Bella Siegel-Dalton is a mixed-race adoptee who returned to South Korea after 51 years to look for her biological mother’s family. The big Korean letters on her shirt say
Bella Siegel-Dalton is back in South Korea for the first time since being adopted by a family in the Napa Valley of northern California in 1966. When Bella Siegel-Dalton, 56, met a Hankyoreh reporter in a coffee shop on the first floor of the Lotte Hotel in Seoul on Apr. 1, her face was pallid. Because of kidney trouble, she needs to receive a transplant within two years. She’s also receiving chemotherapy after being diagnosed with leukemia.
Seven years ago, Siegel-Dalton identified her biological father in the US through DNA testing, but he had already passed away. During this trip to South Korea, she says she wants to find her biological mother. “My 17-day trip to South Korea is challenging, so I’m gritting my teeth and hanging on. But it’s not painful, because this visit is so important to me,” she said.
Siegel-Dalton is a mixed-race adoptee who was born in Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province, in 1961, to a South Korean woman and an American soldier. Her birth name was Lee Ji-sun. “My adoptive parents were really good people. My mother was an English teacher with a Master’s degree, while my father was a researcher for Shell Oil. They would sometimes let me try kimchi and listen to ‘Arirang’ so that I wouldn’t forget my memories of Korea,” she said.
Siegel-Dalton shared something upsetting she heard from a mixed-race adoptee around 30 years old whom she met recently. “They said they lived in the US until the age of 30 without having tried kimchi even once. It just broke my heart [to hear that],” she said.
For the past two years, Siegel-Dalton has been serving as data director for 325Kamra, a non-profit organization for Korean mixed-race adoptees in the US. The organization’s objective is to use DNA testing to find Korean biological mothers and other separated family members. So far, they have found three Korean biological mothers and 28 American biological fathers. Last year, members of 325Kamra brought 400 DNA kits to South Korea and tested 125 Korean mothers.
“Kamra” is an acronym for “Korean Adoptee Mixed Race Association,” while “325” refers to the number of the room at the Shattuck Hotel in Berkeley that hosted the meeting at which the decision was made to establish 325Kamra. “During a conference held in Sep. 2015, I made a presentation about how I had found my father using DNA testing. Then the participants suggested that we could use the same method to find mothers, too,” Siegel-Dalton said. She was one of the central figures in setting up this organization, which currently has more than 100 full members.
The initial reason why Siegel-Dalton started looking for her parents was because of her health. “As I dealt with kidney problems, I wondered whether someone in my family has a similar medical history as me. There was no one on my birth father‘s family who had the same condition,” she said.
“I think there will be some relatives on my birth mother’s side who have a similar condition. If [my birth mother] didn’t receive the right treatment, she might not be alive today,” she said, with concern in her voice.
If Siegel-Dalton is able to get a kidney transparent and her kidneys’ condition can be stabilized, she intends to get a bone marrow transplant to treat her leukemia. It would be helpful if she could get a transplant from a relative on her biological mother’s side with the right bone marrow.
But Siegel-Dalton said her health wasn’t the only reason she was looking for her biological mother. “I want to know who I am and where I came from. I‘m not in a position to ask anyone on my birth mother’s side to help me with my treatment. I just feel like I want to see her face one time. But if one of my relatives volunteered to help me, I would be grateful,” she said.
After graduating from a community college, Siegel-Dalton served in the US Coast Guard for five years before managing hotels for 14 years. She has been at her current job at an international shipping company for 16 years. She has three children and five grandchildren, including one who will be born soon. One of her children has a similar medical condition.
What do Siegel-Dalton’s children think about her search for her roots? “[My kids] are all grown up and on their own. They think of the adoptive parents who raised me as their grandparents. They have a hard time understanding that something was stolen from me, this feeling of emptiness. I have a lot of conversations with my husband about this kind of thing,” she said.
If the search for families through DNA testing is to get results, Korean mothers need to be proactive about getting tested. “We’ve put up promotional posters at Holt and other adoption agencies. We’ve tried to do DNA testing at elderly welfare centers and other places like that, but we’ve been turned away. Since DNA testing is a sensitive issue, you can‘t force it on people. We’re thinking about running ads in the media [to encourage people to get tested],” Siegel-Dalton said.
Siegel-Dalton‘s view is that parents should start being required to take a DNA test when they give up a child for adoption. “Names and other information about the child can be incorrect. DNA is the surest form of information. There would also need to be a pledge not to use the DNA information for anything other than finding families,” she said.
During the 1980s alone, more than 60,000 South Korean children were sent overseas for adoption. While numbers are much lower today, adoptions haven’t stopped. The year before last, 374 children were adopted overseas, 74% of whom went to the US.
“South Korea is a developed country. I wish they would have a good system that would make it possible for single mothers to raise their own children. If that happened, the children wouldn’t be adopted overseas but could grow up in Korea instead and have a positive impact on Korean society,” Siegel-Dalton said.
Siegel-Dalton said that her attitude about adoption is different from that of the next generation of adoptees. “[My generation] accepted adoption as reality, but the younger generation isn’t doing so. They raise questions. Back then, there were a lot of mixed-race adoptees who were half-American, but now the children are completely Korean. They feel isolated in white families,” she said.
By Kang Sung-man, senior staff writer
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