I haven’t posted about this exciting development because it hasn’t been my story, but my youngest brother, Drew’s. But with his blessing to share, I’m now relating Drew’s successful birthfamily reunion. Drew’s interest in searching actually started a few years ago, and when we traveled to Korea in 2012 (see blog post KSS). We learned a bunch of information about Drew’s birth, and, as it turns out, were fed quite a bit of speculative and inaccurate information as well.
Drew traveled to Korea again in 2013 with Grace Song and Minyoung Kim’s adoptee tour group, and was able to connect with Sgt. Lee of Namyoung police department’s “Special Investigation Team of Long-Term Missing Persons.” Sgt. Lee is pretty well known in Korean adoptee circles for his efforts in reconnecting birthfamilies with adoptees. Often, when the reluctance of adoption agencies of sharing information (or, as I have noticed, the ubiquity with which adoptees’ records have been “lost in a fire at the orphanage” years ago. Doesn’t this seem disconcerting, that so many fires that destroyed adoptee records occurred in orphanages? What is it about orphanages in Korea that seems to invite fires? I really think the health department should look into this…) serves as a roadblock in adoptees’ birth searches, Sgt. Lee has been able to access identification through his position with the police department. A few months after Drew’s 2013 trip, he received word that Sgt. Lee had been able to locate a current address and contact information for his birthfamily. Interestingly, the day after receiving an email from Sgt. Lee confirming the success of his query, KSS emailed Drew stating that they had conducted another search (we assume this was initiated because of Sgt. Lee and/or the adoptee tour’s inquiries with KSS that summer), and had determined that finding his birthfamily was impossible, and at this point there was nothing else that could be done. Sgt. Lee’s email confirmed the fact that both his parents were still living in Hongseong where Drew had been born, even though in previous communication with KSS, KSS had told us that Drew’s mother had moved to Namwon City and that it was likely that Drew’s father had passed away.
This is where I commend Drew for knowing himself well enough to know it wasn’t the right time. Although Sgt. Lee was anxious to make contact with Drew’s birthfamily and get the reunion process started, Drew knew that even armed with tangible contact information, he wasn’t quite ready to take that next big step. Whenever I give talks about my own adoption and reunion experience, this is something I always stress to adoptees thinking about starting a birth search. Before you search, make sure you’re emotionally ready. You have to be prepared for any of the outcomes a birth search can lead to. Your inquiry could turn up no information whatsoever (I think the current statistic is something like 1-3% of adoptees’ searches are successful). It could reveal that your birthparents have been located, but they had passed away. It could result in finding your birthfamily, but learning they don’t want to establish contact. It could result in finding out everything you’ve been told about the circumstances of your adoption your whole life was a lie.
Even for those who reunite, I caution viewing reunion as some magic puzzle piece. I think so many of us fantasize about reunion because of the inherent holes and trauma adoption pierces us with. But going into reunion expecting it to magically solve all of your problems is setting yourself up for disappointment and isn’t fair to any of the parties involved. And even those reunions that are deemed “successful” like my own, the continued maintenance of those newly-established relationships is hard work! There are so many cultural, familial, and emotional expectations from all sides that have to be negotiated and navigated. Notions of family and the roles of mother, daughter, sister, brother, son, father have to be redefined over and over. Not to mention the fact that languages and oceans separate us the vast majority of the time.
So, wise soul Drew is, he waited. He waited two years until, while crewing a boat headed from Taiwan to Okinawa, Drew decided he was ready to make the leap. He contacted his friend Minyoung and Sgt. Lee to reopen his birthsearch and wrote a letter to his birthparents to be translated. After being stranded in Okinawa for several weeks after the damage to the boat from the typhoon in April rendered it un-sailable (the plan was to island-hop from Okinawa up to Jeju and Pusan), Drew booked a flight and landed in Incheon on July 2. As luck would have it, Drew’s getting caught in the typhoon which delayed arrival in Seoul resulted in his and my travel itineraries overlapping. The day after Drew arrived in Seoul, he had a meeting with Sgt. Lee to go over his case. Drew was gracious enough to let me tag along. We met with Minyoung, who had scheduled everything, and joined a handful of other adoptees wanting to meet Sgt. Lee to submit DNA tests in hopes of finding a familial match. We didn’t get a chance to talk with Sgt. Lee at that meeting, but Minyoung left us with hope that we’d have some developments by the end of the week.
Two weeks went by and we heard nothing. With just a few days left before his flight back home, Minyoung contacted us out of the blue late on Tuesday night. We were to meet her the next morning at 10 am to meet Drew’s parents at Sgt. Lee’s office. The immediacy of the scheduled reunion is in stark contrast to my own experience where I corresponded with my birthmother for a year before I came to Korea to meet her in person. Our reunion was planned months in advance and we had already shared many of our feelings and sentiments prior to this through letters. Drew had less than twelve hours to prepare himself. Every few hours, I’d ask him how he was feeling, and he always responded by saying that it felt surreal, he hadn’t had time yet to let it sink in.
A sibling selfie before heading to Sgt. Lee’s office:
We stopped by Dunkin’ Donuts before heading to the police station for Drew to fuel up for the task ahead with cookies n’ cream doughnuts, and then in a whirlwind of “wait here,” “sit over there,” “tuck in your shirt,” “wait right here,” “come with me,” “make sure you introduce yourself as Lee Yong Woo,” we were led to a small room where four people sat expectantly on the ondol floor.
And Drew introduced himself, and hugs and a few tears were exchanged. Drew’s whole birthfamily, save the middle brother who couldn’t get time off work, but would meet us later in the afternoon, had come to meet him. Immediately, the family resemblance was remarkable. All four sons have their aboji’s eyes. I think Drew has his omma’s nose and her build.
Drew’s eldest brother, Yong-un:
Drew’s middle brother, Yong-min:
Drew’s third brother, Yong-ho:
We sat and Drew talked about his adoptive family and growing up in the United States. His father explained the circumstances of Drew’s adoption. Back in 1991 (Drew was born January 7, 1992), Drew’s parents bought a fruit and vegetable farm in Hongseong. With all the startup costs and investments that establishing a new farm entails, the family was heavily in debt. Drew’s birth came as a surprise. Apparently, he was at least two weeks early, and Drew’s father was out driving the pickup truck when his mom went into labor. They rushed to the Hongseong hospital (which, according to Drew’s appa, was just a single-story building back then. We visited in 2012 and it was a multi-level modern hospital campus). With three sons already to support and the debts accrued from starting the farm, Drew’s father realized he would be unable to pay the hospital bills. Back when Drew and I visited KSS in 2012, the case manager told us that because he couldn’t pay the hospital bills, Drew’s father started asking around the hospital if he could leave the baby. We found out that in actuality, while Drew’s father was trying to figure out how to scrape some money together to pay the bill, an agent from the adoption agency approached him at the hospital and offered to pay all the hospital fees if he relinquished custody of the baby. Feeling like this was his only option, Drew’s father agreed.
Here, Drew’s omma teared up. Still in labor, she, apparently had not been included in the decision-making process. With parental rights signed away even before Drew was born, as soon she gave birth, Drew was whisked away. His birth parents never even got to see him. Confused and exhausted from labor, Drew’s mother had no idea what was going on when they took her son away. But they didn’t forget him. It was important for Drew to ask if they thought about him each year on his birthday. His parents assured him that they thought about him often, and even talked about him, wondered what he was doing, hoped that he happy and loved. These conversations were done in privacy, however, when Drew’s three older brothers weren’t around. They grew up not knowing they had younger brother, and found out about Drew’s existence just the day before the reunion.
Despite the shock of learning about this twenty-three year old family secret the day before, Drew’s brothers immediately welcomed him into the fold. Within minutes, they were asking him about his interests, marveling at the physical resemblances among themselves, and collectively commiserating over the seeming difficulty the Lee brothers have in attaining girlfriends. They all slid so comfortably into familiarity, that Drew at one point pulled me aside and said, “It’s so weird, I thought we’d be crying and wailing the whole time, but instead we’re laughing together and even teasing each other!” I think this is both a testament to the immediate familial bonds that were established within Drew’s family, but also the fact that there is no “right way” for a reunion to proceed. So often we are conditioned to certain affective expectations of love and loss that when real life doesn’t play out like a Korea drama, we wonder if we’re doing it right. For Drew, the way the afternoon proceeded constituted a perfect reunion, even if it didn’t consist of close-up shots of tears glistening in his omma’s eyes and tortured looks of longing shot across the room among the separated brothers.
The easy camaraderie among the brothers was remarkable, but what struck all of us the most though, I think, was the personality resemblance between Drew and his father. Like Drew, Drew’s aboji is a dreamer, a big idea person. They have big aspirations, and often make impulsive decisions, but sometimes find the tediousness of actualizing their aspirations challenging. Though maybe not the most academically-inclined, both are fascinated by science, nature, and documentaries. Like Drew, his father loves making things with his hands, and even handmade a Korean bow and forged a knife when he was Drew’s age. Drew’s father plays the guitar and harmonica. And we’ve finally discovered where Drew got his artistic talent: his aboji is a natural artist. Even their artistic style is similar, both preferring line drawings that make perspective and depth perception seem like a piece of cake. Drew said talking with his aboji was like talking with himself.
Drew’s aboji doing a quick drawing in Drew’s sketchbook:
This was extremely validating for Drew, as it would be for any adoptee, being able to connect with a biological family member and share interests and personality traits after wondering about such inheritances for so long. But I actually think it was equally affirming for Drew’s father. He beamed the whole afternoon, and crowed that finally there was someone in the family who understood him! Apparently, the other members of the family are often exasperated and bewildered by Appa and his actions.
After talking for a couple hours, we all went out in search of Drew’s favorite Korean food for lunch (dolsot bibimbap). Lunch was a cheerful affair of joking, passing around photos, and the passing around of Drew’s sketchbook, where everyone attempted to show off their artistic prowess. Two-thirds of the way through lunch, Drew’s father got up from the table and wandered out the door. Everyone seemed unconcerned, and we eventually found him wandering around the neighborhood about twenty minutes after the rest of us had finished eating. This is when we learned that though they grew up in a rural and fairly conservative community, individuality is very important to Drew’s family. While very close as a family, all its members are fiercely independent and are encouraged to do their own thing. Drew’s father does his thing on the farm. His mom manages a big restaurant in Hongseong. None of his brothers live at home with their parents. Two live (in separate apartments) in Ansan, and one lives in Shinchon. Two of his brothers work in offices of mechanics companies, and his middle brother is studying Buddhist theology despite being raised Catholic.
At this point, the family was ready to head to Ansan to Drew’s middle brother’s apartment. It was here that I decided to bow out. I wanted to give Drew some time alone with his family. So I left Drew beaming within the arms of his birthfamily.
The whole family together:
Drew met up with his family again a few days later to celebrate Aboji’s birthday. Omma, whose prowess in the kitchen is apparently legendary, cooked a feast, including the best homemade kimchi Drew had ever tasted:
Drew gifted his father with two of his most prized possessions: his adventuring multi-tool and his half-completed sketchbook. Drew asked his father to complete the rest. His father was thrilled and touched by the gifts, and according to Drew, wouldn’t let anyone else touch them the rest of the day!
Drew flew back home earlier this week, but with familial ties with his birthfamily firmly established. I have no doubt this is only the beginning of a long and wonderful relationship for Drew. The night before Drew left, I sat and chatted with him as he packed his bags. “It’s like I’ve always been part of the family,” he said to me. “Just I’ve been away for the past twenty years or so.”