After Holt adoptee Emily Thornton’s search for her birth mother came to an inconclusive end in 2014, she thought that was it. Then she learned about a search tool that has brought some success to other adoptees — restoring her hope, and inspiring her to launch a second search.
Over a year has passed since my initial, inconclusive search for my birth mother. Although my life is plenty full — a new home, full time work and a near part-time hobby (photography) — not a day goes by that I don’t think about who she is. Whether it is a fleeting drop of disappointment or an entire night wrapped in my husband’s arms grieving, I press on — trying not to let it eat away at my heart. I miss her without even knowing her name. Deeply and inexplicably, I miss her.
I often have to sit back and ask myself what is so compelling about finding her. Why is it like a permanent fixture, always in the back of my mind? My best guess is that I feel less valid without a natural connection to my origin. Blood does not signify wholeness, but for me, it guarantees I have a license that allows me to truly be Korean. I want not to feel like a fraud when I think about my home country. My husband has a rich black heritage that spans hundreds of years. When I see the legitimate connection and pride he has in his ethnicity, it is an acute reminder that I possess no such experience.
As a self-admitted “Problem Solver,” I tend to meet challenges head-on and find ways to either make them better or, ideally, fix them altogether. But in my fruitless attempt to find my Omma — a problem I cannot solve — I have found myself stuck. I can’t calculate my way out of the solitude and stillness. I’m not fluent in Korean, I don’t understand the norms and customs of the country, and that leaves me feeling like I will be a permanent stranger. Not being a true “Korean” also makes it more difficult to find my Omma, as I know of few in-country resources that would aid my search. It has taken me a long time to learn to be okay with that, so I know I will need to approach this next phase with care. A second search felt like a million light-years away for me back in October 2014 when my first search came to an end, but it has gradually come into focus. With the dangling bait that I may really be able to locate my Omma, I am curious to learn what new lessons are coming for me on the road ahead.
A couple months ago, a story aired on 20/20 about a Korean War veteran who spent 40 years searching for his twin son and daughter. They had been adopted without his consent, and after all this time, he finally found them. After following some of the social media posts, I decided to reach out to one of the people referenced in the initial search phase — Bella, a woman credited for initiating numerous successful searches for lost relatives. I realized shortly after I Googled her that she too was a Korean adoptee. I didn’t expect her to reply to my message, as I’m sure her inbox is constantly flooded with inquiries on how to search for lost loved ones. However, she responded within minutes to ask me if I had ever done a DNA test. I admitted that I had not. Even though it did seem to be an obvious next step, the cost of the DNA test had deterred me from making this a top priority.
Generously, Bella added me to a private group on Facebook devoted to DNA testing for Korean adoptees, as well as Korean War veterans and their children. I emailed the designated person to inquire about one of the free DNA test kits and was told I would be put on the waitlist after verifying my adoptee status. This project was especially appealing to me, as they also planned to travel overseas to disburse free DNA test kits to birth mothers in Korea for the first time in 2016.
Upon returning home from our holiday trip, I was met with a full mailbox of Christmas cards and gifts. Wedged between some of the cards was a small padded envelope with a return address I did not recognize. I ripped open the package to find my DNA kit! The possibility of broadening my birth mother search to include additional family members felt very exciting. The growing system of inputting DNA results into multiple databases for expanded opportunities to match with a relative is really intriguing to me. My sole focus has always been my Omma, but through the DNA test I knew that I could find out information about my ethnicity and geographical placement of my bloodline.
My adoptee journey has proven to be very revealing. Each time I share even the smallest part about what adoption has meant for me, my faith and hope have undoubtedly increased. I have been given so much, and the path to understanding my adoptee-ness is taking the opportunity to firmly know my purpose and meaning in this life. Each year feels like a chance to step boldly into the continued complexity of something that happened in 1988, when I was only four months old.
Unfortunately, the Korean government is limited in their pursuit of locating my birth mother. I disagree with the legislation that keeps her identifying information confidential from me, and I can no longer allow that to deter me from trying. When I hear from other adoptees about our shared experiences and feelings, it renews my resolve that perhaps there are still answers out there to my most tightly held questions.
As I continue to follow in the footsteps of others, like Bella, who are doing so much work to pave the way for adoptees like myself, I will always have a deep gratitude for them. I don’t know what these next steps and attempts will yield, but I have an open mind and a little bit of courage. I try to battle my residual doubt with advice that I’ve received from fellow adoptees. Their words are simple, yet profound, especially for how defeated I have felt at times. They’ve said, “Never give up…never, ever give up.”
I don’t intend to give up. I intend to walk forward, asking tough questions, feeling every single emotion, and looking for resolution at each new juncture. To be honest, this may be something the Problem Solver in me can never fully fix. I will accept that, but only after I have done everything within my power to find her.
Emily Thornton | Eugene, Oregon
Holt’s post-adoption services team regularly assists adoptees in their search for their birth family. Learn more and contact the team at holtinternational.org/pas.