It was eight o’clock on Sunday morning in Seoul, late August, and already it was hazy, humid, and very sticky. The late summer insects, whatever they were and whatever language they spoke, were up and buzzing about like an eager church choir. The heat, haziness, and stickiness were only going to get worse as the day went on. I am not afraid of hot, sticky, and humid. I spend August in South Florida where it is exactly that. But this was different. This was Asian city heat and humidity, laced with pollution, encouraged by thousands of kimchee pots being opened for the day, and confirmed by the knowledge that you are sharing the heavy air molecules with some 25 million other people in a very crowded space. In South Florida, in late August, the beach is a brilliant idea. But in Seoul, there was no beach to be found.
Instead, I was sitting in Tapgol Park (photo, top), a little public park in the northern part of Seoul which houses Korea’s second National Treasure, the ten-story Wongaksa Pagoda (above). I was sipping a Starbucks quad grande americano and eating a very dry scone, also from Starbucks. I was attempting to regain some form of normalcy, having arrived in Korea four days prior, and having been unexpectedly asked to leave (albeit very nicely) my host’s apartment the day before. I had spent the entire rest of the day looking for a new place to stay, then packing up, moving out, moving in to the new hotel, and unpacking again. By evening, desperate for a decent glass of wine, I had ended up at the Westin Chosun Hotel, exhausted and dispirited, paying $30 a glass for the wine, and trying to work out how I was going to manage the rest of my trip in Korea without my host, who was also supposed to have been my guide and translator.
I still had no solutions. The scone was awful and the coffee was making me sweat even more. I was in no good mood. Not for Seoul. Not for Korea. And not for the hot, sticky Asian humidity.
Two American guys walked into the park. Even if they hadn’t been speaking American English, their Caucasian faces, their short, clean haircuts, and their casual gaits would have given them away. They walked past me, into the heart of the park, and sat down near the pagoda. They were deep in conversation and didn’t even notice me, another fellow American. Here in the park, I was just another Korean woman drinking a coffee, eating a scone, and blending into all the other Korean people wandering around.
Korean Tourists at Gyeonbokgung Palace
In my no good mood, I looked at these two guys and wondered why anyone would come to Korea. Why, without any connection to the country, would someone deliberately be a tourist here? People go to China and Japan for the rich cultural history; Thailand and Bali for the beautiful beaches; Australia and New Zealand for fun and adventure. But no one goes to Korea unless you’re related to someone. Or unless you have to. So what were these two strapping young American guys doing here, sitting in the middle of Tapgol Park in Korea, a country that no one visits unless you’re related to someone, on this hot August morning?
My coffee was done. The guys were still deep in conversation. And I had determined that the only way I was going to get an answer to my question was to ask. So I got up, walked over, politely stood in front of them until they looked up, and asked them if I could ask them a question.
If they were taken aback by a “Korean” woman speaking flawless American English, they took it in good stride. “Sure,” they replied, and looked at me expectantly.
“Great. Well…” I said. “I’m just wondering why you are here.” They continued to look at me, still expectantly.
“I mean,” I tried to explain, “What brings you to Korea? Because I don’t understand why anybody comes here. I mean no one says, ‘I want to go to Korea for vacation, right?’ So…why are you here?”
Kimchee Pots on Display at Gyeonbokgung Palace
They looked at each other for a second. One of them said, “I’m here on business.” The other added, “I’m just visiting since he’s here. I’ll stay in Korea for a week and then go to Japan.”
“Oh. Ok.” I should have been excited because their answers had immediately proved my point. I was vindicated, but the quickness of it was anticlimactic. Also, I was not prepared to continue the conversation. What was I supposed to say to them now?
“I’m Erica,” I said. “I’m from New York.”
The one there on business was Adam. The one visiting was Micah. They were from LA and Micah had just gotten off the plane from LA earlier that morning. “Oh, you must be tired,” I said. He said it wasn’t so bad just yet. I told them I had been there for three days already. There was a brief pause, and then Adam wised up. He gave me a quizzical look.
“So why are you here?” he asked.
Korean Guards at Gyeonbokgung Palace
I looked at them for a few seconds. Then I took a deep breath and said, “I’m adopted. And I came here to search for my birth family.” I wanted to add, “Top that!” but I didn’t. I could see that they were trying to imagine what it would be like not to know your parents and then to go to a foreign country and start looking for them. I didn’t want to interrupt their train of thought.
“Wow!” Adam said.
Though they didn’t say it, I think they were having trouble wrapping their brains around the entire concept. Which, I have to say would not be an unusual reaction. Even I, having lived this situation my entire life, was still having trouble wrapping my brain around this concept. Though now I was finally in Korea trying to do something about it.
Adam finally organized his thoughts. “And what…well…what are you doing for that?” he sputtered. “How do you go about finding your birth family?”
I gave them the basic tutorial on how to search for your birth family. “First you contact your U.S. adoption agency to ask for your records. Hopefully they give you some piece of information like a name or an address that you can use to start searching. But usually for Korean adoptees born prior to 1980 (though even that is no guarantee) the conversation goes something like, ‘We have no information that can lead to your birth family. A search for them is impossible. We are very sorry.’ Then your best option is to come to Korea and meet with the adoption agency in person. If you’re lucky, they’ll let you look at the records yourself. You want anything that wasn’t given to you over the phone. Name and phone number is best. Even an address of where you were abandoned is useful.”
Two Men Playing a Board Game in Tapgol Park
“Oh…and if, having done all of that, you still have nothing, you can try the media. Occasionally one of the television stations will do a segment on adoptees looking for their birth families. Someone suggested that for me because I don’t have a lot of information in my file. But I don’t know. I’m not really sure if I want to be on TV talking about all this and potentially finding my family and having them film the reunion…”
I stopped. That was a lot of information. A lot more than I usually give out to random strangers in a public park in Seoul, Korea.
“Wow,” Adam said again. He asked if I had met with the agency yet.
“No,” I said. “That’s tomorrow’s business. They’ve already told me that I don’t have a lot of information. But we’ll see. I’ve heard of a few cases where there’s supposedly no information, but once you show up in person at the agency, suddenly, like magic, they’ve found a name and a phone number that wasn’t there before. Who knows? Maybe that will be me, and then I won’t have to go on TV.” I grinned.
We all looked at each other for another minute, and then we were done. I told them it was very nice to meet them and they said the same. I wished them a good rest of the trip. They wished me luck and said they would be watching for me on TV. I laughed. “Don’t hold your breath,” I said. And I left them sitting there, pondering my predicament, as I walked off into the Seoul humidity in search of my birth family.
Erica Moffet’s story will be running each Wednesday on Woman Around Town. To read the introduction, click here.