A Memoir by Jenna: The Story of a Korean American Adoptee
By: Jenna Simpson
While it was never a secret that I was adopted, it was easier for me to believe that my life began not in the distant city of Pusan, South Korea, but instead in an airport terminal. Sure, I sometimes envied my friends who could rattle off the particulars about their mother’s pregnancy. Or recount the dramatic events that transpired before their delivery. I liked my story, though, because it was unique and mysterious. It featured me as a 6-month old flying over the Pacific Ocean to be embraced by a couple in JFK who longed to start a family. Through the power of adoption, I gained the most devoted parents who have loved me unconditionally since that day.
Taken minutes after I met my parents, Jeanne and Mark, on December 4th, 1987 at John F. Kennedy International Airport. It was love at first sight!
The day before my college graduation in May of 2009.
Recently, though, I realized that I never allowed myself to grieve for what I lost as an adoptee. At 25, I recognized that I never fully explored the feelings of rejection and confusion that often accompany adoption. Only now have I started to feel sad that I may never have the answers to certain questions: What does my birth mother look like? Did she hold me in the hospital before handing me over? Is she passionate, fiery, and emotional like me? Or is she quiet, reserved, and tranquil? Does she think about me often or did she repress all memories of her pregnancy and adoption plan?
I developed the ability to keep thoughts like these in check. I felt that because of the limited information my adoptive parents were given about my birth history, I had no choice but to fight off these feelings. Like most overseas adoption stories in the 1980s, it was shrouded in secrecy and stigma. It would have been too painful to wonder about the first 6 months of my life, knowing I might never have an answer. At an early age, I learned to respond to difficult questions with a smile. Kids on the playground would ask me: Where is your “real” mom? Why did she abandon you? Don’t you want to find her? Are you sad that she didn’t want you? My adoptive parents thankfully provided me with the tools to handle situations like these. I would explain to my inquisitive peers that not all families look alike and that my birth mother’s decision came from a place of love. Even adults asked questions, triggering my Rolodex of canned responses. Don’t you wish you had a picture of your birth mother? Yes, absolutely, I would say. If I were you, I would want to know every detail about my birth history. Oh, I agree wholeheartedly. Afterwards, I would either brush it off or feel guilty that I didn’t respond the “correct” way.
At the time, I felt like I was doing a good thing by not dwelling on my past. I didn’t want to overwhelm my adoptive parents. They were always open about my adoption, but it was not worth dredging up questions that might cause them to feel powerless. I also didn’t want to feel angry toward my birth mother so I instead compartmentalized most of my emotions, preserving them in an airtight box to be left on a shelf. Despite my adoptive parents’ attempts to integrate elements of Korean culture into my life, I wasn’t interested in exploring that obscure part of my past. Like every child, I wanted normalcy and a sense of belonging. I did not want my adoption to define who I was so I reduced it to an insignificant thing of the past.
Me on my first birthday in my parents’ backyard in Rochester, New York. In Korea, it is a tradition to place a child in front of a table full of objects, such as books, musical items, and money. The child is encouraged by spectators to pick one of the objects. It is believed that the first object selected will foretell their future. If the child picks money, he or she will become wealthy. If they pick up a musical instrument, he or she will be talented in the arts. I choose the book. As fate would have it, I found myself 18 years later in the middle of nowhere Ohio at a small liberal arts college where I read the works of great writers and poets
Taken after my youngest brother Trevor’s college graduation from SUNY Fredonia in 2013. To the right of me is my fiancé John (28), my brother Trevor (23), and brother, Ryan (25).
In 2011, I stumbled upon a Craigslist ad and everything changed. The ad listed an opening for a paralegal position at an adoption agency. The timing was perfect. I was close to finishing two years at a grueling law firm in D.C. and was desperately looking for an escape. I had no experience in child welfare but I felt certain that I could add value to the organization as an adoptee. During the interview, my prospective supervisor asked me if I thought the emotional aspects of adoption would impact me as an adoptee. I answered honestly: No. Little did I know my assertion would be far from the truth.
During my first year at the agency, I witnessed a coworker help countless adoptees navigate the intimidating search for their birth parents. A memorable case involved a 15-year-old adoptee that hoped to reunite with his birth mother despite his deep-seated fears and anxieties. Understandably, he was scared that his birth mother wouldn’t want anything to do with him. He worried that his search could disrupt her current life. When I heard about his case, I admired his bravery. I have the same exact fears. He moved forward with his search after weeks of preparation. To his surprise, he was able to reconnect with his birth mother and learned that she celebrated his birthday each year with a cake. His story, as well as dozens of other successful “search and reunion” stories, ignited a desire within me to search for my birth mother.
Me and my team at Adoptions Together, Inc. in Silver Spring, Maryland. The girl to the right of me in the white sweater is Beth Stahl. She is the social worker who facilitates search and reunion cases for the agency.
In the summer of 2012, I reached out to Spence-Chapin Adoption Services, the agency in New York that facilitated my placement in 1987. Within a few days, I was having conversations on the phone with the Korea Program Coordinator, Ben, about beginning my search. The process was simple and straightforward, he explained. It involved submitting a couple of basic forms. Even so, I dragged my feet when filling out the paperwork. At first, I chalked it up to being busy but I knew deep down it was my fear of the unknown. What if my birth mother doesn’t want to know me? What if, when I meet her, she doesn’t like me? What if I don’t like her? I remember thinking this search could turn my life upside down and I wasn’t sure whether I was emotionally prepared for that. I could reunite with my birth mother and find out she is happily married with children – and that might hurt me. Or, I could meet her and secretly dislike her and then feel guilty about it afterwards. What if I found out she was assaulted by my birth father? Would that impact my self-perception? Would I feel obligated to keep in touch with her forever? It was the first time I had ever let myself ask these kinds of questions.
I sat in my office one night, overwhelmed by the endless possibilities. So, I called my fiancé to vent. His calming advice could do nothing to suppress my insecurities. A deluge of emotions poured out of me that I had not allowed myself to feel for 25 years. I had so many questions that needed to be untangled and examined under a microscope. I realized, though, that my birth mother was 71 years old, and that I might not have much time. After spending an hour crying at my desk contemplating “what if” questions, I filled out each form and submitted them to Ben. That night, I cast my dreams into the vast universe, hoping that an affirmation would fall from the sky onto my lap.
My Grandpa and I in Rochester, New York on the day I officially became an American citizen.
A few weeks later, I received a call from Spence-Chapin. It was Ben. He greeted me in his normal, soothing voice. I sensed an uncomfortable pause, though, after we exchanged hellos. Before he could tell me the news, I realized she was no longer alive. He informed me that she had passed away in 2006. The wheels began to turn in my head while we spoke over the phone. She must have passed away while I was a freshman in college. She was only 65 years old. Had I known something was wrong, perhaps, I would have tried to reach out to her sooner. “Was she sick?” “Was it an accident?” His response crushed me. “I’m sorry but I can’t give you any more details.” It was because of the stringent adoption laws in Korea. She was my birth mother, though. I felt entitled to this information and wondered if it was all sitting in a file on his desk. For a minute, I even wondered if I could bribe him for answers. Was it cancer? Or was it unexpected? Were her other children there to comfort her? Shouldn’t I have access to my medical history? In that moment, I felt like my search came to a screeching halt.
I mourned a loss that was different from other losses I had experienced. I lost the chance to know my birth history. I lost the opportunity to meet my birth mother and show her the person I had become. I would never know her name or be able to hear the sound of her voice. In the months leading up to my search, I started to picture myself riding in a van with my adoptive parents to my birth mother’s home in Pusan. We would be ushered through a door by one of my birth siblings and greeted by an older Korean woman with a round, cherubic face. She would have tears running down her wrinkled face and say something profound like: “Not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought of you.” And despite any language or cultural barriers, we would understand each other. For the first time, I would recognize my face in someone else’s. My almond-shaped eyes and chubby cheeks would mirror hers.
It was hard to fathom this dreamlike sequence I had envisioned would never play out in real life. At the same time, I felt a huge sense of relief. While I consider myself to be a fairly strong person, I cannot say for sure that I would have been emotionally ready to handle any curveballs. What if I reached out to my birth mother and learned that she was not ready to have a relationship with me? Would it ruin her marriage or her relationships with her children, if I suddenly resurfaced in her life?
As time moved on, questions like these began to fade away. Nevertheless, my desire to visit Korea only grew stronger. I reached out to Ben once more to learn about opportunities at Spence-Chapin for adult adoptees. He encouraged me to apply to their annual month-long program for adoptees that wish to return to their birth country. I would spend a week on my own in Seoul and then travel to Naju (a city in the Southwestern part of Korea) where I would stay at a “Baby Reception Center” to help care for infants that were placed for adoption. I applied as soon as I got home that night. Perhaps, this is what the universe had in store for me, I thought to myself as I mailed off my application. I waited patiently for the cosmos to answer my prayers.
Taken from the plane shortly after departing from Baltimore on May 29, 2013.
A few months after submitting my application, I found myself on a plane full of Koreans heading towards Seoul. I remember naively thinking to myself: Where did all of these people come from? It was the first time I was part of what people call “the visual majority” as an adult. I chuckled at the ridiculousness of it all. I am surrounded by Korean people on a runway strip in Baltimore. While we waited for our plane to depart, I furtively watched a team of stylish flight attendants stow people’s luggage away with more elegance and grace than a ballerina. These women are flawless, I thought to myself. My clumsy American gait and wavy hair is going to make me stick out like a sore thumb once I get there.
In a way, my predictions were right. While store clerks and cab drivers appeared puzzled by my inability to speak Korean, numerous people would ask me if I was Japanese or Chinese. Even after straightening my wavy hair and buying dark-rimmed glasses to match the voguish women of Seoul, I often felt out of place. For the first time in my life, I was straddling two worlds. On one hand, I was surrounded by people who physically resembled me. To the eye of an unseasoned tourist, I blended in. To insiders, though, I felt self-conscious about my tan skin and wavy hair. I constantly worried that any minute someone was going to pick me out of the crowd and “out” me to everyone. They would point their SPF-moisturized finger in my face and scream in Korean: “IMPOSTER!” And, sure enough, I would stand there, mortified and confused, as the crowds dispersed around me. My paranoia dissipated as time went on. The people I met on my trip were welcoming, which made it easier for me to embrace myself in Korea.
I tried to experience everything with an open mind and open heart.
Taken during a bus tour in Seoul. It is of a woman meditating in Jogyesa (Temple). If you look at the windowpane, you will see colorful lotus lanterns in the reflection. These lanterns are displayed each year around May to celebrate Buddha’s birthday.
I tried to not be so hard on myself. Each time I felt out of place or alone, I reminded myself of my journey and all of the people in my life that were supporting me.
I got my hair cut and styled by a woman who was apparently not a fan of my normal curly hair. Check out the signature peace sign, by the way! ; )
I ate to my heart’s content.
I soaked in all the views.
I said “yes” to every opportunity that came my way.
My fellow adoptee traveler, Nicky, and I wearing traditional Korean dresses before attending a tea ceremony.
Friends serenading me on my 26th birthday in a karaoke bar in Geoje.
During my time in Korea, I was able to let go of the insecurities that were weighing me down. I forgave myself for missing out on the chance to meet my birth mother. It was a hard pill to swallow, but I eventually realized that I was not ready to open that door growing up. And that is okay. I revisited my history on my own terms and at my own pace.
I also made a concerted effort towards the end of my trip to care less about my appearance. Growing up with Asian features in a predominantly white suburb definitely conditioned me to be self-conscious about my appearance. And after years of developing a greater sense of confidence in the United States, I was shocked at how uncomfortable and out of place I felt in my birth country. Throngs of slender women with pearlescent complexions would glide by and I would start to critique my body and the way I talked, walked, and dressed. I reminded myself, though, that I look different because, well – because I am different! I have Korean features that I inherited from my birth parents and I have facial expressions and mannerisms that emulate my American parents. Rather than viewing myself as someone who aimlessly drifts between two worlds, I started to see myself as a unique and evolving combination of both.
Finally, instead of fixating on the things I lost as an adoptee, I reminded myself of what I gained from my journey. I gained a deeper connection to my adoptive family who has been my rock since day one. I grew closer to my fiancé, John, who, for the past 8 years, has held my hand through life’s exhilarating highs and turbulent lows. I became more confident in sharing my story to close friends and coworkers. I am more committed to my work as an adoption professional. Most importantly, however, I have gained a deeper appreciation for myself. Since my return to the United States, I have a renewed sense of self and am proud to call myself a Korean American adoptee.
When I learned the news of my birth mother’s passing, I felt as if I hit a dead end. All of my pleas for answers were in vain, I told myself. Eventually, though, I began to look at things in a different light and could see beyond the impasse. Sure, I will probably never know my birth mother’s name or understand the full story behind her adoption plan. But those hiccups did not hold me back from traveling to Korea where I learned some valuable lessons along the way.
The most important thing I learned was the value of self-acceptance. Once I began to recognize and embrace certain parts of myself that I had kept on the shelf – my Korean heritage, my adoption story, all of the things that set me apart from my peers – I was able to fully appreciate myself as a whole. I no longer felt the need to fill in any blanks or cover up any holes. I might never have all the answers, but that’s life. Like every other person on this earth, I am a mosaic – made up of different parts that give me character.
My adoptive mother who is an artist often champions the Japanese notion of “wabi-sabi.” It is a term that centers on the acceptance of impermanence and imperfection. In his book Wabi Sabi Simple, Richard Powell describes it as something that “nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” It’s often difficult to integrate this concept into my life. I shudder at anything asymmetrical or lopsided. I like clean lines and balance. When I was younger, I would rip pages out of my coloring book anytime my crayon strayed over the line. Nevertheless, as I’ve gotten older, I see why my mother is a strong advocate of this aesthetic. She understands the inevitable nature of imperfection. A plate with a chip is no less of a plate because of its chip. There is a story behind that imperfection, which makes it beautiful.
Even though my adoptive mom is white (half Irish, half Polish), people often tell us that we look alike because of our similar facial expressions, body language, and voices. It’s uncanny!
My mother also reminds me often that we cannot control the things that are beyond our control. While this overused maxim inspires a lot of eye rolling from me, I know that it holds a lot of truth. When I landed in Korea, I knew that I had control over my outlook. I could maintain a tight grip on my boundaries to eschew vulnerability. Or, I could let my guard down and embrace all of the parts that make me who I am. I am grateful to have chosen the latter during my trip. By embracing all of the pieces that make me Jenna, I was able to see beyond my losses and realize the invaluable things that I had gained along the way.
Near the end of my trip, my chaperone Ms. Kang casually asked me during dinner if I wanted to visit my birth city. This question made me feel tense and anxious. My natural reaction was to formulate a list of reasons as to why it was a bad idea to go. It could dredge up difficult feelings. Was it worth driving through a big city without any specific destinations? In my adoption papers, the typewriter ink bleakly reads “A Hospital in Pusan” next to the space where it asks for my birthplace. There are a dozen hospitals in Pusan and who knows if the hospital I was born in still exists. Perhaps, I can come back with John or my adoptive parents when I feel more settled. I laid my chopsticks on the table and turned my focus back to Ms. Kang who was waiting for a response. Before I could change my mind, I agreed to go. What if I had let my fears influence all of my life decisions? I would have never applied for my job at the adoption agency. I would not have searched for my birth mother or returned to Korea as an adult. I refused to let my fears stop me from visiting a critical part of my past.
The next day, Ms. Kang drove me up and down the streets of Pusan. “Take pictures of your birth city, Jenna,” she instructed. Your birth city, I thought. I dutifully obeyed by snapping photos of buildings and random passersby on the streets. A vibrant fruit truck parked in front of a pharmacy. A congested stream of traffic inching along a steep road. Tall office buildings with signs emblazoned across their fronts, advertising age-defying cosmetics and Samsung gadgets. My hour-long photography session was interrupted by a shocking update from Ms. Kang. She explained to me that she had reviewed my adoption records earlier that day and found the hospital where I was born. “Do you want to see it?” she asked over the hum of traffic. I could not believe what I was hearing. Just when I had started to let go of my lost puzzle pieces, I was offered the chance to revisit a landmark from my past. With tears streaming down my face, I responded: Yes, of course.
We drove up to the hospital. It was small and pristine and sat on the corner of a busy intersection. When Ms. Kang and I stepped out of the van, an elderly nun emerged from the shade of a nearby tree and walked towards us. The nun and Ms. Kang conversed for a few minutes before guiding me into the hospital gift shop. The nun pulled a book down from a shelf and flipped to a photo of the hospital in the 1980s. “It was founded in 1964 by a priest who wanted to serve the poor,” Ms. Kang told me after the nun spoke. I gazed at the photo, contemplating what would happen if I walked off the premises with it. Ms. Kang soon gestured me towards the hospital entrance. In single file, the three of us marched through the lobby to ascend a flight of stairs. The nun explained to Ms. Kang (who then translated for me) that the second floor was where women used to deliver infants in the 1980s.
As I peered down the hallway, I wondered which room I had occupied as an infant. It was the most surreal feeling to walk through a place that I had been 26 years ago. I felt like I was in a movie scene that I wanted to preserve in time forever. I remember wishing that I could just shout directives at someone through a TV screen: “Hey, you! Yeah, you, over there, sitting on the couch. Could you rewind this scene for a few seconds and then press pause?” I needed more time to absorb everything around me. Alas, I was not able to travel back in time or press pause. I obediently followed the nun and Ms. Kang down the flight of stairs to tour other parts of the hospital. But the memory of that moment remains so vivid in my mind that I am able to replay it often.
So, do you remember when I told you that my life began in an airport terminal? Yeah, so maybe that wasn’t really what happened. I was actually born in a hospital located in Pusan, South Korea. It is the place where my story officially began. It is the place where I spent my first minutes on earth. It is the place where I shared moments with my birth mother before we parted ways. And it is a place that I can revisit in my dreams or in real life for the rest of my life. To most people, a walk through a hospital sounds like the antithesis of romance. But for me, it was a sacred moment that allowed me to understand my past.
Me in front the hospital where I was born in Pusan, South Korea.
When I returned to the United States last year, I was determined to write about my experience in Korea. Sitting down to write out my thoughts, however, proved to be a far greater challenge than I had anticipated. I could not believe that after all of my intense soul-searching, the hardest part would be in the quiet moments after my trip when I tried to make sense of everything. So I slammed my computer shut and walked away from writing for a while. I became immersed in my job at the agency, focusing my attention on deadlines and projects. I distracted myself with graduate school papers and reading assignments. I also started planning my wedding with John after we officially became engaged in May.
My yearlong retreat from writing came to an end a few weeks ago. My coworkers during lunch reminded me of the post I had secretly been avoiding. Oh, THAT thing? I thought, staring down at my half-wilted Caesar salad. I must have completely forgotten about it! Deep down, I knew it was time to revisit my story. I was done with graduate school and felt ready to take on the world as a new social worker. Later that night, I booted up my computer and began to feverishly type. I reminded myself of the Japanese notion of “wabi-sabi.” I embraced the imperfections rather than gloss over them. I admitted my frustrations as an adoptee. I was more honest with myself.
My trip to Korea was not the answer to all my questions. In truth, it actually dredged up more questions. Nevertheless, I understand that my story, like everyone else’s, is comprised of unfinished pieces. I may never know my complete birth history. Or have the chance to meet my birth siblings. But I can appreciate the fact that my story is an evolving work in process.
I will return to Korea someday. Next time, I hope it is with John and my family so I can show them the art galleries and markets that are tucked away in various corners of Seoul. We can traverse the country by van and take ferries to different islands just like I did with Ms. Kang. And years down the road, I will take John and our future children to the hospital where I was born so I can tell them my story. The story of how I came to know my past.