It’ll be five years this October since Whitney Fritz reunited with her omma, appa, and birth siblings in Korea.
Along the way, her own journey inspired her to launch a collaboration with her husband, Lee. Their mission was to document the ongoing challenges of navigating a sometimes confusing and exhilarating adoptee journey.
“There are these stories out there that I feel like people aren’t telling," Whitney told NBC News. "So if there’s any way that we can be open and help other people be open and create this community of shared experience, that would be ultimately helpful."
The collaboration - a joint husband-wife blog called We The Lees - captures their shared experiences as Korean adoptees, and was inspired by the first and middle names Lee and Whitney’s adoptive families had coincidentally given them.
“For the first time since we’ve been married, I’ve realized our story was a little bit unique, and there’s a possibility that other adoptees might be interested in it -- the dynamic of married adoptees,” said Whitney.
After a difficult time mobilizing and finding a strong adoptee community in Nashville, Tennessee, the couple turned to blogging as a means to reach a larger audience.
“As far as Nashville, we’ve tried to seek out adoptee communities here, and it’s so much harder than if we lived in California or New York, or other places that tend to have larger adoptee communities," said Whitney.
Inspired by vloggers and Korean American adoptees and filmmakers like Zeke Anders, and actress Samantha Futerman from the documentary, “Twinsters,” the couple also hopes the blog will serve as an open community platform for other adoptees to share their experiences, fears, and stories.
Whitney was adopted at six months by the Casey family. She has three brothers and one sister, and is the only one adopted into the family. Growing up comfortably-assimilated into Nashville life, she says there were times when she would somehow forget that she was Korean American. But there were also subtle reminders that she was different -- like the time she went into Kmart and a 5-year-old girl pointed to her, saying, “Mom, it’s Mulan.”
“It was never spiteful or anything, but people would notice that I look different,” Whitney recalled. “Sometimes you can forget that you look different. Sometimes you’re surprised when you look in the mirror and don’t look like the rest of the family.”
Whitney says, growing up, she was never interested in searching for her birth family. It wasn’t until 2010, when a struggling U.S. economy prompted her to travel overseas in search of work. She happened to accept a job in Korea, just an hour south of Seoul, teaching conversational English to students. Still, she never intended to find her birth parents.
“The only reason I went to Korea was for the paycheck, I really had no thoughts of birth family or anything related to my adoption," she said. "My job just happened to be in Korea.”
But her adoptive family persisted, urging her to open up her file and get a hold of the adoption agency. Nine months into her teaching contract, Whitney mustered the courage to schedule an appointment with a case worker.
She was told to expect an update within a month. The case worker was able to track down Whitney’s family in less than 48 hours. Whitney was told her birth family wanted to meet her the following day. She calls those few days "an 'out of body experience,'" something that she can still hardly believe happened.
“The thing that sticks out the most to me is that it was the opposite of what anybody would expect," she recalled. "It’s not the way people envision it, or the way Hollywood would portray it in a movie.”
The next day, Whitney walked into a conference room with a translator to meet her birth family - the Jeons. Her omma (mother) and appa (father) were waiting for her.
"Oh my goodness," her omma gasped. "You look just like your brother."
They sat and talked for an hour. Whitney told them about her adoptive family, her siblings, and work. She asked them why they put her up for adoption. There were no tears, Whitney recalls, just relief and gratitude for the time they could spend together. The anxiety and nervousness slowly simmered off as her omma and appa had a heart-to-heart conversation with Whitney about the first few days she was born.
Omma explained how she and her husband - a factory worker - were barely making ends meet when she had their first child, a boy - Whitney's older brother, Seong-bae.
“They were barely getting by," Whitney said, "and they were having a hard time feeding mouths.”
When Whitney was born, she had serious health problems. Her birth parents took her to different doctors in the city, many of whom suggested a series of surgeries the family knew they couldn't afford. To give Whitney a better life, better health, and a chance at financial stability, they decided to put her up for adoption.
“They wanted me to have a family who could provide and take care of me and give me the medical attention I needed," Whitney said. She went into foster care for six months before she was adopted by the Casey family in Nashville.
Though Whitney had learned earlier she had a little brother in Korea, the reunion was the first time she learned about her older brother - a shock she detailed in her three-part series, “Birth Siblings.” The news of her existence also came as a shock to her birth siblings, who knew nothing about Whitney until the reunion.
Most of the time, Whitney was worried about damaging the strong relationship her brothers had with her birth parents. Whitney worried whether her brothers would react in a negative way since her parents kept Whitney a secret from them all these years.
"I didn’t know if they would hate me for coming back and disturbing the peace. I didn’t want to disrupt the boys’ relationship with their parents, and I didn’t want to damage any years they had of them."
But that fear quickly went away once Whitney frequently visited them, bonding over a shared love of K-Pop and pizza. The boys were happy to reunite with their sister after years of living without one.
"I went through a coping process, but everything’s fine now," she said. "I'm so glad that it went smoothly."
Lee grew up in Pennsylvania and later moved to the South, after studying economics and finance, and later, meeting and marrying Whitney. His origin story bear similarities to his wife's, but also distinct differences.
Born in Busan, Korea, Lee was put up for adoption at four months. Growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, his parents exposed Lee to Korean-American culture and were always transparent about his adoption. Every year, the Fritz family would go to an annual neighborhood Christmas dinner hosted by a Korean-American family.
“I remember as a child, being forced to go there and being forced to eat food all this Korean food I had no idea what it was," said Lee. "But as years went by and as I got older, I realized how much I looked forward to the dinner and getting together with other Koreans.”
His parents, Lee recalls, were always "open books" about his adoption. So he never gave it much thought.
“I was just their son, and the adoption was important in our household to understand, ‘Hey, this is where I came from, Korea," said Lee. "They did the best they could to let us fit in with anyone else.”
After Whitney's reunion with her birth family, Lee met them as well, and says he appreciates the memories he's built with his Korean in-laws. While he hasn't started the search for his own birth family, he's a witness to his wife's five-year journey. He wrote about his experience meeting the Jeons for the first time.
“Meeting them was eye-opening because as an adoptee, I’ve never done my family search yet, so getting to see Whitney and her family - whether it’s her brothers, grandmothers, or parents, it’s something that maybe down the road, I’ll look into,” said Lee.
"We have this thing that doesn’t need to be spoken between us."
We The Lees - A Love Story
It was, in the end, their shared origin that brought together Lee and Whitney for the first time. They met at a Korean-American adoptee conference in Albany, New York, in the summer of 2012. Whitney had been writing regularly as a contributor for Adoption Voices Magazine. Lee's eyes immediately gravitated toward Whitney, who happened to be sitting in the front row of an early morning panel Lee had hesitated to attend.
“Whitney has always been the good student - the person who always sits in the front row and raises her arm," joked Lee. "I’m kind of the slacker who slips in through the back door after the bell has rung."
After the session ended, Lee nervously walked over to the front row and introduced himself. They ended up having coffee and started dating.
“I think it’s interesting we have this thing that doesn’t need to be spoken between us that we know sometimes the feelings are hard and things can be complicated, but we can just have an understanding between us,” said Lee.
5 Years Later
After her birth family reunion in 2010, Whitney stayed an additional four months in Korea where she studied the Korean language. She spent her nights glued to books, determined to become fluent. And even today, the biggest challenge is the distance -- being nearly 8,000 miles apart from a family she just started getting to know.
“It’s really hard because they’re our family and they’re part of our everyday lives," said Whitney. "We communicate all the time.”
The couple has found time to visit Whitney's birth family too, adjusting their lives and routines overseas to remain in line with Korean customs and traditions.
“My mom is a tiger mom. When I’m there, they want me to be Korean. She always wants me to eat a Korean breakfast: rice, kimchi, at 7 a.m.,” said Whitney.
Lee and Whitney are now planning to visit Korea in December to attend Whitney’s older brother’s wedding where they’ll have the chance to reconnect with aunts, uncles, cousins, and extended family.
In the near future, the couple hopes to grow their blog’s readership and eventually partner with other adoption agencies to support AAPI adoptee communities and participate in related conferences.
“We like to make sure adoptees are aware of the Pandora’s box they open when they walk through that door," said Whitney. "It’s difficult to change your mind if you decide later in the process that you don’t want to go through with it.”