Although my case is a “closed adoption,” when I was six my family received a letter from Holt International saying my birthmother comes by often and wants to know how I’m doing. They said my family was not required to respond but if they would be willing, she would like to hear from them. My family wrote two letters and sent photos, once in 1991 and again in 1992.
In the letters, my parents wrote that I enjoy writing, singing songs, and drawing pictures. That my pictures have lots of rainbows, hearts, and flowers in them. That I say one day I’m going to be an artist. That I wanted to learn to ride a bike and did not give up. That I love to be outdoors. That I love to go fishing with my dad. That I will spend hours sorting and organizing my dad’s fishing tackle box. That I am a very happy, affectionate, sensitive, beautiful little girl.
In 2007, I was writing my senior thesis on adoption, and I was using my own binder of documents (which included copies of these letters as well as agency and legal paperwork) as part of my research. One day, someone smashed the window of my car and took everything inside, including the binder. Not even locks can keep some things closed. Losing these documents felt like someone I loved had died. Wailing, I called my dad.
My dad loved me and so he also loved the baby documents, and he promptly emailed Holt International. He also emailed every single adoption agency and adoptee organization he could find in Korea. Could anyone please please help my daughter recover these documents, sincerely Kent Eriksen, and p.s. she is coming to Korea this summer, is there any chance she could find her birthmother?
His emails worked. Holt International sent us copies of “everything.” “Everything” included documents I’d never seen before but did not include everything from the original binder. Notably, it did not include the letters my family had sent.
And. Someone’s assistant called to tell me: They found my birthmother.
I once read that only 5% of adoptees find their birth parents. I know it is hard to do, even for the 5% who succeed. So, I am aware it is truly obnoxious how easy it was for me, who was only old enough to have lost documents and had not yet even realized I’d lost a mother.
Finding my birthmother was made possible because of a man named Mr. Yoon, the social worker who handled my adoption in 1985. Mr. Yoon was still working at Holt International twenty-one years later and knew my birthmother well because apparently she had come “for counseling” at least every year since I was relinquished. And so Holt International said Mr. Yoon called my umma, and she answered, because she is a real person and not a character and is a woman and not a ghost and she has hands and not just poems, and she owns things, like a telephone, and it rang.
Unfortunately, they said, she does not want to meet you.
Gutted, I promptly got drunk with a fellow adoptee who always texted back and looked at me like I was his favorite color and did things like walk back to the car for an umbrella. I wanted to get drunk with him forever, but I belonged to someone else, so our lips never touched they just quivered a millimeter and an ocean away because that was how I knew how to love things, and a few months later I flew to Korea to find myself I mean study the Korean language on a State Department scholarship.
I hand-wrote my mother a letter entirely in hangul. It looked like a child wrote it, which was because a child wrote it. I told her that in America there is a story about a bird whose mom momentarily flies away and so it hatches alone. It walks around asking a dog and a cow and even yelling at an airplane, “Are you my mother?” I want to ask every woman in the subway if they are my mother, I wrote. I asked her if we could meet, even in secret.
Before I gave it to Mr. Yoon to give to my umma, Mr. Yoon said my umma had changed her mind and would like to meet. Typically, when an adoptee meets their family, the adoption agency sends staff to facilitate the reunion, including a translator. My umma had one condition for our reunion, which was that no one from Holt International could attend, except for Mr. Yoon.
The reunion is a much bigger story. I just mention it here so you see my umma is not an airplane, but she is formidable. When my son and I traveled back to Korea again in 2022, we attempted to self-quarantine but instead got stuck in immigration, unable to prove we were Korean or had Korean family. We were sent to a government quarantine facility. Three days later, my umma negotiated our release.
Without a birth certificate, adoptees must provide a ridiculous, honestly offensive, level of verification. DNA tests, unredacted documents, consulate approval, and more. It is as though they have never met an adoptee. It is as though an adoptee has no good reason for visiting Korea.
How did Umma do it?? I begged to know, aware we did not and could not meet the requirements.
Umma submitted old documents, her translation app said
What documents?? I asked, as though someone I loved was being born
She gave Korean officials copies of the letters my family sent in 1991 and 1992. She gave them a copy of my Korean flag drawing. She gave them a copy of the letter I wrote about a bird. She gave them every single photo she has ever received of me, photos from our reunion, and photos of me today. She told them I was beautiful! She told them I was her daughter. She said this was enough.
The only English phrase my umma knows is I’m sorry. She calls me and says, I’m sorry. She looks at my face and she says, I’m sorry. She cuts a strawberry, she holds my hand, she says goodbye after lunch and she says, I’m sorry, I’m sorry
As a daughter I am shaped like a broken window; maybe that’s why sometimes my umma flinches when she touches me. Gwaenchanh-ayo, I tell my umma, it’s okay. Gwaenchanh-ayo.
Can I have a copy of these documents? I ask, reuniting with the old letters, with the girl who lived—me. I smile. I haven’t seen them for a long time.
My umma nods and she moves us closer.
Closer to the woman who keeps things
Closer to the girl who was kept
Rumpus original art by Samantha Wang