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A journey of family, forgiveness: Duluth woman recounts search for birth parents in Korea

Amy Davis of Duluth shares the story of her adoption and her attempt to find her biological family in Korea during a presentation at the Duluth Woman's Club on Friday afternoon. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Members of the Duluth Woman's Club listen to Amy Davis, who was adopted from Korea, tell of her journey to Korea as an adult to seek out her biological father and mother. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 2

A black-and-white photo from an adoption agency was the earliest photo Amy Davis had of herself.

The photo came with the little information that was known about her: She was 14 months old in the photo, her Korean name was Hai Ryun Lee and that she had been abandoned at a police station.

When a Cloquet family adopted Davis in the 1970s, they were told there was no way to connect with Davis' birth parents due to the abandonment. That was the truth that Davis lived with for more than 40 years.

But a journey last year to learn more about her early life in Korea resulted in meeting her biological family and filled in Davis' missing pieces. She hadn't been left abandoned at a police station. Instead, she learned that she had been given up by her biological grandmother, without her birth parents' knowledge or consent, and that her biological family has been estranged over it since the 1970s.

This is the earliest photo of Amy Davis from the adoption agency in Korea. Photo courtesy of Amy Davis

The Duluth resident has started sharing her story — most recently at a Duluth Woman's Club meeting on Friday — in hopes that it inspires forgiveness in families with complex relationships, and encourages people to set aside judgment of themselves and other people and share their struggles.

"I've found that when pain lives in silence, it grows, and when painful emotions are brought out into the open, the healing begins. When people show compassion and empathy for one another, connections are made and healing is magnified," she told Friday's gathering.

Davis grew up in a loving, supportive family in Cloquet. Despite the positive environment, she said she had "complex emotions" about her adoption. As much as she wanted to at the time, she couldn't hide her Korean ethnicity in the predominantly white community, and she couldn't escape questions about her birth parents. She thought the questions were evidence that she didn't belong.

"At a young age, I believe I latched onto the idea that being given up for adoption made me less than, that being born in Korea made me less than, that looking different made me less than, and not knowing the beginning of my story and my circumstances that led to my adoption was very difficult to accept," she said.

After the birth of her oldest daughter in 1997, Davis said, she wanted to know why she had been given up and wanted to tell her birth mother that she was OK. Davis noted that her search was complicated for her adoptive family. It brought up fear that her adoptive parents didn't do enough for her — and concern that what she would or wouldn't find could devastate her.

Initially, nothing came of the search because the adoption agency didn't have any information available on her birth parents, she said.

Amy Davis meets her biological father Kyoung Seok Na for the first time in Korea. Photo courtesy of Amy Davis

With her oldest child leaving home for college last year, she decided that it was time to restart her search for her birth family and visit Korea. She wasn't expecting to find anything new. She was shocked when her case manager said her file now contained a note that her biological aunt searched for her seven years ago — but the aunt's name was not available because of Korean privacy laws.

Davis headed to Korea last summer for a three-week spiritual journey with Minnesota's Korean Adoptees Ministry Center. As part of the trip, she visited Korean social services. But the Korean social worker told Davis everything she already knew about her adoption. Crying, Davis asked for the aunt's name and the social worker acquiesced — even though it was against the law.

After several more twists and turns, the aunt was located and Davis learned she would be able to meet her birth family.

"I was dazed and numb, where I wanted to have one of those emotional breakdowns, but I was too numb to do it," she said.

Her father, who she confirmed was her parent via DNA testing, "began very tearfully, saying, 'I'm sorry. Please forgive me.' "

He told her that he and her birth mother had an arranged marriage that dissolved and her birth mother left when she was a year old. She also learned that she was a year older than the adoption agency had been told. Her father was the breadwinner for his entire family, leaving Davis in the care of his mother while he was at work. Davis notes that there are conflicting stories about what happened next. Her father says her grandmother didn't want to care for her and her grandmother says she couldn't care for her any longer, she said.

"One day, when my father returned home from work, I was gone. He said he was heartbroken and didn't know where to look," she said.

She was shocked to learn that her grandmother was still alive at age 97, and had the opportunity to meet her.

Amy Davis of Duluth has a tearful reunion with her biological grandmother Sooknyeo Shim in Korea. Photo courtesy of Amy Davis

"I walked in and found a small, withered 97-year-old woman sitting on the floor. She began to weep. Through the translator, she said, 'I'm sorry for sending you away. Please forgive me. I pray for you every day. I pray to God to reunite us. My prayers have been answered,' " Davis said. "All I wanted was to put her heart at ease. I said, 'I forgive you. I'm not angry. I have a good life.' "

Before leaving Korea, Davis met her two biological aunts, her half-brother, half-sister and one of her two nieces.

A letter she wrote to her birth father reads, "We can have sadness for the past and the lost years of not knowing each other. But please, let's not have regrets. ... I know that families are not perfect. They make mistakes sometimes, big mistakes, and hurt one another. Many times things seem unforgivable. My hope is that you can come together with your family one day and that you can both find it in your hearts to forgive one another."

She hasn't found her birth mother, but she said she remains hopeful that she'll find her.

Davis said her half-brother plans to travel to Minnesota this summer, and Davis and her husband Jason are planning to travel to Korea in the fall so he can meet her biological family.

"Today I feel a connection to self and worthiness that is real. Being born in Korea, given up for adoption, looking different, being an immigrant does not make me less than. It makes me a strong and resilient human being," she said.

For information about the Korean Adoptees Ministry Center, visit www.kamcenter.org.