Longform

A Korean Adoptee Does Her Own Detective Work in a Gamble to Find Her Family

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."

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Eric Barton
Contact: Eric Barton