In the bustling streets of Seoul, South Korea, my life began at Chapter 2 with a cardboard box in a nondescript parking lot. There was no Chapter 1; the scant police, hospital and orphanage records offer no clues about my birth name, birthplace, or birthdate. My birth story is shrouded in mystery.
It was 1970, a time when adoption, especially international adoption, was navigated with less understanding than it is today. Concepts like the significance of bonding between a baby and its mother during the first year of life were not as widely recognized or prioritized.
Attachment, the emotional bond between a child and their primary caregiver, is now known to play a pivotal role in shaping our relationships and emotional well-being. My early life was marked by a series of caregivers ― from a birth family to a police station to a hospital ward to an orphanage and finally to a foster home ― before being escorted to the United States by representatives of an adoption agency to meet my adoptive parents. This early experience laid the foundation for the complex web of attachment issues I would grapple with throughout my life.
In those tricky teen years and my early 20s, I struggled with trust in my relationships. I was continually searching for assurance, for tangible signs that the people in my life would remain steadfast, that our connections would endure the inevitable storms. Looking back, I recognise this was a dance with fear ― the fear of being forgotten, of being alone. Unintentionally, I placed those around me under the microscope of my insecurities, seeking constant validation of their affection and commitment.
As I edged toward my late 20s and into the thick of my 30s, something in the way I handled relationships shifted. Rather than being anxious, I became avoidant. Unconsciously, I began ending relationships when I felt the other person got too close to me. Letting someone in felt not just uncomfortable, but emotionally unsafe. Pulling back whenever a relationship dared to venture too close to my heart was my way of protecting myself, of ensuring the only person I needed to rely on was me.
Now a mother myself, having experienced the profound journey of pregnancy and childbirth, I often think about the emotions that must have swirled within my birth mother during her pregnancy. I can’t help but wonder whether she, too, grappled with a sense of emotional detachment ― an act of self-preservation, knowing she couldn’t keep me — and if she transferred those feelings of detachment and anxiety to her unborn child.
The absence of a birthdate, which might seem trivial to some, became a symbolic missing piece of myself. Birthdates, I discovered, permeate conversations surprisingly often, particularly those involving astrology. The absence of this simple marker left me feeling like a bystander, reminding me of a missed cornerstone of my identity.
Similarly, not having a birth name or a birth family name has been a reminder of my precarious place in the world. As a child, the school project that I hated the most was the Family Tree assignment. I knew I was born in South Korea and of Korean descent, but there were no Korean people on my family tree except me. Every time it came up, it was a stark reminder that I was like a grafted branch, awkwardly attached to a tree that wasn’t originally mine. And the thing with grafts is, they don’t always take ― sometimes they stick out, not quite blending in, or they might not even survive if they don’t heal right.
As a young child, I attempted to construct a birth story. I spun an elaborate tale for my kindergarten peers of being born into Korean royalty. An innocent fable woven from the imagination of a 5-year-old, it led to an awkward and embarrassing parent-teacher meeting, where I was reprimanded for sharing fantastical stories with my classmates. Consequently, I buried my curiosity about my origins in the recesses of my consciousness for many years.
Shortly following my graduation from law school, as I was just beginning to build my life as a married woman, I took a step that felt both brave and necessary ― I reached out to my adoption agency. I was seeking any fragment of my history that might have been overlooked, any piece of paper from my days in a Korean orphanage that might offer a clue to who I was before I became who I am.
But despite the agency’s continued existence, the search came up empty. Records from the 1970s were not kept with the care they are today, if they were kept at all. And so, I made peace with a hard truth: The names and faces of my birth family would remain a mystery. I had to accept that the chapters of my origin story would always be unwritten.
In my 40s, I found myself at a friend’s celebration, face to face with a psychic, an entertainer meant to add a sprinkle of mystery to our evening. Over the years, I had constructed a story of my birth mother, one that was admittedly grim. I imagined her as a single mother, struggling in poverty and likely without an education, someone viewed as having little worth in South Korean society.
But at that party, the psychic presented me with a different narrative. She spoke of my birth parents united by a deep love, though not by marriage. She described my birth mother as a woman from a family of proprietors in their community who chose to hide the “scandal” of her pregnancy by sending her away to deliver me in secret. The psychic insisted I was a child of love, wanted deeply by a mother whose choices were constrained, a child from a lineage with its own legacy.
I dismissed her story as mere party entertainment. Yet, the next morning, as I drove through the quiet streets, something within me had shifted. I sat taller, with a sense of dignity that hadn’t been there before. It wasn’t about whether I believed in the psychic’s ability; it was about the impact of this reimagined beginning.
It illuminated the profound power of the birth narrative. I came to realize that the birth story I choose to embrace is not merely a tale, it is a testament to my intrinsic self-worth.
In 2001, my understanding of my adoption experience deepened when my husband and I welcomed our daughter into our lives, a little girl from China who, like me, would grow up without the certainty of her birthdate. And just as we were adapting to our new life with her, we discovered that I was pregnant ― our son was born a mere seven months after we returned from China. Watching our daughter and son grow up side-by-side has deepened my understanding of the distinctive paths that many adopted children walk.
From my own childhood, I remember the well-intentioned but misplaced declarations of how “lucky” I was to be adopted, the insinuation that my parents were near-saintly for choosing to adopt. It’s a narrative I’ve seen projected onto my daughter’s life by strangers and peers alike. My son, born biologically into our family, has never had to articulate his belonging or trace his origins for the curious and the questioning. It’s a privilege that many adopted children, including myself and my daughter, are not afforded.
We adoptees are not just the sum of our adopted family; we are the continuation of a history, the carriers of genetics, and the embodiment of potential that stretches back beyond our memory. Our birth families, with all their mysteries and absences, are still a vital piece of our identity, a narrative thread that is ours to weave into the story of our lives. For this reason, I love when parents who adopt celebrate the birth families and speak respectfully of the birth parents, despite any known hardships and struggles they may have faced.
Through my work as a writer, I’ve come to recognise the profound impact of storytelling. I’ve learned that my birth story isn’t just about an unknown date or a missing name ― it’s a tribute to my birth family, an acknowledgment of their role in my life’s tale.
Yes, I would still love to find birth relatives. As of this writing, my son is the only person I’ve ever met who I am biologically related to, despite submitting my DNA to all the large commercial DNA banks in the U.S.
In 2020, the South Korean National Police Agency began offering a service to overseas adoptees of Korean descent that provides a way for us to submit our DNA and register it with foreign diplomatic offices, in the hopes of reconnecting with our biological families. I provided my DNA sample, but to this day, there has been no match.
There are moments when feelings of detachment or self-doubt come in. I’m still a work in progress. But with understanding comes the strength to quiet those feelings. I remind myself that the tools I once used as a teenager and a young adult to protect myself from the fear of abandonment and loneliness are no longer needed, and in fact now work against what I have come to believe: I’m worthy of love, and I don’t have to fear being alone.