Korean adoptees touch their roots
Sophie Lundholm, 27, was still wearing part of her hanbok and had her hair tied in traditional fashion.
“I feel very Korean here except for the language,” said Lundholm, a graphic designer from France.
Alexandra Memery, 23, agreed. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to come here,” she said. “Now I want to come back again.”
Memery is studying occupational psychology near Paris.
Luc Ponsonnet, a math and physics teacher from Lyon, is the father of two girls. He was less effusive, but expressed satisfaction that he had learned more about his roots through his trip.
The three French-Koreans were among 14 Korean adoptees who are now in their 20s and 30s who participated in a Holt-FedEx Summer School program that started on July 11 and ended on July 27.
The adoptees came from France, the United States, Belgium, Norway and Luxembourg. At 41, Ponsonnet was the oldest participant.
According to FedEx, who sponsored this year’s program for the first time, Holt Children’s Services have been running the summer school on their own since 1992.
Through Holt’s efforts, a total of 242 Koreans who were sent overseas for adoption at a very young age have made return visits to Korea.
The program was designed to help Korean adoptees find their identity and a sense of pride.
During the two weeks the participants took Korean language classes, taekwondo lessons, an introduction to the Korean tea ceremony and instruction in traditional Korean cuisine.
FedEx said the taekwondo teacher was Nam Yoon-bae, a Korean taekwondo champion who is sponsored by the U.S.-based delivery company. Lundholm said she was most impressed when Nam sliced a watermelon in two with a taekwondo chop.
This year’s Holt program participants had the opportunity to live with Korean FedEx employees in Seoul for two nights and experience Korean family life.
“Being a mother myself, I feel a sense of pride seeing adoptees return to this country who, despite the unfavorable conditions of the past, have grown to be such wonderful adults,” said Chae Eun-mi, head of FedEx Korea’s branch office.
Chae said FedEx had been seeking to contribute to social programs when it stumbled on the Holt program.
“We wanted adoptees to experience their motherland,” Chae said. “And our employees were generous enough to invite these adoptees to stay with them during this trip.”
The visit left an impression that the French trio say they will never forget. They remarked that the biggest difficulty of growing up in France was finding their identity and this trip has helped them locate what they had sought for many years.
This Holt program was particularly significant for Lundholm, who met her biological mother and siblings after more than two decades of separation. She said it was one of the happiest moments of her life. “I have already met three of my siblings and I will meet the other two at the airport,” she added with delight.
Lundholm said she cried continuously when she met her birthmother for the first time. She said it was an overwhelming experience.
Lundholm said when she was growing up she hardly talked about Korea, particularly when she was a teenager. Being different made her adolescence in France more difficult she said.
“Most children don’t understand differences and at times they can be cruel,” said Lundholm. Memery agreed and she said things haven’t changed much, even though they have grown up. She said there are “bad guys” in France who sexually harass her on the streets. “To them Asians are exotic and different,” Memery said.
When Lundholm turned 18 she started to have questions about her identity and where she originally had come from.
“I had a lot of questions, like were my parents still alive? I had no answer, so I did a lot of research,” she said.
Although she enjoyed her visit and plans to return she said she wasn’t going to tell her adoptive parents about her trip to Korea, as they could be hurt.
“I will not upset them,” Lundholm said. “I’m a real daughter to them.”
Lundholm said she heard about the Holt program several years ago while she was actively volunteering for a Korean community in France. She said she has been preparing for this trip since 2003.
“I talked to many Korean friends and learned a lot about my home country.”
Lundholm has a twin sister, who was also adopted to the same family in France. The other twin sister that did not visited Seoul has a radically different view from Sophie. The twin sister in France has no interest in Korea and does not want to be involved with a country or parents who abandoned her.
The trip was also deeply significant for Memery. She didn’t get to meet her biological parents but she met her surrogate mother.
Memery said she used to be similar to Lundholm’s twin sister. In the past she had no good feelings about Korea.
Memery said that the visit helped her understand where she came from.
“In France I could be Chinese or Japanese,” she said. “People don’t differentiate between Asians in Europe so I wasn’t sure who I was, but now I know I came from a country called Korea.”
She said one of the significant moments of meeting her surrogate mother was when the old woman brought out pictures of Memery’s first birthday party.
“I always envied my friends in France when I was growing up because they had so many pictures of when they were so little,” she said. “I had none.” She said she was incredibly pleased with the pictures of herself. They were proof that she, too, had a home and a past.
Ponsonnet said he signed up for the program even though he is over 40 because he believed that this opportunity could be his last chance to have the courage to learn about his home country.
Ponsonnet was the only person among the three to even have the slightest memory of Korea from his childhood.
Although the other two women were infants when they left Korea, Ponsonnet said he was six years old.
“When I was young I frequently dreamt of walking through a bed of flowers like the ones that our group saw in Gyeongju,” Ponsonnet said. “That is the only memory that I have of this place.” Ponsonnet did not have a chance to meet his birth parents, but said the experience had helped him find his roots.
“Before I came here, Korea really didn’t mean a lot to me,” Ponsonnet said. “It wasn’t different from any other country I hadn’t visited.” But this trip has changed him; now he appreciates the country where he was born, even though many Koreans he met on the street during this trip mistook him for Chinese, he said jokingly.
The three said they weren’t angry at their biological parents for sending them away.
“When I was little I didn’t understand why [they left me]. All I wanted to know was why,” Memery said. “Now we know they wanted us to have a better future,” Lundholm added. “We now know that they didn’t leave us because abandonment is some kind of Korean custom, but rather for economic reasons,” she said.
Memery said she would still like to find her own biological parents.
“I now know I was abandoned. From this trip I learned that I was born in Gyeonggi,” she said. “Still it is not sufficient [information] for me. I want to know more.”
Memery added that this experience has helped her become richer spiritually. “I felt like I was unimportant before, but now I am a person with the advantage of having two cultures living within me,” she said.
Memery said she could never choose between the two countries. “Both are my countries and both are equally important to me,” she said.
By Lee Ho-jeong Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]