Life after meeting my biological family

Emma Carew Grovum was adopted from Korea as an infant.
Emma Carew Grovum, who was adopted as an infant, met her biological mother, Eun Sook Lee (second from right) and half sisters Eun Young Lee (left) and Young Eun Lee (right) in Korea after she graduated from high school. Photo courtesy of Emma Carew Grovum
Emma Carew Grovum with her family.
From left to right: Emma Carew Grovum with her husband, Jake, and her parents Ed and Linda Carew on her wedding day. Photo courtesy of Emma Carew Grovum
I have never regretted searching for or finding my Korean family, though they have added a very complicated layer to my life.

After first meeting her biological parents in 2006, Emma wrote an essay about the experience for ThreeSixty. To read her first essay, click here.

Six and a half years have passed since I first traveled to Korea and met my birth mother and her family. I was 18 and had just graduated from high school.

Looking back, I’m shocked and impressed that someone so young was able to work through so many complex issues, even though I didn’t feel young at the time.

In 2007, I returned to Korea to spend more time learning about the culture, my heritage and my family. I was 20 and I was midway through journalism and art history degrees at the University of Minnesota.

My Korean was passable for most day-to-day situations. But I still relied on translators to help me deal with my family, which put strain on the relationship. It was a series of hard, emotionally draining visits I was still so young to be dealing with.

I have never regretted searching for or finding my Korean family, though they have added a very complicated layer to my life.

I was shocked yet again this fall when I received an email from my mother’s youngest brother. I didn’t understand most of it, but I came away from my initial reading thinking my grandmother might have died.

After frantically searching for someone who could help me translate, my fears were confirmed: My grandmother had passed away during the summer, but my uncle and mother had been consumed with mourning and had not gotten around to telling me.

After reading my friend’s translation of the message, I was hit by an overwhelming amount of sadness. This woman, whom I barely knew, whom I hadn’t actually liked all that much during my visit, had left an indelible mark on my life. And now she was gone.

My relationship to my halmonie, which is grandmother in Korean, was a hard one: I knew she had been the one who helped my mother put me up for adoption. Her frank, sometimes harsh, demeanor hurt my feelings. She nicknamed me “little piglet” — a comment on my weight.

It stung that it had taken them so long to contact me with this important news. But I realized, as I prepared to respond, that I had never shared with them the news of my engagement last spring or my marriage in September. So, it appeared we were on equal footing. I did write back, and sent them a few photos from my wedding day. I haven’t heard back, but I’m sure I will eventually.

It’s hard to explain to people what it means to meet your birth family. For 18 years, the majority of my life, it meant everything. It was the biggest dream I had.

I’ve never been disappointed by the way my relationship with them turned out, just frustrated, confused, and at times sad. They are still an important part of my life, just not a very big part right now. On the walls of my desk at work, photos of my mother and sisters hang next to photos of my parents, my brother and my husband and me.

It will probably be at least another year before I will be able to afford the time and money to travel to Korea again. I look forward to the next challenges it will bring and seeing the country and my family through slightly more adult eyes. I expect that when I visit, I will see my family and spend time with them. I look forward to introducing them to my husband.

Emma Carew Grovum is a 24-year-old alumni of ThreeSixty Journalism. She is currently working as the Digital Editor for The Cooking Club magazine, after previously working for The Star Tribune and The Chronicle of Philanthropy. She lives in St. Paul with her husband and volunteers as the chapter co-president of AAJA Minnesota.