- Cynthia Landesberg
The Price of a DNA Test
The Korean Consulate sits on a busy roundabout in the Dupont Circle area of Washington, D.C. It is indistinguishable from the surrounding buildings except for the life-size statue of Phillip Jaisohn, the first Korean-born U.S. citizen, looking proudly into the distance. Inside the gold-colored doors, I step forward into 1980s Seoul, the fluorescent lights bouncing off the bland walls and the faces of five stern Korean women behind five glass-covered windows. Large blue signs in both English and Korean cling to the walls designating each one for some service that does not match what I need. There is no sign saying, “DNA Tests for Abandoned Babies Looking for Their Birth Family.”
When I tell people I am adopted, the conversation often turns to my birth family.
“Do you know your birth family? Have you searched? I saw something on the Today Show about these adopted twins reunited through a DNA test.” Asked with innocent curiosity, these questions feel voyeuristic, a yearning for proximity to a sensational story, a casualness to something so intimate.
If I had infinite time and a bit more gumption, I might explain that a birth family search for a Korean adoptee is a daunting and mostly futile process. Adoptees, who search, regularly find the alarmingly scant paperwork in their files falsified, their names and birth dates fabricated, and the adoption agency social worker telling them that there is nothing more to be done. I might explain that DNA testing is expensive, requires giving up your anonymity to private companies, and those twins on the Today Show are the exception not the rule. I could explain that the options offered by Korea, fought for by the hard work of adoptees, involve making public pleas in newspapers, on YouTube, and even on the back of government health insurance mailings akin to those “Missing” notices on milk cartons in the 1980s. I imagine my picture lazily strewn on a table with a coffee mug stain on it, a grocery list scrawled in the margins, or looked at with a quick, “Aw, sad,” and then thrown into the trash bin. These options are desperate, unsettling, and for the majority of Korean adoptees, our only choice.
It took thirty plus years for me to initiate my search. The desire roused by the adoption of my sons from Korea and galvanized by my pregnancy with my daughter, I contacted the American agency that handled my adoption and they contacted the Korean agency. I received an email with a few documents attached, all of which I had seen before in the green binder in my mom’s closet. As a child, when no one was looking, I would open the binder, hide under the powdery scent of my mother’s clothes, and read the same words over and over again. Birth mother: unknown. Birth father: unknown. Status: Foundling. Both adoption agencies said there was nothing more they could do.
Over the next several years, in starts and stops, I took various DNA tests in hopes of connecting with someone from my biological family. With each test, hopes ran high and my imagination ran with them. I fantasized that my birth mother made her way to America settling somewhere on the East Coast, just hours away this whole time, waiting for me to come or that a sister adopted by another family in another town yearned for that elusive connection to Korea and found it in me. For a blissful few weeks as I waited, I lived in these reveries, only to be yanked out with each negative result. I berated myself for being hopeful, for jinxing the results, and each time I vowed never to test again. Of course, I always do.
The most recent DNA test brings me to the Korean Consulate, surrounded by beige, trying to make eye contact with the woman behind window number three.
“Hi,” I wave and smile, trying to hide the nerves that turn my stomach every time I speak with a person who looks like me. “I have an appointment at 3:00,” hoping she does not notice it is already 3:22. She does not wave back as she glances at the clock.
“What for,” she asks without smiling.
There were lots of answers I could give but somehow, even though she speaks English, I did not think these things would translate. I give her a paper with a certification stating that I am an abandoned child and entitled to a DNA test on the Korean government’s dime, another service fought for by my fellow adoptees. She skims the paper and looks back up at me for a second too long, and then picks up the phone.
I look around as other Korean people navigate this world effortlessly, approaching the stern ladies with a bow that softens their faces. Would this have been me if I hadn’t been adopted? A short, slightly pudgy man in his 20s rushes in, a binder swinging in his hand reading “Adoptee DNA Tests.” I take a breath and follow him to a separate area. He efficiently explains how we got here, like a lawyer reciting the procedural history of a case, and I played the role of the defendant nodding along as if her future were not on the line.
“Your DNA will be matched against the DNA of Korean families who declared their children missing. God willing, there will be a match. After today there is nothing else we can do for you. I will pray for you,” he says, pity in his eyes that infantilized me despite being at least a decade his senior.
After the paperwork is completed, an older gentleman comes down with a box in hand.
“Annyeonghaseyo,” he says to me.
“Annyeonghaseyo,” I return and quickly follow it with, “How are you?”—the perfect defense to stop him from continuing a stream of Korean I cannot understand.
“You don’t speak Korean?” he says more than asks.
I quell my conditioned response to apologize for my inability to speak the language my face tells him I should speak, a habit I have had my whole life to allay the confusion of my existence to Americans and Koreans alike.
“Can you write your name in Korean?” he says, like a teacher asking a kindergartner.
“Yes,” I respond, a pupil eager to please, conjuring the image of the Korean name given to me by the adoption agency and trying to copy the letters. And, just like a kindergartner, I write one of the letters backwards.
“Open your mouth, please.” He proceeds to take a flat circle shaped cotton swab that looks like a lollipop and rubs it on the insides of my cheeks and under my tongue. My face flushes as this older Korean man inspects the inside of my mouth and swabs my Koreanness onto that tiny cotton lollipop. My chest hardens, my fists tightens, and tears blur my vision as I submit to this act of desperation and violation. When he mercifully finishes, he wipes the swab on two circles on a cardboard card with my handwritten Korean name, places it in a sterile bag, and walks away, back to his paperwork and coffee.
Whatever happens after that moment is a blur. I rush out of that room, that office, that building, pushing down the rock in my chest and holding my eyes open to evaporate my tears. I run to my car and as soon as the door shuts, I let it all go. The embarrassment, the pain, the anger, the loss, and the abysmal yearning folded in the depths of me emerged in a piercing scream. I imagine my DNA, the microscopic proteins that live in my cells and make me who I am, flying back across the ocean I flew over decades ago, in an airplane marked along with other diplomatic mail to a government that sent me away, a country I am not a citizen of, and who, despite its status as a world economic leader, still cannot properly support its own families. Groveling to the government that embedded the trauma in me, in my two sons, and now in my new baby is its own kind of re-traumatization. Amidst the tumult in my heart, sitting in my car on a side street crying alone, a streak of light emerges. I imagine my birth family waiting in Korea, hoping their child will send a part of herself back home before it’s too late. The fantastical hope of another DNA test. I wait.
Born in Busan, South Korea, Cynthia was adopted to Washington, D.C. by her Jewish adoptive family as an #importedAsian. As a recovering perfectionist and overachiever, she left her legal career in favor of caring for her two sons, both adopted from Korea, and her biological daughter.
Cynthia looks forward to exploring issues around parenting, adoption as an adoptee, and the overall adoptee experience. You can find more of her writing at her website.