“Was this why I could never shake that lonely gnawing in my belly when I was growing up? Was she the reason?”
In early June 2011, I opened an email that changed my life. It was sent by a woman who worked at the adoption agency that rehomed me when I was a newborn. She was looking for someone with my maiden name who’d been orphaned in South Korea 38 years ago and shipped overseas wearing a onesie with tiny red hearts printed on its front. She was looking for someone like me.
I was impatient at first — I wanted to know who was searching for me. Was it a long-lost uncle or a third cousin? Maybe it was a step-sibling? It couldn’t possibly be a biological parent, because my adoption records noted that I’d been “abandoned at birth with no living relatives.” My parents were told that my biological mother was likely destitute or young, maybe both. She might have been a shamed high school student or a sex worker. These were common assumptions when a baby was orphaned in South Korea at that time.
After confirming my identity, the woman from the adoption agency wrote one last email. “You are the person I’ve been searching for. Do you have time for a phone call next week?”
I insisted we speak that same day, because I have never been one for suspense, much less surprises. I’m the kind of person who looks up how a movie ends before I’ve finished it, or buys a book and reads the last chapter first.
When the woman from the adoption agency called, she asked: “Are you sitting down?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“You’re not driving a car?”
“OK, good. Well, I’m happy to tell you that you have family in South Korea. Your mother is alive and well,” she said. “I’m so sorry, but your father passed away from lung cancer. You have two younger brothers, and…” She paused. “You have a twin sister.”
“Oh my God,” I heard myself say. “Oh my God.”
After we hung up, I wilted — literally — and found myself sitting on the hardwood floor. Breathless. Unable to move.
I suddenly felt more alone now that I knew I wasn’t. The storms inside me teetered from numbness to grief to thrill. I caught myself replaying old footage in my head of when I was 5 and 8 and 11 years old, all those summers I spent sprawled out in the backyard or curled up in my bedroom, struggling to push down the loneliness twisting inside. I was never really alone ― I had parents hovering over me, siblings to bug me, and lots of friends, wonderfully needy friends calling me on rotary phones, barking, “I know you’re at home! Come out and play!” But still, the loneliness gnawed at me.
Later that day, the woman from the adoption agency forwarded two letters, one from my twin sister and one from my birth mother. I read my mother’s first.
She addressed me by my orphan name, Yi Soon, and ended with “From, your mom.” This made me cry. Her words were tender and fragile, almost as if she were balancing snowflakes on the page. It made me cry even more when I read the last line: “I can’t believe this is real.”
My twin’s letter was even more moving. She spoke of familiar things like being a mother and a fine artist — just like me. She spoke of illustrating my favorite book series, “Anne of Green Gables,” for a Korean publisher. She spoke of her dislike of seafood and her love of beer — more similarities. It was like we were living distant but parallel lives, which made me feel giddy and pained at the same time. Most of all, it saddened me to have spent so many precious years without her.
Was this why I could never shake that lonely gnawing in my belly when I was growing up? Was she the reason?
Those letters created a moat around me, a giant circular ditch deep enough to drown in. I felt trapped by my own emotion, by my mother’s, by my twin’s.
Two months later, a reunion was set up by the woman from the adoption agency. She mentioned something about meeting my birth family at the agency’s Seoul office, but later scratched that plan because she said she realized it would be easier for me to digest my new reality on American soil. She was probably right. It reminded me of a time in high school when my teacher asked me to tell the class what car I drove and my favorite meal. He was attempting to teach the class about cultural differences in America, but I failed him.
“I drive a 1983 Ford Taurus and my favorite meal is a Big Mac,” I told him.
“Never mind, she’s all American,” he replied.
In August, I flew to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the adoption agency’s corporate headquarters were located. I brought the only loved ones who could make the trip with me: my son and two close friends. I had invited my parents, but my mom needed to stay close to my 80-year-old father, whose health was declining.
On the day of the reunion, the woman from the agency greeted us as soon as we arrived. She gave us a tour, introduced us to the CEO, and then divided the four of us into two groups. My friends were directed to an elaborate-looking conference room. My son and I were asked to wait while my friends met and settled in with a wary search party: my birth mother and twin sister.
The silence in the conference room was as dense as a stick of butter — only for a second, but that second stretched for miles and miles. Then I heard gasps, which made me gasp, and two women raced toward me with their arms outstretched and tears in their eyes. The only thing I could do was place my hand over my heart in hopes of keeping it anchored in my chest.
I recognized myself in my twin immediately. She had the same features as me, the same hand gestures, and even the same laugh that I have. It was like looking at a stranger wearing my face and using my voice — but one of us spoke Korean and the other did not. It was disorienting and bizarre to think I’d shared a womb with another human being and now I was meeting her again 38 years later.
My birth mother had a timeless look to her. Her black, curly hair was cropped short, typical for an ajumma, but she didn’t look like one. She was humble but spirited, almost as if she were trying to hide her power. When she smiled, I saw my son in the corners of her mouth and the curvature of her eyes.
The very first words my birth mother said to me were “Mianhae,” which means “I’m sorry” in Korean. Then she said “Saranghae,” which means “I love you.” My birth mother then turned to my twin sister and told her that she loved her too.
With the help of a translator, I learned a lot during our family reunion — so much that it made my brain hurt.
I learned to call my birth mother “Omma” and my birth father “Appa.” I learned that my twin sister was born 15 minutes earlier than me. I learned that my orphan name was actually my birth aunt’s name, Soon Yi, but reversed. I learned that twins were considered bad luck in Korea in 1973. I learned that my aunt had demanded Omma choose which newborn to keep and which newborn to forget. I learned that Appa cried out for me right before he died. I learned that when Omma turned and told my twin “I love you,” it was the first time my twin had ever heard those words, because Omma refused to say those three words to one daughter and not the other. That broke my heart.
I left that conference room born again. At birth, Omma was not allowed to name me, but 38 years later, she finally could. I was given the name Jinah, and my son was given Jin-Yeong. My adoptive family had just gained more relatives. It felt good to belong, or so I thought.
Omma tried hard to recapture my lost childhood, but the cultural differences were rapidly poking holes in our bubble. We didn’t understand each other, and we were accustomed to living very different lives.
In Korea, there is an unspoken rule that one must always respect their elders. I realized this quickly when my son, my friend and I traveled to Seoul for the first time. Once there, I offended Omma by not eating seafood, by being tardy, by posting a photo of her on social media, and by drinking a beer in her presence. She became chilly and distant, and then withdrew her affection from me altogether for a few days, leaving us to fend for ourselves in an unfamiliar city where we couldn’t speak or read the language.
I wanted to kick myself for being careless, for being casually outspoken, and for not researching my birth country’s traditions before I arrived. By the time Omma returned for the three of us, it was me saying, “Mianhae! Mianhae, Omma!”
I wanted to explain to my Korean family that after I turned 18, I was my own boss and I had been making my own decisions for a long time. I wanted to tell them that I was an idiot and I’d be a good daughter, if they’d just be patient with me. I wanted to tell them that I wanted to change — I just needed some time to adjust to this new life. After all, they had known about me years prior to our reunion, and I had only known about them for a few months.
But because of our language barrier, we were mostly forced to play charades to communicate, and I could barely get across the most basic sentiments, much less hold the heart-to-heart conversation I so desperately wanted to have with them.
Meeting my biological family has been both a painful and beautiful gift. It sent me on a journey of self-discovery I never expected I would go on — and one I wasn’t prepared to take. It made me question who I was, where I came from, what “family” means, and how I want to move forward. It also gave me and my son a lineage and a history to claim as our own.
It’s been two years since I last had contact with my Korean family. We had discussed things like dual citizenship and housing and Hangul lessons before COVID upended the world. We wanted to be a part of each other’s lives — however hard that might be — but then our lives blew up in a million different ways. The pandemic struck, my son returned from his service in the Marine Corps, Omma’s second husband died, my dad died shortly after that, and I married the love of my life. Everything was difficult or exhausting or scary or strange or brand-new, and attempting to forge our path together just didn’t feel possible.
I’m not sure when I’ll see my birth family again, but I want to. Omma hasn’t met her new son-in-law, and my husband hasn’t met the other me. Now that I know they’re out there, I don’t want to lose them.
Cat Powell-Hoffmann is a published fine artist and writer from the Pacific Northwest. She is a Moth Mainstage storyteller and has been featured in numerous art and literary journals. Cat’s art has been exhibited in galleries up and down the West Coast. She is working on a book of essays about adoption, love, midlife hiccups, retail sales and motherhood. When she’s not painting, writing or singing backup vocals for the post-punk band Princess Ugly, you can find her binge-watching Netflix with her husband, son, and fur baby in their Portland, Oregon, home.