For Korean adoptees searching for their birth families, it is more common not to find than to find. According to my conversation with Ellie at Holt Korea, less than 20 percent of adoptees are successful in finding birth families, a number that seems ridiculously inflated considering all the obstacles put in front of adoptees searching. (I have tried to reconfirm this statistic with Ellie, but have not received a response from her.) My gut says that number is closer to one or two percent. But numbers aside, most of the stories I had read about were of adoptees who had found and all the problems that occurred with that outcome. So what about not finding?
It may seem obvious, but the important thing about not finding is figuring out how to get to closure without closure. That process, necessarily, is highly individual.
On the bus – back to the airport to go back to the U.S.
During my active search, I was very worried about not finding and how I would deal with it. At the KAAN (Korean American Adoptive Family Network) conference, I heard one adoptee talk about not finding. He said that he had been an emotional wreck for months after returning to the States. I listened to him talk, and I heard his voice as he narrated the photos from his trip. He was clearly in control of himself, but even so, he seemed very fragile. I was worried that I was going to meet the same fate. To put so much time and effort and hope into something so integral to your existence, and then to come up with nothing…yes, that outcome was very worrisome.
In Korea I had allowed for the possibility of one, or more, major emotional meltdowns, but aside from a few minor hiccups (for example, Nancy at the coffee shop) and one major one (Sally asking me to leave), that meltdown never came. But I had also noticed an odd change in perspective during my time in Korea, which became apparent by the time I got to Pohang. I felt as if I had transformed from Erica Moffett, the adoptee, to Erica Moffett, the detective. It was as if Sohn Soon, my birth name, had splintered off from me and had disappeared somewhere into this world. It was surreal and often I would have to remind myself that Sohn Soon was not some random baby we were searching for, but actually me. It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure out that this was my way of dealing with not being able to find the mother who had abandoned me.
At the airport, waiting for my flight.
For me, the process was also helped by the very gradual revelation that I was not going to find my birth family. By the time Sohn Soon had splintered off from me, I had already intuited that my search was going to come up dry, even though I hadn’t consciously acknowledged it. But—my conversations with George, the Holt adoption specialists, the policeman, and Sally—all unconsciously confirmed my intuition. Once I got to Pohang I was finally able to acknowledge that I wasn’t going to find my birth family. This was a natural evolution in the search. So here was my last imagined fantasy: Sohn Soon as a baby, but not the baby that turned into me. Instead, it was Sohn Soon who had died and had been set free to float away into the atmosphere, the ether—unencumbered by a birth family who had created her, or an adoptee who was created by her. And what made it all ok was that I, Erica Lee Moffett, the adoptee, was the one setting her free.
On my ten-hour layover in Seattle, one of the best days of my trip to Korea.
At the same time, I also have to allow for the fact that my particular experiences in Korea did not lend themselves to nostalgia about my birth mother, birth family, and birth country. By the fourth day of my trip, I was in no good mood. I was ready to leave the country, abandon the search, and forget all my troubles on a white sand beach in the South Pacific. While I stayed in Korea, there were quite a few times during the remainder of the trip when I wondered if I had made the right decision. Of course I had made the right decision But that didn’t stop the elation I felt when I finally left Korea and my flight had landed in the U.S. at 11a in Seattle, Washington. I had ten hours to kill before the red-eye back to New York, and, thanks to a colleague who gave me the perfect itineray for a ten-hour layover in Seattle, that day ended up being the most enjoyable day of my entire trip to Korea. Ironically, it happened to occur in America. I can only speculate as to how that all contributed to Sohn Soon dying and being set free.
Back in New York – early morning from my apartment.
Back in New York, it occurred to me that the emotional meltdown was just around the corner, having been delayed until some future point in time, and after I had returned from Korea. But once back, I returned to my life with relatively little fuss. I kept waiting for the warning signs of a breakdown (e.g., irritability, impatience, the onset of despair…), but they never materialized. On the contrary, I felt pretty good. In fact, I felt really good. I felt as if I had been set free to get on with the rest of my life.
However, just because I never had that emotional meltdown in Korea doesn’t mean that there was never emotional turmoil about the decision to search; or searching and hoping to find; or searching and not finding. I cannot emphasize enough that for my entire life, there was huge emotional turmoil around this. Turmoil that manifested itself in almost everything I did. And after I had made the decision to actively search, the turmoil intensified. If I was caught off guard, even a simple conversation could cause me to break down.
One day in late spring I was sitting in my office when a colleague walked in for a scheduled meeting to discuss a business project. This was just a few days after Holt USA told me that my search was impossible. She came in, shut the door, sat down, and then told me that she was adopting a baby and would be taking some time off once she actually got the baby. She had not known that I was adopted, nor had I known that she was adopting. We exchanged some surprise over this. I was very curious to hear how the agency was preparing her for life with an adopted child because I was developing a theory that the agencies are more interested in placing the babies than they are in preparing the adoptive parents to meet the uncommon challenges of raising an adopted child. She told me a few of the difficulties she had encountered, one of which was meeting the birth mother (hers was a domestic adoption). I told her I couldn’t even imagine doing that. She said that it had been, at times, very emotional. I started to tell her my story—that I was searching for my birth mother—but I only got halfway through the sentence before I started to cry. I was thinking about her meeting her baby’s birth mother, and of that birth mother saying goodbye to her baby, and then of my own birth mother, somewhere in Pohang, Korea, some 45 years ago, saying goodbye to me. And now, here I was, in my own halting quest to find her, deliberately searching for her at this point. We sat there for a moment, in silence, while I got myself together. Then we scheduled another time to discuss the business we had never gotten around to discussing.
Back at Work
In reflecting on all this, I think that I escaped the emotional turmoil in Korea because I had suffered the emotional turmoil before going to Korea. For me, I believe it was the act of going to Korea that allowed me to close down that part of my life. Hence, the splintering of Sohn Soon from Erica Lee Moffett.
It doesn’t mean I never think about my birth family anymore. In fact, oddly, I think about them even more now (perhaps because I am able to think about it without the same amount of emotional pain). I still have all the same questions about who she was, why I came into existence, and what she and my father were like. But now I don’t feel that not knowing will kill me, something which I had felt for most of my life. And I no longer feel that the loss of my birth mother is overwhelming, something also, that I had felt for most of my life. This is a good thing. But at the same time, I am also sad about the closure. I still grieve, now in the most abstract sense, for her.
Erica Moffet’s story will be running each Wednesday on Woman Around Town. Click to read The Introduction, Seoul – “Why Are You Here?”, “Why Did You Wait So Long?”, In Pohang, a Baby Girl Was Born, Pohang – A Cold Case Reinvestigated, In Preparation for Pohang, Seoul – Days One, Two, Three, and Five, Seoul: “I Can Feel Your Sadness,” and “What About Sally?”