Between Two Worlds

After the whirlwind of our Korea trip, we have a lot to flesh out, reflect on, and share with you. It’s difficult to know where to begin. So how about starting back at the beginning?

We think perspective is key, therefore, it is important for you to know our personal journeys in order to view, for instance, our recent Korea trip, with the lens through which we see it.

Isn’t a birth family reunion overwhelming? Yes!
Isn’t it frustrating to visit and not be fluent in Korean? Yes!
Don’t you get sick of being treated “differently” when you go back to Korea? Of course!
How can you deal with all of that? It’s a long story, but we’ll explain it to you!

It’s been a long, tough road the last 5-6 years since Whitney’s birth family reunion. She’s run the whole gamut of emotions. The article below will detail a bit of how she began to deal with such a major life event.

Maybe some of you are in this place and need to hear her story.
Maybe some of you are thinking of dipping your toes into the KAD community.
Maybe some of you are scared to ask for help in trying to sort through things.
Maybe some of you feel all alone and wonder if the world would be better off without you.

We hope this story helps you.


I wasn’t capable of naming it at the time, but deep-seated fear was the prevailing emotion I experienced before attending my first ever Korean adoptee gathering. The voices in my head were shouting: “What if they are all ‘angry adoptees?’ I won’t fit in with them. This is going to be so awkward.”

I learned about the annual KAAN (Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network) conference just a few days before the 2011 sessions were set to begin in Atlanta. I tossed and turned in bed, debating the pros and cons of attending. I fought myself tooth and nail. Yet somehow I couldn’t shake the thought that I needed to attend. In the end, I lost the battle with myself. I ultimately negotiated, “You can just go as an observer. Lay as low as possible.”

I’d never been interested in anything even remotely related to adoption. Growing up, my parents were always supportive and encouraging about learning my Korean roots, but I wanted nothing to do with it. After all, I was just a white kid with an Asian face, right? Then, in a strange turn of events, I suddenly found myself moving to Korea for work right after graduating college.

I was just a white kid with an Asian face.

During those 14 months, after a Hollywood-worthy twist, I also ended up reuniting with my Korean birth family. (More on this in the AV Connecting Two Worlds series.) Then, just as suddenly, I was back in America, trying my hardest to readjust and be “normal” again. I felt as if those 14 months had just been a dream. The sudden shock of reality left me feeling disconnected, disinterested, and all-around blasé.

63346_100271433371970_100001673400561_1061_7311769_nI struggled to balance my life in America with my family in Korea, while trying to study Korean and maintain contact with my birth family. I was trying to catch up with friends in the States and be Whitney again, but at the same time remembering that I was now also Jeon Hyun-Ah. I felt so torn. I was trying to be two people at once and it was tearing me apart. More than that, I felt that I was only person in the world to ever experience this sort of heartbreaking disconnect.

Enter KAAN. The timing was impeccable. I was beginning to wonder if I was crazy and how I could ever possibly begin to live a “normal” life again. I was depressed and struggling through my day-to-day routine. Knowing that I needed support, I uncharacteristically jumped in my car on a whim and drove through the night to Atlanta. Pulling in to the conference venue, I was exhausted and thinking, “What in the world am I doing here?! I don’t know a single soul.”

I was trying to be two people at once and it was tearing me apart.

I decided to push through and see what the morning sessions would be like before jumping ship. I awkwardly navigated the banquet hall and found a seat at a table with a sweet adoptive mom and her two children (Korean adoptees). Looking around, I couldn’t help but be amazed — the room was full of people just like me! I wasn’t alone. These other attendees also grew up in America after life circumstances caused their relinquishment from their Korean birth families. They all had two names,too. Many of them didn’t know how to read or speak Korean and some had never visited. They were just like me! For someone who had never been a part of the adoptee community, it was a powerful realization.

As I kept making small talk with the family at my table, I noticed a figure out of the corner of my eye. At first I couldn’t place her face, then I thought my exhaustion must surely be causing hallucinations. She noticed me, too, and smiled her recognition as she ran over to hug me. I collapsed in tears. It was my caseworker from Holt Post-Adoption Services in Seoul! She had walked with me through every step of my birth family search and served as translator for our reunion just the previous year. She was one of the only people on the planet who had met both of my families. Her work made such an impact on my life and I had thought of her often since returning to the States.

“What in the world are you doing here in America? In Atlanta?” I cried. She explained that Holt had representation at the conference every year and that, on her way, she had escorted a baby to his adoptive family in New England. We caught up on my year and how my adjustment had been back to life in the States. She asked about my family in Korea and made me practice a few Korean phrases with her. I couldn’t help but think “This is the validation I needed. I was meant to be here this weekend.”

The room was full of people just like me! I wasn’t alone.

The remainder of the conference was just as dramatic as the first fifteen minutes. It was such a healing experience for me to realize that other people felt the same way I did. I was encouraged to see older adoptees who had dealt with their issues and questions in healthy ways and lived very fulfilling lives. I made friends quickly. I sat stunned in breakout sessions as I heard people describe their own experiences and thought, “That is my life they’re describing!” I wept as I heard adoptees tell their own stories of dealing with the grief of losing a birth family and listened to them name issues in their own lives that I didn’t even realize I was struggling with until hearing them verbalized.

It was a draining experience and despite my exhaustion, I couldn’t sleep that first night. My mind was racing as it worked to process all it had taken in over the course of the day — things that I’d repressed for 24 years and now realized that I needed to deal with.

After the conference, I drove home in a daze. I didn’t know what to do with all I had learned. How could I get from the point I was at presently and develop into one of those healthy, balanced older adoptees that I had come to see as mentors over the weekend?

For the first time in my life, I realized I needed help. One of the things I’d heard over and over at the conference was “Working with my therapist was the most helpful thing I’ve ever done.” “No, no, no!,” I thought. “No way. I have it all under control. I don’t need a shrink to psychoanalyze me. Only crazy people go to counseling!” Of course, I lost this battle with myself, too, and when I got home on Sunday night, I immediately found a post-adoption therapist and scheduled an appointment for the next day. I’m happy and proud to say that admitting I needed help was indeed the best thing I have ever done for myself.

For the first time in my life, I realized I needed help.

KAAN began a healing process for me that is far from complete, but well on its way. I am now able to truly enjoy living my life to the fullest, realizing that my adoption story is not a tragedy marked by shame, but an unfolding journey of redemption, wholeness and love.

Article originally published at Adoption Voices Magazine, Nov. 2012.

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© We the Lees, 2016. All Rights Reserved.


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