As an adopted child I promised to find my family in Korea, but how exactly that would occur remained a mystery to me. I luckily had the unconditional support of my American family, even if they were stumped by my vague plan.
I later came out as a trans woman in I was also fortunate enough to receive an outpouring of love, acceptance and support from family and friends. But there was always one barrier to my life of intersecting identities that I struggled to overcome. I could never find the will to move forward with my transition — taking hormones or surgery — despite the opportunity to do so.
And my hesitation was largely due to my unknown family living far away in Korea. Like me, more than , Korean babies and children have been sent overseas. But less than 3 percent of us are able to find our families. The odds were clearly not in my favor. But what if I did find my family after all these years?
And how would they handle meeting a young woman instead of a baby boy who should have grown into manhood? I was left with few ideas to reconcile my concerns. In I had the opportunity to return to Korea for the first time. I was thrilled, nervous and reminded of my childhood pact. My time spent in Korea was life-changing, but the prospects of finding my family were less than promising. I visited my adoption agency seeking information.
I was instead greeted with prickly resistance. I had been warned of this institutional reluctance in advance. But I was still angry at their lack of understanding and support. So I took a defiant but calculated risk: I secretly copied down information from my file when the agency representative left the room to retrieve a business card.
It was my last day in Korea, and I was still reeling over the newly acquired information. After finishing breakfast with two friends, I abruptly asked them to go on an adventure with me.
Before we left, I made the decision not to wear anything that would out me, just in case my search proved to be of some success. I wanted to have the chance to get to know them first before I felt safe and comfortable enough to come out as trans.
But I needed time to navigate the labyrinth of cultural and language barriers. So I wore jeans and a T-shirt instead of a dress. I put away my jewelry. I looked at myself in the mirror and found someone else staring back. I politely asked for help, but the officer behind the desk refused, offering a lengthy bureaucratic response. Then I lost it. My voice cracked, and I began to cry. I have waited all my life for this moment.
The officer consulted a national database. She called other police stations in the country. Officers were dispatched to knock on doors. And to our surprise, my mother had been located less than an hour away from the station. They should be here in an hour. Soon two women emerged from a car and began to walk in our direction. I stood in front of two women with faces that mirrored my own.
With an awkward bow, I introduced myself to my Korean mother for the very first time. My Korean is not very good. I am very sorry. I also felt ashamed that my first words sounded more memorized than heartfelt. I bowed my head and began to uncontrollably sob. But my mother looked past my language skills.
She released a guttural wail that I had never heard before and rushed to hold me in her arms. My baby is home! That night I extended my stay in Korea for two more weeks. My family and friends back home were ecstatic with the news. Stay in Korea, they encouraged. Enjoy the time with this part of your family that you finally found.
In the flurry of activity, my friends and I stored my luggage containing all my dresses, skirts, jewelry, makeup and heels at the hotel. I first needed time to soak all of it in. My mother cooked a big meal on my first day staying with my newly found family. She timidly placed a bowl of seaweed soup in front of me. Eaten on birthdays, the soup is consumed by pregnant women and represents the first food passed on from mother to infant. I was quickly introduced to several of my family members, including my grandfather, who decided to present me with a Korean name.
The time spent with my Korean mother allowed me to experience her uncanny intuition. She quickly figured out what I liked to eat. She knew when I would wake up or when I needed to stretch my legs and go for a walk. She could even somehow anticipate the emotions spinning around my head. She was just like my perceptive mom back in upstate New York. She sat me down on the couch. What is worrying you? You seem worried about something.
You can tell Mommy. But she gently persisted. But how could she know? Most of my belongings were still stored at the hotel, and I had nothing on me that would out me as a trans person. I pushed away my initial alarm. I asked my friend if she had translated correctly. We were both stunned. How is that even possible?
I could feel my insides churning and looked away. My mother held on to my hands. I sucked in a deep breath and shook my head. I need to do this on my own terms. I looked down at her lap, where she held on to my clammy hands. I am a girl. I braced myself for her rejection and the end to a relationship that had only begun. Silence again filled the room.
But a serene expression lined her face as she sat with ease on the couch. I started to worry that my words had been lost in translation. Then my mother began to speak. In Korea some pregnant women still believe that dreams offer a hint about the gender of their unborn child.
Your gender was always a mystery to me. My mother instead continued to speak for both of us. I thought I gave birth to a son, but it is OK. I have a daughter instead. She insisted that I feel comfortable and at ease. No, I said to her in Korean. I wanted to keep my name for its meaning. I felt a great sense of relief when she helped me come out.
My mother started to show her acceptance through simple acts. She would brush my long hair after I took a shower. She gave me a facial to soften my skin.
She asked me if I had any boys chasing after me.