“Home”

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” -The Great Gatsby

After a series of dreams that plunged into the depths my subconscious, I awoke with a deep sense of gratitude for all of the factors in my life that have shaped who and where I am today. The good, the bad, the terrible…all of these experiences have come full circle and have ultimately led me “home.”

And for that I am immeasurably grateful.

I’m at the 1-year anniversary of my trip to South Korea. Being the big milestone, nostalgic person that I am, I’ve spent a lot of energy reflecting on what this means. What have I learned? How have I grown? Have I healed?

I’ve attempted to answered all of those big questions that I’ve struggled with, largely through conversations with people that I love and by reading. The academic side of me required that I read as much I could find about adoption, ranging from reunion stories to memoirs to lengthy, dry peer-reviewed articles.

What I found helped me validate my feelings and finally make sense of my experience. As a result, I have finally begun to accept myself just as I am.

There’s a wide breadth of research about the trauma that babies separated from their mothers experience. Perhaps the most famous is Harry F. Harlow’s experiments with monkeys and surrogate mothers, in which he found that those with surrogate mothers from birth had stronger bonds, which weakened in proportion to the duration of the delay. This is corroborated by research by Dr. John Bolby which found that the mental health of children who have been separated from their mothers is severely damaged, influenced by “the quality of the substitute mothering experience, and the length of delay in providing an adequate substitute, and the number of such substitutes during the first three years of life.”

We have to wonder how the baby’s subjective self was reacting to these multiple dislocations and whether it was able to consolidate a cohesive core self by six months, like other babies.

Looking at my own experience, I went from my mother to an orphanage to an adoptive family (in a completely new cultural context), all within a 5-month period. It’s a series of attachment, separation and adjustment that is true for all adopted children, however how children respond to this trauma and stress varies. For those who are met with loving families and healthy relationships, the effects of this unstable period are reversible, while those who do not experience these healthy environments are often plagued with issues of abandonment, attachment and identity. 

I recently read through an old notebook filled with my schoolwork from grade school and found a story that I had typed when I was ten. It was titled “My Life” and was primarily the origin story I had been told: “I thank my brother. He’s mostly the reason I’m here today. Why? He wanted a baby sister to play with so he kept on begging my parents to get one. Finally they decided that they were going to get one. My mom wanted a girl. So they decided to adopt one from South Korea. They picked me up [at the airport].”

Reading this 16 years later, I was surprised that my adoptive parents never tried to alter this narrative that is analogous to a child begging for a toy at the toy store.

Growing up with no origin story, many adoptees are forced to disavow reality and often carry around fantasies about their heroic mother or father coming to their rescue. Nightmares are also common, as this mythic fantasy merges with reality (having to choose between two sets of parents). Subsequently, they struggle with existential questions about who they are and how to define “reality,” perhaps more deeply than those who have a reflection of themselves mirrored back to them everyday.

Those who know their mothers cannot imagine what it is like not to know the woman who brought you into the world. What it is like to be forbidden by law to see her face, hear her voice, know her name. No one can imagine it because it is unimaginable.

Additionally, many adoptees feel unlovable deep down in the core of their being. This can easily happen when your first sense of self is as someone who has been abandoned and unwanted by your own flesh and blood. Relationships with family members and friends can seem tenuous because you are constantly afraid of being deserted and abandoned again. This silent fear can manifest in a variety of ways.

As attachment problems, trust issues and difficulties with intimate relationships. As low self-esteem. As shame. As depression. As loneliness. As a quest for an authentic identity. As a perfectionist, afraid of making any mistake or error. It is manifested in the way many adoptees carefully suppress all emotions except for gratitude and the way in which large chunks of childhood are repressed and lost.

Adopted children, who get the message that not only were they chosen, but they were chosen to be the light of their parents’ lives, often do not feel entitled to express any negative feelings, such as grief or anger at being cut off from their origins. Some become so successful at splitting off their feelings and keeping up a cheerful facade that they do not even know when they are angry.

Perhaps the most prevalent theme among adoptees is the search for “home.”

From the moment they are separated from their birth mothers, all adoptees are consciously or unconsciously in search of some place, perched somewhere between conception and birth, that could be called Home.

This has certainly been true in my own life, as evidenced by the strong desire I had last year to find my birth parents. When I reflect on my search, and the ensuing disappointment, what I was really searching for was “home”– unconditional love, acceptance and a sense of belonging. So much so, that life without these things didn’t make sense or seem worth it. 

The word home is virtually impossible to translate into other tongues, we are told by the classicist Bartlett Giamatti.  It is not a concept, not a place, but a state of mind where self-definition starts. It is origins. We can see the search for Home as a universal quest, but for the adopted person it is also a literal one. It is a quest for the beginning of one’s narrative; for the lost mother; for unconditional love; for meaning; for the recovery of lost time; for a coherent sense of self; for security; for form and structure; for grounding and centering.

A few months ago I was reading a blog about a friend who was able to reunite with her birth parents. As I scanned through the pictures of her and her biological family, I felt happy for her, while at the same time having no emotional desire for that. I recognized that the people in the photos were still mere strangers, disconnected by language and culture.

They don’t know each other’s past, what the other struggles with, or their likes or dislikes.
They can’t decipher what various facial expressions mean or communicate with gestures.
They haven’t been with each other throughout the good times or the bad times.
They haven’t experienced life together.

As I recognized all of these things, I felt an overwhelming contentedness and joy for the family I have found, neither biological nor adoptive, but the family I chose. These are the people who I feel an unexplainable connectedness to, people who I get” and am “gotten” by, who I love and am loved by. So, a year later, I have finally found home and it is largely due to the search for my biological parents and willingness to finally explore my adoption.

Each time an adopted child wonders whose tummy she was in, what her mother looked like, why she was given up; each time he has a fantasy or a dream, looks on the street for someone who looks like him, the adoptee has taken a small step on the journey toward Home.

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Someday

Happy National Adoption month?

In America, the month of November is celebrated as National Adoption Month. This has been celebrated since 2000 and is a month to recognize children who are waiting to be adopted, children who have been adopted, and all of the caregivers involved. It’s a month where individuals can share their stories and shed light on the positive and negative consequences of adoption.

In an ideal world, it would be a month to critically examine and re-write the laws that deeply affect adoptees and their birth parents. (It would be nice to have an original birth certificate, rather than one that has been fabricated to accompany a new, entirely different narrative.) But, we are still a long way away from this, so individuals are left on their own to obtain their personal histories and weave together some sort of a beginning, similar to a big bang.

Earlier this week, I read this story about a transgender woman who was able to secretly copy down her information while her social worker left the room. (I’m still kicking myself for becoming paralyzed and losing my chance at doing something similar while in Korea.) She tracked down her mother, with the help of the local authorities, and what followed was one of the most beautiful, touching reunion stories that I’ve ever read.

Reading this reignited my determination to obtain information* about my birth parents. I’ve promised myself that someday, I will return to Korea and will do whatever it takes to have the information that rightfully belongs to me, and I won’t leave until I succeed.

Has anyone else had any luck with receiving any of their information?

*Information would be enough for now. As a fairly responsible human being, I would never walk up to my birth parents and wreck their lives (aka: tell everyone I’m their daughter). 

Nighttime Visitors

Two nights ago I awoke from one of the worst dreams I’ve had in a while. Actually, it may have been the worst dream I’ve ever had, as I woke to a pillow soaked full of tears and the inability to concentrate for the rest of the day. (It’s still lingering burning in my mind today.)


I dreamt that I had been transported back in time to the day when my parents gave me away. I was fully grown, yet possessed the mindset and skills of an infant. All at once, they were judging who I was and who I’ve become, deciding if I was worth altering the course of time.

They chose to not change anything.

Instead, due to my pathetic begging and groveling, they sent me away with “firsts” to hold onto, in place of them– the first outfit and pair of shoes I wore, the first blanket from a grandma, the first family pictures, and so on. Gradually, they moved from “first” material possessions to “first memories”– the first time they saw me, the first time time they told me they loved me, the first time they held me…

The whole time I was being forced to stand and accept all of the “firsts” into a tiny, transparent box. While part of me greedily wanted to hold onto all of the firsts they would give me, another part wanted to throw the box back at them, yelling “you don’t get it! This isn’t want I need!”

However, having only the mentality of an infant, I was unable to act on my own free will, unable to try to convince my parents that I was worth it.

Once again, I had no control, no say, over this part of my life.


Waking up from the dream was a struggle. Even though it was unbearable, I wanted to stay in it as long as possible, stay closer to the feeling of my parents.

Constant Hunger

What would have been the one-year milestone of my (Ultimate Life Fail) ULF recently passed.

In fact, as I’m typing a group of wonderful individuals are together celebrating their mid-point together.

It’s a group that I should be a part of, but because I just couldn’t do it, I’m here, staring blankly at the disappointment of who I’ve become.

All of this led me to reconsider, once again, what happened and what went wrong. I can’t stop thinking about how different my life would be, how different I would be if I were still on that track.

If my circumstances had been different, would I still be there?
Would I be there, celebrating my resiliency, rather than here, wondering if there’s even a shred of resiliency left in me?
Would I still be that strong person that I used to be? That person where bad things could happen and I could take an Eastern perspective and say “that’s life” and move on, unbroken?
Would I still enjoy life?

If I would have stayed and found self-worth through my actions and doing something good, would this hunger that I have for love, acceptance and belonging be as intense? Would finding my biological parents still mean everything to me?

Orphans are always hungry. You can feed them Spam and chocolate bars and poisoned apples all day long and they’ll still complain about emptiness. That’s why the government manufactures cakes made of grass. The cakes have no nutritional value, but they possess a magical property that makes orphans feel full. -Jane Jeong Trenka in Fugitive Visions

I remember how it felt as the plane began its ascent toward Japan; how part of me wanted to do something completely inappropriate so that they would stop the plane and leave me in Korea, or at least buy me more time, because, for as much as I wanted to be anywhere but there, leaving stirred up those familiar feelings of failure and disappointment. You’re leaving. You’re failing your biological parents. You’re failing yourself. Try harder. Why won’t/can’t you try harder?! Do something, dang it! If it’s that important to you, you wouldn’t be leaving, you’d be staying. What don’t you get about this? It’s simple. And yet, you can’t do it. What’s wrong with you? You can’t give them that? You’re a terrible daughter, of course they were right to give you up. What don’t you get about that? You’re humanity has been demeaned; you’re barely human. You’re a monster. And monsters don’t deserve to live.

Process? Ha.

Ashuipda: to deeply, passionately want to have or to do something, but not be able to fulfill that desire.

It’s been 20 days since I’ve returned and as much as I’d love to say that I’ve processed things and have moved on, the truth is that I’m nowhere close.

Instead I find myself at a loss and needing to sort through “the loss of my birth parents, my birth country and culture, home, someone caring for me, family, love, closeness, happiness, sadness, understanding of my beliefs, honor pride. A loss of me, a loss of who I am, a loss of what life has to offer me” (Voices From Another Place). I can’t even begin to think about these losses in a way that doesn’t leave me as a crumpled mess on the floor. So rather than processing, I shut down, or at least attempt to, because the way I see it, there’s nothing else to say that hasn’t been said and nothing left to do that hasn’t been done.

But each morning as I prepare for the day, a sense of dread hits me…dread at having to trudge through another day when all I feel like doing is curling up in a ball and giving up. You’d think that this dread would have relented by now, at least a little, however it’s only become more intense.

The process of cutting back on obligations/commitments and adding in more enjoyable activities has, ironically, exacerbated things. My life should be more organized and calm than it has been in a long time, right? Instead, the nothingness feels like I’ve been thrown into a state of complete disarray.

It’s like being lost in the middle of a cornfield– every direction looks the same and no matter how hard you look, you can’t find your way out; standing still isn’t going to get you any closer to finding your way out, so you walk, directionless, just to get closer to an unknown something. But after all of that walking, you’re still lost and notice that you’re hungrier than ever, emptier than ever; you become weak and begin questioning if you’ll ever find your way out or if you should just sit down and accept the inevitable.

“No Feelings, Just Ice Cream: A Memoir”

On the last night in Seoul, a few of us went out to get ice cream, opting out of the optional “Reflection” time that our tour leader so apathetically presented (it says a lot when a whole group opts out, but I digress). There were a few of us who became good friends, so we decided to go out and enjoy what remained of our last night together (it was already 10 pm). On the way there, one of the individuals (aka: my twin who happens to be 4 years older), had remarked that we were skipping all of the mushy feelings– “no feelings, just ice cream.” I laughed and said “that sounds like a book title,” to which she responded with something to the effect of “yeah, for your memoir.” We laughed again because of how fitting and accurate it would be.

When looking to the trip, I envisioned being magically “healed,” or at least closer to a resolution and feeling okay and at peace. Now, at the tail end of the trip, I’ve realized that nothing has been resolved. If anything, more things have been stirred up and I find myself in an emotional limbo, stuck and unable to “join loved ones” on this side due to my inability to be loved and be accepted, both by myself and by others.

Everyone who was able to meet their birth parent(s)/families or foster parent(s)/families have spoken about how they feel ecstatic, happy, healed; how they have been forever changed. They realize that there will still be complications, given the complexity of adoption and its repercussions, however they know that they will be okay. They’ve found it– their past, their identity, love from their birth parents, a way to become whole.

Listening to everyone’s stories was torture, but I am so, so happy for them because I know how much it must mean. Although everyone’s experiences are relative, I can feel how significant it is for them to know about who they are and to finally begin to become whole.

After seeing what’s possible, I’m craving it now more than ever. You hear stories about reunions gone awry, but I’ve just witnessed more than five and know the healing power that even a simple, short meeting can hold. How does one ever move forward knowing that it’s out there? Knowing that their healing has only come from a reunion? Knowing that you’re being forced down a different path that will be “close, but no cigar?”

I can’t fathom anything else, any other way.
It’s just not possible.

Holt Office, Reception Center, and Kyeong-Dong Children’s Home

5/22/12 Reviewing adoption files (Holt Office)
The day before one of the group guides stated that many adoptees, more often than not, find additional information in their Korean adoption file. The reasoning for this is because their social workers want to explain things in person, in order to prevent important information from getting lost in translation. This makes complete sense. “More often than not” became my mantra, regardless of my futile attempts to block out any hope/excitement. Unfortunately, I generally tend to be an optimistic person, so there’s usually a part of me that finds something to hope for.

But of course, since the universe just really hates me, there was no new information in my file. She showed me the original intake report (written in Hangul), but said that she couldn’t share any of it with me, noting that the parts that were sharable have already been given to me. In hindsight, I’m disappointed that I wasn’t clever enough to find a way to covertly snap a picture on my phone. I’m also surprised that I didn’t grab the paper and begin running, because there was a strong urge pulling me in that direction. I’m confident in my ability to run and certain that they wouldn’t have been able to catch me. Being arrested for wanting to know my birth parents’ names and information about them? That’s something I can live with. I’d love to meet someone who thinks differently.

The only surprising part about reviewing my file was that they had my adoptive parents’ application– their background/histories, reason for adopting, and so forth. When I asked to read through it, the social worker said that I was not allowed to since there may have been confidential information, then said “you probably already know all of this anyway.” I wonder what she would have said if I would have told her “trust me, if you’ve read through this, you already know more than me– I don’t even know what year my parents were born. We’re pretty close.”

5/22/12 Holt Staff (Holt Office)
At the Holt Office we were quickly introduced to the key staff members and then watched a brief overview video of the history of Holt. My feelings throughout were very diverse. One moment I was grateful for the organization, while the next I found myself filled with loathing, wishing that the building would spontaneously combust.

When I saw Director Kim all I could think about was “you talked to my birth mother! you know her voice!” Part of me wanted to run up to her, fall at her feet and beg for information– what did my birth mother sound like? what did she say and how did she say it? did she sound angry, scared or a combination of the two? I was, and am, desperate for something, anything, that can help me begin to imagine my birth parents. While passing people on the street, I can’t help but wonder about things like how my birth parents dress (do they dress casually or business casual and stylish) and what they do for a living (are they street vendors, business people, teachers, servers, hotel staff). Not knowing anything about them makes everything a possibility. This is all information that Director Kim could know, if only she would ask. As such, seeing her in real life, made her more real, made my parents more real. There seems to be a direct correlation between my parents becoming more real and the distance put between us.

Juxtapose that with my response to seeing Molly Holt (the daughter of Harry and Bertha Holt), which was a combination of loathing and compassion, and you can begin to see how this got emotional pretty quickly. Seeing Molly Holt made me want to vomit. It’s not that she disgusted me, but the image of what she represented disgusted me. Watching her was a constant struggle to stay in control and remember that she is probably a very nice and wonderful individual. It’s not fair to blame her for the things her parents did, but given the complex views I hold of adoption I still found myself constantly having to “be her,” to see myself in her, in order to think clearly, objectively, and with compassion. For me, it was the epitome of an empathic, transcendent even, experience. All of this was so unexpected and at the end I found myself hurting a lot, but thinking “Molly, you’re okay, you are.”

The next person to be introduced was Dr. Cho, my pediatrician for the first five months of my life and the only person who I know spent time with me, even though it was to perform routine tests and check-ups. Even though she was the pediatrician for all of the babies, I still felt a strange, emotional attachment to her, mainly because she is the only real link to my beginnings. Upon seeing her, I had the desire to run up and hug her, like you would do upon seeing a good friend after years of being apart. She’s such a beautiful woman and a delight to be around. She’s one of those people who glows, one of the ones who brightens any room, one of the ones you’re always sad to leave.

5/22/12 Holt Reception Center
Visiting the Holt Reception Center (the place where the babies are taken and kept for various durations) made me recall some of the things that people, especially adoptees, cringe upon hearing. The main ones are the following:

“I want an Asian baby!”
“She’d stuff one in a suitcase and bring one back if she knew it would be safe!”
“Bring one back with you!”
“You should take one home!”

Believe it or not, babies at an orphanage really are different than puppies at a pound.

They’re not puppies.
They’re not objects.
They’re not commodities.
They’re humans.

5/24/12 Kyeong-Dong Children’s Home
On the 24th I was able to visit the orphanage that I was in. Although the building wasn’t the original, the director was. She was a really sweet woman and was really happy that myself and another adoptee came back to Korea to visit. I’m not sure how many adoptees have returned because our presence there was really emotional for her (based off of a comparison of another adoptees’ visit to her orphanage).

Although this was emotional for her, I felt pretty disconnected from all of it, given that it wasn’t the original building and not knowing if she had spent time with me or not.

We were able to review the file that the orphanage had for us. Again, no new information (except that I was the 106th baby admitted), but there was a picture of myself that I had never seen before. It was really surprising to see because I didn’t know any others existed. (Note: There was a huge translation error while reviewing the file, which brought me pretty high up and, upon correction, left me plummeting downward again.)

All of that said, it was refreshing to see the orphanage because it was a really nice facility, filled with volunteers who were actively playing with the babies (one of the disconcerting parts about the Reception Center was that a lot of the babies were just slung onto womens’ backs while they worked). The children here seemed like they were well taken care of it.

(After the mistranslation, my ability to feel was replaced with numbness, so the rest of the tour of the orphanage was pretty flat and disconnected for me. Hence, I have very few comments/thoughts on it.)