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 the video camera from across the room. The South Florida 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 all be a dead end.
"OK, then, I have to explain how adoption works," the orphanage director said in broken English. She walked through the basics and explained that most babies back then were found abandoned, taken to state-run orphanages, and then shipped overseas. Chae sat patiently as the woman described the process as if it were a purchasing order. She pulled photos out of Chae's file and offered to let her keep one. Chae picked a shot, turned yellow from the 33 years that had passed, of her infant self in a crib, looking frail and scared.
The image was already ingrained in Chae's memory, a copy of a similar photo back home in Miami Shores. 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 American adoption agency that had brought her from Korea. 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 that her mother couldn't keep her.
But those first 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. The story about the note pinned to Chae's chest was a fabrication used in most of the Korean adoptions back then. Orphanages figured the story would make the child more adoptable.
Middle-aged and businesslike, the director recited details without emotion, as 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 had a current number for Chae's mother. They had been leaving messages but hadn't heard back. "So we think it takes more time."
Chae stared at the paperwork and the photos. She knew she should be asking questions, but it was overwhelming. Tears wouldn't come until later. Searching for any new piece of information, she asked about the clinic where she was born and got its name: Sung Shim. The orphanage director spelled it for her.
"There were lots of thoughts swirling through my head," Chae recalls. "This was not what I was expecting to hear. 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 to Chae's family in the hopes it would convince someone to call back. 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, on foreigners, on blacks, and especially on 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 finally took it all in. She began shaking, and tears streamed down her face. The news was encouraging. Chae had glimpses of her past. She had four sisters. She had a mother and a doctor who delivered her. It was something. "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 the impoverished neighborhood but couldn't find it. They wandered into a police station and explained their situation. They were taken to the chief of police and described again how they were searching for Chae's family. They had heard adoption was shameful in Korea, and they feared doors would close on them. But 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, the place looked like it hadn't changed since Chae was born. Old equipment ran off extension cords run haphazardly along white tile walls with dark grout. The clinic's doctor, sitting at the lone computer, said she'd 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 tried to search her memory for Chae's birth.
"I think I remember your mother coming in with four girls," the doctor told her. All four of them were very pretty. Chae's sisters had begged their mother: "Let's take the baby." But the doctor was old, and it may have been another family.
"Thirty-three years ago?" Greg asked from behind the 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 houseguest into their Miami Shores home.
Their mission began thanks to a charity, Global Overseas Adoptees' Link (GOA'L), which funded Chae's first trip to Korea. It's part of a network of social service organizations and government-run programs in countries that used to send thousands of adoptees a year to America. The groups work to reunite adoptees with their birth families by culling through old documents and cold-calling relatives. Korea alone has sent 200,000 adoptees overseas since the Korean War. Now, those adopted children have grown and are returning home in search of their families.
Chae was one of 23 Korean adoptees on the GOA'L trip. They came from the United States, Australia, and elsewhere. Not all of them had luck finding their families. It's not uncommon for adoptees who return to Korea to be told by their families that they should never return. Now that Chae had clues about her family, she knew she had to keep digging, even if it ended with the same kind of shame.
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 pick it up.
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. Moon Ja decided to tell her daughters first.
Ten days after Chae and Greg returned to South Florida, Chae got 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 in those early emails, and not just because of the rough translations. Everyone agreed a DNA test was a good idea, even though Chae looks like a twin to one of her sisters, so much so that Greg had to look twice at a photo they were emailed to make sure it wasn't Chae. The test confirmed it, and the sisters told Chae about how she could meet her mother.
Moon Ja worked as a nanny and was planning to visit Houston to help a friend who had just given birth. In Korea, new moms are expected to spend weeks in bed afterward and for two months eat nothing but seaweed soup, a recipe Moon Ja knew well.
Chae and Greg decided to fly to Houston to meet her mother. They didn't speak Korean, and Moon Ja spoke little English, so the couple reached out to a Korean-American organization in Houston to help. The group promised a translator and a videographer who could record the meeting.
After arriving in Houston in January 2011, Greg and Chae drove to a stately brick home in the suburbs. Before pressing the doorbell, Chae looked back to the entourage in tow. Greg was there, holding the video camera as usual, as was a translator and the 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 in the house while making cooing noises as if for a baby. She whispered words in Korean that Chae couldn't understand. They both sobbed. 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. Chae, never known to cry easily, joined her in tears, surprising herself with how much she felt from seeing this woman she had never met. "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 was poor back then, scraping by to feed her children. Chae's sisters had been older — 8, 10, 12, and 13. Things became 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. Moon Ja decided she couldn't afford a new baby. When she went into labor, Moon Ja sneaked out of the house. After giving birth, she asked the doctor about adoption, and she was given a pamphlet for Korean Social Services.
The doctor had been wrong about the pretty sisters coming in and wanting to keep the baby. Adoption is considered shameful by some in Korea, so 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 started going to church in 1995. Then guilt overtook her. She worried about Chae daily since, wondering, as Korean moms do, if she had gotten an education and whether she married a good man. She figured Chae was somewhere in Korea, and she feared she married a man like Chae's father, who she said drank too much and was emotionally distant. 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. She figured it was impossible she would ever see her youngest daughter.
Before her trip to Houston, Moon Ja worried that she wouldn't be able to look Chae in the eyes. "How am I going to face her?" she kept thinking. But now she was learning that her daughter had done well for herself, getting 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. These are things — high degrees and impressive titles — that make Korean moms proud. Any issue about his race faded in the living room of that house in Houston. Greg is a gentleman, she decided, so his race doesn't matter. 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.
At the end of Moon Ja's trip, Chae and Greg went with her to see her off at the airport. Security guards were impressed enough by their story that they let the entourage go with her to the gate. Chae and Moon Ja sat in the vinyl chairs of the terminal trying to figure out what to say.
Chae cried, tears that came in part out of happiness of 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 come back 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 as Chae and Greg walked down the dark-red brick alley in Seoul. Along the edges, weeds crept unchecked. On each side of Chae and Greg, 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. Chae and Greg huddled together, hoping they wouldn't get 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. Chae's handlers at GOA'L had warned her against staying with her family. Cultural differences often mean such trips end in disaster. But Chae and Greg decided to stay at Eun Jung and her husband's three-bedroom apartment in Seoul anyway. "Here we are, and she's been waiting 33 years," Greg recalls. "Let's get to know them as much as possible."
Chae and Greg had arrived earlier that day, and while out to dinner, Chae's sister proposed the clandestine trip to see Dad. He was a gruff man, she was warned, and would be angry if he learned about Chae. Now they found themselves peering at a stranger in a dark alley.
They stood there in the light rain, listening to Eun Jung and her father talk in Korean. Chae had begun to pick up some of the language during her regular video conversations via Skype with her family. But her father and sister spoke too quickly.
"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 told her she had decided to tell him. Moon Ja said she didn't care if he became angry. 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. It was raining, and they clutched umbrellas as they waited for him to come out. Her mom and her sisters had all warned that he is reserved, even though Koreans are known for being up-front with their emotions.
Su Hong exited his courtyard wearing a dark-blue suit and tie. He began by shaking Chae's hand as if on a business meeting. But then he held on to 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 continued to hold 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 the restaurant.
Over lunch, Su Hong asked Chae and Greg questions through a translator. With reading glasses propped on his nose, he dutifully wrote down the answers in a notebook. They sat long after the plates were cleared, drinking barley water as her father noted the details of her life.
The meeting was indicative of their second trip to Chae's home country. Things they had heard of Koreans — that they didn't like black men, that they disapproved of interracial marriages, that they would look down on adoptees — seemed like fiction. Eun Jung gave them the master bedroom in her small apartment. Her husband cooked them barbecued pork belly on a gas grill set up in the living room as streams of cousins and aunts and uncles came by. And her mother introduced her to more and more of their family. Chae recalls, "I think they were just interested in meeting this family they had in America. They were all so curious about it."
They also learned that Moon Ja had a plan to make them feel more at home in this foreign country. On 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 fidgeted over each of them. They 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. They spoke in Korean he couldn't understand as they sealed him up 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. Greg took it all without judgment, nodding to and shaking hands with a stream of relatives, answering "OK" in English as he was introduced.
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 embroidered in yellow stitching, the colors of the Green Bay Packers. Behind her head, a short curtain rod jutted out, holding what looked like a table runner, black and gold with multicolored polka dots in the center. 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 did it all without a word of dissent, even when she had to bend in half to squeeze into the box.
Four men in white robes and wearing tiny straw hats picked up 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, Chae's family members struggling under the weight of the box. Greg dismounted, and Chae squirmed her way out of the box. Inside, her father waited at the front. Her mother sat nearby wearing a flowing pink dress.
A translator walked Greg through a series of confusing steps. He walked down the stairs of the temple while covering his face with a silk shield. He bowed in front of his father-in-law. He 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. He understood none of it.
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 at a chair facing Greg. Then Chae and Greg stood, bowing to each other over and over. From a table set up nearby, they ate from bowls of plain white rice. They poured soju, a Korean rice liquor, from vessels that looked like a flower vase and then took shots of it. Their movements were awkward, translated poorly, and often forced by a handler pushing them in some direction. Family members in the audience couldn't help but occasionally giggle.
Finally, they walked to the edge of the stage, turned to the audience, and bowed deeply. Chae and Greg were now, according to an old and rarely used Korean wedding tradition, declared man and wife.
In attendance that day were about 50 of Chae's extended family. By then, they had all heard about the adoptee from America and her black husband. Greg and Chae and her mother and sisters expected some of them to greet them coolly. Nobody did. Instead, they posed for photos with their long-lost family member. They marveled at the costumes and spoke to them in Korean that they didn't understand. "Oh, OK," Greg took to answering, smiling and nodding at the lineup of strangers.
At the reception that followed, Chae and Greg 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 the video camera toward the bump in Chae's stomach. "That's you," he said. "We don't have a name yet." They had decided that 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 daughter Hadley two days after her mother arrived in October. Moon Ja got to work on the soup right away and hoped that 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, but she had a house full 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 now had to figure out how to communicate with a house guest 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 on the sunny deck out 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 looked outside and they were sitting in the sun. It was my birth mother and my daughter. I just had never pictured any of this happening," Chae says.
Moon Ja made them Korean feasts almost every evening and 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.
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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 wineglasses.
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?' "
She left 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, maybe a sense of security. Maybe that's what comes when you find out who you are.