Friday, April 27, 2007

Korea Trip

Saturday morning I met FAC (Family Adoption Consultants) social workers, Lydia, Renee & Vicki at Cleveland Airport to begin our 25 hour trip. One that would first take us to Minneapolis and Tokyo before touching down in Seoul, South Korea. I agreed to take on this challenge to fulfill a personal goal but more so to learn all I could for Andrew about the culture and life style of the Korean people.

The differences presented themselves early on. As we waited to board our flight from Minneapolis to Tokyo our Caucasian faces turned into the minority. Even the airline food took on a new look from the typical chicken or beef to sushi and seaweed wraps. Unfortunately, the turbulence and all over discomfort a 12-hour leg can impose was enough to make me throw up. A first among many this week! As the flight made its final approach into Tokyo I could see what I pictured Japan to be; rice patty after rice patty surrounded by beautiful mountains. We headed to the arrival/departure board to find our connecting gate; thankfully numbers and airline codes are the same in all languages!

I was grateful to be feeling better by the time we reached cruising altitude to Seoul. Just in time to hear Vicki engage the Korean man seated between us in conversation. He was maybe in his early 30s and returning home after working for Nike in the US. He asked why we were traveling to Seoul, Vicki explained and dove in further by asking what he thought about Americans adopting Korean children. It was sort of a delicate question; after hearing that many Koreans believe Korean children should be raised in Korea. I got the feeling he had never discussed the topic before and afterwards I was glad she asked. He seemed hesitate at first but had lots of questions and Vicki answered open & honestly. He wanted to know how the parents are selected, how they can afford to care for more than one child, why they choose Korean children, ect. ect.
It was very interesting to hear him apologize for the acts of the Virginia Tech shooter. He explained how the Korean people have great honor and when one of them commits such heinous acts they all feel sorrow and responsibility. He wanted to know if Americans would punish the Korean children for the acts of this man. I was shocked. Vicki explained how most Americans would never blame an entire society for the problems of one disturbed person. He seemed relieved. I felt at that point it was safe to show him pictures of Andrew. He was pleased how happy Andrew looked and then praised Americans for being so open minded and caring for the Korean children.

Finally we were there! After gathering our luggage we headed out to catch the city bus to our hotel in Itaewon a suburb of Seoul about and hour away. The hotel & room were very nice, clean and roomier than I expected. Unlike home the beds were lower to the floor, 2 gas masks hung in the corner and the Teachings of Buddha replaced the bible. I did find the Cleveland Indians game on TV though!

Monday morning we woke up early and took a cab over to KSS (Korean Social Services). This is the orphanage where Andrew lived before a foster home opened up. It was a simple office building set back off the main road near the mountainside. I thought I would be emotional seeing where Andrew’s spent his first 5 months of life but I was too excited. Inside looked quite sterile and boring but the staff and foster mothers who were there filled the place with love. One by one we watched them all come into the nursery with their little ones wrapped around their backs. They each took off their shoes and sat on the floor chattering away about how their child was doing and progressing. They seem to have good relationship & support system among each other. Unlike the pictures I had seen previously right now the nursery was only housing 5 babies. That was a relief, I could not imagine seeing all those cribs full of lost souls.

We evaluated six little ones and prepared the update & pictures that will be sent to their adoptive parents back in America. The updates take place in a small storage like room just off the nursery. There are cribs and excess furniture in the corner and on the floor is the famous KSS rug topped by a simple office chair for the foster moms & babies to pose for pictures. Every family who adopts through KSS sees this red and beige pattern rug in their children’s picture. The babies were all so precious and their foster mothers were so proud to show them off. You can really see the pride and love they feel for them.

As we were wrapping up in walked Mrs. Lee. She was Andrew’s foster mother. I was so thrilled she was able to come. I gave her the gifts and pictures I brought for her and with the help of a translator she was able to answer a few questions. But, there were so many more I forgot to ask under pressure. She did not recall some of the traits I have seen but did remember him being a demanding little one who loved to be held and enjoyed dancing. She really enjoyed all the pictures especially the ones of Andrew & his foster sister Rachel. She also gave me a stuffed animal & Korean house project to give to Andrew. That was very kind of her.

As we prepared to leave Mrs. Kim gave us each a thank you gift. It was really unnecessary, I was just thrilled to be there and see what Andrew has experienced. I just wish each of those little ones we saw will find a forever family.

That afternoon we had lunch at a Korean restaurant in Itaewon. That was an experience in itself. We once again took our shoes off and sat on the floor. Thankfully, a nice Scottish man helped us order as we would learn on day 2 most Korean dishes are not friendly to the American palette. We had Bi Bim Bop which is rice with a mix of vegetables, cucumbers, bean sprouts and roots served with a raw egg on top and Bulgogi which a meat marinated, grilled, cut into strips. I typically do not eat vegetables other than potatos but I was hungry and after seeing our selections this appeared to be the safe bet. All meals are served with a variety of side dishes, I guess this is similar to how Americans serve everything with salad & bread. There was whole garlic cloves covered in a red firey sauce, kim chi, some type of black bean and a few others that had no English translation. I managed to operate my chopsticks and everything I tried was good.

After lunch we shopped and took in the sites. I was surprised how safe & clean it was. We observed one girl who could not have been more than 7 years old confidently walking along the busy streets home from school. In any big city at home; small city even that child would have been taken advantage of. The following day we saw it time & time again as we tried to manuver the subway system. For some of us it was our first subway experience. Just as I expected it was packed. The doors would open and everyone crammed on as fast as possible, sometimes packed so tightly you didn’t even need to hold on. As I stood there surrounded by typical Koreans on their way to work and school I had a moment. Thinking first to myself then telling the others “one of these woman could be Andrew’s birth mother”. Yes, the odds are very small but still as I stood there surrounded by ebony hair and almond shaped eyes I couldn’t help but think about it.

We were clearly the talk of the train car, everyone would stare & point. After making eye contact one woman chuckled and said in her broken english “American big feet”. We all got a good laugh out of that.

That afternoon we visited Changdeokgung Palace which housed Korea’s kings & queens from 1405 to 1910. It’s pagodas, gardens & ponds were magnificent. During the tour we learned the Asian history of “taking off your shoes”. Behind the palace they showed us the fire doors located underneath. That is where fires are stoked that heat the tile subflooring. Since the floor was the homes source of heat, eating, sleeping and all other household habits take place there. So, in an effort to keep the floor clean people took off their shoes.

After the palace we wanted to visit Insadong Market; knowing it was nearby we set off on foot. Quickly we were lost. We asked a middle-aged woman for directions she nodded yes and waved for us to follow her. The four of us followed her up and down many streets and through some interesting alleyways. Several times we started to drift back not sure if she was leading us anywhere. But, she kept looking back and flagging us to follow. One alleyway opened up to a beautiful traditional Korean home and the woman headed inside. We stopped thinking, what is going on? She then tried to communicate that she had to take her groceries inside then she would take us to the market. And sure enough she did.

Time and time again when we needed help there was always someone there. Even when we didn’t ask people came up to us asking if they could assist us. At lunch that day we tried another Korean restaurant. Once again there were some very interesting things on the menu; live octopus, tripe, tongue and eel. We went with the safe choice rice, mixed vegetables and marinated spicy beef. We called the waitress over and showed her our choices on the menu. She repeatedly shook her head no and stared at us. We didn’t understand why she was saying no. The waitress approached another diner and asked her to translate. She came over and told us the dish we are asking for, “marinated spicy beef” is served uncooked. Ahhh! No wonder she said no, she must have had enough western people order it then look at it in shock when it arrives on the table. The fellow diner offered us her business card and said if have any language problems during our visit to call her cell number and she would translate.

Our final day arrived too quickly. I really enjoyed Korea and there was so much more I wanted to see but the time had come for the real reason we were here. As instructed by Mrs. Kim, we arrived at Incheon Airport at 9:00 AM and headed to the nursery where we would meet our traveling companions for the first time. We were full of excitement but the four babies we were about to meet had already had a rough night. The previous evening their foster parents bring them to KSS and say their goodbyes. Since they come from all over the Seoul area they will spend the night at KSS in order to arrive early at the airport the following morning.

I wouldn’t say it was a good first impression. As the babies filed into the nursery they took one look at our Caucasian faces and screamed and cried. We had not even touched these children and they were already crying, what would the next 18 hours bring? Mrs. Kim took us to check in while the KSS volunteers comforted the babies in the airport nursery. We came back and they were all resting comfortably. One by one the volunteers passed the babies back and forth to us in an effort to show the baby that the familiar faces were okay with giving them to the new people. In time they calmed down ever so slightly but then it was time to go through security and the familiar faces of the KSS workers would have to stay behind. We put them each in an umbrella stroller so they could face away until they were ready to engage us. As we rolled past the railings and out of sight the babies would reach back for them and Mrs. Kim & the volunteers were tying to comfort them in Korean. That’s when I began to cry. What a terrifing experience for them. Everything they have ever known is now gone.

After we rolled up to our gate we lined up their strollers at the window to give them a moment before we tried again to connect with them. As they sat there the most interesting thing happened. Slowly, older Korean people approached them; soon there was six or so grandparent age men & woman squatting down in front of the strollers. Quietly they spoke, stroking their hands. Sure enough the babies would reach out for them and soon they were happily in the arms of these total strangers. We have no idea what they were saying to them but it was obvious they knew these little ones were being adopted and about to leave Korea. It was a beautiful moment.

We settled in our seats for the Northwest flight, which would take us from Seoul to Tokyo. It was finally time for that first one on one time with our little angels. Renee had tiny little Kate the only girl, who was also struggling with a bad fever. Lydia had Ryan who had the sweetest grumpy face and was the biggest boy in the bunch. Vicki had Aaron the youngest at 10 months and would the first child for his parents. And I had Linus, a 12-month-old future Texan who had the cutest chunky thighs and cheeks you’ve ever seen.

Everything was going better than expected. We had great seats, the babies were no longer struggling to get away from us and lunch was about to be served. Linus and I shared a ham & cheese sandwich, fruit salad and a cookie. Aaron even stopped crying for a few moments. He was taking the loss of his foster mom the hardest of all the children. Mourning is a good step in the process and we were happy to see it but the other 100 or so people on our flight may not have agreed.

As lunch was wrapping up we turned our focus to sleep. That was until a shrieking “Oh Shit” was heard from Lydia. I turned just in time to spot Ryan throwing up his entire bottle of formula. Being the easy going bunch we all are, we just laughed it off. The flight attendants and a few fellow passengers helped up clean up Ryan, the aisle and poor Lydia. She was such a good sport! Thankfully, Ryan felt much better now and once she re-hydrated him, he was a new kid.

We arrived in Tokyo and headed straight for the nursery. This one had lots of toys, computers and a full changing / bathroom area. Very nice!!! The kids & Lydia all got cleaned up. Then we all played together on the floor. It was obvious they had each bonded with us in a small way and clearly had a preference for their own escort. Kate was the kisser and kept Renee busy holding her sippy cup even though she could do it herself. Ryan showed us his walking skills. Linus was the observer; he just enjoyed laying back and having a bottle.

We made our way onto the plane for the final part of our journey, Tokyo to Detroit. Unlike the first flight these seats sucked! The eight of us crowded into the 4 middle seat section of this Boeing 747. Unlike the first flight, this one did not have inseat television and the rows were much closer together giving us little leg room. Oh well, we made the best of it.

Linus & Ryan slept a lot. Poor Kate’s tempeture was on the rise. Renee kept her hydrated and medicated but it wasn’t making much difference. She would just moan as she tried to get comfortable. Aaron was still suffering from a broken heart and was screaming as loud as his little lungs could. Vicki was doing her best and to her credit never once got aggravated. After about 2 hours of constant crying a man approached asking if Aaron was Korean, he said he was also Korean. He turned his back to Vicki and instructed her to put the baby on his back. With the aid of his Korean wife they tied Aaron to his back with an airline blanket and proceeded to walk the aisles. Sure enough Aaron went right to sleep.

About 6 hours into the flight all eight of us were cuddled in our row fast asleep. I was very surprised. I had totally expected not to sleep a wink. From that point forward everything went amazingly well. Linus and I read a few stories, talked about his new family and fed each other potato sticks before he decided to wake up the others. He loved to poke at the sleeping babies. I guess he was bored and wanted someone to play with. Aaron came around and in the final few hours really warmed up to Vicki. He would grab her hand and lace his fingers in between hers. It was a total transformation. Kate’s fever started coming down and she furiously ate Renee’s breakfast. So long as she would feed it to her! Ryan seemed to deal with his loss by sleeping. He always kept this pouty look on his face but Lydia did managed to get a few smiles out of him.

My heart will always favor little Linus! He is going to be a cuddlier! Even though I know he was really hurting on the inside I did my best to get through the shell. In time he did let me comfort him. He is a sweet loving child and I know he will flourish once he is settled into his new home.

About an hour before we touched down we changed their pants & clothes and got them all ready for their big moment. As the wheels hit the ground I made sure to welcome Linus home. We headed down to customs with a pile of paperwork. We first went through the US citizens line to check ourselves in, then headed back through the special services line with our little ones. Linus got the big stamp of approval and we were set! The only thing left was walking through the big frosted customs door. On the other side were the parents anxiously waiting to meet their child for the very first time. I remember that feeling and it was such an honor to now experience the other side of the story.

I hugged Linus tightly knowing it was probably going to be the last time I ever saw him. We lined up in front of the big door so everyone could get a good picture. The door slid open and I could hear the gasping crowd and flash bulbs went off. Linus tighten his grip and the tears just burst from my eyes. It took me a moment to figure out who was claiming Linus as their own and we headed right over. It only took Linus a few minutes to loosen his grip and I handed him over to mom & dad. He didn’t make a sound and wrapped himself right around them. What a beautiful site!


Anonymous said...

Heather-what an amazing story. I was in tears, especially the part where you got to hand them off to their forever parents. Those kids were so lucky to have someone like you take them to America. Thank you so much for sharing!
Kelly Powell :)

Mmac said...

Hi Heather! I am Kate's Mom! Kate was asking about S. Korea today and it made me think about KSS, so I googled it and your blog came up! We have a paper copy of this post that I think our social worker gave to us, but haven't read it in awhile..although sad, it brings back memories, especially Kate's fever, which she often gets a fever in stressful situations. Have you kept in touch with Linus's family? We stayed connected with Aaron's family until they moved to Buffalo. It'd be fun to reconnect with all of those families again! Thanks so much for this post!!

The Lavelle Family said...

Hi Kate's Mom! I am so glad to hear you are enjoying this blog years later.

Feel free to email me at