Thursday, June 20, 2013

"My Hand That Looked Exactly Like Hers," My Birthmother: Part One

By contributor Joy Leiberthal Rho

1994 – nearly at the end of my one year volunteering at Orphans’ Home of Korea, Uijongbu, what was my home for an indeterminate amount of time in 1975-1976.

The days preceding my meeting with my birthmother remain crystal clear in my mind. I got a call on a Monday from my Unnee (one of my big sisters from the orphanage, who works for the Directress of the orphanage.) She received a call she felt was very important. Immediately she shared that my birthmother has come forward and wants to meet me. I was stunned. All my life, I believed that my birthmother had died and at the hands of my birthfather. That was the story I told my parents and it was the story I held onto as my truth. I have come to realize that my little six year old head could not deal with the loss of my mother and believed what many adults told me as to the reason I was no longer with her.

Growing up, I never wanted to search for my birthfather, my birthmother I thought was never an option. I was one of those adoptees who was perfectly content in the not knowing and had no reason to go on any fishing expedition. My search instead was for me, my identity as a Korean adoptee and I sought to reclaim my heritage, not my lineage.

Within a 24 hour period, I found out that my birthmother was very much alive and she had hired a private detective to look for me for the third time. She had been searching for my whereabouts for 21 years. If my parents had hesitated for just one second when I asked them what I should do, a meeting would never have occurred. My parents were thrilled, emotional and encouraging of my meeting.

I was completely ambivalent and walked in a fog for two days. I could not wrap my head around this at all. All I knew was that I needed to do this for this woman who has been searching for her daughter and I bought the line, I might not get another chance to be in Korea.

By Wednesday of that same week, I was sitting in a room of a third floor walkup along an alley of rotten fish, looking at two women, my birthmother and her younger sister. I felt nothing and wanted so much for this not to be true. I wanted to bolt out of that room and breathe a sigh of relief. We sat down forced by the eager detective to just wait one more moment. My birthmother sat next to me and looked away saying quietly, “No, I don’t think she is her.”

And then, I was asked if I had a scar on my leg. Why, yes, I did! I have a light brown mark on my leg from a hot iron on my leg.  I always believed it to be from the orphanage. My maternal aunt burst into tears and proceeded to say that it was her fault that I got hurt and profusely apologized. She had just finished ironing her husband’s shirt and told me not to sit too close. I did anyway and because I knew I should not have done it, uttered nothing when I burned myself, thus the scar. I had never told anyone that story, except my parents. It was as if a veil lifted from my eyes. I suddenly saw these two women differently and I gave myself permission to look at the woman sitting next to me holding my hand. My hand that looked exactly like hers. I looked at her feet – we have the same size. I started to look at her face and realized we had the same ears.  She gave me a ring that fit perfectly, a ring she had been wearing all these years waiting to land on my hand some day. The realization that this woman was related to me still leaves me without words, it still stands in perfect stillness in my mind.

One week later, I met my half-brother, who looked like a male version of me. We liked each other immediately, both victims of circumstance. I have a brother now! I met extended family. I met my birth grandmother, a true honor. I looked wistfully at a photo of my birth grandfather, who upon gazing at his eyes, I vaguely remember seeing long ago. I spoke with an uncle on the phone who was too drunk from emotion and liquor to come and see me face to face. Inside, I was a mess. I was wracking my brain the entire time to remember these people, remember their stories of me and the many thoughts they shared about what happened to me. I could relate to none of it. I kept looking at my birthmother for solace, but she offered none. She was quiet too. And for a moment I saw an older version of me – where there is loudness, she is soft; when others take the spotlight, she disappears. I wondered if I got that from her. At the end of the visits, I just broke down. I was so truly sorry I didn't remember them, I felt so ashamed and embarrassed that my memory failed at this most crucial moment. I looked at these people in their earnestness to recapture their niece, granddaughter, daughter, wishing I could step into that role. I felt so utterly sad for them and disappointed in myself.

I spent the weekend with my birthmother. There were four key moments of that visit that encapsulate the essence of the weirdness of meeting my birthmother. One, we slept together as I would have had I stayed in Korea and lived with her. She smelled lovely and just like Oil of Olay. I remembered that smell and now knew why I chose to wear that lotion on my face for years. I had a very still sleep that night. Two, my birthmother walked in on me while I was taking a bath and wanted to scrub me down. I screamed for her to get out. She just wanted to see me, all of me. I was mortified. I know I hurt her feelings. Three, she made me a whole box of dried seaweed (ghim)because she heard it was my favorite and sat and watched me eat breakfast. I asked her if she wanted to know about my life in America, she said no. Silence, we didn’t have anything to say to each other? Four, she was ironing my brother’s shirt for school on the floor with her back to the door. I sat at the door frame and said that I wished there was something I could do to help her be ok with all of this. She said very quietly, the last time she saw me was when I was a three year old child, now I am a grown woman and she doesn’t know who this person is. Silence. I was so very sad for her.

During that weekend, I asked the question that burns in every adoptee’s mind. Why? Why did you give me up? I was surprised to learn I was never given up, there was no voluntary relinquishment. Just as an aside, I never heard my birthfather’s side of this story and he has since passed away. This is my birthmother’s story. My birthmother and I were victims of circumstance, law and custom. My birthmother met my birthfather when she was 24 years old. He was a few years younger but pursued my birthmother. They were married before he went off to do his military obligation and she was with child. I grew up with my birthmother and her family, which is why my memories of grandparents were of her parents. I was loved and there are memories of singing and dancing and playing from the extended family that I no longer recall. The last time I spent time in their home has been transfixed in my mind as a few frames of film in my head. I remember sobbing and waving goodbye to my grandparents while the window of a car was going up and I was driven away. I later found out that the two people in my film were actually my birthmother and grandmother. This
validation and confusion of memory still haunts me.

When my birthfather returned he no longer wanted to be married to my birthmother and upon the divorce, I was to go to him and his family. Korean children were the custody of the father’s side of the family, no visitation, no joint custody. However, my birthfather was not a mean man, and he did make attempts to have me see my birthmother and she was able to spend time with me on two occasions. She knew that it was only a matter of time before these visits would cease simply because she knew my birthfather was not completely a man of his word. He had a new woman in his life and she was not making things easy for him. The last visit was at an open market where my birthmother bought me a pair of red shoes, too old for a little girl, but I wanted them and she complied. This is her last memory of being with me, I was three and a half years old.

After some time, my birthmother went to seek out my birthfather to beg for a visit and she found out that he no longer had me. After months of asking and following the many homes, at least three that she knew of, I was apparently in, she ended up in an orphanage in Seoul, far from Inchon, my birthplace. She went to the orphanage several times to ask for me and the staff turned her away. She went to the directress of the orphanage directly, to the school she ran in Seoul and waited for hours. It was then, she was given some news – I was sent away for adoption. She was told that I had forgotten all about her and she should just get on with her life. She never knew I was adopted to the United States and hired private investigators to look for me in Europe. She worked as a domestic to save money and hired three different detectives over 21 years. However, there was a benevolent monk affiliated with the orphanage who stayed in contact with her and wrote her updates on my life as my adoptive parents sent letters and photos. She knew that I did well in school and that I loved to dance. She knew when I graduated from high school and when I went to college. It was when she was told that I was in Korea working in the orphanage that she made her last effort to find me. This time it worked. I never met the monk who wrote these letters. Her actions were both kind and cruel but I am grateful for her doing something.

Piecing this story together has been a challenge. But I know that my young body didn’t forget my birthmother. I met orphans who are now grown and never adopted. They remembered me and I am comforted in knowing that the time I was away from my birthmother I was in pain, crying all the time. They said that I was the cry baby who was only consoled when I had someone else to care for in the orphanage. In time, though I did forget and I am still perplexed how my brain worked to forget this woman who was my entire life.

To be continued….