As a child, I carried this fantasy that my umma was “the Queen of Korea.” I told myself the fairytale that she had me when she was still the crown princess, and that just a month or so before I was born, my appa—the prince—had been killed by an evil uncle who was trying to grab my parents’ rightful place on the throne. I told myself that in order to keep my identity a secret so as to protect me from this evil uncle, she had sent me to the far-off foreign land of hot sands, a bathwater-warm Atlantic, overly-chlorinated neighborhood swimming pools, and right-wing Baptist churches in a place known as Florida. I assumed that once she had gathered her army of loyalists and disposed of this evil uncle, thereby securing her rightful place on the throne, that she would send for me, and that I would be freed from my place of exile in the suburbs of South Florida.
I spent my childhood waiting for her to send for me….
As I entered adolescence, I then carried in my other hand the possibility that she might have been “a prostitute.” I know for certain that I arrived at this because of when I was 12 years old attending a Holt Heritage adoptee camp in Eugene, Oregon. One of the staff said that if “girls at the orphanage” weren’t adopted by the age of 18 they were no longer able to stay there; that most of them would end up “becoming prostitutes,” and eventually getting pregnant, and leaving their babies on the doorsteps of hospitals or orphanages because…they were prostitutes.
Even as an adult, something in me carried these two very opposing “dreams” of who my umma was—a princess or a prostitute.
It was not until I first returned to Korea that it began to really hit me that the reality was that she was more likely to have been just a normal woman—that she was probably not much more than a girl herself when she had me. That more likely than not, she was in her late teens or very early 20s in the 1970s and facing the prospect of being a single mother in a country that to this very day stigmatizes unwed mothers and their children, and where only in April of 2019 did the Constitutional Court of Korea rule that the criminalization of abortion was unconstitutional (effective January 1, 2021). That not only was she not a princess nor a prostitute, but that she had probably been like one of the high school or university students I’d see out in Hongdae or Sinchon over the course of my eight years living in Seoul.
That…she was like one of the young single mothers in Korean-Danish adoptee director Sun Hee Englestoft's profoundly moving documentary "Forget Me Not," which provides a quietly powerful portrait of the lives of three young mothers who are residing at Aeshuwon, a shelter for single/unwed mothers in Jeju, South Korea, as they must make the impossible decision of whether to keep their children in a society that treats unwed mothers and their children with contempt, utter disregard, and close to zero support in regards to social services, or give them up for adoption.
Watching "Forget Me Not" made me feel that I was in some way peering back in time and being allowed to see her—my umma—in these women, many of whom are also not much more than girls themselves.
She, too, stayed at a shelter/home for unwed pregnant women that was run by Holt; though where she stayed did not do as Aeshuwon does by allowing the expectant mothers to choose what they will do. Where my umma stayed, it was a requirement that she first agreed that she would relinquish me to be adopted out through Holt in order to stay there. Holt Korea denies that they ever operated these kinds of homes, but seeing as my umma told me she stayed at one of their shelters and what she had to agree to, I believe the person who lived it versus the industry that profited from her impossible situation. And, though it is clearly shown in Sun Hee’s work that Mrs. Im of Aeshuwon tries to provide a safe space for the mothers to weigh their options and choose, as the documentary goes on it becomes abundantly clear that the realities of Korean familial and societal pressures mean that no matter what each mother might truly intend and desire to choose for their child and their self—the decision was made for them long before they themselves were even born, just as the decision was made for my umma in 1975.
For me, as a Korean adoptee, watching "Forget Me Not" was/is the closest I will probably ever come to understanding and seeing what my umma was like at 19/20 years old. It is a collision of times and worlds in that I saw my umma in these three young mothers. It is as Sun Hee says over the footage of the mothers at Aeshuwon rocking their babies as they try and decide what to do: “Being at the shelter is like traveling back in time. The women are all versions of my mother—and I’m a version of their children.”
I saw my umma giving me up as a baby and myself as a baby being given up by her.
I saw and heard myself from 14 years ago in Sun Hee’s opening footage of herself as she sits in that same silence I have sat in and felt and know in every fiber of my very being as she waits for the social worker to translate the Korean text in her adoption papers and interpret them into English. The pause…that pause...the necessary time it takes for a translator/interpreter to translate from Korean into English…. It is one of the longest, most suspenseful, scariest, uncertain, loneliest pauses I have ever known—for in that pause entire fairytales will be made real or destroyed. An umma will be found or lost, or worse—where you and she will remain in permanent limbo—in a pause with no end.
I heard myself in Sun Hee as she addresses her own umma, juxtaposed against the backdrop of the monsoon-swollen skies of Jeju: “At least now I recognize the sorrow I have to live with and carry with me. It’s the sorrow we share that will tie us together. Always.”
And though I did find my umma, unlike portrayed in stories of reunion told by non-adoptees, the story did not end there. She was neither a princess nor a prostitute. She was a woman, who was once a young girl, who had a decision made for her that for over three decades she kept as a secret in her heart. And, when you keep a secret like that for so long, eventually you are not the one keeping it, but rather that secret keeps you and there can be no fairytale ending. There can only be the consequences of time that change a young girl at 19 or 20 to an ahjumma too haunted to restart or rebuild a connection she was forced to sever when our umbilical cord was cut now more than 40 years ago.
Even now, I wait for her, hoping she will send for me.
From my vantage point, knowing what I know from my years of living in Korea being actively engaged with adoptee activist friends in Seoul and my now—more than decade of living the realities of post-reunion—"Forget Me Not" makes it clear in its compellingly truthful portrayal of the unwed mothers at Aeshuwon, without ever blatantly saying so, that the dominant narrative of adoption perpetrated by agencies like Holt in which they propagate the widely-accepted notion that we were adopted out because our ummas just coldly abandoned us on doorsteps is nothing but a lie that has been told in order to make us more marketable and to enable Korea, which has the 10th largest GDP in the world, in still not having to take serious social or economic responsibility for single parents and their children. It accurately conveys that Korea as a society at large does little to care for its own citizens and children, and that unwed mothers have little right to their own autonomous decision-making whilst we—their bastard offspring—are shameful secrets to be sent away.
"Forget Me Not" is, to my knowledge, if not the first, then one of the only Korean-adoptee directed documentaries that tells the story of adoption not from the important Korean adoptee-centric vantage points of search, reunion, post-reunion, memories of being in the orphanage, returning to Korea for the first time, etc. but from the only other voices that adopters and the adoption industry complex have spent more than six decades erasing—those of 우리 엄마 (our mothers)—made possible by one of their daughters.
Near the end, when Sun Hee puts the camera down on its side to comfort the grieving mother who has just lost her child to adoption, I found myself wondering if this is the closest an adoptee can ever truly get to being able to travel back in time to comfort our own umma back when she, who was neither a princess nor a prostitute, but rather quite simply a woman, a mother who had just lost her child, and who in that moment of loss could only succumb to her grief just as this young mother does and letting her know…and letting her let us know, “It’s the sorrow we share that will tie us together. Always.”
Starting June 3, 2021, "Forget Me Not" will be screening in 55 cinemas throughout Korea.
Free online screening for KAAN Conference attendees (free to register): Friday June 25, 2021 9-10:15 p.m. EST (Saturday June 26, 2021; 6-7:15 a.m. CEST, 1-2:15 p.m. KST)