Joel Peterson

I am sharing just a small overview of Joel’s story as he’s written a book about it! You can purchase and read it here! So thanks for sharing some of your story, Joel. Joel’s story is very different from mine. I struggle to come to terms with the trauma of my own adoption, but I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to be adopted at an older age.

I was born to an extremely destitute Korean mother who was a sex worker, made pregnant by an unknown American GI. I lived with my alcoholic Korean mother in starving, desperate circumstances that at times left my mother and me sleeping and begging on the streets and me maimed and deformed.

My Korean mother eventually placed me in an orphanage, and I was adopted at the age of 7. I was placed with a white American family, who already had four biological children, in all white, rural Minnesota.

I was fortunate to become a National Merit Scholar, which was my ticket out to a wider world of diversity and opportunity. I attended college on the East Coast on a Navy scholarship and served 7 years as a U.S. Navy officer, during which I earned an MBA; allowing me to have had a number of successful careers in international finance, global mergers and acquisitions, and international high-tech businesses while earning a PhD. Currently, I am a Vice Chancellor for the San Diego Community College District, the second largest in the country.  I share all this only to highlight how far distant I am now from my birth because of my Korean mother’s courage and strength.

When my mother put me up for adoption, she explained why  — it was her hope and her love’s burning, anguished wish that I might have a future that would be completely unavailable if I stayed with her in Korea.

She made this point very, very clear to me: It was her love as a mother, her hopes as a mother, and her duties as a mother that drove her to relinquishment. She had tried so hard, had given all of her soul and had fought the loathing and ostracism of her world, only to realize that it was futile. There would be no future for me raised in her destitute, desperate world.

I was old enough to understand her words, but I also was old enough to know that I was losing my mother. I understood that the day I left for America might be the last time that I would ever see the only human being who’d ever shown me any love; I would be losing my name, may language, my entire world.

The two hundred thousand of us who were adopted from Korea all have unique stories and our own separate, but thematically similar journeys — all too often shockingly, unthinkably heart wrenching.

I liken my mother’s situation to me needing a last resort “surgery” for a tragic and potentially fatal condition – being born illegitimate and mixed-race to a prostitute in Korea. She had to make a choice where there were no good options. And she chose to have me put through the surgery of relinquishment and adoption that I might live. But she knew that she would have to watch the cutting and the blood up close; that the blood would surely indelibly splatter her. And she knew that there would be no anesthesia — that I would be wide awake and fully aware through all the pain.

And the surgery would take years and she knew that she would likely never know the outcome, only knowing that I knew that it had been her decision to put me through the pain. And she knew that I would someday judge her.

Now that I am a father, I’m not sure I would have had such courage and strength in her place. I’m awed by a love big enough to have let me go.

Although a rare, niche slice of human experience, adoption contains within it all the most relevant, timeless, and deeply felt – and held – human themes, passions, values, insecurities, tragedies, and judgments. 

And loves.

Thank you for sharing, Joel. Your story is the opposite of mine in so many ways. I can only hope I come out of my own experience as successful as you have! It’s amazing that you can see your being given up as something your mother did out of strength. <3 She’d be so proud of you. <3

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