“I remember standing in front of the mirror as a young girl, sometimes for hours, analyzing every bit of my facial features. I’d draw a line straight down the middle– forehead to chin,and make note of the asymmetries. My left eyelid had a slight crease, while my right was strictly mono-lidded. When I smiled, the left side of my mouth pulled up high, creating a crease in my cheek, but on the right my cheek remained smooth, almost as if that corner of my mouth was unsure of what it was doing. I would count my freckles, ‘uncommon for Koreans,’ or so I was told, and played with my nose as one nostril rolled out more broadly than the other.
This bizarre ritual was one I practiced many times, and its purpose was simple: I wanted to know whose features I shared. Whose face did I inherit, my mom’s or my dad’s? I picked and I wondered because for 31 years, I never knew. I was adopted from Seoul, South Korea on exactly my half birthday back in 1989. From the story my father told at my wedding, I arrived at almost midnight on a rainy evening, to a small airport in Albany, NY. He joked that the plane looked as if it had been used back in WWII, and that its rugged and old exterior gave no indication of the precious cargo it contained.
I was carried off the plane in the arms of a caretaker who, upon seeing my parents standing in the waiting room, pointed and said, ‘Look! There’s your mom and dad!’ Apparently, my immediate facial expression was that of, ‘Really? Those people?’ Thirty-one years later, I am beyond thrilled that the people I have come to affectionately call, ‘Mom and Dad,’ are those people. They have stood by my side and have offered nothing but unconditional love and support. Yet throughout my life I was plagued by unresolved feelings surrounding my adoption and my race. I grew up as an only child in a small, predominantly White, town in Upstate New York. Although I have very fond memories of my childhood, there was always a cloud of darkness that seemed to prevent the sun from fully shining through.
I was as young as four when my depression showed up. My dad had to travel a lot for work, so he was often gone in the mornings before I woke up and came home after I went to sleep. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, so my days were mostly spent with her. As an adult, I now understand that my dad’s absence during the week was a result of him doing the best that he could to provide for us, and that being gone so much was as painful for him as it was for me. But at the time, I was only able to process his traveling through a lens of abandonment. I couldn’t see the nuance of the situation or the love behind it. To my four-year-old self, it was simple: My mom was home and stayed with me all the time. Therefore, she loved me. My birth mother left me. And because of this, despite whatever my parents said, I didn’t really believe that she loved me. My dad left me during the week, so he must not have loved me either.
As a result of this deduction, I tested my limits with my mom. As a form of self-preservation I acted out and threw tantrums. I yelled, screamed, and cried daily. Sometimes this would be over trivial things, while others it was because that was the only way I could express the immense pain and sadness that I felt. For such a tiny little girl, I had impossibly large feelings. But it was my way of trying to keep her from getting too close. It was as if I was saying, ‘I know that you’re going to leave me just like everyone else. You say you won’t, but I don’t believe you. Here, I’ll prove it.’ However, my mother’s presence never waivered. Every single tantrum, she would scoop me up in her arms, talk to me in hushed tones, and just sit with me until the storm passed.
Although I excelled in school and loved learning, school was a war zone that as though the entire world was launching grenades in my direction while all I could do was huddle in a bunker. I had a handful of friends over the years, but throughout elementary and middle school I was often made fun of for being Asian. I remember riding the bus to kindergarten and kids asking me if I ate dog. When I tried to correct them and say that I ate, ‘Korean food,’ they quickly turned my answer on its head and retorted, ‘Ewww! You eat crayon food!’ During the day in the classroom, peers pulled their eyes tight at the corners and laughed in my direction. In late-elementary school, the bullying escalated to physical altercations from girls in the bathroom. I would come home covered in bruises from being shoved on the floor. Despite changing schools three times, the teasing and the taunting never ceased. By the time I got to middle school, in addition to simply hating my Koreanness because of the emotional and physical pain it caused, I began struggling with the duality and stereotypes of being a Korean adoptee.
In sixth grade, my Social Studies teacher told me I should be grateful my parents adopted me. She said that I was, ‘lucky there are kindhearted people who are willing to take in orphans and treat them like the Queen of Sheba.’ In eighth grade, I struggled with Math. When I failed a test, upon handing it back, my teacher said loudly in front of the class, ‘You should really be careful and study more. If you were my kid and you got a grade like this, I’d send you back to where you came from.’
During this time I really wanted to find my birth mother. Not because I wanted to form a connection or because I wanted to get to know her, but because I was so unbelievably angry. I resented her and my adoption. I wanted to be able to see her face, to yell at her and blame her for giving me away. In my mind, it was her fault that I was stuck in this town with these horrible people. It was because of her decisions that I was walking through an existence in which every day felt like being stabbed by a thousand knives to the point where I didn’t even want to live anymore. My mom did her best to initiate a search for my birth mother during this time. Unfortunately, it was still too early. Laws in Korea and policies for Korean adoptees hadn’t changed yet. Since my adoption was closed, my mom was met with roadblocks. Additionally, my mental health was spiraling out of control, so we put the search out of our minds for almost twenty more years–until this past summer.
Following the horrific and criminal deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, I found myself deeply immersed in analyzing my own race, my positionality, privilege, and role in the world. In this reflecting, I began once again, having a difficult time because I felt hopelessly pulled between my two identities: Korean and adopted. The result of all this tension and anxiety was an impulsive decision to open the door once more and search for my birth mother. This time, my reason for searching was different. Instead of stemming from bitterness and animosity, it came from a place of genuine curiosity. After all, twenty years had passed. I was no longer a young girl at the mercy of the world; I was a 31 year old woman who was happily married, living my own life, and thinking about starting a family.
It was an afternoon in June when I Googled ‘Eastern Social Welfare Society’ and promptly followed their instructions to file for a release of my adoption files. Over the past twenty years, Korea relaxed their restrictions and set up supports to help adoptees reunite with their birth families. Despite my thinking that the search would take years, or not amount to anything, mine was successfully completed in a matter of two short months.
I will never forget the moment that I first read the handwritten letter from my birth mother. I had to reach out to a family friend because it was written in Korean, but when she translated the letter, she said, ‘Oh Shene. Your birth mother’s words poured off the page as though she’d been waiting to tell this story for years. It was as if she couldn’t write fast enough.’ My birth mother’s story is both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. She moved in with my birth father because she knew that he was abusing his two daughters from a previous marriage, and she wanted to help protect them. When she got pregnant with me, she was encouraged by those daughters to flee because my birth father had become abusive towards her. She fled to Seoul and gave birth to me in a shelter for battered women, where she allegedly was told that she needed to put me up for adoption if she wanted to remain there.
She wrote about how hard it was to leave me, and how much she’s suffered over the years, being wracked by guilt over her decision. She has faithfully done whatever she can over the years to pay, ‘penance’ by donating to causes that help children in the, ‘hopes that if I can take care of other people’s children, someone will also be taking care of you.’ She wrote too, about how both she and my three younger half-sisters all suffer from depression. Her story and life have been as deeply affected by mental illness and the trauma of my adoption as mine has. While not the happiest of commonalities, I find comfort in knowing that I have not been alone in my feelings or my struggles; my birth mother, twenty five years older than me and halfway across the world, has walked a similar path.
Reading her letter felt like coming home. There were so many pieces to her story which healed wounds I realized I had merely cauterized. Knowing her heart has allowed me to truly see that I was placed for adoption not as a result of an absence of love, but from an abundance of it. She, just like my dad, made sacrifices for the sake of making sure that I was loved and cared for. Instead of feeling anger or bitterness towards my birth mother, I feel nothing but admiration and empathy.
In the most recent email correspondence from my adoption agency, I received the most meaningful piece of information: a picture of my birth mother. I no longer need to stand in front of the mirror and wonder whose features I have because I know without a doubt that they are hers. From the uneven eyes, to the crooked smile, and even the freckles, our faces are the spitting image of one another’s. And now instead of being ashamed or embarrassed by the way that I look or my adoption–I am proud.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Shené Randall of Boulder, CO, USA. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more beautiful stories about transracial adoption:
‘It’s an impossible mission.’ My mom wasn’t going to give up yet. This was for her little girl. She wasn’t about to lose this fight.’: Transracial adoptee shares journey, ‘My life was forever changed’
‘Do you know why your REAL parents didn’t want you?’ They wonder how much I ‘cost.’ Truth is, love has no limits. Family is not confined or defined by blood.’: Transracial adoptee details journey, ‘I wouldn’t change a thing’
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