Travel and Healing—Gold: Ready or Not, Here I…

by Gaye Brown

I wasn’t sure what my children expected when I booked our Homeland Tour to South Korea. More self aware than many teens their age, they were adolescents nonetheless. Which is to say, given to opacity. My daughter, a priestess of Asian pop from manga and animé to gaming and “J-rock” claimed she was on board for the music and fashions. My son, who posed as an Asian no-wannabe after years of inhaling toxic slurs (in our uber-educated Maryland suburb), said he was interested in just being there. As in, being Korean in Korea.

These were all valuable reasons to go. Yet I wondered if either of them could know, let alone admit, what they hoped to find there.

My goal, on the other hand, was clear-cut: to see the towns and hospitals in which they were born. I was not bothered by having (twice) missed the Creation; but I felt remiss in not knowing where the Creation occurred. The sites listed on the adoption forms, with their variant spellings and ambiguous roles, meant (dare I admit it?) nothing to me. In that sense, I guess you could say I went searching for meaning. In lieu of meeting my children’s birth mothers the Mount Everest of primal tourism, as I have come to view such trips I focused on finding birth places .

Much to my surprise, both birthplaces proved elusive; whereas meaning met up with us at every turn, most notably on a street corner in Pusan.

***

Half a century before our journey, my father was serving in the war in Korea when my mother gave birth to me in Florida. It made unassailable, karmic sense, therefore, that my children would be born in Korea while I was working for the government in Washington, DC. Well, at least it made sense to me .

My husband, Chris, and I first held Lee Jin Ho in Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Lee was one of half a dozen babies delivered at the gate that midnight. Sprouting Munchkinesque tufts of hair at his temples, he looked like a rookie in the Lollipop League. Two years later, at Washington National Airport, we cradled our four-month-old daughter, Park Sun Joo. Julia who lacked hair altogether but had stunning, take-it-all-in eyes arrived with a three-year-old boy who spoke only Korean. His new parents were outgoing and upbeat, yet they spoke only English. I wondered how the three of them would cope.

As world travelers, Chris and I looked forward to learning all about the children’s heritage. Lee and Julia, however, taught us otherwise: they wanted nothing to do with it. At adoption-agency events, in particular, they acted bored or acted up. One day, when we went shopping at a local Korean grocery, I suddenly understood why.

“Am I going to meet my birth mother here?” Julia blurted out, hanging back.

Nonplussed, I assured her, “No, she’s not here” only to feel the fraud. For all I knew, my daughter’s mother was the clerk who rang up our noodles and nori.

And I wished she were.

If Julia was wary of the stranger who might reclaim her, Lee was resentful of the one who would not. When it came to his birth mother, he produced limitless reserves of bile. Which he delivered by proxy to me. Although he was able to meet his foster mother when she escorted a group of adoptees to the states, the reunion did nothing to assuage Lee’s longing for connection. In fact, the presence of Beta Mom only underscored Alpha’s absence leaving Gamma to shoulder the emotional load.

In time, the children came to trust that Frosty the Snowman could be built in Hell before Chris and I would “send them back;” that the four of us formed our own integral family; that come what may, we were together for life. No one imagined that life might prove a weak link. That life might abandon us all.

Chris died when Lee was fourteen, Julia twelve.

Lee grieved pretty much the way I did: spewing emotion, as if he had taken an emetic to vomit up poison. Day after day, week after week, he tried, in vain, to return to school. After a month, I despaired: would he ever have the stomach for life again? Would I? Roiling with anger, he lamented one day, “If my birth father hadn’t given me away, I never would have lost Dad.”

I couldn’t argue with that. If Chris hadn’t swept me away in college, I never would have lost him either. Yet at least we had found someone worth the anguish. When Chris went missing, I realized how privileged I was to have been loved. That was the irrevocable trust rather than the one established by his will that would support the children and me in perpetuity. From Lee’s bitter kernel of truth, however, I could see a new tendril of connection sprouting: to his birth father. Until that moment, he had never acknowledged the latter’s existence.

For Julia, the bereavement was so big and close, she could not make it out. Think: watching a horror film with your face against the screen. A year passed without her shedding a tear. Then Chris’s company invited us to the dedication of a fountain in his honor, at a project he had directed in Texas. As the day of our trip to San Antonio neared, Julia began to see the picture in nightmares. After one, she awoke crying and confessed, “I’ve been pretending Dad was on a business trip.”

Holding Julia tight, her sobs shuddering my chest, I wanted to give Chris a high-five. (As opposed to shaking my fist at him while teaching Lee to drive.) Our daughter, the one who took her sweet time with milestones talking, teething, training, you name itour daughter was finally grieving!

That was when I realized how perverse motherhood is. My children have had five mothers between them. Not one has failed to embrace what she believed was best for her child, no matter anyone’s pain. Knowing grief delayed was grief denied, I hoped Julia would cry rivers.

Once she no longer was awaiting Dad’s return, Julia asked to take a trip of her own: to Korea. To my surprise, Lee was willing. And I was when-do-we-leave ready, having talked many times about the journey with Chris, before he became ill. I phoned Julia’s adoption agency and booked us on a Homeland Tour.

The morning we convened with nine other adoptive families at Dulles International Airport, the first person I spied was the mother of Julia’s three-year-old fellow flier. I had not spoken to Lyndi in fifteen years, yet I felt instantly at ease. One would have thought that we were long-lost friends. Or at least that we knew each other.

There was also another widow in the group, with a son and a daughter who was Julia’s age. What were the chances of that? For the next two weeks, we warmed the empty seats next to each other during ten-hour forays on the bus, trading tales about the indecencies of death and the insolence of life, which had all the compassion of a cop shouting, “Move along!”

In Seoul, families began at the beginning: at Eastern Social Welfare Society, the agency that had placed most of our children. On a tour of the facilities, we lingered in the infant ward. Seeing the babies in bassinettes slumbering in limbo, the adoptees longed to adopt themselves. Afterwards, each child had a “file review.” I had not expected to learn anything new; so when the caseworker suddenly revealed the names of Julia’s birth parents, I found myself searching for pen and paper.

A day later, during a question-and-answer session at Esther’s Home for unwed mothers, Lee found himself searching for forgiveness.

At the group home in Pyongtaek, we were ushered into a small dining hall, where a dozen young women were already seated around a table, half with their backs to the room, one struggling against tears. After we had filled the seats at the remaining tables, which were set with juice and rice snacks, the director of the program briefly introduced each expectant mother. (Only one had already given birth). The microphone was then passed to us. One by one, we delicately probed how their lives had converged at the home away from home, while we also praised them for their courage in making their decisions, in facing us.

One adoptive mother pleaded for each birth mother to convey a photograph of herself with her infant; for a likeness would mean more to her child in the years to come than any other information. A thirteen-year-old boy, with the face and the grace of a Bodhisattva, looked directly at the mothers and reassured them that he thought about his birth mother every day. When I dared to ask if the increasing number of in-country adoptions made their decisions any easier, one mother quickly replied that she preferred an international placement; for it offered the chance of later finding her child. Another birth mother tersely stated that she had not decided on relinquishment. When she proceeded to question why people would adopt babies they abused, as reported in the news, her housemates nodded in concern. More than one adoptive parent stood and replied that, loving our children as much as we do, we could only wonder how that happened, too.

I cannot recall the point at which Lee spoke, but he caught me off guard. “I’ve been angry with my birth mother all these years,” he confessed, and his tone and impolitic slouch said as much. The young women riveted their eyes upon him, awaiting a translation. At seventeen, Lee was but a few years younger than they wereor than his birthmother was, when he was conceived. “But now, after meeting all of you,” he continued, “I hope I can someday find her.”

Lee’s birthplace in Masan was only an hour’s drive west of Pusan, where our tour was booked for two nights. Julia’s, unfortunately, was less accessible. Late in the trip, I learned that a visit to Kangnung on the northeast coast would require spending a night on our own. As I second-guessed my mission, Julia made the decision easy. She had no interest in parting from the group or, to be more accurate, a significant someone in the group. He was about her age, he loved J-pop, too, and he lived in the town next to us in Maryland. Faced with choosing between the past and the future, she chose future. So did I. We would find her birthplace on our next trip.

Once we had checked into the hotel on Pusan Bay, I set about arranging an excursion to Masan. Having spent the cost of a Hyundai Accent getting to South Korea, I didn’t blink at the quote of 90,000 won for roundtrip cab fare. I just withdrew the equivalent of $100 from the lobby’s ATM.

The morning our group boarded the bus to tour the Jagalchi fish market at the docks, my children and I hopped a taxi in pursuit of Fatima Hospital. Riding shotgun, as she phrased it, was the tour’s translator, Susan, a native Korean who was a student at Wellesley College.

Halfway to Masan, our driver pulled into a rest stop. When we returned from using the facilities, he treated us to a bag of Korean donuts. (Picture a cabbie in the States doing that.) Back on the highway, he seemed eager to join our discussion, and Susan was happy to translate. Ever curious about prejudice, I asked if Korean parents would more easily embrace a Chinese or a Japanese son-in-law. He and Susan differed. Yet they agreed that a Caucasian was the least of all choices, given the risk of being “whitewashed.”

We arrived to discover that Fatima Hospital had long since decamped. The building was now occupied by a mental-health and geriatric-care center. Moreover, Susan and the receptionist deduced that Lee was not born at Fatima but transferred there the day of his birth due to prematurity and jaundice.

Regardless of its name or function, the building had sheltered my son during his first month of life. I still wanted to see as much of the facility as possible. Apart from the lobby, we were welcome to explore a back stairway.

As we wound single-file up the spiral steps, I imagined I was Lee’s birth mother on the day when he arrived. Never having given birth or had parents who rejected the child of their child, I had no ability to simulate her state of mind. And that was undoubtedly a mercy.

Aside from some ornate grillwork, the staircase revealed nothing worth seeing; yet I paused with the children mid-flight so that Susan could take the obligatory photo. When I peered through the door on the third-floor landing and beheld floor-to-ceiling bars, I immediately turned back, thus reversing our procession on the narrow steps. Only then did I notice that the cab driver had joined Lee’s birthplace tour. And he was now in the lead.

You would have thought that they were long-lost kin. Or at least that they knew each other.

That afternoon, back in Pusan, I went out alone to explore the city. To practice finding my way without Chris. Two hours later, having proved my mettle, I returned with newfound confidence only to get lost between the subway stop and the hotel. Map in hand, I approached several pedestrians; but no one could fathom my sign language, let alone pinpoint my location. Finally, I flagged down two young men, despite the fact that, demographically speaking, they would be the last ones to consult a map themselves. They tried, though.

As they debated between themselves in Korean, another voice called out. I turned to see a slight, middle-aged man waving at us from a block away.

“I know him!” I exclaimed to my would-be guides, who looked more lost than ever.

The driver churned the air with an arm, as if reeling me to his cab, which was idling at the curb. The cab I had ridden to Masan. “Come!” he insisted, though he didn’t speak English. “Service,” he added, “service!”

Laughing at our improbable reunion, I obliged. Don’t ask me how, but we managed to communicate as he drove me to the door of my hotel. And don’t ask me why, but he suddenly meant the world to me. When he refused his fare, I realized service is Korean for gratis .

“What are the chances of that?” I later said to Susan. “In a city of more than three million people?”

“Oooh,” she crooned, turning serious. “In Korea, when people find each other again like that, we call it” She said the word for destiny .

I say hide-and-seek . The game of going missing. The game of finding people who find you.

On the flight home, Julia sat across the aisle from the boy who had traveled “home” with her fifteen years before. Beside her sat her new companion. He’s been keeping her company ever since.


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