When Mary Umsted ’98 was three or four years old, she looked at her mother one day in the rear view mirror of the family automobile and asked, “Mommy, how come your eyes look different?”
Her mother, Nancy, explained that she was the child of her heart, not her body, when the family adopted Umsted at eight months from Seoul, South Korea. She was one of almost 100,000 children adopted from the Asian nation between 1953 and 2001.
In May, Umsted, who works in the Dallas office of the law firm Haynes and Boone as a business development manager, met her mother in San Francisco and flew to the capital city for a two-week visit to the land of her birth.
Organized by Holt International, the agency that set up the adoption, the itinerary was a mix of sightseeing and learning about her heritage. Umsted chronicled her journey in a blog at http://marysgotseoul.tumblr.com/
The blog — written in a series of photos with captions — takes both a serious and lighthearted approach. Along with noting that she preferred forks to Korean metal chopsticks, Umsted noted the cultural differences she found humorous, such as asking if there was an American Toilet Association in a caption for a photo of a sign for the Korean version.
Socially, she learned that Korean men were very affectionate with their mates and carried their purses.
“If they actually buy the purses and carry them,” joked Umsted in the caption, “(then) I’m on the hunt for a good Korean boy. I have less than 24 hours at this point!”
A frequent traveler, she and the group of 23 additional adoptees and six family members enjoyed such cultural attractions as a folk village, traditional wedding and the demilitarized zone that splits the Korean peninsula in two.
However, nothing could have prepared Umsted for meeting her foster mother, the Korean woman who cared for her before her adoption.
“I didn’t want to set myself up for any expectations,” she said about the meeting in a recent phone interview. “I wasn’t hoping to find any answers. (My foster mother) really surprised me. Her reaction was overwhelming.
“She was so proud and excited. She ran up to me, gave me a hug and pulled out photos of me. She remembered me.”
It was a first trip abroad for Umsted’s mother, who received VIP treatment. One of the photos shows a group of young children swarming the elder woman.
“I teased her that her gray hair was the attraction,” she said.
Having had a wonderful family growing up, Umsted didn’t believe she had missed out on anything by being adopted. One of the trip’s stops was to a home for unwed mothers who were trying to decide whether or not to keep their babies once they were born.
“They asked us if we had any resentment (toward our birth mothers) or did we feel shame,” she said. “It was so nice to be able to say (putting me up for adoption) was the nicest gift (my birth mother) ever gave me and to give them any reassurance for their decision.”
In return, the trip allowed Umsted to gain an increased sense of self awareness in certain personality traits, such as being efficient and direct, with a propensity toward speaking rapidly.
“I realized they weren’t just a clichés.”
Wearing the traditional Korean dress known as a hanbok, her final photo said she was sad to leave Korea, but that she did so with a full heart.
“It was great to meet the other adoptees — I didn’t expect to bond with them as much as I did,” said Umsted. “Seeing where I came from, (I have) a better understanding of what my life would have been had it not been for the adoption.”
Published Monday, June 18, 2012