I am proud to introduce Mary Choquette, my dear friend and PWAP guest columnist, who has an amazing story to tell about her time in Seoul, South Korea. Her tale will certainly bring a smile and a few tears. Enjoy!
About a year and a half ago, Andrew’s career took us to Seoul. We were newlywed and everything in East Asia was new to us. Since our arrival we have acquired our fair share of stories to tell. To no surprise, most of our experiences have been more humorous and entertaining than inspirational. However, 18 months later, one thing remains true, nearly every day as Americans living in Asia is an adventure.
One particular story, that we were privileged to experience and now to share, left us in complete awe of the pure beauty that is a mother loving her son. What started as a last minute visit from two dear friends ended in an incredible reunion after nearly 25 years of being apart. It was unexpected and one of the most beautiful moments I have ever witnessed. It so graciously gave meaning to living in a place so far from home.
When Megan let us know that she and Mark would be coming to Seoul for Memorial Day weekend, we were thrilled. Not only had we become expert Seoul tour guides with so many US visitors, it was my birthday weekend and I could not think of a better way to celebrate. I immediately began making plans for their visit.
In the back of my mind, I definitely wondered how Mark would feel about being in Korea. I knew he was born here and had been adopted at a very young age. The Mark I knew came from Cleveland, Ohio, and had 3 sisters and a brother. He was Catholic and Scottish and as Midwestern as they come. Still, I imagined it would be a strange experience to come back to a place where you had once been but have no recollection of being.
Before they arrived, I decided to ask if Mark wanted to go to the place where he was born or try to visit the orphanage where he lived. His response was fairly casual. He said he was interested to learn about his past, but he also knew that with only 2 weeks before the trip and 4 days in total in Korea, he was not expecting to get very far. Little did he know, it would be only 2 weeks before he was in his birth mother’s arms for the first time in a quarter of a century. I’m telling you this is a story worth sharing.
Let’s start at the beginning.
In 1981 Mark was born as Hwang Chul Woong in South Korea. Until recently he believed that he had lived in an orphanage for the 5 years he was in Korea before being adopted by a family in Ohio. There was no information about his birth mother in his adoption records and he had only a few pieces of evidence (clothing and shoes) that he was ever in Asia. He learned English, forgot Korean, and grew up like any other boy on the block in the Midwest.
Mark said he had always wondered about his origin and what had led his mother to give him up for adoption, but he had never explored it more than in his imagination. Then Megan and Mark decided to visit us in Seoul and for the first (and only) time in 25 years, Mark decided to request information regarding his adoption.
What he discovered was very limited. He received the name of the orphanage and a contact number for a social worker in Seoul and that was about it. Thinking 4 days would not be enough to get very far along in the process of finding his birth family, Mark decided not to submit the paperwork to start the search. He figured this trip would be a way for him to experience the culture and hoped that someday in the future he could begin the process of getting more information.
Megan and Mark arrived at midnight on Thursday and we talked briefly about trying to get to the orphanage. From what I could tell, it seemed like it would be at least 2 hours by train to make the visit and I was not sure I would be able to figure out how to get us there. Luckily, we had the contact info for a social worker named EJ and we decided that first thing in the morning we would call her to see if she could help direct us to the right place.
And that we did.
She was very friendly and invited us to come to her office at 10am (remember this later). The Post Adoption Services office was a quick cab ride and we were welcomed warmly.
We met in a small room where EJ gave us a map and directions to Mark’s orphanage. She also said she would make an appointment for us to visit on Monday morning. Success!
She suggested some items we could bring to the children in the orphanage and gave us some general info about the children currently living there. Then before we left, she asked us to step inside her office so we could get her business card and leave her our contact info.
As she sat down at her desk, she casually asked Mark if he had ever considered tracking down his birth mother. Mark explained that there was no information in his records, but that he was prepared to begin the process in the very near future. He went on to say that since he would only be in Korea for 4 days and the trip was scheduled at the last-minute, he did not feel like he had enough time to give the proper notice.
EJ looked at her monitor and smiled. She said, “I have your mother’s information right here in front of me.” I instantly got goosebumps and Mark got very quiet. Tears filled his eyes. “Can you give it to me?” he asked. EJ sighed and apologized; the answer was no. Mark would have to formally submit the request and it would take at least 6 weeks to make the contact and see if his mother was interested in meeting. However, “the good news”, she explained,”is when you are ready, we have what we need to contact her.”
Mark stayed quiet and tears continued to fall. I started to get nervous about the whole thing. Was it going to be too much to go to the orphanage? What could we say to make him feel better? I could not even imagine what was going through his mind, but it was clear that he was impacted by the discovery. EJ could see this too, but unfortunately she did not budge on the policy.
We thanked the social worker, took a few deep breaths and hugged and headed out for a day of sightseeing…all I could do is hope that we could have some fun.
And fun we had. We ate a traditional lunch, toured around palaces and markets, and ended the night with Andrew’s drinking games, dancing and enough soju to make Mark forget all about the emotional beginning of the day.
Needless to say, Saturday was a little rough. Between the jet lag and hangovers, we didn’t get very far. When Sunday rolled around, we were ready to have a really full day of taking in the sights. We put together an agenda and planned to get up early.
When morning arrived before Andrew and I had even gotten out of bed, Mark and Meg were up and eager to start the day.
While they were waiting for us, Mark decided to check his email, and it's a good thing he did.
EJ had contacted him on Saturday morning. She was so moved by his emotions on Friday that she broke policy. She made some calls and asked for a few favors from Korean authorities and she connected with Mark’s mom.
SHE CONNECTED WITH MARK’S MOM.
Not only was Mark’s mom willing to meet him, she had called EJ more than 20 times on Saturday to see if Mark had responded to her email. EJ shared that she was desperate to make the connection happen before Mark’s departure and that she wept when she received the news that her son was in Seoul.
Within an hour we were on our way to a train station on the south side of the city where Mark’s mom would be arriving shortly.
We planned to meet EJ prior to her arrival so she could explain the process. The excitement was palpable.
Once we arrived, EJ told us that Mom was married with 3 other children (Mark has siblings!) and an owner of a family BBQ restaurant. That was all she knew. That and that she was very very excited and anxious to see Mark.
Mark thanked EJ over and over for her help. She had made this all possible and he was very grateful. Here they are before Mom’s arrival.
The next 30 minutes seemed to take an eternity. We settled into a booth at a restaurant and waited and waited. EJ left to meet Mom, Mark asked us to take pictures and video, and we prepared to witness/capture the moment he had waited for his whole life.
When she arrived there was not a dry eye at the table. She had a kind smile and looked SO much like Mark. Words cannot describe it. It literally took my breath away.
What came next was even more emotional (if that is even possible). Mark’s mom began to tell her story – Mark’s story – their story.
She told us that she had never married Mark’s father but had lived with him in the beginning of their relationship. Together they had Mark and 3 years later a daughter (one of Mark’s siblings was full-blooded!). Eventually, Mom had given them both up. Mark’s birth father was abusive and unfaithful and in and out of their lives.
She explained that Mark was always by her side and very protective of her. She asked Mark if he remembered trying to get in the way of his father when he would come after her physically. Mark did not remember. She then asked Mark if he remembered the birth of his sister. Again, he did not. She told him that she was alone in the hospital and that his father had not come to be there with her, so Mark held her hand through the entire labor and delivery. Mark was 3.
Then Mom pulled out pictures. There were just a few of Mark as a baby and then some taken at a park. She explained that she had taken Mark to the park with all of his cousins the last day they were together because she wanted him to have a good last memory with his family. And then Mark REMEMBERED the park or at least the memory of how he felt at the park.
She teased him a bit for being a fat kid and told him she was surprised he was so handsomely slim as a grown man. This made us all laugh.
Mom went on to talk about how much shame and guilt she had over giving Mark up. In the early 1980s in South Korea, single mothers had a very difficult time. No one wanted to marry someone with children, or employ someone who was an unwed mother and her family was too poor to take care of her and her children. She had very little in terms of options and eventually was forced to give Mark and his sister up – in the hopes that they would have a better life.
Years later, she married a man and together they run a small family restaurant and have two children – a son who is 22 and a daughter who is 16. Mom’s husband knows about Mark and his sister, but his half-siblings have not been told the story yet. Mom promised to share it with them as soon as possible so they could all come together as a family.
She shared that she had no idea what had happened to Mark (or his sister) but had thought of him every day. As a practicing Buddhist she had spent years praying with her monk for him. 2 years ago, Mom’s monk had shared with her that Mark would be coming back to her. He explained that he had a vision and was certain that Mark would come to find her and it would be the only chance she had to meet with him so she should find a way to connect with him no matter what (hence the 20+ calls to EJ).
Unbelievably, at 10 a.m. Friday morning, (at approximately the same time we were at the Post Adoption Services office), the same monk called Mom to ask if she had received any good news recently. Incredibly, everything had lined up exactly as needed to make it all come together.
Tears continued to flow and more information was exchanged. Mom had no idea that he had not grown up in Korea and was expecting him to be able to communicate in his native language (can you even imagine!?). She was so happy to learn that he had a good life and had grown into a compassionate caring man. There was a visible natural bond between the two of them.
After the story had unfolded, EJ told us she had to return to her family and Mom announced that Mark’s aunt and uncle would be joining us to share a meal. She then asked EJ to ask him and Megan to come to her family’s home for the night.
There was another set of tearful hugs when Mark’s extended family arrived – just so much love all around. We ate and Mark and Meg geared up for the adventure that lie ahead.
At first I think there was some uncertainty about how it would work to spend time without the ability to properly communicate, but ultimately Mark and Megan did not want to pass up the opportunity.
We all headed back to our house so they could pack some overnight items and Andrew and I tried to share a few helpful hints and did the best we could to let them know what to expect staying in a Korean home. We both agreed that we would have loved to have the experience of eating and sleeping in a traditional Korean apartment - it is something we have not been able to see firsthand as foreigners living in Seoul.
Here is the group at our apartment before they left.
Can you even believe the resemblance!?
Sure enough they returned the next day with stories of cooking together and sleeping on the floor in one large room – Mark in his mother’s arms. They met aunts and uncles and cousins and felt so much love it was almost too much to bear. It had been a perfect reunion and the beginning of a new relationship.
After a tearful goodbye, we sat around talking about how incredible the last 24 hours had been. Mark said he felt as though a void had been filled. Megan, Andrew and I agreed that we felt it happen when we witnessed their reunion. He instantly felt closeness with this woman he had always imagined existed. Questions were answered and a pain that had been there for a lifetime had been relieved. He finally knew he was given up only because of love.
So there you have it. A story never I will certainly never forget and a message that has never been more clear. The world is a beautiful place – filled with tremendous obstacles and difficult choices – but most importantly love; pure and true love.
I’m a thirtysomething Midwestern girl who recently stepped away from nearly a decade in the corporate world to pursue all things that don’t include sitting in a cube. I stay busy navigating my way through life as an American living in East Asia, do a ton of traveling, and love to blog about it all. I moved to Seoul from Chicago in January of 2010 with my (then) brand new husband. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. South Korea had never been on my-top-ten-destinations-to-see-before-I-die list, and Asia, in general, was barely on my radar. Still, never shying away from an adventure, when the opportunity came up for us to come and live in the Land of the Morning Calm, we could not resist.
And really, how hard could it be? 18 months, one international career, hundreds of obstacles and countless countries later, I can say without a doubt we have had our fair share of challenges here. However, the experience is not without an even more generous amount of reward. I cannot begin to explain how much I have learned about myself and the world in such a short time. In a place where making tacos for dinner or finding shoes that fit can be as difficult as landing your next big promotion, there is never a dull moment. You can follow our journey at www.allmyheartinseoul.wordpress.com.