Discovering a lost family

Discovering a lost family
Amy Gilbert’s memoir, “Becoming Korean,” released in November of last year.

San Marco author chronicles reconnecting with family she’d never known in memoir

San Marco resident Amy Gilbert had no memory of a life before her adoption from a Korean orphanage in 1974. She was raised in Alachua County, roughly an hour and a half southwest of Jacksonville, where her parents still live today.

It wasn’t until a casual suggestion by her husband to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul that she’d even considered returning.

It was an opportunity for some answers, though, Gilbert reasoned. She simply wished to see the orphanage from which she’d been adopted. While the orphanage had closed down by then, the Korean social services, which now occupied an office in that same building alongside apartments, was happy to provide photos of the orphanage, a gift bag containing a pair of porcelain coffee cups — and an unexpected promise, which she learned from their tour guide after departing the building.

“The tour guide said, ‘They’re gonna look for your birth family,’” Gilbert recalled. “[I thought], ‘What? No that wasn’t the purpose of this. I never wanted to find my birth family.”

Still, shortly after returning from her trip to Korea, Gilbert received an e-mail from social services. They had located records of a biological brother who had searched for her in 1987. Gilbert was shocked. She had a brother — a brother who had searched for her more than 30 years ago. She had a few months to process that revelation until, on Aug. 1, 2018, she received another message from social services saying they’d located her brother and passed on her e-mail address to him. Not only that, but they’d included several short messages from him to her, translated through an app since he didn’t speak English. Pieces of the message were lost in translation, spurring doubt in Gilbert’s mind that they’d found the wrong person, but then he sent over pictures and all doubt vanished.

Amy Gilbert and her husband Mark at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul — the trip that started it all.
Amy Gilbert and her husband Mark at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul — the trip that started it all.

“I knew right away,” she said. “That’s me. That was me. He looks like me.”

From that point on, Gilbert’s world grew as she discovered, got in touch with and met not only her biological brother, but two older sisters as well. After her brother and a sister traveled to the United States to spend Thanksgiving week 2018 with Gilbert and her family, she decided to travel to Korea the following spring to meet more of her family. It was at a family meeting with her sisters, an aunt and two uncles that she discovered more about her birth mother.

“The aunt and uncles told me pretty much everything I wanted to know about my birth mother,” she said. “Her name, her birthday, what kind of person she was. What her hobbies were. They said she was a good mother, she took care of not only me but the other siblings — their mother had died. She was a good mom. I left that meeting like, ‘This is good. I have filled in the blanks.’”

One of her uncles had more in store for her, though. He had her birth mother’s telephone number.

“He had not talked to her in eight years but he had a number. So he called it and she answered,” Gilbert said. “He said, ‘Your daughter is in Korea, do you want to meet her? She said yes.’”

Another family meeting was arranged, this time including her husband, who flew over from the States, and her birth mother.

“I wrote her a note and wanted to set the tone that I forgive her, I’ve had a good life and I just want to get to know her,” Gilbert said. “So we have formed a relationship.”

It would take Gilbert three years to put her story to paper in her memoir, “Becoming Korean,” chronicling not only her journey getting to know her biological family but her experience immersing herself in a culture she’d hitherto never identified as her own.

Baby Amy and her birth mother at the orphanage in 1974.
Baby Amy and her birth mother at the orphanage in 1974.

She did this, in part, by watching K-dramas (Korean dramas), which she said actually taught her quite a bit and her own travels and research has taught her a lot as well, but not without internal challenges as she’d lived much of her life “as basically a cultural white person.”

“It took a lot of processing,” she recalled. “I had buried it all, had never dealt with it. I wanted to be a white American and it was pretty easy for me to act that way, [though] sometimes I wasn’t treated that way.”

Whenever she traveled, Gilbert had always kept daily travel logs — “what did we do, who did we meet, what did we eat, what was good, what was bad” — and she was able to use those as a foundation for her memoir’s timeline but faced challenges when it came to describing her feelings in words.

“I had to sit there and think about, ‘Okay how did it make me feel?’” Gilbert said. “It really was a struggle to get in touch with that part of me.”

Since her book released on Amazon this past November, Gilbert said she’s received messages from readers who’ve read her book, including another Korean adoptee from Texas who asked if they could schedule a Zoom meeting to “meet.” That is who Gilbert wrote this book for, she said: People who are still wondering and still searching.

“There’s over 7,200 Korean adoptees, just on Facebook,” she said. “…After being on that Faceobook group of Korean adoptees for several years — I’ve read their stories. There are a lot of hurting people. Some of them found family and got rejected again. Many of them never found family. I want to give hope to people who are searching for their family and it’s never too late.”

Gilbert is hosting a book signing event at San Marco Books and More on Monday, Jan. 28 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

By Michele Leivas
Resident Community News

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)