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First Look

Olympics draw Korean adoptees searching for lost past

In the 1980s, international adoptions peaked in an economically struggling South Korea. As the transformed nation prepares to host the 2018 Winter Games an influx of adopted children are returning to visit their birth country as adults.

Sisters Hannah (l.) and Marissa Brandt pose at their family's home on May 11, 2017 in Vadnais Heights, Minn. Both sisters will be playing hockey in the upcoming Winter Olympics. Marissa, adopted from South Korea, will play for the Korean team, while Hannah will play for the US.
Scott Takushi/Pioneer Press/AP/File
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  • Sally Ho
    Associated Press

When Megan Olson lands in South Korea for the Winter Olympics next week, she'll feel something that is both surreal and vivid.

An intoxicating sense of belonging.

A deep sense of loss.

Pride, for the motherland she barely knows after being secretly adopted away.

The social worker from Minnesota is joining dozens of fellow South Korean adoptees who are returning to their birth country for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

Many endured cultural, racial, and national identity issues stemming from an international adoption phenomenon that peaked in the 1980s. Now, the once-in-a-lifetime Olympics experience will satisfy an internal pressure for some adoptees to justify being where they came from, even though it won't erase the fact that they were once sent away with shame and en masse.

"I think I really wanted to go back. It feels like it's home but at the same time, when I get there, I'm not home. I don't really know where I belong," Ms. Olson said.

The Olympics will also reconcile a part of their life journey that has been book-ended by an era of complete economic transformation for South Korea.

Much of that rise happened at the same time the small Asian country, lacking a solid social welfare system, dispersed an estimated 200,000 of its Korean-born children, according to Richard Lee, a University of Minnesota professor who studies adoptees.

The cultural diaspora reaches more than a dozen countries around the globe, including in western Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. But for South Korea, the timing of the adoption boom coinciding with their costly 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul is still a subject of criticism among some.

No longer in the shadows of the devastating Korean War era, the country over the past half century has become a powerhouse on the world stage, thanks to its fortunes in tech, cultural reach from pop music, and famously rigorous education system.

All the while, a majority of those South Korean orphans landed in the US. They grew up largely with white parents in the Western world where adoption is seen as a humanitarian endeavor. Now adults, they've come of age and some have risen in the worlds of politics, fashion, and entertainment.

That such orphans are now successful enough to afford an elite experience like the Olympic Games has surprised some of the locals in a patriarchal society where adoption is taboo.

Keziah Park of the International Korean Adoptee Service called it a "slap in the face" for status-driven South Koreans. The Seoul-based nonprofit since the 1990s has organized trips and birth-search pilgrimages for adoptees.

"When they left, they were orphans and they were abandoned. No one could take care of them. But when they come back, it's a symbolic journey to Koreans observing them," Ms. Park said.

She added: "It really changes the mindset of Koreans. It allows Korea as a society to reflect on the choices they made."

The pressure to justify being there can also be distressing if they have already gone back to find their birth stories as a practical matter: to learn about their genetic health, or find out what happened to them as young children. And even if their adoptive families are supportive of their pilgrimage back, it can be difficult to reconcile their identity and feelings for the country when they lack Korean family ties.

Park organized the week-long Olympics tourism trip hoping to ease that internal conflict. It will include the opening ceremony and sporting events. They're also hoping to meet Marissa Brandt, an adoptee raised in America who will play for the Korean women's hockey team.

"Although they have an intrinsic purpose to be there, they don't have anyone welcoming them to be there, so they felt it was meaningless," Park said. "That purpose to be there, the adoptees want more than you think."

More than two dozen adoptees are expected on the trip, including those now living in Norway, Denmark, Italy, France, Australia, and the US.

Olson, of Robbinsdale, Minn., said she thinks about going back to South Korea so often that it can wear on her husband. But each time she's there, she asks herself if it should be the last visit because it's so emotionally draining.

Olson found her birth parents a few years ago through their adoption agency in Seoul. Their meetings have left her distraught, frustrated, and unfulfilled. Olson's desperate to understand her true life story but her Korean parents appear indifferent.

She says she was adopted in 1985 as a baby but discovered that they kept a son born a year after Olson. The adoptee doesn't know why her birth parents made those choices. They've only confirmed that she's a secret they'll never tell their other children.

But this upcoming trip to South Korea will offer a welcome reprieve to Olson's heartaches.

It will be about connecting with fellow adoptees who share this profound experience that they didn't choose to have.

It will be about eating the food that's been missing their whole lives, yet tastes so much like home.

It will be about experiencing the glitz and glam of the Olympic Games, though even that is not without fraught.

"I don't know who I would cheer for. Should it be the US? Should it be Korea? It's super minute but something I think about," Olson said.

Ella and Tony LeVeque are two other adoptees who found the Olympics to be the perfect reason to go back to their birth country. The couple met at another adoptee gathering in Seoul before marrying in 2014.

"We obviously really like watching the Olympics. We tally up America versus Canada," said Ella LeVeque, a recruiter who was adopted as a baby to Ottawa. "And just being able to be there and represent South Korea, too, we're going to be able to be proud of all of it."

The two now live in Galesburg, Mich. Neither has found their birth families.

Tony LeVeque, a hospital administrator, was adopted to central Michigan when he was 4 years old. He didn't feel much of a connection as a child when his adoptive parents showed him recordings of the 1988 Games in Seoul. Like many others, he also struggled with his identity before connecting with his roots in adulthood.

"It's difficult trying to find your own way," he said of the Korean adoptee experience. "What type of man or woman am I supposed to be in America?"

Matt Galbraith of Hawaii said he'll spend time with his birth family after the Olympic events. He was adopted with his birth brother when he was 5 years old. They grew up in a happy home in the Phoenix area after enduring a dark year with unhappy memories at an orphanage in Munsan, near the demilitarized zone bordering North Korea.

Mr. Galbraith said he found his birth mother in 2009, taking a leap of faith by going to Seoul while he was stationed in Japan with the US Navy. The woman asked Galbraith for forgiveness after a hotel worker helped reunite them.

He learned that the single mom put her boys up for adoption because she contracted tuberculosis. Without money or support, she feared the worst and hoped her sons could have a better future through adoption.

"I was adopted when I was a little bit older. I remember having memories with them," Galbraith said of his birth family. "I knew that they were still there."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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