"It's hard to explain what it's like to be ripped from your family at five years old and sent to the opposite end of the planet. ... I'm not sure I understand it myself."
From Kelly Fern's "Songs of My Families"
Kelly Fern has an unusual adoption story to tell in her new memoir, "Songs of My Families." In fact, it's more than one story.
Kelly, who was called Lee Myonghi in her native South Korea, was 5 years old when her parents gave her up for adoption. They were struggling to make ends meet and provide for their family of five children (she was the fourth child). As Kelly would learn much later, they never intended for her to permanently leave the family.
After a few months in a local orphanage, Kelly left Korea and came to Minnesota, where she was adopted by a Rochester family. Later, at age 19, when she herself was overwhelmed as a single mother, Kelly made the difficult decision to place her 6-month-old daughter with Lutheran Social Services, the same organization that her adoptive parents had worked with 14 years earlier.
A new family
Kelly went on to marry Brad Fern, with whom she had two children, Max, now 9, and Cecilia, "Cici," 12. But Kelly suffered at the thought not only of her abandonment by her birth family, but also at the thought that she had done the same to her oldest child.
"The hardest thing for me to think about was wondering if my daughter suffered the same turmoil I did," said Kelly, of Minneapolis. "Did she wonder, like I did, if her mom was ever going to come and get her?"
In 2007, Brad tracked down Kelly's family in Korea; through e-mail they spoke with her younger brother Chulsoo, who served as the English-speaking spokesman for his parents and siblings.
"We all the family miss you so much," he wrote in an early message. "Mother shows tears when she just hears your name."
A televised reunion
In 2008, Kelly was reunited with her birth family during a highly emotional visit to Geumsan, South Korea, that ended up being filmed by Korean Public Television and became a popular five-episode series.
Kelly found that her parents had been lied to by local authorities, who led them to believe that sending her away would provide her with an educational opportunity, similar to a scholarship, and that she would return after finishing school. When her mother found out what had really happened, she was devastated. Seeing her daughter again was like a dream come true.
Kelly's experience was similar. "When we returned from that trip to Korea, I had to pinch myself to believe it was real because so much had happened," she said.
But the search wasn't over. Brad encouraged Kelly to look for her daughter.
"She'd say, 'No, that's my past, we should leave it alone,'" he said. "But I knew that while she was afraid of being rejected, she really did want to try to find her."
In early 2010, Brad located Kelly's daughter, Suzie Juul, now 25, who had been adopted by a family in Bloomington. After several months of e-mails, and with the support of Juul's family, the two met later that year.
In the book, Kelly writes: "I step back to have a look at her. We stand studying each other for a few seconds. ... It's hard for me to pay attention to what she's saying. I just want to stand here and study her beautiful face."
Juul, who lives in the Twin Cities and sings professionally, was happy about the reunion.
"I was really nervous, but it was such a positive and friendly experience," she said, adding that she had been surprised when the Ferns reached out to her, but excited by the prospect of meeting her birth mother. "I had thought about looking for her, especially when I was younger, but was conflicted because I didn't want to hurt my family."
Kelly and Juul's adoptive mother have become good friends -- the two families recently spent time together. For Juul, who has two step-siblings who are 20 years older, having Max and Cici in her life "has been so wonderful in the best possible way."
Kelly, who keeps in touch with her family in Korea and is planning a summer visit, considers herself lucky to have reconnected with all of her family members, knowing that adoption reunions are not always successful and sometimes painful.
"The past four years have been so healing for me," she said. "It has been an absolutely amazing journey."
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.
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