An emotional search for rootsEach Wednesday morning at 8:30, individuals who have been separated from their loved ones tune in to a live TV show. Guests on the show walk up to a podium one by one and relay bits and pieces of obscure childhood memories, often the only traces they have to help them reunite with people they have missed perhaps for a lifetime.
Calls then come in to the program from people saying they believe they know the guests or are their family members. Some people weep with joy at finding their family, while others seem surprised and even confused.
The program on KBS, titled “Achim Madang: I Wish to See the Person,” has been around for nine years, helping to reunite more than 900 families in Korea and overseas. On every show, dozens of calls come in from people who wish to appear on the program, and tens of thousands of applications were filed last year alone. The producers usually choose six guests for each show who appear to have a high likelihood of finding their families.
The guests typically are people who have searched unsuccessfully for loved ones for many years, and they appear on the show as a last resort.
“If they remember the names of their family members correctly, they can use the population database at the police,” said Cho Myung-hee, chief producer of the program. “Usually, those who have no other means to locate their family appear on the program.”
In most cases, the guests were separated from their family in childhood and do not remember their real name or age. Even if they know their name, they often can only recall how it was pronounced, not the correct spelling.
Lee Chun-jae, 33, finally found his family in January, 29 years after he was reported missing. He had lived with his uncles in a rural village in North Jeolla province until he was six, but then went missing, and grew up in an orphanage.
Mr. Lee believed his name was Kang Chun-ji and has used that name. His belief was firm, because of his childhood recollection that his father was called Kang Yong-seong. It turned out that his father’s actual name was Lee Kang-yong. His father’s younger brothers had addressed him as “Kang-yong-i seong” (seong means brother in the Jeolla provincial dialect), and so Mr. Lee thought that was his father’s name.
Lee Chun-jae’s other memories involved the home where he lived with his uncles. He remembered that there was a hill in the back and a barn.
Mr. Lee tried unsuccessfully to track down his family in 1992 and 1993 through the database run by the police. Four years later, he called the TV station to appear on the show and waited a year for his turn. But he then decided not to appear because he had so little memory of his childhood.
“I decided to wait a few more years, hoping that I would be able to find more clues from my own son, who has similar facial characteristics,” Mr. Lee said.
Lee Kang-sun, one of Mr. Lee’s uncles, said, “He (Chun-jae) had a spot on his neck, and the shape of his forehead was unique.”
Mr. Lee was fortunate enough to be discovered by an aunt, the wife of Lee Kang-sun, when he appeared on the program. Mr. Lee and his brothers even underwent a DNA test to confirm their blood ties.
“I knew it was him right away when he said his father’s name was Kang Young-seong,” the uncle said.
“He must have resented his parents, but I don’t think there are any parents who would want to give up on their children,” he continued. “It was frustrating that we were unable to track down family members living within our own country.”
“In the beginning, I felt my emotions dry up because of 30 years of separation,” Mr. Lee said. “Reuniting with my family was something that I never expected, but as time goes by I feel like everything is going back to where we left off.”
Mr. Lee said he would have given up the search if he had not succeeded this time. Since he appeared on the show as Kang Chun-ji, more than 10 families whose last name is Kang contacted Mr. Lee to see whether he was a match.
Appearing on the show does not guarantee a successful outcome. “Only two out of six guests succeed in locating their families,” Ms. Cho said.
On the program, the guests are encouraged to provide as many clues as possible. They give details about their childhood memories or physical characteristics: the house or village in which they lived; whether they had siblings; marks or scars on their body, and most of all, the names of their families. In some cases the details might seem trivial, but they are important clues in searching for loved ones.
The guests often bring photos taken when they were children as well as drawings of their house or village as they remember it.
A 48-year-old man on the show who only recalled his original first name, Ki-won, and was searching for his mother and two sisters, said his father died when he was around five years old. He said he has a burn scar on his right thigh. Displaying a map of his village that he had drawn, he said there was a hill, a church and an orphanage where his mother left him and never returned. The man said he chose to drive tour buses, traveling the country and one day hoping to reunite with his family. However, he was not successful in locating his family through the program.
The reasons for separation are as diverse as the guests’ backgrounds. Often, children simply got lost and were reported missing, but in other cases parents abandoned their children because of poverty. In most cases, the children grew up in orphanages.
“In the past, parents left their children at a train station or park, slipping candy into their children’s hand, but these days more broken families leave their children in welfare facilities,” Ms. Cho said, explaining a trend she has perceived over the past nine years.
While some guests are fortunate to receive calls during the show from family members they are looking for, not all the news guests hear is cheerful.
Kim Jun-sun, 43, who was searching for her mother and brother, received a call during the show from her aunt, who said Ms. Kim’s father and mother had passed away. Her brother was missing after he developed a mental problem.
The secret of the show’s longevity is not only its success in locating separated family members, but also Koreans’ emotional traits.
“In Europe, abandoned children are less likely to look for their parents,” Ms. Cho said, adding that there is no similar TV program in the West. “The difference comes from Korean culture, which places a relatively high emphasis on family ― one’s own flesh and blood,” she said.
“The parents can be viewed as very irresponsible, but still children who are abandoned try to find their parents,” Ms. Cho added.
Last year, eight Korean adoptees who appeared on the program found their biological parents, but there is some difference in attitude between adoptees and those who grew up in orphanages.
“Adoptees tend to care for their adopted parents more after confirming their roots, and do not necessarily try to build a new life with their biological parents,” Ms. Cho said. “They seem to already hold a Western concept of family.”
Overseeing the program over the years, the most amusing moment Ms. Cho says she had was the time identical twins met on the stage. Unlike most other reunited families, who hug and cry, the twins looked at each other and began laughing, being amazed at how similar they were. Despite living apart for 30 years, they had almost identical hairstyles and manicures and wore similar accessories, Ms. Cho recalled.
by Limb Jae-un