I wrote about this experience in 2009, when I was on an adult adoptee trip in South Korea and searching for my birth family for the first time. I took a train trip with a Korean native who was helping me find any pieces of my story and translating everything for me:
I sat on the crowded subway and leaned my head against the window. The light vibration created a calming rhythm that made me feel at peace from the morning’s investigation. My eyes were strained and fighting to keep open. Jenna looked over at me and asked if I was okay. I gave a weak smile to reassure her.
I scanned the car and saw strangers that shared the same features as myself. Black, silky hair. Small, skinny eyes that looked at me as if to say, What are you doing in our country? What they did not know was me looking back at them, answering, Why didn’t you want to keep me? All of them were unusually light skinned, almost porcelain, in comparison to my dark brown color on my arms and face, the most obvious pieces of evidence that I spent more time outside in direct sunlight and did not mind the change of color. I couldn’t help but wonder…How could my life have been like this? What if my mom decided not to give me up? I could have been carrying an umbrella in fear of the sunshine. I decided not to think about it and my mind immediately started blinding me with snapshots of the earlier events from the morning.
Standing in the middle of Guri City Hall, I could not help but say under my breath, this is my hometown. This is where I was born. I stood there in awe, my stomach twisting and turning because I knew today would not be easy. I have always grown up being told there was no information concerning my adoption and that it was impossible to find anything more. Today, my Korean interpreter Jenna, and I took on the monstrous task of finding the hospital of where I was born.
We were investigators. We spoke to a female employee, asking if the Nam Yang Joo County Office still existed because this is where I was taken after I was abandoned after my mother gave birth to me. The woman looked at me, then looked at Jenna and said that the office was probably very different than before because of the economic boom in the city. Knowing my files said I was born at Seoul Clinic, I could not help but feel a little despair in my heart. What a creative name, I thought. Jenna had a list of fourteen hospitals and clinics with the same name, and started calling each one. Her first question in Korean was to ask if their existence dated back to 1984, the year I was born, and two matched the description.
I sat patiently outside while Jenna made more inquiries about the two clinics over the phone. I remembered the woman at City Hall had mentioned something about Korean medical files being thrown away after ten years. How can they do that? Take away my own identity? Even if I sat in a filing cabinet for 25 years, at least I would still exist, right?
I looked around at the tall buildings that resembled the look of Manhattan. Would I have worked on this street? Would I have had a good relationship with my mom? My thoughts were interrupted by Jenna, who was commenting on how close one of the clinics was to us. We started walking and after fifteen minutes of walking, we stood in front of a building that had a small entry to the second-floor stairwell. The place was dark and looked almost abandoned, and as we trudged up the stairs, I felt a nervous twitch in my stomach. What if someone has been working here long enough to remember my story? We saw the doctor’s office and walked through the door. Everything is so small in Korea, I said, as I noticed the size of the waiting room. Jenna spoke in Korean so I glanced at various pamphlets and looked at the pictures. I wasn’t expecting an answer so soon but Jenna touched my shoulder and said, “No one who works here now has been here since it opened.”
I felt an overwhelming sea of disappointment, shadowed with a feeling of anger. Why can’t someone give me some answers!? At this point, I recognized that I was feeling alienated because I knew there were puzzle pieces missing and no one had the pieces. They were lost. Who could be blamed? We walked back down the creepy stairwell and was met by the bright sun on a humid August day. Jenna turned to me and apologized. I knew she felt sorry for me and was determined to help me as much as possible. She looked at her paper with the crossed-out hospitals and clinics that were no longer options and said there was one other clinic to go see. She looked at her map but looked confused. She made several phone calls, and while she was preoccupied, I stood on the sidewalk watching the busy cars rush past me.
I glanced over to her and she had hung up her cell phone. She looked at me with a grim expression. I knew what she was going to say.
“Can’t find it, can you?” I asked, more of a statement than a question.
“I’m sorry…we can come back and try more places another day if you want.”
I felt the blood in my body rush from my head to my feet all in a matter of seconds. I knew Jenna felt so bad for me. I think she wanted to find some piece of the puzzle, or at least a clue, more than myself.
“No problem, Jenna. I think we should maybe just go back to the hotel now.”
Had I given up so quickly? Was I afraid of finding a clue? In all honestly, I was so afraid of finding any kind of truth concerning my past. Not knowing is sometimes more comforting than knowing too much. Knowing, many times, reveals pain, and once it is confronted, there is no turning back.
Do I really even exist here? How would anyone even prove that I was born in Korea? My records were thrown out after ten years. The proof is gone. How could someone throw me out in the garbage, or shred me into a small machine? My eyes were burning, fighting back tears as we took our time walking back to the subway. I breathed in the somewhat clean air and tried to connect my mind to the smell of walking on the streets of my hometown. I don’t belong here. I don’t even exist here.