‘My adoptive parents told me I was given up because my mother was too poor and couldn’t take care of me. Later on, I learned there was much more to the story.’

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“My earliest childhood memories evoke extreme, intense emotions, happiness, at times coupled with a deep sadness that as a child, I couldn’t understand. My adoptive parents told me from the start that I was given up for adoption because my Korean mother was too poor and she couldn’t take care of me. Yet, she gave me up out of love to give me a better life. Later on in life, I learned there was much more to the story. I was about five or six when it hit me that my international adoption meant that my own mother just gave me up. It marked the beginning of my journey into understanding how adoption played a role in how I fit into this bitter sweet world. My truths as a transracial adoptee were a major player in shaping who I am today.

Baby sits in chair wearing light pink outfit
Shelby Kilgore

One of my first memories was when I became incredibly angry at my mom for not letting me do something and I screamed at her, ‘You’re not my real mom! My real mom would let me!’ I proceeded to run to my room. My mom told me her reaction was relief.  She was relieved to hear me say that, because it was expected from what she had learned about adoption. Christmas time had an unusual dimension for me as a young child. I loved getting gifts and was happy to see all the presents under the tree. But then I thought, do all the poor kids get nice gifts from their parents and Santa Claus like I did? I knew deep down they didn’t and that made me feel sad. At some point around that same age, I tried to reason with my mom that if my bio-mom was so poor, why couldn’t she live at our house.

I arrived in the U.S. on August 17, 1984 with several other Korean babies who were also to be adopted by American couples. My mom told me when she first held me, I just stared into her eyes for a long time. She felt that I was asking, ‘Are you my new mother?’

Baby girl looks into eyes of adoptive mother
Shelby Kilgore

My Korean mother had kept me for two months and then took me to Eastern Child Welfare Society where I was put into foster care for about nine months. I was just shy of a year when I came to the states. I bonded very quickly to my mom. I still have a tendency to attach very quickly in situations when I change jobs or move. It’s a survival instinct I believe stemming from having been moved three times to different caretakers before my first year.

Meeting my dad for the first time, was a different story. Apparently, when I first looked up at his blue eyes, mustache and glasses, I immediately began to cry.

Father stands outside holding and kissing cheek of adopted daughter
Shelby Kilgore

Even though he probably looked like an alien to me, they say I got over it pretty quickly. They loved me deeply from the start and I was able to love them back. I just didn’t learn how to love myself until much later in life.

My parents adopted another Korean baby when I was about three, and he became my brother. I don’t have any memories prior to when I was five or six, but my parents told me I said he could go back to Korea after about only two weeks. As might be expected, I was very jealous of him as probably any sibling would be, adopted or not. But possibly more fearful that I wouldn’t be loved anymore.

When I was eight, my parents moved us from Maryland to South Florida, a huge transition. Maryland was definitely more ethnically diverse. My parents took us to family adoption gatherings with other Korean Adoptees. They exposed us to Korean culture and I even had a Korean babysitter who spoke Korean to me. My mom told me I understood a little bit of Korean up until about the age of three or four.

Adopted Korean little girl smiling
Shelby Kilgore

When I started second grade in Florida, I honestly remember more of the stressful times that tend to overshadow everything else. We lived in  a predominantly white community and other kids really didn’t know what adoption meant. I was one of the few Asians at the school and kids can be really mean. I was called ‘flat face’ and kids would say a rhyme that ended with, ‘Chinese, Japanese, look at these,’ and then they would put a finger next to each of their eyes and pull so their eyes would be ‘slanted’, like mine. Kids would ask, ‘Why did your mother give you up?’ It was so hurtful to me at the time that I just froze and didn’t respond.

In fifth grade, I felt pressure to excel. I somehow got it in my head that my parents would send me back to Korea if I didn’t get all top grades on each report card. The stress I felt was overwhelming. I remember struggling in math, and I of course knew about the stereotype that all Asians should be good in math, so I felt like a failure of what was expected of me.

Adopted Korean girl smiles for school photo
Shelby Kilgore

Middle school was tough then and is now; and middle schoolers can be brutal. I currently substitute teach in between freelance work as a TV producer in documentaries and Reality TV. Even as an adult in classes I teach, kids have said ‘you sound like a white girl,’ ‘Ching Chong,’ they have bowed to me, and some have said ‘Ni Hao.’ Most of the time I try to use it as a teaching moment, but sometimes I don’t have the energy. I substitute teach mainly, because I didn’t have an Asian teacher growing up, I didn’t see many Asians in the Media.

The hardest part for me in middle school was when I started struggling with my self-identity. I did not feel any connection to my Korean heritage, nor did I want to. One of my best friends, who rode on the bus with me, told me much later when we were in high school, that I used to wear makeup that was obviously much lighter than my skin tone. I didn’t realize it was so noticeable. But at the time I wanted to be white.

In high school, I worked extremely hard to get straight A’s, and plug myself into as many clubs and extracurricular activities outside of school as I could. I craved praise from others to fill a void I felt inside. Words of affirmation helped fill the hole, but it never felt like enough. I didn’t feel loved enough.

Adopted Korean teen smiles for school picture
Shelby Kilgore

I went to a wonderfully diverse high school of the arts. But there were still very few Asians, and my struggles with self-worth and self-identity continued. I felt uncomfortable being around other Asians, because they reminded me that I was adopted, and that I didn’t really belong. There was one time a kid called me, ‘Twinkie.’ At first, I didn’t get it. But then found out it means yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I remember my brother and I were sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room, while our mother was getting a check-up, and this old man just started going off on how he hated the Japanese people. He looked my brother and I straight in the eyes. We were just kids, and we froze.

Growing up, in general I thought a lot about my Korean mother. I for some reason just focused on her, not my Korean father, or if I had any siblings. My parents had always told us they were going to take my brother and I on a trip to Korea. Around the age of 14, I started to obsess over the idea of meeting my Korean mother. I felt if I could just meet her, I would feel complete and whole.

On my family’s homeland tour to Korea, when I was 17, we still didn’t know if I was going to be able to meet my Korean mother. The agency had found her prior to us going on the trip, but she had said she didn’t want to meet with me. When I found out, it felt like a second rejection. I remember going to my room and crying for a long time. Eastern Social Child Welfare Society also sent a letter that they had withheld from my adoption file. It stirred up so much anger inside of me, that they would keep that secret. I learned so much more about my story, where I came from, all these questions I had pined over many times as a kid. I found out I had several half brothers and sisters. On my Korean mother’s side, I had two older half-brothers, and I was the youngest. None of my other half siblings had been given to adoption. I was the only one.

The trip back to Korea was an emotional rollercoaster ride. My family joined other adoptive families on a homeland tour, where we visited the highlights of Seoul and Pusan and ate traditional Korean food. We met foster mothers at the agency, Korean women at a group home who were giving their babies up at birth, and children in an orphanage who were not eligible for adoption. Each day was filled with enjoyable activities and heartbreaking ones, as well.

During the middle of the homeland tour, my Korean mother relented and decided to come meet me with her sister. It was a nice surprise that I was able to meet my Korean aunt, as well. I had never learned Korean. There was an opportunity when my brother and I were much younger to go to a Korean school on the weekends, but my mom told me later in life, that the contact at the school didn’t recommend that we go, because we would be called ‘KBAs’ which stands for Korean but American. We wouldn’t have been accepted by the other Korean kids who weren’t adopted. At the meeting with my Korean mother, there was an interpreter, a social worker, my mom, dad and brother. Many tears fell from everyone’s eyes, and it all felt so surreal to me. My Korean mother shared that she always knew she was going to give me up, but it was important that she breast fed me for a few months. She told me that she thought about me every day after she parted from me. As far as my Korean father, she only mentioned that he was a good man and had a healthy heart.

Young Korean woman sits on couch hugging biological mother who gave her up for adoption
Shelby Kilgore

When I said goodbye to my Korean mother, it was probably one of the most difficult things for me. As she wrapped her arms around me in a hug, I felt her love, as well. It was a beautiful moment and confirmation that she did love me. That’s when I began to start loving myself.

Mother closes her eyes while hugging daughter she gave up for adoption
Shelby Kilgore

After the meeting, I felt truly elated. At the time, I felt complete. My dream had come true, I finally had met my Korean mother, someone I had wondered about for so long.

Part of my healing and growth, as I try to navigate in this world of adoption, is to spread education and awareness through the lens. Growing up, I wish I had more connections with Korean adoptees to know that my brother and I weren’t alone. I wish there had been more books to read, movies and TV shows to watch that were adoption related. On my first trip to Korea I realized the importance of my parents creating a safe space for me to talk about my feelings and issues, especially if they were adoption-related, because I found out not all adoptees had that. Some adoptive parents would dismiss their child’s emotions and shut down the conversation. I am creating what I had wanted and needed when I was a kid.

After my first trip to Korea when I was 17, it took me a year to process everything that I had experienced. As I came to understand fully the circumstances that led to my adoption, it was very painful. My Korean mother had ended up getting remarried and she had never told her husband about me. That was the reason she was hesitant at first. But when she changed her mind, she met us in secret. In South Korean society, babies born out of wedlock, were not accepted. If women wanted to get remarried, their new husband would not accept children from another marriage, and certainly not an illegitimate child. I learned I may have not even been able to attend school, as I was considered a second-class citizen at the time. Even today, single pregnant women in Korea are ostracized by their friends, family and coworkers. For a while, I felt in some ways my Korean mother chose to get remarried, rather than fight to keep me, to fight the system.

I am now thirty-five years into an incredible journey. I take in all the added ups, downs and middle of being adopted with no regrets. While I believe adoption entails both grief and joy as one family is separated so another can be made, I accept that this is part of my journey.

Korean woman stands beside mother who adopted her at birth
Shelby Kilgore

I deeply love my husband who I married almost four years ago. He understands my adoption story and how that affects the fabric of feelings, sensitivities, and priorities. The fact that he supports my passion projects of making these foster care and adoption videos both emotionally and financially means the world to me. I love my adoptive parents and my brother as well and appreciate their interest and support for my film-making. I know my Korean mother loves me too, and all this is enough for me now. I cherish the Korean name she gave me, YoonMee. It means truth shining. Each story I share whether positive, negative or somewhere in between, it’s my mission to shine their truth to the world. I truly believe there is healing in telling these stories both for the teller and for those who benefit from listening – they’re not alone.”

Korean woman sits at restaurant table full of Korean food beside husband
Shelby Kilgore

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Shelby Kilgore. Submit your story here. Subscribe to our free email newsletter here. 

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