20/20 is usually recognized as perfect vision. I have astigmatism in my left eye, I will never have perfect vision; and so it goes with my past. I will never know why I was abandoned as a newborn, taken to a police station, and sent to a local orphanage near Seoul, South Korea. Yet, the year 2020 brought into focus and provided a little more clarity to my unknown past in a very unexpected way.
All the world was panicked and hunkered down in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many, I decided to try out some new recipes. Time to get out the dusty, rarely-used cookbooks from the old boxes in the garage. What I found instead, was a tattered cardboard box. In it was a manila file folder that held only three pieces of obscure information about my past: a concocted “Korean Family Registration,” a statement of release for immigration and overseas adoption, and a 1988 U.S. Congressional teletype transmission, which stated my abandonment at birth had brought me to my Korean orphanage, Yangju Childcare Center. Knowing the name of my orphanage was the key to telling my "Seoul Story."
After looking at the file folder, I screamed: “Yangju Childcare Center! That’s the name of my orphanage!”
I had long forgotten the name of my orphanage because I had been informed by Korean Social Services that Yangju Childcare Center had closed in the late 1970s and locating my biological parents would not be possible without the proper background information and necessary legal papers. Even if I went back to South Korea, what was there to look for, what would be found? Nothing. I didn’t speak Korean. I knew nothing about Korean culture. I gave up.
Now that technology has changed at warp speed and any information needed is quite literally at our fingertips, I quickly ran back into the house and my husband and I Googled the name, “Yangju Childcare Center.” Lo and behold, a former U.S. Army soldier, CW2 Larne Gabriel, who had served with my non-biological dad in South Korea, 1969–1970, had created a website and dedicated it to its orphanage director, Kwak Sun Yong.
I only have a few obscure memories of my time at the orphanage; my brain was too overwhelmed and couldn’t handle the overnight trauma of leaving all I had ever known to a whole new life of unknowns. While viewing the Yangju Childcare Center website, one year of my forgotten past was in front of me as I quickly scanned the pictures of the orphanage and its many innocent orphans with brown eyes and bowl haircuts staring back at me. They had a longing look, for food, for a family, for love? I don’t know, but I do know, I became emotional; streams of tears were flowing down my cheeks as I was viewing unseen pictures of me! I was one of those orphans…longing. Just a small moment in time was given to me, the rest, unseen, lost, and forgotten. Then and there, I decided to share and write a bilingual children’s book about my transnational, transracial adoption.
I wrote "Seoul Story" for three reasons. Firstly, I always wanted to write my personal and unique story of adoption. It is an untold story that needs to be told; every Korean adoption is a single, solitary story that stands on its own, unparalleled, and incomparable. My vision for the book was to use the black and white photos I had come across; to tell an authentic story of how one orphan arrived in America. Once I am adopted, the story with its black and white photo album format transitions to color photos to infer a bright new beginning in America.
Secondly, I wanted to dedicate my book to my adoptive dad. He was career military and enlisted in 1959 and retired in 1990. He served in multifarious positions throughout the world and the United States. As you can well imagine, he was extremely formal, regimented, and very evasive and ambiguous about his various jobs. In 1969, he was sent to South Korea as a Unit Executive Officer, Battalion Operations Officer, and Commander in the 7th Aviation Battalion. He did not go to Korea looking for a young orphan girl to adopt; but you know the story, as fate would have it… While protecting and maintaining South Korean democracy, my adoptive dad and his fellow soldiers chose to put their recreational down time, money, and hearts into helping the local Yangju Childcare Center where he inevitably crossed paths with a happy 4-year-old girl with a sunny disposition. He opened his heart and adopted me. Sadly, my adoptive dad passed away from COVID-19 on January 28, 2021.
Thirdly, educating adults and children about a true, Korean adoption was important to me. My "Seoul Story" is unique and specific to my experience. Adult readers may be fascinated, how on its face, a seemingly simple children’s book has a multilayered, complex construct. Familiarity and understanding of the backdrop of Korean culture, the devastations of the Korean War and its aftermath, allows adult readers to navigate and impart the story to children in a more enlightened way. "Seoul Story" is not just a children’s picture book. It connects readers to a story that they otherwise may not have been exposed and present an opportunity for anyone to begin an open conversation about adoption, why are children adopted and what makes a family.
Since finding my orphanage website, I have been able to connect, via Zoom, with several of my “first family” members from Yangju Childcare Center. We were at the orphanage in the same years. What an exhilarating experience!
November is Adoption Awareness month. Help educate others by sharing your personal story of adoption using social media, reading about adoption, and donating time and money to organizations that support and value positive adoptions and celebrating your heritage.
Susie Lawlor was adopted to an Army military family of five children and has lived in many states. She is one of four adoptees in her adoptive family. Lawlor is married and has two grown children. Currently, she is a substitute teacher, author of “Seoul Story” and a cat rescuer. She received her B.A. in Journalism. Lawlor is pursuing her MAE at Pepperdine University and is writing many more stories and books.