From Orphan to Activist, Art by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom

“Going Back”: Excerpt from The Unknown Culture Club

In Adoptee Stories, All, Book Excerpts by KAW

I got the bad news, which nearly devastated me. I had arrived ten years too late to see him—the one person whom I’d longed to meet during all the lost years. My Korean father—my appa—my treasure, was gone.

Contributer of The "Unknown" Culture Club

Korean Adoptees, Then and Now

In 1986, when I was eighteen years old, I traveled to South Korea with a group of adoptees—some with their adoptive parents—, but I was one of those who traveled alone since my adoptive parents didn’t share or even understand my wish to see the country where I was born. Deep down in my heart, I hoped to meet my father and my sisters.  

Before leaving, I got in touch with the Norwegian adoption agency; I’d written a letter with many questions, and they forwarded it to Holt Children’s Services in Korea. One evening, towards the end of my two weeks there, I got a phone call. My  Norwegian guide told me that someone from Holt had been walking door-to-door in the town where I was born, showing a  picture of me at about a year and six months old to the residents.  Finally—finally, someone had recognized me! I’m not sure whether he had met one of my sisters or someone else who knew them, but God bless him for doing that. I got the message that I  would meet my Korean family in the early evening the next day. I  was so shocked that my mind went blank and stayed that way for the rest of the day. I could not believe that I was going to meet family—my real family—after all those years of yearning to see from where I came.  

At last, I met with one uncle, two of my three sisters, their children, my oldest sister’s husband, and a few cousins. I was overwhelmed. I’ll never forget the moment when I hugged my oldest sister—the first one since I was a baby. My only thought was: I. Am. Home.  

Despite not remembering my oldest sister’s face anymore, I  recognized her at a soul level. She described to me how, after our mother died, she used to carry me around when I was a baby. To finally feel that I belonged somewhere and that family truly cared about me became a very powerful moment for me. I was so used to adoptive parents who loved their alcohol bottles, who used to yell at me and beat me. The contrast was overwhelming. Here, I was finally met with love, and I cried with joy the whole time. 

The same day, I got the bad news, which nearly devastated me. I had arrived ten years too late to see him—the one person whom I’d longed to meet during all the lost years. My Korean father—my appa—my treasure, was gone. When my appa handed me to the orphanage, he wasn’t told that he would never see me again. Our father loved all of us children, but he needed help during a difficult time to make a better life for us. He died while he searched for me, still hoping to find me and bring me back home. He never knew how far away I really was—that I had been sent almost five thousand miles away to Norway, the land of the Vikings, and into the hands of strangers. I felt as if someone had torn away from a piece of my heart. This has affected my oldest Korean sister’s life, too. She yearned for me for so many years and promised our appa on his deathbed that she would continue his search so that we could one day be together.  

Today, it’s been more than twenty-five years since my trip back to Korea. I have not been able to return. It hurts to think back to that time, and my heart continues to feel empty. I have to visit my motherland at least once more, while I am still young enough and have my health. My dream is to complete the circle by standing beside my real parents’ grave. I never met them again,  having longed for them all my life, I no longer have any memory of their faces, their voices have been silent for too long, and I  don’t know the way home.

About one hour’s drive outside of Seoul, a house still stands. There we lived, where I was born, where my parents made their living. I hope one day to take a glance at this part of my history. It’s more than forty years since I was taken away. Korea is part of me, but I’m a stranger there, a tourist. I don’t speak the language, and I don’t know the customs or the culture in my motherland. Deep down in my heart, I will love Korea forever because that is where my parents are resting. A part of me will never forget. But I will never return to stay; that ship sailed a  long, long time ago. 

I keep in touch with my oldest sister by email; she doesn’t understand English, but her son speaks some and translates as best as he can. I’m grateful to have had this experience to have met my family, and my sister has even been here in Norway to visit a few years ago. I realize that I will always be an outsider. All those years separated is too great of a barrier. My childhood dream is gone forever: I know that I can no longer think or dream that, one day, I could move back and jump in, catching up where I left off. We are family but have become strangers to each other, and this makes me sad. My heart is torn in half, with one foot in Norway and one in Korea, for the rest of my life.

The sound of ocean waves lapping against the shore and childhood giggling, the soft wind caressing our faces, the warm rays of the sun keep me and my good Norwegian friend Vanja warm on a beautiful summer’s day. Along the beach, two little boats embellished by precious sea shells hand-picked by our small hands float on tiny waves. Now and then, little red and green crabs would hang on and enjoy a free ride. We laughed so hard as we pushed the boats out to meet their destiny while we shouted: “Ship ahoy!”. We spent hours catching the little crabs and tiny shrimps, the transparent ones that slipped away so easily, and sometimes we even caught small fish. We built sandcastles and decorated them with beautiful seashells. 

I cherish this Norwegian memory so much because it is one of the few nice, warm ones that remain from my childhood: The beach, the boats, Vanja, and me. This is among the first things that I can consciously recall. But why must I divide my childhood into before and after I was sent out of Korea? This is not the natural way of things.  

My life and my childhood began in Korea. I had my family around me. I heard their voices, and I understood what they said.  I smiled at my mum and dad as every baby does. Life was sounds, smells, caresses, and love. I was one of four sisters, the youngest,  and I was cared for by everyone. I cannot recall any of this as clearly as I do the Norwegian memory described above. My Korean memories are buried deep inside me and feel like a black hole sometimes. My first family was my everything, my whole world, comfort and safety, all that was dear to me. It’s as if Korea has been erased. 

Then came the adoptoraptors, in my case, the Holt agency,  who took me away from it all and threw me out into adoptionland. All that I knew, all that was valuable and safe, was suddenly lost. My family and heritage were wiped out with lies on paper. My Hojuk, my family registration paper, was falsified by a  typewriter. On it, they wrote, “Father: No record, Mother: No record,” even though my father’s name was mentioned in other papers. With just a few pen strokes, they sealed my destiny,  turned me into an orphan with no one who cared for me, to made me much more suitable and attractive for a quick foreign adoption. 

The agency, with the blessing of the state of Korea, robbed me of my family and sold me for profit to a foreign land, which is a criminal violation of my human rights. Once I had been bought and shipped to my new home, the state of Norway falsified my birth certificate and wrote my adoptive parents down as my biological ones. This is grotesque. I was never theirs. I did not come from them. I was never in my adoptive mother’s womb. I  was taken by Holt without the consent of my still-living Korean father. He was never asked nor told that I had been sent out of the country, and he spent many years searching for me in Korea. It was a criminal act committed against me and my family. 

And yet the action against us has been covered, turned into something that is supposed to be beautiful and called adoption. I wonder if the world will ever understand the unfathomable loss that adoption represents for adoptees and their natural families.  Will it understand why justice means so much? It is more than just a word. It’s about our worth as human beings. 

In recent years, I have read newspaper articles in which Holt admitted to falsifying the Hojuks of the Korean children they obtained for adoption. It was simply too much work, too cumbersome, to check whether children were actual orphans and whether they were truly available for adoption. It was much more efficient and convenient to simply fabricate a piece of paper saying that there were no parents and no family. 

It is time for Holt to make an official apology to all Korean adoptees for their fraudulent practice and offer some kind of compensation for the pain we’ve had to endure. One fitting goodwill gesture might be to provide free flight tickets to Korea so that adoptees could visit their country of birth and thus find help in healing wounds—permanent separations from family and the nation. We’ve earned it. Through the years, we’ve contributed greatly to Korea’s growth and Holt’s profit, and the business is still going strong. They owe us! 

And at the end of the day, why is Holt still allowed to continue their practice of what many of us informed adult adoptees call legalized kidnapping? How many more must be sent abroad to uncertain destinies? When will enough be enough? Have they not sent enough children out of Korea by now? And how much longer will the world watch with open eyes and accept that this madness still goes on? 

KHARA NINE, Contributor of The “Unknown” Culture Club: Korean Adoptees, Then and Now

Fast forward: Khara in the news “We Are NOT Orphans.”