Logic and guilt drove me to Korea; the story of how it changed me | Personal Essay by Sara Salansky (Spring 2020 issue)
Have you ever visited the Motherland? Any Motherland? When the opportunity comes … do it! Before 2018, I had no desire to visit my Motherland, but my son did. He was working in Beijing, China and had a two-week vacation for the Chinese Autumn Festival —- the holiday that is Korea’s Chuseok. I had offered to meet up with him somewhere, and had suggested Thailand, New Zealand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Hong Kong, basically any country south of Beijing.
But I had not even mentioned Korea, the place where I was born. Of course, he asked, “Why not Korea?” I told him, “I really don’t have a desire to go there.” However, after much discussion, my son guilted me into visiting my Motherland.
October 2018 was my first trip back to Korea since leaving it in October 1970. I was adopted to a family in Iowa, lived on a farm in a town of 2,800 and grew up as a teacher’s kid. On top of being different, I had the additional pressures of being well-behaved and smart. Even in college, I was supposed to be the stereotypical smart Asian. I left that small town and never returned, except to visit my parents. I never really had a bond with any of my classmates, so, leaving was not difficult at all.
After college, I joined the U.S. Air Force where I met my husband, got married and had both of my boys. We travelled where the Air Force needed us and ended up in Colorado to retire. Throughout my military career, I was still treated differently, but it wasn’t because of race. It was because of gender. Race wasn’t an issue in the military; it is diverse in that respect. But there is still discrimination against women in that male-centric organization.
The Koreans I met in the military were mostly dependent spouses, and I never developed a relationship with any of them. Looking back, I realize that I never wanted to be associated with them because of my bias towards them. They were not educated, couldn’t speak English well, and the husbands were always complaining about having to support their wives’ family back in Korea. My mental picture of Korea is one of uneducated, poverty-stricken people and dirty urban streets and markets. Being adopted out of Korea to live in a prosperous America was something I believe was meant to be. For all those years, I had no desire at all to find my birth family.
So, the Motherland trip was booked as a result of my son making me feel guilty for not wanting to see my homeland. It wasn’t travelling to Asia; I had no problems visiting China three previous times. I became more and more nervous while making plans to visit Seoul, Busan and Gyeongju, and the day of departure was getting closer. I jam-packed our itinerary purposely to avoid making a trip to the Holt orphanage, where I had lived at one time. But I did bring all of my adoption paperwork with me, if there happened to be a small window of time for a trip to the Holt office.
Lo and behold, on my last full day in Korea, a trip to Holt happened. The funny thing was, my son’s ex-girlfriend’s mother, who lived in Seoul, arranged the whole thing (a woman I am good friends with to this day). My caseworker Esther Kim and I still laugh about this when we get together.
What happened after that first post-adoption visit? Some crying… really for no specific reason. I thoroughly enjoyed our Motherland trip and I wasn’t disappointed. I’m glad I got to experience it with one of my sons. I’m glad he’s not ashamed of one side of his heritage but accepts it wholly. And, I made the decision that I would be back.
I’ve been back to Korea three more times to connect with Korea in different ways. On the next trip, I volunteered for two months at my former orphanage, Holt Ilsan. I remember particularly meeting Molly Holt and her sister Linda Park (children of the founders Harry and Bertha Holt) and Dr. Byung-kuk Cho. I experienced Seollal (Korean new year) and met the outside people. I was able to work with the special needs residents; I appreciated the unconditional support everyone offered them, and how we volunteers received huge smiles in return.
I am grateful for the time I had with Molly prior to her passing. I was able to fellowship with her and just listen to stories about the history of Holt. She told me of the trials and tribulations of working with the Korean government, and taught me about the customs and traditions of the model Korean family. These conversations were truly eye-opening for me because I never was exposed to anything about Korean culture and Korean adoptees prior to my visit to Holt Ilsan. She also shared with me how she hurt for adoptees who were placed in troubled families.
Some of her stories did not portray the country or its leadership in good light, and Molly acknowledged that. But I could sense Molly’s unconditional love for the residents. She believed the reason she never married was because God wanted her to be the best temporary mother for the orphaned children at Ilsan and the best advocate for its adult residents with severe disabilities.
Although many know pieces of Molly’s long career, many do not know how persistently she advocated for Koreans with special needs, advancing their cause to survive in a tough society. She has promoted funding for special needs Koreans in the larger society, and not just the residents of Holt Ilsan. The Holt School is open to any disabled person, and there is a long waiting list. To experience a graduation is joyful and so humbling.
Not knowing what to expect with volunteering, and jumping in blindly, I’m grateful for the opportunity to care for Molly, work with the residents and explore Seoul and Ilsan.
I felt I was able to show my gratitude to the orphanage who took care of me for two years of my life. Holt also arranged for me to visit my original orphanage, Star of the Sea, located in Incheon. I took a photo of Molly and me at the orphanage where I lived for the two years before living at Holt Ilsan. On my first trip back to Korea, I did not realize I had been at the Star of the Sea orphanage. It was a quick visit, and there was no time to look into my records in any detail. However, after looking at my paperwork with Molly and Dr. Byung-kuk Cho , it was evident that I was at two different orphanages.
My second trip to Korea was for International Korean Adoptee Association (IKAA) Gathering. My goal was to meet Korean adoptees and potentially connect to a community of U.S. Korean adoptees, specifically from my home state of Colorado.
I remember on one occasion early in my military career as a nurse, I was ordered by my chief nurse to organize the Asian Pacific Heritage Month. I was in shock. At that time, I was appalled that because I looked Asian, I should actually be Asian? Really? I remember literally telling her that had grown up on an Iowa farm, and that I knew nothing about Asian cuisine and traditions. I told her I was familiar with many more Scandinavian than Asian traditions. I still couldn’t get out of it.
So, six years into my Air Force career was my first experience eating authentic Asian food. I had no idea what Korean food was, and there I was organizing a huge lunch for 600 hospital employees. Talk about daunting!
IKAA was another nervous adventure for me. I met some people along the way who were very connected with other Korean adoptees. To me, it seemed like everyone knew everyone. Boy, did I feel lonely and out of place! I felt that I didn’t have the same feelings or goals or issues as the other attendees. My objective was to connect with fellow Korean adoptees in Colorado. I finally found three other Korean Colorado adoptees, but, that was better than none.
These days, I am slowly getting connected with other Korean adoptees in my area through IKAA, so that goal was met. I also wanted to get to know Dr. Byung-kuk Cho more while I was staying at Holt Ilsan during the Gathering. Every morning, I listened to her stories. So educational! Through these sessions, I got a better understanding of Korean life and culture.
IKAA also led me to the Twin Cities organization Adoptee Hub, and the opportunity to volunteer to help other Korean adoptees. On my third trip to Korea, I worked on Adoptee Hub project initiatives. I also started my birth search process, which I was adamant about not doing prior to 2018.
None of my trips to Korea have been a disappointment. They have given me a better appreciation of my Motherland, my heritage and my adoptee life. They have also given me opportunities to meet many wonderful people along the way. And none of this would have happened if my son didn’t make me go.
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Sara’s birth name is Ho Mi Ham. She was adopted at the age of five and grew up with Scandinavian American parents in Iowa. After graduating college she joined the U.S. Air Force as a clinical nurse and became a Communications and Information Officer. After 20 yrs of service, she retired in Colorado at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Sara is married and has two adult sons.