Connecting with culture: South Korean adoptee visits homeland for first time

Kim Powell was left on the steps of Seoul City Hall as a newborn and had never been back to South Korea since...until this year.
Kim Powell South Korean Adoptee
Posted at 11:20 AM, Nov 04, 2022
and last updated 2022-11-06 16:53:22-05

CALEDONIA, Mich. — "Now I can actually tell the story without crying because it was just hugely emotional for so many of us."

That's how Kim Powell started her interview with FOX 17. As emotional as it gets, it's a story she loves to share.

Powell has lived in West Michigan for almost her entire life. This is her home. There's no question.

However, as a child, she felt out of place.

"As we grow up, we cope with that," she said. "Part of that coping mechanism is to deny our heritage because we don't look like somebody else. You're not invited to play on the playground with them. So it's a source of a lot of pain, quite honestly.”

She looked different, so she was treated differently.

“I was the little Korean orphan adoptee," she said.

Powell was born in South Korea. That's about all she knows from her early life.

She doesn't know her biological parents. For a while, she didn't know her real name. Still, she doesn't know her birthday.

“At one point, I thought, 'Oh, that's great! I could be younger! I could not be this age,'” she joked.

Even though South Korea is her homeland, it's never been a place Powell felt she could call home.

She was left on the steps of Seoul City Hall as a newborn baby.

"There's a history of baby abandonments in Korea," she told FOX 17. "Actually, this started probably during the Korean War. There was a lot of children born out of servicemen being there with Korean women."

She added, “The Korean culture is very strict about their bloodline. Therefore, you don't bring children that are from another father, from another bloodline, into your home.”

Powell was eventually adopted by a Dutch family in West Michigan at 13 months old. They didn't keep her background a secret. Powell knew the circumstances, and she was okay with them.

“I've lived with this for almost all my life," she said. "So in some ways, it would be hugely emotional to learn something different. There's no documentation on my family. So they were not able to trace any family connection at all.”

Powell was so comfortable with the present, she didn't feel the need to connect with her past. That was until she had children of her own.

“I sensed this deep longing for wanting to know more about my mother," she explained. "This is where she lived. This is where I was conceived. This is where I was born and where she surrendered me. So, yeah. Who is this lady?”

Fast forward several years, Powell's daughter gave her the gift of a lifetime — a trip back to her birthplace for the very first time.

In June, Powell went to South Korea with an organization called Me and Korea, which helps adoptees, like Powell, connect with their Korean identity.

They got to explore the country, enjoy the food and squeeze in some shopping.

Amid all the excitement were some emotional experiences, like when the group visited an orphanage.

“At one point, I picked up this little boy," she said. "I started wondering, 'Oh, this could have been me years ago. Did somebody pick me up and hold me?' Everything goes back to your own personal story.”

Each adoptee on the tour also got to choose a meaningful place to visit. A place that was personal to them.

For Powell, that was Seoul City Hall.

"That is the place where, according to the agency records, I was abandoned," she said. "I sat there for a while. I thought, 'Which step was it? Where it was I left?' There's a clock. I'm not sure if the clock is the same one, but I wondered, 'What time was it?' I just tried to imagine, 'What was my mother thinking? How was it for her? Was it both of them? Both parents? Or was it just her? How long did it take?' I mean, all these things."

So many questions — ones Powell might never get an answer to. Still, Powell said she got exactly what she was looking for.

“The reality is that there was a place for me," she said. "I think we work on ourselves. We feel like we have a place. This is my place and our identity. But yet this was another aspect of who I am and it made my identity more complete.”

The trip reignited the search for her family. Now, Powell has a message for others who might be in a similar position.

“It's never too late to discover more about yourself," she said. "It's never too late to open up things from your past that may be a little bit frightening to deal with.”

She continued, "Growing up as an adoptee, your biological family is always a fact. It's always a fact in your history, but this trip made it more of a reality for me. This really did happen. There really was somebody there.”

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