Monday, December 22, 2008
By C.J. Lin
Derek Hommel stood atop the 1,574-foot N Seoul Tower in South Korea one night and looked out at the lights of the city, thinking his birth mother might be out there somewhere.
The adopted son of a Pompey couple thought anyone among Seoul's 10 million residents could be related to him.
Hommel, a 2004 Fayetteville-Manlius High School graduate, was in Korea last winter looking for his birth mother.
He left Seoul disappointed, with only a mental image of his birth mother gleaned from an old black and white photo in his adoption file.
He'd left behind a "looking for persons" report with a police agency just in case, but wasn't too hopeful.
Two months later, that report would lead him back to Seoul to meet his birth mother, and a brother he never knew existed.
"I thought it'd be a sort of closure to something, like bring my past to some sort of end of one story, like it would solve a lot of things at one time," said Hommel, 22. "But when I finally met her, it was sort of just the beginning."
For Hommel, this is the first holiday season he has two families - one in Pompey and one on the other side of the world.
Hommel's search for his birth mother began more than a year ago, when he decided to study abroad in Japan for the second semester of his junior year at the University of Rochester.
In Japan, Hommel decided on a whim to search for his birth mother during a February visit to Korea.
"Before, I'd never given it thought," he said. "I guess as a kid I was like, 'Yeah, someday I want to
do it,' but I was never focused on it."
He visited the adoption agency that had paired him with the Pompey couple, Wendy Sage-Hommel and Scott Hommel, in 1987 when he was 8 months old.
Agency officials told him that finding birth mothers was difficult because they often did not want to be found. But Hommel did see what his birth mother looked like when she was 27, in a photograph agency officials showed him.
"I was amazed that she looked so much like me," said Hommel, who also has two Korean sisters his parents adopted. "It's strange, because as an adoptee I look nothing like my parents or siblings, so I had never had the experience of seeing a blood relative before. It was just a small photo 1 by 2 inches maybe but the similarity was unmistakable. It was so good to finally have a face for this person 'birth mother.' "
Hommel said he felt happy after seeing the picture, but he didn't give up the search. He went to the police and filed the "looking for persons" notice. He left his Pompey telephone number and the address of a family friend, Jeannie Lyou, who lives in Seoul and was helping him. The police told him that chances of finding his birth mother were slim, and he returned to Japan.
"I thought, maybe in a few years I'll hear something," he said.
Hommel said he considered trying to learn Korean, just in case he got to meet his birth mother.
Then, a little more than a month later, Sage-Hommel got a call at 2 a.m. from Lyou saying that Hommel's birth mother had contacted her. Lyou dropped another bombshell: Hommel had a younger brother.
"It never even occurred to me at all," Sage-Hommel said of the possibility that Derek would have other blood relatives. "All I was thinking about was his birth mother. I never even thought beyond that."
In April, Hommel boarded a plane and returned to Korea to meet his birth mother, Kim Hyang Rye, and his brother, Seo Jeong Ho, outside of a hostel in his birthplace of Incheon (formerly Inchon), about an hour west of Seoul.
They didn't say anything. They just hugged.
"I was just frozen. I didn't know what to do," Derek Hommel said. "They were complete strangers and I couldn't talk to them. I was really excited and I really wanted to be able to converse. I didn't know anything. I really wish I could have known the language. It was so hard."
His brother, who had not known about Hommel either, stared at him with a huge grin, grabbed him, shook his hand and hugged him. Hommel said his head was full of questions, but he didn't want to bombard his mother with them because they had just met.
They had lunch. They went to a nearby park, where their mother, who works as a cook, had hired a professional photographer to take pictures of the newly united family of three.
"It's kind of weird, because I think as my mother, she sort of knew me more than I knew her," Hommel said. "I mean she didn't really spend that much time with me, but she still gave birth to me."
After six hours together, his birth mother and brother got in a car and were gone.
Hommel didn't get too much information about his birth father.
Sage-Hommel said they've learned that Kim gave Derek up for adoption because his birth father did not want another child mainly because he had family elsewhere. Kim said she had purposely stayed near Incheon in hopes that Hommel would someday find her, Sage-Hommel said.
While at the adoption agency, Derek Hommel found records that showed he had two half sisters on his father's side, but he's not sure if he'll look for them. Sage-Hommel thinks the father may be dead because Lyou was unsuccessful when trying to trace the father's Korean resident identification number that was in Derek's adoption file.
Hommel received letters from his birth mother and brother several months ago, but he couldn't read what they wrote. He spent weeks before finding someone with free time to translate the letters. He has since vowed to learn Korean. The University of Rochester doesn't offer Korean classes, so he's studying on his own using textbooks, audio lessons, computer software and other materials.
His adoptive mother isn't surprised that Hommel, who graduated from F-M as a National Merit scholar with a 5.25 GPA (on a 5.50 scale), wanted to find his biological family.
"He was really different from the other kids," Sage-Hommel said. "There was always something missing. My other kids aren't like that."
Hommel's two sisters love the clothes, people and the food here, and dislike most Korean food, Sage-Hommel said.
Her son was always quieter, shyer and more of a deep thinker than the other children. He had always been interested in Asian culture, she said, and when he returned from Japan and Korea last spring, he had adopted some of the customs there, such as bowing in greeting.
Now, Derek Hommelis competing for a Fulbright Scholarship, a prestigious international exchange program, so that he can teach English in South Korea and be near his birth mother.
Even if he doesn't get the Fulbright, he's determined to return to Asia. He's already applied to three other programs to teach English in South Korea, or in Fukuoka, Japan.
"He wants to go back. He belongs there," Sage-Hommel said. "As sad as it is for me and my husband, I know he will not come back. As sad as that is, nobody likes to see their child unhappy. And when I see how unhappy he is, it makes me realize that he really needs to be where he needs to be."
Sage-Hommel has considered calling Derek's birth mother, but the language barrier poses a problem for her, too. She hopes that she'll get to meet her son's biological family one day.
"I hope they can come down here," Sage-Hommel said. "Especially his brother. Even though I've never met him, I feel like he's family."