SUSAN SOON-KEUM COX JOURNEY TO MYSELF

Date: 1995-11-12

Oregonian, The (Portland, OR)
Author: MAYA BLACKMUN - of the Oregonian Staff
Dateline: EUGENE

Summary: An adopted Korean child evolves into a ``quester,'' using her own experiences to help children around the world

Susan Soon-Keum Cox is ready to embark on yet another journey.

As director of development for Holt International Children's Services, the Eugene-based adoption agency, she travels regularly to Asia and Eastern Europe.

However, it's an inner journey -- to better understand her own adoption, her Korean heritage, her role as a woman and other facets of herself -- that has taken her the furthest.

Cox's search for identity has been a lifelong endeavor; identity has not been something merely imprinted at birth or found as an adult.

Ali Erickson, Cox's neighbor and friend, says she's never met anyone as persistent in examining issues, people and herself.

``She's a `quester' and a questioner,'' Erickson says.

Cox was 4 years old 39 years ago when she flew from Seoul to Portland in the first group of Korean orphans brought to the United States by Holt.

She has only sketchy memories of her early childhood in South Korea.

In one instance, she remembers sitting next to a man holding a knife to her stomach. But she's not afraid -- just confused about what's happening. She looks to her mother for an explanation, but her mother sits with her head bowed to keep from crying.

Somehow, she gathers her courage, the way she will meet a number of challenges in her life. ``I feel my little girl's body sit up and I think, `I'll be just fine,' '' Cox says.

Cox later learns that this is a memory of the man red from their lives. The man insisted that Cox leave because there was not enough room for her as well as the children of the new marriage.

``Sometimes the choices we have to make . . . sometimes the choice isn't the best one,'' she says, ``but the only one we have.''

Cox says she's always believed that her mother kept her as long as she could. By holding that thought, Cox continues to feel tenderness for her birth mother, not bitterness or anger.

In the United States, Cox became the 4-year-old daughter of Marvin and Jane Gourley, a farm couple in the mid-Willamette Valley town of Brownsville. The Gourleys gave her the name of Linda Susan, but family and friends have long called her Susan or Susie.

The family adopted another Korean, a boy, a year later and had three biological children.

In the dawn of international adoptions, emphasis was on assimilation as the key to adjustment. Adoption officials advised the Gourleys that Susan ``is an American now; she needs to fit in as quickly as possible.''

``If you look differently from everyone around you, you don't have to behave any differently to be distinctive,'' she says. ``I've seen that much more as a positive than a negative.''

But Cox discovered how big a deal her background was to others in 1971 when she won an annual contest of the Oregon dairy industry. She became a popular theme of feature stories -- the Korean adoptee chosen as Oregon's Dairy Princess.

Questions about her ``real'' family overshadowed her mission to promote dairy products. She found that people talked about her history a lot more than she ever thought about it.

Cox became a news story again in 1978 when she went to South Korea with Holt, having joined the board of the agency two years earlier. She escorted a group of adoptive children to the United States.

News articles centered on the 25-year-old returning to her birth country for the first time.

In South Korea, she visited Holt facilities in the city of Il San near Seoul, met Korean orphans and was hit with the stark realization of how differently her life might have turned out.

``Knowing that I was once one of those kids really affected me,'' Cox says.

It's often through the eyes of a child that Cox sees clues to herself.

She has two children from her marriage to Mark Cox, whom she met as a young woman. Her son, Michael, 19, and daughter, Katee, 15, have his fair hair and features.

``I wasn't disappointed that my children didn't look Korean, but that they didn't look like me,'' she says. ``I longed for that when I was pregnant. I thought, `Oh, finally, there'll be someone who looks like me.' ''

Views on adoption change over time

At age 4, daughter Katee started asking questions about Cox's birth mother. Cox responded as best she could, and in her heart started asking questions of her own.

By that time, in the mid-1980s, views on adoptions, birth families and ethnic ties had changed. Families acknowledged the significance and benefits for some adoptees in meeting their birth families and having strong racial and cultural identities.

Cox found that her own views had shifted, too. Interviewed in the late 1970s on her first return trip to South Korea, Cox had said she had no plans to look for her biological parents. She believed then that only adoptees unhappy with their families yearned for their birth families.

But over the years, she met adoptees who were drawn to their birth parents, regardless of their love for their adoptive families. And on that first trip to South Korea, she reviewed Holt records to find out what little information she could about her adoption.

She joined Holt's staff in 1983, and in 1990 she helped an adoptee with leukemia find his Korean birth mother for a possible bone marrow transplant. That successful search made her wonder if she could be as lucky.

In 1992, Cox placed an advertisement in a small weekly newspaper in South Korea. Accompanied by a passport photo, the ad simply stated her birth name, birthdate and year of departure for America.

A family member responded to the ad, and Cox eventually was led to her birth mother, Chung Kwan-ja: Not to her birth mother's arms, however, but to her grave.

As it turned out, Chung had died just a few months after Cox's first trip to South Korea.

``I was overcome by the sadness and the bittersweet of all the `what ifs,' '' she says, ``and no one could bear that burden but me.''

In a way, however, Chung had already reunited the family. On her deathbed, she told her youngest son about Cox, whom she had named Soon-Keum, ``Pure Gold.''

Cox has visited her two half brothers, ages 41 and 39, twice while in South Korea on Holt business.

When she met her brothers -- one a taxi service owner and the other a computer programmer -- Cox says she finally felt a connection to someone who looked like her. She adds, however, that differences in language, nationality, personal histories, traditions, religions and gender aren't easily overcome.

People now count on her insights

Cox has reached to form bonds with others around the world.

As Holt director of development and in her civic activities, she speaks to groups about adoption, children and women. She represents Holt in a variety of adoption organizations and has testified nationally and internationally on issues such as the need to remember women and children when it comes to poverty, hunger, immigration, health and refugees. She has helped draft international adoption standards.

And everyone is well served by that involvement, says Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, a friend who has adopted several children from South Korea. Margolies-Mezvinsky, once a reporter and a former congresswoman from Pennsylvania, says she counts on Cox's insights in interpreting news reports and creating policy.

``There's a global sense of how the world is shrinking and it's more than sincere in her,'' Margolies-Mezvinsky says. ``A lot of people feel that, but she knows what to do with it.''

Cox is part of a network of professionals, almost exclusively women, who serve children.

``I take great satisfaction in being linked to women across the world who are working to make the lives of children better,'' she says.

From them and others, she is developing a greater sense of womanhood. She belongs to a women's group that shares life experiences, issues and friendship.

``Susan very consciously works on `becoming,' '' says Erickson, her neighbor. ``Her life didn't just `happen.' ''

Just as her husky voice reverberates with deliberate words, her life reflects steps thoughtfully chosen.

Cox believes, for instance, that ethnic identity for adoptees must be carefully explored. To search for one's identity and to develop a sense of it rests on personal decisions, she says.

that I don't consider being adopted as t as the most important thing in my life,at I spend so much time talking about that.''

Cox doesn't dismiss the significance of her adoption and ethnic identity but emphasizes that they are not the only two things that define her. She values that people consider her energetic, thoughtful and a good friend.

Feels more connected

Along the path to greater self-awareness, Cox has been shaped both by conscious efforts and unforeseen challenges, such as a mastectomy in 1988 and a divorce in 1992.

Her trips to her birth nation have made her feel more Korean. She sees and shares the way Korean families are torn by the split between North and South, between communism and democracy.

Cox feels such complex forces within herself -- orphan, adoptee, Korean, American and so much more.

After her divorce, Cox drew up a new will and made some decisions.

``I want to be cremated, with half my ashes sprinkled on my (birth) mother's grave. I can't quite decide about the other half,'' she says. ``It seemed quite important to me that (the ashes) be divided.''

As far as she has traveled, Cox feels she still has passages in her life to search, journeys to take.

A recent visit to the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C., made a deep impression. ``Seeing these men in their 60s and 70s and thinking, `Oh, my God, that's what my father would look like,' '' she says.

Now she has begun a search for her birth father, a British soldier, with the hope of learning more about her mother.

``I really take comfort that there's so much adventure left ahead of me.''

Maya Blackmun, of The Oregonian's Family & Education Team, can be reached by phone at 294-4065 or by fax at 294-4039. Send mail to 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, Ore. 97201.

Caption:
Color photo by KATHRYN SCOTT/The Oregonian
Graphics -- Graph/SUSAN SOON-KEUM COX
Graphics -- Graph/HOLT INTERNATIONAL CHILDREN'S SERVICES INC.
Color photo courtesy of Susan Soon-Keum Cox
Graphics -- Graph with 2 color photos courtesy of Susan Soon-Keum Cox/A DAUGHTER'S LETTERS

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