Finally seeing birth mom in Korea – 35 years after adoption

       Rebecca Masters was born Yong Hee Kim May 30, 1976.

Standing with her husband Sam, Rebecca Masters holds up a picture of her birth mother, now 74 years old, in Seoul, South Korea.
Westside Pioneer photo

       For nearly 30 years, her name and birthdate were all she knew about her origins. And that was only because the information was pinned to her shirt when, at 3 months old, she was found in a basket outside a police station in Seoul, South Korea. Another unknown was the cause of the extensive burn marks on her infant body.
       Her life had many changes after that - the most dramatic being her American adoption at the age of nine months, which led to her growing up as part of the Parham family in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
       Her Korean background still a mystery, Rebecca met her husband-to-be, Sam Masters, in the early '90s. They moved to California, then three years ago to Colorado Springs, where they “choiced” their four daughters into Westside schools (three now at Howbert and one at Coronado) and recently moved to Pleasant Valley.
       The veil over Rebecca's past started lifting in 2004 when, on her 28th birthday, her birth mother, Kang Sook Ja, contacted her for the first time. They've exchanged letters since then, and this week, at long last, the two will meet. Rebecca boarded a plane to Seoul April 19.
       There, she expects also to be introduced to her four sisters and others in her family. Through letter exchanges with her birth mom, Rebecca has learned that she was the youngest of five daughters and that her father died in 1986.
       She also found out that her burns - the scars remain on her abdomen and legs, though taking up far less of her than when she was an infant - came from a house fire, and that her mother “had to let me go so I could have medical treatment.”
       A translator will have to help out during the six-day trip, because Rebecca does not speak Korean (although she has been studying the language in recent years) and her mother speaks no English. As a result, all their communications have required translating - the ones to Rebecca arrive in English, while Rebecca herself writes in English, with her letters translated to Korean when they get to Seoul.
       She and Sam have observed that Sook Ja's letters tend to show a sense of remorse about having given her up as a baby.
       Sam speculates that it must have been a difficult time for his wife's parents. “It was a King Solomon decision,” Sam said. “The choice was made for the baby's health and welfare.”
       Rebecca doesn't hold any grudge about what happened. When her birth mother called, “I was thrilled,” she said.
       In fact, at almost exactly the same time, Rebecca had started trying to find her mother.
       It was lucky, after so many years apart, that either side was successful. Rebecca had the most odds against her, knowing only her own name and birthdate. Kang Sook Ja, with help from South Korean social services, hooked up with the International Korean Adoptee Service, which had the Parham family on file. (Side note: According to Rebecca, there are about 100,000 Korean adoptees in America.) But the Parham contact information was 30 years old and, as it turned out, only one of the addresses was still active - that of Rebecca's 90-year-old adoptive grandmother.
       Still, that was enough. It led to the first contact, which Sam recalls a bit ruefully. “It was 2 a.m. when the phone rang. I noticed the Caller ID number was all zeroes, and when I answered it sounded like gibberish, so I hung up.
       Then I remembered all those zeroes might mean an international call. I thought, 'Oh no. I hung up on Rebecca's mother.'”
       But the unintentional gaffe turned out OK, even “kind of funny,” as Sam put it. “The next day a Korean translator called and apologized.”
       Rebecca has been thinking about visiting South Korea ever since then. But these have been financially challenging years for Sam and Rebecca, who work in the ailing homebuilding industry, and until recently the round-trip plane fare for just one person - close to $2,000 - seemed out of reach. “Of course, I wish the whole family could go - that would be thousands of dollars,” she said. “We couldn't afford it.”
       The current arrangements started coming together after indications from Seoul that Kang Sook Ja's health was failing. These included communications from her nurses and a letter from her that includes the sentence: “My dream was just to see you before my death, and now it seems my dream is almost done.”
       For the trip, a big boost is being provided by Donna Saurino (formerly Donna Parham), Rebecca's adoptive mother, who is paying for half the flight cost with credit card miles she's accumulated. Also, fortunately, air fare is less expensive right now (about $1,200 round-trip), Rebecca said.
       It's still pricier than she would like, and she can think of needs that her four children have, but Rebecca also is aware that time is running out. “It's probably not going to be possible to see her much longer,” she said.
       Packing the night of April 18 in preparation for her flight leaving at 3 o'clock the next morning, she answered in the affirmative when asked if she was bringing a camera. “I will be clicking away,” she said.

Westside Pioneer article