YoonMee: An International Adoption Story

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. 

Shelby-PhotoBy Shelby Kilgore

Over three decades ago, I was born in a country on the other side of the world. I was relinquished at two months old into the care of Eastern Social Welfare Society, and then placed into a foster home until I was matched with a couple overseas.

Before I reached the age of one, I had been moved from one caregiver to the next, three times.

On August 17, 1984, my parents anxiously awaited my arrival at an airport in D.C., along with several other adoptive parents. After a fourteen-hour plane ride, a Korean lady who had watched over me placed me into my adoptive mother’s arms.

My mom told me when we first met, I stared straight into her eyes, and she felt as if I was asking, “Are you my new mother now?” The bond was immediate. But when my dad tried to hold me, I took one look at his blue eyes, glasses and big mustache, and immediately erupted into tears.

After our first emotional embrace at the airport, my parents decided to stop by McDonald’s on the care ride home. They fed me French fries. Apparently, I really enjoyed the food. French fries became my first taste of ‘American’ food, and to be honest I still love them and anything potato really to this day.

For the first two weeks, my dad had taken off some time from work to be able to be with me. In that short time, I finally warmed up to him. With my mom, perhaps because she looked more familiar to me with her dark brown hair and eyes, it was a much easier adjustment for me. As I look back now as an adult, quickly latching on to someone, was how I survived, since I had to more than once at such a young age.

When I was about three-years old, my parents adopted a six-month old boy from South Korea, who came to be my brother. After only two weeks, the novelty of him wore off and I told my parents that they could send him back now. I, of course like any first child — in a biological or adoptive family — felt jealous that I wasn’t getting all the attention anymore.

My parents told my brother and me from the beginning that we were adopted. They used the simple explanation that our biological mothers were too poor to take care of us and that they loved us so much they gave us up so that we could have a better life.

It wasn’t until the age of five or six that I truly understood what adoption meant, that I had another mother out there. I felt my whole world turn upside down. My child-like mind didn’t understand that if she was so poor, why couldn’t they go find her so she could come live with us? We lived in what seemed to me to be a very large home at the time.

Nothing seemed to add up to me and I started to doubt the simple narrative I was given. I began to see the world differently. I noticed the inequalities around me, the unfairness. Questions started surfacing about why Santa Claus didn’t give nice gifts to poor children, why had I been adopted and others hadn’t.

It was a major turning point for me at that age; and the burning desire to meet my biological mother was born. I so desperately wanted to know where I came from, who I looked like, what similarities we might have in our personalities, and if she really did love me.

When I thought I was being treated unfairly by my parents, friends, teachers, I would fantasize that I was the princess of Korea and that my ‘real’ mother would come find me one day.

A couple of years later, when I was eight, my family moved from Maryland to Florida. We went from a fairly diverse area, where there were other Korean adoptees, Korean people, food and culture to a predominantly white community.

It was definitely a stressful and difficult time of adjustment. At school, kids made fun of the way I looked. I was called flat face. Some would call out “Chinese, Japanese, look at these” and then pull their eyes to be more ‘slanted’. I was asked why my mother had given me away.

As an introvert, I would mostly shut down and not know what to say or how to react. Much of it was internalized. I remember this strong feeling of how I wanted to just blend in and be white, probably up until I was in my late teens.

In fifth grade, I recall being afraid that my parents would send me back to Korea if I didn’t get straight Excellents on my progress report cards. I have no idea how I got that into my head. But the fear of rejection and the weight of separation anxiety I was experiencing at the time was pretty powerful.

Traces of that followed me through high school, where I tried to get straight A’s, plug into as many clubs as possible, and win awards. The praise I received was what filled that void I felt inside, but only temporarily.

My parents tried their best to expose my brother and me to Korean culture. There was even an opportunity to go to Korean School on the weekends, where we could learn the language. But the director there advised my parents against it, because the children there would make fun of my brother and me and call us KBA, which stands for Korean but American.

It really made me wonder, where did I belong, if my ‘own’ people wouldn’t even accept me. My brother and I did find comfort and a sense of belonging in Tae Kwon Do, and we always have enjoyed Korean food.

The summer before my senior year of high school, my parents had planned to take the family on a homeland trip to South Korea. But a few weeks before the trip, the adoption agency sent a letter to me that was a little over a page long. It held information about my biological parents.

It made me so angry that they had withheld that from me for sixteen years. I learned that they were both factory workers and that my Korean mother had two sons that were older than me and my Korean father had several children. It was so strange to think that I had half-siblings on the other side of the world, that I would probably never get to meet or know.

What came with that letter was also a note that they had found my biological mother. She did not want to meet me. I remember feeling the rejection crash down on me all over again. Tears rolled down my face, the deep sadness, the shame, the crushing disappointment I felt inside was overwhelming. It seemed like there would be no point in going on the trip if I couldn’t meet her. That’s really all I cared about at the time.

After a few family counseling sessions prior to the trip, I understood that it would probably be a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I still held on to the slightest hope that my biological mother might change her mind about meeting with me.

While we were in Korea during the emotional rollercoaster ride of the trip — along with other families, where they would take us to orphanages, and we’d cry, and on the same day sightsee and eat authentic Korean food and laugh — my Korean mom did change her mind.

It’s been eighteen years since I reunited with my first mother, and it still brings tears to my eyes as I recount the story.

When my family and I first met her, she embraced me in a hug. She told me she was going to stay strong and not cry. But I melted into tears as I felt her love wash over me. It was truly what I had longed for, for seventeen years. The doubts I had of her love, really had torn at my self-worth over the years.

She had brought her sister along for support, because she met us in secret. Her second husband did not know about me, and she could never tell him, because I was born out of wedlock. I found out she had always known she was going to place me, that my father was a good man, that she had thought of me each day of her life, and that she has always loved me.

All of this was incredibly overwhelming, and my first mother and her sister only spoke Korean, so everything was translated by an interpreter. After the meeting, saying goodbye was one of the hardest things I have ever experienced. As she was hugging me for the last time, she finally let herself cry. Then all of us were crying, including my brother, parents, the social worker and interpreter.

My Korean mother and I did not stay in touch afterwards. I could have written a letter, which would have had to be translated to Korean, and then sent to her sister, since I was still a secret she kept. It seemed like it would be too disruptive to her life and possibly even put her at risk. I decided, with all that in mind, that meeting her was enough for me.

For a time that void I felt inside growing up did finally close. But after a few years of processing the trip and meeting itself, I became angry and resentful towards the Korean culture and even a bit towards my biological mother. I had learned on the Homeland Tour that I wouldn’t have been considered a citizen, because I was an illegitimate child.

As an outcast in society, I would have been discriminated against, because of something I had no control over – how I came into this world. I realized I wouldn’t have been able to go to school, and also if my mother had wanted to remarry, her new husband would not accept her children from her previous marriage, let alone a child born out of wedlock.

Later on, I allowed myself to recognize the pain I felt in regards to my mother keeping her two sons but ‘giving’ me away. Also, in a way, she did choose a life with someone else, because she did end up getting remarried, and it stung that she still kept me a secret.

One of the things I am incredibly grateful for is that I have loving parents who provided a safe environment for me to express how I felt about being adopted, whether it was good, bad or somewhere in between.

I have a mother who was incredibly understanding and came from a place of empathy. I hadn’t realized other families didn’t have that open line of communication until I went on the homeland trip and met other adoptees that didn’t have the same upbringing as my brother and I.

But even growing up with loving parents, in a stable middle-class American home, I still struggled with self-worth, self-identity and a sense of belonginess. I felt like I was a chameleon, always trying to change who I was in order to please others and earn their affection.

It wasn’t until my late twenties — after I threw myself into therapy when a devastating breakup triggered trauma related to my adoption  — that I finally understood I was losing myself in others, because I still hadn’t learned to accept and love myself.

As a very sensitive and creative person, I have worked as a TV producer on a variety of reality/documentary series over the past fifteen years. The first time I told my adoption story on camera was for a high school documentary that centered around the Korean Homeland Tour. It was a very healing experience for me, and I knew that later on in life, I wanted to provide this unique platform for other people to tell their adoption stories, not only for their own healing but for others.

In 2012, I began filming stories about foster care and adoption in my spare time and released my first video on my YouTube Channel – Shelby Redfield Kilgore, in 2013. Almost eight years later, I am still meeting incredible kindred spirits along the way, learning more about myself in the process, and absolutely loving what I do.

My adoptive family and a few close friends have been supportive of my endeavors to spread awareness and education about foster care and adoption through the personal stories of others, as well as my amazing husband. Their love and support have been invaluable to me.

The name my first mother gave me is YoonMee. It means “truth shining” or “beautiful truth.” As I have been open about my own adoption story, it has allowed me to help others share their own beautiful truths. I am fortunate to have come back to my own roots, to fulfill the name I was first given.

Adoption for me has been a life-long journey, with twists and turns, ups and downs, moving one step forward and then two steps back. It has been a beautiful struggle for me, no doubt and continues to be. For me personally, I wouldn’t change my story. I am who I am, and part of that is because of my adoption.

Shelby Redfield Kilgore has been producing reality/documentary series for over fifteen years, after graduating from UF with a bachelor’s degree in Telecommunications in 2006. Once Shelby became an established producer, with two Daytime Emmy wins under her belt, she became confident enough to start her passion project of spreading education and awareness about foster care and adoption through the video lens. You can find Shelby’s work on her YouTube Channel – Shelby Redfield Kilgore, her two Facebook Pages – Adoption Awareness and Rooted in Adoption and her website www.yoonmeichae.com.