This article is the 10th in a series about Koreans adopted abroad. Christine Pennell, an American adoptee from South Korea, found her sister, who was adopted separately from her by a European family, through a DNA test. She shares her feelings on why she thinks it is so important that Korean society understands that DNA tests may be the last hope that adoptees have in their search for their birth family.
By Christine Pennell
“What are you searching for?” We are all searching for that “one more” that will bring us happiness, that will make us complete. Maybe yours is secular success, savings, finding your life partner or something possibly simpler like the perfect accessory. As a child, I can remember expressing my desire to find my “real” family, as I cuttingly phrased it back then. This desire has never left me.
Coming from Korea as a toddler in 1972, I always knew I was adopted and different from my American Caucasian family. Chosen by a loving family, I seemingly had everything any child would need to flourish. My parents and my five siblings gave me a safe home environment, an abundance of love, a hard-working ethic, extended family, unhypocritical faith and all the good that comes with it. A lot of who I am is because of my wonderful American family.
At the same time, there are pieces of me that I feel do not contribute to the American side of me. Negatively, the shadow of my low self-esteem for much of my life, always wanting to belong and needing to be useful so people won’t toss me aside, these I feel are from my abandonment. On the positive side, my ability to let things go and a predominantly positive attitude, seemingly endless energy, unexplained love of cucumbers, and, of course, my physical being I attribute to my Korean family. Yet, I do not know most of these things for a certainty.
In the middle of the winter of 2017-2018, I stumbled upon a movie called, “Lion.” The despair and lost feeling that Saroo had even though he had a great life post adoption, moved me to one of the ugliest crying moments I have had as an adult. Filled with strong emotions mixed with hope from his success, I started searching the internet through red puffy eyes. I discovered about the success of DNA testing for Korean adoptees and biological family in general and subsequently took a DNA test. Months later, looking at my list of DNA matches, for the first time ever, I had faces of relatives looking back at me that were Korean. Even though they were only second to fifth cousins, I was ecstatic. I was related to Korean-looking people. I was up until 4 a.m. going through the list and emailing these new relatives. Before me was a list which represented more than anything I had received from any other previous search.
Prior to 2018, I was always afraid to return to Korea. I was overly concerned that I would be put in difficult situations since I did not speak the language and customs were unknown to me. In August 2018, I went on a Korean homeland trip sponsored by the Korean government. After, I went to Daegu and then a small road trip around the peninsula. The emotions before, during, and after this trip were all over the place. Some of those emotions were intense and scared me. At one point in the Sinmae Park area of Daegu, I was biking in an area and with no warning or thought, when a strong crying fit overcame me. This unexplained outburst makes me wonder if my younger self recognized something about the area. When my trip was over, I cried on the plane, feeling I had let my family down in my failure to find them.
I continued to enjoy my communications with a few of my DNA matched relatives while regularly checking in to the DNA sites to look for new matches. On January 25, 2019, I received surprising news of a new DNA relative who reached out to me. When I opened my account in My Heritage DNA, I saw looking back at me the words “full sister.” I had won the lottery. I immediately started to cry and tremble, and I may even have let out some gasps and screams. I don’t remember for sure because it’s now all a blur of the wonderful moment I learned I had a younger sister who was adopted to Belgium. I immediately emailed her back and we chatted for hours. We learned we were about two-and-a-half years apart. I was found at Banyawol railroad station in Daegu three weeks before she was abandoned at Daegu Station as an infant.
We arranged to reunite in Korea on the platform at Daegu Station on February 15, 2019. All during the minutes that led up to the moment we met, tears kept coming. Something I had been waiting for my whole life was about to be. I was about to meet my “real” family. As I type this now, tears are welling up in my eyes. This emotion in me is so strong I will never be able to rid myself of it. Having my sister in front of me, in my arms, looking at that Korean face, knowing we shared the same mother and the same father, knowing our stories overlap, a major piece of who I am was here before me. The gift of having my sister was nothing short of amazing.
Even though I found my sister, my search is not over. To facilitate this search for more biological family, I regained my Korean citizenship and am learning the language. I want to be ready to meet my Korean family.
Though I have felt despair, worrying my searching will be all in vain as time passes, I cannot resign myself to quit the search for more of my biological family. I continue going back and forth between Korea and the U.S., trying to maintain some life in each country. Continuing to learn the language whilst handing out flyers looking for my family and encouraging DNA testing, I keep the search going. How can I not?
Originally published in The Korea Times.