|by Susan Soon-Keum Cox
In 1956 Harry Holt was in Seoul, Korea tenaciously working to save the lives of Korean children. Children who were abandoned. Orphans. Many of them were of mixed races.
One day an orphanage director from Inchon called Mr. Holt. "I have more babies than I have beds. Can you help me?" Mr. Holt replied, "I can take five." He drove to Inchon to bring the five children back with him to Seoul.
When Mr. Holt took that little girl with him, he didn't do anything that was important enough to change the entire world. But he certainly did change mine. That little girl was Hong Soon Keum, she became Susan Gourley, and today--I am Susan Cox.
When I first arrived at the orphanage I would wake up in the night from bad dreams. It was Mr. Holt who personally came in and comforted me. Rocked me, sang songs to me, and when I wasn't frightened anymore, he took me into the kitchen and made us jelly sandwiches. He was my "Grandfather," even before I had a mother and father of my own.
I left Korea for my new life on October 9, 1956. I remember very little about that trip. I do remember looking out this small round window, sitting next to a woman I could not understand, and feeling very, very scared.
I was the 167th child to be adopted from Korea. More than 50,000 Korean children in the last 40 years have made the same journey. That trip across the ocean is much more than a journey of several thousand miles. For those of us who are adopted, it is the birth into our family.
I grew up in a small rural community in Oregon. I was my parents' first child. A year later they adopted a son from Korea. We were followed by three biological siblings, so I am the oldest of five. Although we didn't look the same, I always knew I was very much my parents' daughter.
When I came to my parents, intercountry adoption was considered as foreign an idea as the children who were being adopted. People were concerned.
My parents were pioneers to this process. They were told, "Your daughter is American now." But they also knew I was Korean. In my community, I grew up knowing little about Korea, or my heritage. I rarely had an opportunity to see other Korean people. I did not eat Korean food, see beautiful Korean fan dancing, hear Korean music, or hold celedon pottery in my hands.
What my parents did give me, was the essence of how they felt about Korea. It was unwavering and unconditional. I always knew they thought Korea was a most important place. That the people, history and everything about it was treasured by them. For the simple reason that Korea was where I was from. And I was their daughter.
My adoption experience was very positive. I consider myself to have had a typical, normal childhood. I did not consider being Korean, or being adopted as the most important thing in my life. I have always understood how different my life might have been. I acknowledged and accepted that my early life circumstances were difficult. The reality that I could not stay with the mother that gave birth to me was a sadness that I shared with my parents. They never spoke of my life in Korea, or of my birth mother with anything other than respect and dignity.
I was in the first grade when I became a U.S. citizen. At six years old, I didn't truly understand the importance of that day, but later I became aware of being Korean American and what it means to be a part of two countries. That has always been intense and significant to me.
I was 26 years old when I returned to Korea for the first time. It was exciting--but also frightening. The last time I traveled that far it was with a Korean passport. Twenty two years later I was returning with my husband to visit this place I did not remember.
Would it be familiar? Would I remember how to speak the first language I had known, but since forgotten?
I expected it might feel like an echo of an earlier time. It did not feel familiar. It did feel welcoming. I was filled with enormous pride by the wonderful spirit and graciousness of Korean people. I loved knowing this was also my heritage.
I cannot adequately describe how it feels to visit an orphanage for the very first time. It was 1978 and Korea was a very different place than it is today. I was not prepared for how it would feel to see those children.
As I looked in their faces, I remembered, "I was one of those children." Waiting, needing to be loved, deserving a family. I thought of how it must have been for Harry Holt...
It was the first time I had seen Molly Holt, Mr. Holt's daughter, since I was a little girl, but I recognized her immediately. We went through old spiral notebooks of adoption records her father had carried around in the bib of his overalls. As I turned the pages in the twilight of that spring evening, I found my four year old face looking back at me soberly from one of the books. At the bottom of the page in Mr. Holt's handwriting it said, "went to America, October, 1956."
I realized an adoptee's unique experience. The melting together of being Korean-American. American by osmosis and experience. Korean by birth and ethnicity. Shared by both.
This was the first of many visits to Korea. I have returned with my husband, my mother, my son and my daughter. All of us are connected to each other, and through me--connected to Korea. It makes me very proud.
It is an incredible responsibility to attempt to represent four decades of Korean adoptees by describing my own experience. There are not enough words to adequately express appreciation to the many people who believed in us. Who thought we were important enough to be given attention, to be valued.
I once asked David Kim, President of Holt International Children's Services, what he believed was the most important contribution of adoption in Korea. Without hesitation he said, "Elevating the importance of homeless and orphaned children."
There are a million moments, big and small that describe the unique and complicated tapestry of families. It is the shared history of those moments woven together that make each of our experiences distinctive. These experiences include school, music lessons, summer camp, sports activities, family vacations, proms, grandparents, college, marriage, and children.
While my experience cannot be exactly the same as anyone else's, I do believe the feelings are the same. We know we are loved and cherished by our families. That we are truly sons and daughters as if we had been born to them. I know how much my parents love me, because I know how much I love my children.
If you are adopted, you are an adoptee forever. It doesn't stop when you leave high school or college, get married, have your own children. There are moments in your life that adoption is more significant and relevant, but it is always a part of who you are--your history that you bring with you throughout your life.
I have completed the full cycle of families. As a daughter, sister, grandchild, wife and mother. Two years ago I completed the full cycle of adoption.
I did not see my birth mother again. But I did find her. She died in 1978. Her last words were to my younger Korean brother, "You have an older sister. She went to America." I cannot tell you what that means to me. To know I was my mother's last thought as she was dying. I have met my Korean brothers. My family is extended now.
When Harry and Berth Holt from Creswell, Oregon adopted eight Amerasian children from Korea in 1955, they did not intend to change history. But their burden for the homeless children of Korea was echoed by thousands of families who came forward to do what they had done, and Holt International Children's Services, and intercountry adoption was born.
When the Holts first began helping families adopt from Korea, they did not have expertise in child welfare or adoption, but what they did have was tremendous conviction that God had called them forward to do this work for homeless children in Korea. In the four decades since, that work has expanded to more than ten countries and touched the lives of more than 100,000 children who have been united with permanent loving families around the world through adoption.
Adoption has evolved dramatically in the last four decades--much of it in response to adoptees themselves. We have learned that you cannot forget your beginnings, no matter how difficult or hurtful they may have been. It is more appropriate to understand and accept those circumstances and find the balance with the rest of your life to be at peace with who you are.
By living in families around the world, but remaining proudly and significantly connected to the country of their birth makes adoption global in a human and personal way. By living our individual lives as fully and successfully as possible, we are a proud legacy for birth countries, wherever we are in the world.
Susan Soon-Keum Cox
Reprinted with permission from Focal Point
©1996 Regional Research Institute for Human Services