Wow is about the one word I can say that would summarize today’s events. I’m sure that I’m going to have a hard time actually conveying all of the emotions of the day because there is no way I am that great of a writer.
We started off the morning by loading into a van and heading about an hour drive away to Korean Social Services. There are 111 people with on this trip (I would guess about 40 adoptees and their families). There were only four adoption agencies that each of the adoptees went through – Holt, Eastern, Korean Social Services, and I can’t remember the other one. Out of the 111 people, only 10 went to Korean Social Services.
When we got there, I was immediately somewhat impressed. I think that I’ve noticed about Seoul is that it is completely landlocked. There aren’t even many parks in downtown. It’s just constant buildings and people. KSS (that’s Korean Social Services from now on) was a little area with lots of grass and a few different buildings. It was very peaceful and serene. They even had a dog there presumably for the older kids to play with.
When we first got there, they escorted us to a little room. There, they had all sorts of Korean snacks (pop, candy, water, etc) waiting for us. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this year, but Korean pop all comes in cans the same size as Red Bull. I don’t know why we don’t do this yet… We had the 8 oz. cans that look like little baby cans, but I almost prefer a tall, skinny 8 oz. can to a 12 oz. can. Anyway, we walked around a little bit and after about 20 minutes or so, the director of KSS came and escorted us to the main building.
When we got there, she gave us an opportunity to review Sara’s file. We confirmed that Sara was born in a clinic in Dongducheon, South Korea which is actually like a suburb of Seoul to the North. Actually, it isn’t too far away from North Korea. No chance that her mother are father are North Korean, though. They don’t let anybody into North Korea. One of our tour guides told us that her grandparents lived North Korea. After the Korean War, the DMZ (demilitarized zone) was put into place. Neither family was able to cross the border, and she hasn’t seen or contacted her grandparents (who she assumes are now dead) since. I thought it was pretty sad.
While reading her file, the director of Korean Social Services told us that she has a name and address of Sara’s mother. She said that because of the culture of Korea, there is no guarantee on the accuracy of that information. Many unwed mothers choose to give a false name and address so that they can not be tracked down for their future life. Many women will go on to get married and will not tell their husbands that they previously have had a child that they gave up for adoption. Such a revelation often can cause a rift in the marriage. At the same time, though, many mothers opt for overseas adoption over domestic adoption because there is more of a chance that the children will come back to try to meet them one day.
We also learned that my sister’s birthmother was from Paju. Again, it would be considered in the Seoul Metropolitan area, but it is slightly north of Seoul and southwest of Dongducheon. Although we don’t know for sure, it is possible that Sara’s mother left her hometown when she started “showing” that she was pregnant and went to an unwed mother’s home. That way, everyone in here hometown wouldn’t have known that she had become pregnant. For those of you who are familiar with the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, Paju would be like a Maple Grove and Dongducheon is maybe a White Bear Lake. Paju and Dongducheon look nothing like the Minneapolis suburbs, but it you were living in Maple Grove and became pregnant, it’s likely that you could move to White Bear Lake for a year and nobody would have ever even known that you were pregnant.
At this point in her life, I think my sister doesn’t have any interest in meeting her birthmother although the possibility exists that someday she might want to.
After reviewing her file, we got to go to the nursery. There aren’t as many kids up for adoption with Korean Social Services as there once was. At the time that Sara was adopted, there was probably something like 30-40 kids at Social Services and another 60-70 in foster care. When we visited, there were 10 kids (7 infants and 3 developmentally disabled children) at the nursery and another 20 or so in foster care. After washing our hands, we got to hold some of the babies. They were ridiculously cute. I think American babies are usually pretty cute, but there is something about Asian babies that is just adorable. One of the babies that both Sara (wife) and I got to hold was so attentive. He was about a month old. He just held his arms out like he wanted to be hugged.
Just to mention – this is probably one of the first of many things that is hard to describe into words. I can see a lot of you reading this and kind of thinking ‘…oh, they got to hold babies. That’s neat.’ Knowing that my little sister spent the first few weeks of her life in an orphanage made this all the more special. Looking at these little children, you also wondered how in the world somebody could give up these just precious little kids up for adoption. I think it is hard to describe the cultural differences, though. I think everyone reading this blog knows of somebody – whether it is a family or friend – who has had a children out of wedlock. In Korea, it is simply NOT an option of keeping the baby. Besides being nearly impossible for a single mother over here, society simply will not allow it. I’m sure the mothers feel an amazing bond with their babies the second they are born just as they do in America. It just is not an option for them to keep the babies. Even though it isn’t an option, it is incredibly difficult for them to give them up. I don’t think they give their babies up willingly. I honestly think it is probably the hardest thing that most of them ever do in their entire lives.
We thought that having the opportunity to hold the babies was one of the most powerful things we would have an opportunity to do on the entire trip. Little did we know…
We came downstairs from the nursery and Sara’s foster mother was waiting to meet us. Until about two weeks before the trip, we didn’t even realize that Sara was in foster care. She came into the room and was immediately emotional. She didn’t speak a lick of English, so we had to speak through an interpreter. She said that Sara (or Suh Mi Kyung as she still calls her) still had her baby face. When we learned that she was in foster care, I think we expected that she would’ve been one of about 50 or 100 kids that the foster mom has had. Instead, we’ve learned that Sara was only the second and last foster child she had ever had. She said that she developed too much of a bond with the children and had too hard of a time giving the babies up once they were ready to be adopted. During the entire meeting, she kept touching Sara’s hand and shoulder. In Korea, touching isn’t considered inappropriate as it kinda-sorta is in America. It is like the ultimate form of endearment meaning that seeing Sara meant a lot to her. She thought that she was never going to see these kids again. In fact, she actually believed that Sara was adopted to Denmark. She said she found out about a month ago that Sara was going to be coming to Korea and would like to meet. She said she’s been counting down the days and actually couldn’t even sleep the night before. She told us that she was married with two daughters and a son. She said the daughters had wanted to come to the meeting, but couldn’t make it. Once she met Sara, though, she got her youngest daughter on the phone and gave her directions on how to get to Korean Social Services. She said that her daughters were in middle school (I believe about 5th and 7th grade) at the time she was in their home and they both helped very much in taking care of Sara. Quite a few times, she made mention of how Sara cried all the time. She also said that she was such a small baby and now she’s so strong and healthy looking. She told our family thank you many times for taking care of here and making sure she grows up in a good family. I think in Korean culture, they really are surprised that a goofy looking white family is willing to take a Korean baby into their family and accept them as one of their own. It’s a foreign idea for them. As I think I’ve already mentioned, when children are adopted domestically, the family will often move to a new place so that nobody will know that they’ve adopted children. Although they are someone progressing, they still remain culturally conservative. I read in one my books before coming over here that if you ask a Korean about homosexuality, they will tell you that is doesn’t exists in Korea. Of course it does, but they kind of treat it like our military does.
After a while, Sara’s foster sister showed up. She was very emotional. You could see that she was on the verge of tears the moment that she saw Sara. She immediately grabbed onto Sara’s hand and I think she held on to it for the next hour or so. We found out that she is currently living at home and “…waiting to get married.” We aren’t sure on her exact age. She said that she was in 5th grade when Sara was a child. They start school at 8 (which is actually our 7) over here, though. Their “birthday” system is different than ours. Kids are considered 1 year old at 100 days. Anyway, we think her sister was 32 (??) but she honestly looked like she could pass for about 14 years old. No lie.
Sara’s foster family was just extremely excited about seeing her again. After looking at our schedule with our interpreters, they invited us over to the sister who we hadn’t met and her husband’s house the next day for dinner. They were extremely giving, gracious, and loving. I mean think about it – I think we are something like 7,000 miles away from home and a family with whom we cannot verbally communicate with wants to invite us into their home. Again, I don’t know what adjectives, adverbs, nouns, and verbs that I can use to describe what a once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience meeting her foster family was. Sara (wife, again) said that I was just glowing during the whole meeting. Unless you’ve had an adopted sibling or child, though, I don’t think I can describe the elation you feel when you find out how truly loved your little sister was for the first 5 months of her life. I mean, for those of you with younger biological siblings. I’d imagine if you are at least 4-5 years older than your brother or sister, you remember little things that I don’t. You probably remember your mom being pregnant and the excitement that surrounds it. You probably remember visiting your little brother or sister in the hospital and then going to stay at Grandma and Grandpa’s house until mom got out of the hospital. You probably remember your little brother or sister crying, eating, sleeping, opening his/her eyes, and much more. Our family can only guess what my little sister was like during the first 5 months of her life. We don’t know if her mom had an easy or difficult pregnancy. We don’t know what kind of newborn baby she was. We have assumptions, but that’s it. To meet the family that can fill in the blanks that we can’t was so incredibly powerful.
I should make mention about communicating. Someone once told me that 80% of communication is non-verbal. Actually, I’ve heard it multiple times. Not as many times as I’ve heard that you are supposed to wait 45 minutes after a meal before swimming, but certainly more times than I’ve heard that you should tip a curbside bag handler on the “random things that I’ve heard but am not really sure if it is true scale…” I certainly buy into it. Just watching on a subway or the street, you could probably make a pretty accurate person about what kind of person a person is within about 15 seconds or so which is right on par with how I feel about Americans. Of course, without the language piece, I’m sure we missed out on a few of the people who like a certain part, act a certain way, and open their mouth and completely ruin it. I can’t even begin to fathom what percentage of my trip to Korea was spent “people watching.”
Although verbal communication with Sara’s foster family was difficult as everything had to go through an interpreter, emotions know no language. Looking at the smiles, eye-contact, and body language, you could tell that they were just elated to see Sara. You could certainly see that she was both loved and missed. It was somewhat difficult leaving Sara’s foster family (although it was probably made easier since we’d see them again tomorrow), but we had to get going. We were heading to Dongducheon to see the clinic Sara was born in.
Not every Korean adoptee was able to see the clinic they were born in as many of them have been torn down. The clinic Sara had been born in actually had been torn down and replaced with a very modern looking clinic in the same spot. Due to a somewhat spotty English addressing scheme – street names, building numbers, and actual city names have changed – so some families found it difficult to even find the “place” where their child was born. While we were there, we got to meet one of the doctors who were working at the clinic in 1988 when Sara was born. At the time, there were two doctors working at the clinic. We were unable to find any medical records (although they are still looking for us – interestingly enough, I don’t think we left any contact information, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what they will do with that information if they find it). There is a 50% chance, though, that we met the doctor who delivered my little sister.
After visiting the hospital, we headed backing into Seoul. We were only about 30 kilometers from our hotel which is a little over 18 miles for those of you who have forgotten all about the metric system that was taught in most elementary schools. Traffic made the trip around two or so. I think everyone knows how slow that is, but here’s a little bit of an example. When I was at my running peak, I ran a half marathon in 1 hour and 32 minutes. 13.1 miles equals a shade under 22 kilometers. So in my best half marathon, I traveled 1 kilometer (think – 2.5 times around a track) in 4 minutes and 13 seconds. Our van traveled about 1 kilometer every four minutes. I’m sure anyone reading this who lives in a big city like New York, LA, or Chicago can relate, but for us small-town folk, it is just an insane amount of people.
Once we got back to the hotel, it was off to another buffet. Most of the restaurants we have visited as a group have been quite large. With a group of 111 traveling together, we obviously can’t just stop at a mom and pop restaurant. I’ve had a few more days to take in the food and I think that I am in love. I know that I could eat bulgogi, mandu, bibimbap, rice, pajeon, kimchi, and much more for just about every meal. I think my wife might kill me if she came home every night and our house smelled like sesame oil. That smell is very distinct and it just doesn’t go away. I think she likes certain foods, but she’s in need of some American foods. My dad is right there with her.
We were supposed to go to Pizza Hut in Itaweon today, but plans were changed as the store is closed for renovations. Our entire family was excited about it, but I’m sure we’ll find another pizza place before we leave. We’ve been told that their pizza – which comes in flavors like kimchi and sweet potato – is quite different than ours. I’m excited to find out.
If you’re out on your bike tonight, do wear white,