Updated: Mar 5, 2020
By Glenn Morey
“I remember living above a store in one room. I remember, just around the corner, there were the outhouses. Down the hill was a cathedral. I remember, vividly, the morning when my mother gave us up. My teacher came to pick me up for school. She told him I wasn’t going to school. And we had these pastries, which we never got—that was a real treat. She was crying, and crying, and crying.”
As told to Glenn and Julie Morey
For the Side by Side Project
For most people, self-identity is deeply rooted in family stories. But for myself, I’ve never felt part of my own family’s stories—generations going back to the early American colonies, war heroes, preachers, farmers, boozy philanderers, beatnik uncles, singers, rocket scientists, the short-ish men on my father’s side, and the hook nose on my mother’s side.
My adoptive family’s stories do not explain how I came to exist in the world. They are largely irrelevant to my own life experiences— as an inter-country, transracial adoptee, as a child and adolescent, as a teenager and young adult, and to my decades of living and working in a predominantly white society and profession.
My face in the mirror, the face of a 60-year-old Korean man, bears no resemblance to anyone I know. I do not have anyone else’s eyes, or hands, or smile, or laugh. I do not know the names of my biological parents, or whether they’re alive or dead. I’ll never know their stories, or how I came to be in the world as Korean-born, looking like them.
For most of my life, I could not escape this feeling that I came from nowhere. While I had no vocabulary to fully describe this sense of alienation, I eventually told my wife, years ago, that I felt like an island. I got no further than that, really. I had no words. I couldn’t describe what is was like being the only Asian kid in my school, or hating being Korean from a very early age. I didn’t understand that I simply didn’t know how to be so different, and that there was nobody to teach me. I couldn’t articulate how I’d become so obsessed with being self-determining and self-supporting, always rejecting the willing help of others.
In my early 40s, I realized I wanted the second half of my life to be different. I began to come to terms with the color of my skin, the shape of my eyes, and my life experiences as an Asian American. But it wasn’t until I attended the 2002 KAAN conference in Minneapolis that I began to understand my life as a Korean-born, inter-country, transracial adoptee.
Meeting other Korean adoptees face-to-face was, for me, transformative. I remember walking up to the KAAN registration desk at the Doubletree Minneapolis. I was immediately welcomed and recognized for the very aspects of me that had somehow created a lifetime of shame and denial. I walked into a room of people who looked like me. I talked to people who, in the most important ways, had lived my experiences. I don’t think I revealed much about myself that weekend—only that I was new to all of this. But I asked a lot of questions. And I heard many, many stories.
More than anything else, more than being among other Koreans, more than learning about Korean food, more than visiting Korea, even more than looking at my adoption files, I needed the stories of other adult Korean adoptees.
I needed to hear what others had learned about how they were abandoned or relinquished. To get a glimpse of the mind-bending range of adoption stories, adoptive families and upbringings. To interpret and normalize my own experiences. To talk about the complexities of our relationships with adoptive parents and families. To hear what it’s like to meet your birth parents or biological relatives, or to build a relationship with Korean family. To get advice on visiting or even living in Korea. To receive the wisdom of those who’ve gone much further in their journeys as Korean adoptees and Asian Americans. To help me make sense out of my existence and my life.
I am so grateful to the KAAN conferences, IKAA Gatherings, mini-gatherings, local meetups, and the many friendships that have enriched my journey as a Korean adoptee. Hearing others’ stories has been deeply affirming. It has helped me think about and articulate my own story and feelings, and my own issues of loss, identity, and relationships.
Over the past seven years, along with my co-director and partner, Julie Morey, I produced and co-directed the documentary film project, “Side by Side: Out of a South Korean Orphanage and Into the World,” filmed in 7 countries and 6 languages, presenting the stories of 100 Korean women and men, born from 1944 to 1995. 88 were adopted abroad, and now live around the world. 12 aged out of their orphanages, and mostly live in South Korea. To my knowledge, this is the most expansive collection of Korean or inter-country adult adoptee narratives in documentary film.
But adult adoptee voices have only just begun to be heard. Through personal memoirs, literary fiction, scholarly works, articles and blog posts, art and film, adult adoptees are telling their own stories, and of our place in history—more than 60 years of human migration through inter-country adoption.
The proliferation of adult adoptee voices gets us to real-life issues that only adult adoptees can speak to with resonance and clarity. We are hearing from all perspectives. We are hearing about all outcomes. We are inspecting this widely practiced convention—nearly a million inter-country adoptions since the 1950s—deeply and without restraint. We are acquainting society with the duality that is inherent in all adoption. We are showing the world, powerfully, that it takes many stories to fully understand adoption and, certainly, inter-country and transracial adoption.
In my own journey, I’ve come to think of the Korean adoptee community as my family. Our stories are my story. Our joys are my joys. Our wounds are my wounds. Every adoptee I’ve ever met, every story I’ve heard informs my identity as an Asian American in race, a Korean American in ethnicity, and as a Korean-born adoptee in heart and mind.
Nearly 20 years ago, at the age of 42, all of this was a gift. So, thank you, KAAN. Thank you for that transformative weekend of discovery, of processing, of kindness, of enduring friendships, of stories. Thank you for bringing me into this family.
Glenn Morey is producer and co-director of the Side by Side Project—now a NY Times Op Doc (also on YouTube), film festival award-winner, and a 12-screen video art installation with exhibitions in Seoul and New York City. He was adopted as an infant from Seoul to Colorado, and he has enjoyed a 40-year career in filmmaking, advertising, branding, and media.