Holà, dear readers! Did you like the article about adoption in Korea? Do you wish to know more? To read about the journey of someone who lived it? I know you do, so I went and interviewed Lena, who kindly agreed to answer my questions!
Can you introduce yourself briefly? What do you do for a living? When did you arrive in France? How old were you? From which city do you come from?
My name is Lena, I am 36 years old, and I was born in South Korea as Shin Dong Yeon. I arrived in France in 1985, I was 4 and a half years old. Currently, I am working as a coder for Cued Speech. I transmit the speech from non hearing impaired people to the deaf through a visual mode of communication that uses handshapes and placements in combination with the mouth movements of speech to make the phonemes of a spoken language look different from each other (src: National Cued Speech Association).
How was your integration in France? Within your family and society in general?
Very good! In the beginning, I was a little like a circus freak. My parents live in a small village of Bretagne, so…! I arrived in the summer so everyone went to the beach, everyone knew that I had arrived. Many people came to see me, they were very curious to know me. Once, I got a comment. I was in kindergarten and a classmate told me: “That’s your mom? But she doesn’t look like you!” In my family, it went very well too. I have a big brother, also adopted—French—and everyone was very welcoming.
Did you ever experience difficulties because of your origins?
Not really, except once in middle school. Because I was laughing, I was called “lemon face,” but otherwise no, people were very friendly. Besides, I had health issues that were also physically noticeable, so my classmates were rather considerate towards me and defended me. But I was the only Asian girl in my school and in my entourage. I didn’t like that. In fact, I wanted to be like the others. So, since I had a “French”education, there was a sort of dichotomy between my reflection in the mirror and what I had in mind. For me, I felt French and when I looked at myself in a mirror, I saw an Asian: it wasn’t okay! For example, when I was little, I wanted to be blonde. I even asked my mother to bleach my hair and curl it, she obviously said no! I was ashamed to be Asian, and it lasted until I was about 18 years old. Around that age, I met another adopted Korean girl, and it unconsciously helped me to accept my origins because we had things in common. It was at this age that I began to discover that difference is ultimately an asset, because you aren’t like others.
You arrived in France at 4 and a half. Before your adoption, were you in an orphanage?
I was with my family until February 1985 and I was adopted in July, so I didn’t stay there that long. Because I was ready, I was waiting impatiently to be adopted! This is what was written on my orphanage file, it said I knew how to wash myself, I put my toys away without prompting, I was very well-behaved. On the other hand, I asked for adults’ company very much. Every day, I asked the educators if they had found a family for me. I was very aware of the situation, my parents had to explain to me why they were dropping me off at the orphanage. Which is true, because I always knew I’d been adopted because of my health issues.
How and when did did you come to take interest in your native country?
It came to me when I started coming to terms with my origins, I’d say in my 20s. I told myself I had to go back to Korea. I was going through a very difficult period at the time and I needed to know who I was, where I’d come from: my roots. It was in my head and, curiously, one day when I was studying, I happened to meet a Korean man who was a French professor at the University of Seoul. He was taking a sabbatical year in France, and subsequently we stayed in touch via the internet.
Then one day in 2005, I said to myself “I have to leave.” So, I sent an email to this professor to tell him about my research project on my origins. He told me to come by the end of September, and I went to Korea for the first time on September 25, 2005! And curiously again, by chance, six months before I was set to fly off, a waiter at a Chinese restaurant, gave me the contact details of a Korean girl who kindly gave me Korean classes for two hours a week, and this is how I began to learn Korean.
You were able to find your biological parents, can you explain how it happened? How long did it take?
It didn’t take me much time at all, it happened in half a day. I went to Korea with my adoption file. I was lucky to be with the teacher I had met in France, he spoke perfect French. A few days after I arrived in Korea, we went to the orphanage with the file and talked to the director. She took my friend’s contact details and we left. We then went to walk by Hangang Lake so that I could “digest” this meeting a bit, and, two hours later, the director called on my friend’s phone to tell him that she had found my parents and they would come to get me that very day at 6 o’clock! So, we went back to my friend’s house to grab some belongings, and here my family was at 6 pm, except for my father, who couldn’t get away from work.
They all cried, my family, the director, my professor friend who translated what they were saying for me, except me and my younger brother of two years, as he didn’t have enough memories, but he was affected. I was there listening to them, watching them, I wasn’t crying. It was as if I was listening to someone else’s story, I could see them crying but it didn’t touch me. Then suddenly, I will always remember that look, we were sitting all around the table, my mother explaining why I’d been adopted and so on. And, the orphanage director’s face, looking at me with a look that said: “I can’t believe it, that girl is heartless!” and there, suddenly, the realization started to sink in, of what was happening to me. I didn’t realize that it was me, that it was really me: I’d found my parents! That’s when I finally started crying, and couldn’t stop!
How did your adoptive parents take your decision?
Very well, they were very encouraging! It was so I could get better, so they really supported me. Plus, they had met my professor friend who hosted me in Korea. They were confident, they knew that I was in good hands with his wife and son. But it’s true that they were very scared at some point during my trip. They thought I would never come back. Besides, their friends told them a lot of scary stuff, but the truth is that they didn’t know anything. So yes, my parents were very worried, to the point of calling my biological parents. The thing is, I gave very little news, I dared not ask to call home in France because the price of communication was expensive. So when I got my father’s call and he heard through the handset that I was called Dong Yeon, it scared him and he got carried away! He really believed that I was renouncing the one I had become, their French Lena, their daughter. I had to reassure him for a long time because a discussion through the telephone is not easy to understand when the interlocutor has imagined things stubbornly! This time, it was me who cried because it was very hard to hear him so upset, to feel his anguish in his voice, I could now understand much better what my parents were going through.
When you returned to Korea the first time, did any distant memories come back to you? Odors, images, familiar sounds?
Absolutely! When I was shown pictures of myself as a kid, where we lived, I said, “Oh, that’s how it is here, and there was that.” It made my—biological—sister cry, she said: “how can you remember?” especially with regard to a pretty traumatic event, too. I remembered a lot of things but I did not know if they were memories or if I had dreamed of them. At the same time it was very weird, too, because my biological family, they were as much strangers as they were my family, right away there was something, I don’t know, I can’t explain it, it must be blood ties that are very strong. In fact, upon seeing them, I knew it was them! I was at home, it was my mother.
On the other hand, during my second trip ten years later, I felt more like a foreigner because ten years had passed and I felt truly French for the first time, because to tell the truth, I never felt truly French or truly Korean. And even today, even though on this second trip I “felt” my French nationality, I am both, and neither at the same time.
Did you encounter difficulties related to the difference in culture? At the level of language?
Yes, especially during my second trip. Especially in terms of manners. For example, how to talk to someone. For example, in France, it is quite open, when people yell, they yell, so I can speak harshly, but in Korea you really can’t. There’s a lot of restraint, especially toward seniors. For example, my biological father was very afraid for me when I was leaving on my own, he didn’t want to but I did so, he explained to me the reason for his worries, which I heard of course, but in the end I could no longer take that he treated me like a child, as if I were still the baby they had left thirty years ago, so I ended up reacting like a “kid” who gets upset and I replied “aleosseo!”—meaning: “it’s okay, leave me alone!”—in a very familiar and rude tone. They let it go because they knew I didn’t speak Korean perfectly and also because I was their daughter that they had « abandoned,” but Koreans don’t talk to their parents like that. Sometimes, they told me—especially my father— »no, you don’t talk me to me like that » but they always laughed.
In fact compared to Korea, France seems much more lenient. So sometimes I told myself “but they don’t know how to live,” yet they know how to have fun, very well even! But there’s a constant self-control, I don’t know. Sometimes, it made me angry because I was watching this Korean population, and I was thinking in my head “loosen up a little!”
The fact that you are Korean with a French education, did that cause you problems?
Yes, but not very important ones. In fact, people expected me to behave like a Korean woman when I had a French education. They looked at me with their “black eyes” when I smoked and/or sometimes because of my manners. But I told them that I was French and they reacted with surprise to this announcement, but they smiled very quickly with great kindness. Koreans love the French very much.
Also, in my parents’ neighborhood, my father did not want me to buy cigarettes, so he went for me. And I wasn’t allowed to smoke outside, so I was smoking on the roof! Once, we were waiting in front of my mother’s restaurant and I wanted to smoke, my father said “no no no!” and he took me to a park far away to smoke, so that they wouldn’t see me. Even in Seoul, people would scowl at me when they saw me smoking.
Today how do you feel about having two families, one in France and one in Korea?
It’s a real wonder. But I draw a line between the two, it’s very weird to explain. One doesn’t replace the other. They’re equally important in my heart. I respect them both so much, because both of them are made of wonderful people. Afterwards, during my second trip, I told myself that my French parents were really my real parents. I missed them so much. And suddenly, I, the girl who never gave news, started writing them emails every day! I needed it. There, I realized that I had received their education and that I was really their daughter.
On the other hand, I find the physical resemblance with my biological parents! We also resemble in the level of character and profound personality. My mother is very energetic and strong, her mind is strong and enduring just like mine. We share other similarities, too: there’s an ineffable complicity between my biological mother and me, it’s electric, like a current, and I even got hungover with her and her friend!
But my second trip was very trying, I felt like I had two personalities. In twelve hours, I went from Lena to Dong Yeon, whom people addressed as a child, so I sometimes caught myself behaving not as a real child but as a teenager, for sure. Moreover, the “ajumas” working at my mother’s restaurant thought I was 15 years old. On returning from this month’s journey, I needed to be alone for a fortnight, without seeing anyone, to find myself, “digesting.” It was very difficult to move from one to the other. Although this is a great adventure, a wonderful life story, in fact, there’s “inside” stuff that can’t be explained.
Do you have any advice to give to those who want to find their parents?
Don’t listen to what people say. I was told “But you know you’re going back there, it’s going to be very hard, you’re likely to be disappointed, you’re never going to find your parents, etc…” I didn’t listen to them and I went anyway, without prejudice. In my head, I thought that even if I didn’t find my parents, at least I would have found my roots, my origins, where I came from. Knowing where you come from is very important. Fundamental. You have to live like this, without a priori, without necessarily waiting for something, to enjoy the purpose of this trip, to discover your hometown, this trip here and now, quite simply!
A big thank you to Lena for giving me a little of her time and for sharing her story!