Discovering ‘home’ in a foreign land

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Discovering ‘home’ in a foreign land

This is bad news for 14-year-old Curtis. He has just been told that because of an unfortunate mix-up, he won’t be able to meet his foster mother as he had hoped. Instead, it is his 11-year-old sister Melanie who will meet hers. Curtis’s parents, Allen and Rhonda Wharton, break the news to Curtis, who sheds an uncharacteristic tear. He says, “Yeah, I’m disappointed.”
Curtis and seven other Korean adoptees living in the Maryland-Virginia area have traveled as part of the Korea Homeland Tour to trace their roots. Some will be able to meet birth mothers or foster mothers, and some will never know either. This is an emotionally trying and moving “trip of a lifetime” for Curtis and the other children, and for their families.
During the fortnight’s trip in Korea, the families will visit adoption agencies, meet with unwed mothers, and embark on a sightseeing tour in Seoul and around the country as they discover the ancestral land of these adopted children.

At Holt Children’s Services, Inc., in Mapo district, another group of Korean adoptees from Europe joins them, and the Whartons are given a guided tour of the institution by Yang Hye-sun of the Post Adoption Services. Curtis, displaying quiet fortitude despite his disappointment at not being able to meet his foster mother, is comforted by his father. “Doesn’t matter,” Curtis shrugs. But during the photo shoot, he looks away into the distance and falls silent. Melanie, on the other hand, is delighted, but says, “I feel bad because Curtis couldn’t meet his mother.”
In the Holt clinic, where babies are treated for sickness or come for regular check-ups, about four or five foster mothers linger with their babies. The babies range from a week to six months old, and the mothers appear attached to them, as if they were their own.
The adoptees are encouraged to see themselves in the babies who will be given for adoption. Mrs. Wharton holds a baby up and hands her to Melanie, who beams with joy. She cradles the baby, and her mother asks, “You want one of your own, don’t you?” Melanie nods enthusiastically.
Curtis declines to hold the baby. “I have one [sibling],” he says, “and one’s enough for me.” He sits silently, watching other adoptees cuddle babies.
Kim Hong-ryun, the foster mother of the baby that Melanie is holding, suddenly wipes tears from her face. Crying openly, she talks about how difficult it will be for her to part with her foster baby. “I’m so torn because I can’t afford to raise this baby on my own,” says Mrs. Kim. Mrs. Wharton says with a wan smile, “They seem so happy, the babies.”

Unlike the sprightly Melanie, Curtis is described by his parents as “stoic.” Most of the time, he appears nonchalant about what’s going on around him. Melanie was thrilled about the trip to Korea, but Curtis was “iffy” about it from the beginning. He seems to be cultivating a sense of detachment.
Curtis says he was never confused about his identity growing up. “I know exactly who I am and I’m comfortable with that. Sometimes I wonder about my real mother, but I believe she made the right decision for me.” It’s hard to get a good read on Curtis. “I don’t like announcing what all this means to me,” he says, adding with a touch of sarcasm, “Yeah, I’m stoic, but not many people are stoic so I think I need to be.”
Curtis gets to review his birth files first. His birth name is Jung Sang-kee, meaning, “always spirit.” His folder contains information about his adopted parents, the Whartons; social workers’ updates of his health; post-adoption correspondence, and even information about his birth mother. Ms. Yang explains that his mother was a 17-year-old factory worker in Chungcheong province. Curtis listens quietly, expressionless. Ms. Yang says, “She was unwed at the time so she gave up her baby.” Asked if he has any questions about his birth mother, Curtis replies curtly, “No.” Ms. Yang continues, “If the mother was an unwed mother, then it is not possible to trace her unless she consents.”

Melanie is excited about meeting her foster mother, an unexpected but welcome opportunity. “I want to ask her where we lived,” Melanie says. She looks at the documents that Ms. Yang hands to her, about the progress of her health and so on, written when she was an infant. Melanie, birth name Choi Jin-hee, meaning “Truth Pleasure,” studies them calmly and seriously.
Before information can be revealed about her birth mother, the door bursts open, and a woman enters, saying, “Choi Jin-hee, I’m here for Choi Jin-hee.” Mrs. Wharton says, “That must be her foster mother.”
Melanie goes to the woman, Lee Bok-sun, 63, who hugs her and says, “I remember you.” Looking at the rest of the group, she says, “She was a docile baby, a healthy one too. Never sick. But she was a pudgy baby. Why are you so thin now? I thought you would turn out to be chubby.” Ms. Lee takes a good long look at Melanie, who smiles shyly.
“Melanie studies ballet and she plays soccer,” Mrs. Wharton says. “She’s very active.” Ms. Yang translates. Melanie exchanges gifts with her foster mother. She gives Melanie a shirt and pants, and Melanie gives Ms. Lee a gift set of toiletries.

Both Allen and Rhonda Wharton feel sorry that their son couldn’t reunite with his foster mother, who is said to be ill due to an accident. The family decides to visit the clinic where Curtis was born. They reach Samil Hospital in Yeongdeungpo, and as they enter the nurses ask what they are there for. The Whartons explain that Curtis was born here. “Ah, adopted kids,” smile the nurses. “About this time of year, we often have kids visiting our hospital because they were born here. The hospital was associated with Holt some decades ago, so many unwed mothers receiving support from Holt gave birth at our hospital.” The Whartons snoop around the shabby hospital, and take photos outside.
After several unsuccessful attempts to have children, Allen and Rhonda Wharton decided to adopt. They first learned of international adoption through Catholic charities. Two years of painstaking verification and monitoring finally made them proud and happy parents of two children. Curtis was adopted when he was just four months old in 1988, and Melanie was five and a half months old at adoption in 1992. Early in the children’s lives, Mrs. Wharton told them that they would be able to visit Korea when Melanie turned 10. A year later than that, the promise is fulfilled.
Curtis is a quiet one. He has a girlfriend named Celia (“I have to get her a gift,” he reminds himself repeatedly). He loves to write. He writes poetry and essays but science fiction is his forte.
In addition to ballet, Melanie plays a lot of sports. She is an outgoing child. She and Curtis fight a lot, she says, but he always wins.

A meeting with a group of unwed mothers-to-be, most of whom are due any day, serves a dual purpose. For the Korea Homeland adoptees, it helps them understand the situation their mothers were in when they were born, and their feelings about giving up their babies. The mothers-to-be get a reassuring look at what will happen to their babies ― they will find loving families and grow up to be healthy, good-looking children.
The women, ranging from early teens to mid-20s, are wiping away tears. Some have blank stares. Introducing her family, Rhonda Wharton fights back tears, and whispers, “I can’t do this.” Allen takes over. “By the grace of God, we have these two children and we thank you for them,” he says.
Beth Wolbach, 17, tells the mothers-to-be about her encounter with her birth mother and how happy she was to meet her. “She loved me so much that she wanted me to have a better life,” Beth says, wiping away tears.
Elizabeth “Izzy” Dennis reads a poem she wrote for her birth mother, and sobbing breaks out among the unwed mothers. They ask the adoptive parents how they came to adopt children of different races, why they brought their children back to Korea, and whether the children harbor ill feelings against their birth mothers.
Mrs. Wharton says, “We thank the mothers for giving them to us. I always tell my children they are chosen.”
Then one mother-to-be asks, “What would you do if the birth mothers asked them back, or took them from you?”
Mrs. Wharton says firmly, “Some days before coming to Korea, Curtis was crying at night, saying he felt afraid that his birth mother might want him back, that there would be an emotional ‘tug of war,’ and he didn’t know how he was going to respond. But there is no returning our child.”
Now Allen is also crying. “At some point you feel a sense of insecurity about this,” he says, “when your kids are going to want to meet their birth parents.”
It is a moment that shows the parents’ courage, and their support for their children, in making this journey. Strength of spirit is needed to face tough questions of the heart.
Curtis says, “Given a choice, I would want to meet my birth mother. I want to know what she did, where she came from, where she is now. I need to know this stuff.” But as for his real father, Curtis is silent. “I don’t want to know about him.”
Melanie adds, “Even though I want to meet my birth mother, I can’t say so about my father. I don’t relate to him that much.”
Mrs. Wharton says she is glad she had the session. “It makes me understand the birth mothers well. My heart went out to all those girls.” Melanie and Curtis are calm and appear unaffected, unlike Beth. Perhaps they are too young to understand. Or perhaps the emotion has yet to sink fully. Curtis says, “It was good to listen, I guess.”

Izzy’s poem

Standing there
You realize you had a choice
One was death, the other life
Yet the life might bright shame
If someone found out
What would people think?
Could you do it?
Move past and not look back?
Or was it too much
You made your choice
Watched it go
Have you ever looked back?
Wondered for just a moment
Tried to forget
Yet it's on your mind
Have you ever dreamed about it?
Questioned your decision?
Are you glad you chose life?
Or would death be better?
Was it hard?
Did you know the secret I know?
Did they tell you
Or did you find out on your own?
I want to thank you for your choice
The love you had for me
To give me a better life
I wonder if you think about me
As much as I think about you
Or is it just me?

“Izzy” is the nickname of Elizabeth Dennis, 17, born Kim Bong-mee in Seoul. The “secret” that she refers to is the fact that Izzy was born a twin but the other died at birth.

by Choi Jie-ho
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