Why leaving Korea was easy this time

You may recall from a previous blog that during my first visit to Korea I loved it so much that Steve thought it was strange that I didn’t get emotional at all throughout our three week stay. It wasn’t until the bus back to Incheon Airport that I wept uncontrollably as it suddenly dawned on me that I was leaving a country which I only just began to learn more about. I doubted whether I would ever get the chance to fully experience Korea for longer than a holiday and to me, it seemed incredibly unfair. That was when the seed was planted; the idea of moving here for as long as we could afford so that I could experience Korea for all its worth.

One thing I wanted to do during my time here was visit Geumsan, the town where my birth parents were born and grew up. I had mentioned this to Steve and my parents several times but as we were approaching our departure date, I suddenly bottled it. It seemed too overwhelming. However, 5 days before we were due to leave my dad said over Skype ‘What happened to Geumsan? If you don’t do it, you will regret it’.  And I knew deep down he was right.

Two days later we headed off for a day trip to Geumsan which takes about 2 and a half hours by bus from Seoul. The morning didn’t start well. I was already quite anxious but then I was reprimanded by an old man on the tube for the heinous act of ‘crossing my legs’. He was giving me all sorts of grief saying I was being selfish and inconsiderate to other passengers. Little nuances like this make it very easy to dislike Korea at times. We got off at the next station and I burst in to tears. Little did that man know that I really didn’t need his lecture today. For a second, I thought to myself ‘but thanks for reminding me that I don’t belong here; for making it so easy to leave this damn country’. With Steve’s help I soon recomposed myself and we headed for the bus station.

As we approached Geumsan my heart began beating a little faster; my eyes absorbing everything in detail. We definitely weren’t in Seoul anymore. The town was very small, there was absolutely no English and a lot of stray animals roaming around. Steve was getting a lot of looks as well being the only foreigner, people must have been thinking ‘why the hell would this guy want to come here!?’. We took a walk around the town which took around 20 minutes then had a coffee. The whole time I was looking at people trying to determine if I look like them. ‘Are you my birth family?’, ‘Do you know a Mee Hwa Kim?’ I wanted to ask. I peered in the coffee shops and the local restaurant wondering if my birth parents ever went there for a date. Did they sit here where I’m sat?

In all honesty, Geumsan had absolutely nothing to recommend itself; it’s known for producing ginseng and not much else. But it was incredibly humbling seeing it; the place where it ‘all began’ so to speak.

I know from my birth file that my birth mother, upon finding out she was pregnant ran away from home and took a bus to Daejeon to stay with her brother so this is something I wanted to do as well, to retrace her steps. Here I was, sat on a bus going the same route she took but with Steve’s loving arm wrapped firmly around me. She didn’t have that. It wasn’t until I was on that bus that it suddenly hit me and my heart sank thinking about how scared and alone she must have felt, how incredibly strong she must have been for a girl of 17 years old and how proud I felt of her.

Steve was watching me closely the morning we took the bus to Incheon Airport fearing another repeat of the cry-fest of 2014. After four months here, I have experienced the good and the bad. There were things that made me angry and thankful that I wasn’t raised here and conversely things that made my heart swell with pride.  I laughed, I cried, I loved, I ate, I traveled.  I do not regret one thing about my time here. My main goal for coming to Korea was first and foremost to experience my homeland and try and then, to track down my birth family. And whilst the latter was unsuccessful I can look back on my time here with content.

Korea will forever hold a special place in my heart but it will never feel like home. And whilst coming to Korea has been extraordinarily therapeutic for me, it has, unexpectedly, made me more appreciative of everything I have. I have incredible parents who always pushed me to do the right thing. Forever putting my needs before theirs, I would not have had the courage to do this trip without them. I have an amazing husband who wiped away my tears when I was sad, calmed me down when I was frustrated and spoke reason when I was anxious. More importantly he was the one to say it’s ok when I felt overwhelmed; I wouldn’t want anyone else by my side but him. My parents-in-law always asked me what the latest on my search was and always supported our decision to do this; two people I miss like my own parents. My doting brother-in-law empathised with me whole-heartedly and he is someone I admire in so many ways. I have great friends who messaged me words of encouragement and even messages of support from those friends I had lost touch with over the years. There’s also my nearest and dearest who took the long journey out here to experience just a small slice of our life out here which meant the world to me. And somewhere out there I have my birth mother who I am forever grateful to for making the right decision for both of us and enabling me to feel so much love throughout my life.

So as I said my goodbyes to Korea and went on that bus, I looked out the window and grinned. I am the luckiest girl in the world.

Case Closed – quick update on my birth family search

I received an email from my adoption agency with an update on my birth family search; or lack thereof. They don’t believe that the person they sent the telegram to is my birth mother as they have not received any reply, one way or the other, since August. In such cases, they deem the case as ‘closed’. The file is put away, they don’t send a follow up and everyone moves on.

I was a little disappointed at first but satisfied with that outcome and the effort that I had put in, until I was telling a fellow adoptee my story. She recommended me this charity that helps adoptees with little information find out more. Essentially, they do this through private investigation. A volunteer policeman helps reunite adoptees with their birth families by cutting through the bureaucracy and red tape that many adoptees face on their searches. Yes guys, I’m hiring a spy.

(Well, not quite. I wish)

The charity actually uses methods that I think are actually helpful in finding a person, you know, like physically going to the town my birth parents are from, going to the hospital I was born and asking around in person. Geumsan is not a big place and I have both of their full names, however, apparently my birth mothers name is fairly common. I met up with him a week ago and he managed my expectations by saying that my case is quite common; teenagers who relinquished their children were scared and often gave false details making tracking them awfully difficult. However, this charity has had a high success rate, especially among those adoptees who were abandoned and therefore, had little to no information to go on.

As I’m only here in Korea for another month I thought what the heck, I may as well give it this one last shot. My adoption agency is still refusing to give me copies of my file causing me great anxiety (Steve isn’t allowed to come with me) and so I’ve just not got any fight left in me anymore to demand for it. The charity said that if the search is unsuccessful they can take me to Daejeon and I can write an article for a local newspaper and hand out leaflets around the town but I think I’ve drawn the line at that; that’s something I’m not really comfortable doing.  Finally, I have made the decision that should December come and I haven’t been successful then I will go to Geumsan myself to experience the place where my birth parents grew up, the place where I was born; I will then make my peace with this journey, call it a day and move on.

Plastic Surgery Adverts in Seoul Metro Stations

Feeling fat and ugly in Korea?

I debated whether or not to write this blog but after South Korean plus-size model Vivian Kim recently spoke up and challenged the Korean beauty ideal I feel more women need to follow her example. ‘Defying Korean beauty norm’ in the Straits Times tells her story and I highly recommend a read.

I have immensely enjoyed my first 2 months here in Seoul but there has been one unexpected consequence of living here that I wasn’t prepared for. I fully prepared myself for the looks I would get when I explained I didn’t speak Korean. I knew I may get a few looks for being with a ‘white’ guy. I knew that looking around a sea of Asian faces may conjure up some feelings about my adoption. I had mentally prepared myself for all these things. But I wasn’t prepared for the hit to my self confidence that happens when you live in a country obsessed with achieving perfection.

It was one of the more recent, and more ugly discoveries of my motherland’s culture. I guess it isn’t until you live in a country that you can scratch beneath the surface and uncover things that perhaps you were blind to before. I know I am a healthy weight, I am not fat, but I am by no means a stick insect. I enjoy doing my weights at the gym, have always played sport and love a cheeseburger. I know my arms could be a little slimmer, my stomach a little flatter but I’m ok with that. There are certain sacrifices I am not willing to make (carbs being the main one). But here, in a society where the ideal weight is under 50kg and the ideal ‘beauty’ is being wafer thin, it does get you thinking.

It gets you thinking when you see all the plastic surgery advertisements on the subway, everyday. It gets you thinking when on the toilet cubicle doors there are posters saying ‘from fat face to beautiful face’. The worst one I read about in ‘Defying Korean beauty norm’ was ‘how long are you going to roll around like that?’ Yep, and we were outraged in the UK by the ‘are you bikini ready’ advertisement! I have watched a program about plastic surgery where they called the girl ‘witch face’ instead of her actual name. They showed how she went from ‘ugly’ to ‘beautiful’ by having her whole face re-shaped; praising the plastic surgeon on his work. She looked completely different when she emerged on stage and was greeted to a rapturous applause. But underneath, her eyes still looked sad.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against plastic surgery. If it helps you address something you are self conscious about or makes you happy then I think plastic surgery is a positive thing. So long as you do it for yourself. Where I am less of a fan of it is when it feels pressured; when society encourages it and when it is expected of you. And that is what I personally believe is the case here. Statistics say that about 1 in 3 women in Seoul have gone under the knife, mostly for double eye lid surgery. For many jobs, it is necessary to include a photograph attached to your CV; sometimes even measurements. I’ve been flat out asked if I have considered getting my nose done (I didn’t think anything was particularly wrong with my nose) or why I haven’t had double eyelid surgery. People aren’t being rude, that’s just the culture here – they are actually saying it in order to give you advice. A friend of mine was told that she would be more beautiful if she had a slimmer jawline (for the record, she’s stunning). I am always the person that gets stopped on the street for diet pills, juice diets etc. Walking down the street, I will get plastic surgery flyers shoved in my face. Because I must want to change the way I look, right? It’s understandable that with all these statistics, all these advertisements in your face everyday – it gets you thinking ‘what don’t I like about myself?’ And we shouldn’t be made to think like that. I know in the West, we blame the media a lot, those magazines and actresses in Hollywood for the low self esteem of young girls but trust me, it is way harder for the young girls growing up here.

The K-pop industry doesn’t help either. Now, I’m not being racist as in ‘they all look the same’ but they do all actually look the same. Because here in Korea there is only one beauty ideal and all girls strive for it. In the West, we have beautiful blondes, brunettes, redheads. Some have oval face shapes, some heart-shaped; some are voluptuous and some are skinny – but there is a range. Here, there is only one beauty ideal – big round eyes, not almond. Pale white skin, not tanned. Skinny, with no definition. Slim face with a v-line jaw. Ok they may have different hair colours. But they have all had the same eye surgery, all had the same jawline surgery, and all are the same size. And so impressionable teenage girls look at these famous idols, then look at themselves and think, ‘what can I change to look like that?’

Growing up, I hated the fact I looked Asian because I never fit in. I was teased for my almond eyes and ironically, later on in my teens I was teased for being ‘too thin’ as well. My biggest gripe growing up as an adoptee was not that I was abandoned, but by the fact that I looked Asian, because I didn’t feel Asian and it made me stand out from my family and friends. At 14 years old, I read about double eyelid / eye widening surgery and asked my mum about it. And that broke her heart. Because she wanted me to love the way I look and appreciate my almond eyes. And since then, I have.

Coming to Korea I was comforted by the fact that I would be in a land where, for the first time in my life, I would fit in physically. But I don’t. I do not weigh 50kg; I like my hamburgers and fries too much. I play sport, I run and I cycle so I have big thighs. I have not had my eyes widened or had double eye-lid surgery because I’ve grown to appreciate that my eyes are a different shape. I’ve not had my jawline or cheekbones shaved down because plastic surgery isn’t that common in my home back in the UK and I quite like my cheekbones. I do not have pale skin because I enjoy being out in the sun. I thought I would find solace in looking the same as those around me, but I don’t. Instead it just gets me thinking ‘What would I look like if I had always lived here? Would I have gone under the knife too? What would I have wanted to change?’

And so it comes back down to the nature versus nurture debate. Because I guess even nurture plays a role in the way you physically look; it’s not all down to genes. More importantly, it was nurture that made me accept the way I look, not nature, not here in my motherland. I thought I would find comfort in a place where I should theoretically ‘fit in’. But I don’t find that comfort here, I find it back at home. Because when I compare that confidence my parents instilled in me to love myself, to the pressure society places on young girls here; nurture wins.

Finding Mee Hwa Kim

The search for Mee Hwa Kim which began over 18 months ago has had more twists and turns than a Game of Thrones season finale. After finding out that there was no need for me to go through the Australian Government and that I had been taken on a wild goose chase, and after being denied copies of my adoption files… again…. I was starting to think that this search was simply just not worth it. After several Skype sessions with my parents who encouraged me to keep with it, I decided to drop in again at my adoption agency and was surprised as to what was unearthed.

I dropped by unannounced hoping to catch them off guard. I had heard from other adoptees that if you make an appointment beforehand, that gives them time to prepare; time to remove any papers with identifying information on your birth parents. That being said, when the lady agreed to show me my file, she went to her desk, removed a wad of papers and came back to join me with a file half the size of the one she took out of the filing cabinet. So much for that then.

I was talked through the usual stuff and shown all the papers that I already had. At the end I told her that back in 2014 I was given lots of detail around my birth parents, what they were like, what they were good at in school, the circumstances in which I was relinquished etc. She simply told me that none of this information was in my file and that this was all she had. Well, then someone is telling me porkies.

On the way out, I asked her what the latest was on my birth family search. I was not expecting to hear anything promising back, otherwise they would have contacted me already, right? I had not heard anything since August when I was informed that my birth search application had been forwarded to Korean Adoption Services (KAS); a government affiliated organisation that helps locate birth parents. She looked through some papers that looked like an email chain and said ‘ah yes! We have news  from KAS’. Well that’s bloody brilliant, why didn’t you start off with that then?!

Unfortunately for me, this lady didn’t speak great English but the information I did gain from her was that:

  • KAS had found two people with my birth parents names who they believed were my birth parents
  • KAS didn’t have any identifiable information on them

All the while she kept reiterating that ‘likely this search will reach dead end’ and ‘many people with name Mee Hwa Kim’. But when she casually mentioned that ‘Mee Hwa Kim had been contacted’, I tried to get her to explain more. Our conversation went something like this:

‘So you have found my birth mother and have contacted her then?’

‘No, will be very hard’.

‘Yes, but you just said you contacted her’.

‘No, too many Mee Hwa Kim’.

I wasn’t getting anywhere with this woman. So I just bit my tongue, politely excused myself, thanked her for her time, went to meet Steve and collapsed in floods of tears.

The following day Steve rang up KAS for me and made an appointment. Already they were more willing to help and spoke better English so I had high hopes of getting to the bottom of what the current status of my birth search was. On meeting with KAS it transpired that they had found a record of my birth parents but with no identifiable information. In order to do a location search (i.e. last known address), they need name and security ID number. They then passed this on to the police who, apparently, have more up-to-date records. The police didn’t find anything on my birth father but did find a security ID number for Mee Hwa Kim. They sent her a correspondence which they are not permitted to tell me what it says. I have heard from other adoptees that it is quite vague, something along the lines of ‘a foreigner from overseas is looking for you’. I asked what the next steps were. ‘All you can do now is wait.’

All the while KAS kept managing my expectations by saying that they cannot say for definite this is my birth mother. They just use all the information they know, like age, name etc and make a best educated guess as to whether it could be the right person. I’ve had a few days to take this all in. At first I was sceptical – how certain are they that this is the right person? What other information did they use or know that narrowed it down? Then I grew a little disappointed – the telegraph was sent back in August and nothing had been heard back since. Does she not want to meet me? Or has the telegram fallen upon someone else with the name Mee Hwa Kim? Then I became angry. If I hadn’t asked for an update would my adoption agency have told me? Why wasn’t I notified sooner seeing as though this happened two months ago?

But ultimately, deep down in my heart I believe that Mee Hwa Kim is out there somewhere mulling this telegram over. She won’t have shared this unexpected news with her family. It won’t be an easy decision for her to make; I appreciate that. If she is anything like me, she will be debating the pros and cons for a long time in her head before making a decision. If the verdict she reaches is that it’s too hard to reach out to me then so be it. At least I can be comforted by the fact that I have now done everything in my power to track her down. That is what I came to Korea to do. The rest now, is up to her.

 

Celebrating Chuseok (Thanksgiving)

Watch our video about how we celebrated Chuseok!

One of the things I was most excited about was celebrating Chuseok in Korea. I had heard that it was one of the biggest holidays in the year here. People get 3 days off work and travel back home to celebrate with their families. Also known as the harvest festival, this three day holiday is celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar on the full moon (whenever the hell that is). That’s 15th September to you and me. As this was a Thursday, it meant that people had a 5 day weekend from Wednesday 14th through to Sunday 18th September.

I had heard that Seoul becomes pretty deserted throughout this holiday as people travel to the countryside to see their families. Many restaurants were closed and some transport ran a reduced service. We decided to take this opportunity to do some ‘touristy’ things that are usually quite busy at this time of year. We had planned to do some hiking but as the summer heat is still quite unbearable at the moment, we decided to wait till October to do that.

Day 1, Nami Island

The first day of Chuseok we decided to go to Nami Island which is a famous island about an hour from Seoul. It is famous for being the setting of popular K drama ‘Winter Sonata’. It normally attracts a big crowd but we were hoping as the majority of Korea was at their family home that it would be quite quiet. Fortunately we were right and there were no queues at all. We took the subway there and walked down the ferry pick up point. Already the scenery was breathtaking. When we hopped off the ferry we walked down the main tree-lined promenade which was full of couples taking selfies together (Steve and I included!)

We grabbed a coffee and hotteok (Korean style pancake) and perched ourselves on one of the many picnic benches. There were lots of live, traditional Korean performances on for the Chuseok holiday which we sat and enjoyed.

One of the most popular things to do on Nami Island is to take a ‘couple bike’ (tandem bike 8,000 WON per/hr) and cycle around the island so that’s what we did! And it was so much fun! We did a lap around the island before sitting down on an old log; Steve started skimming stones in to the lake. We saw a lot of the wildlife there including peacocks, squirrels and wild rabbits. It was such a nice, relaxing afternoon.

We returned our bikes and headed towards the pier, picking up some songpyeon on the way. Songpyeon are colourful rice cakes that are usually eaten around Chuseok time. They have a sweet filling, are chewy in texture and usually steamed over pine needles.

Nami island is 8,000 Won ($8) entry for tourists for the ferry, for a faster and more terrifying route to the island, there is a zip wire you can take for 38,000 won. Food was a bit pricey on the island and the restaurants was also very busy so i would recommend taking a packed lunch.

Day 2, Adoptee Chuseok dinner at Koroot

The following day we had a pretty lazy morning before heading to Ko Root Guesthouse which is a place here in Seoul where adoptees can stay when returning to Korea. Ko Root is an organisation which helps Korean adoptees returning to Korea. They run several social events, provide counselling for adoptees trying to find their birth parents, run a guesthouse where adoptees can stay and much more. It is run by Pastor Kim, who we were fortunate enough to have a great chat with at the party. He has done a lot of research and had a paper published on adoption here in Korea, especially regarding birth mothers. The volunteers at Koroot put on an amazing Chuseok dinner spread for all of us adoptees living here in Seoul; about 60 of us in total. We had a wide range of salads, bulgogi (Marinated beef), kimchi and japchae (sweet potato noodles with vegetables) – it was delicious and we were truly spoiled!

For me what was amazing was meeting some other adoptees here on the same journey as I am. It was comforting to speak with adoptees who had met with their birth parents and those who like myself are still searching. What was amusing as well is that there were so many nationalities represented. Even though we all look Korean, those who I met were so clearly from their own country. The Dutch adoptee was just so, well, DUTCH. He was still ranting about how Holland didn’t make the Euros! The Italian adoptee had long groomed hair with a trendy button down shirt. I loved it because despite us all looking Korean, we are so clearly a result of the environment we were raised in.

Day 3, Namsangol Village

The following day we decided to head to Namsangol Village which is a folk village with lots of traditional performances and activities. As it was Chuseok, they had on a lot of performances as well as activities – you could make your own candles, songpyeon, rice toffee and lots more. I was more excited about the food fair that was there. There were lots of food trucks around the village with treats such as grilled steak with noodles, kimchi fried rice, dumplings, and lots more.

We opted for the steak and japchae noodles with a seafood pancake on the side. Yum!

Day 4, KBO Baseball at Jamsil

On Saturday we headed out to watch a baseball game at Jamsil stadium. It was Samsung versus LG, the team we support. We go to the baseball every week as its cheap and good fun but this time it was packed, and roasting hot. We arrived a little late so the only seats that were left were right smack bang in the sun! Fortunately we had brought umbrellas in our bag so following what the Koreans do, we used our umbrellas to shelter us from the scorching sun!

The game went on for nearly 5 hours until LG Twins got a home run in the bottom of the 11th, therefore winning the game! Yay!

Day 5, Brunch at Itaweon

Today is the last day of Chuseok so we came to Itaewon to work and also go for brunch. If it’s one thing I miss it’s a decent brunch. I have been on the hunt for the best brunch in Seoul and this morning we struck gold when we went to The Flying Pan Blue in Itaewon! As we couldn’t decide between sweet or savoury we got one pesto, eggs, mushrooms, hummus on toast and one grilled banana french toast. Wow, it’s the best brunch I have ever had here and definitely top 10 ever!

We went to the Western Supermarket (High Street Market) in Itaewon to pick up some stuff we can’t get at our local EMART – pesto, almond milk, hash browns and most importantly English tea. Unfortunately they don’t have Yorkshire tea, just Lipton so it’s quite weak – but we only have to last until Friday when two of my good friends are coming to visit (hopefully with a big box of Yorkshire tea as requested!)

And that was our Chuseok. It was great to explore more of Korea, meet new people and learn the traditions of this holiday. There were two stand out moments for me:

Leading up to Chuseok I felt a bit emotional that here I was in Korea, celebrating a family holiday but still not knowing where my birth family actually was or who they were. How were they celebrating this holiday? Was she wondering about me, not knowing that I was actually here? What I found so comforting was that Pastor Kim and his volunteers didn’t want us to spend Chuseok alone here. It made me feel grateful that we could spend this holiday with my other family here in Korea; my adoptee family. And we did what we do best – celebrated and drank a lot of Korean booze!

The second moment was at the baseball. As it was so packed at the game we stood at the back alongside the locals in the shade for the last few innings. In front of me was an old man, clearly very in to his baseball and clearly very frustrated that LG Twins was losing. Every play he either cheered or jeered depending on the result. I had been singing (well, attempting to) the LG chants and following the actions he was doing, keen to be a part of the fun. When a decision was being contested, he was watching the slow-motion replay on his phone. I didn’t understand what had happened; there was a pitch, then the batter seemed to run off to the dug-out. The old man showed me the replay on his phone – ah, it had hit his wrist. I pointed to wrist and feigned a pained look. ‘Ne’ he said; ‘yes’ in Korean. When LG Twins equalised in the 8th inning, the stadium erupted and the old man next to me turned around, cheered loudly, gave me a high 5 and hugged me. And I was so happy because I felt like I was being accepted by a Korean. He didn’t know my back story, he didn’t wonder why I couldn’t speak his language; but he wanted to celebrate the win with me, and it had been my first meaningful exchange with someone here. It made me feel like I belonged.

The Search for Kim, Mee Hwa

Reading through my file again (that fortunately my parents requested when I was younger before the law changed) I noticed that my birth mother had left her actual name; for some reason that had never clicked with me before.

Recently I asked for a copy of my file to be sent to me from my adoption agency but it just contained all the information that I already had; they had removed all the papers that explained more about my birth mother’s history (again they can’t share this information anymore due to the new law), and they had deleted their names from the file (luckily I already had them. Thanks mum and dad!) The laws surrounding adoption have changed in Korea and now biological parents names are blacked out from your file; you are not allowed to know them. Like so many other adoption laws, this was done to protect the birth parents. Shame no body thinks about the adopted children; who has our best interests at heart?

In the majority of cases, birth mothers left a fake name so I am not even really sure this is actually her name. Steve always tells me though that if she is anything like me, then she would have had the heart and integrity to leave her real name.

I have spent hours searching these names on Facebook. Holding up profile photos next to my face and asking Steve ‘does she look like me?’ or ‘maybe this is her?’ It’s become somewhat of a game. Sometimes I will just pick a random person and ask Steve just to see what he responds.

‘Does she look like me?’

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But jokes aside, Mee Hwa Kim is only 46 years old, she could be very well on Facebook, right?

The search so far has been far from easy. It’s taken nearly a year to get where I am now and I am none the wiser as to the whereabouts of Mee Hwa Kim. As I was adopted in to Australia through Eastern Child Welfare Society, I had to go through the Australian Government to complete all my paperwork and kickstart the birth family search. Having this middle man has proved extremely time costly and very ineffective – but hey, that’s the law. We Aussie adoptees have it the worst so I learned at the IKAA conference; everyone else can just go directly to their adoption agency to start a birth family search. Due to the fact that my parents moved around a lot within Australia (Melbourne, Perth and Sydney), it took 6 months for the Government to actually locate my Order of Adoption. It was supposed to be in the state of Victoria as my parents were living in Melbourne at the time, but they didn’t have it. I was then re-directed to Western Australia where they eventually found my record. More annoying was the fact that each state has their own paperwork – I can’t tell you how many forms I have filled out over the past year! In order to see my file or obtain any information about my adoption I must go through this process. When my adoption agency in Korea successfully receives my application/request for information, then there is another 3-6 month waiting list for them to begin a birth family search. My record and file then gets to sent to Korean Adoption Services which is a Government affiliated organisation and they will try and match the names with the most recent address for both my birth parents. This can also take between 3-6 months.#thestruggleisreal.

For the last 3 months, whenever I chased up my adoption agency on the whereabouts of my request, my emails would go unanswered for weeks, or they would just tell me to speak to the Australian Government again. A mentor at the IKAA conference said ‘Maree, you need to stop being British about this and go Korean on their ass! Demand to get your file and for them to start the search!’ So that’s what I did. After numerous emails back and forth with my adoption agency and social worker, another lot of paperwork, and me telling them that I plan on going to their office and demanding to know what’s happened if they don’t reply, I finally received confirmation today that my file has been sent to Korean Adoption Services – the last step in this drawn out process.

I’ve been told many times that as I have a lot of details like dates, names etc that my search shouldn’t take that long and should be relatively easy. Korean Adoption Services will try and find the last recorded address for my birth parents (using the names that they left at my adoption agency) and send them a message informing them that I wish to get in touch. They will send a translated version of the letter I wrote for my birth mother which is on my blog. They will also send a photo (I sent my wedding photo). So we shall see; for now all there is to do is wait.

So what have I learned from all of this? I don’t think the Korean adoption agencies were prepared for the influx of returning adoptees, demanding to know their history. At the time, they just wanted to get us babies shipped off to our new homes as soon as possible. This led to shoddy records, poor documentation and ultimately huge knowledge gaps in the lives of adoptees. Little did they know that we would all come back to our motherland demanding to know our past and how we came to be. I learned at the IKAA conference that upon relinquishment, most birth mothers were told ‘you will never hear from them again so do not try and get in contact’ – they wanted the process to be seamless and clean. Many adoptees I have spoken with said that when they did eventually meet their birth parents; what was on their file was so far from the truth.

To anyone going through the same thing my advice would be:

  • Each adoptive country, agency etc has their own paperwork, rules and process. Whilst the Australian process is notoriously known to be long, I have also spoken with adoptees who’s agencies were extremely helpful, kept meticulous records and found their birth parents within a few months. I guess it’s luck of the draw. Where possible insist that you speak directly to your adoption agency or orphanage. Do all the paperwork and whatever is asked of you throughout the process – things are very bureaucratic here so unless you have filled out the required documentation, no one will help you. Even if that means filling out the same form three times!
  • That being said do be realistic about your search. Know that it’s going to be hard. Bear in mind that some say the success rate is only 15%. Do the search in your own time. When I became overwhelmed with it all, I took a break from it for a couple months before Steve or my mum or dad would gently remind me that I had yet another form to fill out and the ball was still in my court.
  • Try to understand your birth mother’s situation. The culture here in Korea is still very against teenage pregnancy and single mothers. Until recently adultery was illegal and so finding out your partner had a child years ago that she relinquished can in some cases be grounds for divorce.
  • Be pushy, but polite! I was writing my emails to my adoption agency like this: ‘If it’s not too much trouble, it would be really helpful to have a copy of my file or as much information as you can give me. If you could I would really appreciate it’. Time to be direct! ‘Please send through a copy of my file as soon as possible.’ Done. Not only did I find that they responded more to this but nothing gets lost in translation.
  • Reach out to an agency like GOAL (Global Overseas Adoption Link). They have a birth family search team that help adoptees – https://www.goal.or.kr. I really admire the work that GOAL does and recently became a member of them (I would encourage you to do the same). They help adoptees returning to Korea, conduct birth family searches, Korean language scholarships, mentor program and provide a lot of mental health help and resources. It is actually run by Korean adoptees so there is a definite understanding of what you’re going through. I have also sent my file to them to do a separate birth family search incase their process is quicker.
  • Speak to someone! Speak to your friends, speak to a mentor, reach out to other adoptees. I thought it was just me that was going through this but then I met more Australian adoptees equally frustrated with the system. Or reach out to me – I’m always happy to help. Above all, when possible, speak to your mum and dad. I find it really sad when I hear that adoptees feel they can’t talk to their parents about their birth family search in fear of making them feel threatened. I know I am extremely lucky to have parents that are so open about my adoption and I do not take that for granted. Together with Steve, they have been my biggest support and fighters throughout this. There have been times where I just thought ‘I can’t be bothered anymore with this search’. They have been the ones to pick me up, dig out all my papers and insist I keep going. That resilience, I know, is something I get from both of them.

 

Life in Seoul – Week 1

Having finally settled in to our flat I finally have time to write about our first week in Seoul and also about the IKAA conference.

In the lead up to leaving the UK I was beyond excited; I could not wait to get here. I didn’t feel nervous or apprehensive, I was like a little kid on Christmas Eve. So excited was I that I didn’t sleep a wink on the flight over. I listened to KPOP, I learned the Korean alphabet hangeul, I watched a K-drama and I put on an Innisfree face mask – I did anything I possibly could that was Korean to prepare me for my arrival in Seoul (eh hem *GEEK*).

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We landed at Incheon Airport on a hazy Saturday at around 2:30pm in the afternoon. As soon as the airplane door opened and I stepped outside, an overwhelming waft of humidity greeted me. I started to panic. ‘What the heck am I doing here? I don’t even speak the language’ was the first thought that came to mind. I felt totally unprepared. An old man barged past me in the doorway, jolting me back to reality.

Queueing for immigration, the first two thoughts that entered my mind were:

1.) everyone is very pale here compared to me

2.) Koreans do not queue. A girl in stilettos barged past me in the queue, smirked and tottered in front of me and I was so angry I wanted to ram my suitcase in to her heels (but I didn’t). Must be the British in me. We love an orderly queue.

We got the Korean Air Limousine bus to our hotel – the Lotte hotel in Myeongdong. The hotel was incredible and we, as adoptees, were lucky enough to get a substantial discount at this hotel (otherwise there was no way we would have been able to afford it!) The hotel also has THE most incredible food court. God help me, I love a food court.

Determined to stay awake, we immediately met up with our good friends; the only other British Korean adoptee to join the IKAA conference! We had some yummy street food in Myeongdong then went to a cocktail bar for a few drinks. And that’s when I started to crash. We went back to the hotel proud of ourselves for staying awake until 11pm and hoping this would see us through until morning. We were wrong.

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Last time we were in Korea it took us a week to get over the jet lag – this time it was exactly the same. We tried everything we could; we had a little nap, then tried staying awake till late hoping we would sleep in until morning. Didn’t work. So we didn’t nap and stayed awake all day until 12pm hoping to sleep until morning. Didn’t work either. We went to the gym hoping to knacker ourselves out. Didn’t work. We went on a big night out and drank soju shots until 4am hoping we would sleep in until mid-morning. Still didn’t work. Fortunately we had a few days to kill before the conference started to get over the jet lag which was predominantly spent exploring Myeongdong, eating, and complaining about our lack of sleep.

 IKAA (International Korean Adoptee Association) Gathering 2016

The conference is held every 3 years and is a gathering of 500+ adoptees from all over the world. The week consists of a mixture of social activities, culture sessions, workshops and presentations on various topics relating to adoption. This year the theme of the gathering was ‘Connecting Communities and Looking Towards the Future’.

IMG_1805Despite the large number of adoptees present, it was at times quite difficult to meet people. Many were in ‘adoptee clubs’ back in their home country and therefore a lot knew each other prior to the conference and stuck together throughout. Steve and I sat at a table a couple times to be told ‘sorry this is reserved for the [enter club] adoptees’. It was a bit like being back at high school!

That, or you would have a fleeting conversation with someone over breakfast only to never see them again throughout the whole conference. An exception to this was a wonderful couple we met from Washington. We sat with them for breakfast on the Tuesday and had both signed up to the tour that was planned for that morning. We both headed over to the meeting point at 9:30am… only be told that the tour had changed to 9am and the bus had already left! Unperturbed we decided to do our own tour of Seoul and hopped in a taxi (take that, bus wankers) to Gyeongbukgung Palace to witness the changing of the guard. Steve forgot to put on sunscreen so he copied all the other Koreans and got a brolly out 😂

Korean War Memorial

We then took a taxi to the Korean War Memorial which is a huge museum detailing the military history of Korea, in particular, the Korean War. This museum is massive (allegedly 20,000 m2) and took us a good few hours to get around. Exhibits range from the Three kingdoms in the early part of last millennia, invasions from Mongol and Japan in the middle ages, through to the modern age including, the big crowd puller, the Korean War.   The Korean war section in particular is curated perfectly (albeit relatively biased) and is a very engaging experience. The museum is free entry but donations are welcome and is a must see. Korea has had such a sad history and actually listening to the video clips and stories does make you understand the modern Korean mentality of pride, hard work and sense of achievement to pull itself out of hardship and shield itself from vulnerability.

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KBO Baseball Game, Jamsil Baseball Stadium

We called our tour a day after the war museum and headed back to the Lotte Hotel for a quick nap before the baseball game. For those don’t know, baseball is huge in South Korea; they practically consider it a national sport. The majority of teams, rather than being named after cities are named after businesses or conglomerates like Samsung, KIA etc. The game we saw was between Doosan Bears and LG Twins (both Seoul based teams that actually share the same stadium in Jamsil). Baseball games in South Korea are somewhat of a spectacle. Fans sing loudly the numerous chants of their club (many of which were to Lady Gaga songs which I didn’t quite understand). There are girls dancing on podiums like KPOP bands encouraging the crowd to partake. Spectators bring in Korean Fried Chicken and lots of soju and beer to drink throughout the (very long) game. Baseball in Korea is very good value for money with seats in the outfield starting for as little as 7,000 won ($7) going up to 20,000 ($20) won to be sat in the chanting section! Most games you can simply turn up on the day and pick up tickets but it gets busier at weekends and public holidays. For end of season crunch fixtures, booking in advance is recommended.

With LG Twins being marginally up in the 4th inning (and this was after 3 hours), we figured we had experienced enough and went to Itaewon for some drinks with some other Korean adoptees.

Feeling the Seoul Heat

The next day was the hottest day in Seoul so far this year. Even Koreans were complaining about the heat (so imagine how we felt). The humidity here is unbearable. You know that desired Korean skin glow that you hear about?

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Well let me tell you something, that glow is just SWEAT. I now see why it’s so achievable here. Trust me, if you lived here, you would have it too. I’m fairly sure the Koreans had to think of a way to describe this sweat in a desirable way and therefore have marketed it as the infamous ‘Korean glow’!

We had signed up to the ‘Amazing Race’ which was like a treasure hunt around Seoul. Each team was given a list of tasks to do/things to find throughout Seoul and record them. We had to complete as many of the tasks as possible before 2:30pm. It seemed a fun idea at the time… when we naively signed up….in England. Despite the heat, we decided to go through with it and were lucky enough to have a fun group of other like-minded adoptees. None of us we were in it to win it, we just wanted to shelter in the air con and eat cold noodles! We completed 6 out of the 10 tasks which as far I was concerned was pretty good considering it was 36 degrees with 90% humidity. One guy on our team said ‘I went to the Amazon rainforest last year during the summertime. This is far worse!’ Splendid. Many companies here hand out fans on the streets advertising their latest product or service. I saw a woman handing out fans in Myeongdong, grabbed one and started to fan myself down. Only to realise that on the fan was WONDERBRA written in huge yellow letters. Sod it, I didn’t care.

Whilst we were melting in the Seoul heat, the other half of the adoptees at the conference were wise and stayed in the air-conditioned hotel watching films on adoption. Fortunately I had seen all three films before – AKA Dan, Approved for Adoption and Twinsters. AKA Dan can be watched on YouTube. He was there at the conference and gave a Q&A on his documentary film series which is about how he found his twin brother who was still in South Korea and was not adopted. The second film ‘Approved for Adoption’, is a French animation film (Couleur de peau: Miel). It tells the story of Jung, a South Korean orphan who was adopted in to a family in Belgium and describes his childhood being stranded between two cultures. The memoir uses a mixture of archival film and animation and it is just heartbreakingly wonderful. Please watch it, it is simply incredible.The third film Twinsters is on Netflix and is also good. It’s about a set of twins (duh), one who was adopted in to America and one who was adopted in to France and how they came to find each other. I think I’ve told most of my close friends to watch this!

South Korean Adoption Story

Letter to my birth mother

6th June, 2016

To my birth mother

My name is Maree van Aken and if you are reading this letter, then you must be my birth mother.

It feels strange to introduce myself to you – I am now 29 years old (as of today) and living in London – I have a good job and was lucky enough to marry the man of my dreams. I have a very close relationship with my parents who are still lovingly together after 30 years of marriage. My mother is English and my father Dutch – we lived in Australia for 11 years then moved to Japan for 2 years, Holland for 6 years and now we all live in England. I studied Biomedical Science at a good university followed by a Masters in International Business. I love sports, food, and travelling.

I am moving to Seoul in July for a few months to experience South Korea and explore more about my lost culture. Which is why I wanted to reach out to you. It would be wonderful to be able to meet you and say thank you in person although I am aware that your circumstances now may make this difficult. I want to let you know that I am here and willing should you ever wish to meet, or even just to get in touch and write back. I would love to see and have a photo of you. Above all, I would just like to know that you are out there happy and content with life – that would give me great reassurance.

I want to thank you for giving me up for adoption and hope you look back on it as a decision that was best for the both of us. I sincerely hope that you live with no regrets; that you have found peace and happiness as I have. I pray that you are well and hopefully have a happy family of your own. If there is anything that I want you to take from this letter is that I am safe, healthy and above all happy. I hope to hear from you but if not I wish you nothing but love and happiness in life and I want to thank you for what has been an amazing and privileged life.

All my love,

Maree

 

South Korean Adoption Story

That Birthday Feeling

Instead of the usual feeling of ‘oh my god I am getting older’ on my birthday I am filled with a different emotion each year on the 6th of June. I am very fortunate to have such an amazing family, husband, friends and colleagues who all ensured that my day was full of happiness and surprises. And whilst most people enjoy celebrating their birthday (and believe me, I am no exception to this rule – our bartender at Jinjuu can vouch for that), I do feel a sense of sadness on it. Partly because back in 1987, the 6th of June wasn’t a happy day for all involved; it was a day, I’m sure, that must have been heartbreaking for my birth mother.

This year was a particular thought provoking birthday, what with preparing to head to South Korea in a month’s time. A year in to my birth family search, I received an email from my adoption case worker asking for a letter to draft to my birth mother in the event that they locate her. I decided to write this letter to her on my birthday – I’m poetic like that 😉

Some adoptees that I’ve spoken with have had similar feelings. Many say they feel sad or even angry on their birthday. In Twinsters, Anais says she never refers to 19th November as her birthday because she ‘didn’t mean anything to anyone’ on this date. It wasn’t until a date in March, when she was with her adopted family in France, that she refers to as her ‘birthday’.

For me, my birthday is a day tinged with sadness and loss. After all, it was the day when the first person that met you, who brought you in to this world, subsequently decided to give you up. And that, for all its explanations is at times a difficult fact to acknowledge. However, a lot of good came out of it as well. One woman may have had to make the most difficult decision in her life; for another, her prayers were answered.

My favourite poem called ‘Legacy of an Adopted Child’ sums this up perfectly. I feel it’s important to celebrate my birthday for all the good that came out of it and the family I was lucky enough to join; however I can’t help but spare a thought to the woman who must have grieved so much on this day as well. I wonder if she’s out there somewhere thinking about me on this day and I hope when she does, that the feeling isn’t one of guilt or sadness but of hope.

Legacy of an Adopted Child

Once there were two women who never knew each other,
One you do not remember, the other you call mother.
Two different lives shaped to make yours one,
One became your guiding star, the other became your sun.
The first gave you life, and the second taught you to live in it.
The first gave you a need for love and the second was there to give it.
One gave you a nationality; the other gave you a name.
One gave you the seed of talent; the other gave you an aim.
One gave you emotions; the other calmed your fears.
One saw your first sweet smile; the other dried your tears.
One gave you up – that’s all she could do.
The other prayed for a child and God led her straight to you.
Now you ask through all your tears the age old question through the years;
Heredity or environment – which am I a product of?
Neither, my darling – neither – just two different kinds of love.

In search of my something

In April 2014, I returned to Korea for the first time, desperate to understand more about the country I left behind 26 years ago. I had never really given it much thought previously. I had always said to myself ‘one day I’ll go’. Then one day out of nowhere, I said to Steve ‘I want to go to Korea’. We booked tickets and off we went.

At the time I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to get out of it. Did I want to find my birth parents? No. Did I want to understand more about my past? Maybe. Did I want to know more about my culture? Yes. All I really knew at the time was that I had to go there; I thought that me just ‘being there’ would be enough to satiate this feeling of longing.

Steve tells me that most of the time when we were walking the streets of Korea I had the biggest smile on my face. I didn’t want to miss anything; I wanted to soak in as much as I could and I loved every minute of exploring the culture that was so alien, yet so comforting to me.

Visiting South Korea for the First time since my adoption

I enjoyed it so much so that it was actually unnerving to Steve that I didn’t show any emotion. I didn’t feel slighted when I had to explain to many Koreans that I was adopted and therefore didn’t speak the language. I didn’t feel overwhelmed when I met my foster mother, Mrs Yoon. I didn’t cry as I entered the ‘baby room’ at my adoption agency. I didn’t feel sad as my social worker told me details of my adoption. My social worker actually told me I ‘was one of the most grounded and content adoptees’ she had ever met. I guess many adoptees come back to Korea in the pursuit of happiness; searching for missing pieces of their identity and ultimately don’t find the answers they were hoping to receive. I didn’t really come hoping to find happiness. At the time I was already pretty content with life; I had a good job, a loving fiance and adoring parents. But I did have a feeling of ‘I need to get something out of this trip’ even though at the time I didn’t know what that ‘something’ was.

Below is a video of what we got up to in Korea back in 2014:

It wasn’t until we got on the bus back to the airport after an incredible 3 week trip that I burst into tears. Why? I didn’t know if I would ever be back again. I felt like there was more for me to get out of being there; that I hadn’t really found my ‘something’ yet. Ultimately, I already felt homesick for a country I had just become acquainted with. I felt like time had run out, and it seemed unfair. I wept uncontrollably for the whole 90 minute bus ride to Incheon Airport.

Still, as I mentioned in my guest post for a fellow adoptee’s blog – Seoul Shakedown by Ali McNally – Korea, for me, was never a question of lost family, it was always a question of identity; being Korean and understanding what that meant. I wrote this blog a couple of months after I got back and I was able to look back on my time in Korea with content and happiness.

My blog on Seoul Shakedown: http://seoulshakedown.com/guest-post-adoption-by-maree/

At the time, I didn’t really have any plans to go back. I slipped back in to my life here, went straight back to work, started planning our wedding and within a few months time Korea was simply a long-lost memory; merely a great place we visited some time ago on holiday.

Fast forward two years. I think since being married something has triggered inside of me. Two years ago I was dead set against a birth family search. Why? I didn’t feel the need to go in search for another mother; I already had a great one. So having just kickstarted the process of a birth family search now, why the change of heart? Now that I’m married and thinking about having children in the future, I feel I am in a place to put myself in my birth mother’s shoes. Although it felt like closure at the time, I feel that I won’t get a final sense of fulfilment until I know my birth mother ended up happy in life, and that in turn she knows that I am happy in life and ultimately made the right decision.

So Steve and I have made the decision to bite the bullet and to go live there for a few months. I am incredibly lucky to have such a supportive husband that is willing to follow me there (although he loves Korea more than I do so he literally jumped at the chance to live there!) Always encouraging and unwavering in his support, he knows how important this is for me to find my ‘something’.