What is your story? (Where did you grow up? What was your family life like? What is your relationship to your siblings? etc. )
I grew up in Livonia, Michigan, one of the whitest cities in the USA with a population over 100,000 people in a 36 Sq mile radius. My family life was a great growing up. My mom and dad are great examples of persevering through anything and expressing nothing but unconditional love. My oldest sister Michelle is from my moms first marriage but later on my dad adopted her so technically she’s adopted too. Then came my older brother TJ and eventually my younger sister Jessica. Both of whom are adopted from South Korea but we are not blood related – not that it matters. We are all very close to each other and call ourselves “Sincere LaVere’s” haha. We all know how to drive each other crazy but in the end we can count on each other for anything.
Describe the Details of your adoption.
My birth mother Eun Joo Kim, a middle school graduate, and a beautician,was 22 years old when she gave birth to me. My birth Father is unknown. According to the birth mother, she was born in Seongnam, Kyunggi-do. She lost her mother at an early age, and grew up under her step-mother, who treated her badly. After middle school, she left home. Working as an assistant at the beauty shop, she learned hair dressing arts from an institute and then, got a job as a hair-dresser. Meanwhile, she went to a discotheque with her friends and came to know the birth father there. She got involved in dating him and as a result, conceived this child. However, he didn't come to see her any longer. Thinking that abortion is a guilt, she gave birth to the child. Before the child's birth, she decided to relinquish him for adoption placement because she could not raise him alone. She was delivered of the child prematurely, which seemed because she overworked herself form the last year end to the beginning of this year. ** Birth Mother, 160cm tall, slim, oval face, beautiful, introverted, careful" My weight when I was born a month and a half early and only weighted 4.18 lbs.
As a child did you struggle to find stories that matched your experience of growing up as an adoptee? Did this absence of comparable stories present a challenge for you?
Yes. Back in the early 90s there wasn’t YouTube, Google and social media to be connected with other adoptees. Specifically I didn’t see many role models who were Asian and doing something "cool". Most asian men in hollywood were depicted as the side kick, the nerd, or the smart one. Something I never resonated with and I'm sure many other Korean adoptees.
I remember being up late many nights with my dad (an engineer) trying to understand my algebra homework in high school spending countless hours trying to get it right for a test because I wanted to do well. Mom and Dad never pressured me to do well on test scores as long as I tried my best. In high school when test scores would come back I would lie about my scores because if I said I got an A/A+ the immediate response would be “of course you are, you’re Asian”. It discredited my efforts and since that day I’ve always taken to a challenge simply to prove that my work goes beyond my heritage. To be honest this fear is what drove me to choose a career path outside of the norm. As far as photographers go I never saw too many US based professional asian photographers who were working on set. It's a white male dominated industry and it was one of the few subjects where you either fit in or you don't.
I felt ashamed and humiliated to be Korean when I was teased about my physical appearance or called names like "chink", "Kim Chi eater", "rice picker". Everyday I prayed I could magically change my appearance or move somewhere far away so no one would call me those names anymore. Only over the last few years have I grown more comfortable and confident in my own skin and proud to be Korean. Now I pray for the everyone to celebrate our differences and not discriminate someone based on their skin color, heritage, religion, or sexual orientation. E.LE. Everybody love everybody.
What (if anything) did your parents do to keep your ethnicity/heritage alive?
My mom and dad enrolled my siblings and I into Korean Culture Camp when we were in elementary school. It was during this week long summer day camp we would meet with other Korean Adoptees from Metro Detroit and learn about Tae Kwon Do, Korean Drumming, folklore, crafts, and most importantly the food. The last full day of camp I remember vividly us making mandoo (Korean dumplings) and all of the Korean church moms making bulgogi, japchae, kimchi, and rice to go with our Friday luncheon with our parents and friends.
How did your childhood play a role in your development as a photographer?
I remember my mom buying me a Polaroid I-Zone camera from 1999. I remember making those 12 frames last a long time since my allowance was $2/week. I wish I could still find what I was photographing but I always enjoyed photographing landscapes and people.
How do you/did you feel about your birth mother? Have you ever tried to find them?
Growing up I never wished I could have lived in South Korea. Only recently since I've traveled to Seoul three times I really wondered what it would it be like. I always knew as a kid being born out of wedlock in Korea it wouldn’t have been easy – it’s nothing like how it’s accepted here in the US. Detroit, MI has always been home to me and it’s one thing I didn’t dwell on while growing up. I do wonder what my birth mom looks like and whether or not she is still alive but I laid a lot of that wonder down to rest this past year.
Something people do need to know about Korean Culture is if a woman has a kid out of wedlock, she is more or less excommunicated from the entire family. There isn’t much government support to help them either which leaves the woman very few options. Sometimes birth parents don't want to be found and that's okay.
On my own accord, I attempted finding my birth mother in early 2015 after applying for my NEXUS Card in early 2014.The NEXUS Card is a fast pass for US and Canadian Citizens to cross the border and at the time I was dating a Canadian. It was during this process I was scared to start the search because of the possible rejection. What if she is dead? What if she doesn’t want to see me because she’s ashamed of me? Has she moved on? I chose not to tell anyone in my family I was searching for her and maybe told one or two friends. It was after reading the article “Why A Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea” by Maggie Jones of the NY Times Magazine I initiated my search and started to fully share and embrace my Korean heritage. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/magazine/why-a-generation-of-adoptees-is-returning-to-south-korea.html?referrer&_r=1
At the end of 2015, my girlfriend at the time broke up with me in Venice, Italy in November. December 2, 2015 I received an email from the Post Adoption Social Worker that despite all of the detailed information I had on record, they could not find anything about my birth mother and therefore couldn’t proceed with any more searches. The end of 2015 was a dark time for me where I developed a narrative in my head I would never be good enough for anyone - despite my career success, optimism, and world travels. I was depressed, lonely and desperate for acceptance wherever I could find it.
The only redeeming quality of this breakup was this particular ex told me that I have to love myself inside and out before I can give my heart to someone else. At the time I thought it she was full of it and looking for a copout haha. Looking back, I dodged a bullet and she's completely right. It’s stuck with me since then but didn't start fully embracing it until the start of 2019. I'm at a place where I am comfortable with who I am inside and out. I'm at peace understanding I most likely will never meet my birth mother. Just because I can't doesn't mean my life is incomplete. I'm surrounded by family and friends who care about my well-being and happiness. I think this can be a misconception for adoptees that once they meet their birth families all is right in the world but it’s a 50/50 shot - not a guarantee.
In April 2017 I was able to visit the birth clinic I was born at and speak to the nurse who delivered me. This is the closest I would get to finding out where I'm really from.
April 13, 2017, I went to visit ILSIN Maternity Clinic in Dapsimni. Hyejin, my social worker, gave me advance notice I could go visit the clinic but they couldn't speak any English... Upon my arrival at 2:00 PM I was greeted by the Doctor/Midwife (cannot remember her name, that will come later) and her associate. They were able to understand very basic English. They gave me a quick tour of the birth clinic. This wasn’t a large facility, maybe 6 small rooms at most. There were no expecting mothers at the time in this clinic so we had the place to ourselves. Afterwards I sat in her office and with the little English she knew was able to communicate to me what she could remember. After reviewing my medical records she recalled my birth mother (supposedly because of the 88' Olympics in Seoul and the situation my birth mother was going through at the time). I showed her photos of when I was a baby in foster care and my SWS adoption records. The midwife kept touching my cheeks saying they were beautiful just like my birth mother. I was a little surprised after 30 years she could remember any of this so the validity of this has yet to be certain but for now I’ll accept it as she was speaking the truth. If it is the truth, I won’t lie by saying I am extremely jealous. After speaking with her I asked if I could excuse myself to tour the place again by myself… There was only room I cared about and spent the most time in which was the birthing room. I stood there once again feeling extremely overwhelmed but relieved I can start to have some closure with my past. On February 24, 1988 at 01:45 AM Eun Joo Kim performed a natural birth here with no C section or epidural (mad respect) It would only be hours after my birth until I was relinquished from her into SWS Adoption custody and admitted the Han-Suh Hospital until April 2, 1988
What are a few things you wish people would understand about Korean adoptees?
A few things I wish people would understand about Korean adoptees and all adoptees is my parents are my real parents. It’s a question I roll my eyes at often and it’s quite offensive. My parents are the ones who raised me, taught me everything I know and gave me the freedoms to try anything I wanted to try as long as I put in the effort.
If you could tell the next generation of adoptive parents one thing, what would it be?
Keep their culture alive and don’t attempt to hide it from them – embrace it and learn together with them. Over the last few years I’ve met so many Korean adoptees who didn’t have the same upbringing as me attending Korean Culture Camp and learning about the culture when I was 5 years old. A majority of them are feeling lost being in a Caucasian dominated society and have no sense of identity of who they are. I can look back and see how important Korean Culture Camp was to build my identity and confidence as an individual but thousands of others didn’t have the same experience.
If you could pass on any advice to an adopted child struggling with cultural identity issues, birth parent angst or those feelings often not talked about, what would that be?
My advice to an adoptive child struggling with cultural identity is to simply state you are not alone. There are thousands of Korean adoptees (and other adoptees) out there who are struggling with similar identit issues similar to you. The amount of resources available on YouTube alone are enough to get started with being curious about Korean Culture, what it’s like in South Korea and learning about the food without having to sign up for classes or letting anyone know about it. I strongly suggest to surround yourself with people who uplift you and support your journey, especially reaching out and finding other Adoptees. Over the last year I've met some amazing Korean Adoptees who unfortunately have shitty people around them and need support.. Korean Culture is cool now so you mine as well embrace the food, the culture, and everything else that comes along with it. Watch shows and movies like "Crazy Rich Asians", Kim's Convenience, "Twinsters", even "Train to Busan". Being asian isn’t a punishment.
What is your favorite quote that you carry with you.
I’m not one to carry quotes around with me but I will leave people with a quote I used on an Instagram post from Nov 30, 2018 that shortly explain my feelings from the most recent trip to South Korea.
“Being adopted means a lifetime of either searching or denial. Following trails of breadcrumbs, trying to find clues to your existence without losing yourself. It is an ever-present reminder that you belong nowhere... My call to action is not for the end of adoption. It is for a deeper understanding of its complexities, even the not-so-pleasant parts. There needs to be a centering of adoptee voices and value placed on their experiences. We must acknowledge their loss and develop trauma- informed support systems for them.”
“The fact that I am a thriving, happy and healthy adult adoptee is not luck; it is RESILIENCE”
Korean Adoptee ,Stephanie Drenka