My Childhood Years: A first-wave adoptee story
Note from editor: “Taniya,” “Su Lee,” and “Lee Hei Sung” are all different names of the author’s during the different chapters of her life.
TW: the account below contains references to mental, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; violence experienced/witnessed; and substance abuse.
I have the opportunity to write the story about my life as a Korean adoptee. I was adopted twice. The first adoption was very abusive and caused a lot of trauma, but I was too young to understand that I needed help. My second set of adoptive parents did not know the extent of the abuse I went through, plus they were trying to deal with their own traumas that they experienced in their youth. I thought I was doing well throughout the years; I thought I was normal. There were times I was depressed, but I thought everyone got depressed every now and then. I did not seek help because my mood swings were stable, or so I thought. It wasn’t until I experienced the truth about my second marriage, by the way, as soon as I turned the big “50,” my life took a big turn and what I found out was an opening to Pandora’s box, which led me to the path of peace.
Taniya, 2 or 3 to 9½ years old:
I cannot remember much about my childhood. My counselor told me it is because I have suppressed a lot of the memories from my early childhood. I was adopted two times—the first adoption: an American couple adopted me; the husband was in the military and his wife was German. I believe I was adopted when I was around 2 or 3 years old. The couple soon divorced, and I moved to Savannah, GA. I ended up living with the wife, whose name was Veronica. I lived with Veronica and her son. Not long after, she remarried; my stepdad’s name was Boris. I cannot remember too much of my past, most of the memories were the abuse I experienced. Veronica made “Mommy Dearest” look like an angel. She was so evil. At the time of the abuse, I thought it was normal, and I did not understand that I should try to run away and get help. Veronica mentally, physically, sexually, and emotionally abused me—any kind of abuse you can think of; she did to me. I had to visit the hospital numerous times because of her abuse, which included, but was not limited to, having her beat my head with her high heels, needing stitches, having a broken arm, needing a cast, getting my stomach pumped because she had me drink glass after glass of water filled with salt, etc. I was constantly sent to foster homes because of her abuse. Neighbors would witness the abuse and call the police on her. I remember times of being choked by her, and then I would pass out and be revived by her punching my bloody face. She seemed to love to torture me because she felt the last punishment was not enough. She had me wear wigs around town, shaved my eyebrows, and dyed my hair red and told me to tell others I just woke up with it like that. She showed me pornographic pictures of Asian women and said that the women were my mom and I was found in the garbage. She told me how much she couldn’t stand me and I was going to be her slave. The punishments kept getting worse, the meals became less, and she constantly kept me out of school. By the time I was 9½ years old, which at that time I did not know how old I was or when my birthday was, I watched her get murdered by Boris.
After she was murdered, my adoptive brother and I went to a facility to wait for my first adoptive dad, who was my brother’s real dad. When Mr. Martinson came to pick us up, he brought us to California. There, I met his other kids and his new wife, who did not care for us to be a part of the family. My brother and I never felt welcomed. I found out later I was going to be sent back to the state. My mom (Paula), whom I have now, wanted to adopt me. She worked with Mr. Martinson and knew the situation about me being given to the state. I ended up staying with her and her husband for two weeks. I thought they were babysitting me. My mom had such a sweet disposition about her. She was always smiling and was very artistic. She had a beautiful singing voice, was so smart, loved to read, and loved to laugh. She was so affectionate and always told me she loved me. My dad (Lee) had such a kindness about him and a great sense of humor. When I first met him, he walked from the front door and knelt down to my level, and with a handsome smile introduced himself to me and explained I was going to be staying with them for a while. I stayed for two weeks, which was awesome! I was sad when I had to leave and go back with the Martinson family. A couple of days later I was asked if I would like to live with the couple I stayed with for two weeks for a very long time. I was so excited I said “Yes!” I moved in with them, and I never said goodbye to my adopted brother. I did not understand I was never going to see him again. I never had a chance to say, “I love you,” to him.
Su Lee, from 10½ years old to present day:
My mom told people when she first got me that I had scabies, was malnourished, and most of my baby teeth were rotten. I lived with my new family for almost a year before I was officially their daughter. During that time, I learned how old I was and when my birthday was. I also changed my name. My new parents were so young—my dad was 26 and my mom was 24—to instantly have a 9½-year-old child. My parents were from Houston, Texas. My dad was not racist, but because of his Southern upbringing, he always identified people by their race and liked to make racist jokes. My mom is colorblind (literally); she loved all cultures. I did not understand at that time why you need to describe someone by the color of their skin instead of by what they are wearing or where they are. Before my dad died, he told me a little girl had taught him not to describe people by the color of their skin. After my adoption my dad and mom were married for about two more years. They divorced when I was 11½ years old.
My mom and I moved to Texas to live with her parents in Waller, Texas, which was a small country town. I was the only Asian girl that spoke English fluently, and I heard a lot of racist comments most of the time. I always stood up for myself, and, eventually, the other kids got to know me and stopped with the racist comments. I loved school and socializing. Even when I lived with Veronica, school was the place where I could be free to play, laugh, and get a meal to eat! When I was around 12½ years old I moved back to live with my dad in California. This was the summer I was going into seventh grade. My dad drank a lot, dated, cried for my mom, and really showed his hurt when he was drunk. A lot of unhappy events happened to me while living with my dad that summer. He showed a lot of anger. He was an emotional roller coaster. The drinking resulted in him crossing boundaries he never should have crossed. That summer I was sexually molested, and I was physically and emotionally abused. Once school started, I hardly saw my dad because he worked night shifts and dated, but my grandmother (his mom) was always around—she was an alcoholic too. When I would get up for school, Grandma always made sure my grits and cheese were made for breakfast. There were mornings where I would see her with a black eye. I would ask her what happened, and she would tell me she got into a fight. There were a few black eye mornings. I loved my grandmother; she was a beautiful soul—except when she was drunk. She was never mean to me when she was drunk. Well, there were times she felt I did something to her liquor bottle, which I would empty down the drain, but she was so intoxicated that she would move on. Overall, she was mostly mean to others.
Dad remarried and we moved to Santa Cruz, which was an awesome place to live! The marriage only lasted a month. He made bad choices and hurt so many people he loved. I used to hear how he served in the Marines and was a Vietnam veteran. I was too young to understand the trauma he experienced while stationed in Vietnam as an American soldier.
Dad eventually started going to Alcoholics Anonymous, remarried, and decided he wanted a family. The lady he married was a hippy stuck in the '70s—she was pretty cool. I loved the rainbow and butterfly décor in her home, the reggae music she played, and her son. I told my dad he should give her a chance, and that I thought she was a great lady for him. He always gave me credit for telling him that. I was almost 17 years old.
After so many years of living a single life, with no parental guidance, and all of a sudden, he wanted to be a family. I lived in a home with roommates whom my dad rented rooms out to. I barely saw him because he stayed at his girlfriend’s home most of the time. He would come home and make sure the fridge had food, and we hung out every now and then. I was fine with that because I did what I wanted to do. (By the way, I could cook all kinds of ramen noodles! I would throw hot dogs, eggs, spinach, etc. in there. I made up all kinds of recipes with ramen noodles.) When he got married, we became a family and there were rules. I was not used to this kind of living, and I rebelled. I got into trouble hanging out with the wrong crowd, so I was sent to live with my mom.
My mom and I spent every summer in Texas. When I went back to live in California, there were months that went by where I would not hear from her. I loved spending my summers with her. Sometimes, she would be living with a boyfriend and other times she was alone.
My mom moved to a small town in Texas called La Porte. She worked 12-hour shifts and lived the single life. I had a lot of freedom again. I was a junior in high school the year I moved back. Since I did so badly in my sophomore year at Santa Cruz High School, I only had six classes to go to, but I only went to two: P.E. and Health. I attended P.E. because my friends were in that class and Health because I had a crush on a guy. Needless to say, I had to go to night school, summer school, and I had to have a full schedule my senior year, plus I could not fail any classes in order to graduate on time, which I did! In the beginning, living in La Porte was hard. I was the only Asian female in the school who spoke English fluently, partied, and dated white guys. I made it big over there. There were racist comments in the beginning as usual, but long story short I was put in the spotlight one day in social studies class. A guy said that the President needed to send “all the slanted-eye zipper heads back where they belong.” I froze. I could not speak. I could not believe I did not say anything. The next day I gave this speech in class that extended after roll call all the way until it was almost time for the bell to ring. I talked about how the only ones that should be telling us to go back to where we belong are Native people; how those with blonde hair and blue eyes shouldn’t be the only ones considered to be “Americans”; and how there are good and bad individuals to be found in all races. After that day, the racist comments stopped. I graduated on time and moved back to Santa Cruz.
I loved living in Santa Cruz, where the beauty of nature permeated the city. Most people I met were so open and friendly. Growing up in Santa Cruz, I did go through many identity crises. I loved hanging out with surfers; they were very accepting and so I could be myself around them.
By the time I was 20, I moved back with my mom to go back to school and get my life together. I worked, went to school, and partied. I ended up in a car wreck, which changed my way of thinking about my life. I realized my life could be over in a snap. I almost went through the windshield, almost lost my left eye, and I had to have my tongue stitched back together. I kept losing consciousness. I could have died and there was nothing I could have done about it. Months down the road, I started working at a 7-Eleven convenience store, which is where I met my first husband who was in the Army. We dated, and three months later we were married. He was 10 years older than me with two kids: a 5½-year-old little girl named Rita and an 8½-year-old little boy named Jimmy.
Before I was married, I loved kids. I used to babysit, so I thought helping to raise two kids would not be hard. Well, it was, especially since I did not have much guidance to fall back on. The children were the same ages as I was when I was being abused. I did not realize that when children experience abuse-related trauma there are three reactions they can do: fight, flight, or freeze. Most children freeze, and the memories of abuse are suppressed. There were so many memories I tried to avoid and not think about. I never wanted to become like Veronica.
We moved into a subdivision where I would walk my dog. One day when I was out with my dog, there was a Korean lady in her front yard and I said “Hi” to her. She started walking with me. We talked about my being adopted, and I told her I would love to learn how to make Korean food. A week later there was a knock on the door, and it was that same lady. I asked her to come in, and she had bags of groceries with her. She taught me how to make kimbap. I was elated! I made it all the time and loved the taste. That was the first time I had real Korean food. I never saw her again, but I am still so grateful to her.
Our family was about to move to Heidelberg, Germany. I went to update my social security card with my married name. I gave the woman at the social security office my adopted birth certificate. She told me that this was not proof of my being an American citizen. I was 20 when I found out I was not an American. On my passport, my first adopted family had left my citizenship open for me to decide. Luckily, I was able to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen with a federal judge. We ended up moving to Heidelberg for three years. My ex-husband was a recruiter and was hardly ever home. He traveled with his captain all over Europe while I stayed home with the children. I also had a baby girl before moving to Germany. She was my true love. The first time I ever felt her, she was a part of me, and there was a real connection. My baby had big beautiful blue eyes; they stayed blue until she was 4 years old. My sweet baby was named Danielle. It seemed her mind was wired to draw; she was such a talented artist at a very young age.
When we moved to Germany, the military wives that were Korean were very clannish. They were very sweet and invited me over to their homes, which I was happy and willing to do. Once I was there, I would just sit while they spoke Korean to each other. I did not feel like I fit in with Koreans. However, I did love to cook Korean food and I learned how to make kimchi. I also bought a Korean cookbook. I was very proud of Korean food. I worked for the Civil Service in payroll in Heidelberg. The payroll department would have luncheons where everyone brought a dish of food. I would bring in kimbap every time. Once, I had two ladies from Oklahoma ask me what I was going to bring for the next luncheon. I said, “Kimbap,” and they said, “You bring that every time, bring something different.” I asked “Like what?” One of the ladies said, “Mashed potatoes, just something different.” I brought in kimbap again. Why? Because I do what I want!
After a few years in Germany, I became pregnant again with another baby girl—Andrea—and once again it was true love! We eventually moved back to the States.
In my early 30s, I divorced my first husband. We just grew apart. I was tired of being alone and no longer loved him. I only loved him as a good friend. Our divorce was hard on the family.
I eventually remarried.
I stopped talking to my dad, as I started to remember what he did to me and how sad I felt when we talked on the phone. My mom and I still continued talking, but I started to have anger towards her. I could not understand why she would send her child to live with a person she knew had an alcohol and drug problem. My mom and dad never sent me to a counselor to get help with what I experienced, which I also did not understand. I felt that both of my parents lived for themselves. I could not understand why they adopted me if they both wanted to be part-time parents. As I mentioned earlier, I did not mind being alone when I was growing up. However, it wasn’t until I became a parent that I learned how much children of all ages need their parents. It is so important to guide your children, show interest in their hobbies and their passions, and guide them along their path as they discover their purpose.
I did not pay attention to my mom’s mental and emotional health until I was a senior in high school. One day, she took me to a psychologist who told me it was not my fault my mom was coming to see her. I never knew my mom was going there or that I knew where she was taking me that day. My mom went through a lot with my dad and she had other dark experiences in her past that no child should have to go through. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized my mom and I were not that close and her memories of our past together did not match. She always had to be right. She lacked empathy, and she could not relate to my life issues. My mom and I were not very close after I moved out and had my own family.
When I married my second husband, I was so in love. We loved being together; he was so much fun with a great sense of humor, and I loved every moment with him.
Years later, our marriage was full of turmoil where we fought all the time and he was hardly around. Then, finally, the truth came out, and my marriage was no longer stable and secure. I had a dark cloud around me for years. I could not set goals because I did not know what the future held. I tried so hard to forgive him, but he would not let me forget the past. I knew I needed to heal, which is when I reached out to my dad and asked him to forgive me. I learned about suffering—I learned how those who are suffering look for peace, especially those who experienced trauma. Most people live via their subconscious levels and are not able to make rational choices, which ends up hurting others and themselves constantly. I had so much anger in my life towards my dad. I wrote him a letter. I told him I did not understand the suffering he went through when I was younger. I understand it was not just the Vietnam War, but also his upbringing. My dad wrote me back, and we started talking again after 15 years of not talking to each other. We saw each other, and about three months later he died. I was so grateful that the Lord brought my dad and I back together and that we had closure. I loved him just like I did when I was a little girl; all the anger was chiseled away. The postmark on my letter to my dad was stamped “May 16, 2019 Macon, Georgia,” and I believe he received the letter about two days after that date on May 18, 2019. Exactly one year later, he died on May 18, 2020. I know that the Lord lined everything up so my dad and I could have a peaceful closure, because we really did and do love each other. I am so grateful.
During my journey of healing, I was angry. I searched for answers. I linked the people who hurt me internally and I tried to find the commonalities that they all shared—all of them were hurting inside too. It wasn’t until my dad passed away that I would wake up every morning thanking the Lord for bringing dad back to me and for us having the closure we needed. Then, I started the healing process with my second marriage. Eventually, I started having thoughts of appreciation and thinking more about the present moments instead of the negative thoughts of the past. Everything I went through in my life helped me learn how to heal in regards to all the ways in which my dad, mom, Veronica, and husband had caused me to experience different levels of suffering.
With my dad, the Lord showed me the grace and miracle that love is so powerful, and no matter how much suffering you feel, as soon as you open your heart to forgive, you will free your soul and breathe again. I realized my dad was always a gentle soul, but he did not know how to love until years later when he learned to give himself to others, which is what he did with the community, the children, and the veterans. I believe that he adopted me because he wanted to make up for what he did in Vietnam.
My experiences with my mom taught me that people love you the way they know how to.
Veronica was so evil. After she was out of my life, I remember as a little girl that I was so grateful she was gone. I did not deal with the abuse I experienced, and I suppressed most of the memories until later in my life where I began to deal with her and my memories. I believe gratitude helped me. I knew others had it worse than me and that was my perception as a little girl.
My time with my current husband has taught me to face my reality, to know humans are not perfect, to know that the suffering we endure will eventually come to an end, and we have to be aware of the hurt that is inside of us and how we lash out at others without knowing it. My husband taught me to be stronger, to know that there is a limit to the hurt, and that there are boundaries. He also helped to teach me that people can change if they really want to, and if they are strong enough to face the hurt that they have caused others, they will take the responsibility to change. It is not easy to change. I have also learned that love is not owed. Just because you have parents, a spouse, your children, etc. anyone that is close to you does not have to love you the way you want them to love you. When you expect a certain kind of love, you could be let down. Love is only given the way it is learned; and unfortunately, there are limits to giving love. People love the only way they know how to give.
One day, we all have to deal with our suffering, and just learning how to heal can be the lessons and the blessings.
Throughout growing up I could not deal with being adopted. I accepted it, and there were times where if I really stopped to think about who my mom was I did not think I had any chance of meeting her. A representative at Holt Adoption Agency told me years ago (2005), that there were no papers about my mom, when I was born, or where they found me.
I have felt hopeless, but the other day my husband did get a hold of Holt, which was not like before, and he was given other options for helping me find out more. I am getting older and time is running out to meet my [birth] mom and her family. I am trying to work on my healing before I can move on. I did join Ancestry.com and 23andMe, and I had a fourth and second cousin reach out to me.
Lee Hei Sung:
My Korean name was Lee Hei Sung. I was given Cheongju as the place of my family origin on 2/14/66, and Lee as my family name, but no record of my mom or dad. The only permanent address I was given is: San 46-1, Nok Bun Dong, Suh Dai Mun Ku, Seoul, Korea. I was sent to the United States of America on March 1, 1968.
I have been a realtor for 16 years, and as of this year, am a board member of a non-profit organization for child abuse.
All of my children are married with their own families and are doing well. I am very honored to have been asked to write my story. It has been hard to bring myself to do so, as I have had a lot of pain and healing during this journey.