By Kirsty Taylor
Overseas adoptees can often find returning to Korea an overwhelming journey full of mixed emotions.
But American adoptee Liz Dewart could only beam as she told of a twist to her return to her motherland, as the woman she was unexpectedly reunited with struggled to hold back the tears.
Daegu-born Liz was reintroduced to more than just the culture when she met Stephanie Simard, who was born in Chuncheon but flew to America on the same plane as Liz as babies almost three decades ago.
“We came to New York City on the same flight in 1983,” explained Liz as Stephanie’s eyes welled up for “the umpteenth time” that day.
“The Korean Social Welfare Society told us that three babies came from Korea together on that plane, and now two of us are coming back here together as adults.”
Two days in, the SWS-organized trip had already been a dizzying experience for the pair, who joined the group of 15 overseas adoptees all returning to Korea for the first time as adults.
The week-long program, now in its fourth year, sees adoptees from countries including America, Canada and Sweden visit their birth country for a cultural program supported by Seoul university students as volunteer buddies.
“(Coming to Korea) is sort of like a dream come true for me,” said Liz, now 28 and working as an English language teacher for international kids in Rochester, New York State.
“It was something I had always planned to do but it would be never a convenient time or money was always an issue. Then, you always have that really big fear of doing it by yourself, not fitting in or struggling with the language. Doing it with people who are dealing with the same issues that you are dealing with makes all the difference.”
Liz was delighted and amazed to meet Stephanie, who had unwittingly grown up a short drive from her babyhood buddy in the U.S.
“We have been up all night talking,” said Stephanie, who works for Burberry’s corporate philanthropy division in New York City. “We just can’t stop. There is so much to say.”
The 28-year-old whose adoptive mother is Korean-American, said: “I think coming here has a lot to do with personal identity, realizing how pieces of yourself can come together. As a Korean adoptee you can struggle with categorizing yourself as being Korean or American.
“Being here with people that have experienced the same sort of struggle can bring a lot of closure on life.”
Liz’s biggest worry was looking like a native but being unable to answer people when addressed in Korean.
“I was really nervous about arriving and not being able to speak the language ― about being different even though I look the same,” she said,
But when she arrived at the airport: “I was like, oh my gosh I can finally fit in. It was a slightly unreal experience.”
The visitors’ fears of struggling to find a connection in Korea were allayed with the SWS cultural program, which sees them experience the nation’s travel, music, food and also volunteer for orphans currently living in Korea.
The Korean government-funded program only requires participants to cover a portion of their airfare and personal expenses.
“We hope this program will make people feel comfortable, not like they were visiting just another foreign city or country,” said SWS social worker and program organizer Kang Shin-hye.
“They have never been to Korea before so they are very surprised even when they arrive at the airport and see that it is so huge.”
For Jin Arhov, who grew up in Stockholm, Sweden but was born near Namwon, North Jeolla Province, his first glimpse of Seoul had seen “high expectations surpassed.”
“Sweden is supposed to be a high-tech society, even called an IT country, but I was so impressed when I came to Seoul. It was even more modern, everything from the subways to the toilets is really modern,” the 39-year-old financial industry worker said. And his apprehensions about coming here had been allayed thanks to the program and his volunteer buddy, Kim Tae-wan.
“For a long time I wasn’t interested in Korea,” he said. “It wasn’t that I was against Korea but it was almost like I felt resentment toward it.
“My sister first came here years ago but I wasn’t prepared to do that then. I didn’t want to feel like I was being dragged back. Fifteen years later, I guess I am ready.”
And Sungkyunkwan University student Kim, 27, said: “When these people come back to their mother country I thought that they might have a little bit of hatred or anger but they have been totally different ― really open. … I am very pleased to show them the real Korea.”
Repeat volunteer Kang Sung-hoon, 24, an economics student at Sogang University told how he cried when the adoptee he helped out on the first program three years ago visited again recently: “This time he came back to Seoul to visit his birth mother so I helped them to converse. Sometimes this makes me really emotional. I really wanted to help out the program again.”
Kang said having Korean friends made it much easier for the adoptees to find connections in the country many of them grew up knowing little about. Group members will split to do some free travel with their helpers before returning to their home countries on Sunday.
And, “so that the adoptees can feel a little bit about their adoption background,” they also did some of their own volunteer work at the SWS Amsa Rehabilitation Center and an orphanage to let them meet kids currently living parentless in Korea.
Remembering the “amazing, touching experience” of holding the babies that were “part of my history” Stephanie welled up again, saying she wanted to do more to help the good work of SWS in Korea.
And Liz agreed: “It really helped me appreciate where we came from. Many of us were in orphanages before we were adopted. It was a bit like looking into the past. What an amazing way to come back to your people.”