It’s a strange thing, to be abandoned at birth. You have no history, you have no connection. You cannot look back and trace your roots, find the commonalities with other people who have the same quirks, looks, and mannerisms as you. You just don’t know who you are.
You cannot even try to survive, because as of yet, you have no survival skills. None. You are completely at the mercy of strangers, because your mother, the one you should be able to depend upon, is out of the picture.
I don’t know why my mother decided she couldn’t keep me. And I don’t fault her for it. It must have been a hard decision to make. She put me out to sea, like a message in a bottle, hoping the waves would carry it to a safe shore and that someone would find it.
I did look for her, albeit reluctantly. It was at the end of my tenure as a chef in Korea. I was ready to leave Korea, feeling frustrated, tired, depressed and lonely. Somewhere in the back of my mind there was a fleeting thought of finding her. But I didn’t push the issue.
Reunions between children adopted into foreign countries and birth families in Korea are a big thing. There are television shows about these reunions. Koreans are an emotional people, and these tearful televised reunions are a catharsis from the collective shame and sadness of sending children to foreign lands for a better life.
Not knowing what to expect, I acquiesced when my cooks convinced me to look for my birth mother. I didn’t really want to know what had happened to her, what she was doing in her life now. But they flipped the coin on me, told me that if she was alive, she would want to know what happened to the baby girl she gave up almost forty years earlier.
I dutifully brought in my passport, the one that traveled with me from Seoul to Hawaii. It was a piece of card stock folded into quarters, with my picture on it and some writing, a reflection of the economic hardship the country was going through. It contained a scant amount of information: my original name, the agency that handled my adoption, official-looking stamps and that’s about it.
Once I gave the okay, my cooks tapped into the network of birth parent seekers with gusto. One of them had his wife take me to the neighborhood where the orphanage once stood. As we wandered around the maze of streets in downtown Seoul, there were a few old buildings remaining, but most of the structures were modern edifices, testament to the economic boom surging through the country. All that history, gone, making way for shiny new things.
We stopped in stores around the area where the orphanage would have stood, but any traces of it were long gone. No clues to what had happened, just dead ends, sore feet and dejection.
A few days later, I received a phone call from someone in an office somewhere who actually had my file and papers in front of her. For a brief moment, I felt hope, and an emotion I could not quite identify. Could it be joy? She told me in her impeccable English that she was looking at my file, and had indeed verified that I was the original Ko Wan Kim listed. But sadly, in the spot for parents’ names, there was nothing.
She invited me to come in to the office, to look at the papers myself, as though she thought I doubted the veracity of what she was saying. I politely declined and hung up.
I sat for a moment, looking out of my office window on the thirty fourth floor and watched rogue dragonflies soar by. They looked so carefree, rising on the warm air and painting the sky with streaks of iridescent blues, greens and reds.
And then the disappointment hit me. Hard.
I realized I had been holding my breath, in a way, for the past forty years, wondering to whom I really belonged, to which clan I could finally identify with as my own. The excuses for not looking, not hoping were always the same: Korea was too far away, my adoptive parents are my real parents, who really cares, and it doesn’t matter. And secretly, wasn’t I really a princes and one day my royal family would claim me again?
As I sat there, I felt disconnected, like the dragonflies zooming past my window, so far away from their natural habitat flowing hundreds of feet away. They had no business being up so high. What did they think they were playing at?
Maybe I, too, had no business floating along air currents not meant for me, out of my natural habitat. The cold downdraft of silence pushed my wings back to earth, back to reality. I sat there and cried.
I never knew how much I wanted to belong until then.
I left Korea a few days later, for good, I think. I don’t imagine that I will go back.
I know where my habitat is now, where I have created my own clan. And maybe not having an identity at the beginning is just really freedom to write your own story as you walk along your path.