The Mindful Midlife Crisis

Episode 74--Too Foreign for Here, Too Foreign for Home: A Korean Adoptee Meets Her Birth Family with Brook Mallak

November 30, 2022 Billy Lahr Season 6
The Mindful Midlife Crisis
Episode 74--Too Foreign for Here, Too Foreign for Home: A Korean Adoptee Meets Her Birth Family with Brook Mallak
Show Notes Transcript

In this week’s episode, Billy talks to Brook Mallak. Brook is a Korean adoptee who recently reunited with her birth mother and sisters for the first time. Brook is here today to talk about that reunification experience and how her time in Korea has her feeling too foreign for here, yet too foreign for home. 

Billy and Brook discuss:
–How the two of them randomly met at a restaurant in Seoul
–What a reunification program looks like and how it happened for her
–Getting ahold of her family in Korea
–How the pandemic stretched out their reunion
–The idea of being too foreign for here, too foreign for home

Want more from Brook Mallak? 
Check out her Instagram and Facebook

If you liked this episode, check out these episodes as well:

Episode 14--Billy and Brian Discuss the Pregnant Momma Brain with Michelle Pan (Part 2 of The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine)
Summer Session 4--Billy's Friends in High Places
Episode 29--Discover Your Inner Awesome by Being Unapologetically You with Life Coach Jill Dahler
Episode 44--The Urgency of Awareness with Jodi Pfarr
Episode 33--How Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Make Us an All-Around Better Society with Global Inclusion and Diversity Business Leader Ericka Jones
Episode 36--Finding Our Meaning and Purpose through Self-Journey with Dr. Yvette Erasmus
Summer Session 6--Soul Walkers: Billy Finds Clarity and Meaning in Seoul with Iggy Lee

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Billy:  Coming up on The Mindful Midlife Crisis.

Brook:  There was a website for Korean adoption services. They had a page for biological families looking for adoptees, which I looked, nobody was looking for me. But they also had the opposite of that where adoptees could post information on there for biological families to find. So I posted all my information on there, and what happened is, is that our tour in 2020 had canceled in March. And probably about two weeks after that, I received an email from the adoption agency in Korea telling me that a woman contacted them saying that she was my sister and asking if I wanted to do DNA testing. We were just started locked down here in Minnesota, and my first thought in my mind was great. I finally find my biological family and we're all gonna die in a pandemic apocalypse <laugh>, so Jesus. So it was so many like, oh, this is awesome, but no, I'm never gonna get to see them.

And what if they die with covid or something before I get there? And so we go through the process. My first sample got lost. I send the second sample, and then it was Memorial Day weekend in 2020, I received an email from the Social Service Agency saying that my mom had gone in and tested and there was a match. And I found out later on, after I communicated with my family that my sister, who's I'm the oldest in the family, my sister who's next in age to me, she found the Post on Korean Adoption Services website. And she had not known that that was available. And I'm not sure if she was just looking and googling and found my name, my birth name, but that's how it happened. So it just coincided with everything happening with the tour through me in Korea.

Billy:  Welcome to the Mindful Midlife Crisis, a podcast for people navigating the complexities and possibilities of life's second half. I'm your host Billy Larh, an educator personal trainer, meditation teacher and overthinker who talks to experts who specialize in social and emotional learning, mindfulness, physical and emotional wellness, cultural awareness, finances, communication, relationships, dating and parenting, all in an effort to help us better reflect, learn, and grow so we can live a more purpose filled life. Take a deep breath, embrace the present and journey with me through the mindful midlife crisis.

Welcome to the Mindful Midlife Crisis. I'm your host, Billy Larh. Thank you for tuning in wherever you are. The purpose of this show is to provide a platform that gives people the space and permission to share their expertise and life experiences in order to help others navigate the complexities and possibilities of life's second half. Now, just to be clear, you don't have to wait until your thirties, forties, or fifties to apply this free and useful information. I know I would've greatly benefited from this information when I was younger. So all you young punks out there who are like, I'm not going through a midlife crisis. What's this old guy talking about? You sound just like I did back in the day with your stubborn and youthful pride. You're probably killing your brain cells out there doing God knows what to apply any of this advice in a meaningful way.

I get it. I was there too. But listen, these conversations are universally golden and will help people of all ages reflect, learn, and grow. So if you hear something that resonates with you in this week's episode, go back and check out some of the other episodes. This week's episode is another tear-jerker I know two weeks in a row. That's why we had you listen to resilience and tra uma and acts of service in order to help you cope with these really emotional episodes back to back. But there are some people out there with some pretty heavy stories and we are always so grateful when they wanna share 'em with me and with you to help remind you that you're not alone and to help you develop some empathy for others because we never really know what other people are going through. This episode focuses on adoption and identity.

So if you're looking for more episodes like that, I recommend checking out episode 14 and summer session four with our friend and new mom, Michelle Pan. You can check out episode 29 with my good friend Jill Dalor about how she healed from the childhood wounds of being relinquished by her birth mother to find her inner awesome. You can listen to episode 44 with Jody far about the urgency of awareness. You can check out episode 33 with Erica Jones about the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in our lives because we discussed that as well in this episode. You can also check out episode 36 with Dr. Yvette Rasmus about finding our meaning and purpose through self journey. And finally, you can check out summer session six where my friend Iggy Lee and I discuss my self journey towards meaning and purpose during my time and soul, which is actually where I met today's guest.

So let's go ahead and meet her. Today's guest is Brook Mallak. Brook is a claims attorney in Minnesota. She has also served as an mbus person for Asian Pacific families. But the reason she's here today is because she is a Korean adoptee and she was recently reunited with her birth mother and sisters for the first time. And the way the two of us just happened to meet halfway around the world while we were both on our separate journeys is just further proof that the world works in mysterious ways. Brook is here today to talk about that reunification experience and how her time in Korea has her feeling too foreign for here yet, too foreign for home. You guys need to buckle up because this is gonna be a wild story and Brook has a wild personality and I'm very excited to have her on the show. So welcome to the show, Brook Mallak.

Brook:  Yay. Thanks for having me, <laugh>.

Billy: Absolutely, absolutely. It's fun that you are here and we'll tell the story about how we met a little bit later. But long story short, we're both in Minnesota. You live in St. Paul. I live in Minneapolis. And ever since we met in Korea by just the way the world works, you and I have become besties because we have very similar personalities. Yes. In that you are obnoxious and I'm obnoxious <laugh>.

Brook:  I like to say that I am outgoing and charismatic. You on the other hand are obnoxious <laugh>,

Billy:  You bastard

Brook:  And you laugh like a donkey. <laugh>

Billy:  Pot kettle black I believe

Brook: Here.

Billy:  Okay, so I'll tell you what, we have had a lot of fun getting to know each other over the last couple of months. So we're gonna dive into this backstory here. But before we do that, Brook, we always ask our guests what 10 roles they play in their life. So what are the 10 roles that you play in your life?

Brook:  My 10 roles are, I'm a mom, I'm a daughter, a big sister, a lawyer, unfortunately, a group fitness instructor, a golfer, a volunteer, a traveler, a ka adoptee, and a big lover of music.

Billy:  You just went to saw Ariel Speedwagon at the state fair, correct?

Brook:  I did. And sticks. And then two nights later I was with you at Sine Prairie to see Gen X jukebox, which I would've loved to seen them again on Monday on Labor Day. But that didn't work out. That was just a lot of fun.

Billy:  Yeah, that was a good time. I'm glad you got to see Brian on the base, do his thing. You had a good time, right?

Brook:  I did. I love those guys. I can't wait to make it to see them again. It was so much fun.

Billy:  It's important to me that you are here to keep my spirit and energy at those shows. So the expectation is that you are on the dance floor shaking the leg during those Gen Xtu box shows

Brook:  Next time, especially if I can stay later, next time later, there'll be lots of dancing and no you can't any videos,

Billy:  I'll be in Korea. So don't worry about it.

You're safe. You're safe <laugh>. So I imagine maybe you wanna keep a low profile as a lawyer. You know you don't want that used against you in any court of law or you said you're a claims lawyer. Tell us more about that.

Brook:  So as a claims attorney, I work for an insurance company and I handle claims that come in. We are a provider for professional responsibility, liability insurance for lawyers. Lots of people don't like lawyers, but lawyers need help too. So in my role, a lot of times it is probably listening to lawyers telling me about a claim that maybe is founded or unfounded, but providing some support to them, emotional support, telling them I understand that I'm there to help them. Sometimes it is getting a lawyer to represent them cuz I work for the insurance company. But if they've been sued or they have an ethics complaint filed against them, we will arrange to get attorneys for them work within their policy limits. Just a lot of different aspects to it. We provide coverage in 16 states, including Minnesota. So it's all over the country.

Billy:  One of the roles that you're most looking forward to in the second half of life is traveler. So you kind of got a taste of that this summer when you went back to Korea. Where else have you traveled? Where do you wanna travel?

Brook:  I wanna travel everywhere, quite frankly. I've traveled several places throughout the continental United States. I've been all over the Caribbean, Mexico and Korea was the farthest I've gone. And then in August of 2021, my son and I went to Barcelona and we were supposed to go to Morocco, Marrakesh, Morocco in March of this year. Unfortunately I was transitioning jobs so I couldn't take the time off. So eventually we would like to make that trip but I really,  now that I've been to Korea, I wanna take him on the next trip and I really wanna take him this next year.

Billy:  Of all the places that you have been, I'm gonna guess Korea was the best for you for a lot of reasons, which we'll discuss. So what would be your second favorite of all the places that you traveled?

Brook:  My second favorite was definitely Barcelona. That was just really a fantastic trip. It wasn't what we had planned. We were supposed to be on a Mediterranean cruise to go fly into Barcelona and go to Italy and go to I think France, I can't even remember because it got canceled and then returned to Barcelona and fly out. But we had booked the air for already so we just pivoted and said let's just go to Barcelona. And that was my first trip abroad where I spent a significant amount of time in one location and that was the second best trip. And my son is older at that point he was an adult. So it was a completely different sort of experience to be with him there and for us to both for the first time experience a real international trip together. So that would be right up there with going to Korea because I think it was such a life changing experience for him too.

Billy:  Now not only do you provide a service as a lawyer, but you also provide service as a volunteer. What do you do for volunteer work? Why is that so important to you? We talked to Dr. Lena Haji about the importance of volunteering for self care and so is volunteering a self care thing for you? Why is it important for you to do?

Brook:  Volunteering is important part of my self care and I also believe in giving back to other people. I have been fortunate to be the recipient of support and help from others who are part of the community, not part of my family. And I can really do see the difference that it makes in people's lives. And I also see the difference it makes in my life because I'm a lawyer by day I have made the conscious decision to not volunteer with law related activities because I feel like I get enough of that and to really give myself a break from what is my career. I have chosen to volunteer with a number of organizations. So I relocated to St. Paul from Northern Minnesota almost a year ago. And I haven't been involved in volunteer opportunities here just because I have been seeing what's around and seeing what I think is or I feel are impactful organizations.

So I'm starting to work into volunteering here. But when I was in the Brainard area, I was a board member for the BRAINER Public Schools Foundation, partially because my son was in that school district. And personally to me, public education really helped me change my life and that I could see and absolutely see it helping other people. So I wanted to give back for what I received and also I would was a longtime junior achievement volunteer and board member. I mean if you ever need a break from your serious life, go volunteer in a classroom because you will not be able to think about anything else besides all the things are going on with the kids, answering a hundred questions, trying to get them to focus and just really having fun with them. And that will also restore your faith in humanity. When you're a lawyer you begin to question if anybody is a good person and you go see these kids and they're just, it's a phenomenal experience.

So I did that a lot to help keep my sanity as a lawyer. I've done other volunteering with, there's a program in BRAINER called Presenting Yourself, which is business women like myself would volunteer to help women who were, a lot of them have been in prison and in jail in criminal trouble or were non-traditional trying to reenter the workforce, trying to help them understand about here's how you network, here's how you interview, here's how you introduce yourself and shake hands and have an elevator pitch and do a resume. So those were some of my main sort of volunteer activities when I was in that area. And now I'm looking for some similar sorts of volunteer activities here. Probably not with the school district cause I don't have a child in the school district anymore. So that investment isn't as solid as it was where I was before. So I have my eyes open, I have an application in to be a board member for the Children's Home Society, which we'll probably get to later in the story. They were involved in my adoption process to come here,

Billy:  That adoption process. We're gonna dive into it, but it's made you a daughter again and that is one of the roles that you're looking forward to in the second half of life. And we talked a little bit about that before we started recording. It was a big light bulb moment for me. So can you share what you mean by the excitement of being a daughter again in the second half of life?

Brook:  So with my adoptive parents, my adoptive mother and I have a very strained and I would say non-existent relationship. And we have not had contact really since I was 17 years old. And that's by my choice and my adoptive father. He and I are very close and he passed away in 2015. So since that time, I have really felt orphaned without a parent and not as a daughter, not having that person above me for lack of better terms that cared about me and unconditionally loved me and worried about me. And so I didn't have that until my birth family found me. And it was a little strange at first because I didn't know my birth mother. But now that it's happened, it's very comforting and I thought, I feel like kind of get a second chance at it now that my dad is gone and really just get to see, I think what I always really wanted a mother to feel for me and how I wanted a mother to treat me and care about me that I didn't have growing up.

Billy:  Well this is the story that we're gonna explore. So what we're gonna do is we're gonna take a quick break and then when we come back, Brook is gonna talk about that reunification process, what that looked like, the excitement of meeting her sisters for the first time meeting her mother and meeting me. Of course. The best part of the trip. <laugh>.

Brook:  Of course. The absolute highlight!

Billy: <laugh> Thank you for listening to the Mindful Midlife Crisis.

Billy: Thank you for listening to the Mindful Midlife Crisis. If you're enjoying what you've heard so far, please do me a favor and hit the subscribe button. Also giving the show a quick five-star review with a few kind words, helps others find and benefit from this podcast just like you are. Finally, please spread the wealth of free knowledge and advice in this episode by sharing it with the people in your life who may find this information and my mission to help others live a more purpose-filled life valuable. My hope is that these conversations resonate with others and inspire people to live their best lives. Thanks again. And now back to the show. 

Billy:  Welcome back to the Mindful Midlife Crisis. We are here with Brook Mallak. Brook and I met in Korea. She has a phenomenal story about meeting her birth mother and her sisters. When I heard it, I just absolutely had to have her share the story here on the podcast. Before we dive into that, though, it's crazy how we met. So…

Brook: <laugh> It is.

Billy:  There I was eating lunch at a restaurant in Seoul, and it was Korean barbecue, it was gonna be a really delicious meal. And in walks this woman, and I have to kind of paint the picture here of what I'm seeing in walks this woman who has this punk rock vibe about her because she has her head shaved except for the top part and it's curly and she's got on a leather jacket and she sits down with two other women. And I looked at her and I knew that, okay, I feel like this is a Korean adoptee because she very much has an American vibe about her and which is something we're gonna get back to here in a little bit. But I looked at her and I was like, this is word for word what? I said, your hair is fucking badass.

And she said, thank you. Are you from the United States? And I said, yep. She said, where from? I said, Minnesota, get outta here. That's where I'm from too. What part? And I said, Minneapolis. She said, I live in St. Paul. I said, gimme your number because we are now best friends because the world has brought us together thousands of miles away from Minnesota. And the people that you were sitting with we're your sisters who you met for the first time ever the night before. Yes. And you all looked a little hungover and that's why you wanted to get <laugh> some good lunch, correct?

Brook:  Yes, <laugh>, yes, yes, yes. The day before I met my sisters for the first time and also met my brother-in-law and we ended up doing noraebang

Billy:  <laugh>, which, so for those, what's noraebang for those who don't know

Brook:  Noraebang, which is the Korean version of karoake, but it's not in front of people. You are put in your own private room. They give you almost like VIP bottle service. So you order whatever you want for alcohol and food and you can keep ordering alcohol and keep the room. And so you just basically are in, there's no, there was no windows. You don't know what time of day it is. It's like being in a casino in Las Vegas and you just sit there and drink and sing songs terribly and laugh and eat fod that they bring to you. It was so much fun. And then we went and got late night fried chicken and drank some more. And

Billy:  Chimaek, you got chimaek, right? Yes. Because in Korea they have what's called chimaek which is kfc, Korean Fried Chicken and Beer. Yes. Those are the only two things that they serve at these joints is Korean fried chicken and beer <laugh>. And Nora is, without a doubt, the most fun I have ever had. The two times that I've been to Nora Bong maybe three times the time of my life. I absolutely loved it.

Brook:  It was a really great experience with my sisters and brother-in-law as well because they can generally read English so they could sing American songs, which was kinda shocking to me because we had a difficult time communicating. They don't understand spoken English, but they can read it. So it was a really fun way for us to communicate in a sense that we were picking songs and then sometimes they would know 'em so they would chime in. Sometimes I just knew the songs, but it was a blast and we were very relaxed. We had been together for several hours at that point. So it was kind of the nice end of the day because I'm pretty sure they had a lot of feelings leading up to that as I did. So kind of releasing all of that and just letting our hair down and being really very natural with each other was exactly, I think just the perfect ending to that time because then the next day when you saw me, we had to part ways and then I didn't see them again till towards the end of my time in Korea. So it worked out perfectly that we were able to do that and also do that without my birth mom there because <laugh> the next day when we were all laying by our dog dishes, the first thing anybody says is Don't tell mom <laugh> <laugh>.

Billy:  Well let's take a step back here because this has been two years in the making. Yes. And, and c o got in the way of this. So can you walk us through this reunification program that you used in order to reconnect with your family in Korea?

Brook:  Well, so it was a combination of pro of a couple different things that result in the reunification. But I'd applied to go to Korea with a group called me in Korea. It's a non-profit organization that was started by a woman who's Korean. She's not a Korean adoptee. However, somehow through college she ended up working with an organization and she escorted Korean adoptees from Korea to America. And somehow through that process she decided that she really wanted to help bring Korean adoptees back to Korea so she can speak Korean. This ultimately became a full-time job. So I applied with the program to go and if you are accepted to go, then during the time of the tour, that program pays for your room and board. You have to pay for your airfare. And so I was accepted to go. We were supposed to go in June of 2020 and as part of the process, the me and Korea will also reach out to all the tour members, reach out to their adoption agencies in Korea.

Cause one of the things that we do in the tour is they take groups to their respective adoption agencies there and they still have the paper files. So they're telling them, look, these people are coming. Please check the files to see if there's anything in the files that they should be aware of that wasn't disclosed to them. Sometimes birth families would go and leave letters for adoptees in the files. They were doing that. And when me and Crea contacted my adoption agency, they said, we have nothing new to tell you. I had tried to find my biological family in 2014 and it came up at a dead end. And then once I found that out, I got on the internet and started looking for resources. And I had my parents' birth names and my birth name and you would think it would be fairly simple to find them with that information.

But in Korea they have identification numbers are tied to birth dates. And because of my mother brought me into the agency to relinquish me, the person who's filling out the paperwork and the little box on the forms date of birth, they put age, I couldn't find them because I had the dates of birth. So I got on the magic internet. There was a website for Korean adoption services that had a page for biological families looking for adoptees, which I looked, nobody was looking for me. But they also had the opposite of that where adoptees could post information on there for biological families to find. So I posted all my information on there and what happened is, is that our tour in 2020 got canceled in March. And probably about two weeks after that I received an email from the adoption agency in Korea telling me that a woman contacted them saying that she was my sister and asking if I wanted to do DNA testing.

We were just started lockdown here in Minnesota. And my first thought in my mind was great. I finally find my biological family and we're all gonna die in a pandemic apocalypse <laugh>. So, so it was so many like, oh this is awesome, but no, I'm never gonna get to see them. And what if they die with covid or something before I get there? And so we go through the process. My first sample got lost, I send the second sample and then it was Memorial Day weekend in 2020 I received an email from the Social Service agency saying that my mom had gone in and tested and there was a match. And I found out later on, after I communicated with my family that my sister, who's, I'm the oldest in the family, my sister who's next in age to me, she found the post on Korean adoption services website. And she had not known that that was available. And I'm not sure if she was just looking and googling and found my name, my birth name. But that's how it happened. So it just coincided with everything happening with the, the tour through me in Korea.

Billy:  There are so many things going on here, but I think I wanna hear about the emotional rollercoaster that this experience was for you because what are you thinking? What are you feeling when you get that email that you may have found your sister, that you get a match from your mom? You talked about the feeling of, well crap Covid, am I gonna be able to meet my family here? What's the emotion of come on and open up the borders please. Because South Korea is one of the last countries to open up the borders. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> as well. So walk us through some of the emotion through that. What were some of your thoughts going through that process?

Brook:  At first, when I was contacted by the agency, I thought, this is probably not true. So just really trying to manage my expectations, don't get my hopes up because they were crushed when I found out that was a dead end and that because I didn't have my parents' birthdates that there was nothing else that the agency or the National Police Force could do in trying to bind them through their records. Then trying not to think about it while I was waiting for the genetic testing to be done. But then afterwards there's a whole slew of other things such as, are they gonna like me? What are they like? Are they gonna not like me? Are they going to, cause I've heard from other adoptees, you know, are they gonna try to exploit me because they think all Americans are rich and then they're gonna want money from me and they're all of these things to try to support my family there.

And are they not gonna wanna have a lot of contact with me? What is our relationship gonna be to find as? And also just honestly what are they gonna think about me? Me because you already said it, I'm a little out there, I'm kind of rebellious <laugh>, I'm pretty wild. And, but I'm also very goal oriented. I, I'm a hard worker. I'm committed to giving back to others. There's all these things where I just are questioning what are they gonna think about me and are they gonna like me? And what if they don't like me? How am I gonna feel? What if I don't like them? What if we have nothing to talk about? What if we just sit in a comfortable silence? I mean what is this going to be? So all those things were there and then we started communicating. And of course, even though they can read English, my sisters can, cuz they had it in school.

But once they got outta school and they weren't using it, they lost the ability to converse in English. And I don't read or speak Korean, so how are we gonna communicate? So we were translating emails back and forth to each other and just really feeling things out. And then I was communicating only with my middle sister and she was the only person who I had contact information for. And come June of 2020, I didn't get a response for months and I had no other way to contact anybody else. So then I started worrying like, oh my gosh, she, Calvin had died and nobody else knows how to reach out to me. And so I'm pretty sure probably my youngest sister had something to do with this because my mom created a Facebook account and friended me on Facebook and I didn't think about it and I accepted it and which I usually don't do.

And then pretty soon she messaged me and said, this is mom, here's my email address. Like thank God, because it had been months and I hadn't heard from anybody. And through that, then I started communicating with my youngest sister and then really found out that Korean laws are very different than here. And when you go into significant financial debt, which a lot of people this happened to with Covid and you're not able to pay it back, they wanna charge you with a crime. So my middle sister and her husband had a real estate brokerage business and they had done well for years and they had just taken out financing to do this big project at a shopping mall, I believe probably something like 5,000,001. Then pandemic happens, everything shuts down and they lost their home to the bank and they ran off because law enforcement was looking for them.

So I eventually found this out as I was communicating with my youngest sister, who coincidentally is kind of like the Korean version of me. She's super sassy and funny. She is just a trip. So she and I eventually got to where we were messaging about do you get Asian flush when you drink and what do you like to drink? And different stories like that and traveling and significant relationships, you know, with boyfriends and different things like that. So she and I really got to know a lot about each other, which was great. So the two years that I was waiting to go back, there was a great time for us to lay foundation for when I went there. And so then I was also emailing with my mom, just messages to her back and forth and such. And then eventually my middle sister has resurfaced, but law enforcement is still looking for her and her husband unfortunately, which is a really sad, scary, terrifying sort of deal for them.

I was at my youngest sister's place in Busan and the cops came to my sister's house looking for them. So. It's just, that makes me really sick thinking about what could happen to them when it all kind of comes down to it. So that time was good. There was a lot of time where I thought, this is never gonna happen. I'm never gonna see them. I just really would get depressed about it because it just kept canceling and then we got variance and it just seemed like it was never gonna happen. So when it finally was starting to happen this year, it didn't seem like reality. I just did <laugh>. I couldn't wrap my brain around like I'm actually going, I'm gonna go to, I didn't pack, I kind of had packing going on and then all of a sudden it was go time and I had nothing together. I just threw a bunch of stuff in the suitcase and off I went.

Billy:  So I think it's important to provide some context here because Minnesota has one of the highest Korean adoptee populations in the United States. So I think that's really important to understand because I think every Korean person that I know in Minnesota, at least 95% of them are Korean adoptees. And I've had conversations with Korean adoptees about, do you wanna find your birth family? And it's interesting because it's kind of a 50 50 split in, yes I would like to find them and no, I'm not really interested in that. So what compelled you to want to find your birth family? You had mentioned just kind of losing that connection with parents. Was that the compulsion or was there more to it?

Brook:  I had started looking for my birth family before my father passed away. And he had always encouraged me and absolutely supported that. And for a long time I had said, yeah, I'll do that someday. I didn't feel a need. So I think that what you will find just among adoptees in general, it doesn't have to be Korean or international adoptees. It could be domestic adoptees because my older brother is a domestic adoptee from Minnesota. My former husband is also a domestic adoptee from Minnesota. And both of them have no desire to connect with their biological family or find them. And that's just what they've chosen to do. And then there are some adoptees that I've met that feel like there's just this huge missing hole in their life that will be filled when they find their family. I didn't feel any of that more so for a long time.

I was curious as far as where does this personality come from? Cuz this is not from my adoptive family and are there health issues I should be concerned about and who do I look like? And all those things that people take for granted when they are raised within their family of origin. So then in 2010, my youngest son died suddenly. And it really struck me about all the pain and the grief that my birth mother would feel for all those years because that sort of loss is, it's indescribable to try to describe to somebody who hasn't gone through it. It's not like losing a parent, I've lost a parent. It's not like losing a good friend or other family members. I've gone through that. There is nothing that equates to that. And it really hit home about all the pain my, my mother must have been feeling.

And so I really decided I wanted to find her to tell her thank you, thank you for doing what she had to do for me. Even though not everything, I had a very hard childhood growing up, but I also wanted to thank her because I knew what she was going through and I knew that deep pain and I could end that for her. I can't end it for myself. So that was really why I started. And then when they told me that they couldn't find them, there was nothing else that they could do. It was really crushing to know that if I couldn't find her, that she would continue to live in the personal hell of a prison that I live in, not ever knowing if I was okay and what happened to me. So that was the real catalyst to find her. And I expressed that to her once we connected to tell her, I just want you to know I'm grateful for you and for giving me life and for giving me the life that I have, even though it wasn't perfect, but I'm here. Please stop hurting over what you did even though she does. But hopefully it's not as bad as it

Billy:  Was. I wanna point something out here. Another thing that we talked about is you corrected a language with me cuz I was just about to say, can you talk about the circumstances around why you were given up for adoption? But you have changed my language around this to rather than saying give up for adoption, relinquish for adoption. And so before we get into that piece of it, can you talk about why that language is important?

Brook: This is something that I'm learning because I'd always used the words given up for adoption. And when I was in Korea with the tour group, I kept hearing the term relinquish. And to me that seemed to be more fitting because for the parents that relinquish their children now, not every adopted child from Korea has been relinquished, quite frankly. Some kids were stolen, but for the parents that did relinquish, they had no choice. And when you say give up, you're making it sound like they have a choice. And Korea, even now, but back when I was born and farther back than that, they don't do a good job of supporting single moms. And they did a much worse job back when I was born that there weren't social service programs to support single moms because the whole adoption of Korean started with the Korean War. And a lot of children that were given up for adoption were children that were the byproducts of our US soldiers in Korean impregnating, Korean women, which were so bastardized, if that's the word, ostracized, that nobody wanted them, nobody there wanted them, nobody even wanted to acknowledge that that was going on.

So that carried forward into Korea was not going to put forth resources to support single moms that they were no good, that they were sluts, whatever it was. And so the people who did it didn't have choices.

Billy:  So then what were the circumstances surrounding your mom and your birth father?

Brook:  So my mother and birth father were living together as boyfriend, girlfriend, and in Korea, men have to do mandatory military service when they're in between the age of 18 and 20 something. My father, I think was 20 at the time. So he went off to do his military service and this is in 1975. So no way to communicate with him. And because they weren't married, she wasn't getting sort of financial assistance or cut of whatever his military pay was. So he went off and she was pregnant and she didn't know when he was coming back. And if he was gonna come back, he was gonna come back to her. So I was born in April, in December of the year I was born. After Christmas on December 30th, she brought me into the Social Service agency and sat there and how difficult this had to have been to sit there and give them the information.

And because I had a whole history, which a lot of adoptees don't have as far as what my sleeping habits were, what I ate, when I ate, things that I could do, things that I could say. And actually had my actual birthdate, which a lot of adoptees don't have. I mean I had all this information that she sat there and very bravely just gave them for whatever reason, which I never did ask her. And maybe I'll ask her and maybe she remembers and maybe she doesn't that, you know, did she do that? So I wouldn't know those things later on in life. Did she do that? So the family that received me wouldn't know those things. Did she do that so that they would know that she cared for me. But she brought me in and I was in like a transition place for four days before a foster mom cared for me until I came to America in June.

Lo and behold, after I was gone, not long after that, my father showed up again and then she told him about me. They ultimately got married and had two more children. My sister's closest in age to me is probably 18 months younger than me. So it seems like she probably got pregnant right away after he came back. And then my other sister's six years younger than me, my birth father died in 2004 of a heart attack. And they waited until my oldest sister was 20 when they told her about me. So for 25 years she looked for me and I didn't know that. And my dad always would say to her, you gotta find your sister, you gotta find your sister. When I found out that he had passed away, I had not been prepared for that, I don't think. But it just, it really tore me up thinking that he never got to hold me or see me or know that I was found before he died.

And that, and I, and I didn't know the man, but it just was another loss. I didn't get to know him and he didn't get to know about me. And he knew about me for years and they tried to find me and and how awful that would be to be a parent that dies knowing that you have a child out there and you haven't found them. And my mother told me when I was there, she had said that she never thought that they would buy me. And she thought that she would die and her eyes would always be open cuz she would be looking for me. And that now when she dies, she can close her eyes cuz I was found.

Billy:  Well I need a minute <laugh>. So we're gonna do this, we're gonna take a break, we're gonna all exhale and just kinda reset here cuz that was a doozy. And we're gonna continue talking to Brook when we come back. Thank you for listening to the Mindful Midlife Crisis. Thank you for listening to the Mindful Midlife Crisis. New episodes come out every Wednesday to help you get over the midweek hump. If you'd like to contact me or if you have suggestions about what you'd like to hear on the show, visit and click contact us while you're there. Don't forget to sign up for the newsletter to get free weekly meditations, as well as free resources from our Reflect learn grow program. You can also click on the show notes for links to the articles and resources reference throughout the show. If you wanna check out my worldly adventures, follow me on Instagram at mindful underscore midlife underscore crisis.

My hope is that my trials, tribulations, and successes will inspire you to take intentional action to live a more purpose filled life. And while you're at it, remember to show yourself some love every now and then too. Thanks again. And now back to the show. Welcome back to the Mindful Midlife Crisis. We are here with Brook Mallak. Brook is sharing her story about reunifying with her birth family in Korea. She met her sisters, she met her mom. Amazing experience, an amazing story, wild how the two of us met. And having this opportunity here to sit down with her and listen to this story, it's obviously very emotional for her. And as an empath, I'm feeling the intensity of this story too. And I hope you're feeling the intensity of this story as well. And I hope it makes you want to reach out to a loved one and tell them how much you miss them and how much you love them. I imagine that's what it was like when you finally got to hold your mom. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So what was that experience like when you first met your mother as an adult?

Brook:  Oh, it still feels like a dream. It felt like it wasn't real because I had waited for so long for it. And prior to us meeting when I, I was with the tour group, I learned about this Korean term called Oma po. Which the best way to explain what that means is Oma PO is a mother's embrace. And it means everything that you feel from your mom's embrace. You feel love and warmth and security and safety and strength and all these things that you don't think about when you do it. So the next time you hug your mom, think about what you're feeling because it's not just a hug. And so, as I explained earlier, not having a good relationship with my own mother, my adoptive mother, and not having my dad for years, having that parental hug was something I had not had for so long.

And so having that from her, it just was like all the years that I had missed, that really came crashing down because I didn't know how much I had missed it. And I didn't really probably understand that as independent and stubborn and whatever I am, I need a parent, I need that unconditional love and that support. And not having that was really extremely difficult. And having my mother wrap her arms around me and feeling that oma po feeling, all those things that I didn't have for so many years, it took so much pain away from me and it gave me so much strength. And she kept saying she doesn't know a lot of English, she kept saying sorry to me. And to think about how much pain that she was feeling for me made me feel bad because I don't want her to feel pain for my life and for me being around and, and I can't help any of that, obviously because things are the way that they are.

But she kept saying that and I could feel her sorrow too in knowing what my sorrow has been like having lost my child. I could feel that connection that we both have had that pain. So there was some easing of that, which isn't the right word, but a little bit of healing with that for myself. I know. And I think for her too, because of course for her, she waited for that for 45 years that I was gone. But it was one of the best hugs I've ever had in my entire life. And in Korea they're very different about holding hands and such. And so you'll see women walking around holding hands. And my sisters did that with me, which I got very used to. And then my mother did that with me. And Walker holding my mother's hand was the sweetest thing I've ever had happen really in my life.

And we'd sit and talk and she would hold my hand and I thought, wow. I kind of felt like a little child again. <laugh> having my mother hold my hand. It was just so different than what I've had for so long because I have not had a parent and I've always been pretty strong and independent. But then really I kind of resorted and reverted to being back to a child, which I forgot how to do. So that was really nice to have my mother worry about me, <laugh> and love me and hold my hand and try to help me with things and try to get me things. I kind of didn't know what to do with myself. <laugh>.

Billy:  Well, and also part of this experience was getting to explore Korea. Yes. And so what were some of the things that you got to see? What were some of the things you got to do as part of that as well? Because not only did you get to meet your family, but you got to explore your homeland Yes. As well and experience it. And we're gonna talk about this too, but experience it almost as a foreigner. So can you talk about that a bit?

Brook:  Well, I was absolutely a foreigner. I think that, as you said, when you saw me, I had an American vibe and definitely had an American vibe when I was there. I think that it was very obvious to anybody who would see me that I was not what I would call Korean, Korean, that if I was in fact Korean, that I had been living abroad somewhere. So being there, I remember just, I'm not seen large numbers of Koreans in one spot in my life until this trip. So I flew from here to Chicago, I get to the gate in Chicago, which instead of being in a big area where there's a bunch of gates, it was a small little enclave where they had two gates and one was for our flight. When I walked into this area to get ready to board, I just got goosebumps cuz it was full of Koreans.

And I had not seen that many creams in one spot my whole life. And I just stood there with my mouth hanging open, thinking, whoa, this is amazing. And then stepping off the plane and then seeing them everywhere and just walking about and doing their thing. And I thought, oh my gosh, I finally found a place where I kind of fit in. I kind of look like these people, but at least it's not all white people. So that was really, I loved that experience because not seeing a lot of Koreans in my lifetime, I haven't seen a lot of variety of Koreans, you know? So I haven't seen a lot of different Korean looks. So that just in and of itself, I'm pretty sure I was ging around to everybody because it just was so many things to look at that I haven't seen before.

I spent several days in Seoul, which you and I spent one day running around. We went to the Guang Jon market and ate at the noodle place that was on Netflix, which was phenomenal. I have watched that episode twice since I've been home. And just now seeing the places that they show that I've been to, I think, oh, I was there I those noodles. I was there and I was there. So that was a fantastic experience. And then when we did the city wall walk, a little bit of it, just the views from that area were breathtaking. And being around soul was a really wonderful experience because it's so densely populated and there's so many things there, but it's also just very easy to traverse and check out and be around and not feel endangered, considering how many people are there. It's very safe. We also went up to the dmz, which is kind of eerie, thinking about how close you are. And there were times where we were traveling around where the fence was up and you think, okay, on the other side of that DMZ is a crazy guy, and people who are living in deep poverty and they're completely destroying their natural environment, which you can see when you're looking through the binoculars, that they're deforesting everything. They're not replanting. It's just really illustrative of what's happening to the people in that country. So that was a really surreal experience to do that.

Billy:  When I went to the DMZ and looked through the binoculars and saw that massive North Korean flag blowing in the wind, you're right, it's surreal. Yeah. Cause it, you can look through the binoculars and you can see North Koreans mm-hmm. <affirmative> in their natural habitat. And it's just like, wow, this is so out there. Yeah. That there's such a disconnect between there is our reality and their reality.

Brook:  Well, and for us, where we live in Minnesota, we don't live near a border where we see that kind of disparity. Whereas if we were down in the southern part of the United States, like in Texas for example, or California, you would see that and that wouldn't be so jarring. But for those of us who are Midwesterners seeing that, it was like, whoa, they're right there. And that crazy guys right over there too. So that just made it more real. When you're looking at that stuff from the other side of the world, it's one thing. But when you're really there you think, wow, we are this close to somebody who wants to blow up everybody. And,

Billy:  And just to give people kind of an idea, the dmz, I believe is four kilometers wide. And so kilometers that's probably about two and a half miles. Right. So you can get to a certain point. So really we're probably about, from the DMZ lookout, it's probably about three miles. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But you can see people through the binoculars, you can see the flag waving. So it really is a wild experience. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, I don't know if you know this or not, but my friend Vance in Korea sent me a text that said that they are potentially opening up trails. So you can walk the dmz, you can go on hiking trails along there. And what's interesting is he talked about, I'm still holding out for reunification someday. And it's a very interesting, and we don't need to get into the politics of it all, but I think it is important for people to go and do some research on the Korean War because it's nickname the Forgotten War. And that's really what it is. The most haunting war memorial that I've ever seen is the Korean War memorial in Washington DC at night. They look like ghosts. It is eerie to visit the Korean War memorial in Washington DC at night because those statues look like ghosts. And understanding the Korean War is really important for understanding how Korea is what it is today. And understanding that they are in a cold war, right. Not

Brook:  Yeah, they're still technically at war.

Billy:  Correct. Correct. They're still technically at war. And the more you learn about that situation, you learn that the North Koreans had pretty much taken over all of South Korea, except for the Busan area, which is very close to where you were born.

Brook:  I was born in Busan.

Billy:  Yeah. So Busan is the second largest city in South Korea. They had it entirely captured except for that area. And then that's when the Allied forces joined and pushed them back. And we almost had the North Koreans pushed completely out. And then there's so many forces that go into play there. So we won't turn this into a history lesson because we probably don't have all the information, but it really is important to get a better understanding of the Korean wars so that you can understand the dynamics of why, especially in Minnesota, there are so many Korean adoptees here. And if you're not from the Midwest, you probably don't have a real understanding of just how many Korean adoptees are in the Midwest, especially in Minnesota. And do you notice that?

Brook:  Yeah. And actually I think Minnesota has the most in the entire world. We have roughly 20,000 Korean adoptees here. So in an unofficial sense, a lot of people refer to Minnesota as the Korean adoptee, capital of the world, <laugh>. Cause there are so many here. And I honestly don't know the reason why that is and how that ended up occurring. Because one of the main adoption agencies in Korea that is still alive and well and and active is called Holt. And the gentleman who started that was from Oregon. So I really don't know why that resulted in so many Korean adoptees being in the state of Minnesota. But yes, understanding the Korean War will help people understand how it is that over 200,000 Koreans were adopted outta Korea, internationally. And also start the education, I think for people to see that there's trauma surrounding adoption.

And for so long in my upbringing, and I still hear it now, but it was always pounded into my head about, you should be so grateful. You should be so grateful that your family brought you in, that you could be poor in Korea and all these other things. And now as an adult, I struggle with the, I should be so grateful that I lost heritage, that I lost culture, that I lost a family because of a country that didn't support its people including me. And that yes, perhaps I would've been poor, I was poor here, but I would've had love, which I didn't have that in some sense here. So for me, and I know other adoptees, as we get older, it comes that we're not on that bandwagon of everybody should be thankful about adoption. There's hurt and trauma and rejection and abandonment and all these feelings that people feel that when people continue on that bandwagon of you should be grateful, then those of us who are feeling those feelings, we feel guilty because we're not grateful.

We feel like our feelings aren't validated. Because if we say them, then we're just gonna get the, you're just ungrateful response, which I know I had that in my family growing up. The you should be so grateful, took every power away from anything that if I ever said that, I don't like the way you guys do this, I don't like the way you guys do that. Well, you should just be grateful that you were adopted. Okay. So I had no agency to stand up for myself and stand up for my siblings. Were all adopted. It's just, you should just be grateful. So basically that forgives all of your sins as the adopted family. And I've met other, not all, but I've met other adoptees, whether or not they're Korean or they're domestic adoptees who have had the same experience. So for people to say that all the time, I'm shifting to where I'm trying to educate them and say it's not all about being grateful. Just so you know. There's a lot of trauma that people deal with and that sometimes they never understand. That's trauma. I didn't understand. I'm until just recently, I'm 46 years old because I've had that ingrained in my brain for so long about you should be grateful. So I feel like if I'm not being grateful, then I'm an awful person.

Billy:  You've touched on this a little bit and you and I have talked about this a little bit in the past too, but this idea of being too foreign for here, too foreign for home, what does that mean to you and what feels like home to you?

Brook:  So I was raised in a small town called Little Falls, which is a couple hours north of here, population about 70 508,000 people and lots of small farming communities around that town and kind of crazy. There were a handful of families that had Korean adoptees in the town. However, we were always outsiders, right? Because we weren't white, it was obvious that we were either with the foreign family or adopted, which all of us were adopted. So there's always that otherness that went along with being raised in a town like that. And even being here now that I've relocated to a metropolitan area, cuz I lived in rural Minnesota my entire life until last September, it's more prevalent to see other minorities and to see other Asians and to see Koreans and Mons and Vietnamese. And I like that because now I'm not, I have some anonymity, but I'm still not part of the majority.

So then going to Korea, it was kind of exciting to think I'm gonna see a lot of Koreans, this is gonna be great, I'm gonna blend right in. But then we get there, people know right away that we are not, as I said, Korean Koreans, all of us went through this because first of all, if I dressed in absolute Korean clothes and maybe put a hat on, all you have to do is look at my face. And Koreans are very, very into facial care, wearing sunscreen all the time. I have sun spots on my face, my face is way tan or anybody else's. So all you have to do is look at my skin and be like, she is not one of us. So being there and obviously what the hair do I have, you know, I would have my hair up in a ponytail cuz it was always hot.

So the bottom was shaved. And so people stared at me a lot. I had a couple of older women that kind of cussed me out in Korean, which I don't know what they were saying, but I could tell by the finger pointing and pointing at my hair that they were, giving me the what for? For having my hair shaved off. So then I didn't feel like it belonged there either, even though I kind of look like the people that were around there. Everybody knew I was foreigner and the other adoptees I was with, we all shared this feeling. And so we would talk about this and really honestly, the place that I feel at home, and we all said this to each other, was with our fellow adoptees and with our adoptees that were on the tour because we experienced these things together. We supported each other, we listened to each other.

Not everybody the same feelings, but that feeling about I don't belong here and I don't belong where I was raised and where I live. We all had that. And that was a hard pill to swallow. Cause I think we were all going into this believing that we would show up to Korea and boom finally found a place where we belong. And we did in a sense cuz we were together and we found it together, but we didn't. When we were out in the general public, it was a good and a bad thing because we found each other to support each other. But it was also that sense of I don't have a place in the world. Asians aren't considered to have had as much oppression as the rest of the people of color. So we're not considered people of color for purposes of white people, black people, Hispanics, American Indians looking at us as minorities because you know, we're the model minority so we don't have trouble.

So there's never that consideration for the fact that we experience discrimination in racism from other communities of color. It just adds to this whole feeling of there is no place that I belong because if I assert that I'm a person of color, it is that, yeah, but you are not black. Yeah, but you're not American Indian. I'm sorry, I didn't realize that we were gonna have oppression Olympics here and compare scorecards. So I don't know that that's necessarily puts anybody ahead. But all those things are always circling around. And then having that added layer of, oh, I went to my home country and then I'll feel at home there. Either <laugh> like, okay, well you know, I guess I'll just probably continue and do my thing. But that's a hard thing to not feel like you belong anywhere.

Billy:  Now that your son is off to college, is there any desire to give it a whirl in Korea and live there for a a while?

Brook:  It's complicated <laugh>, but I have thoughts about it. And the more I think about it, the more I think of ways to make that happen. Because in the one sense, my first and foremost priority in my life is my son. I deal with this idea if I did go there that I would lose time with him. And everybody says, well go live your life. But I have a different life history that that makes it very difficult. Since my other son died, I have felt like I can't miss out on time with my living son because I missed years, 12 years now with my youngest son. That's something that's really hard for me to get past and thinking about why I could go live abroad and and not be close to my son. That's really difficult. On the flip side of that, I think I've had this time with him, I really wanna have now other time with my birth family in Korea.

And so the idea of being able to live there and work there for a time period is very enticing. But I just don't know if I could do it with the idea of being away from my son. It's like there's this competing priorities, what's the top priority? And they're kind of even, and they're on the other sides of the world. So how do I live a life with that being there? So one of the thoughts I have is my son wants to go to dental school after he is done with undergrad, which would be here at the University of Minnesota. And he would likely be living with me. And that would be a real good time for me to go away <laugh>.

Cause I love the kid, but I live in a condo and it's not that big. And so it's kinda like, okay, well maybe then knowing that he was there and the condo was taken care of, I could go for a time period. But the hard part is, is that then if I only go for half a year and I come back here, what do I do for work? Because I can't do the job I have now there because of the time changing though, I can work remotely I don't think would work. So there's just things that I think as far as the planning goes, if it's meant to be in the universe, I'll figure those things out. I have time, my son just started a sophomore. I have time to think about it really more and look at what I could potentially do. But yes, I, I'd always thought about living abroad, not necessarily Korea, but I always really just wanna leave American, go list somewhere else, <laugh>.

But there's always that thing about, well my son and then eventually he's gonna have family and he'll have children and I wanna be there cuz I would like to damage his kids just as much as I damaged him. <laugh>, I mean, you know, I got a job to fulfill. So I don't know how to make that happen when I'm around the world. So we'll figure it out. I don't know. I really do think about it a lot, especially now I have my family there, so we'll see what happens. Or maybe I just take a big chunk of time off and come and travel around with you in Korea and then come back.

Billy:  Well, I was gonna say, I can be the surrogate and spread the energy and the love and joy to your family in Korea until you get there. Like I said, we both have big, obnoxious personalities. Well, I, I'm sorry, outgoing. Yes. Personalities. Yes. Maybe I could fill that void a smidge for them and just say, Brook says, I love you. I am so grateful to have you in my life. And it is just wild to me that we met halfway around the world and these past two months have really been an amazing time for us to get to know each other. And I've really enjoyed that time and I've heard bits and pieces of this story. And so for you to go in depth and be so vulnerable and share so much of this story with me and our listeners, I am eternally grateful for your friendship and for this story. Thank you so much for being here today. You're

Brook:  Very welcome. Thank you for having me and thank you everybody for listening.

Billy:  Hey, if you enjoyed this week's episode, be sure to look in the show notes for all of Brook's contact information. Also, I know Brook and I would greatly appreciate it if you would share this episode with the people in your life who may benefit from her expertise and life experiences. As I said at the beginning of this episode, the purpose of the show is to help you navigate the complexities and possibilities of life's second half. So I hope this conversation provided you with some insight that will help you reflect, learn, and grow. If you did find some value in this week's conversation, be sure to subscribe to the show wherever you get to your podcast so you never miss an episode. If you're an Apple listener, please consider taking a minute or two to leave a five star review with a few kind words. And if you're a Spotify listener, click those five stars under the show Art. Finally, you can check out the rest of our episodes at or wherever you get your podcast. So for Brook, this is Billy. Thank you for listening to the Mindful Midlife Crisis. May you feel happy, healthy and loved. Take care of friends.