Monday, June 29, 2015

Our son experienced his first return to his homeland as an adoptee, a violinist, a diplomat, and a 9-year-old.

Our family has been looking forward to our trip back to Korea since we traveled to Seoul and picked up our son nine years ago. My husband and I are voracious travelers, a passion we have passed on to August Jae Kyun who has been to 19 countries, 28 states, and 4 U.S. Territories. This love for experiencing new cultures is the main reason we chose to adopt internationally. We relish this lifelong adventure of incorporating our son’s—really our family’s heritage into our daily lives. That adventure included planning when and how we’d first return to Korea, but we never expected it would be a journey as packed as this one was with once-in-a-lifetime moments.

Our family was invited on this special trip because August has been listening to his Dad play the violin since he was 3 months old and learning to play the violin from James since he was 2. While we were waiting to pick up our son, Marilyn Regier, Sue Hollar, and other Barker staff visited SWS in Seoul. They offered to take something to our son, so we sent a tape with James and his violin students playing on one side and me reading a story on the other. The tape was passed along to August’s foster Mom who played it for him daily.

This dedication from his foster Mom helped create a love for music in August and led to an added bond between father and son, which caught the attention of Grace Song. Grace is a social worker who founded and directs ASIA, an organization sponsoring Korean culture school and summer family camps both of which we attend. When she heard about August learning violin from James, she invited them to perform together at camp. That led to subsequent performances including one at KORUS House and a fundraising concert in San Francisco promoting International adoption to the Korean American community. That concert was organized by Grace’s good friend, Minyoung Kim, another amazing woman helping gain support for adoptees from the entire Korean American community. That sold-out event led to a similar concert at The Kennedy Center featuring the Korean Adopted Children’s Choir from Seoul. And that resulted in James and August being asked to perform with the choir back in Korea and our entire family joining the tour leading up to this biggest concert of all.

The tour was unique in several ways. Grace and Minyoung had reached out to numerous friends and colleagues to arrange a truly momentous trip that allowed us in-depth views of our son’s homeland. This was really two tours happening simultaneously and occasionally intersecting. On the tour with us were three other adoptive families with children all about the same age. The other tour was for adult adoptees—many of whom were returning to Korea for the first time. August and James were invited to perform two concerts. The first as guest performers for the choir’s season finale, and the other as part of a huge production with multiple performers to promote international adoption.

We couldn’t pass up the chance for August to perform in Korea. Of course this was going to be an intense and emotional trip but we also wanted this first experience be as positive as possible. Being part of a small group with other kids August already knew meant he got to run around and be just a kid. As frequent international travelers we didn’t experience stress about the usual travel details. (I highly recommend not making your homeland visit your family’s first international trip for that reason.) In addition to the concerts and other events, we wanted to meet with August’s foster family and see the place where he was born. The staff at Barker quickly put us in touch with post-adoptive services at SWS. Ms. Lee from SWS coordinated with our foster family and arranged the birthplace visit. We also invited August’s foster family along with staff from SWS to see August perform.

The first few days were mostly for touring Seoul and getting over jet lag. Then we drove across the entire country to Pohang, a fishing village on the East Sea that’s become a thriving city because Posco Steel is headquartered there. Our group enjoyed the run of Posco’s private resort and a tour of the plant including a rare glimpse at molten steel being formed into giant bars. Minyoung grew up in Pohang and arranged a morning for us at her former elementary school. Hundreds of students ran out to the bus to greet us as we pulled up to the building. Many wore hanbok and all of them shouted “welcome to our school” in English. Each adult adoptee and family taught two classes and our kids got to be students for the day. James and August did a violin demonstration and we answered questions about school and life in America. They also held a tree planting ceremony so when we visit next time we can see how our Rose of Sharon tree had grown like our children.

As we left Pohang, we stopped at a Korean marine base as the personal guests of a two-star general. Officers showed us a military museum then led us into their tank simulator command center. We thought the tour would end after viewing a live battle simulation, which was a blast. But then they let us crawl inside the tanks. As we gathered to leave, a major gave August one of his stars and bars pins. August was thrilled by this. His glee was compounded when as we boarded the bus another officer handed us each a commemorative coin from the general.

Back in Seoul, the four families spent most of our time doing different activities than the adult adoptees, but we all stayed in the same apartment-like hotel and met up occasionally for a shared event and finally the big concert. Other highlights include exploring the headquarters of Korea’s largest internet browser——as well as a video gaming development company. Especially interesting for us was a behind-the-scenes look at MBC—one of three national broadcasting corporations.

The MBC tour was special because we were reunited with the people who spent nearly 30 hours filming and talking to us last September for a documentary on adoption. The program followed two international and two domestic adoptive families and was viewed by 4 million people. Yet another thrilling moment was having our family portrait shot by the most famous photographer in Korea who recently devoted an entire book to adoptees. He’s photographed the current president of Korea along with many celebrities such as Brad Pitt.

We were also matched with a host family who invited us to their home for dinner. We knew the family had two daughters around August’s age and that they both studied Suzuki violin, which is the method James teaches. What we didn’t know was how much the language barrier would affect us or what we might have to talk about for an entire evening. Four hours, two violin lessons, one sensational meal, and much laughter later we couldn’t believe what a great time we had.

The next night was the first of the two concerts. August and James performed five pieces as special guests of the Korean Adopted Children’s Choir. We were the only ones on the tour going to this concert, so we left the group and took a cab to the concert hall. It took a good 20 nerve-wracking minutes after we were dropped off on a busy street in Gangham before we found the building. As soon as one of the choir Moms saw us walk into the hall, we were all enveloped in big hugs. This was repeated again and again as we were reunited with all of the kids who had sung as part of the Kennedy Center concert last September. The choir concert meant the world to us. August couldn’t stop smiling about seeing his friends again—the fact that they couldn’t really talk to each other didn’t matter.

Next was the day of the big concert. It had been promoted on MBC and other media outlets. In addition to the choir and August and James; the adult adoptees sang and the four adoptive families were introduced with a brief bio and we sang Home Sweet Home as a group. In English and Korean! Internationally-renowned performers also participated including a pianist, an opera singer, and Korean drummers.

We had heard that August’s foster Mom and her two daughters were definitely going to be there along with several staff from SWS. As we were upstairs changing between rehearsal and performance, August kept asking if he could peek downstairs to see if his foster Mom had arrived. He couldn’t wait to see her. August also likes the idea that he has older sisters in Korea and was eager to see them as well. We finally walked together down the stairs and into the concert hall lobby. Looking around anxiously, we eventually saw a familiar face. August’s foster Mom saw August and immediately came over, picked him up and said “I love you.” It was the only English she spoke, but it was the sweetest thing we’d ever heard.

Thanks to the regular updates we send to her and SWS, August’s foster Mom recognized him right away. Her now adult daughters also gave August big hugs, held his hand, patted his head, and kept calling him Jae Kyun (we kept his Korean name as his middle name), which he loved. He also enthusiastically returned hugs, smiled nonstop, and didn’t want to leave their side even once the concert was about to begin. And after he played the final note and gave his bows, August waved to them from the stage. Once the concert ended August ran to where his foster family was sitting and his foster Mom handed him a huge bouquet. Another wonderful moment was seeing our host family who had come for the performance and gave August a big bunch of hydrangeas. Several other admirers presented flowers to our son, who couldn’t stop grinning and refused to let anyone else hold them.

That smile eventually faded, but not until about halfway through the reception when his foster Mom and her daughters came to say their good-byes. There were tears all around, but his sisters were crying the hardest and lingering the longest. What a touching thing to see how much this family who cared for our child the first six months of his life still love him so much.

Three days remained of our time in Korea and August was already asking when we could come back. One last emotional event remained. We arrived at SWS the afternoon before flying home and met with helpful and kind Ms. Lee. She showed us around the baby home and accompanied us to the place where August was born. We walked inside only to be taken completely off guard by a woman rushing up and grabbing August as tears welled in her eyes. On her heels was an older gentleman in a lab coat with a stethoscope around his neck who smiled and nodded at us then spoke to Ms. Lee. After the brief exchange, Ms. Lee turned to us and surprisingly introduced him as the doctor who delivered August and the woman as one of the nurses on duty at the time! We were incredulous. The doctor showed us around his offices and talked to August for a long time. We were elated and practically speechless after this fantastic meeting.

Since our return, we’ve told these stories over and over, but they haven’t lost any luster. Or their ability to make my heart ache with joy at how many people share our boundless love for August, the pride at the wonderful things he has already accomplished, and the knowledge that so many people care and give so much in order to bring families like ours together. Those same people continue to support us in our unique journey of making sure August Jae Kyun and all other adoptees feel welcome in both of their homelands. 

Shelley D. Hutchins, Barker Parent