Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Adoption Story — from Sylvia Updegraff

That’s me.

Son Jin Shil, K80-2834. My first mug.

I was a Korean orphan until at 6 months, woosh!, I landed at LAX where my mom greeted me and promptly tucked me under her arm as she ran to catch her connecting flight back to Utah.

And now my new family: a Korean, a Korean older brother, a white dad, and a Latina mom, living in a middle-class lily white town in Utah.

Life was so good to me. The only time I ever remember being teased was in 3rd grade when a boy on my bus called me a chink. “What’s a chink?” I asked my brother later that day. Neither of us could figure it out so we shrugged it off. Junior high and high school involved a series of painfully awkward moments and braided belts, but mostly good stuff. “If you dare move out of Pleasant Grove,” I’d threaten my dad, “I’m moving in with Sarah because I have to graduate here with my friends!” Of course I wanted to be skinnier, and prettier, and more popular. Of course I wondered why the zit gods were always waving their wands over me. Of course I hated looking in the mirror for half my teenage existence. But who doesn’t? I suppose this is where I see that I wasn’t an adolescent struggling because of my Korean-ness; I was an adolescent struggling because of my adolescent-ness.


These are the gifts my parents gave me: Unconditional love. Validation of my existence. Unequivocal inclusion into their lives, hearts, and ancestry. Their heritage was my heritage. My slobber was their slobber.
It was never denying, though. You can’t really hide the fact that a white dude and Latina lady can’t make a Korean pop out. I always knew I was adopted, and I always knew I was Korean. But they made me feel pretty, and normal.

They made me feel like a person. “That brown skin is so beautiful.” “Eeesh, those teeth are going to cost me a fortune at the orthodontist’s!” “Good thing you didn’t inherit our genes for big rear ends.” It was just always truthful, honest, accepting.

And then affectionate. “You are wonderful.” “You amaze me.” “We’re so lucky.”

They made me feel two things: human, and loved.


Their success wasn’t a formula of You’re-45%-Korean-and-25%-Latina-and-30%-White. It wasn’t a careful gameplan filled with Korean heritage camps and annual kimchi tastings at July 4th celebrations. It wasn’t about making me feel Korean, or American, or Latina. They never put me on a pedestal, or tore me down, or made me feel radically different or painfully invisible. They wove a seamless cloak of homemade tamales and Korean maps and slip 'n slides, not to teach me lessons in culture, but to live life.

They taught me to be Me. Sylvia. A person, just like them, and just like everyone else on this planet.

They taught me to be every part of myself—my long fingers, my slanted eyes, my penchant for mashed potatoes, their child. There was no classifying of parts. Only inclusion.


My 4th baby is still baking away inside me, and I want for him what I want for my older three: self-love. Whether or not this will include a study in their half-Korean heritage is up in the air: if I’ve learned anything, it’s that every kid is unbelieveably different, and they’ll all have their own needs. How I meet those needs is TBD; I’ll have to see how the cards play out. I only hope that I can help them to understand that they are a gift from God above. That I am awed and thankful for them. That I like them, and that I love them.

Any mom can hope to do that, adopted or biological.


God bless my parents for the life they gave me. God bless them for giving me love, and food, and a family.

Mostly, God bless them for always making sure I knew that I was the blessing.

And that, I know, is the key to their success.

From Sylvia Updegraff of Life as Five.


Note from Design Mom: for the duration of my pregnancy, I'll be posting advice, memories and stories about pregnancy, childbirth, adoption and growing a family on Wednesdays. You can find them all by clicking here. I'd love to hear your story or memory or advice, feel free to submit it to


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Blogger Emily said...

So sweet, I love this story. Thanks Sylvia!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 1:03:00 PM EST  
Blogger Mommy said...

Thank you, Sylvia! So much of your story echoes my own - adopted from Korea at 9 months into a a white family in a white town - you hit the nail on the head that while heritage is important, love is the key ingredient. Now I'm wading in new waters as an adoptive mom myself and I have the same wishes for my kids! Bless you and your whole family.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 1:18:00 PM EST  
Blogger CocoBlu Studio said...

Beautiful! I love your story. Every parent should read this- adopted child or no. I love that you grew up to greatly appreciate something as simple as NORMALCY. We should all raise our children this way regardless of circumstance!! Give them love & a sense belonging, without exalting them to God-like status. I love it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 1:37:00 PM EST  
Blogger Becca said...

Sylvia, I loved reading your story. I graduated from PGHS with Tony, and I think you know my sisters Jessica and Terra. It's great to hear that life is good for you. Congratulations on your happy family.

I also enjoyed reading about your childhood for another reason. My husband and I are parents to two adopted children, both half Hispanic. And next summer we plan on beginning the process to adopt a baby boy from Korea.

I pray that we can provide all our children with the same love and sense of belonging that your parents gave to you.

Thank you for sharing. And tell Tony that Becca Christensen says hi!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 1:40:00 PM EST  
Blogger michelle said...

I love this story. Thanks for sharing.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 1:48:00 PM EST  
Blogger Ali said...

Simply, lovely.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 1:51:00 PM EST  
Blogger alex said...

i'm loving all the birth/adoption/baby stories, but this one especially affected me. i love the way you describe your childhood, sylvia! thank you for writing & posting this.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 1:58:00 PM EST  
Blogger N said...

thank you for sharing your story. it was so sweet. i loved reading every word. thank you!!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 1:59:00 PM EST  
Blogger Kami said...

Beautifully written...thank you Sylvia.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 2:29:00 PM EST  
Blogger michelle said...

what a beautiful story. you say it so poetically. A child is a gift and all you can do is give them love and security. Thank you for writing this. I have a little girl and my husband and I feel strongly in adopting our next child. love is love and every child needs a home.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 2:45:00 PM EST  
Blogger Alison said...


Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 2:49:00 PM EST  
Blogger Kara said...

Sylvia, haha oh how I know I have said those words about moving out good ole PG!! So so funny. Thank you for sharing your story! Your kids are ADORABLE!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 3:17:00 PM EST  
Blogger Jana Echevarria said...

I love your story, even after knowing you since our days in Elementary school at Manila, it shows me more of what a wonderful person you are and have always been. Thank you for sharing!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 4:00:00 PM EST  
Blogger cindave said...

that was an amazing story, sylv. love you!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 5:17:00 PM EST  
Blogger Christy said...

Wow what an amazing story! And I just clicked through to her blog and love it too. What a cool, fun family!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 6:06:00 PM EST  
Blogger nicole said...


It is great to hear and adoptee explain about the love they felt from their adopted parents.

I hope my daughter feels the same way when she is grown and has her own kids!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 7:03:00 PM EST  
Blogger Vicki said...

You are so amazing -- Love your writing and adore you!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 8:09:00 PM EST  
Blogger Catherine said...

Sylvia, I loved reading this about you! You have a wonderful perspective on all things in life. I feel fortunate our paths crossed when they did.XOX!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 9:49:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This happy story brings tears to my eyes. My favorite line: "...a seamless cloak of homemade tamales and Korean maps and slip 'n slides..."
And your children couldn't be more beautiful.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 11:29:00 PM EST  
Blogger missy said...

Oh my goodness, I loved reading this. I was moved through the entire thing, wishing/wanting/hoping that I will be able to instill in my daughters the same things you describe.

Thank you!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 at 11:42:00 PM EST  
Blogger mrs boo radley said...

Fabulous. My favorite "Design Mom Birth Story on Wednesdays" yet!

Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 12:23:00 AM EST  
Blogger Barbie said...

Beautiful. I am moved by stories like yours, of adopted children. Yours is especially inspiring because of the gratitude that colors your lens.

Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 12:44:00 AM EST  
Blogger a pina colada said...

Wow! That was beautifully written and shared. Thank you so much! It helped remind me what is most important as a mom to give those precious ones. I pray that I can give my children that same gift of self-love and acceptance. They truly are a "gift from God," just like you stated!

Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 1:05:00 AM EST  
Blogger Azúcar said...

Gabrielle, I just have to thank you for helping me find long lost family friends the Updegraffs!

Thursday, November 26, 2009 at 1:35:00 PM EST  
Blogger Cookie said...

Love your story, thank you so much for sharing!

Friday, November 27, 2009 at 2:39:00 AM EST  
Blogger Mama 2 Ladybug said...

Beautifully written, thanks for sharing! We have a biracial foster daughter who was 14 months old when she came to us 15 months ago....will be adopting her soon. I hope she feels the same way you do when she's older :)

Saturday, November 28, 2009 at 9:30:00 PM EST  
Blogger michelle said...

Hi Sylvia,

I'm not sure if you are still reading the comments on this, but hello! I met you once or twice way back in the day, and I know your husband because I lived in the "Southeast Asian Complex" aka BYU ghetto aka Miller Apartments. The strongest memory I have of Kurt is that he had really good shoes which were always clean :).

Your adoption story is beautiful. Thanks for sharing. Take care and say hello to Kurt for me.

Sunday, November 29, 2009 at 8:22:00 AM EST  
Blogger jess said...

Wow! Sylvia!
I have wondered what ever happened to you and Kurt!
I hope you remember me - roommate for a short 6 months or so at Santa Barbara before my mission. I see that your blog is private, but I hope life treats you well! Congrats on #4 (4?!! Awesome!) and thanks for sharing your story:)

Sunday, November 29, 2009 at 2:57:00 PM EST  
Blogger Angela Noelle said...

Thank you for picking this story to share, and thanks for submitting it, Sylvia. P.S. Your photos are the sweetest.

Monday, November 30, 2009 at 5:43:00 AM EST  
Blogger Lia said...

thanks for sharing this :) it's very touching and sweet :)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at 6:42:00 AM EST  

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