I Traveled 6,222 Miles To Meet My Birth Mother


March 18, 2017

Adoption is a tough thing to talk about. It is something that I’ve had great difficulty in comprehending for myself, and something I’ve had a hard time coping with. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I have drafted this post over the past 2 years. It was too difficult and everything I came up with just didn’t seem adequate enough. This post was terribly hard to write, even 2 years after it has happened. 

I’ve had so many requests on this topic, I felt like I would finally share everything in depth with you guys. I feel like it’s my social responsibility as a blogger to help other adoptees in knowing that you aren’t alone in this scary process of finding yourself in broken roots. 

I was adopted when I was just 4 months old from South Korea. I was born in Masan, but made my way to an orphanage in Seoul where I was adopted by my American family. 

I grew up in a small-medium sized town in Colorado. Growing up, I never really noticed any huge differences between my peers and me until I had gotten into middle school.

In elementary school, I was smart and outgoing. I was athletic and played numerous sports, taking after my two older siblings. 

When I got to middle school, things got incredibly difficult. I had a hard time fitting in, and I suddenly became more and more aware of the differences between my peers and me. I didn’t look the same, even though I acted the same. And for some reason, no matter how hard I tried there was just something that the other kids had that I didn’t.

I was bullied by a horrible group of boys. I remember walking down the hall and a kid would be working in the hall. He pulled his eyes back to make them smaller and more slanted like mine. He yelled, “HEY! Who am I?? Ching chong. Ding dong.” I sped up my walking pace, tears pooling in my eyes with no one else to notice. 

I remember going to swim practice and sitting with the other boys and girls while we waited for our coach to start. A boy came up to me and said, “Hey Matty. When you grow up, are you going to name your children by throwing pots and pans together and letting them bang? Ding Dong!”  I turned away as tears pooled in my eyes with no one else to notice. 

Jokes of this nature kept going on all throughout 6th and 7th grade. I would come home enraged after a difficult day of internalizing harsh and racist comments. I dealt with my anger poorly and took it out on my parents. I yelled at them until we fought on a regular basis. Eventually, I went to a counselor for ‘anger management.’ 

Going into counseling, I was under the impression that I was a terrible and messed up kid. After several sessions, my counselor helped me realize that it wasn’t me that was the trigger, it was the bullies. I knew their comments stung, but I was too naive to realize that the bullying was impacting my life directly. 

We went to the principle. He put the bullies to rest and for a while the bullying stopped. 

Then I got to high school. The first week, I was told to “Go home to my rice farm because I was a terrorist.” It felt like I had just been slapped in the face multiple times. I was numb. What do you even say to that? I stared blankly, and turned away with tears pooling in my eyes, with no one to notice. 

I ended up resolving that issue, but I still felt really misplaced in a school with me making up 33% of the Asian population. 

Yes, the town I grew up in was probably the least diverse place I had ever seen. I’m going to be very blunt when I say that almost everyone was white. I think that factor had a huge impact on me, not only growing up as an adopted child, but also as an overseen minority. 

Why do I say overseen? I feel like often times Asian culture is forgotten in the media. We talk about African American rights, and Muslim faith and their roles in society, but what about Asians? I feel like growing up I never had someone truly relatable that I could look up to. Yes, I had great role models, but it’s one thing to have that, and another thing to have a role model that kind of models the same physical features you have as well. Asian Americans are so underrepresented in the media it truly saddens me, although I won’t go into much detail on that.

I don’t want to give you guys the wrong impression of my childhood. I was blessed with a loving family, loving friends, and many fond memories. 

But no matter how full I felt, I still felt a missing piece — and I knew that it would never be filled.

It’s quite hard to describe how one can feel full and yet so unfulfilled at the same time. It’s quite the paradox, if you ask me.  I knew exactly what was happening when I would get awkward stares as people tried to solve the puzzle when my 6’2″ blonde sister introduced me as her little sister. I knew that people had this general understanding of my life, and yet would never be able to completely understand this incredibly complex situation.  

When I got to sophomore year of high school, I was finally of age to talk about ‘the search.’ Did I want to find my birth mother? 

If I’m going to be completely honest, I wasn’t sure. 

I knew that I hated biology because our genetics unit was the most embarrassing unit for me as I watched as all the other kids got to figure out what traits they had inherited from which parent. I sat silently in the corner of my table and kept my head down, hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on me to share with the class something I had no answer to. 

I knew I wasn’t the best at math, defying the stereotype. When a math teacher would ask a math question, kids would glance over at me, waiting for my answer. I didn’t have one. 

Instead, I excelled in English and Art. 

When I was finally old enough to even consider opening my adoption, my parents asked me the awkward question: “Do you ever think about your other mother?” 

“Yeah,” I would kind of mumble as I looked down and my face got heated. 

“Well, you’re about old enough to look into it if you want. Do you think you want to meet her?” 

“I guess. Probably.”

That was always an awkward conversation, which you will understand as I explain it later. 

We began to loosely plan on visiting South Korea as my senior graduation present. Come senior year, it was time. 

We reached out to my birth mother. She ignored us. I was heartbroken. It was the second time in my life I was denied and unwanted by the one who had brought me into this world. 

We went on the trip anyways. We wanted to explore my Motherland. It was incredible. The whole time I was there, I kept wondering what it would have been like had I never been adopted. 

I was actually under the impression that I would fit in there, but I didn’t necessarily quite fit in. I was too tan, and too Americanized, so the natives had no problem picking me out from the crowd. It was a little different, being the one in my family to fit in for the most part for the first time, and having my Dutch family stand out. 

We went to Busan and visited the Sea of Japan. We visited temples and took in all of the gorgeous architecture. I think my favorite part of Korea is that it’s basically a fusion of elements. There’s this very traditional side of them that has the monks, and the very traditional buildings. On the other hand, they have very upscale technology, buildings, and other things that can just absolutely blow you away. It was breathtaking. 

With just a couple of days left in our trip, we made our way to Masan, where I was born. We found the hospital that I was born in, and set up a meeting to meet my midwife thanks to the help of my adoption agency. 

This was it for me. This was the closest to my roots as I could get, so I accepted it. I saw where I was born, and talked to the woman that held me as I took my first breath. There was a language barrier, so we had to have a translator. Our time was short, but meaningful. As the midwife got ready to leave for a home delivery, my family exited down the stairs. 

I remember putting on my shoes, stumbling as my eyes welled up with tears. I knew more than before, but still I wanted to know everything. My dad asked if I was okay. I fell into his chest and cried heavily, heaving with tears as I realized this was as close to finding my mother as I would ever get. 

My dad and I didn’t say anything. There was just a mutual understanding of silence, and I appreciated that. 

We spent the next couple of days exploring and eating amazing food. We went to a baseball game (with KPOP singers, of course). 

With just 2 days left in our trip, I was blogging in bed one night. My mom came into the room with hesitation in her voice, so I knew something had happened. 

“Your mom called. She changed her mind. She wants to meet.”

I was really taken aback and I had no clue what to think at that point. I had already mentally accepted that I would never know my birth mother, and then all of sudden it all changed. 

“Okay,” I said. “When?”

“Tomorrow morning.” 

(Wow short notice) I thought. 

I went to bed and arose the next morning. My mom and dad took me to a flower shop to pick out a bouquet for my mom. 

I picked a bundle of sunflowers, my favorite flower right behind tulips–the flower of my adopted family’s hometown in Michigan. I wanted to capture every moment of this experience, so I snapped this image to help me soak in every second, knowing that this feeling would never be recreated no matter how hard I tried. 

Then we left. We took a cab to a Tom n Tom’s Coffee Shop with the translator from the adoption agency. We were there early, so my dad asked if I wanted something to eat or drink. I couldn’t, so I declined. My mom tried to distract me as I was unusually quiet. She pointed out the unique parking system that the Koreans use. I was unenthused. I listened to the music the coffee shop played, wanting to soak it all in. 

Greyson Chance’s California Sky played in the distance:

Sometimes I wish that I could stop the clock
from turning
And spend the weekend lost inside your eyes
Somehow I wish I could halt the roses burning
‘Til I can make you mine

From the first time I saw you at that coffee
shop on Melrose
They were playing “Hey Jude” & we both
sang along
Could’ve talked forever
Had a thousand cups of coffee
I hated that my flight was taking off

And if I had the time
And I could live a different life
And if this plane would fly
Over the California sky
I’d be with you tonight

“I think that’s her,” My mom said quietly. 

I glanced behind me, it was. She was shorter than I had anticipated. But her face….it was like looking in a mirror. 

She stopped at our table. The translator greeted her in Korean. She quickly greeted my parents and then sat down next to me. We made eye contact and locked eyes. Both of our eyes were filled to the brim with tears, until slowly one by one, they began to shed. 

She spoke in korean. We both nervously laughed.

Our translator spoke, “She wants to know if she can hold your hand.” 

I smiled, wiped away a tear and nodded. She smiled, grabbed my hand, and held on tight.

In that moment I realized something. Her hand felt alien. Most kids probably feel at home when they feel their mother’s hand. I did not. My instinct was to reach for my adopted mother’s hand to feel at home. 

Our conversation began with the light questions. When was I adopted? Where did I live? What was I like growing up? What did I like? 

I handed her the bouquet of flowers, and she handed me a Tiffany bracelet. She gifted my parents with ginseng. 

Then my adopted parents left and I was alone with my birth mother, Young Sook, and the translator. 

I asked her as many questions as I could.

Where am I from?

North Korea. Our family fled to the South during the war.

Do I have siblings?

An older bother, and an older sister (the same as in my adopted family).

Do I have health history to know about?

Diabetes runs in the family. 

She asked more about me. What I liked and what I was good at. I showed her some of my art, and her eyes lit up. 

“She was an artist too. She grew up studying to be a fashion designer for a while,” the translator said. I told her I was trying to break into the fashion industry as well. Her eyes lit up in this simple commonality and I felt at home knowing I had inherited at least something from her that I knew about. 

My adopted parents came back and we talked for a bit longer. My dad showed her a video of me swimming and she smiled and exclaimed in happiness. I sat, holding Young Sook’s hand as my parents tried their best to describe the past 18 years of my life to her. They reassured her that I turned out okay, which appeared to be her biggest concern.  

My mom pulled out a senior picture from her wallet. My birth mother gasped and then spoke in Korean. 

“You can keep it if you want,” My mom said. The translator spoke, and my birth mother nodded, and tucked it into her purse. She thanked my adopted mother for raising me, with pure gratitude in her tears. 

Soon, our time was up and she had to catch the train. We walked, hand in hand, to the train station. She went to the kiosk to pick up her ticket before returning to me. We hugged, tears rolling down our cheeks. With each breath we pulled each other closer. We eventually broke away and she was gone. 

I went back to my parents and fell into my dad’s chest once again, heaving at the loss of my mother. He tapped me and I looked up. She was running back. 

I went back towards her and we hugged again, both struggling to let go. There were too many tears, I couldn’t see…so I just held on because I knew this would be it. We let go, and she left again, this time for good. 

I watched as she left, and crumbled into my dad yet again. 

This is not something I have talked very freely about. It’s an awkward thing to discuss. I want this post to be beneficial for you guys in more ways than just understanding what I had to go through on June 5th, 2015. Adoption rates are down, and I wish that they would instead be increasing to meet the needs of orphaned children around the world like I once was. 

There are some things that parents who have adopted, or are considering adopting need to know:

Your child isn’t going to want to always discuss their adoption with you. It’s an awkward situation to be in. This is obviously different case by case. In my case, I didn’t share because I felt like I was betraying my adopted family, who had given me so much, by missing my birth mother who had essentially done nothing for me. I grew up in a place where I knew one other adopted child, and I never was close enough with them to talk about it. That being said, I didn’t have the outlet I was most comfortable with so I just kept everything in. It’s a confusing thing for a kid to have to go through. They know where they come from, but at the same time they don’t. It’s frustrating and not something easily explained, so do your best to just be there as much as you can whether or not your child decides to talk about it with you or not. 

It’s important for your child to have someone to talk to, whether it’s a counselor or a friend, or another adopted child in your community. Sometimes that person to talk to may be you, and sometimes it might not. But speaking from personal experience, I know that I was more likely to talk openly with other friends outside of my family because it was too awkward for me to try and separate the two families, yet have them at the same time without offending anyone (at least my perception of offending them). 

I remember having conversations with my family about my birth mother and instead of calling her my birth mother, I would slip up and call her my mother. I would be corrected that my adopted mother is my ‘mother’ and my birth mother is my birth mother. So that kind of seasoned me to have this awkward situation that made me avoid talking about it as to not offend anyone altogether. The fact of the matter is that your child has two mothers and two fathers. And it’s okay to recognize that, if the child is okay with it as well. 

There are some things that other adoptees need to know:

You already know this, but you are loved. you are loved by the family that adopted you. And you are loved by the family who couldn’t keep you. That was a really hard thing for me to figure out. 

And know that other people have gone through the same thing as you and be okay with feeling the things that you feel. It’s natural and nothing to be ashamed of. 

It’s okay to wonder. It’s okay not to wonder. 

And know that if you need support, or someone to talk to who know exactly what you’re talking about, that you can always talk to me at contact@mattealinae.com. I’m just an email away. 

Where am I at today?

I’ve accepted my family history. I am at ease in knowing what I know. I still wonder sometimes, and I know that it’s okay. I also know that adoption rates have decreased, and I want to adopt at least one child someday and pay it forward, because I am grateful for the life I was given. 

I didn’t mention this in the story, but when I met my mother, I asked her to write my Korean name, Ae Hee Kim, in her handwriting. I got it tattooed when I got back to the states as a reminder of everything I have been through, and how I have a better understanding of who I am and what I’ve overcome in this journey. 

I think that there is a love thicker than blood. 

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