‘Did she feel guilty abandoning me in a parking lot? Did she wonder about me?

24 December 2021

‘Did she feel guilty abandoning me in a parking lot? Did she wonder about me? For the first time in 30 years I thought, ‘I have to find her.’: Adoptee reclaims identity in search for birth family

“An endless black hole. Nothingness. Question marks. This is what marks my past, before I came to America as a 2-year-old orphaned Korean child to my new country, new family, new home, new name, and new identity: Kara Mee Bedell.

A Caucasian middle class Christian family in Michigan adopted me. They had 2 biological children of their own, but due to complicated pregnancies and desires for a larger family, they decided to adopt. This is when I came into the picture. Adoption has always been known as something good. There isn’t any question about it when someone mentions they are adopting. They are often times met with a smile, and praise for the good deeds they are offering to the world. Rescuing an ‘impoverished child,’ who wouldn’t see it as a good deed (I put ‘impoverished child’ in quotations as we’ll be coming back to that later). For many children who are adopted it becomes one, at least in the beginning; these children are given a home, education, healthcare, and most likely opportunities that would never afford them if they had been left in their countries of origin. However, was that the case for me? Let’s travel back to my childhood and adoption story…

I was, as I said, adopted when I was 2 years old from South Korea, found at a bus terminal in Goesan (a province 2 hours South of Seoul) crying, saying only my name Kang Misuk and my age 2 years old. I was brought to an orphanage in Cheongju on November 18, 1983. 10 months later, September 1984, I was flown to Detroit, Michigan to meet my new family, The Bedells. I have fond memories of my early childhood, as I was treated just as a sister by my siblings, in the shelter of my family protected from any ‘differences’ and only seen as one of the family. However, as I grew older and went to school is when the ‘differences’ became more prevalent. Kids would ask, ‘Why is your nose so flat? Why is your face flat? Where are you from? How did you get here?’ Some would even shout out, ‘Hey you, Chinese dude!’ I was a fighter though, and those kids didn’t usually win those arguments as I would retort, ‘Don’t you know an American when you see one?!’ This is how I saw myself, and I was proud to be able to say it.

Growing up in middle class rural America, the pride of being American is instilled in you at a young age. So even at the tender age of 4, I was yelling out these proclamations from the bottom of my belly. Being outgoing, and with a rather strong character, I was well liked among my classmates. Being different on the outside, in the end, didn’t affect my popularity in my early years of education. However, as the outside beauty changes and forms as a child grows older, I started to dislike my small eyes, short eyelashes, dark hair, and flat face. I tried out a perm in order to have the wavy caresses I saw in other girl’s hair, but it turned into a disaster as my aunt used the same type of perming solution as she did on her hair…I will leave this to your imagination, but yes, I looked like a poodle. I never understood why boys didn’t want to go out with me, as only when I looked in the mirror did I remember I was different – Asian.

However, I didn’t let this get in the way of my confidence, and since I was a fighter, my self-esteem remained quite solid even with all of the whispers of not being good enough, not being like the rest circled in the back of my head. Our family was Baptist, so I grew up in the church; we went to church every Wednesday and Sunday. God became my respite in all areas of loss that I may have subconsciously felt, and I feel he rescued me and kept me strong during my teenage years of self-doubt. I managed to successfully maneuver through middle school and high school and went to college with honors. I was always very goal-oriented and had set out to get the job that would allow me not only status, but also the means to travel the world. The small town of Michigan where I grew up would not confine me; there was so much to see in the world and I was meant to see it.

My parents had decided they would not pay for our college education; if we wanted to go to college, then we would pay for it just as my dad did. I’m not sure if inflation counts, but I’m pretty sure college wasn’t as expensive during the Vietnam war days as it was when I went, so the only way to go was to either get a sports scholarship (I wasn’t allowed to play sports during school, so this wasn’t an option), education scholarship (I wasn’t smart enough for this with only a 3.89 GPA), or work your ass off while attending. I did the latter, and worked full-time jobs throughout the 4 years to graduate debt free. I’m rather proud of this achievement, but would never go back to my college days as many fondly wish they could. I graduated with a degree in Marketing and double minor in Japanese and Business. I landed a job right out of college with Nestle and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

My past and any sentiment of being different or being adopted was of the past and even I forgot about it until I hosted a dinner with my newfound friends in Virginia Beach, Virginia where I had moved for my career in 2004. My friends had never met my family, and they had come to visit me shortly after I moved. When my friends arrived, I introduced my parents, but they were met with surprised and awkward expressions. I didn’t understand what the problem was until one of my friends asked, ‘Kara, is there something maybe you forgot to tell us?’ I scoured my brain thinking, what is he going on about? And then it dawned on me… ‘Ah, I’m adopted guys, did I not mention that?’

All the puzzle pieces fell in place and everyone sat down to a nice lunch and it was forgotten. This was what adoption meant to me for nearly 30 years of my life – a fact, but one not worthy of being mentioned. It was the past, and the past is best left in the past, or so I thought. If anyone were to ask me about my adoption, I always formulated these sentences, ‘Yes I’m adopted, found abandoned in a parking lot when I was a baby, but my adoptive parents are my parents now and I don’t need to search as I only look towards the future.’ This was usually enough of an explanation to appease the curiosity and said with enough firmness to squash any questions that might have been hanging in the air.

I met my husband in Virginia Beach, through an international company I started working for in 2006. He is from The Netherlands, and since anything international was exciting, naturally he was as well. It was instant sparks for us; after a year we were engaged, and another one and a half later we were married. In 2008, we went on a world trip, backpacking around the world for 8 months hitting up South America, Africa, Seychellen, the Middle East, and Russia before settling down in Amsterdam in 2009. I became fluent in Dutch, became a Dutch citizen, and started working yet again in Pharmaceuticals, the last career I had left when we moved from the US.

In 2012, our son Alexander was born and it completely rocked my world. At the time I didn’t know why it did, but I could only feel the necessity to be his primary caregiver and no one else was good enough. I was always very ambitious; working up the corporate ladder was my dream, being CEO someday was my dream, but when Alexander was placed in my arms after 12 hard hours of contractions, it all fell to the wayside. This child, biological kin, my blood, was mine and I could see myself reflected in his tiny little features. It was the first time in my life, someone looked like me and I looked like someone that I could remember.

However, it wasn’t until after my daughter was born two and a half years later that my past came full circle. She was demanding as a baby, and needed me more than my son had. She wouldn’t allow anyone else to feed her, only took the breast, and would scream if I left the room as she grew older. Her attachment was so strong, and my realization of how well she knew and needed her mother was ingrained into my heart. With this realization became my own towards my birth mother for the first time in 30 years… was I this way? Did I also scream for her? How much pain and guilt must she feel to have abandoned me. She must wonder about me everyday… I have to find her.

In 2016, I started my search by sending in my DNA to FamilyTreeDna through 325kamra, a non-profit who works to reunite adoptees through DNA, funded by a generous donation by a fellow adoptee Thomas Clement. I also contacted my adoption agency in the US (Bethany Christian Services) and they in turn reached out to Holt Korea to request my file and any extra information they might have on record. In 2017, we visited Korea and did a physical search, and even though we didn’t find anything new it was the first time I opened up my heart to Korea and being Korean. It’s the first time I recognized myself as being Asian and could welcome it, no longer hiding from it. I enjoyed the feeling of blending in, shopping, and finding everything could fit me, everything was made and designed for my body shape, face shape… my flat nose and flat face weren’t considered flat in Korea. Small things such as sunglasses and shoes I could pick out in boundless assortment. I was average, something I had never felt before.

In 2018 we visited yet again, and we found new documents at the orphanage that revealed my foster parents had in actuality tried to adopt me domestically. When I tried to find out the truth of these papers, and more documents to support the claim of my foster mother, I read, ‘The orphanage called us and told us to send you back, that an American couple were looking for a 2-year-old and we should send you back. We didn’t want to but we did. I’m so sorry we couldn’t raise you, I never was able to have children and would have so loved to have you.’ I was met with the orphanage replying, ‘We can’t find anymore documents.’ And Holt emailing, ‘Your orphanage encountered a flood, so the documents were probably lost.’

The orphanage later confirmed the flood was in the 70’s, long before I had arrived in 1981. I became angry, betrayed, my whole picture of what adoption was and is fell apart and I was left with, ‘I was shipped off for more money, sold.’ It was a dark period, as I dealt with the conflicting feelings of adoption is not good, adoption agencies are not good, adoption is an industry, files are fabricated, lies are told to keep us in the dark and not asking questions, etc. I came to the conclusion, however, that it’s finished. There is nothing else to find. Even if this is true, I am nowhere closer to finding my mother, so it’s time to stop this.

However, in January 2019 I received a DNA match, a 1st cousin or nephew match, 1188cM or 17%. This was like winning the lottery among adoptees, having a Korean non-adopted match was my finding a needle in a haystack. He was friendly, open, and desired to help me find my mother. However, after 8 months of building a relationship, gathering information and building the family tree, involving his mother shut the line of help down. I then managed to find his cousin, and again she was helpful, open, and desired to help. Involving her mother also shut the line of help down. Not even after begging on my knees in front of their door in Seoul would it move their hearts to speak to me. Instead, they called the police.

As a result, on November 18, 2019, 36 years after I was abandoned, I made the first step in reclaiming my identity – I filed a paternity suit against my assumed father. I never wanted to find my father if I’m honest, I only wanted to know who my mother was and assuage her guilt and let her know I’m okay. However, he was whom I found and the only way to find her, was by confirming his parentage and then I would have the power to meet him. In Korea, adoptees have no power to reach out to their birth families without the consent of the birth parents. However, in my case, my file said I was abandoned and it was only through the stroke of luck in DNA that I even found him. But proving him to be my father with foreign DNA tests was not enough for Seoul police to reach out to him due to stringent privacy laws. There wasn’t a single way to ask him without his family helping me, and it was out of the question. So, this was my only option to proceed in my quest to find my mother.

April 16, 2020 I received my answer from my lawyer: ‘Congratulations, Oh Ikgyu is your father.’ Those words were affirming beyond anything I could describe. All the doubt and accusations that were thrown at me by his daughters were washed away with the black and white irrefutable evidence 99.981% DNA match- father/daughter. I wept, sobbed uncontrollably; I finally knew a piece of the endless black hole of my past. Even if it wasn’t what I had set out to search for, it was one answer.

On June 12, 2020, I went to the trial where the judge further confirmed legal recognition of myself as his daughter with the judgment that my father had to add me to his family register. I am now listed as Oh Kara, my identity that was stripped away by Holt was replaced with a new name, one which recognizes my current self but also reclaimed what should have been. Restorative justice. Unfortunately, my story didn’t result in a happy ending yet, my meeting my father was met with 2 bodyguards, an unrecognizable face with unanswered questions. However, there is still hope as half the puzzle has been solved. There are now clues, and more leads to follow in the search of my mother.

But more importantly, I want to inspire adoptees to never give up. To stand up and fight for truth. I would also like to hopefully give insight for non-adoptees as to how complex adoption is. It is not as simple as ‘rescuing an impoverished child’ and ‘doing good.’ My Korean father was extremely wealthy, and my sisters all went to Ivy League schools and their husbands have positions of wealth and status within Korean society. It is assumed I was born due to an affair, and therefore sent away. A cover-up to an embarrassment to my father’s mistakes; this is adoption as well. In the 1980’s, Korea was poorer then they currently are. In my year, 1984, were not primarily sent away due to poverty. It was due to the lack of infrastructure set in place (both societal and financial) by the government. A complete failure to care for their most vulnerable and taking the easy way out: shipping us abroad, saving and making money in the process.

Am I better off? It’s a question that can’t be answered as the ‘what if’s’ in life remain just that. What’s important to take away from my story is international adoption represents the loss of everything for the child; the traditional narrative of rescuing children through adoption is no longer applicable from what we know after research and countless news articles of stolen/trafficked and illegal intercountry adoptions have surfaced. Receiving countries are slowly initiating investigative committees (Europe) and the sensitivity of corruption found in the adoption industry remains and always will as long as there is supply/demand and money involved.

Furthermore, the journey I had to go through in order to get recognized and be able to reach out to my biological father shouldn’t have occurred; adoptees need to receive legal right to origin. I hope you as the reader, a member of society, will contribute in changing the narrative and stand beside us as we fight for this: restorative justice and a right to origin. I am not an angry adoptee in any sense of the word, but I am a righteously angry one. I’m very thankful for my adoptive family in case you are thinking I’m not, even if I shouldn’t have to be; but adoption in all the ‘good’ it’s rendered to do does not justify the means to the end. Truth and justice should be fought for, and I hope you will stand with me and do so.”