My Korean Adoptee Story


My family

My family

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.

My foster mother: Won Ja Chung

My foster mother: Won Ja Chung

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.


ILSIN Maternity Clinic, 1:45 PM April 14,2017. Dapsimni/Seoul, South Korea.

ILSIN Maternity Clinic, 1:45 PM April 14,2017. Dapsimni/Seoul, South Korea.

This was the chair my birth mother was in when I was born…

This was the chair my birth mother was in when I was born…

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

April 14, 2017. A photo with Seo, Ran Hee (서란희). What an honor to meet the woman who assisted my birth mother and delivered me in person 31 years ago. Daedanhi gamsahamnida : Joon Seong Roh


April 14, 2017. A photo with Seo, Ran Hee (서란희). What an honor to meet the woman who assisted my birth mother and delivered me in person 31 years ago. Daedanhi gamsahamnida : Joon Seong Roh


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

Korean Adoptee Portrait Series - Kristin Meekhof

Kristin and I also got connected over Facebook thru a Korean Adoptee Group. She lives in Metro Detroit and is a the author of “A Widow’s Guide to Healing”. Small World: Kristin and I were at an automotive conference together in 2017 where I was working as the main photographer. Her best friend Mike was the keynote speaker that year. Instead of me conducting an interview Kristin chose to provide me with a written piece from Psychology Today. Posted on Feb 25, 2019.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/widows-guide-healing/201902/single-word-adopted?fbclid=IwAR1kBpZLqu-9n90108asj3qjmqVurCixKV8g3L1Je5vgIF8GUuiLrsL20uw

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This is the first essay in a multi-part series which gives a glimpse into my Korean adoption story, and a somewhat peculiar view into what it was like growing up some forty plus years ago in a predominately Caucasian culture with some vague notion of why I would hear people (usually complete strangers) ask me: "Do you speak English? Is that your mom? Where did you come from? How did you get here? Can you see out of your eyes?" 

In answering these questions as a child it was hard to distinguish between what people wanted to believe and the truth.

The truth is that I don't know my birth name or the date I was born. The Seoul (Korea) based agency with ties to the United States gave me a generic Korean name and approximated my birth date as there are various dates on my records.

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Growing up, there was a game I sometimes played in my head. If I could somehow travel to the Seoul adoption agency, I could find a clue perhaps, such as a name, my actual birth date, a fragment that could lead me to discover something about my birth story, or better yet find someone who shares my DNA. It is worth noting this was before DNA kits and the internet.

Over the years I prepared different endings to this game. The occasional one where I would get a glimpse into my early days, either from a nurse or foster parent would result in me being able to seek more information.  Another ending which was far- fetched would give me the precise time I was born, and birth name. Then there was the miracle ending-  where I would be reunited with my birth family.

A handful of years after completing graduate school at the University of Michigan with a major in social work and being rejected from an entry-level social worker job at an adoption agency ( I was told I didn't understand anything about adoption and my experience as an adoptee wasn't "real clinical experience") , I was married to my beloved husband. He had a strong sense of self and sometimes I think knew me better than I knew myself.  

Shortly after we were married, he directed his energy to helping me, with the practical matters of searching for my birth family. This was no easy feat, since, the internet in 2003 wasn't as robust. His wisdom came down to this - contact the Seoul adoption agency, and we would go there. This kind of trip demanded not only careful planning on his part but serious emotional strength on mine.

And in 2006,  I was 32 with my heart lodged in my throat, we boarded a plane to Seoul, Korea. We arrived in the dark, and days later figured out how to hop on the train for the post-adoption appointment.

The female staff greeted us and ushered us up the stairs to a small, dimly lit office. She handed me a folder with my name on it, and upon opening it I saw my adoptive father's original signature.  I remember touching it because he died when I was two weeks shy of turning five, and somehow I felt feeling his signature with the raised ink was a blessing.

After looking through the papers I realized I had seen them all before. I felt like I was in the eye of the storm. Neither the staff or my husband moved. Silence.

My husband took charge of the brief meeting and asked questions about possible relatives and if anyone came looking for me. We had heard from other Korean adoptees that birth family members would sometimes go to the adoption agency seeking information about their child, thus, resulting in a reunification.

They could all be dead, we were told.

I listened for some hope.

Nothing.

The 20-minute conversation ended. Her tone conveyed something I'll never forget. It remains in me as a vague expression of some pious greeting.

I tore down those stairs like there was no tomorrow only to discover there was nowhere for me to go. We were several miles from the hotel, and the train was the only transport. It was hard to see anything because there tears in my eyes. I started to walk parallel to the train tracks and my husband questioned, "Where are you going?"

I said, "I want to be alone."

He responded with this request- "Please stay where I can see you."

Upon returning to the United States, I put to rest any hope I'd find anything about my birth family.

Over a decade later, I felt terror when I learned this adoption agency was less than transparent with their Korean adoptees. And when I learned they would actually withhold pertinent identifying birth information from adoptees and birth families alike (seeking information) this discovery echoed like some kind of villainous nightmare.  It came across as heartless and caused a tremor in my voice when I second guessed this practice aloud.  And yet, I knew it was not a lie.  I felt duped in a way that reached far into my heart.

When I learned of this my husband had since died (2007) from cancer, so I couldn't turn to him with this pain.  I do not know what if anything was withheld from me, but I chose to realize it is possible that I wasn't given everything.

And still, this I do know for certain the longing remains rich to solve a part of my birth mystery.


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Korean Adoptee Portrait Series - Jon Oakes

Jon Oakes and I connected over a Facebook Korean Adoptee group late 2018. Since then I’ve learned alot about Jon, his upbringing and his life journey thus far. He has chosen to be more in depth and detailed about his adoption story. At the end of 2018, Jon traveled to Seoul South Korea and is in the process of planning a trip later this year to take language classes and possibly reconnect with his birth mother.

He has a lot of heart, lots of talent, and is almost traveling as much as I am. By the way, he’s a Math Teacher at Macomb Community College so no excuses to my teacher friends out there who say they cannot travel ;)

Before I start, I want to say that I think that adoption is a challenging subject for many Korean American Adoptees to discuss. For me, it is a balance of respecting my adoptive and birth families, as well as the cultures of each country.

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What is your story? (Where did you grow up? What was your family life like? What is your relationship to your siblings? etc. )

I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and adopted when I was three months old to a family living right outside of Flint, Michigan. I had a mother and father, but no siblings. I don’t feel as if my parents were never very close to their families while I was growing up, except to my grandmother and so I never felt as if I had a huge family, which caused me always to wonder if I had any siblings back in Korea that I had never met.

We lived in a trailer park until I was about four years old and the trailer just simply wasn’t large enough for two parents and a growing kid. So, we moved from the trailer park to a house in inner city Flint. I was bullied by the neighbor kids, the kids at church, some of my cousins, the kids at school, and even some of the school staff, including the lunchroom workers and the Flint Police officer working security. I never felt as if enough was done to reconcile the bullying directed toward me, including providing me strategies as to combat the bullying I experienced. One thing that I don’t think my parents and family realized growing up is how much the bullying caused me to question my Korean identity. I still wonder to this day - Would I have been bullied if I weren’t a Korean growing up in a non-Korean setting?

I was always told to work hard and to do well in school, and things would work out for the best in life. But I had several setbacks along the way. I was diagnosed as having color blindness and needing speech therapy when I was in kindergarten. I always assumed the speech therapy was because although I was adopted from Korea when I was three months old, I still had memories of Korean sounds, which made English hard to learn. However, as an adult, I found out it's likely linked to the congenital hearing loss I had in one ear. As an adult, I also found out that many of my struggles in school growing up may be due to undiagnosed ADHD. I think this is all a side effect of not knowing my family medical history since it is was not provided to my family when they adopted me.

Despite all of this, I graduated as the valedictorian of my high school. I then went to Ferris State University where I earned my B.S. in Applied Mathematics and Oakland University where I received my M.S. in Applied Statistics. Shortly after that, I started my current job as a Math Professor at Macomb Community College in Warren, MI, and I have been there for about eight years now. Although I’m settled into my career, as I see students discover more about their own lives by furthering their education, it always sparks an interest in my mind about what I can do to find more about my personal life through learning more about my Korean heritage.

Describe the Details of your adoption.

I was born in Seoul, South Korea. The story goes that my mother and father worked together at a factory. My mother was eight months pregnant before telling my father about the pregnancy. It turns out my father was married with a family, and so since my mother couldn’t afford to take care of me on her own, my father told her to put me up for adoption. I was told that she didn’t leave her name or picture in the adoption file for me because she never wanted me to find her.

I know that Korean culture puts a lot of shame on the woman in this situation and that if my mother had not put me up for adoption, she likely would not have been able to get married and I would have experienced bullying in school for being a bastard child. Although I experienced bullying growing up in America, I am sure that it is not as bad is it may have been if my mom would not have put me up for adoption. I am forever grateful to her for and cannot imagine how hard it was for her to put me up for adoption as a 16-year old woman.

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?

Growing up, I only knew three other Koreans, and they were all adoptees - the daughter of my French teacher in elementary school, the daughter of my English teacher in high school, and the son of my mom’s cousins. I never had a connection or talked with any of them. I have struggled with my identity my entire life as a result of not having people around me who look like me. However, I don’t think that the absence of comparable stories presented a challenge for me, but I always wondered about what else was out there. I felt trapped in a box most of my life, or in a hidden world where people were watching my every move as in the Truman Show.

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What (if anything) did your parents do to keep your ethnicity/heritage alive?

My parents didn’t do much to help me connect with my Korean heritage. I remember going to a Korean day camp one time. I never had Korean food growing up, and I was a particularly picky eater. But as an adult, I’ve been left to wonder if the reason why I was a picky eater was that most of the American food didn’t agree with my Korean palate. I don’t have any complaints about my upbringing, though. My parents always made sure that there was a roof over my head, food on my plate, and everything that I needed to be successful when I went out into the world on my own after high school.

How do you/did you feel about your birth mother?  Have you ever tried to find them?

Because I grew up believing that my birth mother never wanted me to find her, I never tried to find her, and I never had any interest in finding her. Eventually, I realized I wanted to know my family medical history. One of the things a non-adoptee will never understand is the struggle if not knowing their medical history.

So, one day after years of consideration, I decided to a DNA Test. I started with 23andMe because I heard they provided ancestry and medical data and there was also a Thanksgiving sale. But it still took me several months to send in the DNA sample because I knew that although I only wanted the medical data, there was a chance I could find my birth mother and if this happened, there's no way I could take back this decision.

So, the DNA sample was processed, and I had more medical information on myself than I had ever had in my life. And the only blood relatives found were some distant cousins. But then I started wondering - what if my birth mother really did want to find me? So, I tried Ancestry.com next with the same result of only finding some distant cousins.

Then something changed in 2018 when I decided I was going to go back to Korea for the first time since I was adopted. I had no agenda. But as I started putting an itinerary together, I realized that I wanted to visit the adoption agency to see the place of my adoption. However, in order to visit, I needed to fill out birth family search paperwork. The adoption agency wanted to verify my identity as an adoptee, which is understandable as I've heard of many adoptees and birth families being falsely reunited and then taken for cash.

Now for the twist: Nine days after I submitted the birth family search paperwork and while I was already in Korea. I received an email from the adoption agency saying they found my birth mother. I still haven't met her, but she did write me a letter. I would love to meet her one day, as I'm still very grateful that she had my best interest in mind from the day I was born and put me up for adoption when she knew she wouldn't be able to take care of me herself. But I feel like now because I have received that letter, my bond with her is renewed and I am relieved that she is alive and well.


What connections do you maintain with your birth country?

Although I had no interest of maintaining a connection with my birth country growing up, when I started working at my current job, a very kind coworker offered to teach me Korean and connect me with a fellow adoptee who was his roommate at the time. Several years later and after this man retired, I decided to follow-up and finally connect with the Michigan Korean Adoptees (MIKA) Group on Facebook. I went to several of the group’s events, which led me to also joining several other Facebook groups for Korean adoptees, as well as attending the Korean American Adoptee Network (KAAN) Conference June 2018. I have made many great friends as a result of my participation in all of these groups.

I mention all of this because, for the first time in my life, I know people who look like me, which has given me an even greater interest in strengthening my connections with my birth country. So, after the KAAN Conference, I made several attempts at learning Korean by using apps and taking online classes, but I now have plans to visit Korea to take a Korean language class at a university later this year. I subscribed to a Korean snack box that is shipped directly to my home each month so that I can taste some of the foods from my birth country on a regular basis. And I visited Korea for the first time in December 2018, for an unbelievable trip back that has me now questioning why I did not try to strengthen my connections with my birth country earlier in my life.

What are a few things you wish people would understand about Korean adoptees?

I was adopted when I was three months old, and so I don’t have a lot of childhood memories of Korea. It is difficult, especially for the Korean adoptees who are adopted to non-Korean families, to grow up in a household with family members who do not look like them. Although I never had the urge to find my birth mother growing up, I did wonder how much I looked like her and if I had any siblings. I was also often reminded that I never knew my family medical history and so I always wondered about that as well.

Although every Korean adoptee has a different experience, everyone I have met in the adoptee community has the common bond of being taken away from their birth family and their birth country and put into a foreign situation. Although there are many things I don’t remember about Korea, I do remember that when I was growing up, I really loved sitting by the Christmas tree and watching the train go around and my mom couldn’t ever figure out why. Upon reflection as an adult, I realize that it’s because I remembered the sound of the trains in Korea and so the sound of the train reminded me of the first three months of my life. I also remember having vivid flashbacks of my birth mother calling my name - “Seung Chan!” My parents never called me this name, as I was always Jon to them. Although I don’t have any visual memories of Korea, these auditory memories are precious memories.

So, one thing I wish people would understand about Korean adoptees is the importance of the memories we have of Korea, as for many of us, we have little to no memory of Korea.


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?

The biggest piece of advice I would pass on to any adoptee, whether or not they are struggling with cultural identity issues, birth parent angst, or any other feelings, is to become active in the Korean Adoptee Community. Even if the adoptee doesn’t have any urge to reconnect with Korea or to find their birth parents, they will still be welcome in the adoptee community. All of the groups that I am in are highly supportive, and even if someone is perfectly happy with their current situation, there is an adoptee out there who needs to hear the story of successful adoptees as well - that there are positive models and ways to deal with cultural identity issues and birth parent angst.

Be patient and only to do what is comfortable for you. The journey will be emotional; so, be prepared for the ride. I am nowhere near where I would ultimately like to be in reclaiming my cultural identity and connection to Korea or reconnecting with my birth mother. And I never thought that I would be in a position to advise other adoptees since I know so little about Korea myself. But here I am, and I talk to numerous other adoptees on a regular basis about different adoptee issues with which they may be struggling. So, connect with the adoptee community - and it’s OK to be a lurker and kick the tires, but it’s also OK to go full steam ahead with uncovering the parts of your past lost due to being torn out of your birth country of Korea.


Before this ends, I want to say that any adoptee whoever wants to talk about adoptee issues is more than welcome to reach out to me at any time; you can find me on Instagram at @profseungchan.



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Korean Adoptee Portrait Series - Cory Stewart

I met Cory Stewart through my friend and fellow Photographer Jenny Risher last year. She said we are twins and will become longtime best friends haha. The first time we spoke over the phone we ended up chatting for a few hours about our experiences growing up, fears and frustrations growing up as an adoptee. We both share alot of experiences growing up and I’m excited to share Cory’s story with you.

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Where did you grow up? 

I grew up in Kalamazoo, MI until I was 29 then moved to Detroit, MI to pursue a film career.

What was growing up like in your hometown? Kalamazoo was a small college town that offered lake effect snow and 40 mins to Lake Michigan. There always seemed to be something that was going on. Whether it be small concerts in Bronson park, great neighborhoods for trick or treating, Western Michigan football games and sledding on giant hills. It is a good town to have a family in. I always felt safe when it came to being in that town. Even after the Kalamazoo Uber driver shooting, the town still feels like middle America you see in movies. I moved because of that reason. I felt stuck and didn't see myself going anywhere while I was in Kalamazoo.

What are a few things you wish more people understood about (Korean) Adoptees? I wish more people understood that just because we are from Korea that we don't all come with the language. I was adopted at 4 months old and only understand English. I also wish people knew that there really is differences when it comes to other Asian countries. There is serious history when it comes to Korea and it still goes on today. During the 80's there was a surge of American families that were adopting from South Korea. I also wish people would stop asking me if I am from North or South Korea. 

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Did you ever get picked on growing up? If so how has this shaped who you are now as an adult? I wasn't necessarily bullied because I am Korean or adopted but I definitely was treated differently. There were more questions people asked about myself than other kids. I was never looked at as "top pick" when it came to sports, plays, and other things. It taught me to be more patient with people. It also made me question how people learned about other cultures. I never questioned where I was from growing up but the more people ask "where are you from"  the more it dawned on me that I am from another country. I found more ignorance than understanding in people growing up. I also found humor from those who didn't really understand what a Korean adoptee is.

As a Korean male, was it difficult growing up to date women? If so what advice could you give to younger Korean teenagers/young adults about dating?

I have always been in love with white women. I never found interest in Asian women, not because i found them unattractive but I was growing up in a mostly all white school for 12 years of my life. I chased and chased girls my entire life. It was hard to go up to girls growing up and just feeling okay about asking them out. It wasn't that they would come right out and say, "You’re Asian and I don't find that attractive" but I could get a sense it was part of it. I have dated a lot of women in my life. I have found love only a few times but those who are no longer around actually looked at me for me and not just my outer shell. They took the time to get to know me. Probably why they aren't around anymore haha. I have gone through a lot of change growing up when it comes to dating. I found that its more about the person than it is about anything else. I'd tell younger adults or teenagers, take your time finding someone. Don't be afraid to go up to someone who you find attractive but also listen to that person. Just because you find that person physically attractive doesn't mean they are intelligently attractive, spiritually attractive, or emotionally attractive. Find out what you really want first then go find that. 

Do you want to travel to South Korea? If so what would you be excited about? What are you nervous about? When I was younger I never had an interest in traveling to Korea but as I have gotten older and wiser, I find myself more and more fascinated by the idea of visiting. I would love to see how the country is holding up. Where certain land marks are. I want to eat the food especially. I would be most nervous about communication there. I would hope it would be easy to communicate with people and really take in everything. 

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What made you want to get started  in production?

Film, movies, theater, acting and anything entertaining has always been my focus in life. I love to see peoples reactions to anything. My mom and my two sisters would spend hours watching musicals. My dad and my brother would go watch action films in theaters and then spend hours talking about them. I love to get away from my mind and movies, music and theater have always helped. I didn't know until later in life that film and creating content was my true passion in life.

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As a content creator in Detroit, how do you feel about the Asian representation in the industry? Does this ever bother you/phase you?

I believe Asian representation in the film industry has come along way from the old days of white males and females playing the roles of real oriental people. I see Asians really being taken seriously and not only for Kung Fu movies or Korean soap operas. It still has a long way to go but as of right now we have so many wonderful talents working in the industry that are truly paving the way for others. It is a wonderful start to something great.

What advice would you give to an Asian American who wants to become a videographer/production?

My advice would be just go out there and learn. Go out and try anything you find creative or fun (keeping everyone and thing safe of course). Don't be afraid of what others will tell you. Criticism is all apart of learning and growing as a creator and with that you should take it all in and hone your skills. 

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Korean Adoptee Portrait Series - Monica Mingo

Monica is a talented and amazing Korean adoptee I’ve known for years in Metro Detroit. She shares her aspiration of being an actress in Detroit and part of her adoption story

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Where did you grow up? What was growing up like in your hometown?

I grew up in Farmington Hills, MI and was very fortunate.  My parent’s provided me with a very enriching & diverse environment my whole life; whether it was school and multi-cultural classes or going to Korean camps.  For me, adopted kids was not foreign as I had three others in my grade and 4 family friends that were all Korean adoptees. I think it helped that my family overall is very accepting and liberal when it comes to thoughts and ideals, despite generational differences. 

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Do you want to travel to South Korea? If so what would you be excited about? What are you nervous about?

I do want to travel to South Korea but it isn’t necessarily at the top of my list.  I LOVE Korean food and the street food is really, really appealing. I remember though, growing up, hearing from friends who are 1st or 2nd gen, they would travel to South Korea and would almost be made fun of for their accents or the fact they don’t smoke. I would say I’m nervous per se but I’d rather go to a country that truly excites me and that I don’t know about their prejudice or racism. 

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What are a few things you wish more people understood about (Korean) Adoptees?

That our parents are our parents. We may have biological fathers and mothers from whom we received our physical features and what not but we are who we are, just maybe a bit more grateful. 

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What made you want to get started  in modeling/acting?

I was at a weird transitional period in my life. I had danced and played piano my whole childhood so being in front of people or on stage was nothing new.  I graduated from the University of Michigan with a French degree and was just lost. I was trying every job under the sun and finally discovered Michigan Actor’s Studio. I took my first acting class and was hooked. I love the ability to be someone different, create a character from scratch and hopefully the ability to influence people like actors have done before. 

As a model/actress in Detroit, how do you feel about the Asian representation in the media?

Ha! Is there one?! I think things are definitely shifting in Hollywood, I can’t say that for Detroit.  I think in Detroit, from the professional level to the student-film level, majority are still stereotypical roles or race specific to time period.  I’m really excited for “Crazy Rich Asians”. Constance Wu, Aja Dang, Awkafina, Sandra Oh, those are some prominent Asian women who I really respect, admire, and aspire to work with. I think for Asian men, they’re still being seen as geeks or best friends instead of leading men.  That’s why I really loved when someone put John Cho’s face on the face of the leading man of big Blockbuster movies.

Have you ever been asked if you can do an accent? Have you ever turned down a part because of this request?

Most recently I was offered to audition for the role of Bun Foo in “Thoroughly Modern Millie”.  They also mentioned that I would have to sing in Mandarin & Cantonese.  I pick up languages quite easily but it still makes me feel uncomfortable.  Just like I saw “The King and I” and it made me feel uncomfortable because of the over-exaggerated accents mainly.  Having these older plays and musicals around makes me happy but it’s giving work and opportunity to Asian Americans but where’s the line? 

What advice would you give to an Asian American who wants to become a model/actor/actress?

DO IT. First, follow your passion. Second, you could be part of a movement where we reshape the image, of Asians and Asian Americans, and create a strong voice among our community. 

There’s a lot pressure after high school to go straight to college and that’s what I did.  I can’t say I regret it, I’d probably do things different now but things are what they are. I start U of M thinking I’ll become a physicians assistant.  That’s changed to a nurse.  By the time I reached organic chemistry,  I knew my abilities and it wasn’t in a science degree or career so I ended up just getting a BA in French.  My goal was and still is to teach French someday.  I’m very passionate about the language and culture.  Once I graduated, I continued to work at a doctors office in supplements.  I started to look around for potential careers.  I diligently emailed multiple companies and started interning for a woman who focused on trinkets and products for companies.  Next came interning at an event planning company.  It was small and the feeling, as much as I love to put things together, wasn’t there.  I left the doctors office and took a position that required me to basically be a door-to-door solicitor.  NOT FOR ME.  I then transitioned to a manager-in-training program at Abercrombie.  At the end of that program I would be able to run my own store.  Then I moved on to becoming a nurse assistant; getting certified, relentlessly trying to please my parents and submitting applications, then being a nurse assistant in a hospital.  I realized I have great bedside manner, I love biology, but it wasn’t for me.  That’s when I stumbled on Michigan Actor’s Studio.  I think all of these different jobs definitely wraps into why I love being an actor: creating characters and being something/someone else.  It’s definitely glamorized compared to the real world but that’s the fun of it. 

Creating and reshaping Asians and Asian-Americans in the media is huge.  I’ve seen CRA and I got teary-eyed on multiple occasions.  Not only is it a rom-com but it’s a film that incorporates so many different Asians and AAs but that come together in this culture and family.  It showed tradition and heritage yet with contemporary and modern themes.  A strong voice for our community is so important.  There’s a difference between Asians and Asian Americans; our experiences are different this they have to be represented that way.  

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Vanesa Hansen - Young Breast Cancer Survivor

Last month I teamed up with Vanesa Hansen in Manhattan Beach, CA to shoot some fitness samples and share her story. At 26 years old she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wanted to take some time to for her to share part of her story and some images we created.

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I was a free spirit. Absolutely invincible. At age 26, I lived each day carelessly. Days passed, time passed, and I spent my time behind a desk and in the gym.

 

Unhappy with myself and not knowing how to appreciate true beauty I set out to get a consult  for breast augmentation.  The prior 2 1/2 years, I spent countless hours in the gym strength training. The gym was my sanctuary. I loved how it made me feel  and look but had a different view of my chest once it started to dissipate.

I scheduled a plastic surgery breast consult to discuss the topic in detail.  We reviewed and discussed everything you would want to know about breast augmentation. I was very intrigued by the idea and decided to go forth with the next step. Now to get a mammogram at age 26.

I decided to contact my obgyn who was kind enough to listen to my request and we submitted the request for a mammogram. Denial after denial, we submitted the same request for a mammogram about 4 times until finally we received an approval.

An abnormal mammogram (March 2016) turned into a biopsy (April 2016) which unveiled abnormal calcifications.

Then the diagnosis, Stage 0 Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS) of the left breast. (May 14 2015)

I had the option of a bilateral or unilateral mascetomy. Now chances of the cancer spreading to the right side were strong. August 27 2015 I had a full bilateral mastectomy w/ sentinel node biopsy and breast reconstruction with expanders.

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Next, was the expansion process.  My expansion process was roughly 2 months long, and 4 total visits with my plastic surgeon. where they used a big needle to inject the expanders (basically like a bag)which were placed immediately after the bilateral masectomy. 

This is an outpatient appointment. Simply have a seat, change into a open lace smock, and they inject the huge saline-filled needle into the magnetized insertion point. Depending on the desired size more expansions may be necessary. You feel a sudden rush almost as if you'll faint. The expander fills from the saline injection and stretches the skin abruptly. Each expansion took roughly a week to recover from. 

The skin felt like it would just burst. During this time, I usually only wore sport bras and baggy shirts/vests for comfort. 

In the car coming from expansion appointment/September 2015

In the car coming from expansion appointment/September 2015

December 3 2015 was my last surgery where implants were finally placed. Weeks upon weeks passed and I could not lift my arms. Could not care for myself at all. No more washing my hair, driving my car, or reaching in the cabinet. Everything felt lost. Taken away.

I started lifting weights again and going outdoors. Enjoy yoga, hiking, and bike rides with my son. I have a different view on life now. Slowly regaining feeling and nerve sensations. These obstacles opened my eyes. I finally started to gain self love and respect. Now I am 29 years old and cancer free! Hooorayyyyyy!!!!! Cheers to a healthy, happy, and balanced life!

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I would encourage all young women to do routine checks. If you feel something or sense something is not right go to the doctor. I didn't feel a thing.  No lumps or bumps. I had the desire for proportion. 

My family and friends opposed the augmentation consultation but I still went forth! Looking back now, it saved my life. Follow your intuition. You know what is right for you!

 

 

Great resources:

UCLA Medical

Cancercare.org

Koman.org

You will be challenged mentally, physically, and emotionally.

  • Remember who you are
  •  Dont lose yourself in the process
  • Take photos and document your journey. 
  •  Don't be ashamed or hide. 
  • Reach out and seek support and assistance when needed.
  • Find a network of strong women to empower you through your journey. We are all here for you.

 

Korean Adoptee Portrait Series - David Corp

I've known David for over 20 years now. Both of us grew up in Livonia, MI and attended Korean Culture Camp along with other Korean Adoptees in the Metro Detroit area. At this week long daycamp, Korean adoptees would learn about Korean culture whether it was making food, reading folktales, tae kwon do, and singing songs.  In the photo seen below, I'd estimate this would be sometime around 2nd grade based on our haircuts. Since then we've always been friends and attended Grand Valley State University together.

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What was your experience like growing up as a Korean adoptee?

The experience I had growing up as a Korean Adoptee in Livonia, MI was a small rollercoaster of growing pains and difficulties somewhat similar to what we all experience in early adolescence. But overall, I feel that it was a positive nurturing one. As I look back now and reflect on my upbringing, the constant positive reinforcement from my family and friends molded me into the person I am today.

Now, it's hard to say that it was all "rainbows and lollipops" as some may think from my initial statement. Yes, the city was predominately Caucasian at a staggering 99%, and yes, my Caucasian family was later fortunate enough to give birth to my 3 younger siblings, setting up an environment of easy persecution and many odd-man out scenarios. I was constantly reminded of how different I was. Whether it be a friendly/joking comment about my race, or a nostalgic review of my family photos and noticing how different I look, it was always present that I did not completely fit in.

The feeling of self-identity and the longing for that "completely fit in" feeling grew ever more present as I grew and matured. I remember times in High School of my fellow peers commenting on my eyes with a mimicking gesture, a predetermination that I would excel in mathematics and many other Asian stereotypes they could throw my way. Although it was all in good fun, it was part of the reinforcing reminder that I was different. 

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Time passed, the immaturities of High School were coming to an end, so I decided to experience something new and further my education at Grand Valley State University. I grew anxious to start over! A new school, new friends and a new me. GVSU provided the medium of the diversity I craved with a vastly more diverse group of peers to engage. Not just in race, but in upbringings and perspectives as well. Unfortunately, the reminders of how different we were still existed. I can recall a few scrums breaking out due to an unwelcome racial comment that I otherwise feel would not have happened had I been a different race. Similar gestures and stereotypical comments lingered throughout my 4-year enrollment, but far fewer than my early years. I was lucky enough to amass a large group of friends who understood my predicament and sympathized with my feelings. 

As my identify quest continued, I sought out an opportunity to move to Boston, MA. A far larger melting-pot of cultures than what Michigan could provide. It was here I started to find my identity. A heavily transplanted population including many diverse groups of race, religion, background, sexual orientation, beliefs, origins, socioeconomic status, language, age and much more! It was here that I started to feel less like a standout, and more like the norm.

I share this small glimpse into my life in hopes to encourage a better understanding of our particular group. You may be lucky enough to read many stories or interact with many adoptees, not only from Korea, and you will find that no two are alike. And that is the exciting part that I have come to terms with. I(we) don't have to have to be one specific thing or belong to one group. It has taken some time, but I am overwhelmed and humbled by the upbringing I have had, and the future experience I hope to have. If you struggle with this sense of belonging I expressed in my passage, I highly recommend you to seek those who are like you and interact with them as much or little as you feel comfortable. As you can tell, many of my life decisions were heavily weighed by a continuing quest to find a sense of belonging. Today, the great support I have had and the individuals who have been apart of it are the real reason I was able to cope and navigate a life as a Korean Adoptee.

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What are a few things you wish more people understood about Korean Adoptees?

The one thing I wish the general population would know or understand about Korean Adoptees is that we are a group of people that almost always find ourselves striving to identify who we are. It is something that I battle from time to time, and a message I hear from almost all Korean Adoptees. We are a group that is not quite Korean nor do we feel like we are 100% American. 

 

What's one Korean dish everyone should try?

I don't think there is just one dish that everyone should try. I might be biased to some extent, but as an individual raised on an American diet I find the diversity of Korean food paints a broader picture of our culture. Today, I live in the little Korean-Town area of Boston and I eat it almost every day. Exploring the many dishes has been nothing but a welcoming culture shock. I do understand that there are many cuisines out there that would all say similar things, so if I had to narrow it down I would say try Sagol Budae Jjigae. It is a spicy stew with tofu, ham, sausage rice cake, vegetables and ramen noodles! FYI this is not a one-person entree meal, so bring some friends. Korean food is meant to be ate in the family style anyways!

You recently mentioned to me you're apart of a Korean Adoptee Group in Boston. Could you expand on that and give us some information about what the group does, and what made you decide to join a group that's important to you?

Boston Korean Adoptee is a small organization that was created specifically as a safe forum to exchange and share experiences among members and anyone else that wishes to know. I joined simply for that reason as well. To share my experience, but more importantly hear and support those who may have had more difficulties in their journey. The group is a positive reinforcement to help further validate that I am not alone and there is support right around the corner! http://www.bkadoptee.org/

 

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Korean Adoptee Portrait Series - Nancy Clemens

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet and photograph Nancy Clemens, another local Korean adoptee. Nancy read Tara's interview and reached out to me on facebook and was willing to share part of her story. Her and her biological sister Krissy were both adopted from South Korea and in 2011 were reunited with their birth family with mixed emotions. 

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Where did you grow up/what was your family background?

I grew up in a small town in Minnesota, population was around 1000.  My parents are Norwegian and Swedish, they adopted my biological sister and I when we were 2 an 1 years of age. We were welcomed  by 3 older siblings,  they had 2 biological girls and also adopted a Caucasian/Korean boy.

What was it like growing up in a small town?

Growing up in a small town in Minnesota had its ups and downs. My parents owned the local newspaper and were definitely loving, patient and protective over us. Overall I'm grateful on how my parents raised us.  We never went without anything and that seems amazing to me because they were raising 5 children.  I remember growing up being quiet, stand offish at times and  always feeling like I never fit in. I know lots of kids feel that way but again this is how I felt as an adoptee. In elementary school kids were nicer but as we got older some of the same kids were calling me names daily, slanting their eyes and just saying hurtful things. I was on the defense daily with these kids (it was the same boys) although most of the kids/people  in my small town were nice I still felt like I didn't fit in. I was angry, sad and would cry daily ( most of the time in silence). I tried to put on an act, tried to be involved in things but I actually felt like I was embarrassed to show my face because I was always stared at. I went into deep depressions and didn't know why.  My parents tried to be there for me, contacted the school but I didn't want to talk to them or a counselor.  I was craving some kind of attention in the wrong ways and I was just feeling that I wasn't normal and didn't want to look different.  I rarely thought about Korea or wanted to embrace my culture at a young age because I was so "Americanized". 

My parents and siblings are the nicest people and we had so many good times with family and friends, we were always involved in a lot of activities so to be honest yes, there were good days and bad days just like any other human being but we were loved so I hope no one takes this negatively. I know lots of kids feel they don't fit in. 

What made you decide to go to Korea and meet your birth family? How was the experience?

My biological sister Krissy actually started this process by looking up her health history for medical reasons. I'm grateful to her because we would have never been reunited if she didn't ask questions.  There was a note in our file stating our birth mother was looking for us. We had an older sister in Korea, and a  younger sister & father who were deceased. We received a phone call in 2009 and reunited in 2011. Everything is a bit of a blur because it's been over seven years and I know my sister has a different recollection of events or on how she felt. 

From left to right: Krissy, Birth mother, Nancy, biological older sister. 

From left to right: Krissy, Birth mother, Nancy, biological older sister. 

 

My sister Krissy set up the whole reunion and studied some Korean. I was looking forward to the reunion but not as much as her, I felt bad . The trip to Korea was very long and we had a lot of jet lag, once we got off the plane we met our mother, sister, brother in law and they had two boys (one was in the military). Our birth mother wanted us to stay with her and from the beginning I was uncomfortable with the situation.  I wanted to stay at a hotel. After reading other adoptee stories I know wasn't being disrespectful by wanting to stay at a hotel and we did end up staying at one.  It was overwhelming to our birth mother/family and to us.

We had a translator  the whole time but we felt things were not fully relayed on how and why we were adopted. We met some of our dad's family and heard their side of the story.  Tears were shed because there were different versions of the story.  

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Our parents were married and divorced a couple of times, we had an older sister that they kept and a younger sister that was born years later.  Our father and sister  passed away a few years before the reunion.  I could get into more  details and some maybe true and some might not be ,I will never know because I was not there.  In the end I'm grateful that we were adopted together , we did have a good loving family in America.  Our Korean mom was very sad and happy. At times she seemed depressed.  She tried to make it up to us  by buying things and bringing us to the dermatologist to get moles/sun damage off our face.. We did not want to disrespect her by saying no  because the translator told us we should say yes.

What would I recommend to other Korean adoptees if travelling to Korea to reunite with their birth family or just to visit?

I do recommend staying in a hotel and having some alone time.  The food was new to me and the translator wanted us to put food in our  mothers mouth because it was a form of respect and vice versa, I felt uncomfortable with that but I did it .  I would take things slow, it's ok if you don't feel an instant  connection with your biological family because they didn't raise you.  It's "OK to have these feelings".  If you have the chance to reunite with your birth family do it.  The people that raised you will understand and want you to know where you came from and may never understand how you felt growing up but other adoptees do. 

To the parents that adopt- reach out to organizations if you adopt children from different cultures and have them try their own food and maybe find someone who was adopted and could be some-what of a mentor for the adoptee. Growing up I never embraced my culture but as an adult I m more comfortable in my own skin as I'm sure other people are no matter what race they are.

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What are a few things I wish people would understand about Korean adoptees?

I want people to know that no one can pick their race and there are ignorant people out there who raise their children to be racist and it does effect a child who grows up to be an adult and they will never forget how it felt to be teased daily.  Teach your kids right from wrong.  We didn't choose to be here and are not LUCKY but we are GRATEFUL that we do have loving families that wanted us.  Even though we were adopted we might be stand offish in certain situations or seem cold but genetics do take a part in it even though some people might think differently. 

Some adoptees are closer than others to the people who raised them and others might not be and it's ok.  We appreciate and love our American parents. To our family in Korea,  if there isn't overwhelming love towards you at the reunion its because you gave birth to us but did not raise us.  We are not being disrespectful.  If we do not embrace the food, culture right away its because we are overwhelmed and it's unfamiliar to us. We understand there are different situations in why you gave us up, we know it was a tough decision and we do forgive you. We do not know another life style or culture  and we hope that you understand if we do not come back to Korea or communicate again.

Thank you for letting me share my story. If you are an adoptee and feel depressed, lonely or have suicidal thoughts you are not alone and reach out and talk to someone. There are many people that are discriminated against daily whether it be by color, status, handicap, size...etc. 

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Behind the scenes - Editorial photoshoot with HOUR Detroit Magazine Jan 2018

I am happy to share my first Hour Detroit Magazine cover for the January 2018 issue featuring Abdul El Sayed. At 33, Abdul is a young political rookie who is currently campaigning for 2018 Michigan Governor race. He is shaking things up in Michigan in a good way. This cover feature was a three day process but the second day required everyone to be on board.

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My team and I photographed the cover with Abdul on an extremely tight time frame. I received a call from the Creative Director, Carolyn Chin Watson,  Wednesday Nov 1 in the morning stating Thursday Nov 2 (the next day) is the only day we can do a stylized portrait of Abdul in Detroit. We photographed his campaign manager there the day before so I knew the location already. The curveball was we had to make a cover. This is what we had to work with...

 

 

Now what most creatives would do is complain about the location, huff and puff about it and maybe give up. Luckily this wasn't the case and that large dark brown door was the perfect backdrop for what we needed. Sometimes the K.I.S.S. rule is the best rule...

While I was location scouting around 4:00 PM I was also told by Abdul's team we only have him for three 15 minute time slots to photograph reportage,  two cover options, and a stylized portrait. 

 

My time slots were: 

7:30- 7:45 AM  Arrive at his home in Shelby Township to photograph

9:30 - 9:45 AM Photograph two cover options in their office in Detroit. 

Noon - 12:15 PM Photograph a variety of stylized portraits of Abdul.

These time frames are not short because Abdul and his team are trying to be difficult. Someone like him is busy getting out there to run a campaign. It's rare for anyone whether its a CEO or public official to dedicate an entire day for a photoshoot unless one is to be compensated like on an advertising/commercial photoshoot. Part of my specialty as a photographer is being able to assess a problem and come up with a solution.

The issue with schedule was Shelby Township is over an hour away from Downtown Detroit with no traffic.  Rush hour traffic into Detroit starts around 7:00 AM and on Thursday morning it was raining. That meant it would take more than an hour to arrive in Downtown Detroit. I've learned I wouldn't be able to properly set up for a cover photoshoot unless I hired an additional photo assistant to start pre lighting for me.

 

Late Wednesday night around 9:00 PM, one of my photo assistants Daniel came over to my house to take all of my lighting equipment along with my lighting diagrams. From there he would arrive the next morning at 7:00 AM to load in all of my equipment in Downtown Detroit and start setting up for the cover and the portraits. I knew there was no way I could do this myself and this is where teamwork makes the dream work.

After I photographed some reportage images of Abdul getting ready, my first assistant Jen and I rushed to Downtown Detroit. We were lucky to arrive by 9:00am despite rush hour traffic and the rain. There was no more than 30 minutes for me to fine tune the lighting and get things rolling. by 9:25 am I was ready to photograph Abdul.  By 9:42 we had shot 2 cover options!

Thank you Carolyn Chin Watson, Creative Director at HOUR Magazine, for trusting me with this assignment and giving me the honor of my first HOUR cover.  Daniel Ribar and Jen Hefner were my two rockstar photo assistants who made everything come together and kept me at ease.  Alan Davdison over at Dayspace Studio for the Profoto lighting rentals to ensure this shoot was a success! A big thank you goes out to Abdul and his team for being accomodating to HOUR Magazine and my team!.


My team is always prepared to make changes on the fly.  Without proper planning, there is no way I could have photographed the feature and cover options in (2) 15 minute sessions.

Korean Adoptee Portrait Series - Tara Revyn

Back in 2017, I traveled to Seoul South Korea on a homecoming trip to visit my birth country. During my travels I revealed my thoughts and feelings about adoption. What I found during this process was the amount of family and friends that supported me but also the growing number of Korean adoptees who have reached out to me since my trip to South Korea. Together it's been very theraputic to speak with other adoptees, share our feelings about adoption, and learn more about Korean culture. 

A couple years ago, my friend Carolyn introduced me to Tara Revyn, a Korean Adoptee who grew up in Lake Orion, MI, a suburb of Detroit. Tara and I spoke over a year on social media before finally meeting each other in person October 2017. She was kind enough to let me photograph her for the start of this new project and ask a few questions.

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Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Lake Orion, Michigan until I was in sixth grade.  When I was growing up, it was a very small town that used to be a vacation destination for people who would come during the summer to their cottages and enjoy the lake.  It’s a predominately Caucasian community, so I was the only Korean child in school. After my sixth grade year, my dad was transferred to a small town in Pennsylvania, Limerick, for two years and then to a small town in Florida, Spring Hill, for another two years. We came back to Lake Orion in the middle of my tenth grade year and graduated from Lake Orion High School. Both Lake Orion and Limerick, PA, were difficult to make a lot of friends, both were predominately Caucasian neighborhoods, and both schools that I attended in those cities were also predominately Caucasian. Spring Hill, FL was much more diverse, with a rich Hispanic community as well as other races that, for me, was more than welcome. I felt like I was not the only one who was “not white” for the first time in my life.

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What was growing up like in those three cities?

Growing up in Lake Orion was challenging in many ways. Since I was the only Korean student at the Catholic school I attended, I felt like I didn’t fit in. Many of the kids would make fun of my eyes, calling me names and pulling the corners of their eyelids up to make their eyes appear slanted like mine. I hated going to school; I hated it so much. I didn’t talk to many of my peers and found that I spent most of my time trying to talk to my teachers.  They were always very kind to me, perhaps because they saw the way that the other kids treated me and felt bad for me. In Limerick, PA, I found a small group of teens that I spent most of my time with. These kids lived in my neighborhood and rode the bus with me, so I got to know them and they were accepting of me. I loved football and sports, which made it difficult to feel like I fit in with the other girls in my school, regardless of what city I was living in. Moving as a pre-teen and then teenager tends to be difficult, but having to make new friends and adjust to a new place when you’re a Korean adoptee, makes it that much more difficult. I went into each new school feeling completely “foreign” purely based on my appearance on the outside and the students in these new schools made sure I knew that.

What are a few things you wish more people understood about (Korean) Adoptees?

There are many things that I wish more people understood about Korean adoptees, number one being that we ARE adopted. I was born in South Korea, but I was raised in America. I don’t remember how it was when I was in Korea; I was only 10 months old. I realize that I look different than many people that I grew up with, studied in college with, worked with all because a majority of them are Caucasian. Based off of my outside appearance, I have had many people ask me what the food is like, talk to me in Korean if they happened to know a handful of Korean words or phrases, or other various things with the assumption that I know because I am Korean. Yes, I am Korean, but I am also American. I may not be Caucasian, but I am entirely American. I was raised in the Detroit area and surrounded by family who are Polish, German, and Belgium, among others.

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I also wish that, although some adoptees may have not forgiven or accepted that they are adopted, not all adoptees feel that way. Assuming that I am angry or hurt because my mom did in fact leave me anonymously outside on a step close to the orphanage to be found, tells me that she felt she couldn’t provide for me the way a mother would want to care for her child. I not only have empathy for her, but I hurt for her that she had to make, what was probably the most difficult decision of her life. She probably had hopes that in leaving me, I would be adopted to parents who could care for me. I have a son and I couldn’t fathom how hard it had to have been for her to carry me for 9 months and then say goodbye, knowing she would never see me grow up. She kept me for three weeks, which the orphanage approximated my age was when they found me, so that makes it even that much more believable that she wanted to keep me, but for whatever reason, still had to say goodbye.

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Another question that has somewhat bothered me, more so when I was younger, is, “What are you?”. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that question as a child and adult, I would have been able pay for a few trips back to Korea by now. I realize that it was asked with no intention of making me feel like I was different and that people are curious, but sometimes it’s just something that really does make me feel like I stand out. Growing up I was constantly reminded of how I looked different; the shape of my eyes, my hair color, how short I was, I was never “like the other kids.” I have grown to not only accept, but love what makes me different. Although, because I know what it’s like to be “different,” I also am very conscientious of not making assumptions about others based off of their race and I am aware of how I ask questions, should I be curious.

 

What’s one Korean dish everyone should try?

Because I grew up with very little exposure to the Korean culture and haven’t had a lot of opportunities to eat Korean food, I don’t have a favorite Korean dish. I’ve eaten Kimchi and like it. Realizing I don’t know a lot about Korean food, I’ve tried to make it a point to start going to Korean restaurants. I’ve liked most of the side dishes they served me at a Korean BBQ restaurant in Troy, MI, with the exception of a couple. I’ve learned that they eat a lot of beef and pork, which I typically don’t eat a lot of, but I liked the bulgogi and enjoyed the beef brisket. Hopefully, as I continue to go and explore more of the Korean foods, I will find some favorites.

 

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January 11, 2018, Tara and her son J and I were able to grab some Korean BBQ!

January 11, 2018, Tara and her son J and I were able to grab some Korean BBQ!

Before I photographed Tara we probably spent a couple hours going back and forth sharing each other's adoptee stories and having many "Oh my gosh, me too!" moments. I want to take time to meet other Korean adoptees and share our experiences with each other and the world. There's not alot of stories being told about adoptees and what their thought process is. If you know of anyone who would love to meet up, please send them my way! More to come soon!

D Business Magazine Feature: 30 In Their Thirties

 

 

Recently, my team and I had the opportunity to photograph for Detroit based D Business Magazine to photograph their feature 30 In Their Thirties. We had two days at Dayspace Studio in Royal Oak, MI to photograph 30 individuals and 6 group shot.  

The challenge was having each group come in to get a variety of black and white headshots photographed followed by a group shot while making sure their portraits didn't look stiff or too posed. My team had to work quickly to set up lighitng and to make sure we stayed on schedule and respected the honorees time.  Each group was in and out in less than an hour and here were the results.

Big thank you to the following...

  • Austin and Nichole at DBusiness for trusting me and my team to execute the photoshoot and for the amazing the layout design.
  • Daniel Ribar and Mike Oden for assisting with the lighting setups and moving quickly
  • Michael Moran for set designing our photobooth between your busy production schedule
  • Micaela Ruiz for retouching! 
  • Alan Davidson at Dayspace Studio for providing the rental space and Profoto lighting equipment
  • All of our 30's honorees for making this a fun photoshoot!
  • The Art Institute of Novi's Photography Program for stopping by and getting a behind the scenes look at an editorial feature photoshoot.