Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences and perspectives.
By Kate Powers
My name is Kate Powers. I was born in Seoul, South Korea and abandoned after birth. I have an American family in Missouri and a Korean family on the other side of the planet. This is one of the most unique, misunderstood, and underrepresented journeys in the world.
I was adopted by an American couple when I was an infant. I grew up in a small town in Missouri — a vast stretch from my Korean roots, something that has taught me to stretch myself in life in many ways. Embracing both cultures with grace instead of destruction has been — and remains — a lifelong romance.
I grew up in a loving Midwestern household as an only child. My childhood was full of good, wholesome, American experiences: dance classes, pool parties, chain restaurants, and backyard BBQs. I was always dancing around with spunk and curiosity.
This curiosity led me to inquire about my biological roots. As a child, I constantly swayed between feeling the same as all the white kids around me because there were people who treated me no differently than anyone else, to feeling very different when others made fun of me for the shape of my eyes, my dark skin, or hair.
I knew I didn’t look like the rest of my family the way my classmates looked like theirs. I was often told to go back to China, which puzzled me since I knew I was born in Korea. I would pray to wake up with blonde hair and blue eyes like everyone else so people would stop making fun of me. I knew nothing about Korea other than it was where I was born.
My teenage years were full of the usual Midwestern activities like high school dances, minimum wage jobs, and gatherings with wine coolers. Dance was a very active part of my life and I felt free from the racial comments when I was dancing.
These years had a darker side too. I was still taunted for my looks and wore sunscreen obsessively so my skin wouldn’t get tanner. These years were withered with harassment and sexual assault. I wondered if it was race-related. So while my classmates were excited about dates and prom, dating felt confusing to me. In my small town, interracial couples weren’t just abnormal — they didn’t exist.
I began dancing at a very young age and it remained an outlet through my teenager years. I was always dancing around everywhere I went. Nuns at my Catholic schools often yelled at me for doing it, but I kept on dancing. I am no different today. I knew very early on that encouraging others to express themselves authentically and move through the dance of life was what I was born to do.
My parents never hid the basic details of my adoption from me but we didn’t talk often about it either. The answers however seemed vague and confusing. I knew I was born prematurely and that I was a twin. I knew that my twin sister died after we were born and that I was very sick when I was born. These details haunted me as an only child and I often wished for siblings and wondered how life would be if my twin sister survived.
When I asked my parents why I was adopted, the response was usually related to money. It confused me because sometimes my parents talked as though we didn’t have enough money, either. I grew up plagued by questions that I either couldn’t ask or that were impossible to answer. No one at home or school or anywhere really addressed adoption or diversity, so it seemed important just to me.
Years later in college, as I was pursuing career options that could help others with emotionally and physically, I began working in mental health at a hospital. During this time, I unexpectedly developed vision issues that prompted several urgent visits with retina specialists. I was told I would lose my vision quickly if I didn’t have surgery right away.
Every doctor I saw was mystified. They kept asking me if I had gotten a severe blow to the head recently, which I hadn’t. I tried to recall if I was ever hit in the head during my younger years playing T-ball and soccer. Their only other explanation was that what I was experiencing was somehow genetic. With my American parents sitting beside me, it was clear to all of us that I didn’t know my genetic history.
I will always remember the moment my surgeon told me I could be blind very soon and he did not know why. As the tears began to flow onto the pale pink t-shirt I was wearing, I pleaded: “I want to see the whole world….I don’t want to go blind.”
After a summer full of eye surgeries and the difficult aftermath, I was left to come to terms with the fact that my vision would remain impacted for the rest of my life. And while my life returned to a state of somewhat normal, I continued to think about what the doctors had said about my rare condition being genetic.
I decided to dig up the paperwork my parents had never hid from me about my adoption. I started communicating online with other Korean adoptees all over the world, and I discovered that many of them had been searching for their biological families for years, even decades. There seemed to be close-knit support groups, all of which were kind and helpful to me. But they also prepared me for a road that might have never led to resolution.
With that in mind, I contacted the agency that had handled my adoption. What happened next seems nothing less than fate: within a very short time, I was put in touch with my Korean biological family. I was excited and happy, even though my parents seemed a little unsettled. Even more so, I was shocked that this had unfolded so quickly after the countless stories of lifelong searches I’d heard.
Unfortunately, the delight at finding my birth family didn’t last long. Quickly, excitement and naivete changed to sadness and horror when I found out that my birth mother never even knew I existed.
I discovered she was shocked to hear from an adoption agency claiming to represent her daughter in America. I was shocked to learn that immediately following my premature birth, which had not gone smoothly, she became unconscious, while I was alive recovering in an incubator. When she awoke much later, her husband — my birth father — told her that both babies had died. She went home and resumed her life believing she had lost two baby girls.
I learned all of this, along with the fact that my birth parents had been separated for some time, through email from a social worker at the adoption agency in Korea. It was extremely overwhelming and difficult with the cultural and language differences so I immediately booked a flight to Seoul.
This experience meeting my birth mother, brother, sister, and father was as traumatic as it was graceful, and more horrific than I could have ever prepared myself for it to be. Everyone in my life in the US seemed to assume that I was on my way to live out some happily-ever-after story.
This was the first time I was exposed to Korean culture and it was overwhelming comparing to life in small town Missouri. I had never eaten Korean food before. Every meal I had during this trip was full of emotions and arguments about me. Everyone was in shock and screaming or in paralyzing grief. I roamed the streets, often alone, looking for something comforting. I wandered in a Pizza Hut and ate alone across the planet away from everything I knew in the United States.
I returned to America scarred and dazed, although I jumped back into ‘normal American life.’ Many joked that I had just gone on some exotic vacation. This was devastating to me as the whole trip felt far from a relaxing experience. The exhaustion of trying to explain this all to family and friends wore me out so I rarely talked about it. Even though I was working in mental health, I found there seemed to be little sacred space for sensitivity with an experience that felt so big.
As it is said, all stories have a silver lining. And this I know for certain. The trip did ignite my already budding interest in Asian culture and religion and I decided to embrace this journey despite feeling isolated.
I began studying Buddhism, Taoism, and Asian healing medicines. I proudly decorated my home with Asian decorations and Buddhas, then family and friends chuckled and questioned why. No one seemed to understand why I would have interest in Asian culture after this trip, which felt insensitive and dishonoring.
I immersed myself in meditation, massage therapy, and yoga. These quickly became great sources of healing and knowledge for me. I loved learning about Asian and Indian natural medicines after spending so much time in a Western allopathic hospital. I then studied massage therapy and yoga with the intention of going to live in Asia to study meditation and healing arts there. I began working in these areas in Missouri but still felt strongly about wanting to go somewhere more diverse. I began pursuing larger cities…including Seoul.
Life took another detour and I decided to move to Washington, DC instead. I visited Korea again right before the move to DC. It had been almost three years since my first visit to Korea. Time had softened some of the sting of the first trip but that sting returned quickly on this trip.
I learned more about my birth and about the plight of many Korean women who were shamed upon discovering they were pregnant with girls. When my birth parents learned they were expecting not just one more baby girl, but twins, the disgrace of adding two more girls to a family that already had one daughter was palpable.
My birth mother was beaten by my birth father in an attempt to terminate her pregnancy and resulted in two babies being born prematurely and sick. Learning this was excruciatingly challenging but left me with an overwhelming sense of the will I had to live that was instilled in me before I was born. However, it also revealed some of the lasting scars from the journey. I discovered the blow to my head so many doctors questioned causing my vision impairment came from my birth father while I was in the womb.
My heart needed years to heal after this trip. I immediately moved to DC and I was surrounded by people from all over the globe but once again felt the confusion of my identity. I felt relieved to experience more diversity — I finally was not the only person of color in the room — but I didn’t know a lot about Korean culture and despised it. I refused to go to an eye doctor in DC the entire time I lived there.
So I began searching for Asian spirituality and healing in DC. I began teaching yoga and practicing massage therapy again until I realized I had little time for myself as I simultaneously tried to conform to the American Dream standards by working in corporate life. I skipped around from corporate job to corporate job because each one felt wrong. I felt the typical path of the white people around me wasn’t right for me and I felt called to do work that was fulfilling and healing for others and myself. I abruptly moved to Chicago with this resolute clarity.
When I moved to Chicago, the lack of international presence in my sphere weighed on me. I worked in corporate America again, but these organizations and people didn’t seem to understand the world — or life — in the same way I did considering my global experiences. It felt like my childhood again all grown up. I saw little devotion to diversity and compassion but lots of bullying, microaggressions, and sexual harassment. It felt like the American Trap instead of the American Dream. Most frustrating was that employers were reluctant to allow me to take the time away from work to travel.
I wanted to go back to Korea and see my birth family and I couldn’t because of my job. It became clear there was still little understanding about the complexities of transracial adoptees in reunion. And that I was in the wrong kind of work. The calling to do work that healed and educated others about the mindfulness and sensitivity I saw lacking in corporate America became louder and louder.
In January this year, I finally went back to Korea. While the other visits I undertook were full of tension and chaos, this time I encouraged my birth family to embrace our journey with the peace that I had cultivated in myself over my many years as a spiritual teacher and student.
We met again after a long gap of nearly nine years. Remembering but not beholden to the past, I felt present and free from attachment to all that was and all that lies ahead. We remember the challenging moments of the past but I was present and enjoyed dancing around Korea as the bold American with my will to live fully. I wanted to present moment to be our focus.
It is said that time heals all wounds but I believe it is love that does. I told my birth family that I have acceptance about the bizarre, sad, enraging parts of this journey and the wild, fun and poignant parts. This acceptance is my compass for my entire life.
My adoption journey has been my greatest wound, transformed into my greatest strength. I intend more time in Asia. The journey continues on and next year my parents are going to Korea with me to meet my birth family.
I’m often told, “Wow, you have a really great name!” Given that I could have any name in the entire world, I really believe my name — Kate Powers — was meant for me.
I have embraced my powers. People know me as a spunky person who talks about light and love. Where there is light, there is also dark. And as Rumi says, “If light is in your heart, you will find your way home.”
Kate Powers is invested in transracial adoption activism, diversity, and transformation through mindfulness and healing arts. She leads trauma-informed classes, including workshops for adoptees, and provides coaching to individuals and groups.
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Carrie Goldman is the host of Portrait of an Adoption. She is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter.