When I received the email from Eastern Social Welfare Services Post Adoption Services in Fall 2013 notifying me that my biological mother had contacted their offices I was surprised. I searched with little success in Summer 2011. Not only did I file missing persons reports in Jeonju and Gimje, I also appeared on regional television. During that summer I received support from a friend’s host family and my Korean language teachers, which is why I had those opportunities. Prior to this ambitious search process, I emailed Eastern’s Post Adoption Services in 2003 and 2010. The details that I received only noted that my birth parents knew one another in high school.
I remained persistent each time I contacted Post Adoption Services. Much of this determination stemmed from knowledge gained within the adoptee community. Through formal and informal channels adoptees share their own experiences searching for their biological parents. We reveal best practices and deploy a deep honesty in the need for tenacity in this process. We share anecdotes of individuals who learned new information each time they inquired with their particular agency. This was made evident as I collected oral histories for my book manuscript. Participants recalled their own difficulties learning more about their biological parents.
I remember the shock of reading the email from Post Adoption Services concerning the fact that my biological mother reached out to them. As we made contact via email in November 2013, I utilized a dear friend to complete the translating of the first few letters. But then I made a decisive move. I gave my biological mother my Kakao Talk username. All of the sudden we went from mediated communication via Post Adoption Services to her texting me at a rapid rate. As this was going on, I also made contact with my biological father via Kakao Talk.
Some may wonder why I excised the middleman (in this case Post Adoption Services) so quickly. To be honest it was because I disliked the mediated nature of going through any third party to have access to my biological parents. I wanted to control the process or at least control that would read my messages to my biological family. I am indebted to my friend who did the initial translations, as his emotional labor in this process cannot go unnoticed. For that I will always be extremely grateful. This method of communication (Kakao Talk) may not be for everyone. I’m not advocating not utilizing translators or going through a third-party. Please do not misunderstand me. Rather, for me as an individual, I realized that Kakao Talk would allow me to satisfy my curiosities at a faster rate. That and my biological mother sent me two letters in quick succession before I could send a response. Every individual should pursue the routes that best fit who they are and where they are in the search and reunion process.
Over Kakao Talk I slowly learned more about my biological parents and their families. I have three younger siblings on my mother’s side of the family and two younger siblings on my father’s side of the family. (Fun fact: I have a dozen siblings – when considering steps/halfs in the US and Korea.) We exchanged photos, emojis, texts, and occasionally spoke in stilted English and Korean on the phone. It was through our stilted conversations that I made the decisive decision to travel to Korea in December 2013.
As a scholar, I found myself intellectualizing my reunion. I knew the reasons why my mother most likely relinquished me before I even learned the truth. My research in the field of Korean adoption prepared me for the realities. In some ways my reunion felt like an out of body experience. I kept looking at it as a scholar and not as someone who was living it. But yet, I was living it. I still am living it.
Reunion is overwhelming. Complex. Emotional. Exhausting. Joyous. It cannot be described by a single word. Rather, it is a complex and paradoxical process. And it is not the same for every individual. In the adoption world, many people like to talk in dichotomies and generalizations. Happy. Unhappy. Grateful. Ungrateful. Angry. To boil the search and reunion process down to one word would be counterproductive. At the same time, it creates an unfair framework for other adoptees to follow. There are no benchmarks in this process. One cannot reach point A and move neatly to point B. There is not a guidebook that we can pass along. Rather, sharing our experiences as individuals creates a collective knowledge base.
I am now nearly a year and half into my reunion. It’s a learning process. I saw them in September 2014 when I was in Korea to attend the American Studies Association Korea annual conference. In between our initial meeting and my return last September, we communicated via Facebook messenger and Kakao Talk. I am Facebook friends with my immediate Korean family members. I also follow my biological mother on Twitter. Since my visit last Fall, we communicate semi-regularly. And yet, my story and our shared moments together have made me realize that my reunion story is no longer my own. Rather, it’s the story of my biological family. It is our story.