a korean adoptee's journey back to her birth parents
Michaela Dietz was adopted from Korea and raised by parents she describes as "very white and very tall." Michaela shares her story on the "Life Changing Adoptions" episode of The Ricki Lake Show. Here, she shares more of her story of traveling across the world to meet her birth parents, only to find out she was switched at birth.
I sat in a lobby nearly 6000 miles from home with nerves nagging my insides, sweating my brains out and breathing as heavily an 85-year old man with sleep apnea. I’ve waited before– for auditions, at the doctor’s office, in line at the DMV... But never had I been so overcome with fear, joy and hope (although, the anticipation of a new driver’s license picture does conjure up the aforementioned feelings). As far as I knew, this was the most important day of my life. I was about to meet the people whose genetic makeup I had been toting around for the past 29 years of my life.
My name is Michaela and I am adopted. I was born in South Korea, where I lived until, at three and a half months old, I joined my new family, a kind posse of tall Caucasians living in Upstate New York. From as far back as I can remember, I have thought about my bio-mom; what she looked like, where she was now, if we had the same raspy voice and raucous laugh, if we would one day meet, if she ever thought about me…
Last year I received a letter from the orphanage in Korea notifying me that they had located my bio-mother! And get this: She’s married to my bio-father! They have two children, AKA my full-blooded siblings! Finally, I could play out the reunion fantasies that had been camping out in my brain for years. My reunions were always envisioned with soft lighting—you know, the kind that seem to follow Barbara Walters around. A halo surrounds mother and daughter as their eyes meet, immediately knowing that they belong to one another. Paying no mind to language barriers, we would just hug and know that at last, our lives were complete. (Note: I may or may not watch too many Lifetime for Women programs).
The last 20 minutes on the pleather couch in the orphanage lobby seemed like eons. I had zoned out, almost forgetting that I was surrounded by three of the most important people in my life. My adoptive parents and boyfriend had sojourned to Korea with me. A single wall separated us from my bio-family. When the Korean social worker came out from behind the door and motioned me inside, my heart/gut dropped. GO-TIME. Even before I walked into the room, I was on the verge of a complete bawl-fest. What if we looked nothing alike? What if they didn’t like me? What if there was no soft lighting?! OMJEEEEZ.
As I walked through the door, tears coating my face, my first thought was, ‘they look nothing like me.’ I was mad at myself for being so critical in the first moments, so I tucked the doubts away and hugged without abandonment. (No pun intended). It was exactly as I had pictured it: we embraced and cried and then cried some more—my bio-mom could not let me go. For as big of deal as this was for me, it was a bigger deal for her. She had undergone emotional and physical challenges to ensure that I would have a better life and now here I was in front of her—happy and healthy, with my parents and my boyfriend. Just about 29 years after she had given birth to me, we were family again (and the DNA test would confirm that). It was heaven and confusing all at once.
I spent the next 10 days in Korea, touring Seoul and getting acquainted with my new bio-clan. There were shopping trips, 22-course dinners with my extended family members (I’m not even exaggerating!), hours in singing looms (translation: singing rooms) with my bio-sis and her friends. It was both happy and stressful to see them so often. For as much as this was the last piece to my puzzle, I still questioned our connection. I was so different from my bio-family– they weren’t loud and outgoing and they didn’t seem athletic. Was this nature VS nurture at play? Were these simple cultural differences? ‘We look nothing alike,’ I kept saying to my boyfriend. But the chances of my not being related to these people were rare, he reminded me. After all, my bio-parents’ names had been on my birth records since the day I was adopted by my American family.
After leaving Korea, I had been back in Los Angeles for a couple of months, anxiously awaiting the DNA results. When they came, I felt devastated and vindicated: The people I met in Korea were not my family. From what the Korean orphanage explained to me, they belonged to someone else; another girl who had been born on the same day I was. We were two star-crossed babies. Who was this other girl? Where was she now? Would I ever meet her? I had met her bio-family. I hoped she would get the chance to meet them too.
There is a Korean proverb that goes, “Someone’s rice cake always looks bigger.” I had been to Korea and seen that other rice cake, even if it wasn’t genetically related to me. I knew how hard my faux bio-mom worked at a restaurant, standing 10 hours a day. I saw how proud my faux bio-parents were of my faux bio-sis, who would be the first of their family to go to college. I felt how deeply moved my faux bio-dad was when I gave him a pair of suspenders. Every moment I spent with these Korean people who had nothing to do with me will still live with me forever. Meeting them was a true moment of discovery—one which made me feel grateful for the rice cake I have called my own since I was adopted.
With the occasional burst of road rage aside, there are seldom instances that make me want to implode. Sure, there are some go-to issues that, as my mom would say, “really get my goat” like overpriced hotdogs and racism. But, my friends, there is one more thing that unsettles me to the core: when people ask me, “Who are your REAL parents?”
REAL parents are not the same as biological parents. I think both adoptees and their adoptive parents would agree to this distinction. My REAL parents are my parents—the man who taught me the value of corny jokes and the importance of responsibility (scooping dog poop in the backyard is part of growing up). And the woman who showed me that one can accomplish almost anything with motivation and a smile (except at the DMV— enthusiasm and flashing a wide grin have a negative response rate there). My parents are the people who read to me at night, who told me they loved me and were fully supportive during my unconventional wardrobe phase in middle school (and the one I’m currently undergoing). My parents are the ones who bowed to and thanked my faux bio-family for giving them a truly wonderful gift (ME!). And they're the same people who continually urge me to keep on keepin’ on with my Search 2.0.
It took me many years, a trip half way around the world and a pair of failed DNA tests to realize that someone’s rice cake isn’t always bigger—maybe it’s just perspective.
For more from Michaela, visit her blog.