All my life, I thought I had been born in Seoul. But once I started talking to Sally, a friend who had lived in Korea for a long time and was helping me search, we determined that I was born in Pohang, a little town on the southeast coast of Korea, quite far away (by Korean standards anyway) from Seoul. This news was disorienting, but also strangely exciting because it was the first piece of information that started to fill in my Korea story.
I had never heard of Pohang but I quickly made its acquaintance. Today it is a city of roughly 500,000 people, sitting on the southeast coast of Korea, about 50 miles east of Daegu, Korea’s fourth largest city, and 75 miles north of Busan, Korea’s second largest city. Mountains provide a natural border on its western side and the eastern edge is defined by a large bay leading out to the Pacific Ocean. Veterans of the Korean War may know Pohang as the northern anchor of the Pusan Perimeter that ended up being critical to holding off the North Koreans in the early part of the Korean War in the summer of 1950.
Today, if anyone today is familiar with the city, it is most likely because of POSCO, one of the world’s largest steel producers, and the engine of the local economy. In Korea, it seems that the city is also known for its Homigot Sunrise Festival opening each new year, as well as an International Firework Festival, in which nations compete for the best pyrotechnic display.
In 1969, Pohang was not a place of war, producer of steel, or showcase for fantastic fireworks. I’d like to say it was a quaint little fishing village, but its population, about 50,000 back then, disqualified it both as quaint and as a village. But it was still mainly known for fishing. POSCO’s mill hadn’t even been built yet. The company had been formed just a year earlier as a joint production of the Korean government, which believed that the country needed a domestic steel producer to spur growth, and Taegu Tech, one of the largest tungsten producers in Korea. It took four years to build the mill, which began producing steel in 1972.
I am fascinated that POSCO and I were born just a year apart, mainly because my mother is from Pittsburgh, also historically known as another big steel producer. It is an uncanny coincidence. Even though my mother has shed most of her Pittsburgh ways, having spent now the majority of her life elsewhere, the one vestige that remained vitally alive is her support for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Once a Steelers fan, always a Steelers fan. And that went for the entire family, whether through birth, marriage or adoption. And, as I am learning about Pohang on Wikipedia, I discover that they have a professional soccer team named the Pohang Steelers. It is only coincidence, but it feels ordained.
Steelers’ connection notwithstanding, Pohang is important because it is the city where I was abandoned. I also believe that it is the city where I was born, though someone has pointed out that I could have been born in the country and then taken to the city after my birth. This is plausible since my birthdate on the adoption records is November 18, 1969, but the first known location of me in the adoption record is on December 9, 1969: “To PoHang Orphanage from City Hall Social Section.” That leaves 21 days unaccounted for between my birthday and my appearance at City Hall. So I may very well have been born in the country, but until I have confirmation of that, I am claiming Pohang as my birth city.
A Page from My Adoption File
I have always had fantasies about my birth mother, but they tended towards the highly unrealistic and embarrassingly mawkish. Once in my twenties, I attempted to write a story about meeting my birth mother. In that fantasy story, she was the one doing the searching. I had made her wealthy and worldly, and she had found me. She was coming to the U.S. and had asked to meet me at a luxury hotel bar in New York to tell me that my father was very ill. She was requesting that I come back to Korea with her so that he could meet his only daughter. At the end of the meeting, I rejected my birth mother’s wishes to go back with her to Korea. She was crushed.
Discovering that I was born in Pohang allowed me to update my fantasies. They were still mawkish and unrealistic, but now, I had the right city in which to place them. In 1969, POSCO would have been recruiting men to help build, and then work in, the mill. Surely my father would have sought a good job from the new mill, eager to get away from the fishing life. I’ll make him a company man, some brash young gun who was very good with the girls, got a job on the mill floor, worked his way up the company ladder, and retired some fifty years later.
And my mother? I like to think that she left Pohang to escape the memories of a baby she abandoned in that city. If she chose to go elsewhere, Daegu, or Busan would have been likely candidates. But I picture her as a big city girl, going off to Seoul, and making it big. She could have done anything.
As for the two of them, I’ll make them high school sweethearts who had too much fun one night and then paid dearly for it. Or I could make my father a complete bastard, married, and seducing my naïve teenage mother, promising to take care of everything, and then not making good on any of it. But there’s no fun in making up a depressing fantasy about your origin. I’ll stick with the mawkish.
My Father Teaching Me to Love the Water as a Baby
I am definitely making my mother a swimmer because I am a swimmer and I like to think that this is something she passed down to me. If she went to the nearby beaches and swam in the ocean, that would explain why I became an open water swimmer. I am also in love with the idea that I was born in a fishing village because I have always been fascinated with fisherman and their ability to read the water the way I read a book. And I loved that I was born in a seaside town because I have always loved the ocean, the sky, and the beach. Of course I was born in Pohang, not Seoul. “How could I not have known this my entire life?”
Creating your own story is fun, but it is also dangerous. It is too easy to pick and choose and invent a story based on tenuous links to the known one. I am an open water swimmer. But it is disingenuous to say that I got my love of open water swimming from my birth mother. If I am honest, my love of swimming most likely came from the swimming lessons that my adoptive mother signed me up for when I was three years old. I don’t even know if my birth mother swam. Moreover, when I first started swimming in open water, I was terrified of being eaten alive. I definitely did not love it. But I love imagining the connection because it links my American story to my Korean story.
Swim Practice at New York’s Asphalt Green, 2012
If I hadn’t modified my mawkish tendencies in the 20 years since writing that story, I had at least matured a little and realized that my birth mother was not going to come search for me. And if she was, she certainly was not going to ask to meet me in the bar of a luxury hotel in New York City.
I needed to put the fantasies to rest. Not only did I need to search, but I needed to get on a plane and go to Pohang. And in July, I booked a ticket to Seoul. I arranged to stay with Sally, who agreed to come with me to Pohang to visit the orphanage and city hall, and throughout all of the planning over the next few months, I held out a hope that I would be one of very few adoptees to reunite with her birth mother.