Alex Grosart is known among his work colleagues as a caring and personable teacher who knows how to relate to his students. This may be why he is counted as one of the most popular teachers at Seoul International Academy.
It was by chance, however, that the 27-year-old math teacher settled in the job. Originally named Shin Young-nam, Grosart was adopted by a family in Marion, Massachusetts, when he was just 5 months old. He came back to Korea initially to search for his birth parents.
The government statistics say there are about 160,000 Korean adoptees abroad, but the civic groups say it's closer to 200,000. As many as 3,000 of them visit Korea every year, some on government-sponsored heritage tours. Some choose to stay in Korea and look for their parents, defying the success rate of less than 3 percent.
"Just being in Korea, I think about my (birth) mom a lot, just hoping that she's living well, healthy, and I also wonder if she thinks about me, if I'm living well, and want her to know that I'm happy." Grosart said. To improve his chances of finding his biological mother, Grosart has teamed up with a filmmaker to make a documentary about his experience in Korea as an adoptee. He says the search for his birth family will not stop until he successfully reunites with them.
Sometimes, the yearning to find the birth family is not about unhappiness with their lives abroad. For people like John Compton, it's about filling in the whats and ifs, and finding a new pace in life.
"I wanted to come to Korea so I could experience life in a culture that I might have grown up in as well as helping other adoptees if and when they choose to make the trip back to Korea for the first time," said Compton, originally named Oh Myeong-suk.
Compton, 35, has lived in Korea since August 2010. He was adopted when 6 months old by a family in Virginia. Prior to moving to Korea, he worked as a police dispatcher in California for 11 years. "I got tired of working for the state of California, so I came to Korea," he said. Now he works at Global Overseas Adoptee's Link (GOA'L) as an IT upgrade technician and dual citizenship liaison, which he himself obtained in April last year with 12 others.
Of the 13 who got the dual citizenship, only five went back to their countries. Compton says he is here to stay, permanently. "I hope to find some more information on where I was really born and maybe meet any relatives I may have," he said. As he continues his search for his birth family, he is passionate to help other adoptees find their way back to Korea.
Jenna Vandervort's journey ended in success. The 24-year-old English teacher based in Daejeon, 164 kilometers south of Seoul, found and reunited with her birth parents.
Vandervort started her search at her adoption agency in 2007 when she was studying Korean at KyungHee University. The local police helped out by sending letters, but there was no match. Without luck, she went back to the U.S.
She moved to Korea in February 2011 shortly after graduating from college, determined to try again to find her biological family. The process wasn't easy, she said, complicated by misleads and misinformation.
"On the adoption file, my mom was 10 years younger and I had an older brother, but it turned out to be all incorrect information." she said. Her problem was due to inadequate record-keeping in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the many frustrations for people like her. For Vandervort, the help of a social worker was critical for her search to be successful. They enlisted the help of the clinic where Vandervort was born and the city hall of her father's hometown. There she was able to track down her birth father.
Vandervort is now enjoying what her motherland has to offer. She travels to Seoul once or twice a week by bullet train, listens to the latest singles from Busker Busker and watches Korean dramas, like other Korean women her age. She frequently meets her birth family and gets along easily even though they have a cultural barrier.
"The language barrier can be frustrating at times, but it's an inevitable hurdle I must face," she said about communicating with her biological family. "With time, as I learn more Korean, I'm sure in the future we'll be able to communicate more effectively. Thank goodness for devices like iPhone. Being able to show pictures of vocabulary or using Naver dictionary helps a lot."
Vandervort hopes to one day master the Korean language and help other adoptees like her in the future as a social worker. She will start a graduate program in social work at Seoul National University next year with full tuition and stipend scholarship from Korean Government Scholarship Program.
But for others like her who are searching for birth families, she advises caution.
"There is always the possibility of rejection, or of a sad past from your family," she said. "But despite what the outcome is, starting a new beginning together can be quite exciting, fun, and well, just challenging."
As for now, Grosart's feelings toward his birth family are uncertain. "So far, I haven't really uncovered my true feelings. I hope that they are living well and have found happiness. I am extremely blessed in my life with the family and friends I have and I hope that they too have found that," he said.
"I see many Korean families and the wonderful interactions that they have with one another and I was hoping that I, too, might be able to find my biological family and get to know them in a similar way."
Grosart is not going to give up searching for his birth mom. He encourages other adoptees to be persistent in their search for their birth families.
He also advises that the search be for the right reasons.
"I would encourage everyone to dig deep and really try to think about their motivations. Sometimes giving up might be the hardest thing to do, but the best in the end," he said. (Yonhap)