Jill Callison: Filling gap left by adoption
Documentary examines South Korean family's saga
By: Jill Callison
When Brent Beesley and his mother approach a street corner, she reaches out to grasp his hand.
Fingers entwined, they cross the street, mother protecting son.
Sounds typical, right?
It's not. Because Beesley is no toddler but an adult.
Myungja Noh, however, intends to spend the rest of her life making up for a 30-year absence.
"He was always in my heart," she told a documentary filmmaker who recorded the reunion. "I lost everything when I lost my child."
The documentary, "Resilience," is being shown at film festivals this spring.
It tells how Noh and Beesley were separated and follows their reunion and subsequent attempts to bridge the barriers of culture and language.
Beesley grew up in Sioux Falls, the second son of John and Carol Beesley. It wasn't a Beaver Cleaver boyhood, he says, but he has no regrets.
He attended Axtell Park Middle School and Roosevelt High School before dropping out and obtaining his GED.
After his daughters were born - Lexi is 14, Alyssa 9 - he became curious about his Korean family. He wanted to obtain medical information that might prove useful as his daughters grew.
Beesley thought he was born in Seoul. His birth certificate gave no clues as to his parents.
"It was kind of a lazy search," Beesley, 35, says. "Whenever I had time, I'd go on the Internet. I made a couple phone calls here and there to some police stations in Korea because that's what I was told to do, and nothing turned up."
Then he found G.O.A'L, which connects Korean adoptees with their birth families.
Beesley was given the chance to meet his mother on a popular television show called "Beautiful Forgiveness." Participants learn the background to past events, then are sent to a soundproof booth to decide whether they can forgive the other person.
"It's cheesy and almost like a soap opera," Beesley acknowledges.
But it gave him the chance to meet his mother, who got her first glimpse of him in almost 30 years over a television monitor.
A DNA test was offered, but Beesley declined. He looks like his mother, he says, and "I just knew she was my mom, and I wanted to protect her and make her happy."
In a re-enactment, Beesley learned that Noh, now 51, did not willingly give him up for adoption. She left baby Sungwook with her husband and his family while she went in search of work.
The paternal grandparents took Sungwook to her parents' house, leaving him on the ground on a cold winter's day.
Details blur a bit here. Noh's family apparently decided she must not want Sungwook and took him to an orphanage. But after she returned from her job search to claim her baby, they would not tell her where he had been taken.
She spent years thinking he was living with a rich Korean family, she says in the documentary.
Beesley has visited Noh and her daughter, 12-year-old Hyojung, several times since then. Because he relies on a translator to speak with Noh, Beesley is hesitant to probe too deeply.
"They're apologizing left and right. To this day, my grandmother is extremely guilty," he says. "I'm not mad. I'm not that type of person (to hold a grudge). It's in the past. You can't do anything about it."
When Beesley returned from the reunion, he decided to involve himself with the Korean adoptees' community. Estimates place the number of Korean children placed for international adoption since the 1950s at 200,000.
It was on a public forum that he learned filmmaker Tammy Chu was preparing a project about birth mothers and wanted adoptees' perspectives.
Beesley contacted her to indicate he would help.
"She emailed back, 'funny you just emailed me because I just got done interviewing your mother, and I was going to contact you anyway,' " he says.
Eventually, Chu decided to focus on just Noh and Beesley.
One of Beesley's incentives for participating is a desire to start conversations about adoption.
"There's so much money involved in adoption now," he says. "It's understandable you're going to have some expenses whether the child is in foster care or an orphanage. But where's the other money going to? Should it be a profitable thing? I don't agree."
In the 1970s and '80s, many adoptees and their new parents weren't told the truth behind the parental surrender, Beesley says.
"That's why you're going to come across a lot of adoptees who are really bitter and really angry because they were lied to as were their adoptive parents and even the birth parents."
Beesley doesn't think all adoptions should be banned. He just wants to make sure it is the right thing for the birth parent and child.
Noh, however, has become an activist in South Korea, hoping to ban all international adoptions. She, along with others, is seeking signatures on a petition to bring it to South Korea's general assembly.
Noh and Beesley haven't seen each other in about two years. Tickets to South Korea have been too expensive recently, he says.
His attempts to learn Korean have faltered without the impetus of an upcoming visit, but Beesley hopes someday to be able to speak to his mother one on one.
The time they lost cannot be replaced, nor can the pain ever be erased.
"The heartache doesn't go away," Noh told Chu. "It's always there."