Emily Thornton, a Korean adoptee entrepreneur and former Holt employee recently shared her journey with adoption, one that has led her to a wealth of insights about her identity as well as an exciting new venture: opening a juice bar in Pittsburgh! This story was originally published on 1:11 Juice Bar’s website.
In 2014, I went on a lifesaving quest: unearth my purpose and find where I belong. Throughout my mid to late 20s, I devoured any content written by or about inspiring adoptees. “Odysseys: South Korean adoptee tries to defy the Asian-American stereotype”: published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette struck me because I, too, had a desire of wanting to change the narrative of what was expected of someone like me. Maybe to prove to myself that I could be great even with a complicated past. Or maybe I just wanted to find others who reflected me so I no longer felt so alone.
I grew up in a small farming town in the southwest corner of Nebraska. Population 2,000. It was 90% white, 10% Latino. My family worked in agriculture. My grandfather, a self-made farmer. I had opportunities that are welcomed by most — those midwestern stereotypical values of close-knit, hardworking, and humble fit my family. However, at birth I was surrendered to a foster mother in Korea and that trauma is lifelong. Being a little Korean girl in small town Nebraska meant that I didn’t have racial mirrors or the language to express my feelings of inadequacy or constant need to be perfect. I was always afraid the people I loved most would leave me or stop loving me, because how could I ever truly be wanted if my own mother gave me away?
In adulthood, I began to explore my ongoing emotional strife and self-destructive behaviors. The reason for my turmoil wasn’t as simple as being abandoned as a newborn. I had a persistent struggle with my identity because back when I was growing up, my parents had been taught not to see race, and to raise me with a colorblind approach. But the reality of being a transracial adoptee is that the world does see us as different from our families. Strangers and peers would commonly ask invasive and sensitive questions that I felt obligated to answer. Adoption is a dramatic storyline for a lot of people — television shows and movies — but to me, being adopted was a jabbing feeling in my gut, constantly reminding me that I would never really understand who I was or why I was here.
Then at 24, I had an identity crisis which led to the abrupt end of my young first marriage. I remember the overwhelming feelings of utter failure and defeat. Especially because I was to blame. Rebuilding my life, and myself, was like climbing Mt. Everest in sandals. My social circle shrunk to a handful of people and I began to wrestle with depression and panic attacks. In hindsight, I can easily recognize all of the puzzle pieces that were missing or didn’t fit as I tried to heal. That was the impetus to begin the search for my Korean family, and it was the beginning of a true awakening.
While constantly consuming stories about adult adoptees, I read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette titled, “Odysseys: South Korean adoptee tries to defy the Asian-American stereotype” multiple times. Nick Drombosky, the young entrepreneur featured in this piece, openly shared about being an adoptee. I immediately phoned my now-husband to help me find Nick on my next visit to Pittsburgh. This was my quest.
It was an intense mission. My opening conversation with him via Facebook went something like this:
“Hi Nick, My name is Emily and I just wanted to thank you for sharing so much about your adoption experience. My boyfriend lives in Pittsburgh and it would be awesome to connect with you in person sometime if that would be okay? It is encouraging to read your truths and find ways I relate to your experiences.”
He was gracious to me, a complete stranger, and said it would be cool to meet in person one day. I was over the moon.
Then, months later, one weekend when I was in Pittsburgh, and without prior notice, I stopped by Banker Supply in East Liberty. This was Nick’s urban cycling and lifestyle retail storefront and to my relief, he was actually in the store that day. Nick came out from behind the counter to greet us, surprised when I introduced myself and the fact that I had followed through on my mission to meet in person. We discussed our families, siblings, aspirations, adoption agencies, and plans to search or not search for our biological families. The thing about meeting fellow adoptees is that we have a very simple baseline to start, and then we get into the details pretty effortlessly. Since we have a lot of shared experiences, it makes the connection unique. We said goodbye, not knowing we’d become formal business partners seven years down the road.
Later that year, I remarried and eventually relocated to my husband’s hometown of Pittsburgh. We jumped in to help the family childcare business, while growing our young family. We have a very non-traditional family. We became guardians to two adult children, Chantel & Shawntre, fostered Neiko who we then adopted, and then I gave birth to Zephaniah, and 12 months later, Godwin.
During those years, I was really struggling with becoming a mother. It was jarring and triggering for me on so many different levels. There was no road map for me to work through the severe postpartum depression after giving birth for the first time. One source of that pain was the reminder of my own abandonment by my mother. I remember the sheer heartache of thinking of her carrying me and then giving me up. It was unfathomable to me when I held Zephaniah in my arms after my cesearean. Not only was he my first known blood relative in the world, he was also a symbol of her–my mother, my Omma.
Shortly after Godwin was born, COVID-19 shut down the world, which further increased my isolation. I remember starting up a monthly virtual hang out with fellow Korean adoptees, Whitney and Sojeong, so we could all feel a bit more understood for those two hours in our respective corners of the world.
Then, I suffered a miscarriage and was again triggered into a waterfall of pain and disbelief. As we walked through that time, my entire being was drowning. I was crying out asking, why? What did I do wrong? I hadn’t been granted much by way of bloodline, so each and every opportunity to have that type of connection felt dire. It was a loss that not everyone was going to be able to fully grasp. When I was at my hardest stage, I texted the group and asked for an emergency virtual hang out. The thing about adoptees is our deep and unassuming empathy. I was eating a massive bag of Reese’s pieces and they applauded me instead of judging me. It was the first conversation in days where I felt a little light in my spirit.
As the pandemic carried on in our bubble, a new vision was given life – 1:11 Juice Bar. Organic cold-pressed juice, with bold flavors, a fun atmosphere, and an unwavering focus on family. In 2021, we aimed to knock down barriers for our first location in the SouthSide Works. My husband Bruce and his cousin, Duane, had been wanting to start a bigger partnership for a while, so we took it as an opportunity for our two families to really go fight for a dream. We were already familiar with the complexity of family business, and moved forward full force. We had no experience in the restaurant business, but we had a lot of faith and a lot of support from all of our parents along the way.
Our prior family business experience was helpful, but the new industry was tough as nails in totally different ways. I was also pregnant again with our rainbow baby, Eunae, at that time. As we inched closer to the grand opening, I emerged as the President of the company. It was a role that made sense with my skill set, but it was also a role that did not come easy. I had a lot of self-doubt and lacked the ability to ask for help. Instead, I shouldered so many small and large burdens without allowing myself to need support. I wanted to prove myself, but more than anything–I just didn’t want to fail my family. I wanted my children to see me stand in the face of adversity and redirect my pinch points to become productive. But I could not see how I could ever do that alone.
One evening, while relieving stress by scrolling through Instagram, I saw a post from Nick. We hadn’t really connected in-person for years, but stayed connected virtually through social media. I responded to one of his stories and we began to catch up on life. I shared some of my struggles with getting the juice bar launched and then he put on his entrepreneurial hat and started asking me a bunch of questions.
1:11 Juice Bar officially opened on April 1, 2022 — and that same night we faced a huge disaster. Our brand new commercial cold-press juicer started spewing oil from one of its hydraulic cylinders. I had no idea who to turn to for actual help with this issue. We were just so exhausted and frustrated. In desperation, I picked up my phone and called Nick. He answered and ran down to the juice bar to help diagnose the problem. That night was a make or break night. Without that help and kindness, we may have just given up. Yet, out of that unexpected mess, came partnership. A few weeks later, Nick met with Bruce and I to formalize his desire to become an advisor to the business and offered to mentor us through launching our dream in an extremely competitive industry.
As our first year carried on, our young business entered its hardest season: winter. At that time, Sojeong had just moved back to Pittsburgh. She didn’t miss a beat, stepping in when she saw how overwhelmed I was on a daily basis. The fact that she accepted me and talked with me about how my adoptee triggers (insecurity, fear of rejection) should not impede the growth of our business, but rather are my secret weapon, changed the entire trajectory of how I ran 1:11. Instead of avoiding a crucial conversation, letting my inbox pile up, or drowning in self-doubt, she encourages me to step up and ask for help. While reminding me that these feelings and sensitivities hit heavier for adoptees due to our trauma. And now that built-in resilience has been empowering me to tackle the next challenge and the next challenge.
Building business is tough for anyone. For me, building 1:11 has not just been tough, it has been utterly painful. I haven’t slept much, I don’t take time off, and I’ve constantly worried. Everything we have is tied to this venture and I was in my own way on an endless cycle of paralyzing stress. Sharing our low points was hard, but finally asking the right people for help was the catalyst for change so I could get the support I needed to find peace. Ten years ago, I could have only dreamt that it would be a team of multiple Korean adoptees who answered my call and now stood alongside me. A true community.
With Nick and Sojeong’s continued support and expectation that I grow and shift, I have been able to step into expansion efforts strategically, when I would have simply shut down — because avoiding opportunities had also meant avoiding failure. But with community, came courage. So, I applied for the Invest PGH Accelerating Business Expansion Loan, and 1:11 received it. I applied for the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh Ventures loan, and 1:11 received it, too. These unique streams of capital funding are highly competitive and require a lot of grit and perseverance to walk through the entirety of the application and approval process. Not only did we solidify a partnership with University of Pittsburgh Medical Center before our first anniversary of doing business, we also created a new juice that will be officially co-branded with a portion of its proceeds going to help women’s health research. The name of that new juice is an homage to my Korean heritage. I am standing firm on my #veryasian origins with others who look like me and understand that being a Korean American woman is not a monolith.
Fast forward and our business is jumping all-in to the farmers’ market season. On opening weekend, a young Asian girl with white parents stopped by our booth in The Strip District. I took a chance at making a simple connection and expressed that I thought she might be adopted and that I, too, was adopted. Her eyes lit up, and I knew how much it meant, in that small 2-minute encounter, to be seen in the fullness of her humanity and complex life experience. As I handed over her bottle of Liquid Gold, I verbally wished her well with her future studies, and internally wished: I hope you will find people who can build you up and truly understand you so you can have the most full life. Quite a big sentiment for a total stranger, yet that is genuinely this adoptee experience. It’s the hope that by sharing our stories, the younger generation will have the understanding, courage, and space that we weren’t always afforded. When she walked away, I smiled at my husband. After all these years of processing my adoptee identity with me, I didn’t even need to say it: I’m not alone.
Emily Thornton | Holt Adoptee, Adoptive Mother & Entrepreneur
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