Belonging & Birth Country Travel

Belonging. It’s a basic human need.Belonging and Adoption Homeland Travel

We all crave it, and many kids find it among their peers as they visit their birth country.

Remember Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs theory? If you’re a little rusty on that, here are the Cliff Notes. Maslow held that people must have basic needs like food, water, safety, BELONGING and self esteem met before they could achieve their individual potential.

In schools, for example, children who feel they belong have been noted to be happier, faster, more motivated learners. Research further shows that children who have a sense of belonging are less likely to experience a myriad of mental health issues.

Pretty much any way you look at it, “to fit into a group naturally” (Webster’s definition) is a good thing. Some of our kids do that well—finding common bonds related to interests, sports, and religion, among other things.

Some of our kids struggle with “belonging” even at the most basic level.

Kids who have been adopted internationally have an extra layer of belonging to incorporate into their lives. They often lack a sense of belonging that comes from being part of a community that shares a common race and/or ethnicity. Further, many kids do not have a family makeup that is the same as the majority of their peers.

So, how does a homeland journey help fill that gap?

By giving kids a community of peers where generally their sense of belonging is quick to take hold,
and seeped in profound meaning because the connection is based on the core being of each person.

The importance of kids sharing this experience with other adoptees and their families cannot be overstated. The kids quickly realize they have a community they can be part of if they choose—other international adoptees who share their experience of having a foot in two different worlds.

The entire piece of having-to-tell-the-whole-story pretty much dissolves as kids look around and find they are traveling with other kids who just “get it.”

“It was better to travel with other kids because they were all like me and could relate to the situation like I could,” said Gabrielle Istvan, who was 12 when she traveled. Emily Kurijian, age 20 remembered feeling “There were a lot of kids my same age and I learned that what I think and feel about my adoption is normal, and I am not alone.” And, fifteen-year-old Nicholas Brunson summed it up this way, “We came here as strangers and left as a family.”

As an added benefit, when it is time to board flights for the trip home, these strangers who have become family continue their relationships in some amazing ways. Holly Bressner writes “Our daughter keeps regular contact with her group of friends from the trip thanks to the wonders of Facebook and texting! They bonded like glue from the very beginning, in the airport while waiting for our flight! Last summer we even met three of the other Midwest families for a weekend and the kids picked up right where they left off!”

The Bressners are not alone. Over the years, I’ve been privy to hundreds of stories of gatherings of friends who found belonging while traveling. One family with three children told their kids they were going camping for a week at the end of the school year and each child could choose a friend to go. They each picked a Ties’ friend—each FROM A DIFFERENT STATE!!!

We’ve had kids attend each others graduations, music recitals, soccer games and tennis matches. We’ve had kids spend half the summer at one house, and half the summer at another. We’ve smiled as we receive emails that kids are standing up for each others weddings.

We often hear, “Wow! I am not alone. I have made friends that will last a lifetime. It feels so good to belong,”

Maslow is smiling, and so am I.

My Story by Amanda Choi DeBow

Amanda Choi DeBow



I remember I used to have this thousand piece puzzle. It portrayed a red barn on a lake, lots of trees, and an old battered canoe. I would spend hours finding a home for each little piece. I remember the water was particularly difficult because it all looked so similar. Why did I enjoy wasting away so much time doing this puzzle? There was nothing like that sense of satisfaction at completion, the ability to see the whole picture. One day, I realized I had somehow lost a few pieces. Even though I could still see the barn, the lake, and the trees, I couldn’t help notice those few voids of nothingness.



I got a call from Pat, the Programs Manager of Korean Ties, just before I went. I will never forget her telling me to sit down. I remember hearing her tell me that it was my birthfather, not my birthmother who had kept me for six months. He was alive, along with a grandmother, and two half siblings. My birthfather’s best friend (let’s call her my stepmother since she later married my father) was willing to meet. Oh Pat. Her advisement to sit saved me from falling over. I was very calm and controlled on the phone. I like to think of myself as someone that handles herself well. I hung up and cried my eyes out.

If I had to use one word to describe my first encounter. CHAOTIC. Runner up? OVERWHELMING. An eruption of the Korean language rained down upon me. My stepmother was crying and hugging me and my sister was quiet, as overcome as I was. Somehow things eventually calmed down. I got to see the hospital where I was born and the area where I stayed for six months.Korea Adoption Travel

My brother and his wife joined all of us for lunch. He sat across from me, a complete stone face. They kept saying he was nervous. I remembered the time when, as a child, you were told to be on your best behavior at someone else’s dinner table. I felt the need to sit up a little straighter and smile demurely. While we were comparing skin tone, somehow the subject of my sweaty hands came up. I was embarrassed, for this trait has plagued me my entire life. Then I found out both my brother and my birthfather had sweaty hands! I was not alone! It was the first hint of a real smile from my brother.

That night, my brother and his wife dropped off a gift at my hotel. It was a traditional Korean wedding present from my stepmother (I had just gotten married a few months ago). You place this pair of wooden ducks, called Kireogi, on your nightstand. If you are happy, then you turn the heads together to make the bills kiss. If you are angry at your partner, you can turn one or both heads away. When I saw my brother he greeted me with, “Sister!” His huge smile made him look like a completely different person. I guess the dust had settled. The wedding ducks were a kind gesture, but that smile was the best gift I could have asked for.

I thought that my family time had ended, but the next day the translator called. She told me she had managed to arrange a meeting with my birthfather. I got the call while out with the Ties group. My husband and I had to rush to our hotel to get ready while simultaneously trying to calm our nerves. The meeting was two hours away! The translator had to rent a car! We tried to get money and the ATM wasn’t working! It was our turn to pay for dinner! We needed a gift for my birthfather! They thought the meeting was at 3:30? We were going to get there at 5:30! They kept calling to see where we were!

Korea adoption I was ushered into the restaurant by my stepmother and as I was fumbling with my shoes and she was hurrying me inside…I saw him. A small, thin man in the frame of a doorway. I don’t think I could feel the floor through my socks as I walked over. We looked at each other and hugged. Any reservations I had immediately dissolved. We just held each other. I found myself in one of those rare embraces where neither party wants to pull away too soon. You just fit in each other’s arms like you were always meant to be there. As we finally pulled away, I looked into his teary eyes and knew that this man was indeed my father. I found out later that he had never given me up for adoption. From what I could understand, he came home one day and I was gone. He had been extremely depressed about the departure of his wife (my mother). In an attempt to drown his sorrows, my grandmother and stepmother gave me up in order to give my father a fresh start.

Yes, I had gone with questions to ask about my background. Yes, I was able to ask a few. But I realized that it didn’t matter. I didn’t care to ask about my health history or what time I was born. What mattered was the feeling of being with family. It was so incredible to find the invisible bond was somehow unbroken thirty years later.

We got back to the hotel and I cried (not the first or last time). I had met so much of my family in less than forty-eight hours. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. Later that night, the translator called. My grandmother was coming.

So the story goes like this. My birthfather must have called his mother when he got back from dinner. Well she was mad. And I mean really mad. Why had nobody told her about the meetings? They thought it would have been too much for her. Well my grandmother is a tough Korean lady, not even five feet tall. She decided she was going to meet me and nobody could stop her. She lived two hours away and I was leaving at six the next morning. No problem. She arrived at two in the morning with my stepmother and sister.

Her meeting was the most emotional of them all. She sobbed. She clung to me. A lifetime of guilt washed out of her and poured onto me. My own tears wouldn’t stop. How could they? I was exhausted already. And this poor little Korean woman was throwing herself at me, writhing in her own conscience. After things calmed down we had a wonderful visit. She left at three in the morning. She told me that she could happily die now because I wasn’t angry at her. As I was helping her into the car, she whispered to me, “I love you baby Sung-Hee.”

Many people did not have the chance that I did. Not everyone’s experiences are positive. But I was one of the lucky ones. I can finally see the pieces that had always been little voids in my life. At last, I have the satisfaction of seeing my puzzle completed.

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A Journey Home by David Lantz

David Lantz“When you are eighteen and you graduate from high school, I promise we will visit Russia.” Hearing these words come out of my mother’s mouth, I was determined to graduate from high school. My name is Dave and I was adopted from Russia in 1994, just before my second birthday. My mom never hid the fact that I was adopted, and would say, “You came from another woman’s tummy and became a part of my heart.” I was always curious about my life, and where I came from. The fact I was adopted from Russia, a place I had never heard of, was interesting. Mom educated me on Russia. She also became involved in the local Families of Russian Ukrainian Adoption (FRUA) group, constantly going to events and meeting others. The event that stood out the most to me was the Christmas party and getting to see Grandfather Frost. All of this helped me to understand, learn and appreciate where I came from and who I was.

One iconic image that usually pops up when people think of Russia is St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square. I was always inspired and intrigued by its beauty and size; the large brown building topped by giant, colorful onion domes that look a lot like soft serve ice cream. This image became engraved in my mind. The cathedral was even my inspiration for a painting I made and received an honorable mention in eighth grade, and it was entered in our local art show. Although it did not win, it was special. Then in 2010 I graduated from Purcell Marian High School, and that summer mom and I went on a journey that would change our lives.

I was awakened by my mom telling me that we were about to land in Moscow. I quickly became excited and wondered what would happen. We landed and met our translator and Russian guide for the trip, Katya. She was tall, skinny, had blonde hair, and wore glasses. The first thing, we noticed was her smile and enthusiasm. The American guides on our trip were another very tall and skinny woman, named Gail, and the other was short and named Deb. They acted as liaisons to help us interpret our feelings about our trip.

As soon as we landed, we collected our luggage and went out into the parking lot. It felt as though we had just walked into an oven. It was so hot and muggy and smoke seemed to overtake us. “We’re currently experiencing a rash of forest fires around Moscow,” Said Katya. “It’s ok though, we’ll pick up some masks and water and we’ll make it through this, and still have fun.” We were put in a bus and given a driving tour of Moscow. As we drove by St. Basil’s and Red Square, time seemed to slow down, and through the thick smoke, we could make out the domes and towers. Part of me wanted to yell, “STOP THE BUS, LET ME OUT, I WANT TO SEE THE CATHEDRAL!!” But as with any trip we had a schedule. We arrived at the hotel, and checked into our rooms. After that we got a lot of water bottles. Again, just like in America we were bombarded by images of St. Basil’s. The first night we saw the national dance team’s show, and the background of the stage was an image of St. Basil’s. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, my mind kept going back to Red Square and the cathedral. Eventually, after what seemed like a lifetime of waiting, the day came that we were going to Red Square.

We all awoke and met in the lobby; Red Square was so close we could walk there. The walk was about ten minutes from the hotel. Before stopping at Red Square, we saw the Kremlin, but I was anxious to move on. We made our way to Red Square and arrived before the gates opened. A rush of feelings came over me—excitement, anxiety, happiness, and worry. I couldn’t hear anything, and I was zoned out. “Hey man, you ok?” said one of my friends. “Yeah, it’s just … I’ve been waiting to see the cathedral since I could remember. My mom always showed me it, talked about it, and it’s hard to believe that my dream is about to become a reality in a few minutes.” He looked at me and smiled and said, “Then let’s make it special.” He stood up and said in a loud voice to the group, “Hey everyone, Dave here has been dreaming of seeing St. Basil’s and Red Square for a long time. Even longer than most of us have been alive, so let’s be respectful and let him have a few minutes alone to observe it.” All at once everyone nodded their heads in agreement.

The gates were opened, I took my mother’s arm, and we walked into Red Square together. The smoke was so thick we couldn’t see very far in front of us. As we walked, with the group following us, we made our way to the cathedral. As we advanced closer, the smoke seemed to dissipate, the sky opened up, and the sun shone down. Out of the smoke, the three golden orbs were visible and slowly after that the domes, and the rest followed. All of a sudden, I stopped in my tracks and I was overcome with emotion. My eyes started to water, and it may have been from the smoke, but I like to think they were tears of joy. “It’s amazing and beautiful!” said my mom. “What do you think, Dave?” I couldn’t think, I couldn’t describe my feelings, and I didn’t know how to put them into words. All I could say was, “Yeah”. Eventually I came out of this euphoric state of awe and amazement. I took a ton of pictures with my mom, and some by myself. In the end it was the highlight of the trip because it represented the culmination of a childhood dream. To be surrounded by this image, constantly wishing to see it, to dream about it, to envision it, and study it. In a way this building became a connection I had with my birth country.

When I agreed to go on the trip, I learned that for me, the chances of seeing or knowing anything about my biological family was not likely. I felt that my experience had to mean something. Through this small event, I made my trip special and more meaningful than I could ever fathom. The trip over all was amazing, I met great people, and I overcame some insecurities, I may not have gotten the answers I wanted answered, but I made a new family. I shared my knowledge and support, I cared for others, and I really had fun.


Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 11.56.32 AM                       David Lantz and Nanci Lantz in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral. Red Square Moscow

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My Favorite Moment by Kathy Gallo

Kathy GalloIf “brevity is the soul of wit”, then my story at least fills that measure:

After our 4 days in Bejiing, we flew to the province where Lina was born. As we walked off the plane and onto the gangway holding hands, my usually fairly demure, sweet, and softspoken daughter looked up at me and said with such confidence and with a huge smile, “Well, Mom, you’re on MY turf now!”

This truly was my favorite moment of the trip — where everything came together in one special and vibrant moment.

(“[Since] brevity is the soul of wit” — William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 86-92).

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