Adopted girl and her mom head from Sacramento to Korea in search of birth parents

Fawn Press-Dawson was born Aug. 9, 1992 at a home for unwed mothers in Andong, the “spiritual capital” of South Korea, three hours southeast of Seoul. Her birth mother, a 23-year-old former store clerk, named her Kwon Hee Joo – “Joyful and Pretty Kwon” – and prayed she would be adopted by a family that could give her a good home.

She found that home in Sacramento, and now the Jewish girl from Gold River has left for South Korea determined to find the young woman who gave her up. She wants to explore her own identity, and also to let her birth mother know she made the right decision.

Accompanied by her adoptive mom, Andee Press-Dawson, Fawn boarded United Flight 853 to Tokyo Friday, switching to United Flight 881 for Seoul. “I have such great parents and such an amazing older brother, David, who was also adopted from Korea,” Fawn said, “but something was always missing. Last October, I told them this was just something I had to do. I’m at the stage where I’m trying to find my own identity.”

Fawn is one of an estimated 200,000 Korean adoptees worldwide. Aided by social media and the Internet, a growing number are starting to search for answers to gnawing questions about why they were given up, what has become of their birth parents, whether they have siblings and whether there is still an emotional connection to their birth parents and country of origin.

“There’s no question it’s happening more and more,” said Adam Pertman, president of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, a nonprofit think tank that conducted a study called “A Changing World,” which surveyed 1,500 adoptive parents and adoption professionals. “This growing trend not only includes those who were adopted,” Pertman said. “Though 35 percent of our sample chose intercountry adoption in order to avoid contact with the children’s families of origin, a fast-growing number change their minds, seeking connections for the sake of their children.”

The reason, Pertman said, is that adoption today is “more honest, more open generally,” than it was in the past.

The rise of social media has also played a role, said Steve Kalb, director of adoption services for Holt International, an Oregon-based agency that has placed 45,000 foreign adoptees, the vast majority from Korea, since founders Harry and Bertha Holt pioneered foreign adoptions in 1955.

“Sites like Facebook are an easy way to begin the search just based on information the adoptee may have in their file: date of birth, city of birth, general first names of parents,” Kalb said. “Searches over and through the Internet are so much easier today then they were five years ago, but it’s still an imperfect system as long as adoptions are closed. It’s still really difficult with language barriers and birth families and adoptees literally being a world apart.”

Fawn, 21, arrived in Seoul with a one-way ticket, a 90-day visa and a strong commitment to finding her birth parents, even though she knows many of these searches don’t bear fruit, and others result in heartbreak because birth parents don’t want to be found. “She could not want to see me, or she could have a family she doesn’t want to know about me,” Fawn said. “I’d be shocked if she wasn’t shocked. I know it’s going to be tough and maybe sad, but I don’t want to just live my life not knowing.

“It’s mind-boggling to know that I have extended family that looks like me. I know I was her first child.”

Fawn used the social media fundraising site www.gofund.me to help fund her trip, raising $1,507 in one month. She’s been posting on Facebook and began blogging about her journey on Youtube Thursday night – www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHJbDjd3KfQ.

So far, she knows that she was put up for adoption by Korea’s Eastern Child Welfare Society Inc. after being born to two 23-year-olds from Andong. Her birth father, known only as Mr. Kwon, was tall, thin, cheerful and had been a soldier, according to the adoption report. Her birth mother, Kwon Hee Joo was a high school graduate who worked briefly as a shopgirl, described as “158 cm tall (5’2”, about Fawn’s height), weighs 50 kg (110 pounds) with fair skin, and is outgoing.”

The couple met by chance and dated, “but were separated due to discord in character and ideal (sic) and had no more contact,” the report reads. Because the birth mother was unmarried, “it was impossible socially and financially for her to bring up the baby properly and she thought it best that she let the baby be adopted to a good home which could provide sufficient support and much love.”

Fawn was born prematurely at about 4 pounds and suffering from anemia. After she recovered, she was transferred to the Seoul foster home of Moon Ja Yoo and her husband while awaiting adoption.

‘Divine intervention’

Back in Gold River, Andee Press-Dawson and her husband, Terry Press-Dawson, had started a family by adopting David, the sixth child of poor farmers, in May 1989.

The couple had not planned to have children. “I was 42 and was 13 when my own mother died, so I had almost a fear of motherhood and not knowing how to be a good mother,” said Andee, who founded the Visionarium Children’s Museum on K Street and now directs community programs for the UC Davis School of Education.

She was enjoying a spa weekend in Calistoga with some girlfriends in 1987 when two little Korean girls swam up to her at the pool and started playing with her. “They were 2 and 4, and they were adorable,” Andee said. “It was kind of magical how these girls found me when they interacted with me, I felt it was divine intervention.”

When she learned the girls had been adopted by a Jewish family, she told her husband, “We have to do this.” Terry Press-Dawson, a licensed marriage and family counselor and grant coordinator with the Twin Rivers Unified School District who DJs on the side, “was sure this was one of my typical meteorite ideas that burn brightly and flame out,” Andee said.

In 1989, when the couple picked up David at San Francisco International Airport, he was 6 months old, one of a wave of Korean children who had been sent overseas for adoption since the Korean War. Soon after David’s arrival, facing criticism for giving up its children to different cultures, Korea closed adoptions to the United States, Andee Press-Dawson said.

When U.S. adoptions were reopened in 1991, the Press-Dawsons said they went through Adoption Services International to find another Korean child. On March 1, 1993 they took David and flew to Los Angeles, where a young Korean soldier handed them a brown-eyed, brown-haired baby girl in “a way oversized pink pajama thing,” Andee recalled. “It was unbelievable. We were crying and we had to explain to David these were tears of joy.”

‘My first family’

The children have reacted differently to adoption, Andee said. “At age 3, David experienced dreams where he was in his birth country with the sun shining and his birth family all smiling. When Fawn was 3, she wondered why her birth parents gave her up.”

Today David is teaching English in Korea, but has expressed no interest in finding his birth parents. Both children were raised Jewish and learned Hebrew. Several dozen of Fawn’s friends across race and ethnicity attended her bat mitzvah. “Fawn used to think everybody who was Korean was Jewish,” her mother said. Fawn speaks no Korean, knows little about Korea and doesn’t particularly relish Korean food.

But in high school, the gnawing questions about her roots came back. “I felt very confused. I felt a sense of aloneness and really isolated myself, I was pretty depressed,” Fawn said. While her friends went off to college, Fawn attended Folsom Lake College and stayed at home. “I really needed to look inside and dig deep and figure out the root cause of my sadness,” she said. “I had a lot of long talks with my dad, then knew what I had to do.”

Two weeks ago, Andee said, she had a “little emotional breakdown” about Fawn’s upcoming trip. “It triggered my own anxieties about abandonment and motherhood, so we all sat around the dinner table.”

Fawn said she reassured her adoptive mother “No matter what happens I love you more than anything, you guys are my first family. Andee’s my mother, Terry’s my father, and no one can replace you.”

Now, Andee says, “I’m so proud of Fawn taking this on. It’s hard, it’s scary, but I realized we are a family unit here and this experience will just enhance it.”

In recent years, international adoptions have been declining, said Pertman of the Adoption Institute. “Korea has worked to build more of a domestic adoption culture and to educate the public so their children can stay in the culture,” he said.

Yet Pertman said a stigma still lingers around adoption in Korea. “The birth mother is still shamed. They’re not yet at the place where we are. It’s no wonder it’s harder to make the connection at the other end,” he said. “But if you talk to the people involved, it’s worthwhile even if they don’t find their birth parents. The search itself is empowering.”

Thursday night, after packing her knapsack with her Korean phrase book and travel guide, Fawn and her family drove to Berkeley and met with Deann Borshay Liem, a Korean adoptee who has made several documentaries on the subject: “ First Person Plural”; “ In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee”; and “ Geographies of Kinship – The Korean Adoption Story.”

“Deann said there were about 200,000 Korean adoptees from all over the world, and only 5 to 7 percent find their birth parents,” Fawn said. “I just broke down crying. I know I need to lower my expectations.”

Still, Deann’s parting contained an uplifting message: “She said the journey is the destination,” Fawn said. “This is the first thing I’ve really done that was meant to be.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee