"Now, I'd like to talk with you about your birth mother," she said sweetly, yet matter-of-factly, as her thick, coke-bottle glasses beckoned me to respond.
The sunlight beaming over the busy intersection of Seoul, Korea blazed into the window, and hit my forehead as if to awaken me from a hazy fog. My eyes met the soft gaze of the adoption counselor sitting across from me at Holt International, the agency that delivered me to my parents, Carl and Kay Rowley, in Chicago on a monumental Mother's Day when I was five months old.
My heart skipped a beat.
"What do you mean?" I asked. "I was told my natural mother left me on the police station steps in Seoul the day I was born."
"That's not true," she replied. "Your birth mother dropped you off at CAPOK, the Christian Adoption Program of Korea, and then you were brought to Holt before being cared for by your foster mother."
I was stunned. The light shining down on me was ethereal, and I was more naked than any truth I've ever known.
A single tear slid slowly down my right cheekbone. It landed on the screen of my iPhone. I stared at the small puddle as it began to expand over the last text message I'd sent to a friend speaking at the conference I was pretending to attend nearby. He inspired me to take the trip to South Korea months ago. It wasn't until he mentioned the idea that I realized I had been burying the desire to uncover my history for most of my life. Why? I was nervous about what I might find. But more than that, I was afraid I'd start to care too much about finding answers. Another tear fell from my jawline and dropped onto the metal table.
"Who can I speak with at CAPOK?" I asked calmly.
"They're no longer in existence."
"Right," I sighed. "Just like thousands of records from when this happened are no longer in existence."
"There's more," she said. "Your birth mother left her name and her address."
Once again, my heart halted.
"May I see it?"
"No, I can't give you that information. It's against Korean adoption laws. She didn't leave her identification number, which is really the only way to locate anyone."
I inhaled and looked deeply into the eyes of this angelic woman, who was also an adoptee and had just spent two hours telling me tragic stories about unwed Korean women giving up their babies out of shame for decades. She was doing her job, and I had no resentment toward her. She had just given me one of the most edifying experiences of my life.
"Trust me," I said. "I'd find her."
Instinctively, I began to strategize. First, I listed all of my hacker friends in my head. Then I started brainstorming ways I could sneak into the other room and start going through files. I considered visiting the Korean government and telling them exactly how unjust their laws are (I still may).
"She wouldn't leave her name if she never wanted me to find her. She just wouldn't."
Instead of going incognito, I texted my friend at the conference. He was the only piece of home I had there, in this country that was ironically my homeland.
ME: They have my birth mother's name, and they won't give it to me.
HE: Are you kidding? What are they saying? Are you ok?
I thought about my original intentions for going on this trip. My reasons were simple. I was there to cover an event, to see Seoul, and to visit my adoption agency simply to find out if there was any available information about the person who found me the day I was born. I wanted to say thank you -- not to have a window of opportunity opened for one second, only to have the blinds closed over it the next. My gears were moving a mile a minute.
Suddenly, I stopped thinking and started feeling. As frustrated as I was, I felt a wave of warmth fill my heart. I wasn't abandoned, after all. Sure, I was given up for adoption, but I wasn't abandoned. To some, it may seem like a minor detail that has no impact on the larger picture. But in my world the storyline change is massive.
Maybe after having this knowledge I'll stop running -- and stop leaving. Maybe now, I'll discontinue saying that I should never have children of my own. There's probably a much more sophisticated, psychological answer to all of the above, but what moves me are people and stories. The stories we tell others about who we are matter. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are dictate everything that happens to and for us.
My adoption story is not that unusual. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, more than 250,000 Korean children have been adopted internationally, with at least half of that amount in the United States. For myself and loving families like mine, the situation has been a blessing. For a number of Korean women and children, it's been a tragedy. Approximately 90 percent of Korean adoptees are born to unwed mothers. To say that unmarried, pregnant women in South Korea who choose to keep their children are ostracized by society would be putting it mildly.
According to the new Special Adoption Act of Korea, babies cannot be put up for adoption without being registered with the government. The law was put into place to lower the amount of overseas adoptions that go unregistered. Unfortunately, more babies are being abandoned anonymously, as a result. Domestic adoption in Korea is not an option for most families there because Confucian values frown upon citizens raising children who are not blood-related. Abortion in the country is illegal, but also rampant. So ultimately, unwed, expecting mothers there are faced with choosing between being shunned by their community, illegitimately terminating their pregnancy, or leaving their child to the hands of fate.
The Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network is an advocacy group for women who want the right to raise their own children, and seeks to secure better welfare services from the state. I hope to meet with the organization when I return to Seoul. Yes, I'll be visiting again.
Before I left the agency, the counselor took me upstairs to see some of the babies that were up for adoption. Four baby boys grabbed onto the hem of my dress with all their might, as I sat and laughed with them during play time. They have a right to be raised by good parents, just as their biological mothers should have had the right to raise them without being cast aside by society. I never thought I'd feel tempted to adopt a child myself, but all I wanted was to take one of those babies home. Now I know how my parents felt the day they saw my picture, and decided I was the one they wanted to make their own.
An hour later, after a day of elation and fury, I returned to the conference ready to collapse. I had nothing to offer. I couldn't emote. I could barely talk. Happy to see a kind, familiar face, I asked my friend who had just finished presenting if he was glad he made the trip.
"Are you?" he asked gently, tilting his head, his eye getting wider.
I paused and felt beautifully human for the first time that day.
"Yeah, so far."
As I lied down to go to sleep that night, I realized that my journey to Seoul was just beginning. All I could do was think about what to do next.
The next day I made plans to see Molly Holt, Chairperson of Holt Children's Services of Korea.