MENTOR, Ohio — For many Americans that were adopted as children from their native South Korea, reuniting with their birth parents is an incredibly important occasion on par with weddings and funerals. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has largely halted these celebratory excursions, it didn't stop Mallory Guy of Mentor from meeting and quarantining with her biological family.
From mid-September to mid-October, Guy made up for lost time, getting to know her birth family while criss-crossing the country. They communicated through a translation app.
How the visit came to be, however, started when Guy was just seven months old.
Long before Guy was born, the number of South Korean children being internationally adopted increased dramatically following the Korean War. According to the South Korean Ministry for Health, Welfare and Family Affairs, more than 100,000 children were adopted by American families between 1953 and 2008. The country with the second-highest number of adoptees was France with 11,000.
When Guy was adopted, she said she had very little documentation and knowledge about her birth family. At the time, she didn't know whether her Korean-born name or birth date was accurate on the documentation that she had. She did, however, have a theory on why she was put up for adoption.
"Growing up, in my head, I made up different storylines as to why I was given up for adoption," Guy said. "The main focus was my cleft lip and palate. I figured [my Korean parents] didn't have the resources to help me with that. They wanted me to have a better life. That turned out to be true."
Guy said she was adopted by loving parents that lived in Mentor, which is where Guy continues to live today. In 2013, Guy entered her DNA into 23andMe's relative database. Months and years passed without a match. Then, in September 2019, Guy checked her account -- something she seldom did.
"I randomly checked it probably three times a year. It wasn't very often because I kind of forgot about it. It wasn't a main focus," Guy said. "When I looked, I was shocked. I was shocked. I had goosebumps."
Guy's DNA had a familial match to a great aunt that lived in Seattle. She reached out and made contact with her right away. Over the course of the next year, that lone match led Guy to her biological parents. She planned on visiting them in March but was delayed to September because of the pandemic and travel restrictions.
"I've never flown internationally by myself or [flown] by myself in general. That factor alone, I was a little bit nervous," Guy said. "I had nothing connecting me to the outside world."
Luckily, Guy had the necessary documentation that would allow her to quarantine with her biological parents, who lived about 50 miles south of Seoul, South Korea. It would be another 90-minute ride by taxi to arrive at her parents' apartment.
"I was definitely nervous. I wasn't sure what they would think of me or what they had in their head as for who I was or who would they would be in person," Guy said. "It was overwhelming meeting people you never thought you'd meet ever. Just being in a different country and not knowing where you're at. All of those factors played in. It was just very overwhelming. It's a moment that's hard to describe."
When she arrived, Guy said her parents were waiting with open arms. They and her siblings made her feel right at home, right from the start. While being forced to quarantine with a long lost family might seem like an anxiety-inducing endeavor, Guy said the apprehension quickly melted away.
"They treated me like their daughter. It felt very natural," Guy said.
That feeling permeated through the entire trip, which included traditional Korean meals around the table, treks through Korea's most scenic areas and even family tequila shots.
"I just didn't know what to expect and how it would be. It was more than amazing. I could have never pictured or imagined that sort of trip," Guy said.
Although there certainly was a language barrier, Guy and her family members were able to get to know one another. Not only that, Guy was able to finally understand why her parents put her up for adoption. The decision, she says, is one that she, as a parent, can sympathize with.
Guy's childhood theory was right: her Korean parents put her up for adoption because they didn't have the financial resources to correct Guy's cleft lip and palate.
"Once I became a parent, I [realized] how hard that must have been for them. It was probably the greatest sacrifice you can make as a parent: wanting better for your child," Guy said. "I learned a lot more than I thought I would about my family and why they did what they did. A parent's love truly stands the test of time. It's truly remarkable to see how much I was loved without knowing it."