Adoptees on the Power, Peril and Promise of Ongoing Reunion, Part II of III

Ji In Lugtu: On the Artificiality of First Meeting, The Immense Challenge of Translating Opposite Emotional Realities, The Myth of Closure

We begin this second installment with Ji In Lugtu, a 37-year-old writer, editor and mom living in the Seattle area. Lugtu’s reunion with her birth family happened in 2002 during her first trip back to Korea.

I was twenty-six at the time and going through a lot of identity stuff. I was out on my own working. It was a time when I was just getting a feel for where I wanted to go in my career and in my life. So when I had this first reunion with them, it was just so surreal. I just remember feeling like all the words I had saved up in my mind had been knocked out of me.

Reuniting in the Third Person Point of View

During that first meeting, it felt very artificial. Everything was orchestrated through the social worker at the adoption agency in Seoul. It was me, my friend, the social worker, translator, my father, mother and paternal aunt. They were all on one side of the table, and we were on the other. I’m remembering it from a third person point of view. I can’t quite insert my body into it. To me, it feels more like I’m watching it on a screen or something. That artificial feeling was difficult for me to digest. The first meeting was not even an hour long.

At the end of my trip, I went back to their home. I was supposed to have a translator with me, but he had a personal matter and he couldn’t come. So it was just me, my mother and father,and three older sisters.

I still have this strange feeling as though I wasn’t quite me. I couldn’t quite say what I was feeling, not only because we were working with a language gap, but also there are more than just words to translate. There are feelings. It still felt very much like I was having an out-of-body experience. Everything I was saying was being translated through my sister, who was fairly fluent but not completely.

Since then, I saw them in 2007, the last time I was in Korea. In between then we did a lot of emailing. That’s kind of how we did most of our talking. I think that was easier for us – we could take our time. And I think it was easier to translate through writing, getting over these initial getting-to-know-you type things, sharing our stories. But with writing there’s still this disconnect – you can’t hear each other.

Ji In and her niece, 2007

Disconnection Through Connection

Throughout my reunion, there’s always been some kind of disconnect, some kind of gap – whether it’s language or physical distance. And translating emotions is probably one of the hardest. With my family, all the communication happens between my English-speaking sister and me. So she not only translates my words but also things that haven’t been spoken. She translates what she thinks my mother is feeling.

There was a time between our first and second meetings in 2005 when my father died. From what I understand, it was fairly sudden. It was such a surprise to me. The hardest part for me was that I didn’t find out about his death until a couple months later when my sister told me via email. I was just so surprised, the fact that it had happened long before then. It wasn’t only the shock of his death; it was also that I hadn’t been told. I felt very alienated, as though I wasn’t part of the family. But I think it was my sister’s way of protecting me. She wasn’t quite sure how to tell me. In Korea, families want to protect you from feeling hurt, so they don’t even go there. It’s so opposite of what we Americans are taught to feel. We want to share everything with our families. With my Korean family, there’s this disconnect between what I think our family should be sharing and communicating and what they think they think we should be sharing. Our emotional realities don’t translate. So I am still feeling this void: How do we get across it? How do we bridge it?

“So much time has passed, yet I don’t feel like we’ve closed that gap.”

What has surprised me at this point, eleven years after our reunion, is how much time can pass. I don’t know if it would be any different if we were living closer to each other. Even given the amount of time that can pass between our meetings, I still think about them every day, even though I don’t see them or talk on the phone.

So much time has passed, yet I don’t feel like we’ve closed that gap. It’s still very fresh. People talk about closure, and I just laugh at that. It’s such a myth. People say, “It must be so healing to be able to finally make those connections.” But search and reunion opens all of these new wounds and all of these new questions come up. I still have few answers – even being able to put names on my family tree. Sometimes it doesn’t feel any more real than not knowing who they were.

Advice to Fellow Adoptees

I would say that you should just talk to other people. Hearing others’ experiences doesn’t prepare you for what will happen to you. No two stories are the same. I don’t think there’s anything I could say to someone who is starting their search. Just get a sense of other people’s experiences who have gone through the process; even if they haven’t found anyone, listening to their stories just gives you an idea of how many different paths search and reunion can take. Just know that whatever loose expectations you have, it’s just going to blow your mind.

Danielle Mkali: Searching for Family, Culture, Community and a Sense of Home

Danielle Mkali met her birth mother seventeen years ago, when she herself was seventeen. She has been in reunion with her birth father for fourteen years. Adopted into a white family in the predominantly white town of Stillwater, Minn., Mkali defines herself as a multiracial African American transracial adoptee. She currently serves as Program Officer at Nexus in Minneapolis, where she lives with her husband and their children.

Throughout my life, I envisioned meeting my birth mom. When it actually did happen, it happened very quickly.

I was adopted through Lutheran Social Services. It was a closed adoption, but we knew that once I turned eighteen I could make my contact info in my file open to my birth mother if I chose to. Before I was eighteen, my adoptive parents, without telling me, decided to make my information available. What they didn’t expect was that a couple of months later I would get a letter in the mail from my birth mom. And so, without me knowing that my info had been released, I heard from her.

“Not the Disney sparks I had wanted.”

I was really in disbelief when I got the letter. I read it several times and shared it with my family. She had enclosed her telephone number, so I called her two days after I got it. Exactly one week after I received the letter, she was at my home. I remember when she pulled into the driveway; I hadn’t even seen her, but I was like, “Oh my God. Go back.” We hugged right away and said hello, and she didn’t want to let go. I didn’t have that same feeling. I remember not feeling an instant psychological or emotional connection that I really wanted to have. I wanted to feel like, “Oh, you’re my mom,” and have that closeness. I wouldn’t have recognized her on the street or anything.

That first meeting was awkward. I was happy to meet her and everything, but it wasn’t the Disney sparks I had wanted. Part of it for me was that it took me a long time. I had disassociated “mother” from someone physically carrying me because, I think, in order to not deal with the trauma of my birth mom giving me up, I decided that my adoptive mom was my “real” mom. It took a couple of months to acknowledge that my birth mom actually gave birth to me.

Still Yearning for Connection to Black Culture & Community

Part of meeting my mom was finding out that she had had three other children at that time. She had lived in St. Paul but then lived in Wadena, Minn., which is this really small, predominately white town just beyond St. Cloud.

My maiden name is Peterson; her maiden name is Peterson. And after I went up there and met my little sister and little brother, I realized that things wouldn’t have necessarily been better for me, being raised up there as compared to Stillwater.

Being multiracial and meeting my white mom, a lot of the pieces I yearned for were cultural; she couldn’t really provide that for me. Before I met my mom, I hadn’t really thought too much about meeting my father. But then after meeting her, she shared that she hadn’t told him that she was pregnant and that by the time she found out, they had already broken up, and he had moved back to Seattle.

“As soon as I saw him, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my dad.”

I thought about meeting my birth father (Schuyler Hadnot) a lot. I ended up living in Eugene, Ore. for a while when I was twenty. I called the Seattle directory and asked for his name, and I was super excited that his name was listed, but his number wasn’t. There were a few other Hadnots listed. I called his sister-in-law and said that I was a long-lost friend, then later explained to her who I thought I was. She was all excited to have a new niece and welcomed me into the family.

It took a while, but about a month later, he called me. I remember one of the first things he asked me was if I was Christian. I was like, “Oh boy.” We spoke for a while. He asked me to write a letter to him because he wanted to see how I wrote. So I did that. Eventually, maybe a month or so after, I went up to Seattle to see him. And as soon as I saw him, I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s my dad,” because I favor him so much.

And he actually told me that when he saw me standing outside the hotel, saw how much I looked like him, he actually had to park his car as he sat there crying for a minute before coming back around.

When I met Schulyer, having that reflection of myself in his face was really exciting. So just because of that, I think I felt a different kind of connection with him. Clearly he was angry that he didn’t know I’d been born, and he felt like he’d been cheated. He also wanted me to become a doctor. That was mostly hilarious for me but also really awkward. It was this realization that, “You’re my dad, but not my dad.”

On Figuring Out Who They Are to Each Other

One of the first places that Schulyer brought me to was my Grandma Bessie’s house. That was magical. I remember her grabbing my hands and holding my face. She was the unexpected connection that felt like home right away. She showed me that I was a granddaughter by giving me a tour of the house, showing me all these hats and dresses and really just inviting me into their life.

I think a lot of my reunion with Schulyer and my birth mom from that moment forward has really been about all of us figuring out who we are to each other, understanding that we have to design our relationship – how do we all exist together?

My mom has been very motherly to me, not in a pushy way but always remembering my birthday and sending me packages on holidays. I’ve included her in all of my baby showers and things like that. But she’s still not my first call when there’s some crisis or when something amazing happens. We still don’t have that mother-daughter dynamic.

I don’t know how true it is, but I always get the sense from my mother that there’s a lot of guilt and shame around giving me up. We haven’t really had a full conversation about that, and there are still a lot of questions about why she did give me up.

And with my father, Schulyer, I eventually moved back to Minneapolis and with him being in Seattle, I wasn’t able to see him so often. And then, his wife at the time didn’t accept me and actually wouldn’t allow me to meet my younger sister. So that was complicated.

Evolving, Changing Relationships

For a long time, I just felt really overwhelmed. I had this whole other family that I needed to keep track of, send birthday cards and presents to … You kind of feel misplaced all over again. But throughout it all, we’ve all continued to communicate with each other.

I got married in 2009. I invited all of my parents and all of my brothers and sisters, and they were all at our wedding. That was really great to have them there. That was actually the first time that my birth parents had seen each other since they were teenagers and dating. I think that was significant, to see each other again and see this whole community I have created that is so important to me.

Shortly after, it became evident that my birth father and birth mother were keeping in touch. And now in 2013, it’s pretty clear that they’re dating again. So I have this whole dynamic where I have to negotiate their new relationship.

The things that are often the easiest to navigate are them being grandparents to my kids, that my kids have access to them, and we can trace back family histories. But it’s never very simple, figuring out how it all is. And it’s not simple either with my adoptive family.

I wouldn’t give up knowing them – it helped me better accept adoption in my life. I’m not saying that I would suggest it or that it’s good, but seeing how it all played out now, I can’t argue with how it all happened.

“You really have to decide how you want your relationship with them to be.”

I would say I always suggest search and reunion for adoptees. Be prepared for meeting another human, and try not to have really high expectations. My lesson was that you really have to decide how you want your relationship with them to be. Be vocal about what things are comfortable or not comfortable for you. And all the rules and norms about how a child should be and act with their parents are thrown out the window. So don’t get all caught up in that; you can really redefine it. For some, it becomes natural, and you can really become mother and daughter. But for those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t have that experience, take care and know your boundaries.

Meeting my mother and father was really a gift, and I wouldn’t change all of us walking on this road together now for anything. But it’s not easy.

Sometimes the connection that you’re able to make through reconnecting with your first parents is not necessarily what you might expect. Maybe there might be a sister, aunt or someone who might actually have a deeper connection with you. I know from my grandma that there are things about me that I know come from her.

Finally, a Sense of Home

Especially as an African American, we often don’t really feel at home anywhere in the world. And then, as a transracial adoptee, you feel further displaced, like an outsider. Having this connection about how to be in the world from my grandma gives me this sense of home that I really need.

~ Shannon Gibney