Whitney’s Birth Family Search

One of our FAQs is “How did Whitney go about her birth family search?” We’ve recently realized that we do not have a post dedicated to this topic, so we thought it was about time to lay out the story.

We should preface this by stating that Whitney’s situation was super straight forward and freakishly easy, which is very unusual. A lot has changed since her BFS (birth family search) six years ago and the processes are very different now, due to the huge volume of requests PAS (post adoptive services) receives. So we are certainly not experts on the process or the topic in general, but we can share our personal experience!


Whitney was adopted from Korea to a family in America when she was just 6 months old. Her parents have always been really encouraging (and sometimes too pushy!) about Korean food, culture, etc. They would often ask if she had any desire to go back to Korea to visit or try to find her birth family. She was always very firm in saying, “No,” because she was very content and quite uninterested in anything remotely related to Korea.

After graduating college in 2009, the US job market was horrendous and Whitney was unable to find any sort of decent employment. On a whim, she replied to an ad and applied to be an English teacher. It just so happened the position was in Korea, of all places. She was hired and flew to the Motherland about six months later to start work.

While she was living and working in 천안 Cheonan, South Korea, Whitney’s parents in Ohio started harping on the adoption thing again, like “You’re just a couple of hours from 서울 Seoul. Why not go up to the agency and just look at your file?” By that time, she was just sort of sick of hearing about it so she initially contacted Holt just to placate her parents.

What we now know is that Holt is two separate entities that often work with each other, but are actually independent — Holt International (Oregon) and Holt Korea. Whitney was a Holt Korea baby but came through a different organization Stateside (not Holt in Oregon). Holt split into the two separate entities decades ago but sharing the Holt name can make things really confusing for adult adoptees now.

At that time, Whitney only knew she was a Holt baby, nothing beyond that. She had a copy of her baby passport, case number and Korean name.  After emailing Holt International in Oregon with that info, she was really thrown for a loop when they wrote back and said they did not have her file. She had a bit of an existential crisis – “What is my life?!” After the minor freak-out, she was able to get in contact with the Stateside organization (not Holt) who confirmed she was “their baby,” and then their liaison contacted Holt Korea. Once they pulled her file and confirmed everything was in order, Holt Korea directly contacted her with an invitation to come and view her file. That process was all pretty quick but she sat on the Holt Korea email for almost 6 months before acting. That should tell you how really disinterested she was at the time!

In Fall 2010, Whitney’s parents decided to fly to Korea for a visit, so she determined that would be as good a time as any to get her Holt visit over with. She scheduled an appointment with the case worker in 서울 Seoul and on September 20th, 2010, she and her parents visited Holt Korea PAS together. She learned about her birth family’s history…how mom and dad met, how she had an older brother, how she came to be given up for adoption, etc. On the last page of the file came the shock that started it all. Many adoptee’s family records have little to no family information given. Whitney’s was basically a genealogy. Full names & government ID numbers for parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Her social worker at the agency explained that this was a rare thing and how it would make a search really easy. The word “search” had never come into her consciousness before that second. She pow-wowed with her parents, who agreed that a search just seemed like the right thing given all of the information that had been handed to them. The door seemed TOO wide open. Before leaving the office that day, Whitney gave consent to initiate search for her birth family.

One week after that initial visit (and immediately following the 추석 Chuseok holiday), on September 27th, Whitney emailed a recent picture to Ms. Lee at Holt, along with a letter to give to her birth family. The case worker responded that evening to say that she had translated it and would begin the actual search soon. She said normally it would take about 2-3 weeks for her to locate the family. Whitney’s jaw dropped when she considered that she could potentially be meeting them in only one month. Little did she know…

About 48 hours later, on September 30th, Whitney went to her office at work to check messages after lunch. She was surprised when she checked her phone and saw 6 missed calls and a few text messages from the same unknown number. She called the number and found it was Holt. Ms. Lee asked, “Do you have a minute to talk?,” followed immediately by, “I found them.” Whitney stopped breathing. Ms. Lee explained that she had spoken to both Whitney’s birth father and birth mother that morning. They were, not surprisingly, shocked out of their minds. Ms. Lee also told Whitney that she had a 2nd brother…a younger one. She said both brothers were in university – the older in Korea, the younger in China. Neither brother had a clue about Whitney’s existence. Her birth mother said that she wanted to meet immediately, but she needed time to explain it to the boys. Ms. Lee asked, “So when can you come?”

After an afternoon of back-and-forth and many, many phone calls, it was decided. We would meet on October 1st…the very next day!

Later that evening, Ms. Lee called back to say that Whitney’s birth mother had talked with both boys. Her older brother and birth father would be with her the next day for that first meeting. She had purchased a plane ticket for the next available flight for younger brother to fly back from China. However, he wouldn’t arrive in Korea until Sunday (2 days later), so could Whitney just stay the weekend at their house and go with them to pick up younger brother from the airport on Sunday? Whitney’s immediate response was laughter. After a lot of thought, she ultimately decided, “Why not?!” So she packed a bag that night, went to work the next day, then jetted to the station to catch her train to 서울 Seoul.

Whitney met 엄마 Omma, 아빠 Appa, and 성배오빠 Seong-bae oppa for the first time in 23 years on Friday, October 1st, 2010. Everyone asks if it was emotional. Honestly – it wasn’t. Everything happened so fast that there was no time to think about emotions. A few tears were shed within the first 5 minutes, but then everyone quickly moved on to the business of catching up on the past couple of decades. Ms. Lee was in the meeting as translator. They talked about everything under the sun for about an hour and a half, then Whitney grabbed her bag and walked out of the office to go home with her birth family…without a translator.

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That first weekend was a whirlwind. With Whitney’s less-than-survival Korean and birth parents’ lack of English, communication was really difficult. Poor 성배 Seong-bae was forced into translating for the sister he hadn’t known about 24 hours prior. To make up for the lack of conversation, 엄마 omma cooked enough for an army and stuffed Whitney to the point of explosion approximately every 2 hours.

A lot has happened since that first weekend, which is how this blog came to be. Whitney returned to the States, met another Holt KAD, and they got married. They keep in regular contact with her birth family and go to visit them in Korea about once every 2 years or so. It’s quite an interesting ride.

Every adoptee has their own unique situation and experience, so our story will not be everyone else’s story. We are not naïve enough to think even Lee’s story would be the same as Whitney’s. But we share in hopes that other KADs will find our journey encouraging and feel a kinship. Because the most important thing to remember is this: you are not alone.

For the original post on Whitney’s BFS and reunion, click HERE. This will link to the inactive personal blog she maintained during that time. Much of that post will sound familiar as parts were modified and incorporated here. 


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© We the Lees, 2016. All Rights Reserved

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4 thoughts on “Whitney’s Birth Family Search

  1. Hi Matthew, thanks for reading! Yes we agree about the brothers. We have a post coming up about how the reunion affected them. It was a big change from their first 20-some years of life!

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  2. Wow, what a great story! First time I hear such a straight-to-the point, easy and “obvious” reunion story like that. It really feels like it was all meant to happen the way things happened. Very inspiring to me as I am on the verge of meeting my birth mom. I am currently holding my breath as she is preparing a letter to me. I hope my story has a happy ending because so far, and according to the social worker, she hasn’t shown any emotions about me looking for her, reading my letter and seeing my picture for the first time. I’m hoping it’s not because she’s a “Korean tiger mom” like your Omma because contrarily to you, I am a pretty melodramatic kind of person 😉 Anyway it was nice to read you guys, thanks for sharing your story! Xx, Laetitia

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  3. Thanks for reading! Try to be patient with your omma (easier said than done!) as it is a lot to process for everyone involved. But maybe try to prepare for a tiger mom just in case 🙂

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