If searching for your family was a game show, it would be called ‘How much do you really want this?’
It would be a round robin game where endurance and dedication to the cause win out. Along the way, you’d get thrown obstacles that you have to navigate. The last adoptee standing would get to meet their family.
To describe the search for your first family as a game show isn’t really far from the truth. Game shows rely on at least some element of luck, and when it comes to adoptees finding their family, luck is sometimes the only thing that leads to success.
Unfortunately, luck hasn’t been on my side, and I wonder how much I’m willing to keep working towards something that I so desperately want, but that might never happen.
I was 16 when I made the first tentative steps toward searching for my birth mother. Like a lot of teenagers, I was struggling with my identity and I had grown up in a very white environment. My mum cooked sausages, mashed potato, peas and carrots most nights. On Sunday we had a baked dinner.
My brother, also adopted from Korea, and I were the only Asian kids in the entire school until about year 10, when a handful of other Asian kids began coming to my school.
I felt so white I once caught my reflection in a window and was momentarily shocked to see my Asian face. Who was this strange person with Asian features staring back at me?
So at 16 I did a web search where I found an English site for my Korean adoption agency. I sent them an email asking if they knew anything about my family.
“Your mother ran away after you were born,” they replied.
I was mortified. I became plagued with this image of my mother giving birth to me, looking at me and being so disgusted she hot-footed it out of the hospital.
I’ve now lived in Korea for over a year and understand the wider context of how and why adoption happens in this country. But at the time, I didn’t know any of that and the only explanation I could come up with was how disgusting I must have been.
I decided not to pursue it any further until I was 25 and started a more formal search.
I looked at the documents my parents were given, which mainly contained details about my time with my foster mother, who looked after me before I was adopted to Australia.
“Laughs if her cheek is touched by others.”
“She cries as getting reddish her face in hunger.”
“She gets strange with new ones, but is more attached to her foster mother at night and is willing not to be with anyone then.”
The documents said my parents were unmarried and my mother was ‘unknown’.
However, after lodging an official search request with NSW’s Department of Corrective Services (DOCS), I received a document with her name. At first I skimmed over it because there didn’t seem to be anything new. But then I saw it – Kim Sun-hea.
It was daunting seeing Kim Sun-hea in print. She had always been this faceless figure. Maybe she had tight curly hair and tattooed eyebrows like older women in Korea have a penchant for, but her face had always been this smudge in my mind.
Seeing her name typed on that document made my mother that little bit more tangible, a little bit more like a real person and not just some fantasy. And I thought, maybe I could find her.
In 2007, I made my first visit to Korea as an adult and went to my adoption agency to view my file. The social worker sat with her arm over my file so I couldn’t see what was written. I wasn’t allowed to even touch it. It was thin and mostly filled with things my parents had sent.
They told me a few more details that I didn’t know. She was 22. 158cm. I was born at 2:25am. She left two hours later. Her older sister went with her. I had an aunt.
They refused to give me the address of where I was born or any other information. They said there was nothing they could do and they couldn’t help me find her. (I later found out they had her address, which they refused to give to me.)
I returned to Australia and got on with my life. But I kept being drawn back to Korea for trips and eventually moved there a year ago.
I’ve now lodged official searches in Korea and given my DNA to the missing person’s unit. Just one sergeant in the whole country helps adoptees find their family (there’s more than 200,000 of us scattered around the world).
Not long after giving my DNA, I received a phone call from a police officer in the town where I was born. He said the clinic my mother gave birth to me in didn’t exist at the time I was born. So either he was mistaken or my adoption agency was lying to me about where I was born.
I went back to my adoption agency to get an explanation. The Korean social worker sat next to me smiling and laughing as I asked them to explain themselves.
“It’s not funny, and I don’t appreciate you laughing and smiling. This is not funny!” I angrily said to her.
“My smiling is I don’t know what to say because we don’t lie!” she yelled.
The ‘conversation’ quickly slid downhill, with the social worker yelling at me and me yelling back.
The truth about adoption is that many adoptees are lied to in order to tug at the heartstrings of potential adoptive parents. The adoptee who was presented as an orphan? Mostly likely at least one parent was alive.
I’ve also heard numerous stories of documents being falsified. The adoptee who came from a single mother who couldn’t look after her child? Nope, they have a family with siblings whose parents were actually married.
After that trip to my adoption agency, I gave up searching. The emotional turmoil it brought up forced me to stop. I was starting to hate Korea and Koreans – and I didn’t want to.
Now I’m sitting on the fence about whether to keep pursuing the search or just try and be happy that I’ve done the best that I can.
There’s not much more I can do anyway. I can make up flyers and go to my hometown and pin them on telegraph poles and hand them out to anyone who passes by. I can also hire a private investigator, which I’ve heard can have mixed results, but it’s expensive and illegal in Korea.
They both feel like such desperate things to do, but many adoptees are forced to do these things to try and find their family.
In this thing called intercountry adoption, a mother loses her child and a child loses their culture and first family. Whether you reunite or not, adoptees can never fully recover that.
And I’ve been told that the emptiness of adoption never leaves you, regardless of whether you meet your family or not. Ultimately, I know reunion won’t answer all the questions I have or provide complete closure. But I still have this desire to search, even though I’ve accepted I probably won’t be successful.
Living in Korea now, I sometimes think about my mother and whether the woman I just passed might be her – and I miss her. And then I’m left wondering: How is it possible for me to miss someone so much when I’ve never known them?
Stephanie McDonald is a freelance journalist currently based in Seoul, South Korea.