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For Minn. adoptees, search for Korean roots an emotional journey

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​Megan Arnesen teaches
Megan Arnesen of Plymouth, Minn., spent the summer teaching at Woosong University in Daejeon, South Korea.
Photo by Kaomi Goetz for MPR News

It wasn't hard for Megan Arnesen to find her birth family. The 31-year-old Plymouth woman asked her adoption agency for help, and it didn't take long to set up a meeting in South Korea. 

"I remember walking up the hill looking into every car. Is that them? Is that them? And there's a car parked outside and they had just passed me," Arnesen said. "And I remember looking in, saying, 'Is that them?' And they had parked (and) the car wasn't even off and people were jumping out calling my Korean name because they recognized me."

The reunion was a happy one initially. But many challenges followed. That's the reality for many adoptees who return to South Korea to seek out those who gave them up. It's not always a storybook ending.

More than 160,000 children were adopted overseas from South Korea the past 60 years — as many as 15,000 came to Minnesota. Many never reunited with their birth families. The South Korean government says since it started tracking new adoptee birth search requests in 2012, only about 15 percent have connected in any given year. 

​Megan Arnesen tries on a custom hanbok
Arnesen tries on a custom hanbok she purchased from a shop in Daejeon.
Photo by Kaomi Goetz for MPR News

That's partly because in the past South Korean adoptions were closed. Birth records were often falsified or left blank. In a rush to fill adoption requests from the West, some agencies were careless. 

Even today, privacy laws can keep parents or adoptees from finding each other. When they do, Arnesen's story illustrates how the search can come with the joys and struggles. 

She learned, for instance, that her South Korean family had been poor. She was the fifth daughter born to parents who wanted a son. Her younger sister, the sixth daughter, was also later adopted into the same Minnesota family.

Arnesen and her sister had more economic and educational opportunities than their South Korean sisters. They were also different culturally. Ultimately, those differences were too great when Arnesen's younger sister came to the country for a reunion. She wanted answers about why they were let go. 

Arnesen said her South Korean family stopped communicating after that. 

This past summer, Arnesen returned to the country to teach English, this time in Daejeon, about 90 minutes from Seoul and two hours from her family.

Fresh seafood at the market in Daejeon.
Fresh seafood at the market in Daejeon, South Korea on July 22.
Kaomi Goetz for MPR News

Arnesen said she was disappointed that her birth family did not get to meet her new husband, Chad, who's also a Korean adoptee who grew up in Minnesota. The summer trip to South Korea was their honeymoon. But Arnesen said a meeting with her South Korean family just never materialized. 

"They say it's almost harder being rejected a second time. It's like an open wound and rubbing salt on it," she said.

Arnesen returned to Minnesota last month. For now, she said she'll continue to send her birth family letters and photos — even if the correspondence is always one-sided. She added there are days she loves South Korea — and hates it too. Her husband understands.

Still, she carries with her the memories of that first meeting with her birth family and the immediate connection she said she felt.

"We all piled into my sister's four-door sedan. At the time there were seven of us. Four of the siblings including me in the back seat, some people had to sit sideways, some people had to sit front, some people had to sit crooked," she said, adding, "It felt like home."

Kaomi Goetz is a Korean-American journalist living in South Korea as a Fulbright scholar who writes on adoption issues.