Bella Frey talks about life as a Korean adoptee in England.
It was in the 1950’s when the first babies were adopted to the United States from a war torn Korea. Many of them had been left orphaned and others abandoned. Since then hundreds of thousands of Korean babies and children have been adopted overseas to be welcomed by families all over the world. Most of the first generation of adoptees are now in their sixties.
Many of these babies in adulthood have felt the understandable need to reconnect with their birth country, seek and reclaim their lost cultural heritage. Many visit Korea to experience the land they were born to, taste new foods, photograph the temples, watch taekwando demonstrations and buy souvenirs. For some that is sufficient. Others need more. They try hard to understand Korean society and culture, which operates very differently from the countries they were raised in. They deal with the frustrations of not being wholly accepted as Korean and of not wholly being recognised as belonging to their adoptive countries, of somehow not feeling like they belong anywhere. It’s a deep and strange feeling, and it can only really be understood by others who have experienced the same fractured beginnings.
Korean adoptees, due in part to their high numbers, have created one of the largest global adoptee communities in the world. The internet has made communication only an email or a webchat away and there are websites representing groups all over Europe, Australia and The Unites States, as well as a humble webpage for the small British group. Activity within these groups ranges from occasional social meetings over some Bulgogi and Bibimbap, to large scale gatherings where hundreds of adoptees from all over the world meet over several days to discuss issues affecting them. The last major gathering was held this year in Seoul.
As well as groups who meet within their adoptive countries, there is also a thriving community of adoptees living in Seoul. Many are involved with invaluable support networks and organisations like G.O.A.’L, the Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link, who help other returning adoptees in various ways including assisting with searches for lost family, with accommodation and day to day living advice. They are also involved with lobbying to change the rights of returning adoptees such as the F4 visa which gives overseas adoptees the same right of stay as Korean nationals.
Being someone with a Korean face in England hasn’t always been a stroll in the park. I love being English and on the whole I feel extremely proud to have been brought up as English, but experiencing negative aspects of looking ‘foreign’ in this country ranging from obvious blatant racism to subtle prejudices and mostly unspoken assumptions, have taken their toll at times.
When I was younger I used to believe I looked the same as most of my school friends. Like my friends, I collected scented erasers, Barbie dolls, loved new sets of felt tip pens, developed a crush on George Michael and liked going to the beach after school. I only became aware that my face represented other things to other people when they would pass comment, or shout comments from cars and vans, or whisper between themselves. I wished I had someone I could talk to who would truly understand how it felt to be represented on the outside by a face and body alien to me. I knew people saw me as Oriental, Chinese, Japanese or Thai, yet I was Korean. I knew nothing of Korea and felt embarrassed by the few media sound bites I had heard about my birth country. I didn’t meet another Korean person until I was 24. I dressed like a tomboy to fight the glamorous media-fuelled stereotypes of oriental girls and I cut my hair short for the same reason.
It wasn’t until 1999, when I met other adult Korean adoptees for the first time, that I began to inhale a sense of pride in who I truly am. Not only the bits of me I was already proud of but all of me. The me who looked Korean on the outside and felt totally English on the inside. I had no idea that such a large number of Korean babies were adopted overseas, and were now, like me, searching for links to their past and feeling the need to connect with other adoptees.
One afternoon I was searching the internet and came across a forum discussing details of an event to be held in Washington DC a month later. ‘The first international gathering of Korean adoptees’. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I read every message, and scribbled down every detail of information. I posted my own message on the forum asking if anyone knew of cheap accommodation near to the event, and within the hour I had a reply from an adoptee living in Washington and offering me a spare room for the duration of the ‘Gathering’. He was a U.S customs official and also one of the first generation of Korean babies to be adopted overseas, so was now in his fifties. His kindness and generosity via that email helped me begin an amazing journey. By the following day I had booked my place at the gathering, a return flight, and had exchanged emails with other adoptees who would be attending. My excitement was through the roof, and I spent the weeks leading up to the trip in a daze, my head swimming with emotions.
On the flight towards the U.S capital, I felt like any other tourist visiting a new place for the first time. I chatted with fellow passengers and watched a movie. I cleared customs and walked through to the arrivals hall. I always find those places fascinating, trying to work out people’s stories and relationships. I bet no-one could have guessed my situation that day. Amongst the vast sea of unfamiliar faces I eventually spotted a piece of paper with my name on. Behind the paper were a group of Korean faces all smiling and speaking with their American twang. “Hey, I think that’s her!…Hey Bella, are you Bella?” I felt so strange walking towards this group of strangers, but was greeted with huge warm hugs, and a polite but firm handshake from my host, Mr Thatcher (yes, his name was Mr Thatcher!). I met the other adoptees who would also be staying at Mr Thatcher’s house, a young man from Switzerland, a Mum from Oregon and another DC resident. Partly due to jet lag and partly the euphoria of excitement, the afternoon and evening blurred into one big chat-a-thon and I hardly remember even going to bed.
The following morning our host accompanied us to the large hotel in the centre of Washington where the Gathering was to be hosted. I could not believe my eyes, so many Koreans. I couldn’t stop looking. I spotted girls with the same body type as me, I recognised my features in other faces. I felt like a little alien who had just been dropped back onto her own planet. It was a feeling I will never forget. The next three days were jam packed full of visits to Capitol Hill, The Korean Ambassador’s residence, the Korean War memorial, discussion groups and presentations. I spoke of things I had never spoken of before. I spent days caught between laughing and crying. I listened to so many touching life stories. I talked and talked, and I made friends. I made amazing friends, who for the first time in my life understood who I was wholly, as I also understood them. I met people who had grown up in various situations, from desperately unhappy and abusive, to picket-fence perfect, yet we all shared something we didn’t need to verbalise to understand. I became aware that many adoptees were married to or in relationships with other adoptees and I could understand why. The sudden intense feelings I developed for these people blew me away. It was as if I had known some of them all my life and felt connected by more than just friendly chatter. We went to tourist attractions, for many of us the first time as part of a group of other Koreans. It felt strange yet comfortable. We ate wonderful Korean food and we partied, and danced with glow sticks to ‘K-Pop’ in a Korean nightclub in the heart of Washington DC. I revelled in the novelty of the situation. I had found a true sense of belonging with these people. I smiled constantly.
I returned home to the UK with a huge thud. I felt disorientated, confused and lonely. It took several weeks to readjust to being the only Korean in my life again. I visited internet cafes an unhealthy amount of times per week in the hope that I could keep hold of the connections I had made with my new adoptee friends, though I knew that distance would mean it would be unlikely to see any of them for months if not years. I desperately wanted to feel connected to the adoptee community which I then knew existed. In the hope that I may find even one other Korean adoptee here, I sent emails to many of the people I had met and asked if anyone knew of any adoptees in the UK. Eventually I had a reply from a chap in Belgium who had remembered being on a trip to Korea with an adoptee who was English. I sent an email and within weeks I had arranged to meet with him along with a Swedish adoptee I had met in Washington. We met and chatted in a London pub. I learnt for the first time that there are adoptees here in the UK, but unlike other countries, England had only ever admitted about 70 adoptees from Korea, and all within one year. My new friend said he would try to contact some of the others he knew of to see if they would be open to meeting up. He hadn’t seen many of them since childhood. I was delighted and excited to think that there may be other adoptees here too as since my return from Washington I yearned to be in the company of other adoptees.
Within a couple of months a lunch had been organised in New Malden. A generous restaurant owner had offered to host our first meeting. I had never been to New Malden, and certainly had no idea it is the UK’s little Korea town. I had been living in south west London for a few years and had no knowledge of this little community of Koreans living a few miles from my home. At Asadal, an unassuming looking restaurant on a suburban high street, I met my first UK Korean adoptees. It is a strange feeling to meet with a group of strangers, to wonder if we will actually have anything to talk about. I hadn’t needed to worry. We found plenty to talk about and, ten years later, still do. We meet monthly with varying numbers attending but usually about six of us. The same generous hosts provide us with our monthly banquet. We eat until we hurt. I would need an x-ray to confirm this but I believe I have a spare stomach for Korean food and it seems twice the size as my English one. Some of us found it difficult to adjust to the new tastes but I think even the most resistant can find themselves craving Kimchi every now and again.
I feel incredibly lucky to have regular contact with other adoptees, and to be able to count them amongst my friends. We are an eclectic bunch, all leading quite different lives. Amongst our group are an artist, a writer, an accountant, a carer, an analyst, a health and safety manager and a decorator, busy parents and carefree twenty and ‘thirtysomethings’, but we share a special relationship which means that although we sometimes go for months without seeing one another, when we get together we get to share a part of ourselves we leave hidden for most of our day to day lives. We can chat about silly things such as being told we speak good English, or people being surprised that we don’t have Korean names. We can get emotional, share our insecurities or the more difficult parts of our individual stories. We can open up about things which are sometimes awkward or sensitive for our families or non adopted friends to share with us. I can’t imagine my life without them. It is enriching and special to have people in my life with whom I share so much common ground.
I still keep in contact with my overseas adoptee friends too. Since the gathering in Washington in 1999 I have visited Korea twice and made more fantastic friends, adoptees from France, Belgium and the U.S. Social networking sites have made it an easy way to stay close across the miles, and it really does feel like I belong to one special global community where doors are open all over the world.
- Kimchi Feeds my Soul: Bella on the lost taste of childhood