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Father and son hug and smile at camera

“Someone Who Looks Like Me”: A Korean Adoptee’s Reunion With His Birth Father

When Elliot Bliss learned he was unable to connect with his birth mother, he assumed that was the end of his birth search journey. But then his birth father came forward — and bought a plane ticket to visit him across the world! Below, Elliot shares his story in his own words.

I was adopted from Korea in 1997, and I grew up in Salem, Oregon with a family I love deeply. Growing up, I didn’t know much about my birth father or birth mother. I just knew they were both 17 or 18 when my mom got pregnant with me. They weren’t ready to get married, so they decided to relinquish me for adoption. I didn’t even have their names, so my whole life I was curious.

I was especially curious about whether there was someone who looked like me. Attending Holt Adoptee Camp for many years, I and a lot of other adoptees would wonder, “Do I look like someone?”

A lot of adoptees I grew up with at Holt camp either talked about doing birth searches or had already returned to their birth country with their [adoptive] family. I felt like the odd one out from a lot of my friends. Then in high school I really started to think about my Korean culture and heritage. Hearing other adoptees talk about their birth searches really intrigued me. That’s what motivated me to start the birth search process.

When I finally decided to do a birth search, I was 18. Through Holt, I did all my paperwork and got my initial file assessment back from Holt Korea. That told me my birth parents’ last names and my time of birth. I was actually born in a different city than what I was originally told. It’s a suburb, but not the same city.

Writing to My Birth Family

An interesting part of doing a birth search in Korea is that you have to write a letter to your birth parents. They keep it on file to show your birth parents if they come forward and decide if they want contact. Writing that was really weird, I had no idea what to write. They tell you just to talk about yourself, but I didn’t know how to do that to someone I’d never met! Knowing Korean culture, [I assumed] they’d really care about education and health — but what would they want to know about me? I thought a lot about that.

I decided that if I had relinquished a child for adoption, I would just want to know that they were doing well. I’d want to know that they were healthy and safe and in a good home. So I told them I was doing well in school and had gotten good scholarships to college. I told them I love my adoptive family.

The one thing I made sure to put in that letter to my birth parents was, “I don’t hate you.” I felt like that was a thought that might have crossed their mind. But I don’t hate them at all. I can be sad and upset about the loss of my first family, Korean culture and heritage, but I do love my family here and I wouldn’t change that for the world.

Traveling to Korea

For me, going back to Korea was always intertwined with looking for my birth family. I never thought about going back to Korea and not searching for them.

I went back to Korea for the first time in 2017, with a good friend and former Holt camp counselor who was also a Korean adoptee. It was incredible going back with her because she had gone back before. She spoke some Korean and she had already done the birth search process. It was also comforting going with another Korean adoptee because she knew the emotions and thoughts that were going through my mind.

Group of people smile at camera and make peace sign
Elliot with several members of his birth family.

Most of my birth search was facilitated by Holt Korea. It had been a few years since I had initiated it at that point. So once I was in Korea I went to their offices and got an appointment.

I wanted to see if they’d heard anything from my birth parents.

Holt Korea reviewed my adoption file with me again, and they told me they hadn’t heard anything from my birth parents. They promised to send out another inquiry about them and that was it. That’s all that happened on that first trip.

A Second Trip

But then I went back six months later, I really wanted to and I had fallen in love with Korea. I found that I missed it, once I left the first time, so I went back!

Right before that second trip in March of 2018, Holt Korea found my birth mother — but she didn’t want to meet. She had a new family with a husband and children. I was really upset by that, but now I can also understand why. In Korean culture there’s a strong stigma against unwed mothers. If her family found out about me she would have risked divorce and maybe lost her rights to her children. I was really angry about it for a long time, but I also understand. I just wish I could have met her, even if it was just for 30 minutes.

Young man sits with family members and smiles
Elliot with his aunt and grandmother

So, after I went back to Korea for the second time, I just assumed that nothing else was going to happen. They had been searching for almost three years at that point. I thought, “My birth mother said no, so what is the likelihood of my birth father saying yes?” You never really hear about birth father reunions…

Finding My Birth Father

But then, literally three days after I got back from the second trip to Korea, a social worker from Holt Korea emailed me. She said they found my birth father! He had contacted them and wanted to get in touch with me. I was completely shocked.

So, just like that, my birth father and I started messaging, I had a friend help translate because [my birth father] doesn’t speak English. We messaged back and forth for a couple days, exchanging photos and talking about our lives.

My friend had been helping me translate before this, but then one morning I wasn’t with her and my dad sent a message. So I put it into Google translate. It said, “I bought a ticket and a passport, I’ll see you next week.” I thought, that can’t be accurate, so I called my friend. But sure enough, she confirmed he was coming next week to [where I lived in] Eugene!

I never expected a birth parent to come to the United States and meet me, and I definitely didn’t expect him to come so quickly. Honestly, I was in full-blown panic mode! I had no idea what I was going to do.

Help from Holt’s Post-Adoption Services

So I contacted Steve Kalb, Holt post-adoption services director at the time, and asked if he could help facilitate a meeting and get a translator. Steve was so kind and supportive. He met with me and helped me talk through what I wanted out of the [meeting]. He also helped me understand expectations that often come from a birth parent’s side, as well as important cultural differences.

My birth father was expecting to meet and travel together and stay together. But growing up, the only stories of reunions I’d heard were different. They had happened in the birth country as a facilitated meeting where [the adoptee and their birth parent] grabbed coffee or food, and that was it. But for me the tables were flipped, and I had no idea what to expect. What if I didn’t like him? What if I found out something about my past or his past that I didn’t like? And what if I didn’t want to stay with him?

This is where Steve was especially helpful. He put us all in a group chat, along with my dad’s best friend who was coming with him. Steve was awesome about helping me establish some boundaries. He facilitated our first meeting and helped me push back on my dad’s desire for me to pick him up from the airport and stay at a hotel with him.

The Reunion

Just to make the timeline clear, I got back from my second trip to Korea, heard from a Holt Korea social worker three days later, messaged with my birth father for three more days, and then he sent me the message that he was coming. So, within a week and a half of returning from Korea my birth father arrived— on my 21st birthday actually!

I don’t know if there are words to describe how I was feeling when I actually met my birth father. There were just so many emotions. We met at the Holt office in Eugene. When I got there Steve met me and asked, “Are you ready?” I had no idea how to answer! Then he walked me to a conference room upstairs where my birth father was waiting.

Father and son hug

You know that feeling when you get really nervous? Your chest gets tight and you have butterflies in your stomach? That’s how I was feeling. He walked me all the way upstairs and kept passing by all these doors and I kept wondering if my dad was in each one of them. Then we finally got to this small room. Steve opened the door and then my dad just started crying and hugging me. I thought I was going to cry too, but then I didn’t, and I don’t think I really hugged him back right away. I just stood there and thought how I just had no idea how to feel.

Then we sat down and he held my hand. I had all these questions that it felt like I had been preparing my entire life, so many. But then my birth father asked me if I had questions for him and my mind went blank.

Father and son hold hands and smile at camera

It got better after that though. A Holt employee named Paul Kim helped translate for us. And then we all went out to lunch at a Korean restaurant: Me, Steve, Paul, my birth father and his best friend. And then from there it felt more natural to start hanging out with them.

Father and son gather in a restaurant at dinner for Korean food
Elliot and his birth father at a Korean restaurant together.

Worlds Colliding

Having my birth father meet my adoptive family was a lot for me. I never thought that my families would meet! It was stressful because I had just met him for the first time, and I was still processing my emotions. But my birth father really wanted to meet my family, so I took him to their house to have dinner and I had a good friend of mine come for support.

The whole time I couldn’t stop wondering about how it was going. How is each party going to feel if I call someone else “dad”? Should I say “birth dad”? Just “dad”? Should I just use their first names? How are both parties feeling about each other? Do they like the food? How are my parents feeling about this? I was more overwhelmed at that point about other people’s emotions and maybe I should have focused on myself. That was just a really stressful point for me.

Group of people take a family picture on the lawn
Elliot with his adoptive family and birth father in Salem, Oregon.

But then I showed my birth father around where I grew up — my elementary school, high school and middle school and other places that were important to me. He stayed for about a week, which was probably the most exhausting week I’ve ever had — emotionally and in every other way.

“Someone Who Looks Like Me”

I really liked my birth father though! He’s an engineer, and he had never traveled outside Korea before he came across the world to meet me. We look really similar, and it was wild noticing small mannerisms that we both have. Sometimes we’d cross our arms at the exact same time, or his best friend was pointing out that we’d have the same reaction to a waiter if they annoyed us. It was crazy getting to know him and seeing where I come from and knowing that there is someone out there who really does look like me.

Korean man holds a baby with a sippy cup
Elliot’s nephew and birth father

Another thing I’m grateful for is that he was able to give me a little more information about my birth mother, although it was just her name and a photo. I feel really fortunate about that, since I hadn’t been able to get that information before. So, at least I know her name and I know what she looks like — at least from a couple decades ago.

My birth father flew me out to Korea that December, and I got to meet his side of my birth family! I met grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. A lot of them look like me! I went back one more time in 2019 to celebrate Chuseok, and I haven’t seen him since because of the pandemic. We keep in touch though. It’s also been great staying in touch with my relatives, especially my cousins through social media. I love seeing how their lives are continuously evolving, through friends, jobs, children, etc. It makes me think about how my life might have unfolded, if I’d stayed in Korea. 

Large family group picture
Elliot with a group of his extended family.

My best advice to an adoptee contemplating a birth search is to make sure that you have a really good support system. I think a lot of adoptees spend a lot of time trying to decide if they’re ready for a birth search. But when I think about it now I’m not sure anyone is ever ready — it just brings up so many emotions you’ve never thought about or you thought you were prepared for and you’re not. It’s just so complex and so nuanced.

My birth search was a much more wild ride than I had ever anticipated, but I’m grateful for my family and all the people who supported me throughout the process. I’m especially grateful to be in reunion with my birth father.

Father and son hold hands and smile at camera

Start Your Birth Search

If Holt was your placing agency, our post-adoption services department can help you begin a search for your birth family. If Holt wasn’t your placing agency, we still have resources to help guide you.

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