Adoptee Reunions: A Happy Ending Can Be Elusive

Katelyn Hemmeke
Katelyn Hemmeke

When I tell South Korean nationals that I’m a Korean-American adoptee, their reactions vary from a kind of backhanded recognition (“Oh, so that’s why you can’t speak Korean”) to profuse apologies (“I’m so sorry that happened to you”) to expressions of jealousy (“You’re so lucky; I want to go to America, too”). There’s one question, though, that they almost always ask: “Do you know your Korean family?”

The follow-up to that question often includes eager suggestions of how to find my birth family. “It’s easy,” one South Korean woman told me. “All you have to do is put your Korean name on TV. People do this all the time. Your Korean mother will be watching the news, and she’ll see your name, and she’ll cry and cry and cry, and then she will find you and you can meet her. Don’t you want to?”

Her idea was not too far-fetched. Throughout the 2000s, television programs such as I Miss That Person (later re-titled as Missing Person) aired segments featuring transnational adoptees searching for their birth families.

I Miss That Person showed dramatic, sentimental reunions. (Source: KBS1)

“Reunion Shows”: Maximizing Emotional Response

These “reunion shows” were usually orchestrated to maximize emotional response. South Korean audiences would sigh audibly in the background as adoptees displayed their baby photos and expressed their deep desire to meet their birth families. To heighten the drama of the reunion, TV hosts prompted the adoptee to speak Korean and call their birth relatives onto the stage.

“Can you call out eomma?” the host would say, asking the adoptee to call for the mother. Sentimental music would rise in the background as the birth mother walked onto the stage. The audience would applaud as the birth mother and adoptee tearfully embraced and exchanged their first words with each other, usually through a translator.

While reunion is certainly an emotionally charged experience, the reality off-screen is often far different. One adoptee recalled his first meeting with his birth mother as “super awkward”: “[The social worker] was egging me on to call her eomma, and she was telling her to call me ‘son’ in Korean, and I was thinking, ‘We’re not there yet,’” he said.

“I had assumed that when we met for the first time that it would have been this huge, momentous ‘Oh my gosh, let’s all hug and cry together’ moment, but it was kind of just, like, awkwardly being introduced to strangers.”

Another adoptee echoed these feelings of awkwardness: “I remember my birth mother hugging me, and me just kind of standing there, and being like, ‘I should probably hug her back.’”

Although the media loves to spotlight highly-dramatized moments of the first meeting, on the assumption that family members will instinctively reconnect no matter how long they have been separated, very little attention is given to what comes next: The years ahead in which the reunited adoptee and birth family must piece together their stories and navigate their newfound relationship after decades apart.

Adoptee reunion on a 2005 episode of Happy Sunday, a variety show. (Source: KBS)

Pandora’s Box: Navigating Relations Post-Reunion

Far from being a neat, happy ending that sends the reunited family sailing smoothly off into the sunset, meeting the birth family is just the beginning of a complex, lifelong journey. “This is Pandora’s box,” one adoptee said of the birth family reunion. “You don’t know what you’re going to get, and it’s probably just going to bring up more questions.”

They’re not easy questions, either. How will I fit into my birth family — and how will they fit into the rest of my family? How will we communicate across linguistic and cultural barriers? How often will we see each other? What do we expect of each other, and how can we compromise? These are questions that are difficult to answer over the course of many years, let alone in a single meeting of reunion.

Things are no less complicated for the birth family. Some adoptees discover that their birth parents were married at the time they were born and/or that their birth parents are still married when they reunite. In these cases, the adoptee may even have full siblings that they never knew existed.

However, the vast majority of adoptees — about 90% — were born to single mothers.

Due to social stigma, single birth mothers who later marry and have children (half-siblings to the adoptee) usually keep the birth and relinquishment of the adoptee secret from their new families. Birth fathers may do the same — if they even knew that the birth mother was pregnant with the adoptee in the first place.

Sometimes, birth parents will introduce the adoptee to their half-siblings under some kind of guise. One adoptee who met his half-siblings said, “[My birth mother] gave them the story that I’m her friend’s son from America. But they’re old enough — I look exactly like her. They can probably put two pieces together. But she says she doesn’t want to tell them until they’re college age.”

In other cases, adoptees are never allowed to meet their siblings or the rest of their extended family.

The practical barriers of language and distance are often the most difficult to overcome. The language barrier prevents adoptees and birth families from having in-depth conversations without a translator, and adoptees who don’t live in South Korea may only get to see their birth families once every few years.

When asked about the most difficult aspects of reunion, one adoptee said, “For my birth parents, I think it’s watching me leave. Every time I leave, watching me leave… And the fact that I don’t speak Korean. I think that’s really hard for them. I think it’s kind of the nail in the coffin — that what they did, the decision they made had profound effects that they obviously couldn’t control.”

It’s that lack of control — for both their birth families and for themselves — that continues to drive many adoptees to return to South Korea and take up activism, advocating for the rights of adoptees and single mothers.

Birth parents, especially single mothers, were often pressured or coerced into relinquishing their children against their wishes; sometimes, a relative would take the child to an orphanage or adoption agency without telling the parents.

Adoptees, who had no say in their relinquishment or adoption, accumulate the losses of family, language, culture — yet their grief is often dismissed by others who insist that the adoptees were lucky to be adopted. Now, adoptees are working to flip the script that has silenced them for so long.

Searching for Birth Families: Still No Easy Feat

Adoptee activists have been fighting for amendments to South Korean adoption law to improve the birth family search process. Fraught with bureaucracy and inconsistencies, the search process is rarely as easy as simply going on TV.

A mother and daughter reunited on a 2015 episode of Infinite Challenge, a popular variety show. (Source: MBC)

From 2012 to 2015, out of 4,790 adoptees who requested their birth records, only 14.7% were able to reunite with their birth families. That’s still an improvement over statistics released in 2006, which indicated that only 2.7% of adoptees were successful in finding their birth families.

Adoption records pose one of the most significant obstacles in the search process. It is not uncommon for adoptees to discover that some or all of the information in their files is incorrect. Their Korean names, birth dates, even the narrative of their relinquishment turn out to have been altered or entirely made up by the orphanage or adoption agency.

Sometimes, an agency simply had to create a file for a child who was found abandoned with no trace of information left by the birth family. But in other cases, adoption agencies and orphanages falsified files to make children “adoptable,” erasing any record of living birth family members or covering up unclear relinquishments.

Prospective adoptive parents would probably be uncomfortable to hear that an agency had pressured or even forced a birth family into relinquishing a child, or that a birth mother had tried to get her child back from an orphanage. These types of circumstances were common, but agencies and orphanages could easily erase them from records, filling them in instead with more digestible stories of a young mother wishing for her child to have a better life.

Of course, it’s impossible for adoptees to know the accuracy of their records without confirmation from their birth families. Filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem made a documentary about reuniting with her birth family after discovering that her adoption papers had been forged. Liem had always had fuzzy but persistent memories of her birth family, despite her adoptive parents’ insistence that according to her adoption file, her South Korean family had all passed away.

What finally confirmed Liem’s suspicions was when she dug into her paper records and found two old photographs: one of herself as a child, and another of a different South Korean girl. The orphanage had taken another girl’s identity — the girl in the second photograph — and used it on Liem’s paperwork.

Not only are adoption records often falsified or altered, many adoptees struggle to get a hold of their records at all. South Korean adoption agencies often deny adoptees access to their records, despite laws allowing adoptees to receive everything except key identifying information for their birth parents (e.g. full name and identification number).

Some adoptees only receive partial copies with minimal translations, while the agency withholds the full Korean record; others are denied permission to see any records at all.

One adoptee recalled the way her adoption agency blatantly withheld parts of her file: “[The social worker] said, ‘Oh yeah, sure, sit down here for a second.’ She went to a filing cabinet, and she clearly got out my file, and then she went back to her desk. I actually saw her take out a chunk of papers from my file, put it on her desk, and then she came back.”

There are several organizations that offer various forms of support to adoptees, such as translation services, visa assistance, and guidance through the search. But even with assistance, the search process is both logistically and emotionally daunting. Adoptees often don’t even know where to begin.

“I used to have a blog where I would post about my birth search,” one adoptee said. “I stopped writing it last year sometime, but I still get emails from people just asking me, ‘How do I do this? How do I start my search? Help me do this.’”

The extent of post-adoption services offered by adoption agencies can vary greatly, as can the financial cost. Some agencies “strongly suggest” donations in exchange for post-adoption services. For example, my American adoption agency suggests a donation of $50 to review an adoption file, $100 for an attempt to locate birth family “regardless of results,” and another $200 “additional fee for service, if family is located.” Other agencies charge up to hundreds of dollars in fees upfront.

If adoptees want to personally visit their South Korean adoption agency or birthplace, they must shoulder the financial burdens of an international trip, plus the challenge of navigating the language barrier in an unfamiliar country — a country that could have been their lifelong home. Traveling to “the motherland” can be a complex emotional experience in itself, but tackling the search process makes it even more physically and emotionally grueling as adoptees run back and forth to adoption agencies, orphanages, hospitals, and police stations in search of answers.

For those with little or no information about their birth families, the trail can turn cold quickly; many adoptees search for years with no success. When agencies continuously refuse to show their records or neglect to follow up with any updates in the search process, it’s no wonder that adoptees feel discouraged.

“It’s a shame because it has left a bit of bitterness, because I never felt throughout the whole search that there was actually anyone on my side who was rooting for me to find my birth mother,” said the adoptee who was denied access to her full file. “It was all very much like, ‘This is not our priority; this is not really important to us’… They made me feel like they were doing me a favor by actually sitting down with me and showing me my file.”

For adoption agencies, post-adoption services may be a bothersome chore that they never expected to have to fulfill — but for adoptees, birth records and birth family search can hold the key to core parts of their personal identity.

Every adoptee has different motivations for searching. Some adoptees yearn deeply to meet their birth families; some search for medical reasons, wanting to know of any genetic health concerns; others are simply curious or just want to let their birth mothers know that they are all right. But regardless of the reason for searching, all adoptees should have the right to their records and to meet their birth families if they so desire. No one should have to spend years jumping through bureaucratic hoops to find out something as simple as their mother’s name.

With an estimated 200,000 South Koreans adopted overseas since the 1950s, the Korean adoptee community has established networks in various regions all over the world, as well as many active online forums. As the community continues to gain momentum, adoptees are finding more ways to share their stories and make their voices heard.

The stories of adoptees and their families extend far beyond the television programs that so neatly bundle search and reunion stories into one simple, sentimental package. They are stories that raise intense questions of personal identity, traverse cultural and linguistic boundaries, and redefine the meaning of family. Birth family reunions are emotional experiences, and they can certainly be happy — but they are not the end of the story.

“When I talk to people about [my birth family reunion], it seems more like a fairy tale story than it does like real life,” said one adoptee. “I guess because I’ve gotten past that initial point of meeting [my birth family] and now we’re somewhere in the middle of this story where I’m just trying to figure out the rest of it. But no one’s story is ever complete or finished.”

All adoptees quoted in this story requested anonymity.

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