A Korean Adoptee Comes Full Circle

Retracing History

It is 1998. My husband, Greg, and I look out the window of the Delta jetliner. Red-tiled roofs are wedged in next to the low-slung office buildings and high-rise apartments of Seoul, South Korea. We are moments away from landing at Kimpo Airport, and my lifelong connection to Korea and to adoption is about to come full circle. We have come here to adopt our first and only child, Eleanor Jee Yoon. One day after our arrival in Seoul, we cross the threshold of the offices that had once belonged to Harry Holt. I shudder when I realize that the last time I entered this place, I was carried in -- near death -- in the arms of a Seoul police officer.

In my pocket, I have stashed a small snapshot not unlike the stark black-and-white photo taken of me almost four decades earlier. This time the child in the photo, my soon-to-be daughter, is sleeping in a fluffy white cotton robe with her lips curled into a serene smile. The four-color glossy snapshot shows a pair of plump little pink hands drawn up next to her ears as if she's about to say "peek a boo." There is no look of fear or sadness on her face, only repose. Yet there, in a corner near her left foot, is the reminder that we are about to be brought together as a result of the same heartbreaking choices made by our birth mothers: It is the small, white square of paper bearing her agency identification number, her birth date and the temporary Korean name chosen for her by Holt officials.


The Holt personnel greet us with smiles and bows. We climb up several flights of stairs to a musty room filled with banged-up file cabinets and worn, loose-leaf notebooks. A worker pulls down one of the notebooks and my hands tremble as I show Greg a copy of my original travel papers containing a crude, handwritten note reading, "Gone to U.S.A. July 31, 1959." My official file also contains some medical records and other official agency papers but no identifying information about my birth mother. My heart sinks. There is no indication that she, or any of my Korean relatives, has returned to the agency to inquire about what had become of me.

Glued to the travel document is an original copy of the black-and-white photo that, over time, has become the repository of everything I know about my birth mother and my early life with her in Korea. I have not looked at that photo for years. I finger its borders and yellowing edges and I am struck by how different the picture looks to me through the eyes of a grown woman about to become a mother. I am breathless as I begin to visualize some of the probable events leading up to my birth mother's life-changing decision.

I see a young Korean woman struggling to survive in the aftermath of a bloody civil war. I watch her unsuccessful attempts to scavenge food, water and shelter for us in a city that's been ravaged by bombs, poverty, disease and defeat. I sense her desperation when I fall ill, a victim of a bacterial infection brought on as a complication of malnutrition and filthy living conditions. I relive her panic as she watches my tiny three-month-old frame waste away to less than seven pounds. I feel her anguish as she realizes she must decide quickly: If she gives me up now, there's still hope I will be strong enough to survive. If she keeps me, it's likely that I will die.


I look away from the photo and my heart aches for her and the loneliness of her sacrifice. I think about her struggle to care for me amid the rubble of war. I wonder whether she is still alive and hope she is not haunted by her choice. Finally, I feel how much my birth mother must have loved me.

Now, sometimes when I am alone with my daughter, I will hold her close to me and whisper both of our Korean names in succession. It is a tribute, of sorts -- a prayer that I hope will travel through the sky and into the hearts of each of our birth mothers. It is to reassure them that we are safe and happy, that together, my daughter's life and my own is a statement of their triumph, not defeat.

They say that mothers, despite themselves, often transfer their unfulfilled longings and desires to their daughters. And although I will honor my daughter's right to come to terms with her adoption in her own way and in her own time, my sincerest wish for her is that one day she will see her birth mother again. I hope she is given the chance to look into the face of the woman who gave her life and to embrace her, for as long as she needs to, without having to let go.

For myself, I hope that my birth mother, wherever she may be, is at peace with the terrible decision she was forced to make so long ago. I may never see her again, in this life, but I believe that one day we will be reunited in a place where war, poverty, disease and shame can no longer keep us apart. I may not have a conscious memory of her name or appearance, but through the shared language of our wandering, broken hearts, I believe we will recognize each other instantly.


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