When a taxi deposited Mallory Guy in front of an apartment building in Cheonan, South Korea, groggy and dazed after a 14-hour flight from Atlanta, a Korean couple was waiting for her on the sidewalk with open arms.
It was the first time since she was 7 months old that Ms. Guy, 33, had been in the country where she was born. It was also her first time seeing her birth parents since she was sent to the United States more than three decades ago. They gave her up for adoption when they could not afford the surgery to repair her cleft palate.
Ms. Guy, who was adopted by a family in Mentor, Ohio, had taken a 23andMe DNA test in 2013 hoping to find information about her health. She checked the website each year, looking for a potential connection to her Korean family. Late last year, she matched with a relative in Seattle.
“Her mom thinks she knows who I am,” she said of her interaction. “If I am who they think, I’m her niece. And they’ve been looking for me.”
Around 200,000 Korean children have been sent to families overseas since the 1950s, primarily to white families in America, according to Kelly Condit-Shrestha, a historian in Minneapolis who studies adoption. They are the largest diaspora of adoptees in the world, she said.
In recent years, reunions between adoptees and their biological parents have become more common, thanks to the loosening of South Korean privacy laws surrounding adoption, as well as the increased use of social media and genetic testing.
For some adoptees, the reunions had become a rite of passage, one they have imagined and anticipated for as long as they can remember, like a wedding or the birth of a child. Then came the pandemic of 2020. The pilgrimages back to South Korea dwindled. Many adoptees canceled long-planned reunions after the government’s quarantine rules for foreign visitors made the trips too costly and time-consuming.
But Ms. Guy persisted. Her reunion with her parents would not be a brief chat in a coffee shop. She would be spending 14 days with them in their home.
Two weeks, two languages, one apartment
Ms. Guy’s Korean family had been set to visit her in Ohio in March, but the virus derailed their plans. At the end of the summer, she was furloughed from her job at a restaurant.
“This is probably the best time to do it,” she recalled thinking. In September, she flew to Korea alone.
When Ms. Guy arrived, she did not know whether she would be allowed to spend the two weeks at her biological parents’ home or be forced to stay at a costly government hotel. The South Korean Embassy’s website said only that such decisions were made on a case-by-case basis.
At the airport, Ms. Guy, who spoke little Korean, clutched a certificate that proved she was the daughter of a Korean family. Officials called her Korean father to verify her identity.
When she hugged her parents outside their apartment in Cheonan, about 50 miles south of Seoul, she was no longer an infant with a cleft palate, but a grown woman with a repaired lip, an American husband and two children of her own.
Reunited by a genetic test, an intercontinental flight and a pandemic, Ms. Guy and her parents climbed four stories to the modest three-bedroom apartment where she would spend her first two weeks. The language barrier loomed large.
“I panicked a little bit inside,” Ms. Guy said.
Her fears were unfounded. They watched Netflix together, laughing at moments that were humorous regardless of language.
Her parents made Korean food for her and American snacks like peanut butter and jelly. (They also stocked up on milk, because they had heard that Americans love milk.) They even bought her an exercise bike, as she had told them during calls that she enjoyed using her Peloton.
“I didn’t get to feed my daughter for 33 years, so this is the least I could do,” said Lim Mi-soon, 59, her birth mother.
“They’ve been more than amazing,” Ms. Guy said in a phone call a few days into her quarantine, adding that she was “thankful I have uninterrupted time with my parents here.”
Emotions were flowing as Ms. Guy flipped through a photo album of the family, including Ms. Guy’s Korean siblings, a brother and a sister. “Seeing the pictures of everybody growing up made me miss them more,” she said.
Though the tears were mostly a response to seeing “how wonderful they are and what could have been,” Ms. Guy said, her mother was worried that she had upset her by showing her the photos.
“It was hard to tell her through the translator that I wasn’t mad,” she said.
‘A blessing in disguise’
Ms. Guy’s homecoming was far from normal. Reunions between birth parent and child are often stiff, formal meetings, stifled by a language barrier and the bureaucratic hold of adoption agencies. They often occur at a restaurant or a coffee shop, not unlike a blind date. Intensely emotional conversations — tearful apologies from the parent, for instance, or reassurances from the child — must be filtered through an interpreter.
In some ways the pandemic has changed things for the better. Kelsey Krantz, 33, an adoptee from Mound, Minn., said it turned out to be “almost a blessing in disguise that we had to wait.”
Instead, she developed a relationship with her biological family through video calls and daily chats on the app Line, which is popular in South Korea and can translate messages.
“We’ve talked so much that we kind of know each other a lot more intimately,” she said, adding that she hoped it wouldn’t be “so socially awkward when we finally get over there.”
Ms. Krantz and her father, Alan, had planned to go to South Korea earlier this year. After the death of his wife in 2018, Mr. Krantz told his daughter, “we should take that trip.”
Like many adoptive parents, Mr. Krantz was supportive of her search. “We never felt threatened by her meeting her birth parents,” he said. “I don’t feel any less connection with her at all because of this process.”
But the cancellation of a planned reunion can be especially devastating for someone who has slogged through an expensive and emotionally grueling search. “It takes some adoptees years to get ready to even search — to even file their paperwork,” said Christine Heimann, an adoptee who founded AdopteeBridge, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that provides tours of South Korea. The organization postponed tours planned for the summer and fall.
While some reunions are akin to a wedding, they can also feel like a long-delayed funeral. All adoptions start with loss, Ms. Heimann said: the loss of a family, a culture, a country.
Sometimes, the reunions are more practical than emotional. They offer adoptees a chance for the first time to confirm birth dates and ask about medical history. It’s also the first time many adoptees see their noses, hands or eyes reflected in another person.
Racing against time to meet a mother they had thought was dead
Mia Reed and Megan Doerr had gone through life thinking their mother was dead.
The twins, now 48, were adopted together from South Korea when they were about 7 months old. Their file said their biological mother had died shortly after childbirth.
But in February, they got a phone call from a social worker at their adoption agency: Their mother was alive.
“I honestly was in shock,” Ms. Doerr said. “That makes my whole idea of what happened very, very different.”
Their biological father, who they were told was alive when they were adopted, had died 10 years ago.
The twins never imagined that they had Korean siblings, Ms. Doerr said. They have four; one of them, a sister, was adopted in Switzerland.
The twins’ mother is now 85 on a farm in rural South Korea, afflicted with dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
“When I heard that, I was very worried,” Ms. Doerr said. They became more worried when their June trip had to be postponed. Her condition is still mild, they believe, but the fear is “less and less of her memory will be available as she gets older.”
Their biological brother, who speaks some English, told the twins that their father wanted sons rather than daughters.
“Coming to terms with all that,” Ms. Doerr said, “has been an interesting ride for me.”
Meeting her mother and son on the same trip
Undeterred by the prospect of two weeks in a hotel, Allison Young, 38, traveled in August from her home in Frederick County, Md., to South Korea with her husband and three biological children. She was returning as both an adoptee and a soon-to-be adoptive parent.
The purpose of the trip was to adopt their fourth child, now nearly 2 years old. Ms. Young and her husband had planned a lengthy stay to help their new son adjust to the family. But the weeks before they gained custody at the end of September also provided an opportunity for Ms. Young to try, for a second time, to meet her birth mother.
Two decades before, Ms. Young had studied abroad as a college student. She had found her birth mother and scheduled a meeting, but two days beforehand her mother canceled.
“Soo Eun Lee, don’t cry,” her Korean social worker told Ms. Young, using her Korean name. “You have to understand Korean culture.” The stigma of single motherhood is the impetus for many adoptions, which are also still viewed unfavorably. Her mother’s family did not — and still does not — know about her.
On Sept. 11, the two finally met with an interpreter at an adoption agency office in Seoul. Her birth mother had asked to meet her children and husband, who waited in a nearby cafe. Ms. Young’s family came into the room after she had a chance to speak with her mother.
“The children didn’t really understand the significance of the moment,” she said. “But my husband did. It was very surreal.”
Before the meeting, Ms. Young still had some doubts about shoddy records connecting her with the wrong woman. But she knew when she saw her: “She had my eyes.”
As the clandestine meeting ended, Ms. Young’s mother told her something she had been bracing for: “This is the last time we’re going to contact each other.”
A reminder of lost time
On Oct. 1, Ms. Guy celebrated the holiday Chuseok in South Korea. It is similar to Thanksgiving, with an emphasis on paying respect to ancestors.
She had a traditional meal, along with American and Italian food that she cooked. And she reunited with her aunt, who had taken her to the orphanage when her parents were too distraught to do so.
“She was the last family member to hold me,” Ms. Guy said.
Days before the holiday, after two weeks of immersion in her parents’ home, Ms. Guy took another coronavirus test, as mandated by the government, so she could leave quarantine.
When a testing administrator asked her when she had last left the country for the United States, “I told her 1987, and she looked super confused.”
The worker asked again, twice, and Ms. Guy confirmed that she was understanding the question correctly.
After telling her 1987 four more times, Ms. Guy said, “she finally wrote it down.”