After meeting her birth family in Korea, Holt adoptee Michelle Li formed a bond with her biological sisters — one of whom recently moved to the U.S. to live in the same town as Michelle. Although they are already sisters, they are also becoming sisters — an opportunity for which they are both deeply grateful.
Growing up, we didn’t recognize National Adoption Month, just as “Gotcha Day” didn’t exist in my childhood. It’s not that my parents were jerks. It’s just that I kind of fell through some sort of adoptee generational crack. But now that I’m in my mid-30s, I enjoy declaring my own celebrations, like having a real acceptance of my history and genuinely looking forward to the future.
This November, I’m feeling pretty fancy. I don’t know how to put it into coherent sentences, but I’m starting to look at my life in a more complete way. My marriage is the best it’s been, my parents are awesome and I have a new-found love and connection to my biological family through my sister Hyun Jeong.
My sister and I met in 1998 in Busan, South Korea, but I never imagined that we’d be as close as we are now. In fact, if you walk really slow from my house, you can get to Hyun Jeong’s home in 2:59 minutes. And our location isn’t the only thing keeping us close. I still have to pinch myself that my big sister lives right down the street. Discovering what it’s like to be her family has been a true blessing.
Hyun Jeong and I bonded immediately when we first met through a birthland tour in 1998. At the time, I described her in my journal as “talented” and “beautiful” and hoped she would follow through with her dream to come to the United States to study. I even hoped she would live with me.
The way we met seemed like such a fluke. I went on a birthland tour after high school. My parents wanted to go but the money wasn’t there. So, I ventured off to Korea with an adoption agency — not my agency, Holt International, but one that I had volunteered with as a summer camp counselor. During a free day on the tour, I spent an afternoon at the Holt office in Seoul to glance at my file.
I felt fine until I saw pictures of my childhood in my file. My mom had apparently sent them to the agency in the off-chance my biological mother would stop by. I was a wreck for the rest of the visit.
I remember asking the social worker if she could find my birth mother. She informed me that it was impossible until I got back to the United States and opened an official search.
“But, I will never come back to Korea,” I cried. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me.”
She was so patient with me and sat quietly with me while I worked out my emotions. I left that afternoon feeling very heavy but also relieved. I had done everything I could have done in that moment and it was more than I had ever allowed myself to feel about a birth search. I was satisfied with my life and I had to move on and leave the day’s heartache at the office.
What I didn’t know is that the social worker immediately started to search for my biological mother. The Holt social worker was fairly young, and she hadn’t had a lot of experience working with adoptees, so she felt a personal responsibility to try to make a reunion happen.*
Two days before I left Korea, I met my birth family. My sisters were wonderful. I had two older sisters and one younger.
Since our reunion in 1998, I have heard a few different stories of why my biological mother relinquished me. I heard that my father’s eldest brother had pressured my mother to have a son. I heard they were poor. If I’m allowed to generalize, my experience is that Korean people don’t really know how to give the full truth because they need to save face. It’s hard to get straight answers even when you’re looking at your best possible solution square in the eyes. Through the years, I’ve discovered that my birth family is pretty forthcoming, but still, things get lost in translation.
What I do know is that my [Korean] parents are still married. They had two daughters, Hyun Mi and Hyun Jeong, when they got pregnant with me. My mother was able to relinquish me without my father’s knowledge because he was working at sea as a fisherman. They were poor, and she was desperately alone. My mother told my father I had died at birth. He came back to console her, and just a short while later, my mother gave birth to yet another girl — my younger sister, Yeon Jeong.
“One dark night, I awoke and I couldn’t find my mother,” recalls my older sister Hyun Jeong. “I don’t remember if I cried or called someone. Anyway, the woman who lived next door said to me that my mother went to the hospital to give birth to my sister. Was she my younger sister, Michelle, or my youngest sister, Yeon Jeong? I don’t know. But it was my first memory in my whole life, and I’m two years older than Michelle, so it was more than likely her.”
For Hyun Jeong, piecing memories like this became common after my sudden arrival in 1998. Trivial things started to bring new context for her, like remembering the times our mother would get emotional watching adoption programs on TV.
Learning about me could not have been easy. Can you imagine? One day your parents call you at college and a day later you’re on a train to meet a long-lost sibling. I can’t imagine the weight you’d feel, but my selfless sister has instead felt apologetic to me.
“I want to say sorry about that,” Hyun Jeong has said. She went on to say our mother was wrong but she wanted me to forgive her. In my eyes, there was nothing to forgive.
My adoptive parents, Charles and Sharon, did an excellent job raising me with love for my Korean family. And that kind of unconditional love has given back upon itself tenfold.
When my older sister Hyun Jeong met and married a “white guy” from Wisconsin, we went to Korea and got married with them in a dual ceremony. She met her husband in China where they both were studying and teaching. When my birth mother came to the U.S. to visit my biological aunt in San Francisco, my mom, Sharon, made the trip with me to California. When I moved to Wisconsin to take a job as an evening news anchor in Madison, my sister and her husband thought it was a sign to leave Korea and make the move to Madison, too.
My sister and I now hang out at least once a week. We run errands together or we’ll visit each other and do simple things, like cook together. She tells me all the time how much she likes living in the states, though coming to a new country and trying to navigate its nuances has naturally posed some challenges.
I think we both surprise ourselves at how similar we are even though we grew up in different parts of the world. We’ll be in the kitchen and she’ll notice I’m doing something just like our mother. It’s surreal to be able to look at her toes and recognize immediately that I have the same ones. To most of my friends that’s no big deal, but for me, it’s remarkable.
Not all things biological are natural, though. At times, my sister and I have had communication fails and misunderstandings that have led to tears. We’re sisters but we’re also becoming sisters. Though everything is new to us now, I sometimes imagine us as old women doing goofy things together and having a history of 40 years behind us. In some ways it’s hard to imagine, but then again, I would have never believed this would be my life now.
Now we’re enjoying celebrating a year of firsts, whether it’s our first fireworks display, Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas tree. Every day is a new one, and I often find myself looking at my life in disbelief. My sister has given me such great perspective and a greater appreciation for what it’s like to be a Korean touched by adoption. For me, adoption has always been about love — in sacrifice and in commitment.
When she feels more comfortable with her new surroundings and speaking full-time English, we will share more of our journey. Right now, though, it’s just fun to spend a couple of hours in the kitchen together or run to Target on a Sunday afternoon. Finding out we have so much in common has probably been one of the most amazing discoveries. It is an indescribable feeling to find out why you did things differently than the family you were raised with. My interests, my temperament, my philosophy is as much genetic as it is environment. It’s like finding a key to a mysterious door.
At the same time, we have dealt with cultural and communication differences. We are in it for the long haul, though, and I can’t wait to see where our lives will take us when we’re just two old ladies, looking back at the beginnings of our journey together in the states. It may never be perfect, but we are both grateful for the chance to try.
Michelle Li | Madison, Wisconsin
* Michelle Li’s experience is not typical, and the search and reunion process through Holt Korea has changed considerably since Michelle initiated a search in 1998.
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