Leach Buchholz shares her thoughts on her adoption from Korea and her quest to discover answers.
The day I met Leah Buchholz at a Vancouver coffee house it was her birthday—at least she thinks it was—she’s not quite sure. The exact day she was born is one of the many answers that this thoughtful young woman, adopted from Korea almost 20 years ago, is on a quest to discover.
Leah, a speech language pathology student at UBC, says that if she could have picked the family that adopted her, the one she was adopted by would be exactly the sort she would have chosen. She also believes that her adoption brought love and opportunities that would never have been available to her as an orphan in Korea.
Despite this, like many adoptees, Leah has a burning desire to fill in some of the gaps about her birth family and the four years of her life before she came to Canada. “I know where I’m going in my life,” says Leah, “but I still have many unknowns about my past.” The good news is that Leah is on the brink of finding some of those answers.
The early years
Before we talk about what she expects to find in Korea when she visits there this summer, Leah tells me more about what it was like as a four-year-old child to leave the orphanage and move into a vastly different world.
“I’d never seen white people before, and I was suddenly immersed in a totally foreign language and culture. For the first few months I cried a lot, and I panicked every time my mom left the room or went out. I worried that my new family would abandon me, and I would again be transplanted into an unknown world. When I first came to Canada, my parents were struck by my tendency to help out. I’d tie everyone’s shoelaces and clean constantly. These habits were formed when I was in my orphanage, one which housed predominantly disabled children, where my role as an older able-bodied child was to help the children with disabilities. These habits proved difficult to break—my parents had to teach me how to have a messy room!”
Leah explains that she hoarded food in her room for fear that it would not be in the kitchen for her to eat the next day. She was also terrified of dogs--she’d never seen one before. Slowly, she overcame these fears and acclimatized to her new life, learned English, and began to feel part of the family.
Though Leah attended Korean language classes and Korean summer camps, she did eventually lose her first language, and that’s something she regrets. “I know that language and culture are very different and that even if I did have the language it would only be a tool for me to use: it wouldn’t unlock all the nuances of the Korean culture, or make me part of it, but it could have made it easier,” she explains.
Like many transracial adoptees, Leah has also had to grapple with belonging to two worlds and the contradictions inherent in that experience. “As a part of a Caucasian family, I feel white; then I look in the mirror and I see that I’m not,” says Leah. “When we had, ‘Bring your parents to school’ day, I always felt awkward and didn’t know what to say to the other kids when they questioned how these Caucasian parents could possibly be mine. Often, when I saw Asian adults, I wondered if they were my birth parents. Now as my world expands through being at university and having different experiences, there are different and constant reminders that I am not who other people think I am. It can be jarring. When I go to an Asian restaurant, the staff often speak to me in Korean; when I go apartment hunting, people always expect a German/Canadian girl because of my name. When I turn up, they say something like, ‘Oh, you’re Asian!’ People always need to figure me out and neatly classify me as Asian or Canadian. It is strange as I seriously question what it really is to feel or be a member in either one of these categories.”
One place where no one had to figure Leah out was at the Korean adoptee culture camps that she attended between the ages of seven and ten. They were full of kids just like her. “The camps were like a crash course in Korea,” she explains. “It was so nice to be somewhere where you don’t have to explain yourself. Despite this comfort, it felt peculiar to be around so many people who looked like me. One time, I remember eating rice that didn’t have butter on it—it tasted so familiar. It must have been how I ate it at the orphanage. The following year I sat next to a girl who had exactly the same experience.”
When Leah was 14, she visited Korea with her parents. She remembers feeling totally out of place. During that trip, though she enjoyed it, there lacked a sense of connection with the place and people. This trip was an eye-opener though. It gave Leah further insight into the status of adoptees in her country of birth and what shape her life might have taken had she remained there. “In Korea, number four is an unlucky number,” she explains. “When I took a tour of the adoption agency that dealt with my adoption, the children were housed on the fourth floor. In Canada the equivalent would be to place them on the 13th floor. This was the first sign for me of the very different social perceptions of adoptees within Korea versus Canada.”
On that trip Leah also realized that being an orphan in Korea, even as an adult, she would always be a second class citizen. If she married a Korean man, he would have to take on her inferior status. It’s also highly unlikely that she would be completing her master’s degree. In Korea, education is only free until grade eight. Few orphans get the chance to go beyond that.
Though Leah had always had a strong curiosity about her birth family, it deepened when she was 21 and her niece was born. “I witnessed all the rituals around the birth of a baby, all the love, all the people involved, and I started to wonder more about my entrance into the world and those blank years of my life,” says Leah. After carefully going through some of the scenarios around finding her birth family—who knows what she might discover?—and worrying about making her adoptive parents feel diminished if she started the search, she decided to e-mail the adoption agency that placed her. Two months later, at two in the morning, she discovered that her birth parents are alive and she has six sisters. Finally, she was getting closer to filling in some of those blanks.
Because of the language barrier, communication with her birth family has been difficult. Leah has had a long letter from her birth mother (translated by the adoption agency) in which she expressed guilt about the adoption. She also received a reserved but welcoming letter from one of her sisters. Leah understands that though adoption has been part of her life since she was four years old, it probably wasn’t as overt in her birth family’s lives and that it’s not surprising that their reaction is muted. Until now, her birth family has always been just thoughts or ideas, not actual people. Though Leah is nervous that it might not go well when she meets them this summer, she can’t wait to meet people with whom she has a family resemblance and where she can, for the first time, work out some of her genetic inheritance.
Throughout our chat it was clear that Leah has the maturity, sensitivity, and strong sense of realism that will help her navigate this momentous event. She also has behind her a strong, loving, and involved family that will help her on her journey and beyond.
Leah’s quest is not just a personal one. Seven hundred adult adoptees from 17 nations will attend the International Korean Adoptee Association’s gathering this summer in Seoul. “It’s going to be great. It’s a phenomenal chance to change perceptions about adoption in Korea,” says Leah. “It will be a huge statement that, ‘We’re here and we thrived!’”