ I don’t think it was a mishap. I think it was something that was just given to be. I knew that I was going to adopt, and it was just something that was going to be a part of my life.” Because his wife was familiar with Holt, she didn’t need to be persuaded. Late summer 2000 Lee and his wife submitted their application. Last November the call came, and they picked up Susan, whom Lee named after a woman who greatly influenced his life—his elementary school teacher. Shortly after he first came to the United States some 25 years ago she was the one who encouraged him to follow his dreams. “It’s really a tribute to her; that’s how much of an influence she had on me,” he says.

When he was in Korea picking up Susan, Lee noticed that the memories of his own adoption came back, but they were overpowered by the emotions of having a new life placed in his hands. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It was just such an emotional experience for me to see her. We had been waiting so long. Just to be able to see her, it’s so hard to define that moment.” Susan’s foster mother was thrilled that her little girl would be living with Korean parents who would teach her Korean culture and language, and the family spent several weeks in Korea, taking the baby to his wife’s parents’ house as well.

The bond he shares with his daughter does not go unnoticed. “Being orphaned, which I clearly remembered, and being adopted into a family and coming to America, God has provided me such an opportunity that I would have never had. Now just being able to become a father of my own daughter who is adopted is just kind of unbelievable….” He says that although he doesn’t think of her as his “adopted” daughter, he does understand that she’s going to have the same questions and concerns. But for now he’s just enjoying the moment.

“Sometimes I feel, and it’s kind of a coined phrase, that it’s just meant to be. In my heart I just know it and am thankful for the opportunity to have her as our daughter.”

Rachael is still waiting for her opportunity. This mother of two was adopted in March 1974 when she was only 6 and a half months old. Rachael’s parents had one birth child, Mandi, and built the rest through adoption—her sister Jodi is from Vietnam and her brother Brandon from Korea. Adoption simply felt normal as she grew up, and it helped her to have siblings who were also adopted. “I knew I was loved,” she says.

In high school Rachael decided that she wanted to adopt a child of her own. Again, it was a natural instinct: “I saw the blessings of adoption in my family, and I felt it was a way to give back to my country.” Specifically Rachael and her husband felt called to adopt earlier this year. For five months they prayed about it, but one day she came home from Bible study and said that “if this is something that God calls us to do, we can’t ignore it.” In just a few days they applied and are currently awaiting a referral from Korea.

The parents’ excitement extends to Rachael’s children, Adrienne, 2 1/2, and Caleb, 4 1/2. “Whenever [Caleb] hears a plane outside, he asks if that plane is bringing our Korean baby in it.” While Rachael’s children are her only known genetic relatives, and that is a very special relationship for her, she doesn’t see any conflict in adding a child who is not hers by birth. “I have a feeling that it will be an amazing bonding experience when I go to Korea to get the baby.”

It will be Rachael’s first trip to Korea since her adoption, and the experience of adopting has brought up some emotions from her own experience. “Since we decided to adopt I have contacted Holt’s Post Adoption Services and asked for my adoption file,” she says. It’s just curiosity for now, she notes, saying she has no plans to search for her birth family.

But she has given a lot of thought to adoption lately because she’s been a presenter at Holt’s Parents in Progress meetings—educational sessions required of families adopting through a Holt branch office. Because Holt holds only a few classes in her rural section of eastern Oregon, Rachael has had to be both presenter and listener.

“It was an emotional time for me,” she says. Rachael felt a bit pulled in both directions, as an adoptee presenting her story and as a prospective adoptive parent. She got asked a lot of questions by other parents and had to bring up sensitive issues. “It’s hard, too, because everyone’s adoption story is unique.”

Despite this fact, Rachael thinks she knows some of the feelings that could come up with her child, and she also has some priorities for how to raise him or her. “I would really want to put a sense of pride in their country and culture,” she says. “I think that’s really important.” Rachael also understands that their shared experiences will bring her and her child closer. “Being a child who was abandoned myself, I would have that bond with my child.”

Back at Holt’s office, with the photo shoot done, Lenee starts off with her own adoption story.

Like Rachael, Lenee presents at the Parents in Progress meetings and gets asked all the time about growing up adopted. “They ask you to talk about your adoption experience,” she says. “But I say, ‘I don’t really have one.’” For her the experience was completely normal, and in fact she recently commented to one of her best friends since first grade that she never once remembers being teased about being adopted. The first time she encountered people thinking her adoption was strange was in college.

“When guys would ask me out and then come pick me up, I’d say, ‘This is my mom and dad.’” She pauses for effect to imitate their nervous response: “‘Oh. Nice to meet you.’ Then you’d walk out and say ‘adopted, blah, blah, blah. Okay, let’s just move on.’” Her lighthearted retelling of events illustrates Lenee’s ease in talking about adoption. She seems constantly happy.

Adoption, of course, came up when she met her husband on a blind date. Talking for hours, they came to the topic of building a family. “I just said that since I was adopted and fortunate enough versus the life that I could be leading or not have at all, I would like to give that opportunity to another child. And he was completely open to this and was probably more insistent than I was….”

After the birth of their first child, Lenee and her husband experienced an unexplained second infertility, and so she started to consider not having more children. Her son was going into first grade and diapers were a distant memory. “And my husband just kept saying, ‘Look, if you found out tomorrow that you were pregnant, would you be happy?’ And I said yes. And he said, ‘Well, why is that different than going out and adopting?’” After some further consideration, she decided that, yes, she did want more kids and that she wanted to adopt.

Now, nearly four years after bringing Nicole home from Korea and having another birth child, Lenee remembers one thing that seemed odd when she told people she was going to adopt. Friends would say, “‘Oh, that’s such a wonderful thing you’re doing,’” or “‘Oh, don’t you feel so fortunate to have been adopted,’” she says and then pauses. “While you do [feel fortunate] and everything, you don’t necessarily want that whole charity feeling.”

When others asked her why she wanted to adopt, she felt tempted to answer back, “Well, why don’t you?” For her it was normal, automatic, natural, no big deal.

Lenee credits her parents for giving her a good “base,” as she calls it, for feeling so comfortable with herself. Her older brother, also adopted from Korea, “doesn’t quite feel that way,” as she says, and “I’m not sure where we miss our link.” One benefit of that dichotomy is that Nicole will have different adult adoptee role models to query and identify with. Lenee also thinks it’s important for Nicole to see her interact with the adult adoptee group in Portland. “She’s gonna see that, for lack of a better phrase, that we’re not a science project in that sense. ‘Look, we’ll turn out okay.’”

The one thing Lenee knows is unique about Nicole’s adoption is that because Nicole and she are both Korean, not everyone will know Nicole is adopted. While her husband is Caucasian, and does get the occasional stares when he takes Nicole to the supermarket, people think Nicole looks like her. “Which I don’t think she does,” Lenee laughs.

I ask her if she thinks Nicole will have different issues to deal with. “I think so, but I’m not quite sure what they’ll be just yet. I think a lot of it will be just in… how it looks. She’ll have to explain it a little more or something. With me I didn’t ever have to, it was just ‘Oh, I’m adopted.’”

Like Rachael, Lenee knows that having birth children can be very special for many adult adoptees because for the first time they have someone who looks like them, someone they are related to genetically.

“Right after I had Matthew—it was like, wow, this is me. And then you think, wow, I can’t imagine giving this up. So that throws you back, as far as a big sacrifice that went through your biological mom’s mind…. You think, ‘That’s a huge step.’ With Nicole, though, at the same time, even though she’s handed to you and not in your tummy and all that, there is the whole responsibility factor. I mean, they just hand you this baby and say, ‘Well, this is yours, good luck.’ And you go, ‘wow.’”

Lenee asked her husband if the experience was different for him because he got to see his other children born but didn’t go to Korea to get Nicole. He said, no, it was the same because all parents have an equal responsibility to all their children.

Lenee’s husband’s point is well taken—all children are the same in the eyes of loving parents. But after talking with these four adult adoptees who have traveled back in their hearts and minds to their birth country to adopt children themselves, it seems there is something special here. Something echoed by Tami, Lee, and Rachael, but something Lenee hits right on the mark.

“It’s kind of a full circle thing.”

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