This article is the fourth in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Searching for one’s origin is a life-long journey for adoptees. Very often, this journey is accompanied by other family members, especially the spouse. The story of Tanya, the wife of an adoptee, can help non-adopted people understand why knowing one’s origin is so important for people whose true identity is missing or was erased.
By Tanya Elisabeth Bley
These days, when their daughters are getting married, fathers often say: “We are not losing a daughter, we are gaining a son-in-law.” When I got married to my husband, I of course also gained a whole new family. His parents became my parents-in-law and his siblings became my sisters-in-law and brother-in-law. I got very lucky. My husband’s parents accept me wholeheartedly and we have a very good relationship. When my husband was a four- or five-year-old boy, he was adopted by his parents and left his birth country of Korea. He also got very lucky. His adoptive parents provided a stable and loving home, creating an environment for him in which he could access opportunities that made him the successful, accomplished man who he is today. Do not get me wrong, this situation is great and we are very grateful for what life has afforded us.
But some people are missing from this picture. Who is his birth mother? Who is his birth father? Does he have birth siblings? Where does his birth family live? What do they look like? What are their personalities? How are they doing these days? Do they miss him? Do they think of him on his birthday? Do they think of him on July 20, the anniversary of the day when he was about two or three years old and went missing on a train to Busan? You might wonder, “Why ask all these questions? He apparently has a nice adoptive family, so he should be happy and content. Let bygones be bygone.” To this statement I answer, family relations are not that easy. Most of us already know this. And family relations are not that easily severable. Even though by law, adoption made him the son of his adoptive parents and severed legal ties with his birth family, his origin did not come undone through this legal process. His origin is that he is the biological son of his birth mother and birth father. His origin is that he was a Korean national.
Even though by international law, he has a right to know his origin, this international law is entirely unenforceable in Korea. This reality is of course lamentable. You might ask, “Why should I care? Why is this important?” Not knowing one’s origin is like living in a house in which one room is permanently locked. Imagine you buy a house to live in. You will want to be able to make use of all of its rooms, right? Now imagine how frustrating, even infuriating, it would be if one of the rooms was permanently unavailable and you were prohibited from entering. This is not how you would want to inhabit your house; this is not how you would want to live your life. Make no mistake, the unavailability of his origin story is no obstruction to my husband leading a fulfilling, successful and happy life. For the most part, he ignores the “locked room,” for example, his lack of knowledge about his birth family. But constantly ignoring and compartmentalizing one aspect of one’s life is not natural. It is not the right thing to do. So it is good to know that international law recognizes the right to know one’s identity.
However, there is of course more to one’s family’s story than an unenforceable international right. Family means so much more than knowledge of biographical data, such as name of one’s mother, father, etc. As a person who grew up in her own biological family, I see a number of aspects that are missing from my husband’s story, along with the missing biological family. Three aspects in particular come to mind.
Firstly, he lacks completeness of his family’s picture. Someone or several people are not in the picture. These biological family members exist somewhere and all we can do is think of their existence. We can imagine what they may look like, how they would behave. But they are always absent, not knowable. They may never appear and step into the picture. Are they alive? Are they dead? If the latter, even their burial place is unknowable.
Secondly, he lacks explanation of how the family got to where it is. Every family, every parent has stories to tell about who met whom, who got married, who didn’t, who moved to a different town, who stayed put, who opened a business, who went to work for a company, who fought in the war, who got lucky and lived a long life, etc. In the best cases, these stories weave a rich tapestry. But the important point here is that such stories provide the explanation for the immediate world into which one was born and for what came before one’s own person. In my husband’s case, one of the explanations that is missing is of course concerning the events of July 20, 1977, and how he got lost on a train.
Thirdly, he lacks expression of sentiment. How does one’s family feel about oneself? What do they wish for one’s future? Even if there may be just lukewarm or even negative feelings among family members, it is important to know how one is viewed by one’s family. Knowing where other people stand gives guideposts to one’s own life. In the case of my husband, he would like to know whether he indeed just got lost on a train, or whether he was actively abandoned by his biological family. He wonders whether he is succeeding in life, because, by abandoning him, his biological parents opened up the opportunity for him to be adopted internationally into a better life. Or is he successful, despite the wrench that was thrown into the works by him getting lost on that train? Should he be grateful or resentful towards his biological family? Is neither feeling warranted, because they have been missing him every day of their lives? Of course, being born into one type of family and then being adopted into a different type of family creates disruptions. My husband, for example, became the youngest of four siblings in his adoptive family. Having known him for the majority of his life and come to know his personality closely, I cannot help but wonder whether he was perhaps not originally the firstborn. Should he not be allowed to know what his original position in the birth order was?
The answers to all these questions and so many more elude us. But we keep looking for his birth family. We keep trying to unlock the room. We are not giving up. We want to find his missing family members.