The Flight Home: An Unpublished Article (2002)
The baby sits on the lap of the only mother she has ever known, quite unaware of the journey she is about to embark upon. Her round, almond-toned face is still and her dark eyes are observant. A slight illness has delayed her trip by two days, but today she has been granted approval by the agency pediatrician that she is healthy enough for travel. She is just six months old.
She is serene and watchful, as Eastern Social Welfare Society’s founder, Dr. Duk Whang Kim, or “Old Dr. Kim” as he is affectionately known, says a prayer for her safe travel and healthy life. Old Dr. Kim created Eastern in 1972 to help needy children find families and has said this same prayer for every child for whom he has found a home.
The baby kicks her feet a bit and coos at her foster mother. She does not panic as she is handed to the escort and the travelers wave goodbye to Old Dr. Kim and the foster mother through the window of the agency minivan.
What the baby doesn’t know is that she has just said her final goodbye to Eastern Social Welfare Society, her family, and Korea. What she can’t possibly understand, is that within 25 hours, she will have a new country, a new home, and a new family.
The baby and her escort arrive at Incheon International Airport with plenty of time to wait for the postponed flight to San Francisco. The baby is content to sit on the escort’s lap, drink a bottle of rice formula, and play with her fingers. Other travelers in the airport terminal approach the escort and her infant, click their tongue at the baby, and offer them chewy rice cakes made of rice paste, green tea, and sesame. The escort notes that in Korea, people don’t coo at babies, they click at them and speak to them in a stern voice.
“Is this your baby?” An elderly American woman asks the escort as she observes the infant passenger and her companion.
“No,” the escort states. “I am bringing her to her new family in the United States.”
“Oh.” says the woman. She smiles brightly. “But you are Korean, aren’t you?. The baby looks like you!”
The escort smiles at the American. It is easy to understand the other woman’s confusion. The escort and the child hold similar physical characteristics, skin tone, face shape, and lips. But the escort shares more than just this international flight and warm affection with the infant girl. She shares the baby’s story; for the escort is herself an American-raised Korean adoptee.
“This is my first trip back to Korea. I was even younger than this baby when I last saw Korea.” The escort says it without expression, but smiles gently at the curious American tourist.
In the last four decades, over 150,000 Korean born children have been placed for adoption in American homes, primarily into families with white or Caucasian parents. The trend of Korean adoption arose as a need following the Korean War, when many youth were left orphaned and biracial children were abandoned by their biological families. As this choice of adoption has grown more popular, so has the population of Korean-born adoptees being raised in the United States. More and more adult adoptees are making the trek back to Korea either to facilitate family searches, learn more about Korean culture, or to research their adoption.
States the escort: “I had never thought of visiting Korea. It never occurred to me that I would want to. Then I received an invitation to attend Eastern’s 30th Anniversary Celebration and have all expenses for the trip paid for and I thought ‘this is meant to be.’”
However, the escort soon learned that there are no free trips. “It has been more difficult than I thought it would be. There are emotions that I didn’t anticipate. I spent most of my time in the baby nursery at Eastern Social Welfare’s guest house. I was one of those babies once.”
The feelings continue to overwhelm the escort as she finally boards the plane. The baby girl begins to fuss and look around. She squirms in the escort’s arms and looks out the window. It is the last time this child will see the Korean landscape for a very long while.
A Korean passenger asks the escort if he can hold the infant. The man clicks his tongue at the baby.
“I can tell it’s not your baby,” the male passenger says to the escort, as he looks thoughtfully from the infant to her escort. “This baby is Korean.”
“Actually,” the escort responds. “I’m Korean too.”
“No.” Says the man authoritatively. “You are American.”
The greeter in San Francisco is a brusque, but kind, plain-clothes nun. “I’ve been greeting babies for ten years and I love it. Hurry up, now, hand me the baby so I can help push you through.” The escort follows behind the nun who wears blue jeans and head garment, as they rush through customs. “Excuse me, but we’re in a hurry, do you mind if we cut?” Before waiting for a proper response, the nun skips ahead in line, baby in her arms, escort in tow. After exiting customs, the nun changes the baby’s clothes.
“We mail these outfits back to Eastern for another baby.” The nun explains.
“My mother saved the outfit I was in the day I arrived from Korea. She thought I had worn it during the entire trip.” The escort can bring to memory her own mother, fingering delicately the little pink and white outfit, retelling the story of her arrival. During these narratives, the escort’s mother is always sure to show the airport arrival photos of every family member smiling, with balloons, and a welcome banner to greet the infant girl.
“Unlikely,” the nun states. “We’ve always changed the babies’ clothing at customs.”
“It was so strange.” The escort recalls. “I felt like the baby and I were both taking that flight for the first time. She looked at me with questions in her eyes. I didn’t have any of the answers.”
The escort indicates she has had a very happy life and strong bonds to her adoptive family, but she also realizes there are lingering issues that come with being transracially and internationally adopted.
“Sometimes you feel like there isn’t anywhere for you to fit in, you don’t look like your family, but you aren’t really Korean either. I just hope this baby has a family that can help her work through the issues she will have while growing up.”
The baby definitely notices a difference when boarding the flight to their final destination. The baby climbs around the escort’s shoulder, stiffens her spine, looks anxiously at the faces on the plane.
“When we left Korea, most of the passengers on the first flight were Asian. On the second flight, from San Francisco, the entire cabin was filled with white faces. I realized, she could tell, and she was scared.” For the first time in the 20 hours they have spent together, the baby girl lets out a cry. She cries until she falls asleep. So does the escort.
As the plane rolls into the terminal, the escort feels a twinge of reluctance to hand the infant over to her new family.
“There was a space of time when I worried about what her life would become and I thought about keeping her and running away. But then, I saw her whole family at the end of the terminal. They had a banner. And balloons.”
“And I thought, ‘She’s going to be okay.’”