Korean Adoptees Put Pen to Page

In honor of National Adoption Awareness Month, we spoke with local Indy adoptees.
korean adoptees feature

When Maven Advisory Board member, Michelle Dahl read the New York Times piece World’s Largest ‘Baby Exporter’ Confronts Its Painful Past, she felt compelled to answer the question, What would you want your biological/1st family to understand about being adopted/separated from them? 

In Michelle’s words, “[Korean adoptees] have lived truths, lies, finding/re-finding ourselves, unpacking adoption–being Korean in a white world, with racism and the ugly internalized racism, yearning, grieving, loving our adoptive families, cutting ties. Trauma. Any/all of it.”

So Michelle, Stephanie Smith, Kathryn Oh Hae Sook Lustig, and Mallory Joest answered that question in honor of National Adoption Awareness Month. Their answers offer important and contrasting insight into being a Korean adoptee in America. We are grateful they felt safe to share them with Indy Maven. Read on below to better understand your neighbors.

Stephanie Smith
Stephanie Smith

Stephanie Smith 
Current City: Indianapolis, IN
Adoption Agency: Holt International
Birth Name: Prefer to omit
Birth City: Seoul, South Korea

In response to the NYT article, I’d go with “I’m alive” as my first note of mention. 

Secondly, I’d like to tell my bio family (and anyone reading this) that they could have aborted me, and I never would have known. I want to make it clear that my life and my existence will never serve as an argument against a woman’s right to bodily autonomy.

I will freely admit that my feelings about my birthing lady and her sperm donor tend to cover a wide range of sentiments at any given time.  I am not a vindictive person, but being deprived of access to key medical information, family history, my culture, etc. makes me want my bio fam to also be deprived of me. Truthfully, I’m very successful and generally content with my life.  I’m engaged to a wonderful man, I’m a decent human with a loving family, friends and a lot of dogs.  I own my own home. I’m good at everything I put effort into, and I’m fiercely independent. I do not want my biological parents or the baby exporters to think that they did this for me. I did this for myself. 

So here’s my note to my bio family: 

You’ll never understand one fucking thing about me.  I’ve lived my entire life without ever even seeing a person that I share blood with, and I’ve become a living example of nurture over nature.  You don’t deserve my time, affection, or any answers to your questions about me. I was supposed to be an important part of your life; we were meant to be bonded forever, unconditionally. You threw me away, and I hate you for it. 

The painful thing is that sharing my life and my accomplishments with you is all I’ve ever wanted.  

Also, my ass is so fucking flat. Your butt genes are the worst. 

Michelle Dahl
Michelle Dahl

Michelle Waugh Dahl (she/they)
Current City of Residence: Franklin, IN
Adoption Agency: Holt International
“Birth Name”: Jung Yung Ah
City of Origin: Busan

To my 암마 (and 1st Family),

To say my life began May 21, 1976 when I arrived stateside in the arms of my new white parents, Mike & Kathy, is a narrative of some truth and also the foundation of every unknown for the entirety of my 47+ years of life. 

I had “arrived,” yet had I? 

My birth certificate states: 

Mother: unknown 

Father: unknown


It’s nothing. 

Yet, it is a void full of everything from which I exist. 

I’m finding, as many of my fellow 200,000+ Korean adoptees, that that “unknown” may not at all have been the fairy tale version everyone drank like a magic potion, myself included. This more “palatable” and more importantly “sellable” tale: We were all unwanted. We were abandoned by poor, uneducated, unsavory, single mothers. Our adoption “saved” us. However, we are finding that story ranged from a truth to the most insidious fact; we were kidnapped and sold. And everything in between. 

I could keep going, but that’s not why I’m here. 


I do not hate you

I do not blame you

I used to say I forgave you. As a mother of five, I realized the gross assumptions that had to be made for me to “forgive” you. How condescending. It squarely placed a blame on you that may not have even existed. You may well have just been a victim of a legalized child trafficking system that was bigger and stronger than you. Than all of us. South Korea and the United States made sure of it.

Regardless, of why, I arrived into this world on a real or plausibly fake birthday of November 21, 1975, birthed by you. Truths that I do know. Like my 5 babies, I grew within your womb. Comforted by your warmth and safe haven. I grew. I would experience the sounds of your laughter. Your cries. Your gait would lull my curled up body to sleep. I grew by the Korean foods you ate. The Korean air you breathed. The Korean water you drank. 

My existence is you. 

I don’t know you, but being a mother, I know. I know you experienced my existence. Wanted or not, we were connected. 

Growing up in a white family, in a white community, any residual roots from our connectedness were severed. When people told me I was just as white as they were, I had nothing to see, touch, hear, taste, smell to prove to them or myself that I wasn’t. The stares, racist comments, feeling of unwelcomeness to hostility, what my own children have experienced, always spoke louder than those empty words.

I’ve had a good life. I’ve had a privileged life, but not without the hardships of being something that no one else was. Korean. A whole upbringing that erased and ignored my Korean face, body, eyes, truth. I’ve had joy. I’ve experienced loss. I’ve had a life mostly haphazardly navigated by unresolved trauma. I’ve been healthy. I’ve been sick a lot. I just learned that could very well be caused by Weathering: The Extraordinary Stress of Ordinary Life in an Unjust Society (Dr. Arline Geronimus)

I found myself struggling for what seemingly appeared to be for no reason, until I found EMDR Therapy. It was not only life-changing, but life-saving-in ways I didn’t even know I needed saving. Experiences, trauma, it does so much to our brains, our BODIES. 

I recognize your trauma. Growing life within and having it severed either by choice or not, indelibly leaves a mark. A lot of folx like to use adoption as a “pro-life” narrative, but maybe your life would have been better if you’d aborted me. Maybe your life was better because I was no longer with you. 

I do not know. 

I may never know. 

I don’t think you owe me any kind of explanation either. The most difficult lesson I’ve learned in my whole entire life thus far is: 

No one owes us anything. 

I know that sounds harsh, but it’s actually very freeing if you have the courage to lean into it. Because…I hope you’ve lived a good, free life. I hope you’ve lived a happy, full life. It’s everything I want for my own children. I want them to freely live their lives to their own full potential. And it won’t be because they are obligated to me. 

I know my perspective is not like most Korean adoptees’ shares. So, if you could know, if we ever should meet, please do not fear rejection, judgment, or anger from me. All of those are valid with a story of “unknown” like ours. But I have none of those for you. 

Life is not a straight line, nor “black and white”. It’s fluid. Some things we know are right, are not always right. Things we know we would never do, must be done when there is just no other option. We do our best. Sometimes we really don’t. 

Life. Just. Happens. 

There is all the weight in the world in the word MOM. So much so, that as if individual pressure wasn’t enough, the crippling societal pressure to be the most-best-amazing-flawless “mom”, in so many ways, have set us all up to fail. 

I know there is no failure here, though. My children. Your grandchildren. Me. All of me. Not just to be the best partner, but enjoy life with the best partner. 

If we should happen to meet (I wish for this so very much), I will hold your face in my hands, and look deeply into your eyes to see your soul. My hope is that you will see my heart & soul. You will see you and know the love I have for my family, my children, my life, all originated from you.

I love you.

Kate Lustig
Kate Lustig

Kathryn Oh Hae Sook Lustig
Current City of Residence: Carmel, IN
Adoption Agency: White Lily Orphanage / Holt Adoption Agency
“Birth Name”: Oh Hae Sook
City of Origin: Daegu (found around this area)

At 51 years of age, my response to this question is vastly different than what it would have been in my teens or twenties or pre-child of my own. In my younger years, I would have wanted my birth family to know how sad I was to not know them, to not even know what they look like. To see so many families where the genetics are clear on Christmas cards, class photos, baby pictures. I would want them to know that even though I was surrounded by love from my adoptive family, it wasn’t the same. It didn’t look or feel the same as the love that I imagined my mother would have for me. It didn’t feel awkward like being short and dark-haired in a forest of 6 foot, blue-eyed trees. I would want them to know that I imagined people would say to my mother, “oh, she looks so much like you! She favors her grandmother. She is beautiful.” It wouldn’t feel like “Does. SHE. SPEAK. English??” in loud voices or men staring at me even when I was still just in elementary school. It wouldn’t feel like that. 

Now at 51, my response is still tempered with sadness, but I want them to know and understand that I did it. I made it. I survived, and I’m a mother. I would literally have died for my child, and as she prepares to move on and further away from me and I feel the pangs of real separation from her for the first time, I want my mother to know how fully I love her. How somehow, despite my separation from her, I was still able to love my own daughter. That somewhere, in me, detached from so many things and people, I found it within me to love someone so completely. I want my mother to know that I am sure that that came from her, and I want her to know how grateful I am. And that I made it. 

Michelle Chaffin
Mallory Joest

Mallory Joest
Current Residence: Westfield, IN
Adoption Agency: SWS (now KWS)
Birth Name: 임미향 (pronounced eem mee hyang)
City of Origin: Seoul

I was five months old when my parents adopted me.  I had always assumed that because I had no conscious memory of my life pre-adoption, it didn’t really impact me.  However, watching our foster daughter go from a newborn to five-months-old showed me the significance those early months of life held.  It forced me to think about my own beginnings and for the first time, I began grieving for my younger self. 

I resented my birth mother up until my early thirties.  Anytime she crossed my mind, I’d envision how she didn’t want me.  But then, I had a family of my own.  And my journey towards understanding unraveled when I became a foster parent in 2018—a path that has always called me.

As a foster and now adoptive mom, talking with my daughter about her adoption has been both profound and complex.  I grappled with the termination of her mother’s parental rights because it mirrored the narrative of my own past.  The internal struggle I experienced was like a relentless war within my own thoughts and emotions.  Questions surrounding the circumstances of my own relinquishment began to surface.  Did my own birth mother face similar turmoil?  Was her decision not as straightforward as I had once believed?

It was through adopting my own daughter that I not only found empathy for the complexities of a mother parting ways with her child, but also a newfound compassion and forgiveness for my own birth mother.

If there’s one thing I could share with my birth mother or birth family, it would be that my journey as an adoptee and adoptive mom–while rooted in questions and complexities–has given me the ability to see adoption through a kaleidoscope of perspectives.

My life experience has made me more empathetic and a better mom.  Presently, I’d thank my biological mother for giving me life.  And finally, I would express to her that if my existence has caused her any pain, I hope she finds peace and knows all is forgiven.

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