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An Adopted Miami Shores Woman's Search for Her Korean Family Pays Off

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  • Sunny Jo
    An Adopted Miami Shores Woman s Search for Her Korean Family Pays Off By Eric Barton Thursday, Apr 5 2012 Orphanage director Choon Hee Kim placed a brown
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 5, 2012
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      An Adopted Miami Shores Woman's Search for Her Korean Family Pays Off

      By Eric Barton Thursday, Apr 5 2012

      Orphanage director Choon Hee Kim placed a brown folder on the table
      and declared flatly, "This is your file." Chae Haile sat to the
      director's left, fidgeting with her scarf and an empty water bottle.
      Chae's husband, Greg, held a video camera from across the room. The
      Miami Shores couple wanted to capture every moment at the Korean
      Social Services office on the outskirts of Seoul, even though they
      were convinced this trip in November 2010 would be a dead end.

      "OK, then, I have to explain how adoption works," the orphanage
      director said in broken English. She explained that years before, most
      babies were found abandoned, taken to state-run orphanages, and
      shipped overseas. Chae sat patiently as the woman described the
      process as if it were a purchasing order. She pulled photos from
      Chae's file and offered to let her keep one. Chae chose a shot,
      yellowed from the 33 years that had passed, of her infant self in a
      crib, looking frail and afraid.

      The image was already ingrained in Chae's memory, a copy of a similar
      photo back home. She grew up in South Dakota, raised by a single mom
      who went through a divorce while Chae was in transit from South Korea.
      Chae didn't consider tracking down her birth family until 2001, when
      she first asked her adoptive mom for details about her past. That led
      her to Lutheran Social Services in Minneapolis. The agency had a copy
      of the photo, providing the first clue in her search for her birth
      parents. Chae also received forms that had traveled with her from
      Korea. The "Adoptive Child Study Summary" from October 6, 1977,
      claimed Chae had been left on the steps of the Bukboo Police Station
      in Seoul with a note pinned to her chest explaining her mother
      couldn't keep her.

      But those clues led her no further. "I thought, Well, there's little
      chance of finding my family," Chae recalls. "I had become comfortable
      with that." Nine years later, she heard about a charity that sends
      adopted children back to Korea to find their families, and suddenly
      Chae and Greg found themselves in the orphanage where her trip had
      begun.

      The orphanage director revealed that the story on the adoption forms
      had been a lie. There was no note pinned to Chae's chest. The
      orphanage just figured the story would make the child more adoptable.

      Middle-aged and businesslike, the director recited details without
      emotion, as she said she does for the 150 or so adoptees who make this
      journey each year. "You were born the fifth child. You had four older
      sisters," she said, reading glasses on the tip of her nose. She
      explained that Chae's mother chose to give her up. "Her condition was
      not good enough to take care of all children." So she asked the doctor
      who delivered Chae to put the baby up for adoption.

      "We are trying to search for your birth family," the orphanage
      director continued. They even had a current number for Chae's mother
      and had been leaving messages, but hadn't heard back.

      Chae stared at the paperwork and photos. It was overwhelming. Tears
      wouldn't come until later. Searching for any new piece of information,
      she asked about the clinic where she had been born and got a name:
      Sung Shim. The orphanage director spelled it for her.

      "This was not what I was expecting to hear," Chae recalls. "I was
      expecting her to say they had no way to find my family."

      Before Chae and Greg left, they gave the orphanage a scrapbook of
      photos that Chae had created to introduce herself to her birth family.
      The orphanage promised to pass it along. Greg went through the
      scrapbook and noticed the photos of himself — a black man with his
      Korean-looking wife. Koreans are said to look down on adoptions,
      foreigners, blacks, and especially interracial marriages. Greg pulled
      the photos of himself from the book. He didn't want to be the reason
      her family chose not to contact his wife.

      The director handed Chae a bag of gifts, a porcelain dish, mugs, and a
      traditional fan. They left after nine minutes.

      When Chae and Greg walked back outside, she began shaking, and tears
      streamed down her face. "It got my hopes up," Chae remembers. "But at
      the same time, I didn't want them to get too high."

      Later in their weeklong trip, Chae and Greg asked a translator to go
      with them in search of the Sung Shim clinic. They drove across town to
      an impoverished neighborhood but couldn't find it. They wandered into
      a police station and explained their situation. The chief promised to
      help them. He knew of the Sung Shim clinic and told an officer to take
      them there immediately.

      The clinic sat on an aging block of tenement housing. The street out
      front was filled with vendors selling produce and used appliances.
      Inside, old equipment ran off extension cords that extended
      haphazardly along white tiled walls with dark grout. The clinic's
      doctor, sitting at the lone computer, said she would help. She showed
      Chae the vinyl-covered stirrup table where she was born. The doctor
      explained that records from back then had been lost, but she searched
      her memory for Chae's birth.

      http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2012-04-05/news/an-adopted-miami-shores-woman-s-search-for-her-korean-family-pays-off/

      "I think I remember your mother coming in with four girls," the doctor
      told her. All the children were very pretty. Chae's sisters had begged
      their mother: "Let's take the baby."

      Then again, maybe that didn't happen. The doctor was old, and it might
      have been another family.

      "Thirty-three years ago?" Greg asked from behind his video camera.

      The doctor shook her head. She couldn't be sure. And with that, it
      appeared they had reached another dead end.

      In the two years since that meeting, Chae and Greg would test their
      detective skills and their willingness to trust strangers. They would
      find themselves on the doorstep of a random home in Texas. They'd
      creep down a dark alley in Seoul. And to end it all, they'd take an
      unexpected guest into their Miami Shores home.

      Moon Ja Park was volunteering at church when her phone rang again. She
      had just finished making a soup of soybean paste and baby cabbage,
      part of a meal that's traditional after Friday-night services in
      Korea. The call came from the same strange number that had been trying
      her all week. She had a break before serving the soup, so she decided
      to answer it.

      Orphanage director Choon Hee Kim was on the other end. She told Moon
      Ja that her daughter was in Korea looking for her. But Moon Ja wasn't
      ready to say yes to a meeting. Shame and guilt gripped her. "Let me
      think about it and get back to you." Afraid to tell anyone her secret,
      she spent the night quietly serving soup.

      Moon Ja had worried about her adopted daughter for years. Now she was
      here, wanting to meet.

      On Monday, she called back and told the orphanage director, as if
      admitting to a crime: "Yes, I'm the person you're looking for." By
      then, Chae and Greg had flown back to Florida. Moon Ja got Chae's
      contact information, but still, she wasn't ready. She decided to tell
      her daughters first.

      Ten days after the Miami Shores couple returned home, Chae received an
      email with the subject line: "Your sister in Korea." It began, "Dear
      my lovely sister Yoon Jung. I can speak English a little." Eun Jung
      was sure they were sisters. Chae, it turns out, had been born Yoon
      Jung Chae, meaning the first name given to her by her adoptive mother
      was actually the family's surname. "You are a certain my sister. You
      look like us. Very sorry and sad but you look like growed very well
      you are very pretty and bright."

      Chae began a daily email exchange with Eun Jung. There was some
      uncertainty, but soon everyone agreed to a DNA test, which confirmed
      they were related. Then the sisters told Chae about how she could meet
      her mother.

      Coincidentally, Moon Ja worked as a nanny and was planning to visit
      the United States to help a friend who had just given birth in
      Houston. Chae and Greg decided to fly there. They didn't speak Korean,
      and Moon Ja spoke little English, so the couple reached out to a
      Korean-American organization for help.

      In January 2011, Greg and Chae drove to a stately brick home in the
      suburbs. Before pressing the doorbell, Chae looked back at the
      entourage in tow. Greg was there, holding the video camera as usual,
      as was a translator and a videographer team.

      The door opened, and her mother was there almost immediately, arms
      outstretched. Her right arm went around Chae's neck and her left under
      her arm. She pulled Chae into the house while making cooing noises as
      if for a baby. She whispered words in Korean that Chae couldn't
      understand. Never known to cry easily, Chae joined her in tears. Her
      mother put both hands on the sides of Chae's face to take a first look
      at her daughter as an adult before embracing her again.

      "It was unbelievable," Chae recalls. "But at the same time, I was just
      at a loss for words. We sat there, and we were both just struggling
      with what to say."

      During their four days together in Houston, Moon Ja stayed in a hotel
      suite with Chae and Greg. Through a translator, Moon Ja explained what
      happened when Chae was born. Moon Ja had been poor then. Chae's
      sisters had been older — 8, 10, 12, and 13. Things had become so
      desperate that Moon Ja once asked two of her daughters if they'd like
      to be put up for adoption and sent to America for a better life; they
      declined. So after giving birth, Moon Ja asked the doctor about
      adoption, and she was given a pamphlet for Korean Social Services.

      The doctor had been wrong about the pretty sisters wanting to keep the
      baby. Moon Ja had told her family that Chae had died during birth. Not
      even Chae's father knew. Moon Ja had stashed the adoption papers in an
      old book.

      Moon Ja didn't think about it much until she began going to church in
      1995. Then guilt overtook her. Had Chae gotten an education? Married a
      good man? She figured Chae was somewhere in Korea, perhaps married to
      a distant drunk like Chae's father. They had separated after the girls
      were raised. Moon Ja looked for the book with the papers and realized
      it had been lost during a move.

      http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2012-04-05/news/an-adopted-miami-shores-woman-s-search-for-her-korean-family-pays-off/2/

      Before the couple's trip to Houston, Moon Ja had worried, How am I
      going to face her? But now she was learning that her daughter had
      earned a bachelor's degree in justice studies from Arizona State and a
      master's in public administration from New York University. She
      married well: Greg has a law degree from Columbia University and is
      now a vice president at Broward College.

      Any issue about his race faded in the living room of that house in
      Houston. The only disappointment came in learning there were no
      surprise grandchildren. Chae and Greg had been trying for years, and
      just recently their doctor had told them to stop taking the fertility
      drugs that hadn't worked.

      Soon Moon Ja had to return home. Chae and Greg went with her to see
      her off at the airport.

      Chae cried, in part out of happiness at finally finding her mother.
      She also kept thinking about what her mother must have gone through,
      the shame of having given up a child kept inside for three decades.
      "There were times in Houston," Chae remembers, "when I just felt very
      bad for the life they had to live."

      Moon Ja didn't understand. "Don't cry," she kept saying in Korean. She
      went back home believing her daughter was disappointed. Moon Ja
      figured Chae felt abandoned and unloved, and she blamed herself for
      making that choice alone 33 years ago.

      She knew the only answer was to have Chae return to Korea and meet the
      entire family. She didn't care anymore what kind of shame it brought
      her.

      Rain had begun to fall lightly in Seoul as Chae and Greg walked down
      the dark-red brick alley. Along the edges, weeds crept unchecked. On
      each side of them, shoulder-high walls closed off the courtyards that
      led to modest apartments. It was late, and the only light came from
      porches, masking their approach.

      Chae's sister Eun Jung told them to wait in the alley. She would knock
      on their father's door and lead him outside. "You'll get to see him
      but not meet him," she said in rough English. They huddled together,
      hoping they wouldn't be spotted. They wondered what would happen if a
      cop approached or a neighbor came outside and found these two
      Westerners standing in an alley, peeping in on a man they had never
      met.

      This second trip to Korea in May 2011 had been a gamble. Cultural
      differences could mean the trip would end in disaster. But Chae and
      Greg decided to stay at Eun Jung and her husband's three-bedroom
      apartment. "Here we are, and she's been waiting 33 years," Greg
      recalls. "Let's get to know them as much as possible."

      At dinner the first day, Chae's sister had proposed the clandestine
      trip to see Dad. He was a gruff man, she was warned, and would be
      angry if he learned about Chae.

      They stood there in the light rain, listening to Eun Jung and her father talk.

      "It was exciting," Chae says. "It was like a stakeout. We were
      standing there in the shadows and hoping he didn't see us and say,
      'Who are those people over there?'"

      Chae studied his face. He looked far younger than 74, with a strong
      chin and a friendly smile. He was trim and a sharp dresser. She
      figured this was all she'd see of him.

      On the third day of the trip, Chae's mom decided to tell him. She was
      tired of feeling ashamed about what she had done.

      "Really? My daughter?" he said on the phone. "I want to meet her."

      So they returned to the alley and stood in the same spot. Su Hong
      exited his courtyard wearing a dark-blue suit and tie. He began by
      shaking Chae's hand as if in a business meeting. But then he held onto
      it. He smiled, a wide grin that pushed up the center of his eyebrows.
      He let Chae go only long enough to shake Greg's hand. They held hands
      as they walked down the alley and then onto the main drag. They
      continued that way, unable to share a word, all the way to a
      restaurant.

      Over lunch, Su Hong asked Chae and Greg questions through a
      translator. With reading glasses propped on his nose, he dutifully
      wrote the answers in a notebook. They sat long after the plates were
      cleared, drinking barley water while her father noted the details of
      her life.

      During the next few weeks, Eun Jung gave her new sister the master
      bedroom in the small apartment and her husband cooked barbecued pork
      belly on a gas grill in the living room. Streams of cousins and aunts
      and uncles came by. "They were all so curious about us," Chae recalls.

      The day before they were to leave, Chae and Greg were taken to a
      traditional Korean temple and sent to separate rooms to be dressed. A
      team of women wrapped Greg in a pink corset and matching pants. They
      draped him in a flowing violet robe with a white collar and
      embroidered images of birds and flowers on the back and front. Then
      they sealed him in an intricate metal belt. On his head, they placed a
      black hat that looked like a giant thimble with butterfly wings.
      Outside, they led him to the pony he would ride for what was to come.

      http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2012-04-05/news/an-adopted-miami-shores-woman-s-search-for-her-korean-family-pays-off/3/

      Meanwhile, Chae was being dressed in a far more elaborate costume. It
      began with an electric-blue dress that reached to the floor. The women
      added a green silk robe with yellow embroidery. They placed on her
      head a pushpin-looking ball the size of a large grapefruit with polka
      dots. From it sprouted painted chess pawns and flapping antennas.
      Fabric the shape of lollipops dangled in front of her eyes. Her cheeks
      were adorned with bright-red stick-on circles. Outside, they placed
      her in a wooden box. She had to bend in half to squeeze inside.

      Four men in white robes and tiny straw hats gripped the handles on the
      box and carried Chae off. Greg clacked next to her on the pony. They
      traveled to the front of the temple where Greg dismounted and Chae
      squirmed out of the box. Inside, her father waited at the front. Her
      mother sat nearby wearing a flowing pink dress. About 50 family
      members watched.

      A translator told Greg to walk down the stairs of the temple while
      covering his face with a silk shield. He bowed in front of his
      father-in-law, put a couple of wooden ducks on an altar, and then
      bowed to the floor. They led him to a chair at the side of a stage.

      Then Chae entered, two women making sure she didn't trip on her robes
      as she walked the stairs to the stage. They sat her on a chair facing
      Greg. Then the couple stood and bowed to each other over and over.
      From a table set up nearby, they ate from bowls of plain white rice
      and took shots of a Korean rice liquor. Their movements were so
      awkward that family members couldn't help but occasionally giggle.

      Finally, they walked to the edge of the stage, turned to the audience,
      and bowed deeply. They were now, according to an old and rarely used
      Korean wedding tradition, declared man and wife.

      At the reception that followed, they sat on pillows arranged in front
      of low tables. Servers covered every inch in front of them with bowls
      of Korean condiments, hot plates full of grilled pork, and large
      leaves of lettuce to wrap it all.

      Greg turned his video camera toward the bump in Chae's stomach.
      "That's you," he said. "We don't have a name yet." They had decided
      these videos would be important some day for their first child, due to
      be born in about five months. After all those years of trying, Chae
      found out she was pregnant not long after her first trip to Korea.

      Moon Ja, sitting across from them during the meal, figured the baby
      was an omen. She knew what she had to do to make up for the lost time
      with her daughter.

      Moon Ja darted around Chae and Greg's large dining-room table,
      carefully placing a fork on the left and a knife on the right at each
      station for the visitors. Then she came back with spoons. In the
      center of the table that night in early February, she placed a feast:
      chicken Parmesan, spaghetti with marinara, and bread salad with
      balsamic vinegar and tomatoes. Chae had cooked, a rarity since Mom had
      arrived.

      At the beginning, it was seaweed soup as a side item to almost every
      meal. Chae had given birth to Hadley two days after her mother arrived
      in October. Moon Ja got to work on the soup right away and hoped Chae
      would follow the Korean tradition of new mothers lying in bed for six
      weeks or so as grandmothers fuss over the baby.

      "No more seaweed soup," Chae said after a month of it. A large
      shopping bag of seaweed that Moon Ja had stashed in the spare
      bedroom's closet would go unused. Instead, she made a marinated
      barbecue beef dish called bulgogi, fried rice, and over-hard eggs for
      breakfast. She jarred her own kimchee, setting it out in the sun on
      the kitchen counter to ferment.

      Chae didn't stick to the bed rest long; she had a houseful of guests.
      Her adoptive mother, who now lives in Arizona, had arrived, as had
      Greg's parents from Virginia. So now the home was filled with a Korean
      woman who spoke no English, a white woman from South Dakota, and a
      black couple from the South. It was hectic at first, but when most of
      them left, Greg and Chae had to figure out how to communicate with a
      houseguest who spoke little English.

      They expected it to be uncomfortable. But about halfway through the
      four-month visit, Chae was watching her mother hold Hadley as she sat
      on the sunny deck in back of their home. Moon Ja was cradling her
      granddaughter and whispering to her in Korean. It occurred to Chae how
      normal it had all seemed. "I just had never pictured any of this
      happening," Chae says.

      Moon Ja typically woke at night when the baby needed a feeding.
      Sometimes Chae and Greg felt like they were taking too much from her,
      but Moon Ja wanted it that way.

      During that dinner in February, Moon Ja explained through a translator
      her side of the adoption and everything since. She cleared the table
      and then handed out slices of tiramisu. She refilled waters and topped
      off wine glasses.

      http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2012-04-05/news/an-adopted-miami-shores-woman-s-search-for-her-korean-family-pays-off/4/

      She did it all, she explained, because of the guilt. Chae had told her
      many times that she felt no anger, no sense of abandonment. But Moon
      Ja said she had one motivation: "I keep asking myself since arriving,
      What can I do for Chae to make this time here worthwhile?"

      Moon Ja went home in mid-February. Chae and Greg plan to travel to
      Korea every couple of years, and Chae still talks to her sisters
      almost daily on video chat. She's gotten good at cooking Korean,
      especially bulgogi, and the sisters are trying to teach each other
      their languages.

      Greg says Chae has changed. He isn't sure what exactly is different,
      perhaps a sense of security. Maybe that's what comes when you find out
      who you are.

      http://www.miaminewtimes.com/2012-04-05/news/an-adopted-miami-shores-woman-s-search-for-her-korean-family-pays-off/5/
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