Outbound train: Traveling through two generations of international adoption

Bethany Christian Services
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By John Johnson, adoptee and adoptive father

After my dad passed, and I was closing his affairs, I found a letter in his papers dated September 25, 1961, three weeks after I was born. The letter, from the adoption agency, is about me. I’m the baby in the tiny attached photo. The letter describes me as a “precious baby boy” with “dark brown hair and eyes.” Based on this photo and this six-paragraph letter, my parents decided to adopt me from Seoul, South Korea. Their reply had to be postmarked by September 29 (four days later) with the required paperwork and $435 fee enclosed.

So much about international adoption has changed since 1961. The societal norm then was to “save” international children from poverty. Love them, yes, and then assimilate them to become productive American citizens. You didn’t do that by going out for kimchi and bulgogi; you did that by eating hamburgers and hotdogs (and giving your child an American name like “Johnny Johnson”).

I understand the context of that time; I’m not bitter about that. But today, as a parent of three children adopted from South Korea, I understand more about what I may have missed.

An Outbound Train

In 1961, my parents weren’t required to travel to South Korea to complete my adoption. They only had to travel from Texas to San Francisco, but that was no small feat. People didn’t just buy airline tickets the way they do today.

My dad worked for a company that worked with the railroads, and employees could get free rail passes. The company provided just one ticket, and there wasn’t even a seat available on the outbound portion of the trip; he’d have to stand the whole way. Along the route, the conductor came through the train, greeting passengers. He asked about my dad’s destination, and my dad answered that he was going to San Francisco to adopt a baby boy. “That’s a long way,” the conductor said. “Follow me.” My dad liked to tell how the conductor led him to the front of the train to ride with him in his quarters.

I have a photo of my dad holding me in his arms on the return trip. He told me how all the ladies on the train were concerned about the man traveling alone with the newborn baby. “I grew up in a family of nine kids,” he assured them. “I know how to take care of a baby.”

A Different Time

My family didn’t talk specifically about adoption—not talking about it was the norm in those days. The priority for anyone coming into the U.S. from another country was to conform. Assimilate. Blend in. Internationally adoptive families like mine didn’t encourage kids to learn about their birth countries or connect with their culture; I did most of my exploration on my own.

Around fourth grade, I started reading books about South Korea at the library. I memorized facts from the Encyclopedia Britannica. I learned how to trace the outline of the country. I practiced drawing the yin and yang symbol centered on the South Korean flag. I read everything I could about the country’s history, its government, and what had led to the 1950 Korean conflict.

At home, the unspoken message was, “You were adopted, you’re an American, and you’re part of our family.” I know how that sounds in 2018, but it was a different time. My parents had never been to Korea, and they had very little information to go on. They’d told me everything they knew about my history, so there was nothing more for me to ask. As far as we knew, there was nothing anyone could do to answer further questions.

A New Perspective

In 2003, my wife, Leslie, and I adopted our son, Caleb, from South Korea. I never thought I would want to travel there, but once I was in Seoul, I had an emotional connection—I’d come home. I stood on the courthouse steps, the last place and the last time I was with my birth mother. It was a cold day; I was wearing a top coat. I remember breathing in the crisp air and drinking in that moment. Every other sense was overwhelmed, and I wanted to sob.

If I hadn’t had that personal, profound experience, I would have parented my kids the way I was parented: You’re here now, we’re your parents. I wouldn’t have been as open to learning how to nurture my children’s desire to know more about their history, their birth families, and their culture. I wouldn’t have embraced connective parenting as readily.

Leslie and I make sure our children know it’s OK to talk about adoption. We want them to know about their birth families, we share what is age appropriate, and we encourage the kids to ask questions.

Our kids talk about adoption with varying degrees of interest. One has a particularly strong desire to know more about her birth mother. We go to some events and trainings for adoptive parents, and I’ve been part of adoptee panels speaking to adoptive parents. They will sometimes ask me what they can do to make their home “more Korean” for their children. I tell them I understand wanting to instill cultural pride, but parents shouldn’t force it on their children. In our home, we let the kids know we are open to trying cultural foods and events when they’re ready to explore.

A Full Circle

In 2006, we went back to South Korea to adopt our daughter, Hannah. Her foster family invited us to their home, and they prepared a table full of Korean foods, fruits, and every kind of delicacy. Three years later, we returned a third time to adopt our daughter, Grace. 

I still think of my dad, boarding that train and traveling halfway across the country to adopt me. And three times, I’ve boarded an airplane to fly halfway across the world to adopt my children. The things we do for our kids. I wonder if he was nervous, like I was, about holding his son—from another world, another culture—for the first time. Did he wonder, like I did, “Am I up for this?”

Some people believe souls find each other, and I probably fall closer to that now than I ever have. Adoption, for me, is a choice made out of love and a desire to create a family. From my perspective, a family is not defined by bloodlines or even last names; it’s defined by love, connection, and relationships. We are created to live in community, and there’s no tighter community than a family.

For more information on international adoption, visit Bethany Christian Services.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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