By Sunny Jo
Mirror, mirror on the wall . . .
I used to look at myself in the mirror and see her — my mother, my unknown Korean mother, my biological mother. Or, at least, that is how I imagined she would look, since I had no memories of her, no picture, name, age or other information. So, all I could do was dream and fantasize about her, create pictures in my head, wonder if she was beautiful. And then she was there, looking back at me whenever I saw myself in the mirror. Of course she had to look like me, she carried me in her womb, shaped me from her own body. So when I saw myself, I also saw her.
* * *
From as long as I can remember I used to hate when new babies were born into my adoptive family. Everyone would compare the nose, the toes and other body parts to see if the offspring was most similar to the mother’s side of the family, or the father’s. And then there was me, always the black sheep standing out, not looking like anyone else in the family, the only one with black, straight hair and almond shaped eyes. The external differences were small compared to the mental and emotional alienation I felt.
I hated the fact that I was always standing out. I hated being different both in physical and emotional terms. And I never felt like I fully belonged, or that anyone could understand me. The well-meaning assumptions and expectations of my complete assimilation into my adoptive parents’ culture did not leave room for my loneliness, grief or experiences of racial discrimination. They tried to hide the fact that I was different behind my all-Western name, their own mono-culture and my perfect language skills. I had nowhere to turn for support from someone who knew what it was like being a minority, from someone who had experienced racism. And, it was all based on a fear of destroying the myths that “love is enough” and that “race does not matter.”
All my childhood years I was dreaming about this unknown woman, my biological mother. My hopes of ever meeting her were slim, my adoption papers gave little hope. “The child was brought in to Kyung Dong Babies’ home from Ahnyang city. Father — Unknown. Mother — Unknown. Family origin: Han Yang,” stated the court document. So my fantasies were all I had. And I built up my life as an individual, completely different from my adoptive parents and extended relatives. I felt few ties holding me back, I could not identify with anyone else, so I had to create my own path walking it all alone. It was a lonely walk, but all I knew. My journey lead me to foreign countries and exciting experiences. I lived both through failures and successes, attempting to fill the emptiness inside. But the emptiness was always there, the feeling of being alone and disconnected from everything and everyone around remained. No amount of colorblind love, education, unique experiences, new friends and well-meaning “acceptance” could ever make it go away.
* * *
Twenty-three years after the day I left Korea for an unknown destination in Norway, I could for the first time look into the faces of my biological family and see my own flesh and blood. Fate had succeeded in the seemingly impossible task of reuniting a family which should never have been separated in the first place. My parents never intended to lose their two children to international adoption, but they survived this personal tragedy and later had another child who they raised. When looking at my little sister, I saw my life as it should have been, if not for a long line of tragic and unfortunate circumstances that ripped my family apart and sent my brother and I on two separate journeys to different lands and continents, touching several hearts along the way.
When I met my birthparents again in Kimpo Airport, we clung to each other while living through an emotional tornado. I met my own mirror images in the form of foreign strangers. The physical features gave no room for doubt, I was truly the daughter of this Korean woman and man in front of me. The girl in front of me was a younger version of myself. For the first time ever, I felt a true belonging, a deep connection, with other people. I felt the tie of blood, of family. My entire body was investigated and each part of my flesh was properly traced to its originator — my nose from my father, my eyes from my mother. It might seem trivial, but to me this was proof that I came from somewhere else, that I had roots and a family tree after all. It was the evidence that I wasn’t only a transplanted item, like a donated organ — accepted by the body but forever a “foreign object.”
But not only my physical traits could be found in my relatives. Even my mental and emotional personality was mirrored in blood. My restlessness was a legacy from my father, same with the mood swings. And my small, trivial habits of folding the edges of my clothes and tapping my fingers on the table as if I was typing on an invisible computer keyboard, were shared with both my mother and sister.
To find these similarities in people who did not share either my language nor my culture, touched my heart at the deepest levels. We could not have a decent conversation due to the linguistic barriers which separated us. But the unity we felt and the family atmosphere did not need any words.
Not all the inheritance from my biological family can be seen as positive. I carry my mother’s rheumatic disease in my body and my father’s hot temper in my head, both with me for life, not possible to escape from. They have caused obstacles and barriers, required me to adjust my life and forced me to change future plans. As a result, I have suffered losses and experienced deep grief. I worry about other illnesses which exist in my family, and wonder if I, or maybe my own children one day will suffer from one of them. I see my own weaknesses so clearly when I look at them in someone else. The clash of cultures and expectations lead to misunderstandings, offended feelings and disappointments. Tension built up from the frustration of not being able to properly communicate with people who I had so much to talk about. I felt rejected and excluded in my original Korean culture, due to the fact that I had been brought up with Western values and did not know the invisible codes of proper behavior.
Meeting my biological parents did not solve all of my inner problems, nor my outer ones. It did not answer all of my questions, but instead raised a set of new ones. But knowing who I was, and was not, where I started out and where I came from, gave me a solid foundation to continue my life. It filled in the missing pieces in my own puzzle, it gave me the tools I needed in order to find myself. And, it proved to me that I was more than only myself, that I have links and ties that go outside of my own being. And most importantly, I discovered that in the end I was who I was, not determined either by nature or nurture alone, but a delicate mix of both. And then something more. Finding my heritage brought my own being into balance. I am flesh of their flesh, blood from their blood. What else was there to say? So simple. So true. And yet so controversial.
After spending the day researching in secret, one of the things that I learned was that I was born in An Yang Hospital (Kyunggi Province), where I spent the next fourteen days in an incubator due to a low birth weight (4.6 lbs). After that I was supposed to be released into foster care, but was instead sent to Kyung Dong Babies Home (an orphanage). Between that time and the time I was sent over to the United States, I was hospitalized three times and later put into foster care.
Naturally, I’ve been googling my pediatrician, the hospital, and the orphanage. Turns out, there are a lot of Koreans with the name of my pediatrician, so I stopped browsing and immediately began to google the hospital. I couldn’t find anything on it right away, so I quickly proceeded to google the orphanage.
I’ve only gone through the first page of results and am excited by what I’ve found so far. The above story is one of the great finds, as it resonates within me in a variety of different ways, most notably the italicized parts.
In addition, I learned more about the orphanage as it is today. Not much, but remember, anything is something at this point. Here is some broad information about the orphanage:
Name: Kyong Dong Babies’ Home
Address: 71-3 Kodung Dong, Suon; Kyunggi Do, Korea
Director: Mrs. Chung Ui Soon
Number of children: 135
It’s not much, but it’s a start.