Tag Archives: adoption


Chef Katianna Hong’s Journey to Meadowood


Katianna Hong showed a keen interest in cooking from an early age.

As a young girl, she hung around the home of a neighbor who loved to cook and grill. She would patiently observe and assist in the preparation of his meals.

After school or on weekends, she would beg her mother to drive her to the Asian grocery stores in Albany, N.Y.—a 30-minute drive south from their home in Saratoga County—to buy jars of kimchi and ingredients so she could make Korean dishes.

And at home, she frequently turned the TV set to cooking shows, enamored with such chef stars as Rachel Ray or Mario Batali on a then-brand new Food Network.

“This is when cooking channels were just getting started,” says her mother, Kathy Weiner, who, with husband Neil, adopted Hong as a 3-monthold from South Korea.

Hong’s early love of cooking followed by years of hard work, perseverance and a redirected energy once spent exhaustively searching for her birth roots have today placed the 31-year-old in a rare position in the culinary world—as the first female chef de cuisine at a three-star Michelin restaurant in the U.S.

In April, Hong became the kitchen’s second-in-command at The Restaurant at Meadowood, an innovative modern American restaurant in Napa Valley led by executive chef Christopher Kostow, a 2013 James Beard Foundation Award recipient.

“I dreamt of being a sous chef, then maybe becoming a chef de cuisine one day,” Hong says in a phone interview with KoreAm. “Usually when you cook, you move onto different restaurants to experience different things. That’s how you learn. But when you do stick around for multiple years, you hope this is the right place at the right time to one day become chef de cuisine.”

hong cooking(Photos by Bonjwing Lee/courtesy of the Restaurant at Meadowood)

At Meadowood, located on a luxury estate in St. Helena, Calif., Hong started near the bottom of the ladder, working at nearly every station in the kitchen. It’s where she met husband John, a sous chef at the restaurant, whom she married in January, taking his surname.

As a child growing up in suburban Clifton Park in upstate New York, a place where few Koreans resided, Hong sought to get closer to her roots. She felt detached from her biological side and sought multiple times to reconnect with her birth family in South Korea.

In the early 1990s, the number of families with an adopted child from South Korea prompted the tiny Korean American community in Albany to host a summer camp for adoptees, which offered traditional Korean activities and classes.

It was at Camp Mujigae (“rainbow” in Korean) where Hong could connect with her heritage. It was at Camp Mujigae where she learned to make Korean dumplings. And it was the food that left the strongest impression on her, so much so that, by elementary school, she was preparing bulgogi for her parents and older brother for family dinners.

“Wherever she got her talents for cooking, I don’t think it came from us,” says her mom, in a phone interview. Family meals rarely involved much culinary exploration beyond the occasional matzo ball soup for the Jewish holidays or an Irish roast. Cooking at the Weiner household was more a utilitarian task than an expression of artistic experimentation.

Cul-Food-JJ15-KHong-hanbokHong with her older brother Reid. (Photo courtesy of the Weiner family)

Hong’s experience at Camp Mujigae did more than just introduce her to the world of Korean food and culture; it sparked a desire to learn more about her Korean identity.

This longing hit its peak during her pre-teen years. Hong visited Korea for the first time when she was 13 with her aunt, retracing the first three months of her life. She visited her birthplace in a rural village in South Chungcheong Province in hopes of finding her biological mother. She came back with more questions than answers.

Upon returning to the U.S., Hong contacted the adoption agency that brought her here as an infant, but it was unable to track down her birth mother. Changes were rapidly swirling around Hong during this time. A once-competitive gymnast, she had to give up the sport she loved and devoted thousands of hours toward since she was a toddler due to an injury. Her dreams of becoming an Olympic gymnast were dashed.

Without gymnastics, which provided a pillar of stability for Hong, teenage rebellion stirred within her. She was no longer paying attention and excelling in school. For the first time in her life, she felt like an outsider in her own home.

“It was a point in my life when I lost focus, had issues with my parents and was just angry about everything,” she says. “I imagined I had this great family in Korea, and that my birth mom was young and beautiful and would be totally understanding of me. I glorified it for sure.”

After graduating high school, Hong attended Manhattan College in the Bronx but dropped out after a semester and returned home; the classroom setting was too suffocating. As she tried to figure out her future in Clifton Park, she got a job with a local catering company, which helped her rediscover her love for cooking.

She soon attended a local culinary school before transferring to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. She honed her craft in the kitchens of renowned restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, including B&B Ristorante at The Venetian, owned by one of her childhood cooking idols, Mario Batali.

At Meadowood, a place Hong has spent the last five years, she has found a rhythm that’s earned her praise and accolades.

Cul-Food-JJ15-KHong-MeadowoodFrom left to right: John Hong, Katianna Hong, Kathy Weiner, Christopher Kostow and Neil Weiner at Meadowood in St. Helena, Calif. (Photo courtesy of the Weiner family)

“This is a kitchen with a lot of moving parts,” executive chef Kostow told the San Francisco Chronicle in April. “There’s just a lot that goes into the restaurant [and] Kat has an intrinsic understanding of where the restaurant is going, and where it needs to go.”

Hong attributes her professional strides to her endless energy and fierce competitive nature, honed from a work ethic developed in her elementary school years when she was training for gymnastics on a daily basis.

“I like the schedules and the frenzy in the kitchen,” she says. “I’m a very driven person, and I just love the challenge given to me and my staff every day.”

And despite falling short of finding her biological family, she has discovered a new Korean connection through her husband. Their wedding incorporated a traditional Korean ceremony and the couple occasionally makes the drive from their home in Napa Valley to L.A., where John’s family lives, to spend a weekend partaking in Korean food.

Hong’s parents feel the marriage helped tie many of the loose ends their daughter has been carrying around her entire life. “John has been a godsend for Katy,” says her father, Neil. “Through him, I think she found some peace.”

Cul-Food-JJ15-KHong-weddingKatianna and John Hong perform a traditional Korean ceremony during their wedding earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of the Weiner family)

A few years ago, accompanied by her then-fiancé, Hong revisited South Korea, but this time for a different purpose. The couple toured around the country, visiting the provinces and trying out the diverse palate of Korean cuisine.

Of all the numerous countries she has visited on business to meet foreign chefs and sample new recipes to bring back to Meadowood, Hong says her second trip to South Korea was one of her favorites—it offered the right blend of personal significance and culinary adventure for a chef who is no longer searching for her birth mother.

Only after she made peace with her past did she reconnect with her homeland through food—the language she knows best.


This article was published in the June/July 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribetoday! To purchase a single issue copy of the June/July issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).


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Open Letter: Why Co-opting ‘Transracial’ in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on Medium. It is reprinted on KoreAm with permission. Please direct all media inquiries to Kimberly McKee, PhD at mckee.kimberly@gmail.com.

June 16, 2015

This past weekend the world took to social media to dissect the events surrounding Rachel Dolezal, the former president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter who came under heavy scrutiny for falsely representing herself as black. As part of this real-time discussion, the term transracial is being co-opted to describe Dolezal identifying as black despite being born white.

As members of the adoption community — particularly those of us who identify as transracial adoptees — we are deeply alarmed by the gross mischaracterization of this term. We find the misuse of “transracial,” describing the phenomenon of a white woman assuming perceived markers of “blackness” in order to pass as “black,” to be erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous.

Transracial is a term that has long since been defined as the adoption of a child that is of a different race than the adoptive parents. The term most often refers to children of color adopted by white families in the Global North, and has been extensively examined and documented for more than 50 years by academics and members of the adoption triad: adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents.

Dolezal and others have perpetuated the false notion that a person can simply choose to identify as a different race or ethnicity. As extensive evidence-based research and first-person narratives have shown, we do not live in a so-called “post-racial society.” Damaging forces like racism make it virtually impossible for those with black or brown bodies to simply “put on” or “take off” race in the same or similar manner that Dolezal has employed. For transracial adoptees, navigating and negotiating the racism in our families, schools, and communities is a regular and compulsory part of our lives.

We also join others who have raised concerns about the misappropriation of the word “trans,” and the analogy made between Dolezal’s deception and the experiences of transgender people. For transgender people who have struggled to live their truths in the face of horrific violence and discrimination, we reject this flawed comparison and find it to be irresponsible and offensive.

As our collective cultural awareness and knowledge of racial and gender identities continue to evolve, it is clear that our understanding of them, as well as our understanding of the relationship between them, is outmoded and in need of better expression. The widespread and acute public response to Dolezal signals the pressing need for critical thinkers of all backgrounds to turn their attention to refining language and theory to better reflect our ever-changing lived experiences.

Writer and adoptee Lisa Marie Rollins recently wrote about Dolezal’s deception and how it derails meaningful conversations about adoption and race. As Rollins explains, the process of transracial adoptees asserting ourselves as people of color is often challenged by either white people or the very communities that mirror our racial and ethnic identities.

In Dolezal’s interview on NBC’s Today show, she justified passing as “black” in order to be recognized as her son’s parent. This questionable and even extreme approach to parenting goes against how families with transracial adoptees should actually tackle issues related to race. Scholars including Barbara Katz Rothman, Heather Jacobson, and Kristi Brian, among others, have examined how adoptive parents incorporate and support familial understanding of their children’s birth culture.

Adoption scholar Dr. John Raible affirms how a deeper consciousness of issues related to race may occur among white families with transracial adoptees. But this does not mean that white parents become people of color in the process. Instead, adoptive families need to create spaces for transracial adoptees to explore and construct their own identities.

Many of us in the adoption community have experienced the complex, tenuous, and life-long process of claiming our authenticity, making Dolezal’s claims and the current discussion all the more destructive.

We invite people to become active allies of transracial adoptees. It begins by listening. Actively listen to those who speak about and from the transracial adoption experience.

If you are an ally, we challenge you to examine the various ways that you appropriate our voices, cultures, and identities. Stand behind those of us who are working to dismantle this racist narrative that abuses, discredits, and erases the lives of transracial adoptees, and erases an entire field of academic inquiry. And use your privilege to lift up marginalized voices that need to be heard.

Finally, we encourage people to take time and explore the many articles, organizations, and experts who have worked on transracial adoption issues in order to educate themselves on this important current issue.

Co-opting the term transracial to describe Dolezal’s behavior exposes the deep denial and erasure of decades of research, writing, and art of transracial adoptees. That’s why we need everyone to stop trying to make this new definition of “transracial” happen. It’s not (and should not) be a thing.


Kimberly McKee, PhD
Assistant Director/Advisory Council Member, KAAN (the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network)
Grand Rapids, MI

Krista Benson
PhD Candidate, The Ohio State University
Adoptee Ally

Katie Bozek, Ph.D., LMFT
Transitions Therapy, PLLC
Grand Rapids, MI

Erin Alice Cowling, PhD
Hampden-Sydney College
Adoptee Ally

Martha M. Crawford, LCSW
Adoptive Parent, Psychotherapist
Author, What a Shrink Thinks blog

Sarah Park Dahlen, PhD
St. Catherine University
Adoptee wife, ally and researcher
Minneapolis, MN

April Dinwoodie
Chief Executive and transracial adoptee
The Donaldson Adoption Institute

Erica Gehringer
Land of Gazillion Adoptees
Ypsilanti, MI

Shannon Gibney
Writer, Educator, Activist, Adoptee, Co-Chair, MN Chapter of Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora (AFAAD)
Minneapolis, MN

Shelise Keum Mee Gieseke
Land of Gazillion Adoptees

Rosita González
Transracial Adoptee, Author, Artist, Lost Daughters Editor
Madison, WI

Susan Harris O’Connor, MSW
Practitioner, Educator
Author, The Harris Narratives: An Introspective Study of a Transracial Adoptee
National Solo Performance Artist of her Racial Identity Theory narrative
New England Regional Director of American Adoption Congress

JaeRan Kim, PhD, LISW
Researcher, educator, and author of Harlow’s Monkey blog
Minneapolis, MN

Andy Marra | 홍현진
LGBT advocate and writer
New York, NY

Lisa Marie Rollins
PhD Candidate, University of California, Berkeley
Writer, Playwright, Researcher
Founder, Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora
Oakland, CA

Matthew Salesses
PhD Candidate, University of Houston
Author of The Hundred-Year Flood, Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity
Houston, TX

Stacy L. Schroeder
Adoptive Parent, Sibling of Adoptee, and Adoptee Ally
Executive Director/ President, KAAN (the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network)
Camp Hill, PA

Dwight Smith
Transracial Adoptee
Pact’s Adult Adoptees & Foster Alums of Color Advisory Board member
Advocate/Mentor for Bay Area adoptees and foster youth of color

Julie Stromberg
Author, Editor
Lost Daughters, Board Member
Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights

Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston, MSS, LSW
Adoptee, Author, The Declassified Adoptee blog, Founder, Lost Daughters, Founder, Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights
Greater Philadelphia Area

Angela Tucker
Transracial Adoptee, Author, Speaker
Seattle, WA

Kevin Haebeom Vollmers
Executive Director, Gazillion Strong


 Featured image via KXLY/YouTube

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‘Twinsters’ to Hit Theaters Nationwide July 17

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

Twinsters, a documentary about twin sisters reunited through social media after 25 years of separation, is slated for a July theatrical release, Variety reports.

In 2013, Anaïs Bordier, a French fashion design student living in London, saw Los Angeles-based actress Samantha Futerman featured in a YouTube video and was struck by their striking resemblance. After learning that they were born in Busan, South Korea on the same day and both adopted by families overseas, Bordier sent Futerman a Facebook message. Soon, the two women began exchanging childhood photos and bonding over Skype. Their reunion and trip to their birth country were documented in a feature-length documentary, which was funded through two Kickstarter campaigns.

Directed by Futerman and Ryan Miyamoto, Twinsters premiered at the 2015 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, where it won the Jury Award for editing and was a Grand Jury nominee.

Indie film studio Ignite Channel announced on Monday that Twinsters will open at AMC Empire in New York on July 17, followed by a screening at Los Angeles’ ArcLight Hollywood theater on July 24. The film will also be screened in 41 more U.S. cities starting July 31 and will remain in theaters for at least one week.

Below is a list of every theater that is set to screen Twinsters. States and theaters are listed alphabetically.


Brea – Regal Brea Stadium 22
El Segundo – ArcLight Beach Cities
Fresno – Regal Fresno Stadium 21 + IMAX
Irvine – Regal Westpark 8
Long Beach – Regal UA Marketplace 6
Pasadena – ArcLight Pasadena
Redwood City – Cinemark Redwood Downtown 20 + XD
San Diego – ArcLight Cinemas La Jolla
Sherman Oaks – ArcLight Sherman Oaks

Plainville – AMC Plainville 20 with IMAX

Aventura – AMC Aventura Mall 24 with IMAX & ETX
Boca Raton – Regal Shadowood 16
Jacksonville – AMC Regency 24 with IMAX
Sarasota – Regal Hollywood Stadium 20
South Miami – AMC Sunset Place 24 with IMAX
Winter Park – Regal Winter Park Village 20

Glenview – ArcLight Glenview
Lincolnshire – Regal Lincolnshire Stadium 20 with IMAX
Warrenville – Regal Cantera Stadium 17 & RPX

Leawood – AMC Town Center 20

Newport – AMC Newport Levee 20 with IMAX

Elmwood – AMC Elmwood Palace 20

Waterville – Railroad Square Cinema

Bethesda – ArcLight Bethesda

Sterling Heights – AMC Forum 30

Las Vegas – Regal Village Square Stadium 18

Albuquerque – Regal High Ridge Theatre 8
Santa Fe – Regal DeVargas Mall Cinema 6

Charlotte – Regal Park Terrace Stadium 6

Columbus – AMC Lennox Town Center 24 with IMAX

Oklahoma City – AMC Quail Springs 24

Warrington – Regal Warrington Crossing Stadium 22 + IMAX
West Homestead – AMC Waterfront 22 DIT with IMAX

Knoxville – Regal Downtown West Cinema 8

Austin – Regal Arbor Cinemas at Great Hills
Houston – Regal Greenway Grand Palace Stadium
Nashville – Regal Green Hills Stadium 16

Alexandria – AMC Hoffman 22 with IMAX

Seattle – Regal Meridian 16
Spokane – AMC River Park Square 20 with IMAX
Vancouver – Kiggins Theatre


Featured image courtesy by LAAPFF

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25 Years of KoreAm Covers: Highlighting Key Social Issues

To mark the 25th anniversary of KoreAm Journal, we’re revisiting some memorable covers from the magazine’s archives.

Take a look at some of the creative talent, athletes, influential figures, social issues and tragic events that have appeared on our cover. The panoply of images, we hope, will serve as a historical flashback, a glimpse into the people that inspired us, the issues we explored and the events that called for deeper reflection over the last 25 years.

Here are some key social issues KoreAm has covered in the past 25 years.


The Queer Issue (Aug. 1993): KoreAm explored what it was like being Korean and part of the LGBTQ community, acknowledging that in putting together the issue, “we were forced to consider life without family or the sense of community we sometimes take for granted.”


Where are all the good Korean men? (Oct. 1999): A provocative headline for the cover story that featured several female perspectives on the issue of dating Korean men.


LA Riots: 10 Years Later (April 2002): Ten years after Sa-i-gu, KoreAm put together a package of stories and reflections on the L.A. riots.


American Passage: Immigrant Heritage (Jan. 2003): KoreAm celebrates a century of Korean immigration to the United States.


The High Price of Gambling (Aug. 2008): KoreAm looks into the high stakes of gambling in the Korean American community.


Health Care Reform (Nov. 2009): Before health care reform was signed into law, KoreAm looked at how Korean Americans have one of the highest uninsured rates in the U.S.


Raising Next Crop of Korean Americans (May 2010): A story about third-generation Korean Americans, “the grandchildren of the original post-1965 wave of Korean immigrants.”


LA riots: 20 Years Later (April 2012): For the 20-year anniversary of Sa-i-gu, KoreAm retraced the days and nights of the 1992 L.A. riots.


The Adoption Issue (Nov. 2013): KoreAm hones in on adoptee perspectives, voices and experiences to dig further into the collective Korean American diasporic experience.

In the next chapter, we will share some of most influential athletes who have graced the KoreAm cover.


Read the previous chapter, Documenting Tragedy

This article was published in the April/May 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April/May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

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A Perpetual State of Searching

story and illustration by KAM REDLAWSK

While genes alone aren’t the only building blocks to a person’s life narrative, they are a pretty good start, as they mark the beginnings to our story. Like so many other adoptees, my genetic history lives behind a closed door I have not yet been given a key to.

When I see children with their birth parents, or scroll through Facebook and see updates about new births, I can’t help but feel deeply enthralled by the idea of sheer physical resemblance of child to parent.

It to me feels almost magical, for it’s a biological link I never had the opportunity to experience or may ever experience.

As a 36-year-old adult, I, too, have a past. Except this past takes place in white suburbia with Midwestern elements: a large, church-going family; a father who liked to fix cars while listening to oldies music; fishing; baseball; youth soccer; pasta and potato salad; and a grandma who baked homemade pies. And yet, while I treasure the memories of my traditional American upbringing, I know this is not the only place I come from.

As a child new to America, I might as well have not had a past. For my adoptive family, my life “began” when I was 4 years old. Although I remembered how confusing it felt to be taken away from South Korea and my foster mom, the memories of my native land quickly dissipated. Most of us, of course, forget our early years, but most people also have a collection of people who can tell them what they were like during their earliest years. That’s not the case for me.

I have made casual efforts to connect with my blood family in Korea, such as traveling to Korea during college and returning with my Korean adoptee husband five years later to visit Daegu, the place of my birth. While I have visited my orphanage and met my foster mom, my search for birth family has always turned up empty.

Recently, through Korean adoptee Facebook pages, I learned about 23andMe, a genetic testing service that helps people explore their ancestry and family history. My husband and I each took the 23andMe test, and three weeks later, received an ancestry composition and a list of blood relatives. So far, I have had the chance to exchange emails with and even Skype with a couple of my fourth cousins in Korea.

A common thread I’ve noticed among the community of adoptees who belong to either the 23andMe or Korean adoptee Facebook group is that everyone seems to be searching for something, whether it’s themselves, family, or anything that can help clarify their identity.

Some adoptees become strong advocates for Korean adoptees, in terms of getting their voices heard. Some are searching for a connection, a bond that someone understands them. Others are trying to free themselves out from under the rubble of trauma and identity confusion. Then, there are adoptees like myself, who don’t harbor much anger or sadness about the past, but nonetheless have a curiosity about it.

While I’ve never struggled to feel a sense of belonging growing up, I can’t deny there has always been a thread of loneliness present throughout my entire life. Thus, I am in a perpetual state of searching. I may not find what I am looking for, but at least I know something is always waiting to be found.



Kam Redlawsk’s column runs every other month. To read more from Kam, visit greengreengrass.typepad.com or her official Facebook page.

This article was published in the April/May 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April/May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

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A Family Portrait Triggers Adoptee Nathan Nowack’s Life-Changing Journey


FOR much of his life, Nathan Nowack defined his nuclear family as a clan of four. As a 5-month-old, he was adopted from Korea by Caroline and Gerhard Nowack, a Caucasian couple in Oklahoma already raising a 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Amy, also a Korean adoptee.

He enjoyed a childhood brimming with love, outdoor adventure and the freedom to be himself, as pictures from his family albums attest: infant Nathan cradled in the arms of his beaming mom as she holds him for the first time at the Tulsa International Airport, with his smiling big sis looking on; daredevil Nathan dressed in a “Rambo” outfit complete with sunglasses and weaponry; silly Nathan with his body buried under wet sand while on family vacation in Hawaii; and proud Nathan standing with pals in front of a homemade fort built into a tree.

F-Nathan-AM15-1AirportArrivalCaroline Nowack holds a 5-and-a-half-month-old Nathan, after his arrival at the Tulsa International Airport on Dec. 16, 1976, as older sister Amy looks on. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Nowack)

Certainly, the mere sight of this blond artist mother, curly-haired chemist father and their Asian children would attract the stares of many in their small town of 35,000, but as multiple portraits taken over the years would capture, this was their family: close-knit and happy.

And yet as beautiful as this family picture was and has always been to Nathan, now 38 and a wedding and portrait photographer living in Southern California, a part of it never got colored in. Why was I given up for adoption? Where are my birth parents? These questions would sometimes creep into Nathan’s mind, even when he was very young.

“It’s not that he was preoccupied with Korea or where he had come from biologically, but [Nathan] did reference that from time to time,” recalled Caroline Nowack, speaking by phone from Colorado, where she and her husband now live. “[Around age 7 or 8], he used his allowance to buy a Korean flag. And, once, when he was quite young, as I was putting him to bed, he said, ‘I wonder where my other mother is.’ It came out of nowhere. He didn’t really seem concerned about it, but it was there.”

Nathan’s adoptive parents always told their children—who are not biologically related—that, if they ever wanted to look for their respective birth families, they would support them. But, over the years, even as ever-curious friends asked Nathan why he hadn’t yet looked, he would tell them he didn’t feel the need to probe. He didn’t have any “emotional holes” to fill.

“I have a wonderful family,” he would reply. “I’m not looking for anything additional.”

Then one evening last spring, he saw a picture that unlocked a door he was prepared to keep closed for the rest of his life.

F-Nathan-AM15-1nathan3Pages from Nathan’s family photo album. (Photo by Mike Lee)

NATHAN and his wife of four years, Allison, were attending  the Los Angeles premiere of aka DAN, a documentary telling the story of Korean American adoptee Dan Matthews, an L.A.-based rapper whose birth search startlingly revealed the existence of a twin brother. Matthews, raised by a loving Caucasian couple in California, would have an emotional reunion with his twin, along with his birth parents and his younger biological sister during a trip to Korea.

The story deeply moved Nathan. He saw the parallels to his own life. When a photograph of a 7-year-old Matthews with his adopted older sister from Korea, along with their Caucasian mother and father, flashed across the screen, it particularly resonated. It was one of those old-fashioned family portraits, with each member of the family forming one point in a diamond shape. Nathan knew that picture: he had one just like it.

“It’s two Caucasian parents and then two adopted Korean kids in the middle—it’s that photo from my childhood that I love. It’s that awkward family photo,” he said, laughing at the memory, while seated in the dining room of his Redondo Beach condominium. It’s one that Nathan proudly displays on his photography business’ website. “That photo is, for me, iconic,” he said.

F-Nathan-AM15-1FamilyPhotoNathan, with his adoptive parents, Caroline and Gerhard Nowack, and sister Amy, in a 1977 photo that is among Nathan’s favorites. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Nowack)

Matthews’ near-identical family photo spoke to Nathan in a way nothing else had before. It seemed to say: This is you. You, too, can find your birth parents, possibly a sibling.

After the aka DAN screening, Nathan began connecting with other Korean American adoptees in Los Angeles. He also started researching adoption, learning that some 110,000 children were adopted from South Korea between 1970 and 1989. He learned that his own adoption in 1976 occurred through the Korea-based Eastern Child Welfare Society, which worked to place children through its U.S.-based affiliate, Dillon International, which happened to open an office in Oklahoma. That’s how Caroline and Gerhard, who yearned to provide a loving home for children who didn’t have one, came to think about adopting from South Korea. Their daughter Amy was among the first children placed through Dillon International.

Though Amy has never searched for her biological family because she said the details are “sketchy”—she was abandoned outside an orphanage—she encouraged her little brother, “Go for it. Mom and Dad always said, if either of us wanted to look into that, because it’s a part of who we are as human beings, they would help us or support us in any way possible.”

So, after 38 years, a thought-provoking documentary, the support of his adoptive family and a nudge from his wife—who also encouraged him to try to learn more about his family medical history—Nathan embarked on a birth search last summer. He didn’t have high expectations: The adoption agency warned that only 10 percent of adoptee searches yield any information that leads to a connection to the birth family. Nathan turned out to belong to that small percentile. Just a month after filing his final paperwork, he received a life-changing phone call.

Fast forward to March, more than six months after that call. Nathan’s expression still turns to disbelief when he remembers that moment. “I never would have expected I was the youngest of seven,” he said. “Like, wow, what?”

F-Nathan-AM15-2KoreanSiblingsAll six of Nathan’s biological siblings are in this photo from one of his sister’s weddings. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Nowack)

NATHAN was at the vet’s office getting pet food for his cat, when a Dillon International representative called him on his cell phone. In an excited voice, she began by telling him that, after the agency sent his birth search letter to the last known location of his biological parents, someone instantly responded. It was his older brother. “It was kind of crazy, I felt like the aka DAN story was happening to me,” recalled Nathan. “I was really excited at that point to know I had a brother.”

But, there was more. The agency representative told him that he also had five older sisters, and that his siblings had known about him his entire life. His oldest sister gave birth to a child within 10 days of Nathan’s birth in 1976, so whenever they celebrated the nephew’s birthday, they would think of their youngest sibling.

“This hit me pretty hard,” said Nathan. “It wasn’t just knowing I had a family, but that they all knew about me and wondered where I was. A little bit of the mystery from my past not only had names and ages, it had feelings and thoughts towards me.”

Yet the discovery about his birth family also proved bittersweet: Nathan learned that both his birth parents were now deceased. His father had died of stomach cancer in 1999, and his mother of gall bladder cancer in 2011, just three years before he began his birth search.

“I had just missed her,” Nathan said, wistfully, as he cast his eyes downward.

Later that same day, at home, Nathan opened an email from the agency that contained a photo from 1998, showing his older brother, Lee Jeong-hoo, now 49, when he was slightly younger than Nathan is now.

F-Nathan-AM15-2MyBirthParentsBrotherA 1998 photo shows Nathan’s biological older brother. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Nowack)

Staring back at Nathan from his 27-inch iMac screen was a man with the same eyes, arched eyebrows, tanned face, high cheekbones and ears that noticeably protrude out from the sides of his head. Even the spiked haircut was the same.

“Wow, he looks just like me,” a stunned Nathan remembered thinking of the photo. “I’ve never seen anyone who looks like me.”

For a photographer who has long had a fascination with doppelgangers and the magic of genetics, the moment felt surreal. One of Nathan’s unofficial hobbies is finding pictures of celebrities or random people who resemble his friends and then sending the latter a side-by-side comparison. But, in all these years of searching for look-alikes, Nathan never found any images of people resembling himself—until now.

A subsequent email sent by the agency included a picture of all of his siblings at a sister’s wedding. By now, Nathan was learning a little bit more about each of them. They ranged in age from 45 to 63 and had families of their own. He learned that his brother works at Korean Air and that one of his sisters runs a bibimbap restaurant.

The revelations proved overwhelming for Nathan. His adoptive family, admittedly a little worried that his search would yield no news or hurtful news, was also taken aback with a mix of shock and delight.

“I think it’s just incredibly exciting,” said Gerhard. “If there were just one sibling or just his parents … but to have this enormous family? That’s gotta be exciting and also a little intimidating in a way.”

Caroline said she felt as if her own family had just “increased in size.”

Within just a couple of months, this surreal experience for Nathan would feel a bit more real: Lee Kyoung-mi, the youngest sister who works for Herbalife in Korea, announced that she and her husband were planning a trip to L.A. in March to attend a company convention.

Nathan was about to meet his first blood relative.

F-Nathan-AM15-3KyoungMeeNathan with his biological sister, Lee Kyoung-mi, whom he met in Los Angeles in March.

IN THE LOBBY of the JW Marriott hotel in downtown L.A. the afternoon of March 7, Nathan and Allison stood near the front desk scanning the crowds of people. It was going to be difficult to pick out Kyoungmi among the sea of Asian faces, they thought.

Then Nathan felt a tap on his shoulder.

Sang-kil?” a voice said, calling him by his Korean name.

Still virtual strangers to each other, the smiling siblings shook hands and introduced their respective spouses. Kyoung-mi’s bilingual friend provided much-needed Korean-English translation as the group sat down at the nearby hotel bar and talked over coffee and juice.

“She kept on staring at Nathan,” Allison said of Kyoung-mi. “She said,‘I keep on seeing my older brother, but when he was younger.’”

“‘But more handsome and with better skin,’” added Nathan in a feigned soft female voice, mimicking his sister. Information about family, jobs and even hobbies were exchanged in just two hours. The siblings, who also bear a strong resemblance to each other, discovered their shared passion for competitive table tennis, an unexpected, “kind of a cool” link, said Nathan.

The conversation eventually turned to why Nathan was given up for adoption. Kyoung-mi said she remembered going hungry as a child because money was so tight. “I heard that my mother was working at a construction company trying to help pay bills … but it was tough.” Nathan said. “They really did want to keep me, but … it was financial.”

Nathan’s birth mother never forgot the youngest she painfully gave away. Her dying wish was for her children to find their baby brother. The siblings tried for three years to glean any information about their youngest, first through the adoption agency and even the South Korean government, but, because of closed adoption regulations, they hit a dead end. They would have to wait until Sang-kil looked for them.

F-Nathan-AM15-3NowackFamilyNathan, with wife Allison (far right), his adoptive parents and sister, in Christmas 2008. (Photo courtesy of Nathan Nowack)

One burning question Kyoung-mi had for Nathan was whether he had lived a happy life. Nathan assured her that he grew up with an “amazing family.” He credited his adoptive parents for raising him to be the person he is today: happy, healthy, confident and ready to start a family of his own with Allison—they are considering adoption themselves.

Before they parted ways, and after many hugs, “Kyoung-mi kept asking when we’d see her again,” said Nathan. His siblings have offered to pay for his plane ticket to Korea and also invited his adoptive parents and sister to come. Nathan isn’t quite sure when he’ll be able to make the trip, but he said it’s definitely a journey he wants to make. It would be his first to his birth country since leaving as an infant almost four decades ago.

Now that Nathan is forming relationships with his biological siblings, with whom he keeps in touch through KakaoTalk and the group chat app BAND, he said he realizes his birth search was not just valuable to himself, but was also a great gift to them.

“They’ve been wondering about me for 38 years, whereas I didn’t know I had this family until just six months ago,” said the person who once thought he could go his entire life without digging into his past.


The experience has Nathan asking questions that never before crossed his mind. “How many families in Korea are still wondering where their babies are?” he said. He admits that he regrets not searching for his biological family sooner, more for his birth mother’s sake, “so she would have known I was all right and that I appreciated the choices [she and my birth father] made for me.”

Friends have encouraged Nathan, who wrote about his remarkable experience in a blog post on his photography business website, to make a documentary like Dan Matthews. The photographer is not sure if he’ll ever go so far as to make a film, but the reason he is sharing his story publicly is because he hopes, just as Matthews’ story touched and inspired him, his story can encourage other Korean adoptees—who number 200,000 worldwide—to do their own birth search.

“I just want everyone to know, don’t be afraid of it. There could be a happy outcome,” he said. “[Knowing] that a family back in Korea might be wondering, wishing and hoping to find out how their adopted baby is doing, it’s worth it.”

Recommended Reading


“November Cover Story: Dan Matthews”

“Anais & Sam: A Love Story of Twin Sisters Reunited After 25 Years”

“Faces of Adoption: A Photo Essay”

“Why a Generation of Adoptees is Returning to South Korea”


This article was published in the April/May 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April/May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

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Army Veteran Turns to Social Media in Search of His Long-Lost Twin Children

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

Army veteran Allen Thomas had spent over 40 years unsuccessfully searching for the whereabouts of his twin children he left behind in South Korea. But since taking to Facebook just a week ago with the assistance of his daughter, the story of his search has since gone viral. It’s been shared over a million times, while the public group has swelled to over 30,000 members.

Thomas told NBC News that he would understand if his children refused to see him. “I just need to know they’re OK and tell them I love them,” he said. “These are my kids, and I’ve never stopped loving them.”

“I want to share our family health history with them, because some of it is serious,” he added. “I want them to know that I have never stopped trying to get them.”

Thomas was 18 years old when he joined the Army in the mid-1960s. When he was shipped out to South Korea the next year, he met a woman who soon became pregnant with twins. James and Sandia (who also went by Jamie and Sandra) were born on Sept. 10, 1967, and Thomas married their mother a few months later.

First BirthdayAllen Thomas and his wife celebrating the first birthdays for their twin children.

Although the initial plan was to have the entire family eventually move to the States, the marriage “disintegrated,” according to Thomas’s daughter, Charlene Roberts. Thomas stayed in Asia following his Korea tour to be close to the children, and he took a 30-day leave in January 1971 while he was stationed in Vietnam to visit them in Korea.

It turned out to be the last time he saw James and Sandia in person. Thomas’s wife did not want to follow him back to the U.S. or allow the children to leave. “He even considered going AWOL to take his kids,” Roberts said.

Allen ThomasAllen Thomas in uniform.

Thomas sent letters and money to his family in Korea when he returned to the U.S., but his wife cut off all communication with him. He obtained a default divorce, and he remarried in 1973.

In 1974, Thomas received a final offer from the twins’ mother, who said she would relinquish the children to his custody. But Thomas and his wife couldn’t come up with the money to immediately bring them over, and he found out that the children had been adopted by another American family in 1976, right after he had left the U.S. Army. According to Korean law, his permission was not needed, and the mother would not give the address of the children.

Since then, Thomas continued to search for his kids, checking with American adoption agencies and registering with Korean American groups where the twins might be members. Thomas and Roberts expanded the search to Facebook when he moved in with his daughter recently. Roberts and fellow admins have posted daily updates on the search, and you can see the latest developments on the Facebook page.


Featured image via Facebook

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JooYoung Choi’s ‘Cosmic Womb’ Delves into Issues of Adoption, Race and Identity

Above image: “The Sacrifice of Putt Putt,” by JooYoung Choi

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

When JooYoung Choi was growing up in an adopted American family, she was one of the very few Asians—let alone adoptees—in her hometown of Concord, N.H.

“Often I was reminded by other children that I looked ‘different’ or I was so ‘weird,'” the 32-year-old Choi told the Huffington Post. “As a child, I used popular media and art to make sense of my situation of feeling and looking so different than those around me.”

Cosmic Womb 4“Blue And The Helping Hands At MC Customs Body Shop,” by JooYoung Choi

Choi’s would create a “tribe” of media figures, from figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles‘ Lotus Blossum. When she became older, her tribe characters and themes of “adoption, race, systematic oppression, loss and liberation” would become the premise for the Cosmic Womb, a “parallel planet” portrayed through a series of paintings and video art.

Choi was influenced by a 1993 book called The Primal Wound, by Nancy Newton Verrier, which delves into the effects of disrupting the connection between a mother and child by adoption. The name “Cosmic Womb” is a reference to the Korean word for womb, jagung, which translates to “baby house.”

Cosmic Womb 1“Thanks For the Cosmic Knowledge,” by JooYoung Choi

“I decided that if there is a possible primal wound that affects adoptees, there must also be a Cosmic Womb for them to heal [in],” Choi added. “The idea that Koreans saw the womb as a house or location versus an internal organ interested me… I thought, what if my art could provide a place for the healing of loss, for the things that we lose in life, or have never known or have been forgotten?”

Choi met her birth parents in 2007 and 2008, and the artist began developing the Cosmic Womb in 2010, coining the term in that same year. It became a part of her MFA program at the Lesley University in Massachusetts.

The Cosmic Womb is populated by beings called “Tuplets” that look like East Asian girls and represent a part of the self: shyness, nervousness and happiness, among others. Their adventures are captured in Choi’s paintings—an effort to increase the visibility of Asians that the artist didn’t experience as a child, Choi says.

Choi sometimes appears in her work as a “former denizen of Earth” or as Queen Kiok. The national motto of the Cosmic Womb—”Have Faith, For You Have Always Been Loved”—is a way for Choi to address her troubled past self. Through the parallel planet of Cosmic Womb, Choi “mitigates the oppression, rootlessness and sorrow” she encounters on Earth.

Cosmic Womb 3“Have Faith, For You Have Always Been Loved,” by JooYoung Choi

You can read JooYoung Choi’s full conversation with the Huffington Post here.


All images via JooYoungChoi.com

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