Finding a heritage

Posted: Monday, September 15, 2003

Mara Early may have the short, slight stature and dark hair and eyes that characterize most Koreans, but for all practical purposes, she is white, she said.

"Politically I am of color and I can identify with that, but at the same time, I didn't know what that meant," said Early.

Early, a senior at Southern Oregon University, was brought to Juneau by her parents, Sharon and Dennis Early, when she was three months old.

"I grew up middle class and white," she said. "I had all the opportunity you could imagine."

To help her understand the culture connected to her ethnic heritage, Early traveled to Korea this July with other Korean-American adoptees.

Early had been talking about the trip since sixth grade but she grew nervous as it approached, The experience left her culturally enriched, she said.

"It was very important for me to go back and to be able to connect with the identity that I put a lot of value into," she said.

Abandoned in Seoul at birth by her biological mother, Early lived in a Korean foster home before her the Earlys brought her to Juneau. In July, she met the woman, a foster-care worker, who cared for her during the first three months of her life.

Early's foster mother cried when Sharon and Dennis Early came to take Mara away as a three month old, and she cried when she was reunited with Early 21 years later, Early said.

The reunion had more of an effect on Early than she anticipated.

"I never had the awareness that there were people in Korea thinking that much about me," she said. "... It was like, wow, there are people thousands of miles away in a different country who think about me all the time."

Sharon and Dennis Early were supportive of their daughter's return journey to Korea. The trip was sponsored in part by Holt International Children's Services, the agency that facilitated the adoption.

"At 21, that's when you form your own identity," Sharon Early said. "It's part of what you do at that age. And to have the opportunity to go alone and experience that as your own thing ... I think it's part of what we all hope for our children at that age."

Sharon Early's trip to Korea to retrieve her daughter 21 years ago gave her a strong sense of her place in the world, she said. She hoped her daughter would have a similar experience in Korea.

"She's old enough to really understand the impact of it, the meaning of it, and I think she did," she said. "To have that whole sense of who she is, it's just pretty stunning."

Mara Early will graduate from Southern Oregon in December with a major in political science and minors in French and women's studies. She hopes to return to Korea.

"My attitude is, it's fun belonging to two countries and having those options," she said.

A particularly poignant part of the trip for Early was visiting an orphanage in Seoul, holding Korean babies and visiting with single mothers who were giving up their children for adoption.

"I think it made a lot of the adoptees realize that it wasn't like (their mothers) were throwing away an old shirt or something," she said.

The trip included Korean language, cooking and history classes. She plans to continue her studies of the Korean language in anticipation of future trips.

"It's the only way I can communicate with my foster mother," she said.

Through the Earlys, who have one other biological son, Jeffrey, 23, have not made any specific plans to return to Korea as a group, they plan to travel to the country soon.

"I'm saving up my miles," Sharon Early said.

• Christine Schmid can be reached at

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