Coming Home a Stranger
By Emma Carew Grovum
Growing up as a Korean adoptee in a predominantly white suburb of Minneapolis, the thing that I coveted most was a physical resemblance to someone in my family. I envied my friends who shared a dimpled cheek with their sisters, the shape of their father’s hand, even a full facial profile with their mothers. Looking alike was something that came with being a real family.
My adoptive parents loved me. I even inherited their financial practicality and drive for hard work. But I still looked out of place no matter where I went. I felt like I lived two half-lives, neither of them fulfilling. I was raised to love hockey and the East Coast as my Irish and Polish parents did; the Korean thing just sort of existed on the side.
Beginning with Korean Culture Camp when I was 8, I began exploring other parts of my identity: the Asian, the Korean and the adoptee. Since then, I’ve been struggling to combine those identities with my white, suburban self and create some sense of myself. I loved cheeseburgers and pizza, but I craved kimbap and kimchi. I was happy to study German, and I was good at it, but I wanted to speak the tongue of my camp counselors.
I can remember the first time I was in a room full of other Korean kids. Granted, they were all adoptees and we were at camp, but to an eight-year-old validation is validation. Sitting at lunch with a plate of cafeteria-style Korean food, surrounded by 500 other little Korean kids meant I belonged.
There were so many of us. The Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare estimates that about 99,000 Korean children were placed in American homes between 1953 and 2001. About 51,000 were placed in other countries, mostly in Europe or Australia, during that same time. That has changed, according to an Australian newspaper. This fall, citing lower birth rates and better welfare policies for single mothers, the Korean government suspended international adoptions.
From that first summer camp, fast-forward five years to eighth grade. By then I’d had four years of traditional Korean dance, a year of Korean language school and three years of culture camp to thicken my identity stew.
Along with two friends from dance school and our mothers, I was on my way to visit Korea Town in Los Angeles.
I was amazed at how isolated the area was. Few people spoke English and three young Korean girls with three middle-aged white women received strange looks. Clerks and waitresses assumed we were fluent in Korean and were shocked to find that we spoke hardly a word. We wanted to get our hair cut and colored at a salon, but the language barrier made it nearly impossible. In the end, we pointed to pictures in magazines and hoped for the best.
Life after meeting my biological family
Six and a half years have passed since I first traveled to Korea and met my birth mother and her family. I was 18 and had just graduated from high school.
Looking back, I’m shocked and impressed that someone so young was able to work through so many complex issues, even though I didn’t feel young at the time.
I have never regretted searching for or finding my Korean family, though they have added a very complicated layer to my life.
I was shocked yet again this fall when I received an email from my mother’s youngest brother. I didn’t understand most of it, but I came away from my initial reading thinking my grandmother might have died.
After frantically searching for someone who could help me translate, my fears were confirmed: My grandmother had passed away during the summer, but my uncle and mother had been consumed with mourning and had not gotten around to telling me.
Back at home, I felt unsettled, unhappy and uncertain. More than ever, I felt caught between two worlds, not belonging to either. Until then, I had believed that looking the same as everyone else meant I belonged.
Finding my birth family
Move ahead another four years to the spring of 2005. As I planned for the high school graduation trip to Korea my parents had promised, I began my search for my birth family. After eight weeks, my family was found. My birth mother was living with her parents (my grandparents!), and she had two daughters, my half-sisters. Still better, they were willing to correspond with me and meet me when I came to Korea.
In the months leading up to my trip to Korea, I struggled to talk to my adoptive mother. Graduation was approaching faster and faster; time seemed to be speeding up and yet, I was moving at a normal pace.
On Mother’s Day, my mother wanted to talk about the trip, but I wasn’t ready. We had a huge fight; I felt terrible. We had always been very open about my adoption, but as the trip neared, I clammed up because of the uncertainties surrounding our visit. Saying things out loud meant I was expecting them, and I wasn’t ready to deal with the consequences if the situation changed at the last minute.
On my 18th birthday, I received my first letter and photos from my Korean family, proof that they were the right people and were willing to meet with me. I sat in my bed with my two best friends, who agreed that the younger of my sisters looked like me. Our face was the same shape. She smiled the same way I do. Finally, I had confirmation that I looked like someone!
A stranger once again
Traveling to Korea was so strange. A sign at the children’s agency that sent me to America read ‘Welcome to your Motherland!’ My Motherland, indeed. I was finally in the land of my birth, and I felt vaguely lost.
It was hard being in a strange city with a strange culture. On the streets of Seoul, a 50-story Samsung Electric skyscraper is just down the block from a traditional palace gate. Grandmothers squat on sidewalks, peeling roots and greens as young corporate businesswomen walk by in high heels and suits.
The language barrier was even harder to manage than the city. Many Koreans were baffled by the idea of having both an American mother and a Korean mother, while others thanked my American mother for taking me into her home and raising me.
I met my birth family while we were in Seoul. The first meeting was nerve-wracking. I remember spending a lot of time that morning picking out my clothes and fixing my hair and make-up. It felt like I was getting ready for a date, not a meeting with my mother.
When I first saw my sisters, it was by accident. We were just finishing our tour of the children’s agency when two little girls came flying around the corner. They looked familiar, and then it hit me: they were the girls in the photos. A woman, whom I later met as my grandmother, grabbed them and pulled them back into a room. We were not supposed to see each other yet.
I was so scared to meet my birth mother. My knees nearly buckled as I entered the room. Our translator, my post-adoption social worker, spoke in heavily accented broken English and didn’t translate everything that everyone said to me. I felt like I was reading poorly translated sub-titles of a very important movie. I was afraid to say much because I was uncomfortable with the social worker.
Tears and joy
I cried, both of my mothers cried. My grandmother probably cried, too. I remember that my sisters kept pointing at me, saying how tall I was (I’m about 5’6”, half a foot taller than my birth mother). They didn’t understand why everyone was crying; it was, after all, a very happy thing for us all to finally be together.
I didn’t look a lot like my mother, who had me when she was young and unmarried, and I was surprised to see that the older of my sisters actually looks more like me. Even though my sisters had a different father, I found comfort in our resemblance.
A second meeting was arranged. My American mother, a translator and I took a subway from Seoul to Incheon, about a 45-minute ride. During the ride, I was able to chat with our new translator, Stacey. She was only a year older than I was and although she had grown up in Korea, she had gone to high school in New Jersey. I felt so much more comfortable with her, able to ask her to tell things to my sisters and mother during dinner.
Dinner was at my grandmother’s house. She had asked me what foods I liked at the first meeting, and she cooked chap-chae (a noodle dish), mandu (fried dumplings), and bulgogi (barbequed beef). She even made special non-spicy kimchi (a Korean staple food), in case I didn’t like the traditional spicy kind. I thought about how grandmothers across the world share the bonds of cooking, hugging and loving.
I was surprised and pleased to find my mother was still a part of her family. I knew that young unwed mothers in Korea are often cast out of their families as a disgrace, and I had been afraid my mother might have found trouble because of me. Instead, I found my family is very close. They are good, loving people, much like my American family.
What might have been
Being in my family’s home and seeing how they lived gave me a picture of what my life would have been like had I not been adopted. I might not have gone to college. I probably wouldn’t be semi-fluent in two languages besides my native tongue. After seeing my digital camera and cell phone, my sisters asked me if I was rich. To them, I am. I explained that I have two parents who work, and that I have worked since I was 14.
Traveling around Korea, I looked like I fit it, but I never really belonged. By the end of our two-week stay, I could navigate the Seoul subway system like a native, but I couldn’t ask how to find a bathroom.
I feared I would never find a place where I belong. I wasn’t content to accept my life as a Korean-raised-American. How could I ignore the Korean part of me, a place with such a strong history, culture and family? I struggled to find a way to embrace both lives, both cultures and in return, be embraced by both.
These days, I find myself to be much more reflective. As far as meeting my family goes, I feel like I won some kind of Korean adoptee lottery. How is it that I have two mothers, while two of my close friends lost their only mothers very young?
Leaving my father behind when I went to Korea was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. Because he felt the loss of his family as a boy when his parents divorced, he was able to understand what I was going through a little better than my mother.
While I was away, he sent me emails. One talked about the comfort he felt from looking up at the moon one night, knowing it was the same moon I was looking at, and that it was the same moon my birth mother had been looking at for the past 18 years. My search has made us closer.
It will take many more visits to Korea before my identity has time to cement on both sides. I am an American. I am a Korean. I am an adoptee. It may not be easy to balance all three, but I’m determined to find a way to do so.
I recently helped found a Korean adoptee student group at the University of Minnesota and am proud of the work our little group has done. An older adult adoptee recently told me that the journey never ends, and that we’re all on different parts of it. But as long as we’re a part of a community, the journey becomes a much brighter part of life.
Emma Carew Grovum is a 24-year-old alumni of ThreeSixty Journalism. She is currently working as the Digital Editor for The Cooking Club magazine, after previously working for The Star Tribune and The Chronicle of Philanthropy. She lives in St. Paul with her husband and volunteers as the chapter co-president of AAJA Minnesota.