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Korean Adoptee Meet up in St. Louis

Within the past year, I joined a couple of Korean adoptee Facebook groups and met the most amazing adoptees from all over the US. It was in one of these groups, that I met April—a really lovely soul. This beautiful girl was abandoned in a marketplace in Korea when she was 5 years old. She still remembers her grandmother releasing her hand for the final time. She can still taste the salt of her tears and feel the grit of the dirt and her hair as the wind blew these across her mouth. April still flashes back to this moment when she hears her own beautiful little daughter cry for her. Such a profound moment in her life. Definitely something that has been a part of her past. But, April has not let the hardships she’s faced define her. She is stronger for her experiences. But she doesn’t dwell on them. She is one of the most incredibly loving, open, funny people I’ve ever met. She is married and has two beautiful children. Her family lives in St. Louis.

Last year, April began opening her home for Korean adoptees to meet up from all over the US. I had the most incredible time meeting up with the best girls and guys last weekend at April’s house. All of whom were Korean adoptees, like me! There were a bunch of Korean adoptees from St. Louis and the midwest, including Michigan and Ohio. A few from Texas, and my friend Gina from LA. It was so much fun to share similar stories of growing up in white families in white neighborhoods and to hear all of their European last names. I told everyone how I recently jokingly told someone she could call me, “Hey you!” and the woman thought I was telling her my Korean name: “Hei Yu.” Others had similar funny stories.

Some girls reunited with their birth families already. Many discovered their entire back stories were wrong. This can definitely shake a person to the core and is something that many adoptees can relate to. One girl reunited with her birth family and decided to spend a couple of years in Korea to get to know more about her Korean heritage. Another girl just started the process of searching for her birth family, so she’s really nervous about how everything will pan out. A few people shared that they never had a strong desire to reunite with their birth families, and they are okay with that.

We went out to a Korean karaoke bar and laughed when only two out of twenty of us knew enough Korean to work the controls. Thankfully, we were all okay singing out to English songs. There was kimchi. There was soju. There were beautiful Asian features. We were as Korean as it gets for Korean adoptees.

april, gina, me

I brought two pairs of shoes with me that I’ve been trying to give away for the past 6 months. They were two sets of gorgeous pumps –one metallic chrome and one bright turquoise. I haven’t had any takers because no one can fit into these gorgeous heels—my feet are very small. I even posted them on an online Facebook yard sale in my area with no luck. I brought them to this gorgeous group, knowing most of my Korean girlfriends would have similar frames. When I brought my shoes out, I immediately found new owners for these bombing shoes. So funny how such little things can make such a difference in normalizing my own petite features.

This meet up was so incredibly meaningful to me in my own personal journey. It’s amazing to think that I’m in such great company in my own personal experiences. So nice to feel the camaraderie and warmth of other Korean adoptees.

It’s amazing to me that in our shared experiences we all had an instant bond. I love getting to know new people and sharing stories. It definitely creates a special community where one can really feel that she belongs. One of my newfound friends described our meet up well by saying, “I have a tribe, a place to belong. It’s something you can’t really explain in words… it’s an experience. One I truly treasure.”

 

#mytribe #adoptees #koreanadoptees #stlouis

Losing the Mystery of my Birth Family

Twenty-fourteen has been the most amazingly incredible year of my entire life. Reuniting with my bio family was extremely joyous as well as incredibly heavy. I had no idea of the identity crisis that would ensue in reconnecting with them. Growing up I was surrounded by a Polish-German loving family that made me feel like I was the center of their entire universe. And this was my family. Even though we weren’t biologically related, and we didn’t look anything alike–this was who I took after. I had my adoptive mom’s somewhat shy personality and my adoptive dad’s love for adventure. My adoptive mom and I loved watching the same chick flicks and listening to the same sappy love songs. Her arms were the ones that held me when I was a child. Her sister-in-law, my aunt, taught me how to tie my shoes. Her brother, my uncle, taught me how to ride a bike. My adoptive dad told me that “I could be anything I wanted to be.” And that the “most important thing is to get an education.” These were the family members who taught me how to view the world; how to understand other people; how to prioritize my time; how to manage finances and other responsibilities; how to believe in spirituality; how to be a friend; how to fall in love; how to be married; and how to be myself.

My adoptive mom and I were bonded from the start. And before I met my biological family, I felt like a whole person. I didn’t feel that anything was necessarily missing from myself. There was a mystery about the first 9 months of my life and there was a mystery about who my biological family was, but I never felt incomplete. In fact, I think I actually felt stronger in myself as a person in the not-knowing. I was who I was– and being adopted and not knowing anything about my past before I was adopted was just part of my story. That was me, and I was okay with that.

After I met my biological family, I was no longer a person with a blank slate for a history. I had stories to correspond with my birth parents– real stories about real people. Weird discovering how new this was to me. As if I was realizing a stork didn’t just drop me off in my adoptive family’s home one day. I was actually born into a biologically-related family. And through the course of a couple of traumatic events, including my birth mom’s passing, I was severed from this family.

Reuniting with my bio family was like a seismic collision of earthquake proportion. The mystery of what my life was like before I was adopted was such a huge part of my identity. So much so that I think I actually grieved losing the person that I was before I reconnected with my bio family after we reunited. Because after this connection happened, there was no going back to that previous person, ever again. There were no take-backs. I can never un-know what I know now. I can never un-meet my biological family. I can never un-face the stories I heard surrounding my birth and my babyhood. I can never be a person without a history, ever again. And any person’s history involving an adoption is often a story of loss and a series of traumatic events.

I don’t mean that I want to un-meet my biological family. What I do mean is that before I met them, my history was like a dark windowless unlit room. Completely black. Nothingness. And this nothingness was the stronghold in which I built my entire identity on. I was a strong person because I had made it despite the fact that I started from nothingness. And now that I have a history, I am learning how to be a strong, powerful, human being with a past– an actual past. Not to mention learning how to incorporate all of these new human beings as part of my new identity. I lost my bearings for a bit. I’m seeing now that I need to gain my strength again with this new foundation– instead of a foundation of nothingness, it’s a foundation of loss and pain and, at times, joy. It’s a foundation of real memories being shared by my bio family members with me. It’s a foundation of details about my life before my adoption being sewn onto my post-adoption babyhood life. This is pretty incredible to think about, because before my reunion last year– I didn’t think I would ever be able to know any of these family members or hear any of these stories!

I’m learning where to go with this information. These new connections. These emotions. It’s like a door has been opened. It can’t be shut. I can only choose to walk through it– facing some of my greatest fears and also my life’s greatest adventures: getting to know my birth family and myself in ways that surpassed the realm of what I thought were possible. I’m really thankful that in this time of my life as I embark on these adventures, I have friends and family who deeply care about me. I’m holding onto them hand in hand as I enter this open door and say, “Let’s go for it.”

Korean Dramas

Watching K-dramas has given me a window into Korean culture that I never had as a transracial adoptee. It’s really neat to be able to learn about Korea and hear the language as an observer through watching these shows. Growing up, I never saw a lot of Koreans on tv or in person. I’ve really loved seeing really attractive, talented, and successful Korean actresses and actors on the shows.

Growing up, I was told was that my biological mom was cut off from her family because she married someone against her parent’s wishes. In American culture, adults generally don’t disown their children. So, it was hard for me to comprehend how this could even happen. Because of this story, I imagined Koreans to be cold and stoic, emotionless. I had no other frame of reference. Last year when I began watching Korean dramas on Netflix, my understanding of Korean people changed. I can honestly say that watching these dramas made me realize that Koreans probably cut off family members because they were actually TOO emotional. Every single Korean drama that I have watched featured some of the most emotional television characters I have ever seen. And it’s not just your typical emotions. These are deep, heavy– cry your eyes out emotions. It’s so interesting to find this out about Koreans. And it’s neat, in a sense, because having the capacity for deep, heavy emotions is definitely a personality trait that I share. Interesting to think that perhaps genes have contributed to this element of my personality.

If you haven’t yet, check out some K dramas. It’s a neat window into K culture! Just have the tissues handy :)

Working Out My Differences

I always knew that I looked different than my family, but I never felt like I didn’t belong. In fact, I always felt like I took after my mom in a lot of ways, including her tendency to over-think everything as well as her unwavering generosity towards those she cared about. My mom’s unconditional love always provided me with a sense of grounding and a strong sense of acceptance. Even though we didn’t look alike, there was never a question that I was her daughter, and she was my mom.

I was raised in a primarily white neighborhood of east Baltimore in a largely Polish-German part of town, a few blocks away from Patterson Park. I have really fond memories of my grandma’s brick rowhome where we spent a lot of our holidays making sauerkraut and kielbasa in her summer kitchen. I also have a lot of really tough memories of cruel white kids in the neighborhood pulling their eyes back, speaking jibberish to me and ignorantly calling me “Chinese.”

Generally, I really valued being different despite the tough experiences. It made me super-independent and free-thinking, which was a good thing. It made me a stronger person. I was really self-aware and able to share my adoption story at the drop of a hat. (And it seemed like mom and I couldn’t even leave a grocery store without having to tell it at least once!) On the flip side, there were times where I felt isolated because of how independent I was.  People can be intimidated by independent people.

Looking back, I see that I had my own contributions to being isolated. I was a little too independent and too strong at times. Maybe because it was easier to put up guards to protect myself so that people couldn’t get close enough to hurt me. Since realizing how isolating being uber-independent could be, I’ve actually spent a lot of my adult life learning how and when to allow these walls to crumble. It’s a work in progress.

 

A New Start

At nine months old, my new family embraced me as their own. My mom Doris has always made me feel like I was the best thing that ever happened to her and that being adopted was something really special. It was never a surprise to find out that I was adopted because my dark Asian features were always a stark contrast to her blonde hair and blue eyes, and being adopted was something we weren’t shy about sharing as our story. Being adopted was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I always felt so lucky to be placed into such an amazingly loving family.

My Story

It’s hard to know where to begin a story that has taken a lifetime to unfold. And even harder is to try to convey a story that isn’t completely finished unfolding. However, I think it is the right time for me to share, so I’m going to try my best. My story begins 28 years ago, where I was born into a series of tragedies– as most adoption stories begin. My adoptive mom (Doris) was unable to have children of her own–and desperately wanted to start a family! So, she started looking into adoption. She knew a woman who took care of children in foster care, and her name was Ms. Pat.

One day a frantic Korean woman by the name of Ms. Young dropped off a baby onto Ms. Pat’s doorstep, saying, “You keep, you keep… the baby.” Ms. Pat was stunned and unsure where this baby came from. She knew this Korean woman from a previous incident where she watched her son in foster care for about 6 months. But taking on child to “keep” was a whole different story.

As things unfolded, it was clear that this baby needed a home. And she knew the perfect woman– my mom, Doris. Ms. Young was reluctant to give any specific information about my biological family, and acted as a liason between social services and my biological family through my adoption. When I was approximately 9 months old, Doris became my legal guardian– and my mom forever.

Ms. Young shared the story that my birth mother married my birth father against her parent’s wishes– when she was a US citizen, and he wasn’t. And in Korean culture, if one doesn’t obey her parents, she is dishonoring them, and she can be shunned from her family. So, when she married him, she was cut off from her family. Then, she tragically died when I was about 3 months old. Still grieving, my birth father felt it would be best for me to be raised by another family.

My mom (Doris) briefly met my birth father at a lawyer’s office to sign the needed documentation. At that time, she said he was very sincere in saying, “I want her to be part of a whole family. Please take good care of her.” He was also worried that he wouldn’t be able to stay in the US, without being a citizen.

After this moment, my life took a completely different turn. I was no longer part of a Korean family. I was no longer surrounded by Korean faces, hearing Korean voices, or smelling Korean food. It was then that my name was changed from Sherry Lee to what it is today– Rachel.