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Adoption stories

This is the photo of us (Lee Engfer, Jim Engfer, Dave Yaffe, and Jay Min Yaffe) that appeared in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper on April 29, 2004. The article was about Jim's service in the Korean War and his return to South Korea 50 years later for the adoption of his first grandchild.

Lee Engfer
Minneapolis, MN

Birth Country: South Korea
Decade of adoption: 2000 or later

I'm in a cab in the middle of Seoul with my husband and my father. As we speed through the sprawl of concrete buildings, new construction, flowers, crowds, and green hills, I try to push my eyes to see more, my ears to hear everything, my nose to note and remember. At the same time, my mind cradles just one thought: my new son is somewhere in this city. I am not quite a tourist, not yet a mother.

Dave, my husband, points out the window. "Jim," he says, "isn't that the gate from your photos?"

My dad cranes his head around as Dave quickly snaps a picture of the stone arch. "I don't know," my dad says. "It looks like it, but it wasn't here. The landscape was different, more flat."

Later my dad shows some of the photographs he took during the Korean War to Sung-Hee, the woman in charge of public relations for the adoption agency. One of the photos is of the Independence Gate. Dave explains that we thought we saw it today, but Jim remembered it in a different location. "Yes," Sung-Hee says, "They moved it after the war."

Our trip to South Korea to adopt our son, Jay Min, took place in April last year, 50 years to the month after my father served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. He hadn't been back since then. Now he was here to meet his first grandchild, to reacquaint himself with his past.

As far as war experiences go, my father had it pretty easy. By the time he arrived in January 1953, the worst of the fighting was over. He spent 16 months in central Korea, near the Imjin River. As a communications sergeant, he ran the battalion message center. Apart from his official duties, he took photographs, about 400 of them, using a German-made camera and Kodachrome slide film. He photographed many aspects of life in Korea: children playing, street vendors, the countryside, markets and landmarks in Seoul.

After the war, the slides mostly sat in a box in a closet until Dave and I announced that we would be adopting a baby from Korea. Before we left, my dad printed out a selection of the pictures, with a title page: Jim Engfer, Korea, 1953-1954. He brought this with him to Seoul, along with the badge from his uniform, which had his name embroidered on it in English and Korean.

My father proudly showed the booklet of photos to everyone he met at the adoption agency. People seemed amazed to see images in color from that time. Soon word spread throughout the office about them.

The next day, our social worker told us that a reporter from the Yonhap news agency wanted to see the photos. Then a reporter from the Chosun Ilbo, Korea's largest daily newspaper, came to the agency to interview us. My dad talked about how much Seoul had changed. In his photos, vendors sell goods from shacks at the side of dirt roads. Little girls in traditional clothing play games. Seoul looks like a sleepy small town.

Initially intrigued by these rare color images from the 1950s, the reporters found their real story in our adoption. I explained that I'd grown up hearing about Korea from my father. I'd seen his slides and had a tiny Korean doll that he'd brought home. The reporters were surprised to learn that we went ahead with the adoption even after learning of Jay's congenital heart disease. According to Sung-Hee, many Koreans would not adopt a baby with medical problems.

When we visited Jay Min at the home of his foster mother, Sung-Hee took a picture of Dave, my dad, and I beaming over our adorable new son. The next day, that photo showed up in articles about us in several newspapers, including the Chosun Ilbo.

On the day we left Korea, a TV crew from "Good Morning Korea" came to the agency. They wanted to restage our first meeting with Jay Min. We went back to the room where the meeting had taken place. My dad talked again about how much Seoul had changed. I told of the doll, Jay's heart condition. The news crew followed us to the airport. They documented our very first diaper change and later broadcast it across the peninsula. Then it was time to go home, away from one life and into another.

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