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Author's Excerpt: Chapter 1

Excerpt from The Search for Mother Missing: A Peek Inside International Adoption

[ Post Korea 2004

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. —Lao-tzu

On the drive home from the grocery store, I spot the sign again: “Korea Post.”  A surge of urgency runs through my blood. I’ve seen the local newspaper before, but was too timid to actually go in. Only two weeks from now, my sis and I will be in Seoul, South Korea! As a stay-at-home mother of two and caregiver to my disabled father, the upcoming trip is a rare opportunity to focus all my attention on me.
The sign reminds me of my sister’s comment. “Janine,” she had said, confirming my trepidations about the trip, “Our trip to Korea might be the only chance we’ll have at finding our birth parents. We might never get to go to Korea again.”
Because I am of Korean ethnicity, most fellow Americans might think that I am not a “real” American citizen. But I am. I haven’t even explored my Korean roots and I’m already thirty-two years old! I come from an all-American Caucasian family, so I’ve never identified myself as a “real” Asian. According to what I had heard while growing up, Asians were supposedly odd people who were not wanted or needed and could go back where they came from if they didn’t like it here. All they did was steal jobs from the American people. I assumed “real” Asians ate gross food and got good grades. Why would I want to associate myself with such foreigners? Of course, as an adult, married to a man born in Vietnam, I now know all those labels have been lies. But back when I was a child and only exposed to white society--they were considered civilized and all other colors were “wrong.” I was supposed to follow my parents’ footsteps and become a conservative Republican Christian adult—because that’s who my parents wanted me to be and that’s who they were.
My sister’s comment runs through my mind again. Our trip to Korea might be the only chance we’ll have at finding our birth parents. We might never go to Korea again.
Her comment motivates me to turn the van around. I’ve avoided the possibility long enough. Since it’s now only two more weeks until we leave, I have to go inside! My heart pounds. I wonder if the newspaper staff will translate the letter I had written to our Korean mother. I had written a letter to my birth mother in anticipation of the Adoptee Gathering. I want to get it into one of the major newspapers in Seoul, perhaps before our trip, so our Korean family might read it and meet us at the hotel. There could be a slim chance our biological parents have been looking for us; and if not, I’d like them to know that we are currently looking for them. I’ve been stashing my adoption papers and the letter to my birth mother in the van for weeks, just in case I would find the time or the courage to actually walk into the office and ask for help. I know if my twin had the opportunity, she’d be right beside me. But she’s at work—always at work in multiple nursing homes teaching patients how to regain their independence after an injury or surgery. She loves her job and work keeps her busy.
I swerve into the parking lot that serves several professional offices, which face Puget Sound. A cool salty mist blows off the water and refreshes me like a damp cloth placed on my forehead. I enter a large periwinkle building, where the Korea Post is accessible by an internal door located inside a corridor, and peer into a side window. The office environment is not rushed like newsrooms shown in American movies. In fact, the opposite. The two women hunched in front of computers look approachable.
Having rarely been around Koreans, I wonder how the women will receive me. I remember being around Korean women only once when I was a kid. My Caucasian mother had taken my twin and me to a Korean American church potluck. My adoptive mother felt a bit uncomfortable and so it was the last time we ever socialized with anyone of Korean ethnicity.
For most of my childhood, my conservative Caucasian parents tried to uphold an all-American status. My dad collected American cars. My mom collected delicate white porcelain dolls. She wore beauty products from Avon and decorated the house in JC Penny and Sears attire. She dressed my sister and me in fluffy pastel Easter and red velvet Christmas dresses and Mary Jane shoes. We ate jarred spaghetti sauce over noodles or sweet and sour chicken over boxed Uncle Ben’s rice. We ordered pizza on Friday nights.
My all-American parents believed it was their duty to take us to church each week for activities such as Sunday school, youth group, and mid-week services—in a Cadillac Limousine, no less. My sister and I lit the candles on the front altar. My mom played the organ, my dad directed the choir. There was nothing Asian about us; we were the all-American family. I believed I was a typical American girl. My environment was all white. It was I who was all wrong. It was I who did not match my all-American environment.
I peek through the Korean Post window again and see the two Korean women sitting peacefully at their desks. Will they be offended that I don’t speak the Korean language—the language I’ve been told by some well-meaning adults that I’m supposed to know?
After a few moments of silence, I grab the chrome doorknob and muster up enough courage to tiptoe into the office.
Both Korean women raise their brows, startled at my sudden intrusion. The older one in the yellow dress stands. “May I help you?”
“Yes. I am looking for my birth parents.” I intentionally speak out, like a confident American. “I was adopted when I was a baby.” (Most people, when they look me over, might assume that I’m in my early twenties because of my petite physique. Sometimes, it can be a struggle to be taken seriously or even acknowledged.) “There’s going to be a huge adoptee Gathering—” I notice a man peek around the corner from a far office. Am I too loud? I lower my voice. “Um . . . there’s going to be a conference in Seoul two weeks from now. I was hoping you could—”
The woman in the yellow dress stands from her desk, points at the door I had entered and then walks me toward it. Scared she wants me out of the office, my heart skips a beat. Is she kicking me out already? Oh, relief. She’s only taking me by the door to the table and chairs. Still, I feel guilty for wasting her time. Maybe I shouldn’t be looking for my birth family. Maybe it’s none of my business. Is it even normal for adoptees to look? Maybe I’m out of line.
“Please have a seat,” she whispers, pulling out a gray padded chair near a small round table.
Waiting for the woman to return, I twirl long damaged hair into knots with nervous fingers, wondering if I’m doing the right thing, wishing Jenette was with me instead of at work. I stare at the walls, naked with pale plaster as drab as a hospital gown. They seem to beg to be colored with more than just a journalistic hand. After a minute, the woman returns with a pen and a yellow legal pad. I explain about our trip and that we will be in Korea for two weeks. I spread the few documents given to us, when our adoptive mother died, on the table with the letter to our birth parents on top.
“Excuse me. May I read your letter?” The woman in yellow asks.
Sliding the white paper toward her, I pray that she will somehow get this translated and sent to Korea.
To our Korean mother:

My twin and I will be at the Adoptee Gathering in Seoul, South Korea, this coming August, which will be our first trip to our motherland. We are very much looking forward to discovering our roots—something that has remained a mystery to us for all our lives. We would like to meet our birth parents if possible. There is no anger or resentment and you should not feel ashamed. We had a good life in America and consider ourselves to be very lucky. Even though you have not played a part in our lives, you have been with us on a subconscious level. Our adoptive mother passed away from cancer seven years ago and our adoptive father sustained a head injury when we were twelve and is now physically disabled. It is now time to meet physically so that we may heal the past. Please e-mail us with any information you have. We look forward to getting to know you.
Sending peace, love and joy to Seoul,

The Vance Twins :):)
While she skims my typed letter, I see her swallow hard and then I hear her breathe heavily. It’s obvious that the letter has made an emotional impact. She jots notes and asks for our Korean names, being careful to get the spelling right. She motions me to follow her to the computer while she looks up web sites that could possibly help us. At last she finds Holt International’s Korean web site (the agency we were adopted through). A page with photos of adoptees looking for birth parents pops up. As she scribbles Korean writing on the legal pad, she assigns the younger woman to scan Jenette’s “Intake Form,” the letter to birth parents, and her adoption papers into the computer. My papers were never given to me. She e-mails these documents, along with my authorization, to Holt’s Seoul office along with a note that Jenette and I will visit the Post Adoption Services Office in August. She also sends my permission to release whatever birth files are necessary upon our arrival. We’d like to visit the street we were said to have been found on, according to Jenette’s intake form, and visit either our foster parents or the orphanage we were placed in.
The woman paws through a stack of files, finally pulling out copies of maps and directions to the buildings, all located in Seoul. All we will have to do is hand the map to the taxi driver. From her desk, she stops and studies me for an instant. “Don’t give up hope. Reunions can happen,” she reports. “A while ago I helped an adoptee reunite with her father.”
I am amazed that she is doing this for us. “Thank you,” is all I can say.
The woman in yellow silently follows me out the door, into the corridor, and then finally to the parking lot. Once I reach my van, she surprises me with an outburst, “I’ll be praying for you!”
I think to myself. “I did it!” It’s the first time we’ve ever made a move to learn about our past! It’s the first time we’ve attempted to look for answers about ourselves!
Because there’s hope, now, and an opportunity to actually meet our birth family, I’ve begun imagining the reunion. I’ve never done something so outrageous before . . . to actually meet members of my Korean family seems like a fantasy . . . a dream. Even though I have everything a human being could want and should consider myself extremely lucky, something is missing. I’m not sure if it’s due to not having a close relationship with my adoptive mother or being separated from my Korean mother or not experiencing cultural identity or not knowing my life’s origin. Something is missing. But I don’t dwell on it. Or have I? What are other adoptees thinking, wishing, dreaming? Or does it even matter?
I imagine that meeting our natural mother will be a copy-cat version of “The Swan,” a reality television program where producers take a “nobody” and after an extreme make-over, untangle her into a “somebody.” Jenette and I will have to prepare for such an event, a fairy tale come true! I imagine how newsworthy the reunion will be. Major Korean newspapers will write headliners on their front page: “Twins Originally Found in Box Are Finally Claimed!” And “Long Lost Parents Finally Find Their Beautiful Daughters!”
Jenette and I will have to spend hours preparing for our reunion in a closed room. Korean experts, specializing in the styles best suited for us, will choose classy outfits from famous designers. Of course, in my made-up vision, we’ll have to try on many dresses to find our favorite one. The best make-up artists (familiar with Asian skin) will apply our make-up without making comments about the shape of our eyes or what they call our “yellow” skin color, and hairdressers (who actually know how to manage black Asian hair, instead of being shocked and awed by it) will know which products to use to hold our thick hair in an elegant updo for special events. They’ll even find a sparkling tiara to crown us with, just like in the popular beauty pageants I’ve seen. In my dreamy reunion, my birth family will be sweating in the front room having no idea what to expect, wondering who we most resemble. Everyone will be nervously sipping green tea to calm nerves, anticipating the moment of the “Big Reveal” just like on “The Swan” reality show. Soon it will come time for the lights to dim.
Not long ago I had even consulted a Tarot Card Web site, typing from the keyboard: will I find my birth family? Dorothy and the “Wizard of Oz” card appeared on my computer screen:
When Dorothy appears in your reading, follow your destiny and proceed on your life quest. Develop your confidence and spiritual strength. You may be exploring and perceiving unusual realities at this time. Your dreams may be colorful, profound, fun, or adventurous. Keep a notebook of your nocturnal experiences. This may also be the time for an actual journey in the physical world. Remain open to the entire range of possible destinations. Take action to make your visions come true. Eliminate the fear of getting lost and making mistakes. Your helpers and guides will direct you home when your magical adventure is about to end.
Hmm. Seems applicable. My mind jumps into the childish fairy tale reunion. We’ll be surrounded by the media. The crowd hushes when it’s time for the moment of truth. A spotlight flashes on. We face our Korean parents for the first time. Omma or mommy will recognize us immediately. Ahboh or Daddy will cry at the sight of us. A magical glow surrounds the four of us. In them, I see a reflection of me, or who I could be. There’s a weird knowingness in the air. Just by gut, we understand both of them. We may even laugh the same way. Jenette and I can finally be ourselves . . . free to embrace, unbound by agency-induced adoption laws. Our Korean parents will then push us to the trembling arms of extended family—people who resemble us. For the first time in our lives, we won’t be the minority. For the first time in our lives we won’t be so obviously different compared to our adoptive family. At last, Jenette and I won’t be the odd ones out. New relationships develop with relatives who remind Jenette and me of ourselves—no longer hidden; no longer are we lost from them. The honeymoon begins.
Snap. Blackness. A void. I rebuke myself for fantasizing. Okay. I know. I know. I should know better . ... The fairy-tale is a little ridiculous--stupid even. I’m asking for way too much. I don’t even know if I’m allowed to ever meet my family. I need to get my head out of the ground! I remind myself that I should know better. Adoption agencies warn adoptees against looking for our Korean parents, saying they might not want to meet us. I should stop day-dreaming and stay focused on reality. I scold myself: Stay focused on reality. Stay focused on reality. Stay focused on reality. Damn it, stay focused!