'Forget Me Not': A Korean-born adoptee's ode to her birth mother

19 May 2021

Sun Hee Engelstoft, who was born in Busan in 1982, was 4 months old when she was flown to Denmark to meet her white adoptive parents.

Her biological mother had given her up for adoption, and through no choice of her own, she became part of the large adoption exodus: more than 210,000 babies have been sent overseas for adoption since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Engelstoft recalls that although she was the only Korean in her village, she has had a good life living in the midst of nature. She also lived for three years in a refugee camp in Botswana in the 1980s where her parents were volunteer workers.

"I have a strong bond with my adoptive family. I loved school, but I was always an outsider. When I would walk down the street, my schoolmates would touch my hair because it was dark and different from theirs. Overall it was a beautiful, but isolated time," she said during an interview with The Korea Times, Monday.

Having attended several schools for photography, she was accepted to the prestigious National Film School of Denmark, where she graduated in 2011.

"There was something about photography and film that spoke to me, because I'm afraid of losing my memory or people around me. I've always been interested in exploring personal questions, so I document things," she said.

It was in 2002, when she turned 20, that the Korean-born filmmaker finally returned to Korea with an aim of learning about her origins and finding her biological mother. Around that time, she also changed her name back to, Sun Hee, from Lisbeth, which had been given to her by her adoptive parents.

"I always wondered where I had come from. I had hopes of trying to understand and find my family. My trip to Korea was such a big shock to me because I felt like I belonged somewhere for the first time in my life," she said.

Engelstoft visited the major adoption agency Holt International and an orphanage in Busan to gather information about her biological mother, but later heard that her mother doesn't want to see her because she has started another family.

She wanted to understand her birth mother and answer the big question of "what makes a mother give away her baby?" So the 39-year-old filmmaker decided to make a documentary about unwed mothers in a shelter who face the same dilemma as her mother did several decades ago: "should I keep my baby or give them up for adoption?"

The director explained that the project started out with a plan to do a positive story, but she had no idea about the complexities she was getting into.

"At first, I wanted to find a mother who wants to keep her child. But every time I started filming, although some said they wanted to keep their child and they were strong women, something else happened, and they all ended up giving their children away. So the result was the opposite of my intention," she said.

Engelstoft stayed at the Aesuhwon shelter for single mothers 24/7 for about a year and a half and met women of all ages, from their teens to forties. According to her, it was a coincidence that the film ended up being centered on teenagers.

Below is an excerpt from The Korea Times' interview with Engelstoft about her debut feature documentary, "Forget Me Not."

Q. What inspired you to tell this story?

A. In 2004, I was on a trip to Korea again with other adoptees. I remember the last stop on our bus tour was a Catholic shelter in the countryside. There, I met a pregnant mother who was expecting a child. She came up to me and asked, "Are you happy to be adopted?" I didn't know what to say. She wanted to know if it was okay to give away her baby for adoption. I couldn't answer the question with a "yes" or "no." From that time on, I had the idea that adoption was not really about me. It was something that had happened to my mother. To understand my identity and my life, I needed to go back and find answers and talk to the women in the shelter.

Q. What was your biggest discovery while filming the documentary?

A. My biggest discovery was to learn that women don't give up their children voluntarily. It is under extreme circumstances that they have to give up their children. There's no other option. They have to choose between their family, their own life and their baby's life. I always thought that my adoption was one single woman's choice, but I have learned that it's very different. There are so many people involved, including the baby's father, the grandparents, the extended family, shelters and the hospital. When somebody tells you that you're not good enough to raise a baby on your own, that's really a tough situation.

Q. Hundreds of babies are still sent abroad each year and society likes to phrase transnational adoption as a kind of "rescuing." What are your thoughts on this?

A. Unfortunately, I simply don't believe that anymore. There's been interest from the international market in obtaining Korean babies. The demand is very high, and that has created a way of making profit. So I'm afraid it has become a business. The number of children adopted from Korea to other countries amounts to over 200,000 over the years. It's the highest-ranking country in the world, in terms of the number of children adopted.

Q. What are you hoping viewers will take away from "Forget Me Not"?

A. I hope that this film gives a voice to people who have always been silenced, to get their hidden stories out, and I hope that the attitude toward single parents and the children of them lifts out of prejudices and becomes more acceptable. I hope that my mother sees this film and understand my forgiveness of her because, just from knowing what happened to the women, I can imagine how hard it must have been for them. There's this constant longing that I'll meet her sometime, but there's been so much time lost already, that it will never be the same, so I just hope that she's well and safe. I hope that she knows that I love her very much.

Q. Does Korea have a special place in your heart?

A. It will always have a special place in my heart. I see it as my country and my home. I hope to be accepted as Korean even though I don't speak the language. I feel like I belong here. If I have a family one day, I would like my children to know about Korea, be comfortable with looking Korean and be proud of being Korean.

Hinting that she will continue to produce documentaries inspired by personal stories, Engelstoft said her next project will be a fictional film about birth fathers.

"The stories about birth fathers are barely known. Because they are so invisible, I decided to make it fictional. I'm currently searching for a producer and a Korean actor for the lead role," she said.

"Forget Me Not" will hit local theaters, June 3.