Navigating Loss on a Journey Toward Hope

Thanks to Hannah, Lauren, and the team at Kindred + Co. for allowing me to share part of my story with their community. Here’s what I wrote.

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It was 2008, “Are you adopted? I’m going on air to find my birth-mom. They’ll show my video in Korea during commercials, I hope she sees it.”

I was in my mid-twenties, taken aback when my new manager, his first day on the job, began telling me his adoption story.

I had so many questions.

Who are they? Is this a television station? And why would you want to find your birth-mom? And how did you know I was adopted?

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Sometimes, the mere act of listening to someone tell their story has the power to awaken your own.

A few weeks later I was visiting my parents, “Do you still have my adoption information?”

“Yeah, I think so.” My mom walked over to the room where they’ve always kept their important documents.

It’s a dimly lit space at the heart of my parents’ Wisconsin home. There’s an antique desk, an old typewriter, wooden file cabinets, family picture albums, my dad’s hunting rifles and all of my brother’s favorite board games.

I step back in time when I enter this 70s-style “office.” To me it feels like an organized version of the attic from The Goonies.

I was at the dining room table when my mom reappeared with a manila folder. Inside was an intake packet with a case number, a birthday card from my 2nd foster mother, and an aged sepia-tinted brochure from Eastern Child Welfare.

“Is this what you’re looking for?”

“Umm I guess. Thanks.”

It feels like ages ago when I began the infamous “birth-search.” Yet, I wonder if my search began much sooner?

My parents tell me about how I ran back onto the airplane screaming, “Omma!” [Korean word for “mommy”] at O’Hare airport upon seeing them for the first time. I was 3.5 years old.

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Hours later my dad would do his best to help me in the restroom, and accidentally drop me in the toilet. It could only get better from here, right?

I received my manila folder with gratitude and got to work.

“This will take some time and there’s no guarantee,” an email from Eastern Child Welfare reminded me. A couple emails back and forth. What else is there to do but wait?

The next couple of years were uneventful.

It was Spring 2010 when, upon learning about my adoption story, a friend from a local church asked if I’d be available to serve as a summer counselor for a Korean adoptee camp in Minnesota.

I’d been a camp counselor before, but this was my first time hearing about an “adoptee” camp.

I had spent those previous years growing into my identity as a Korean American, with my birth search quietly running in the background; the process buffering as I shifted my focus to new windows and opportunities. As a person discovering his adoption story, the camp seemed like a logical next step, to connect with and serve others who might be on a similar path. I had no idea where it would take me. Yet, I felt compelled to go deeper and trust it would be folded into something true and good.

Fast forward two years, December 2012. I’m now sitting on a flight to Seoul. First time “back” since my adoption placement in 1985. It’s a 13-14 hour flight, so I had plenty of time to think about and reflect on what was happening. I thought back to a particular message I received from Eastern Child Welfare:

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“Yes, please continue.” I replied. Struck by that new possibility, excited at the resurrected hope I could actually meet my birth family. From that first summer as a camp counselor as well as subsequent volunteering at “culture” days, group discussions, student org. events and other adoptee camps, I had heard so many stories about reunions and “homeland” journeys. I wondered, could I imagine this for myself? Should I imagine this for myself?

What if the candidate isn’t the right person? What if she is? Do we look alike? Do I have siblings? Do I have other family members? Are they still alive? What kinds of questions will they ask me? Am I allowed to ask them questions? Will they tell me the “real story”? What will they think about me, the life I have now, the decisions I’ve made, and the person I am today…? Will I feel less lonely? Will there be a finale to the ache in my heart for belonging, for closure, for self-discovery?

Turbulence is no problem for me. When the bell dings, the seat-belt-fastened sign lights up and I typically just keep watching the movie. On this trip, though, I could hardly sit still, marveling at all the moving pieces that would be taking place in a meeting like this, the people involved, their stakes, the fears and worries, the pain and excitement, loss and grief revisited, new beginnings to imagine. I had a feeling a lot could go wrong, but maybe a lot could go right?

It’s such a long flight. I started to journal my thoughts. How I felt when I received a more recent email notifying me that my uncle was located. I was stunned. Like, I’ve heard about it. I’ve read about it. I’ve seen it in movies. But are you telling me now I‘m actually going through this birth search thing?

We had kept emailing back and forth.

Finally, it was indicated they located In-Sook Cho, my mom. My birth mom. No longer a candidate. My biological mother. She’s alive? She exists!! She has a name! Which, of course I already knew from the manila folder my mom gave me.

She wants to meet me? Let’s do this.

My close friend happened to be living in Seoul. I let him know about my recent search/discovery and he told me his place was open anytime. Passport. Super sized my hours at work. Paid for my plane tickets. Finished the semester (I was on the home stretch of my undergrad degree), celebrated Christmas day with my family and caught a late-night bus to O’Hare airport from Madison, Wisconsin.

Landing in Seoul felt like a dream. Like, is-this-really-happening-I-can’t-believe-it kind of vibe. I mean, you’ve heard it so many times, the foreigner feeling in your hometown. I had that, but I think the prevailing emotion for me at that time was wonder.

It’s so hard to describe this feeling. I brought two semesters of Korean language study into this moment, clearly just enough to get fed and find a restroom. And yet, I felt like I was bringing a piece of Korea back to where it belongs. As if I was born for this. As if I should have been here all along. For me, standing there at Incheon airport felt like blood returning to its body.

A few days into exploring the beautiful city of Seoul, I received a message from the adoption agency. “Your mom changed her mind. She doesn’t want to meet you. It’s too much of a burden for her. She’s sorry.”

It took a few days for me to start crying. Sobbing. The kind of sobbing where it’s hard to breath, my stomach and chest seemed to involuntarily contract in and out, nose running, with an overwhelming sense that I was the only living creature in the universe, tucked away in this completely dreadful situation.

This is turbulence. Sometimes, this is adoption. For me, it was an open window for something I never would have expected.

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