Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Recovering What Was Left Behind


Ah, I think my film project is finally finished!  I present it on Wednesday; we’ll see how it’s received…

Monday, December 10, 2012


I’ve been working all month on this film project for my new media course, actually editing my footage from my trip to Korea in 2010 into some semblance of a cohesive narrative.  I’m almost through.  I have just one section left to edit, which should take more than an hour’s worth of time.  But it’s THE REUNION footage.  Just 45 seconds or so of video, but it’s like the giant gorilla in the middle of the room.  I’ve been avoiding it, working on other sections, tweaking things here and there.  Or composing superfluous blog posts instead of biting the bullet…


Okay, okay.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Birth Search Advice

I recently got an email from an adoptee who had found my blog and asked for advice on starting a birth search.  Below is my reply to him; I thought it might be useful for other adoptees out there searching as well.  Bear in mind, that my advice stems from my own personal experience (which still baffles me that went so smoothly); other adoptees surely have varying situations and experiences that aren’t relative to mine at all.


I’m sorry for the delay in getting back to you; the month around finals always tends to get a little crazy.  I’m glad you found my blog/youtube videos helpful—reaching out to other adoptees was one of my main reasons for starting the blog.  I had relatively little information going into the search process—ages, general background, circumstances, etc. but the search once initiated actually went very quickly.  Because my academic research focuses a lot on adoptee birth searches and reunions, I had of course heard all of the horror stories about working with Holt, and going in, I was prepared for them to be really uncooperative.  But when I actually sat down with the case worker, we really ended up connecting on a personal level, which I think helped “fast track” my case.  They had the old address of my birthmother from 26 years ago when she relinquished me at birth, and from that, they were able to track her down to her current residence.  I met with Holt’s case worker in August, and was exchanging letters with my birthmother by October.

As far as suggestions on searching, my first piece of advice is make sure you’re ready.  You opened your email with a statement to that regard, which I think is really important.  I had had numerous opportunities to start searching once I reached 18, but didn’t feel I was emotionally ready to start the search until I was 26.  A lot of times I think adoptees don’t think about how any of the possible search results may change them.  I needed to prepare myself for all of those possibilities—that it could be a complete dead end; that they could find her, but she was not willing to communicate; that she could have passed away; that we could reunite but then not be able to maintain a relationship…  I think a lot of adoptees search when they’re really feeling like the whole world is against them, but reuniting isn’t that magic bullet.  I actually found I had to be secure enough in my own self-worth (which has definitely been a lifelong and uphill process!) without that puzzle piece before I went in search of it.  Which has, I think made it possible for me to “go with the flow” in terms of my inchoate relationship with my birth family.  Because I don’t feel the need for my Omma to fill a certain “mother” role, it has been easier to establish a close relationship that isn’t based on unrealistic expectations.

In terms of actual search logistics, it’s really important to sit down with a Holt Korea case worker face-to-face.  Which, obviously means, going to Korea.  While you don’t necessarily need to remain in Korea during the search process, initiating the search and/or file review face-to-face is key.  Try to appeal to the case worker personally, and keep them talking, keep asking questions.  I went in for a file review with my younger brother this past May, and the case worker told us in the first minute that there wasn’t anything of significance or use in his file.  We kept asking questions, pursuing a bunch of different side topics that she initially thought were irrelevant, and ended up sitting for an hour, extracting a TON of info about my brother’s birth and family (including names and ages of his siblings).  Once you formally initiate your search, keep yourself on their radar.  E-mail them every month or so to see if there have been any developments.  At my case worker’s suggestion, I wrote an introductory letter to my birthmother that Holt translated for me, and sent along to her once they established contact.  My mother was initially reluctant to connect because she was worried that I would be angry and resentful, but after reading my letter and learning that I had grown up in a loving home, she was willing to continue communicating.

I certainly recognize that my experience with search, reunion, and continuing relationships post-reunion have been relatively free of difficulties, and I count my blessings for that.  But I also recognize that for many adoptees, their experiences have been far more difficult.  Good luck to you, and feel free to contact me if you have any other questions!



Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Talk Show

Recently I was invited by the local Korean channel here in the Bay Area to be interviewed for their weekly talk show program.  It was a lot of fun working with the people at KEMS, and a great opportunity to increase awareness of KAD issues to the greater Korean American community.

KEMS also came and took footage of our Korean culture camp this summer for a four-part documentary, In Search of the Korean Spirit.  The first part aired this past weekend, and SFSU’s Korean American Day Camp got some great coverage!  I’ll post a link to the video when they upload it onto their site (once all 4 episodes have aired).

이 전원 이야기 165회 Kira Donnell 편

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Two years

atholt_0001It’s hard to believe that two years ago, Omma and I reunited in Seoul.  It seems like just a few months ago, and at the same time, so much has happened in between.  My family continues to grow.

I’m taking a multi-media studies course this semester, and as my final project, I’m attempting to put together a coherent narrative of our reunion experience.  It has forced me to watch all of the footage I took with my little blogging camera that I haven’t had the emotional fortitude to review since I shot it.  My emotions are in a swirl all over again, but I love listening again to Omma’s laughter, the timbre and cadence in her voice; even her weeping brings me close to her.  It makes the love in my heart for her swell and makes me miss her fiercely.  But even that ache of absence is sweet and fills the heavy emptiness of bygone years.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Life Aquatic

I think Omma will always be tied to water for me.  I am a Pisces, after all. On my first trip back to Korea, I spent hours walking up and down the shore of Haeundae Beach searching for answers, crying as if my heart were breaking. I later found out that Omma, when pregnant with me, did the same thing, trod the same path that I would follow eighteen years later.

Here, at home in California, the ocean calls me, and every few days, I make my way down to the beach to walk and think, as the dog frolics and kicks up the sand beside me. I gaze out to sea, and cast my heart out into the waves, knowing Omma’s there on the other side to receive it.

Nearly all my dreams about Omma have water involved. I dreamed about her last night. In my dream, I had called her to tell her I missed her, that I wanted to see her. “I’ll be there in two months,” she said. And then, suddenly, she was there, fitting so easily into my life as we shared food off the same plate and walked hand in hand down a crowded street.

But then, the floods came, probably my subconscious sorting through the Korean news reports of the torrential rains in Seoul, the recent devastation from the typhoon.  In my dream, the waters rushed down the street, rapidly rising, sweeping away everything in its path.  Omma turns to me, looks me in the eye. “Hold on to me,” she says. “I will keep you afloat. And when the water finally drags me down, let go and swim away.” There is no time to argue with her, and we are caught up in the froth and foam of the raging waters. In that strange way that dreams progress, suddenly, the waters have receded, and I am alone. Around me, people pick up and recover their lives, as I wander, disoriented.

I always seem to lose Omma to the waters in my dreams. Disconcerting, yes. Though, this time, I know her face, know she hasn’t really been swept away. And I can appreciate her sacrifice in my dream without being so clouded by the grief and loss of her disappearance, secure in the knowledge of her existence and her love.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

I am KoreAm

SFSU’s Korean American summer day camp held its third session this July. I’ve been lucky enough to have been a part of this project from the very beginning three years ago, working with amazing Korean American community organizers like Prof. Grace Yoo and Yoonsun Choi.  This year, we caught the attention of the magazine, KoreAm, who sent a journalist and photographer over to follow our activities for a couple days. Our little backyard project made the pages of KoreAm’s August 2012 issue! Here’s the digital version of the article:

Not Your Mother's Korean School

The paper version has a few more photos, I think.

The Korean television station, KEMS also visited our camp to record footage and interviews for a documentary they’re producing on the Korean spirit.  Word is that it’ll be broadcast sometime in November…

nineteen sixty-nine

This past year I’ve had the opportunity to work on the staff of Berkeley’s new student-run ethnic studies journal, nineteen sixty-nine as an associate editor.  Our inaugural issue was released in July, take a look!


The eScholarship version of the journal can be found below:

Friday, August 31, 2012

Matron of Honor Wedding Speech

I’ve had a few requests for the transcript of the toast I made at my sister Erica’s wedding reception this past July.  So here’s a pieced-together version of it, which I transcribed from my tear-stained notes scribbled on the back of my wedding program:

Growing up in our family, there was love and there was laughter. From dressing our little brothers up in pink frilly tutus to epic family games of bocce Up North at the lake, laughter and love have always surrounded us.

For those of you who know Erica well, you know that when something is really hilarious, she’ll laugh really low from deep in her belly—*huh-huh*.  Then she crosses her legs like she might have an accident from laughing to hard.

I knew Brian was the one for Erica when he was over at our house one night and I heard Erica’s *huh-huh* laugh coming from the other room. I knew that if Brian loved Erica enough to elicit the big belly laugh from her, he was worth keeping around.

Thank you, Brian. Thank you for making my little sister so ecstatically happy, for loving her and making her laugh. For being silly enough with her to sometimes almost make her wet her pants.

I’m known as the nerdy one in the family, and one of the most important things I’ve learned in all my studies of society, cultures, and people, is that FAMILY is the most important unit of society. I’ve learned that families come in all shapes and sizes, and aren’t necessarily bound by blood or DNA, but are built on love and laughter.

Erica and Brian, congratulations on becoming a family. And as the two of you explore what it means to be a family, remember that you have people all over the world who love you, from Michigan to California, to Chicago, Montana, and Florida, and even as far as Korea, India, and Africa. Your marriage has built a family in exponential proportions, as we are all bound to you through love.

So on behalf of family far and wide, I wish the two of you an infinite amount of laughter, joy, and love in your lives.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Thursday, June 14, 2012


20110814KA1482I’m currently sitting once again at San Francisco International Airport, about to fly to Chicago to celebrate my sister’s impending nuptials.  And I’m reflecting on how fortunate I am in sisters.  Gayoung and I had a conversation during my visit about the fact that our younger sisters have it so much more together than we do.  I admit, I’ve always been envious at how easily Erica seems to navigate the “real world,” she, who launches elaborate company showcases and hosts international design conferences.  Who also manages to find time to volunteer with multiple nonprofit organizations, run her own beauty consulting enterprise, and have more best friends and social lives that I could even conceive of.  She easily faces the big boardroom bosses while I’m still worrying over whether my citations are in correct MLA style.  She is an amazing woman, a force to be reckoned with, and from comparing notes with Gayoung, a perfect example of how much more grown up our little sisters are compared to their unnis.

Amul kids that Gayoung and I are exactly alike, which I love.  But while I revel in the fact that my Korean sister’s and my interests and academic pursuits are so closely tied, Amul is tickled by the fact that we have the same wit and sense of humor, that we have the same mischievous streak that runs through our often serious-seeming demeanor.

Although this trip I was only able to meet with Omma once, we were lucky to be able to hang out with Gayoung a number of times.  Following our return from Gyeongju, Amul, Drew, Gayoung, and I met for lunch.  We had agreed to meet at the Dunkin Donuts at Seoul Station (this time very explicitly determined which of the three Dunkin Donuts in Seoul Station we meant) to meet for lunch over the weekend.   She took IMG_1442us to Pizza Hut where we experience the Korean version of an American classic.  Drew claims it’s the best pizza he’s ever had, and I have to admit, for someone who didn’t like pizza until just a few years ago, this pizza was indeed very good.  Half BBQ chicken, half bacon and wedge-cut fries, the crust was the real coup d'état: breadsticks stuffed with cheese and sweet potato.  After lunch, we actually met up with Alex, grabbed some coffee, caught up, and regaled stories about KSA, KAWAWA, and Korean camp.

Wandering around after meeting with Alex, I commented to Gayoung, “Amul’s really wanted to try Korean fried chicken and hof.  Do you have any suggestions?”  Gayoung’s eyes lit up—apparently going out for chicken and beer, contracted to “chi-mek” (mek-ju is Korean for beer), is one of Gayoung’s favorite social activities when just hanging out with friends.  “Let’s go on Monday!” she exclaimed.  “We’ll eat chicken, drink beer, and then do noraebang!”  At this, both Amul’s and my eyes lit up.  Amul, for the culinary and musical experience (all he talked about for the rest of the weekend was how excited he was for Monday night), and I, because it meant one more meet up with my sister.

DSCF1337We met in Bucheon, near Suwon—Gayoung’s “turf” since her Kyung Hee University days.  She took us to “her” chi-mek place, which was incredible.DSCF1341  And it was like hanging out with friends.  Gayoung and I have certainly had our emotional bonding moments, but this evening was special in that we were together simply because we enjoyed each other’s company.  At dinner, Gayoung pouted that we hadn’t called her when we went to the jjimjjilbang (public bath/sauna) the other day, and we made plans for all the activities we’d do together the next time we visited—we’d go to a baseball or soccer game, travel down to Busan together, stay at Gayoung’s once she gets her own place.  My heart expanded with talk of these plans.  It would be so easy for Gayoung to dismiss this half sister of hers.  Do the obligatory meet for coffee, and then out of sight, out of mind.  It thrills me that Gayoung wants to spend time with us, genuinely finds me a cool person who is enjoyable to hang out with.

Maybe it’s remnants from high school, but I still am always so conscious of my social ineptitude.  Even among my sister Erica’s friends, whom I’ve known since they were in third grade, whom I’ll be spending the weekend drinking and bachelorette-ing (what does one do at these types of things anyway?), I always feel somewhat maladroit and awkward, the token tagalong sister.  Maybe it’s because they’re all real-world successful little sisters who navigate with ease the grown-up social milieu that I still find unfathomable.  Whatever the case, I am grateful for my amazing sisters (including Jiyoung, when we eventually meet), who have graciously led me through their worlds—be they the twentysomething Chicago professionals scene or the Korean collegetown—and who have also bravely walked with me hand-in-hand as I’ve come into my own and struggled to understand this world of my own.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Departed Seoul

Sitting on the floor in the satellite number one at the Narita international airport terminal in Tokyo, Japan.  The second half of our trip was a whirlwind, seemed to go by in a second, which is why I haven’t had time to update.  However, it did include a stag beetle, several pints of Cass, a barefoot walking path that was like the seventh circle of hell, Drew flying through the air like a cannonball wearing nothing but a taegukgi, and Chi-Mek and noraebang with Gayoung.

I think it’ll take a few days to gather myself to return to the reality of daily life again.  I’m less than three hours departed from Seoul, and I already feel an emptiness.  Leaving Korea is always hard.  I’ve cried on the flight home thirteen hours straight under the scratchy airline blanket.  No tears yet this time, but my heart broke when Omma called at 7:30 this morning right before I was about to return my rental phone at the airport.  After asking if I was at the airport and whether I had eaten, she started crying, and all I could do was murmur, “Oh, Omma, Omma.  Manh-i sarang hae.”

Talking one night with my friend Joon over coffee, he gave Amul some advice for the care and feeding of Korean adoptees:  plan on budgeting for yearly or every-two-year pilgrimages back to Korea.  And really, it’s true.  I feel the pull to go back, even more so now with the bonds of love tying me Omma, Gayoung, and all the Imos and Imo Halmonis.  Amul concedes, but is still holding out for a vacation where it’s just the two of us, with no family obligations.  Our much talked about getaway to Europe for our honeymoon which has been postponed yet another summer.  Ah, but I digress, and boarding begins soon.

I’m determined to use the trans-Pacific flight to transfer photos from various camera SD cards to my hard drive, so hopefully photos coming soon.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


We've spent the past couple days in Gyeongju, my favorite city.  Not only because I share my name with it, but becaue the city's full of amazing history and beauty.  They call Gyeongju the museum without walls.  Gayoung made fun of me because I've been to Gyeongju so many times, but I really wanted Drew to see all the cool Shilla dynasty stuff here.

We took the new KTX line directly from Seoul to Gyeongju--the line opened just three days after we left Korea in 2010, so we didn't get to take advantage of it last time.  The express line cut our commute time in half at two hours.

Yesterday we hiked the trails of Bulguksa and Seokguram.  Many of the lotus lanterns were still up from Buddha's birthday on Monday, which was really neat to see.  Last night we went to a restaurant that Amul had found on a blog that serves traditional Korean meals.  Lots of diferent banchan and stews.  We ordered dongdongju, a freshly-made rice wine similar to makgoli, which was really good!  It was cloudy like makgoli, but sweet and sparkling in flavor.  Drew especially enjoyed the Korean alcohol. :)

Today, my immune system finally called it quits.  I usually end up getting sick at the end of each semester, with all the stress of finals.  However, this semester, I didn't have the luxury of down time after classes since we went to Korea right after classes.  I woke up with a pounding headache and a sore throat--hiking four miles in the mountains yesterday probably didn't help.  Anyway, I took it easy this morning and went back to sleep while Amul showed Drew around the various burial mound sites.  After a nap and a nice hot shower, I'm feeling a bit better.  I'll be meeting up with them in a little bit at the Gyeongju National Museum.

We leave Gyeongju tomorrow around lunchtime to head back up to Seoul.  We'll have a little under a week back in Seoul before we head home.  It seems that the things I need to stock up on in Korea are always so heavy!  I always try to get new books on adoption that are published here in Korea and hard to get in the U.S.  I also usually try to bring back a few bottles of my favorite shampoo which is really the only product that seems to keep my chronic scalp issues manageable.  Anyway, while these things are fairly compact and easy to pack, they're very heavy to lug around and call for strategic weight displacement when packing.

Hopefully photos in the next post, when I can transfer images from the SD cards to my laptop!

Monday, May 28, 2012

My first night in Gyeongju, I dreamed about Danny all night.  It was so wonderful to see him, to talk with him again, to read his poetry.  He was the same as ever, with his gentle soul and sweet smile.  I awoke with a smile on my face, but his visit in my dreams made me miss him in my daily wakeful life.

For me, Korea will always be a place of loss, I think.  Even in finding Omma and Gayoung, that melancholy han still remains, still continues to remind us of what has been lost.

Eleven years ago, I wrote Danny's name on a tile that would be used to restore the Bulguksa Buddhist temple in the Gyeongju mountains.  Last night, he visited me in dreams, reminding me to cherish what we have--even the losses for the sweet heartache they bring.  Today, I climb the sacred mountain again to Bulguksa where I say a prayer for all the love and loss I am surrounded by.  Thank you, Danny.  Your spirit lives on on a tile constructing a heavenly temple, in the call of the magpies perched in pine, in the seaspray haze that shrouds the coastal rice paddies.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Thursday, Drew and I made the trip down to Hongseong.  We only got on one wrong train, and were able to remedy our error before the train had left the station.  Drew’s birthplace is a cute little town.  It’s much more rural than Seoul or even Pusan.  We wandered around the downtown area and found the hospital where Drew was born. We actually walked in and got to look around the lobby, but didn’t think trying to wander further into the depths was a good idea.  I suggested Drew try to cross the street at a red light to get a more intense hospital experience, but he declined.

We also found the Hongseong elementary school, where, we assume, Drew’s brothers attended classes.  There are several historic spots around the town, as well.  There’s a fortress in the middle of the town’s thoroughfare, and a tomb memorial for freedom fighters who perished in the uprising against Japan in 1906.

Hongseong is known for its cockles, cavern shrimp, and its beef.  Apparently, Hongseong supplies 6% of the nation’s Korean beef (han-u), and there were butcher/restaurant combinations touting local beef everywhere.  We picked one randomly for lunch, and it turned out to be THE BEST meal we’ve had.  As Hongseong’s fairly rural, no one we encountered spoke English, so we rather randomly picked a kogi dish off the menu.  We got a variety of cuts of beef, from thinly-shaved shabushabu meat, to good sized chunks, to a whole steak.  No seasonings, the ahjumma sliced it ten feet away from us on the meat slicing machine and brought it to our table.  The meat was so nicely marbled, and the flavor was incredible.  We even broke off a couple chunks of fat from the giant cube the ahjumma gave us and fried those on the grill.  It browned wonderfully; the surface was nice and crispy and the center melted in your mouth.

After lunch, we hiked around some of the quieter back roads and got to see some of the countryside, fields, and rice paddies.  Our ride home was long and tiresome, but definitely tinged with something of “real Korea.” We got back to Hongseong’s train station around 5 pm.  There were no trains to Seoul until about 10 pm, but there was a train to Yongsan at 6.  You can pretty easily get to downtown Seoul from Yongsan via metro, so we got tickets for that train.  Though, we forgot to take into account that on Friday evening of a long holiday weekend (Buddha’s birthday is Monday), many people would be travelling.  The seats on the Yongsan train were all full, but we were able to get two standing room tickets.  It was a long two hours, standing in the “foyer” of car number 2.  Stuffy, bumpy, and crowded.  But we managed to get home in one piece!  Drew subsequently spent the next day lazing around in bed.

iPad commercials

The iPad commercial here in Korea is very similar to the U.S. version, but something’s  different about it—I just can’t put my finger on it…

Everybody needs a little time away

Drew and I needed a break from each other today.  We’ve been in each other’s pockets for a week and a half, and as much as we love each other, we were starting to get snippy.  I have also discovered that Drew does quite a bit of talking in his sleep.  Last night’s was “Stop shaking it.  Don’t be such a baby,” followed by vigorous twitching of limbs and a high kick which launched the sheets up in the air an impressive distance.  Anyway, Drew’s out this evening with his friend Yeji hitting up Hongseong.

I went down to Yongsan and met up with Alex for lunch.  It was great to see him.  Before I left, I asked him if there was anything he wanted me to bring from home, and he requested Kraft Dinner and Flaming Hot Cheetoes.  They survived the trip (though I think the air pressure change in the plane poked a hole in one of the Cheetoes bags—Drew’s shirts smelled a bit like Cheetoes until we got a chance to do laundry), and I passed them along to Alex.  I got to meet Alex’s friend, Joyce, who is a fellow TaLK recruit and enviably fluent in Korean.  We ate at a burger joint in the food court of the giant Yongsan shopping complex and then wandered around.  We made our way to Dongdaemun where I parted ways with them and walked the length of Cheonggyecheon back to Koroot.  A relaxing, solitary evening wandering around the city was just what I needed to recharge.

Tomorrow I’m meeting my good friend Joon for coffee, and then meeting Amul at Seoul Station at midnight(!).  Amul will get a few hours to sleep, and then we’re off to Gyeongju for the next few days.

Friday, May 25, 2012


Thursday afternoon was spent exploring one of the royal palaces in Seoul, Gyeongbokgung.  An added bonus was free admission to the Korean Folk Museum, where Drew got to see Paleolithic Korean stone arrows, Bronze Age armor, and Korean horn bows.