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.


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.


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.