Decades after being adopted from a South Korean orphanage by an American family, Troy University alumna Amy Gilbert (’92) reconnected with her birth family and her heritage and has written a book about her experiences.
Published last year, “Becoming Korean: A Memoir” charts Gilberts’ journey from what she called a “normal American childhood” to the trip some 44 years later that would lead her to connect with her siblings and, eventually, her birth mother and begin the process of rediscovering the culture and language she lost as a young child.
It was 1974 when Gilbert arrived in Gainesville, Fla., her adoptive parents’ hometown. The family would later relocate to nearby Archer, Fla.
Gilbert recalled learning to speak English in roughly two months thanks to her mother’s efforts to prepare her for school.
“My mother took time off from work. She went around the house and picked up objects and would have me name what they were,” she said. “I watched cartoons and Sesame Street. I arrived in Gainesville on July 6, 1974, and I went to school the end of August. I was speaking English as well as that age group would have at the time.”
In high school, she was a typical American teenager.
“I went to high school and did all of the typical things – I played softball, I was in student government, I was President of the Spanish Club. I took four years of Spanish and actually became fluent,” she said. “I volunteered at the hospital for several years in the summer time. I just did all of those normal American things.”
After high school, she received a Leadership Scholarship to attend TROY where she encountered international students for the first time, some of whom looked like her.
“I worked on the Palladium for four years, and I was an AD Pi (Alpha Delta Pi sorority),” Gilbert said. “Of course, I was the only Asian girl, but I had gotten so accustomed to it that I didn’t see myself that way. I didn’t identify as a Korean or an Asian person because I lived with a white family in a white and black community. When I was at TROY that was the first time that I saw international students and some of them looked like me. I was active at TROY, but still didn’t meet any Koreans though.”
Gilbert graduated from TROY with a degree in Elementary Education, began teaching school in Valdosta, Ga. and met her husband. The couple would have three children, William born in 1997, Audrey who was born in 1998 and Edward who was born in 2000. The birth of her first child provided a unique moment for Gilbert, one for which she was not necessarily prepared.
“Everyone’s first child is special because they make you a parent for the first time, but for me it was seeing someone else who looked like me, and I had never had that,” she remembered. “My mother, who was in the delivery room when he was born, her first words were, ‘Oh Amy, he looks just like you’.”
The couple also later adopted their niece, who had Moebius Syndrome, which required a lot of medical care. With four children to care for, Gilbert was busy being a mother. It was during that time though that Gilbert received one of the first “glimpses” on the journey that would reconnect her with her Korean heritage.
“When my oldest two were in elementary school, they were asked to take part in an Asian Cultural Festival that was held in our community in Valdosta,” she said. “They wanted them to dance in the Korean puppet dance, and because of that event, I met my first Korean person at the age of 33. Meeting her, someone that looked like me, had the same body structure and hair texture, was good and bad. It was good because everyone wants someone to be like them, but it also pointed out to me that we were different. I learned about Korean food and ate Kimchi for the first time and saw the traditional Korean dress. The Asian Cultural Festival was really my first exposure to anything Korean.”
Later it would be the suggestion of her husband, Mark, that would begin the journey in earnest.
“When the Olympics were held in Korea in 2018, my husband said ‘let’s go to the Olympics.’ On that trip, we wanted to see the orphanage. I didn’t know a lot about my time there, but I knew I lived in an orphanage and I knew my Korean name and how to pronounce it,” she said.
After arriving in Korea, Gilbert, her husband and a translator went to the location of the orphanage.
“The person there took my passport and made a copy of it and had me sign some documents,” she recalled. “I wasn’t sure what it was all about, but then we got back in the van, our translator said that they would search for my birth parents.”
From there, the process didn’t take long.
“When we got back home from Korea, I had an email that said I had a brother who had searched for me in 1987 and that they would try to locate him. A few months go by and on Aug. 1, 2018, I received and email that said they had located my brother and had shared my email address with him. I literally fell into the closest chair. Then I saw I had other emails and they were from my brother in Korea. Of course, I called my husband, sobbing. I called my mother, sobbing.”
Gilbert and her brother exchanged emails and shared photos back and forth for the next two days. Then, on Aug. 3, she received a call from a woman in Tampa who had her brother on the phone with her and said that she would translate during the conversation.
“I couldn’t understand anything that he said, but I could hear his voice,” Gilbert said. “At the end of the call, he asked me when I could come back to Korea. I told him I might be able to go the next year, and he said that was too long to wait so he would come to see me. He and my oldest sister ended up coming to Florida for Thanksgiving of 2018. We had the best Thanksgiving ever.”
A graduate student from the University of Florida stayed at the Gilberts’ home and served as a translator during the weeklong visit.
“They stayed at my house for a week and we had the traditional Thanksgiving meal and they made Korean food. I made up a photo book of my life. I have two older sisters and an older brother. Because they were older, they have vivid memories of me,” she said. “I have since developed actual relationships with each of my family members. I’ve stayed in their homes, we’ve shared meals, looked at old photo albums. A lot of adoptees never find their birth families, but I actually have relationships with my Korean family.”
It was during her second trip to Korea that Gilbert met her birth mother.
“It has been a life-changing experience,” she said. “
Gilbert said she first decided to write about her incredible journey as a genealogy to preserve for future generations of her family.
“I kept having people tell me, ‘You should write a book.’ When I was writing the genealogy, I just kept writing and it ended up being a book,” she said. “It took me three years of writing and processing. I would write for hours one week, and then I would put it aside for three months. There were many days that I was writing and crying at the same time. I had feelings of disloyalty to my adoptive parents. I had feelings of loss of what I had missed out on in Korea. I had a lot of frustrations over not being able to speak Korean. The more Korean people that I met, the more I was faced with not really being Korean.”
Gilbert, who is currently visiting Korea where she is taking courses to learn the language, said she hopes her book provides hope for other Korean adoptees, noting that around 200,000 South Koreans were adopted during the past 60 years.
“I want to give them hope and show them that it is never too late,” she said. “If you have an inkling that you want to go to Korea, search for your birth family or learn the language, get started.”
Gilbert says the book provides insights not only for adoptees but also for adoptive parents.
“The last line on the back cover of my book is: There are joys and losses in being adopted. Adoptive parents focus on the joys of adopting the children, but, especially for children who are adopted from a foreign country, they really need to put thought and care into how they handle that culture and heritage that is lost.”
“Becoming Korean: A Memoir” is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback formats.