Kwon Pil-ju will soon be reunited with Adam Crapser, the son she gave up for adoption when he was a baby, confronting a shame she’s felt for 40 years.
YEONGJU, South Korea — Kwon Pil-ju is trying desperately to teach herself English before she is reunited in the coming weeks with a son she sent away almost 40 years ago.
“I have so much to tell him, especially how sorry I am,” she said, sitting in her bedroom, which doubles as her kitchen, in her one-floor rural home in Yeongju. “But I am at a loss, because I don’t know English and he can’t speak Korean.”
Her son is Adam Crapser, 41, a Korean adoptee who is awaiting deportation from an immigration detention center in Washington state because he lacks U.S. citizenship, even though he has lived in the United States since he was 3 years old. Last month, an immigration court denied his final request to stay in the United States.
Until Crapser’s fate was reported in a documentary broadcast by South Korea’s MBC-TV last year, Kwon did not even know that the son she gave up in 1978 had been in the United States.
As it turned out, the boy she called Shin Song-hyuk was one of 200,000 South Korean children sent abroad for adoption since the end of the Korean War, most of them to the United States.
South Koreans have lamented their country’s international reputation as a leading baby exporter. But in a society that held deep prejudices against single mothers and children born outside marriage, and that shunned domestic adoptions, sending children abroad was often the best option for poor South Korean women. Adoption agencies solicited their babies, promising better lives abroad.
In recent years, however, some have returned to South Korea as adults, reporting adoptions gone wrong.
Some of the most wrenching stories have come from those who were deported back to South Korea. Like Crapser, they were abused or abandoned by their adoptive parents. Only after they ran afoul of the law did they learn that they were not U.S. citizens, their parents having never filed citizenship paperwork for them.
Officials at South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare say they know of at least five adoptees who were deported back from the United States. But advocates for Korean adoptees say there may be more than twice as many, some undocumented.
Tossed back to a country they had left decades ago, these adoptees were once again foreigners struggling to adapt to an unfamiliar culture and language.
The television documentary that reported Crapser’s plight also included the story of a 44-year-old adoptee named Monte Haines, or Han Ho-kyu, who served in the U.S. military in the 1990s. He was deported to South Korea in 2009 after he was caught driving a truck carrying illegal drugs. Some adoptees had severe mental illnesses and became homeless when they returned to a country that was never truly their home.
At least Crapser has a birth mother waiting for him.
Kwon, 61, spends hours filling ruled pages with the letters of the English alphabet, copied down in a shaky hand. It’s slow going for a woman with no formal education, but she wants to be able to explain herself to her son.
“I have never imagined that he was having this hard life of his,” she said, wiping away tears. “I should have kept him even if we starved together. What I did was an unforgivable sin.”
When she was a child, Kwon received acupuncture therapy that went horribly wrong, leaving her left leg shriveled and paralyzed. Her alcoholic father sent her to live with a man with cerebral palsy. A year and a half later, she met a carpenter with whom she had three children: a daughter and two sons, including a boy born in 1975, Shin Song-hyuk, who would become Adam Crapser.
The carpenter often kicked and punched Kwon, she said, and he eventually abandoned her and her young children.
Kwon could not pay her rent. Her father was too poor to take her and her children in.
In 1978, she gave her youngest son to a childless family. She took her daughter and Song-hyuk, then 3, to a local orphanage that arranged adoptions. She saw her children playing with toys and other children, and left without saying goodbye for fear they would follow her.
“I know it sounds like an excuse, but I had no one to turn to for help,” Kwon said.
After giving her children away, Kwon worked in a plastics factory in Seoul. She kept a couple of black-and-white photos of her children. She would remember the days when she fetched water from the village well — spilling so much because of her leg that she had to make multiple trips — to give her babies a bath, or the times when they devoured what little food she could provide, usually rice mixed with soy sauce and cooking oil.
“I missed them, especially when it rained or snowed or when the sky was overcast,” she said. “But the belief that they were having a better life somewhere than I could ever provide has sustained me.”
Kwon later married a widower 20 years her senior. She said she had dedicated herself to caring for his two daughters as if they were her own, believing that she was doing what adoptive parents were doing for her own children. She also gave birth to four more daughters, now all in their 30s.
Her husband died years ago, and her grown children have moved away. She now lives in a low-slung house with another man, whom she married and who helped her raise her daughters. As she got older, she began using crutches or an electric wheelchair when traveling outside. In her room, when she moves, she drags a plastic chair to lean on for support.
Last year, Kwon got a call from a relative who remembered Song-hyuk and had watched the television documentary. In it, Crapser called out for his birth mother.
“Remember, Eomma, I am always your son, your flesh and blood,” he said, using the Korean word for mom.
Kwon contacted the documentary’s producer, Kim Bo-seul, who arranged a video chat between the mother and son, and a DNA test to confirm their relationship.
Crapser, who has a wife, a daughter and two stepdaughters, communicated with his biological mother through an interpreter. He expects to be deported in the coming weeks and will reunite with his mother, who plans to decorate a small room in her house for her son.
Kwon said she had trouble sleeping, thinking of what she would tell her son and what she should feed him when he arrives.
“I am still poor, but I owe him a lot of love,” she said.