Kelly Fern will never forget her first night in the United States after being adopted from South Korea at age 5. She describes it in her memoir, “Songs of My Families”: “I woke up in the middle of the night, not knowing where I was. I looked around at all of the abundance. The silence was so harsh and I felt so alone.”
Looking back now, Fern, 46, mentioned this as one of the defining moments of her life, a life that also has taught her a great deal about the complexities of family.
Born in Geumsan, South Korea, Fern was left at an orphanage when she was 5 years old and from there was adopted by a family in Rochester, Minn. Even though her adoptive family was a loving one, during those early years, she often thought of the world she had left behind.
“I loved my family so much,” Fern said of her birth family. “Every day I wondered when my father was going to come get me.”
Years later, Fern would discover that her family had been misled by a government official into sending her away. Thinking that she was going to the United States for education and that she eventually would return to them, they did not realize she would be adopted and raised by an American family.
Fern describes her childhood as “a classic, small-town American upbringing.”
However, one part of that upbringing cast a long shadow over the rest-from about ages 6 to 12, she was molested by a family friend. By the time she turned 14, Fern had begun acting out at home and contemplated suicide.
“I did not realize then how angry and hurt I was,” she said. “I was not aware of what I was doing.”
After beginning (and eventually walking out of) high school, Fern was brought to a long-term treatment facility by her parents. There she was finally able to let someone know what had happened to her.
However, as Fern wrote in her book: “Years of sexual abuse … are not cured in months of treatment for chemical dependency.”
Fern eventually left her parents’ house to live with a friend and then a boyfriend, whom she had met in treatment. By 18, she was pregnant.
Fern tried to keep the baby, but she had no job. She was on public assistance and, as she described it, “not emotionally ready for having a child because I had so many issues myself.”
“I knew that it was no way to bring up a child. I was not prepared,” Fern said. “I knew it would be a very selfish thing for me to keep her.”
She put her daughter up for adoption.
“I was just so wounded and hurt in so many ways,” Fern said. “I had not healed from the sexual abuse and so many other things.”
Eight years later, and after much self-reflection, therapy and healing, Fern met her future husband, Brad, and went on to receive her undergraduate degree in European Studies. Together they built a life in southwest Minneapolis, along with their children, Cici and Max.
It was her husband who initiated her adult search for her South Korean birth family. “He was so supportive in helping me take those steps forward,” she said.
“For 16 years he pestered me about Korea,” she humorously writes in her book.
In 2002, Brad contacted Korean Social Service (KSS). It took KSS about four years to respond, but when it did, there was all the information Fern wanted: She had two parents, three older sisters and two younger brothers in South Korea. And they were all waiting to hear from her.
In 2008, Fern returned to South Korea with her husband and children to meet her biological family. She was terrified, not knowing what to expect. She could remember her father but not her mother, making the reunion with her mother less emotional. She could tell that it was more difficult, more uncomfortable for her mother.
The two-week trip to South Korea was packed with emotions, tears, laughter, reminiscing, heartfelt apologies, delicious food and singing. For Fern, it not only affected her sense of family, but also her sense of self.
“Growing up here,” she said, “we’re always told we’re different-looking. But going back to Korea and seeing all those beautiful people made me think differently.”
The reunion also gave Fern the strength to try to find the daughter she had given up all those years ago.
“I’d had a paralyzing fear of looking for her,” Fern said. “Going back to Korea melted that iron wall.”
Two years after reuniting with her South Korean family, Fern made contact with her older daughter, who had been adopted and raised by a loving family in the Twin Cities.
This time the roles were reversed: Fern remembered her daughter, but her daughter did not have memories of her.
“I was the one having all the emotions, like my mother had had. My daughter was happy and excited to meet me, but for her it was less complicated. I thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is what my mother went through.’ ”
“My fear was that what I’d done had damaged her,” Fern said. “But seeing that she was a well-adjusted, happy adult, I was just delighted.”
Fern has kept in contact with both her South Korean family and her first daughter.
When asked if her life has taught her anything about being a mother, she paused.
“I’ve learned to accept things the way they are. They’re their own little human beings,” she said of her children. “I want them to be who they are.”
For Fern, writing and publishing “Songs of My Families” with Brad was a necessary part of her healing process.
“Being able to freely talk about things takes away any shame you might feel,” she said. “It’s so important.”