Journey of the Heart: An Adult Adoptee's Story

By S. Valerie Gardner

I know who I am. I am a Korean-American. I was born in South Korea, but I was raised in Dallas, Texas. You see, I am a Korean adoptee.

Some adoptees may disagree, but I believe adoption is an act of divine intervention that matches children with families who need them, who want them and who love them. I was one of those lucky children. I know that without my adoption, I would not be the strong and happy person I am today.

My childhood was pretty typical. I had problems like everyone, but my feelings about being adopted were not a constant concern until I reached the teenage years, a tough time for many. I was trying to find myself, trying new things, making new friends, and for the first time, I was forced to acknowledge the question that had been on my mind since I was a child: “Why was I adopted?”

At that point, the little nagging question at the back of my mind came to the forefront. Everything seemed to relate back to it. I couldn’t go a day without wondering, “Why was I adopted?” “Why did she give ME up?” I grew angry. I remember sitting in my room one night and deciding right then and there that I was not a Korean. I was an American, and I shouldn’t have to learn about my other (Korean) heritage. I didn’t want to learn how to speak Korean, and I sure didn’t want to associate with any other Korean adoptees. I just wanted to pretend my adoption did not matter to me.

A Change of Heart

I continued pretending through most of college. I wasn’t until I took a Korean history class that my opinion about my heritage changed. I was amazed by the rich history of Korea! For the first time in my life, Korean culture was an exciting subject that I couldn’t seem to get enough of. Every book I read and every class I took answered more and more questions I had surrounding my birth. By the time I graduated, I had taken every Korean history course offered at my university, and I had also reached a peaceful place in my life where I felt I was ready to go back to Korea.

Returning to Korea for the first time was a scary, yet wonderful and healing event. It was a trip I had played over and over in my head. I had idealized the trip so much that by the time I got on the airplane headed for Seoul, I questioned my mental and emotional strength to handle the experience ahead. I was concerned with questions such as “What if I’m not Korean enough?” “What if I don’t fit in?” “What if people think I’m stupid because I don’t speak Korean?” “What if I learn more about my birth story, and it continues to break my heart?”

Looking back, I’m thankful I chose to return as part of a Dillon International Visit Korea Birthland Tour including my family, other adoptees and Dillon staff members. The environment was safe, and my traveling companions understood and never judged the emotions I felt. The questions that had plagued me at the beginning of the trip were never an issue; I had worried for nothing.

The Best Parts

We spent days travelling, sightseeing, shopping and participating in cultural activities. One of my most memorable experiences, though, was not at a tourist site, but at an orphanage. On every Dillon tour, the participants do some mission work. One afternoon, we were asked to give a short English language lesson to the children in an orphanage in Pusan. My father, mother, brother and I were assigned to work with the youngest group of children, ranging from 2 to 5 years of age. We were given Play-Doh to use in teaching the children the English names of colors. Because of the ages of the children, the lesson didn’t last very long, and we spent most of the time just playing. As we were leaving, they all insisted we take their Play-Doh creations with us. Despite having few personal possessions, they decided to sacrifice their new toy to give us something special. I cannot imagine being so selfless at such a young age. It was obvious these children were loved and cared for.

On this trip, our group also had the opportunity to meet with women who were pregnant and considering making an adoption plan for their babies. A young man in our group said something to a birth mother that I took to heart. He said when he was a child, he was angry, but then as he grew older, he realized his anger wasn’t directed at his birth mother. It was directed toward the unknown. When he finally understood his anger, he began searching for his birth mother. He only wanted to let her know that he was OK and learn if she was OK too.

Like I said before, there were times in my life when I was very angry and bothered by unanswered questions. Yet, when I spoke with these young women, the persistent nagging questions and any lingering anger melted away. I could see for myself how much they loved their babies, and what immense pain it caused them to have to choose what they hoped would be the best path for the child.

The Reunion of a Lifetime

The following year, on November 10, 2010, I received a phone call from Dillon International saying they had located my birth family, and they wanted to meet me! Ten days later, on my twenty-fourth birthday, my mother and I boarded a plane for our second trip to South Korea.

I met my birth family a few days later at the offices of Eastern Social Welfare Society. I don’t think I would have had the courage to even initiate the search without the support of my entire family, especially my mother… but there I was, preparing myself to meet the woman who gave birth to me. My first reunion with my birth family was full of emotion: joy, guilt, sadness and gratitude. I will never forget my birth mother’s face as she and my mother embraced for the first time—my birth mother thanking my mother for taking care of me, and my mother thanking my birth mother for blessing her with a daughter—all without saying a word since neither spoke the other’s language.

Since then, I have maintained a relationship with my birth family. My birth story turned out to be a happy one. I was born to a family who simply did not have the resources to care for another baby. I have an older sister and two older brothers. My birth parents were ginseng farmers, and the financial responsibilities of another child drove their decision. Since my birth mother and birth father are still married, the secrecy of a reunion was never an issue for me like it has been for so many others searching for their birth families. I am very fortunate.

Throughout all of this, I feel I have come away with a better understanding of who I am. I can now confidently say that I am a Korean-American. I have an identity rooted in both Korea and America, and I am wanted and loved in both. My journey back to Korea healed my heart and made me into a stronger woman today—one that can appreciate the life I have and the blessings I have received.

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