Ever since I can remember, I have known I was adopted. I suppose it would have been irresponsible of my parents to keep it a secret from me because it would have become quickly obvious – me, a Korean child being raised in an Irish-Catholic family.
For my brother Ben who was not adopted, the reality of our blended family never occurred to him until one day on the school bus some kid told him he and I couldn’t be siblings because we looked different. “I thought the kid had lost his mind,” my brother has since told me. “I’m not exactly sure if that had any specific impact on me, but that was the point when I first recall the notion.”
I don’t know much about the first six months of my life, or if I have other siblings in Korea or any who have also been adopted internationally, but what I do know I can’t completely trust to be accurate. According to my papers, I was born near the capital of Seoul to a mother in her early 30s who was in the process of separating from her husband. For of a variety of reasons, she gave me up for adoption so that I could go to a “loving family in America.”
After returning to Korea as an adult and meeting other international adoptees who have searched for their birth parents (something I have chosen not to do), I’ve learned that many of the stories in adoptees’ papers have been falsified and often show a kinder story than the truth. Adoptees who grew up thinking their birth parents, in a
moment of desperation, asked orphanages to watch over their children and send them to loving families overseas later learned that as infants or children they were actually abandoned on a city bench with no note, no clothes and no food or intentionally left in a busy public place with no efforts made by their birth parents to find them.
With that in mind, what I do know about my early life I doubt is completely accurate – but that’s okay. I consider myself lucky to have been adopted, especially after spending five years living and working in Korea as an adult and seeing the life I could have had – a life that in many ways is much harder, especially for girls and women.
Interestingly, Korea’s high rate of international adoptions has created self-inflicted shame among a nation that has now successfully recovered from it days of post-war poverty. When I lived in Korea in the mid-2000s, I would have taxi drivers scold me for my poor Korean language skills, which always led me to tell them my life story of how I was adopted and raised by an American family. Every time their criticism would turn into sympathy. “You have to forgive us,” they’d tell me. “Our country had no money. There was little food and life was hard. I’m sorry,” they would say with a sigh. And my response to them was also always the same. “Don’t be. I’ve had a good life with my family in America.”
My (adoptive) mother tells me she first knew she wanted to have a blended family of adopted and biological children when as a child in the 60s she read a book called, “The Family Nobody Wanted” by Helen Doss, a story about a family comprised of adopted children. “That’s how it started,” she told me. “I thought, ‘There is more than one way to have a family.’ It was just a whole new concept for me.”
Years later as newlyweds living in St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1970s, my parents noticed a building in their neighborhood called Children’s Home Society – an organization they weren’t familiar with until they walked through the doors to learn that it was an adoption agency. At the time, children were being adopted internationally from Colombia and Korea, but it was Korea, my mom tells me, that had a streamlined system making it easier to adopt. And from there, the rest is history. After several months of my parents working with a social worker, I arrived in the United States at six months of age on March 7, 1978.
I share my story, with intent to highlight the many Asian-Americans who like me, were internationally adopted as children. I hope to share their stories and the stories of the families, the lawyers and judges who made it possible – and continue to make it possible – for people like me to come from difficult beginnings in another country and grow into happy, thriving American citizens.
Picture 1: A photo of me and my foster mother in Korea. Seoul, 1977.
Picture 2: Arrival in America. Fresh off a plane from Korea, I arrive in Minneapolis, MN. My adoptive parents, Kate and Mike Kiely, hold me for the first time. Minneapolis, 1978.
Picture 3: A childhood photo of me with my brother Ben who was not adopted.
Picture 4: Adoption day. Sitting with the judge.