Globalization of the workforce is a hot topic nowadays. The types of individuals who leave their home countries in search of better employment opportunities range from factory workers to CEOs to ESL teachers, but every globalist in search of employment is making the world a smaller place. The decision to teach English after college, for me, was driven primarily by my desire to travel, and South Korea provided a great way to do that. Some people, however, have personal reasons for journeying to the land of kimchi and K-Pop. One such individual is my good friend Mikayla Hamilton–or 한 수 진 (Han Soo Jin)–who came to Korea because this is the country where she was born.
Adoption from Korea surged after the Korean War (1950-1953) after millions of children were left orphaned or fatherless because of brief war-time unions between American soldiers and Korean women. Many religious groups arrived on the Korean peninsula shortly after the war to build churches and schools, and provide aid, and were also responsible for the creation of various adoption agencies. The trend of adopting children from Korea has persisted. Growing up in the 1990s, I had dozens of peers who were adopted from Korea, but I hardly knew anything about the country or its people, let alone the Korean War and its effects. And here I am, living life as a transplanted, globetrotting, English teacher.
Mikayla was born in Seoul in April 1989 and was taken care of by a foster mother for about 4 months; the first 2 months of her life were spent in a hospital because she was born as a pre-me with pneumonia. She was adopted after half a year, and boarded her first international flight home to Minnesota when she was 6 months old on October 9th, 1989. (The Hamilitons celebrate Mikayla’s “arrival day” every year!) Mikayla’s parents are caring, supportive people, and always encouraged Mikayla to someday seek out her birth mother if she chose to do so. In the summers as a child, they sent her to a one-week Korean culture camp, which she still references to this day whenever we’re eating Korean meals or roaming the streets of Seoul. Along with other Korean adoptees, she learned how to eat with chopsticks, tae kwon doe, Korean traditional dance, and participated in self-esteem classes.
At 12 years old, her Korean adoption agency, Eastern Welfare Society, organized a trip for a group of 20-30 Korean adoptees and their families to visit South Korea, to learn firsthand about their heritage and culture. They toured Seoul, visited some towns in the countryside, went to the DMZ, and learned about their background. Mikayla explains that, “the first time I visited Korea with my family and our adoption agency – I was only 13 so it was more of a vacation to me at the time. It wasn’t until college that my interest in returning to Korea really grew.” The agency also aided children in meeting their biological mothers and siblings. Mikayla wasn’t able to meet hers, but she did have a chance to meet her foster mother. “When I met my foster mom for the first time, I remember it being a very emotional experience. My brother (who was adopted from a different family in Korea) got to meet his foster mom at the same time. My parents, my brother, and I were all in a room at Eastern with our foster moms (we each had different ones) and translators. My foster mom said that she remembered me and she was proud to see what a nice and smart girl I had grown up to be. My brother’s foster mom scolded him (he was only 10 at the time) for not speaking Korean and told him that when he came back he must speak Korean. I don’t remember what we talked about, but it was really nice to meet the person who took care of me as a baby.”
Upon her return tho Korea in September, Mikayla has reignited the search for her birth-mother, and has met with the Eastern Welfare Society several times to discuss the probability of this. “I am planning on meeting my foster mom again in May; I’m excited because I think it will be even more meaningful now, especially since the chances of meeting my birth mom still seem very slim.” It’s a difficult process, and is complicated by things like language barriers and time spent apart.
Mikayla shared that teaching English in Korea has brought her closer to her heritage and has strengthened her identity. “I understand Korea in a way that I never could have known only by being a tourist. I have learned the customs, traditions, and even picked up on the smallest mannerisms and actions of Koreans. As a foreigner here, though, I can’t say that I necessarily feel fully “Korean,” but I have learned a lot that I am very grateful for.”
For most people I know who were adopted from foreign countries, the thought of one day meeting their biological parents seemed nearly impossible. The expensive flights, old or misplaced documents, and language barriers all appear to be impenetrable obstacles to achieving this goal. But long distance travel is cheaper and easier than ever, while the internet, email, and social media have had a powerful impact on the possibilities of global communication. Mikayla’s actions are an awesome example of how small the world has become.
Thanks to Mikayla for letting me share her story with you :) And happy early birthday!