The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Korean adoptees embark on journeys to find roots

By Choi Jeong-yoon

Published : May 22, 2024 - 18:39

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Jakob Sandberg, a Korean adoptee who grew up in Sweden (The Korea Herald/ Choi Jeong-yoon) Jakob Sandberg, a Korean adoptee who grew up in Sweden (The Korea Herald/ Choi Jeong-yoon)

Growing up in what he described as the "small town" of Umea, Sweden, Jakob Sandberg has rarely felt like an outsider, despite his Asian features setting him apart from the majority of his friends.

Rather, it was actually South Korea, his motherland before being adopted to Sweden, where he encountered situations that led him to feel like an alien or “someone weird.”

Though he looked different than most of his friends, he recalled his carefree childhood in Sweden. “I had no problem growing up having supportive and loving parents and great friends, and being very good at school and playing sports. I was just a normal Swedish kid,” he said.

Identifying as entirely Swedish, with no chance of meeting other adoptees or being exposed to Korean while growing up, it was when he turned 19 that he felt he was “something more than just Swedish.”

“It was when I graduated high school that I really thought of who I am and where I came from. I started to wonder why I wanted to learn Korean so much. Korea, at some point, became really important to me, but I didn’t understand why. Every adoptee would have this feeling – who am I, what could my life have been if I had lived in Korea?”

Such thoughts prompted him to learn Korean in Stockholm. On his journey to finding his roots, he also spent six months in Gimhae, a city in South Gyeongsang Province, participating in an invited program by Inje University for overseas Korean adoptees to learn about Korea.

There he was “bombarded by crash Korean courses – learning the language, the culture, the food.” He recalls having “mixed feelings” at the time. He was certainly glad to get to know about the culture he had missed out on in his childhood, to satisfy his curiosity, but he was overwhelmed by “feeling defeated.”

“Because I am Korean, and I look like one, I was expected to assimilate as a Korean," Sandberg said. "But when I couldn’t meet these expectations, I just felt bad. 'Why do I not know this? I should know all this,'” he explained.

Struggling to find where he belonged, Sandberg said the experience of meeting “like-minded people” in the Korean adoptee community was important. As an adoptee, he would often feel he was “abandoned by Korea and that his home country did not care about him.”

Having almost no opportunity to know if anyone in Korea had missed or had been looking for him while he had been growing up in Sweden, Sandberg wished more young adoptees could be exposed to Korean culture earlier than he did, through the Overseas Koreans Agency's program, so that they might be able to think about their roots at a younger age.

Michelle Cameron, a Korean adoptee who grew up in Canada (The Korea Herald/ Choi Jeong-yoon) Michelle Cameron, a Korean adoptee who grew up in Canada (The Korea Herald/ Choi Jeong-yoon)

Passing on resilience

For 41-year-old Michelle Cameron, it was a news article about Korean adoption that got her into searching for her past. With less interest in connecting with her South Korean heritage when younger, she came to learn many international adoptions in Korea in the 1980s were related to missing children, and she thought her story sounded like it matched.

“When I read the article it sounded very similar to my story of what I knew about my own background as an adoptee. From that, it really got me to start doing more research to find out what really happened to me as an adoptee,” Cameron said.

This time, her second time visiting Korea, she has met her biological parents, who had looked for their missing daughter for years.

Still processing mixed layers of feeling, Cameron said sadness and joy come together for her, with no one to resent for her life.

“It’s a feeling you solely have to process by yourself," she said. "You have been missed, but not knowing that growing up, now there is really no one to blame for my sorrow. It’s great that I found my family and I have family to connect with. But I will have to process this feeling," she said.

Still coping with the trauma of her formative years of feeling "broken" by having to change families before she met her now-supportive parents, Cameron is cautious of passing on her wounds to her children.

She rather aims to teach her children the resiliency and strength she garnered growing up, hoping to let her children understand her background and history as well as how to overcome obstacles.

"We can either carry on trauma into the next generation or stop the cycle and bring love and joy."

Kaitlin Loebach, a Korean adoptee who grew up Canada, stands with her husband, Kyle Brown. (The Korea Herald/ Choi Jeong-yoon) Kaitlin Loebach, a Korean adoptee who grew up Canada, stands with her husband, Kyle Brown. (The Korea Herald/ Choi Jeong-yoon)

Family roots

A mother of two children, Kaitlin Loebach participated in the Overseas Korean Agency's program with her husband, two boys and her father.

"I wanted my family to learn about the Korean culture together as this is a big part of who I am," she said.

Though she was exposed to Korean culture growing up, she wanted to let her children understand their mother's background and let them have Korean heritage as part of their roots to understand who they are.

"Understanding where one came from and knowing their roots is important in forming a person," She said. "I want my children to have that."

"Lots of us want to understand where we come from and a history of ourselves of how we kind of got the place we are now. Coming to Korea and experiencing and seeing the culture is a way to understand that, especially being a parent of two young kids," said Kyle Brown, Loebach's husband.

"For me, understanding those roots and Kaitlin's connection to Korea is important not only for her but also for our family and for our kids," he added.

In the process, connecting with other adoptees helps her understand the feelings she have trouble navigating herself.

"Knowing that there are people like you just gives you power in a sense. You connect with people that can relate to experiences and thoughts I've had throughout my life that not everyone can. With them, you feel like whether you're adopted or not, down to the cores, we're all just humans."