The Gathering – Mary Lee Vance

The First International Gathering of Korean Adult Adoptees was held in 1999, Washington, DC.  This three day event invited Korean adoptees from all over the world. About 500 of us came together to spend time sharing our experiences.  For many, it was the first time being in a room where they entered as an adoptee and as a Korean person. For one portion of the event, we were divided by age and given an opportunity to have more intimate discussions with peers.

All of the participants of this first group were adoptees who were of mixed race; only their birthmothers were of Korean origin. Mary Lee Vance, Ph. D was also a participant of Group I and another of our “First Wavers.”


Left: Mary Lee Vance in the First Gathering directory, Center: with Harry Holt, Right: with birth nephew and mother

Basic Biographical Information

How do you identify yourself?
I am a disabled female Korean Adoptee. I have both a visible and non-visible disability, both acquired while in Korea. My visible disability is post-polio, that affected the muscles of both legs, so I am a paraplegic. My non-visible disability is that I am deaf in my right ear, and partial hearing in my left. A bot fly ate my right ear drum, and despite surgery and trips to the Mayo Clinic, nothing could be done to regain hearing in that ear. 

I believe in disability first language, versus person first language. When people meet me, they see my electric scooter and crutches. Disability is an identity, and as real and credible as being a Korean American, female, or any other identity. Disability is not a negative. 

It is important to make clear that while I have disabilities, they are not disabling unless I have been disabled by poor planning. If planners insure microphones and captioning is in place, my lack of hearing is not a barrier. If elevators are functioning, and curb cuts are at every street corner, then my physical access via my mobility device, is not restricted.

Where were you adopted from, when and about how old were you?
I was adopted from Seoul, S. Korea when I was approximately 4 years of age. I spent about 2 years of my life with my maternal grandmother and birth mother, before being taken to the city baby hospital (with Dr. Cho), and then subsequently to Holt Orphanage where I had a unique relationship with Harry Holt.

Would you share if you know information or remember any aspects of the life you lived before adoption? 
Harry Holt had to kidnap me from the hospital where I had been taken, because the nurses didn’t want to let me be adopted out of the country. According to Mr. Holt, in his letters to my adoptive parents, the nurses apparently were afraid I would be abused, and that my disabilities would make me be a victim of abuse. When Harry took me away, he let me stay in his room in the beginning, and I would take naps on his bed. I remember one time I was alone in his room, and being very naughty, as I discovered he had a pill bottle by the bed. I recall (with great shame), that I opened the bottle, and took out a capsule, and spilled the capsule contents on the bed, out of curiosity. I then heard him opening the door, and quickly swept the evidence away, and pretended to be asleep. The nurses spoiled me and fed me too much (I resembled a little Buddha with a fat tummy and shriveled legs) but only one picture taken of me at that time had me smiling. 

I remembered soldiers. After my adoption, people in the States didn’t understand why I would remember soldiers, when they asked me what I remembered. For years I doubted my memories, because no one seemed to believe, until one day I was sent a box of photos from an orphanage, and the pictures showed soldiers with a group of orphans. I then understood why I had soldiers in my memory, as I had spent a couple years in an orphanage, and soldiers apparently did visit a lot, bringing candy and gum etc. 

I remember seeing fluffy white clouds outside my window and being confused about why the clouds were outside my window, when normally they are high in the sky. Of course, I was lying on my back in the airplane, flying to the States on a one-way ticket, at the tender age of 4. The clouds, of course, actually were outside my airplane window.

I had lots of nightmares growing up, and even now when I am particularly stressed, I scream in my sleep. My screams, when understood, generally seem to express the same fears, that I am being chased, and unable to run away due to my polio. Unfortunately, I have poor recall of what happened to me in the dreams to make me so terrorized, but it is likely some very bad things happened to me while I was in Korea that my subconscious is not willing to let me forget.

I remember a large room full of beds and sleeping children. I remember looking out into the open doorway, and seeing yellow hall lights, and feeling afraid, and lonely. Although there were many bodies around me, I remember feeling incredibly sad and abandoned. I also felt helpless, because I was in a hospital bed with the bars up, and due to my shriveled legs, was unable to get out of bed on my own. 

Even though the nurses at the hospital fed me well, and I can’t really remember ever being hungry, I remember always having felt anxious about making sure I was fed. To this day, like many adoptees of my age, there is comfort in food. I love grocery shopping, and always need to have a full fridge, freezer and cupboards. When people come over, I always have food and drinks to share. I share food, as it is a comfortable way for me to show I care about them. I love food, so much, I write the food articles for Korean Quarterly.

I remember crawling around in dirt, and eating raw vegetables on my grandmothers’ farm or yard. To this day, I prefer eating my vegetables raw, and always rebelled when my adoptive mother insisted on boiling the vegetables into flavorless pulp, as I always wanted to eat them raw.

Where did you grow up and where do you live now? 
I grew up in Wisconsin, and now live in California. In between, I lived and worked in Michigan (Michigan State University), Iowa (Iowa State University), Virginia (George Mason University), Wisconsin (UW Superior), Montana (University of Montana), Indiana (Purdue University Calumet), and California (University of California- Berkeley, and now CSU Sacramento). I have been in California since 2014. 

What is/was your profession?
I have been full-time in postsecondary student services since 1984. My first full-time job was at Michigan State University, working as an academic advisor. I worked full-time, and worked on my doctorate part-time, eventually earning my Ph.D. from MSU. My positions have varied from directing Academic Advisement, Career Services, Disability Services, New Student Orientation, and other student services. 

Currently I am currently the Director of Disability Services at CSU Sacramento, as well as the Director for the federal TRiO grant project Student Support Services.  Not only do I direct all student services for the two programs, I also teach, am a reviewer for two blind refereed scholarly journals, have published 3 books, and numerous articles. 

How did you learn about The Gathering? What compelled you to attend? Were there any expectations you had about the event? 
I was working at George Mason University when The Gathering was first being promoted. At first, I was reluctant to go, because I had never had exposure to many Korean Adoptees and didn’t feel the need to connect with other adoptees and engage in a “pity party.”  

As a first waver, KAD’s like me had little Korean identity. We didn’t have [culture camps], Motherland tours, or anything to help us connect to Korea. We were not necessarily denied our identity, but then neither were we encouraged to explore or embrace our past. We were ambivalent.

However, I have to admit that what got me intrigued about the Gathering was the possibility of being included in the Anthology, as I had many stories to tell, and had already published one story so publication was of great interest to me. Also, because I was in the area, I decided, I might as well go. 

So, when I decided to submit a contribution to the book, I was shocked at how much work was involved in this event! Locating baby pictures, taking an adult photo, finding my old passport and adoption info, filling out the survey etc. etc. Several times I almost gave up, because I thought I didn’t have time for all this stuff, but somehow I kept on trying to meet all the deadlines and check-offs.

Interestingly enough, prior to the Gathering, I actually had been contacted by bio family a few years earlier, via Holt Agency, while I had been at Michigan State University. Apparently, my bio maternal uncle had contacted the Holt Agency in Korea, and gotten connected to the Holt Agency in Oregon, in order to have me contacted. Fortunately, my adoptive parents had the same address and phone number from when I had been adopted, so locating me nearly 4 decades later had not been difficult.

My maternal bio uncle and his son flew to Iowa (where I had later moved to work at Iowa State University), to meet me for the first time. I later met my birthmother and maternal grandmother, at my bio uncle’s house. It was this bio connection, along with the intrigue and temptation of being published, that drew me to the Gathering. Had I not met bio family, nor lived in the area, I know I would not have gone. 

What memory remains with you of this event? 
#1 – I was sitting at my designated table, by age, when an elderly lady came to the table, holding a card with my Korean name. Due to my hearing loss, I did not hear her call me by my Korean name. One of the people at the table got my attention and said Dr. Cho was searching for me! Dr. Cho told me that she had not initially planned to come to The Gathering, but when she saw my (Korean) name on the list, she said she had to come to see me. She then said she remembered me from when I had been at her children’s hospital. She said she looked at my picture and name above my crib every day while I was under her care. I got chills as she spoke, because she was able to validate my pre adoption experiences, and had known me in Korea during a time when bio family and adopted family had not known me. She was part of my missing link. Until then, that part of my life was only available to me in my memories.

#2 – At the Korean War Memorial, I experienced a heart wrenching sense of grief, and anger, for the first time in my entire life. When I saw the statues of the soldiers in the rice fields, I remembered how I had told people growing up how I remembered soldiers, and how the people had not believed me. Yet, here was a monument to the very same soldiers I remembered. But, more emotional for me was the sudden and unexpected anger I felt at having been deprived of my ability to grow up in my motherland, to know my birth family, to speak the mother tongue etc. And then I felt incredible grief, and the tears started streaming down, as I mourned the loss of this connection to my motherland and mother, that most people in the world take for granted. I had never, until that day, ever felt that sense of loss. I had never cried about my past, having stoically believed there was no point in getting emotional about something that couldn’t be changed. But, that day, I cried. I cried from years of pent up grief and anger.

#3 – Annoyance at the social workers in the small discussion groups. While I understood some adoptees needed them, I felt it was an intrusion, and felt insulted that we even had to have a designated social worker in Group 1.  To be honest, I had no positive feelings for social workers, as my experiences with them growing up had been not one of great memories. In fact, I viewed them with suspicion growing up, as I had somehow believed that they could send me back to Korea. I have no idea where that came from, but my adoptive mother once told me that she had been told by someone else that adoptees had been informed during the adoption process to view Koreans and social workers with suspicion, and not to trust them for fear of being sent back. 

I was annoyed at the adoptees in Group 1 who spoke about how they considered themselves “the voice of reason.” I assumed it was because many adoptees (mostly the younger ones), had lots of anger issues. As a member of Group 1, I didn’t feel the need to be the voice of reason but felt more the need to be the voice of history. We were the experiments, the ones who weren’t supposed to have any connections to Korea or birth family once adopted. We were the mixed race and disabled – the Korean rejects, and reminders of a war that Korea wanted to forget. Most of us in the group understood why we had been abandoned and adopted. We didn’t have the same anger that later adoptees had serious anger issues. Our anger, if we had it, was more about having been denied our ability to know our Korean heritage.

Has there been any lasting impact of The Gathering in your life now?
Social media has connected us in ways not imagined prior to The Gathering. Many friendships were made, and unfortunately many deaths learned about, especially from those of us at the Group 1 and 2 ages. Whereas before I would not have known any other adoptees except a small number, I now am linked to adoptees around the world, including getting to know Susan Cox, Holt Agency, Molly Holt etc. In addition, getting to learn about flight buddies, Seoul Sisters, KAD groups for those with disabilities, etc. has been rewarding on so many levels. 

I went back to Korea as a guest of Seoul National University in 2010 and experienced my full circle moment. I was a guest lecturer at SNU, had a Ph.D. from Michigan State University, and was riding a mobility device loaned to me from SNU. Life was great, as I scooted down narrow sidewalks, and shopped. Then, I saw the man that forced me to remember how my life had been changed by adoption. I had been expecting this moment, knowing that there were many in this world, who did not have my same privilege to have a disability but not be disabled.

The man was crawling across the street. He had a cup in one hand and was pulling himself along the street by his arms and hands. His legs dangled uselessly behind him. He was dirty, poor, and about my age. I rode by him, wearing nice clothes, on a fancy mobility device, and our eyes locked. I regret the moment overwhelmed me, and I did not even think to give him any money. I only wanted to keep going, to not stare, and to not think about him. It was that moment that reinforced to me how radically different my life might have been. 

Here I was, a guest of honor/lecturer at the most prestigious university in South Korea, whereas several decades previously, I had been sent away from S. Korea on a one-way ticket, due to my having been considered a Korean War reject. Even more interesting, my host was Dr. Sang-Mook Lee, a very distinguished and internationally known scholar as well as a quadriplegic (https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/lee-oceanography/). In 2006 he had been injured in California, leading a group of SNU students on a field trip, when the van he was in flipped over. 

As a result of the US rehabilitation process, Dr. Lee learned about adaptive technology and about the US disability movement. Had he been injured in Korea, he would have been relegated to a life as an invalid, sequestered in his home, and not allowed to be seen publicly. In fact, it would still, to this day, be considered embarrassing to be seen in public. 

However, as a result of his rehab care in the States, he acquired the tools and the self-advocacy skills to go back to SNU to resume his teaching career. Furthermore, because of his new perspective on disability, and the recognition he could still work in his field, he successfully wrote grants funded by the Ministry of Education to fund disabled students’ ability to prepare themselves for STEM careers. Through his work, he has been able to send disabled Korean university students to the States, to learn first-hand about disability access opportunities. 

How have your thoughts on being adopted changed or evolved over the last 20 years? I have found that being adopted and the way I privilege that part of myself has ebbed somewhat as I have gotten older with other aspects of self being more important, like being a parent.  Where does being adopted fit into your life these days? 
I am supportive of international adoption, however I have become increasingly frustrated by people pushing adoption as an option to abortion, and/or who want to promote adoption of children like one adopts animals from a pound. I think on the adoption spectrum I am in the middle. I thank Harry Holt for his vision, and for what he did for me and others like me. On the other hand, I know that not all adoption stories are positive, and that there is corruption and horrible things that have happened to many of the children. Clearly there is a need for more careful post-adoption tracking and monitoring. Also, I believe in the fact that Korea and other countries exporting children need to work on how they care for their children, so that the children remain in their motherlands, and are cared for as much as possible by bio family.

The current situation with immigrant children being separated from their parents at the borders and being “lost” by the very people that tore them away from their parents, makes me very upset. It is clear and obvious that these children are deliberately not being tracked, in order for them to be more easily trafficked. The children had families and should be kept with their families.  

Are there any thoughts you have about the adoptee community then and/or now? 
Being part of Group 1, the oldest group, the one with the mixed race and disabled adoptees who were being purged from Korea in the late 50’s and early 60’s, we had no real connection to Korea once adopted out. We had no psychiatrists specializing in adoption trauma, [culture camps], motherland tours, social media, or any other opportunities to connect with other adoptees. We were isolated, mainstreamed (as much as possible), and told to not look backwards. I can’t speak for others, but know for myself, that I had to be resilient. I am a KAD, but I believe I am foremost a survivor. A survivor of polio, abandonment, and adoption. 

What is going on in the adoption community you wish would get more air time?
I would like to facilitate a discussion of adoptees with disabilities. The multiple identities I have had to live: female, adopted, and disabled make for an interesting conversation. I have published 3 books with disability as the primary theme and am aware of adoptees with disabilities in various private face book groups.

What is the best part of being an adoptee? 
I don’t know one can say there is a “best part,” because for the majority of us, we are adoptees not by choice. So, while many of us have made peace with this identity, and are over all well-adjusted, I don’t think I would say there is a “best part.” I do believe that in my case, I am aware that my life would be radically different if I had not been adopted. And so, for me, adoption made my quality of life materially better. 

On the other hand, would I have been happy in Korea, poor, and possibly crawling in the street with a cup in one hand? Per my bio mother, she never wanted to give me up, but her mother insisted that I be taken to the orphanage. So hard to tell if this would have been my lot. My birth mother, who was single when she had me, eventually earned a master’s degree, married, and owned a profitable construction business. Life would have been hard in the early days with her, but later? So hard to know.

So, if one is to say there is a best part, it is that adoption gave me a new lease on life. I benefitted greatly by having a comfortable life, excellent medical care, and an opportunity to have a terrific education with a doctorate from a Big Ten. In my case, I could say I am happy. However, happiness is not necessarily measured by economics, education or even health. 

What is the hardest part of being an adoptee? 
Birthdays. On day each year where I am confronted with being a fraud. The day is a legal date, and not the day I was actually born. For me, the need for people to want to know my birthday is puzzling. It literally means nothing to me, and it is hard to explain why I don’t want a birthday card, birthday greetings, or be on some office birthday recognition calendar. 

Is there something of the Korean culture you have incorporated into your daily life?
Food. I write the food articles for Korean Quarterly and am a foodie. I love the clothes and can’t wait to go back so I can do more shopping. Amazing to buy clothes off the rack that don’t need shortening! 

If you’ve been to Korea, please finish this sentence – Next time I go to Korea, I…..
I will buy more clothes. I still have clothes I bought when I was first there, and then when I returned. The clothes are made for short women. Amazing not to have skirt lengths or sleeve lengths shortened!

I have friends at Seoul National University and have met my bio mother. I also have former students in Korea who would love to connect with me. Last time I was in Korea, they met me at the airport. 

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