Between the American Laura Wachs and the Korean Kim Hyo-jin

Listening to the experiences of overseas adoptee women: The long journey into myself

Laura Wachs | 기사입력 2021/06/20 [21:42]

Between the American Laura Wachs and the Korean Kim Hyo-jin

Listening to the experiences of overseas adoptee women: The long journey into myself

Laura Wachs | 입력 : 2021/06/20 [21:42]

Editor’s note: South Korea has a long history of sending its children abroad for adoption.  The issue of overseas adoption is connected to issues of women’s and children rights, poverty and discrimination, and race and migration. By listening to the voices of women who grew up in other societies and then returned to the country of their birth, Ilda hopes to hear their experiences and the messages they hold for Korean society. This series is supported by the Korea Press Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund.


▲ Me as a child. ©Laura Wachs

“I knew I'd come back to Korea. It was an obligation since the day two hands, pale as moons pulled my tide from my mother's body. Left her reaching for my memory in the polished black keys of pianos. Our parting –a minor song.” -Self


I am writing to you from Seoul, a city full of crowded subways, street vendors selling tteok bokki and neon signs flashing in Hangeul. Somewhere, my birth family is alive and walking through the neighborhood. They don't know I'm here or that I've been here the past four years. They don't know that despite us never meeting, they've influenced my whole life. Without them, I wouldn't have come to Korea, wouldn't have met other Korean adoptees or Korean single moms, wouldn't have published a poetry anthology full of beauty and political power and wouldn't have found personal closure to my concept of self and family. But before elaborating, let's go back a little.


The poetry that gave me the strength to survive


In my early twenties, I felt anchored down by depression, self harm and an eating disorder all rooted in a lack of self worth. During this time, the worst part wasn't the grief or despair. It was the apathy. When everything feels numb, it becomes vital to decide whether or not you want to live. In my final attempt to live I wrote a list of things that made me feel joy, then crossed out anything dependent on other people. What remained was poetry. I jotted down an embarrassingly cliché break up poem and sought out a poetry reading


Poetry gives a person power. One can transform life experience into a palpable craft. For example, a poet can take a trauma and look at it from every angle until the description of it becomes a game of syntax, metaphor, imagery, and wordplay. With an infinite amount of words to use, there's no limit to a poem's possibility except for how far the writer is willing to open their heart. I believe that in this process, a subjective, emotional event can be viewed from an objective lens. This offers a new method to analyze and process that which once felt overwhelming.


On top of this, performance poetry adds another texture. When one memorizes, recites, adds inflection and gives eye contact to an audience, they are able to embody their story internally and externally at the same time. It is empowering. To witness it done well will leave a permanent impression. The first night I listened to poets share their work in such a light, it was a turning point that not only made me feel, but made me believe I wasn't alone. Lines from those pieces are ones I still remember today.


“Everything you are running away from is already behind you.” -Cecily Schuler


For the next four years, I attended shows from poetry slam, to academic readings, to experimental readings, to prose to freestyle hip hop and all in between. Writing, performing and organizing events for non profits became a core part of my existence. My life philosophy is that the silver lining to all experience, both good and bad, is that once it happens to us we can be a voice to support others who have also gone through or are going through similar situations. Thus when I, as a Korean adoptee decided to move back to Korea in order to learn about the culture, search for birth family and explore identity, I knew this would apply.


“I don't know if I define with American or Korean. My tongue is a wild pony broke in by English. My heart a fight between Laura Elizabeth Wachs. Kim Hyo Jin.” -Self


A one-way ticket to that unfamiliar country of my birth


My American name is Laura Elizabeth Wachs. My Korean name is Kim Hyo Jin. I was born in Seoul, South Korea in January of 1989. That same year in August, I was adopted and sent to Seattle, Washington. I returned to Korea in June of 2014 and have resided here since.


▲ Beginning the long journey into myself. ©Ilda (Illustration: Doona)

Before leaving, I was funded for an art project called, “The Voices of Korean Adoption.” The aim of the project was to host poetry writing workshops for Korean adoptees, and compile their poems into an anthology. At the time I had no knowledge about Korea itself, its history or its culture. I didn't know a single word of Hangeul. I'd never heard of the political activism of Korean adoptees that was taking place. Nor did I know of the plight of Korean adoptees or Korean single mothers. What I did know is that I'd impulsively purchased a one way ticket from the only home I'd ever known to my motherland and I had no clue what to expect.


I can recall my last evening in Seattle vividly. I went to a poetry show (of course) and the hosts gave a surprise by announcing the open mic segment was dedicated to me. I watched friends stand on stage and read poems they'd written in honor of my upcoming adventure as well as had a song sung in acapella about how I'd be missed. The room was full of warmth and encouragement. From there, it was one too many drinks followed by karaoke singing in a rented room called Rock Box. You could say this was a foreshadowing of future norebang outings. After we were done, I remember being linked arm in arm with two of my best friends stumbling to the car. I yelled, “I CAN'T DO IT! I CAN'T DO IT!,” at the top of my lungs. The next day, I hugged those same two friends goodbye in the airport terminal.


Upon arriving in Korea, it was a whirlwind. Immediately after de-boarding the plane I walked to an ATM, as I hadn't exchanged money prior. The ATM machine ate my card like one swift bite of instant ramen. I stared wide eyed with panic until an ajusshi (older Korean man) caught my eye and walked over. He spoke in Korean, so I didn't understand. I just pointed at the machine with furrowed eyebrows, took my arms and made a sweeping chomp gesture. He led me to an information desk and explained the situation. Afterwards, an airport employee opened the ATM and fished out my card. From there I'd planned to meet a friend in a city south of Seoul, but the busses had stopped running. An American standing in line overheard my frantic phone call to said friend and suggested I stay at the airport jjimjilbang (sauna). I dragged my luggage there, paid twenty thousand won and walked into a communal room with dozens of people asleep on the floor. In the morning, I woke to the new sounds of my mother tongue. Welcome to Korea.


“Kimchi is a craving. Alone is an acquired taste. I was told true change will come if I begin to dream in Korean.” - Self


Within the first week I looked up any poetry reading I could find. It was a familiar comfort to keep me grounded. I found one show, a five hour bus ride away in the city of Busan. I traveled there for what would become monthly visits for the next few years and met a group of friends. One was a Filipino adoptee who helped me navigate my own relationship with adoption greatly. He'd already done his own work and exploration of self which had concluded in an unabashed mentality of “I am who I am and I don't need to fit in any box. Along with him, I met two people who became my chosen big brother and big sister. We wrote together, performed together, spent holidays together, and became an integral part of each other's lives.


▲ Reading at a poetry slam in Busan two years ago. ©Laura Wachs

Connecting poems written by overseas adoptees and Korean single moms


After a year passed, I'd acclimated to Korea enough to use some of my energy to give back. A fellow adoptee invited me to participate in small march for an organization called, “KUMFA, Korea's Unwed Mothers' Families' Association,” and suddenly I found myself outside City Hall. I joined with a small group of Korean single mothers and adoptees, and together we held signs to fight for welfare along with justice as we walked about the city. Little did I know that KUMFA would shortly come to change the entire course of the art project I'd set out to do.


My art project had been stagnant for a while. I'd lost motivation. This is because after attending meetings for various adoptee orgs, holding a few poetry workshops, and hosting a benefit show for ASK, Adoptee Solidarity Korea (now SPEAK), I realized I'd been naive. People were already doing substantial work for the adoptee community in a myriad of ways. This ranged from mental health services to political activism to improve the Special Adoption Law in the country. It made me feel like an anthology of adoptee poems wasn't particularly groundbreaking or helpful. It's not to say it would be wholly invaluable, but my desire was to create something that would make as big of a difference as possible. In this, I questioned how. Then during a vacation in Thailand I confided to a friend about my concerns. He replied, “What about the moms?” Yes. What about them?


When I got home, I contacted Megy Kim, the now President of KUMFA and asked if she'd meet for coffee. We went to a quaint cafe where I explained my idea of incorporating poetry from the single mothers alongside the adoptee's. I said my hope was that by having these two narratives stand together, they would strengthen each other. That it would bring awareness, reveal the scope and diversity of narratives related to adoption and motherhood in Korea, as well as act as a seed to bring about social change.


▲ With Megy (right) at the KUMFA fundraising show. ©Laura Wachs

She then went on to share about the history of KUMFA from its initial humble meetings, to its slow, but steady growth. She talked about the courage of the women who battle to keep their children despite a country that logistically works to keep them apart. A country that shames and ostracizes them on top of that. Hearing Megy tell her memories of the organization and life over time as she wiped tears from her eyes made my defenses come down.


After a failed birth family search and permanent estrangement from my adoptive family, I felt bitter about parental figures. I'd built a wall stating that I didn't need nor want any of my own. Yet on that day my heart opened like a window as I saw in front of me the epitome of a good parent. Megy and the single mothers' undeniable love for their children gave me solace and filled the empty places of my own loss. That being said, we agreed to make the book.


“As I watch over you, I forget that I was sick at all. You are my energy. I feel better, not from medicine, but because of you my child.” -Megy Kim


A local Korean poet and dear friend gave a poetry workshop for the mothers in Korean for me. Closely following the workshop, it was my 28th birthday. Instead of a party, I decided to host a fundraising show for KUMFA. Megy agreed to close out the show by reading two of the poems she'd written. Before her performance I asked how she was feeling. She was shaky and answered, “I'm very nervous. I also feel little ashamed. I don't know if my poem is important.” I reassured her she'd do great. When called up on stage she stepped to the microphone, , admitted she'd learned most of her English from TV sitcoms and apologized for mistakes. She talked about our relationship and made a charming joke of how I looked beautiful that night. How, of course I looked beautiful because I was her sister. Then with a deep breath, she read her poems.


Scanning the room, people were captivated. They hung on to each word. They gave the utmost respect and attention. As soon as she finished, many members of the audience stood up to greet her. I caught a glimpse out of my peripheral of Megy crying as she thanked someone, tears streaming down her face. Around her words of gratitude and praise filled her ears. With all my being, I hope she felt the same empowerment and healing that I'd found in poetry.


▲ Joon, a poet who taught poetry workshop to KUMFA moms, me, Eileen and Tom Wachs (my sister in law& brother) ©Laura Wachs

"... and you ... when will you begin that long journey into yourself?" -Rumi


Today is June 16th, 2018. Tomorrow morning, I will meet with a publisher to finalize final edits for my poetry anthology titled, “The Motherland.” The title is to honor both the mothers themselves and the adoptees unbreakable ties to their motherland. Upon reflection of my time here, it is one of the most valuable goals I've achieved. The others include filling in gaps to my identity as an Asian American by learning about Korean culture, independently creating a new life from a blank slate, redefining my personal concept of family by learning to believe in chosen family, and keeping my passion of art and community alive. Come this fall I'll be moving back stateside with my partner to start anew, but not without leaving part of me behind and taking part of this journey with me. Until my next meeting with Korea, I trust the anthology, the memories and the relationships will keep the spark between us bright.


By Laura Wachs

Published Aug. 15, 2018

Korean article:


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