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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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!