Two days after my conversation with George (see my previous story, In Preparation for Pohang), I was in Seoul. I was staying with Sally and we had arranged meetings with the policeman and the adoption agency for my first full day there. We planned to go to Pohang a few days later and were going to organize that trip while I was there because, according to Sally, “Koreans never make plans that far in advance. If you do, they won’t think it’s that important and they will cancel on you as soon as something else comes up.” I, being American and Type A, didn’t like having those loose ends dangling, but Sally had been immensely helpful up to this point. I trusted her on this, too. (Photo above: Me with the policeman at his office at the Missing Persons Bureau.)
Day one it was rainy, warm, and humid. We met the policeman at the Missing Persons Bureau, where we were shown into a small room that looked a lot like a Korean bedroom with cabinets on the walls and mats on the floor. We sat down on the floor mats. I was wearing a sleeveless, black and white print, tailored dress, and while we were waiting, Sally pulled out her light green windbreaker and handed it to me. “We are much more conservative here in Korea. Women dress so much more modestly here.” The room, being so tiny, and given the rain and humidity, was stuffy and hot. I had worn my dress to be comfortable in this weather. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to put on that jacket. But Sally insisted and I didn’t want to be rude, or disrespectful, so I put it on.
Once the policeman came, the conversation, all in Korean, went very quickly. Every few minutes, Sally would turn to me and explain what he was saying. I don’t know much Korean, but I do know that “obsoyo” means “no” or “non-existent,” as in “don’t have.” Sally would ask a question, and the only word I would catch in his long answer was “obsoyo” or “obso.” This pattern repeated itself over and over during the meeting. I assumed he was telling Sally what George had warned me about three days earlier, and I was right. New and concrete information on me which he could follow-up with, was non-existent. Moreover, information which I had previously thought good, was now suspect. My birth date, for instance, he could not verify and said I couldn’t assume it was correct.
“But why,” I thought, “would someone make up a birth date?” I was disoriented, in the same way that I had been when I discovered that I had been born in Pohang and not Seoul. I had come hoping for more information and instead I would be leaving with less.
He had run my DNA through the adoptee and missing persons database, but nothing had turned up. This was not surprising since most people in Korea do not voluntarily put DNA samples into that database. But he also said that my DNA would be in the system permanently, so there was still a possibility I could match up with someone in the future.
In the Hongdae section, one of the trendy university sections in town where GOAL is located.
Near the end of our meeting, he suggested the media because there wasn’t a lot more he could do on his end. He knew producers at all of the stations and started calling them immediately to see if they would be interested in carrying my story. I was hesitant. I find reality TV distasteful and I felt this was only one step above that, exploiting the entire adoption situation. But Sally thought it would be a good idea and, by that time, he had already left messages at two of the stations. On the third call, he got someone live who said they could be interested. He and Sally told them my brief story. Then he gave them Sally’s number so they could follow-up with her. I expressed my doubts, but he said the shows weren’t trying to exploit the adoptees or the parents. He still felt it was the best chance to find my family. I decided that I would play it by ear.
But now, he and Sally were worried about the timing of my meeting with the post-adoption specialist at Holt, scheduled to occur in two hours. If the TV station did want to do a story, they would not be able to film my meeting with the agency, which they would surely want to do. He recommended that I postpone the meeting until the following week. Sally agreed, so I called and rescheduled the meeting to the following Monday.
With the afternoon now free of meetings, Sally and I went for a quick tour of the War Museum. Then she went home and I went out to sightsee.
GOAL offices on the fifth flour of the building
Day two, I made my way over to the office for the Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (GOAL) located in one of the trendy university areas. GOAL was in the final stages of organizing a “First Trip Home” for twenty adoptees, who were all supposed to arrive the following week. The sole purpose of that trip was to conduct birth family searches. Normally, GOAL would have been able to do what Sally was doing for me (act as guide, translator, advocate), but because of the upcoming trip, all of their resources were being used for that. I had already discussed that with them earlier in the summer, and had told them it wasn’t a problem because Sally was helping me and she was doing a great job anyway. I met most of the staff, including George, and they gave me a bunch of pamphlets they had produced about searching and finding and adoption policy in Korea. I thanked them, and once I left their offices, I walked around the area a bit, had a late lunch and then went back to Sally’s.
Day three, Sally was out for her regular morning walk when I woke up. I got up and made some coffee. When she returned, we ate breakfast, and after we had finished, she said that she needed to tell me something. She looked very serious. “I think you should find another place to stay,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “Ok.” I tried to keep a poker face, but I must have showed some surprise.
Holt Post-Adoption Services Office
She explained that it was her daughter’s last week in Korea (her daughter was over for the summer, with her two children, staying at her husband’s family’s place), and she thought they weren’t visiting her because I was there. She gave me a few thoughts about where to stay. Then she got up, went into her bedroom, and shut the door. I sat there stunned.
I assumed I was to be out of the house as soon as I could, though I did not want to ask and have her confirm that. Instead I got out my computer and spent the next few hours scouring the Internet for a new place to stay. It didn’t help that it was the last week in the summer before school started, one of the busiest travel weeks in the year. But I eventually found a hotel that, on the Internet, looked clean and was in a good neighborhood. I jotted down the name, address, and price and studied the subway map for the best way to get there. Then I walked down the hall and knocked on Sally’s door.
“Yes?” she said as she opened the door. I told her that I was going out to look at a hotel. She looked surprised. “Oh! Do you want me to come with you?” she asked.
“Oh no,” I replied. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
I found my way to the hotel, viewed the room I would stay in, found it clean and acceptable, paid for it, and went back to Sally’s to pack up and move out. As she was walking me down to the street to catch a taxi to go to the hotel, I brought up what I had been dreading to ask all morning.
“What about Pohang?” Even before she opened her mouth, I knew what the answer was going to be.
She told me she could go if I really needed it, but she was older now and she tired so easily and thought it would be better if she stayed in Seoul. It would be good if I could get to my family’s connections in the church. There would be lots of young people willing to help me with knocking on doors and talking to people. And there was also the television show. If they were going to do the show, they could go down too.
I nodded, as she flagged a taxi for me. I knew I could get to Pohang and find the orphanage and city hall on my own (though admittedly it would be much more difficult by myself), but once I was there, how in the world was I going to have a meaningful conversation with anyone about my abandonment and subsequent adoption without someone to translate? That conversation went far beyond the standard useful language guide at the end of the Fodor’s travel books telling you how to order in a restaurant or ask where the bathroom was.
A taxi pulled up. I opened the door and shoved my bags in.
“Do you have the address of the hotel?” she asked. I showed her what I had written in my notebook. She told the taxi driver where to go and how he should get there, and then we said goodbye.
I climbed into the taxi and as we pulled away, I fought off the urge to burst into tears, even though that is exactly what I wanted to do. I told myself I shouldn’t cry because if I did cry that would mean that what had just happened actually meant something, and I wanted so desperately for what had just happened not to mean anything.
Even in my highly emotional state, it was obvious to me the quite ironic meta-story that was playing out. Forty-four years ago, my birth mother (or someone in my birth family) abandoned me, and now, when I had finally worked up the courage to go back to Korea to search for her, the one Korean person on whom I had become utterly reliant, abandoned me. Intellectually, I knew it was absurd to link the two events. This was nothing like what had happened to me and my birth family. There was no reason to commingle Sally’s asking me to move out with my mother’s abandonment 44 years ago.
But the peculiar thing about rejection with adoptees is that, at any time, a completely unrelated rejection can be commingled with the first one. It can either be conscious or unconscious. Sitting in the taxi, I was highly conscious of both rejections, as well as the irrational commingling that was taking place. But that didn’t make me feel any better.
And that is how I ended up at the bar at the Westin Chosun hotel later that night, drinking overpriced wine. That is why I was in no good mood the next morning, day four, sitting in Tapgol Park when Adam and Micah strolled through. It was hot, humid, sticky, and I wanted out. But I still had eleven more days to go, in a country that no one ever visits unless you’re related to someone.
* * *
In the next 24 hours, I pulled it together. I had contemplated getting on a plane and spending the remaining ten days on a white sand beach somewhere in the South Pacific. But I still had the meeting with Holt Korea scheduled for the following day and I figured I should at least show up since I had traveled halfway around the world for it.
Day five, I made my way over to Holt Korea to meet with the Ellie, the post-adoption specialist.
At Holt Post-Adoption Services with Ellie
Ellie, in addition to being the post-adoption specialist, was also a Korean adoptee who was born without a cranium and given up by her parents because they couldn’t afford the medical bills for corrective surgery. Instead, she grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan in a Jewish family and had numerous operations to restore her skull to a functional and normal looking head. Though still, after all the surgeries, she had ended up with a big nose that people could never reconcile to her Asian face. She had returned to Korea a few years ago, converted to Christianity, and now in her role as a post-adoption specialist, spends most of her time meeting with returning adoptees to help them find their birth families.
When she brought out my file, she confirmed what George and the policeman had already told me. There really was no additional information for me. I pushed and prodded just to make sure she wasn’t hiding anything, but she had nothing. And I believed her.
I used the rest of the time to ask her about the children today who are never adopted and she told me how enormously difficult their life is because Koreans shun the illegitimate and handicapped, and then the government makes it official by stamping their registration papers with the orphanage address so everyone will know for the rest of their life. “It’s so terrible,” she said. “They have no chance at having a good life.” I nodded and thought about all those children and all of their mothers who had given them up.
When we were done, she told me to go down to Pohang anyway. It would be good because I could visit some of those places where I had been in my first few days and try to feel that experience. “But,” she warned me, “Don’t go down there expecting to find your family. You will only be disappointed.”
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, and In Preparation for Pohang.