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Chasing Glimpses of a Past

America's largest group of adoptees hails from South Korea. Many long to find their roots, but old secrets lie buried under stigma.

August 28, 2004|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

KUNSAN, South Korea — The clerk in the police station gives a quizzical look to the young woman in the short green sundress. She has Korean features, but something about her manner and even the sweep of her ponytail is distinctly American.

He then looks down at the small black-and-white photograph of a baby who was found abandoned in 1975 in front of a nearby bank.

"It's very difficult. There are no records going back that far," the clerk says. "Nobody will remember you from that long ago."

Amanda Lowrey Silva isn't discouraged. The 29-year-old graduate student from Chicago already knows from the cautionary tales of other adoptees and a previous trip here that the search for the missing pieces of her life will be frustrating -- and probably fruitless.

Silva has precious few scraps of information. She knows the date she was found, but she doesn't know her birthday. She doesn't know her original name, although the orphanage named her Kim Eun Ja.

Her memories are as precarious as dreams, or perhaps they are dreams after all -- she can't be sure. She thinks she remembers a man who wore white-collared shirts and was frequently angry. A mother who comforted her after the fights and held her up cheek to cheek as they gazed at their images in the mirror.

"I miss my birth mother. I've always missed her," she says. "My adoptive mother, too, would hold my face up to hers in the mirror, but it was weird how different she looked from me.... When I was older, I would look in the mirror myself and say, 'God, do I look so Asian?' It was strange."

Since the 1950s, more than 150,000 South Korean children have been sent abroad for adoption, about 100,000 of them to the United States. Long before children began arriving in the U.S. from China and Russia -- the two leading countries today for foreign adoptions -- there were the Korean babies. Although the number of new arrivals has trailed off since the 1980s, they still make up the largest foreign adoptee population in the United States.

Increasingly, they're returning to their homeland as adults. Especially during summer holidays, the adoptees come by the thousands, often equipped with little more than phrasebooks and printouts from MapQuest showing the locations of towns with unpronounceable names where they might have been born.

Hwang Seung Yeon, a sociologist with Kyung Hee University in Seoul, estimates that about 20% of adoptees have visited South Korea in search of their roots and that eventually as many as 80% will.

There is deep shame about adoption in South Korea, where the subject carries connotations of poverty and extramarital sex. The first generation of adoptees in the years after the 1950-53 Korean War were sent abroad because their families couldn't afford to feed them properly, whereas recent adoptees are more likely to be children born out of wedlock, according to South Korean government statistics.

Last year, the number of babies born in South Korea reached a record low, but the country still sent 2,287 children abroad for adoption. One reason for this statistical oddity is the strong stigma in the country against unmarried mothers.

Adoption agencies here do not release names or addresses of birth parents but will forward letters to them.

"If the mother was unmarried at the time, in about half the cases they'll deny being the birth mother and say you've contacted the wrong person," says Seong Kyong Hee, who works with adult adoptees for Holt International Children's Services Inc., the largest agency handling South Korean adoptions.

At the same time, there has been an outpouring of public sympathy for the adoptees. In the last few years, a number of organizations have begun offering adoptees assistance, including accommodations and even instruction in making kimchi.

The returnees have become darlings of South Korean television. Numerous shows have been aired about their searches and even a few reunions, scripted with the same pathos of the reunions between separated North and South Korean families.

A database set up by the government in 1999 to help track missing children was quickly swamped by adoptees seeking birth parents and birth parents seeking adoptees. ("JiYeoung had beautiful ears," one birth mother wrote of a daughter who had been adopted 28 years earlier. "She was beautiful and voluminous," wrote another. )

This month, the first international conference of Korean adoptees to take place in the country was held in Seoul, attracting about 450 adoptees.

The government agency that oversees the missing-children effort began soliciting DNA samples from adoptees this month for a databank to be used in matching them up with their birth parents.

Eileen Thompson Isaacs, a social worker and adoptee, says that adoptees only recently have realized they have the right and ability to search for their birth parents.

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