Is There Anybody Out There?
This past spring, L.A.-based rapper and Korean American adoptee Dan Matthews began searching for his birth parents. What he found would change his life. An album and web series, both to be released next February, document the dramatic story about loss and discovery, identity and family.
by STEVE HAN
A BEAM OF LIGHT blinded Dan Matthews for a second as he pushed open the squeaky door of the adoption agency in Seoul. After a moment, four people came into view. They were sitting around a table, and one of them abruptly jumped up, ran to him and embraced him.
It was his mother — his birth mother. A slight woman with kind eyes, she started sobbing uncontrollably, and didn’t stop for almost 20 minutes.
Matthews was meeting her for the very first time, but he didn’t shed a single tear.
“This will sound heartless, but I had no emotional attachment,” Matthews recalled.
Born Park In Soo, Matthews was 8 months old when Lynne and Jim Matthews adopted him. The Caucasian couple raised him in Camarillo, California, a quiet suburban town about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles. They were the ones with whom he celebrated birthdays, played catch and who taught him how to ride a bike. It wasn’t until March of this year when Matthews, an L.A.-based rapper who goes by the name DANakaDAN, wondered if it was finally the right time to search for his birth family.
He had grown up in a loving household, along with a younger sister, also adopted from Korea, but, like many other adoptees, he had long wondered about the missing pieces to his past. After getting an invitation to attend and perform at an international Korean adoptee conference in August, he thought this could be his chance to try to fill in those blanks. So, with the blessing of his adoptive mother (his adoptive father passed away two years ago), the 28-year-old filled out the paperwork in May to begin the search.
Even then, however, Matthews felt the chances of him actually finding his birth family were slim. He had known of others for whom the search took several months, years or who never were able to find their biological mothers or fathers.
But, less than a month later, he received an email from his adoption agency.
“I have some news to share with you,” the agency’s social worker told Matthews. “Your mother called us back and confirmed that she in fact is your birth mother. She was very much emotional, yet happy that you searched for her.”
Matthews learned that his biological parents, who he believed had separated by the time he was born, were actually still together, and they were eager to see him.
For Matthews, who didn’t expect to hear any news about his family so soon, this was a lot to process.
But that wasn’t all. Matthews also learned that he had a biological brother and sister. And that brother was his twin.
* * *
SOME MAY THINK that a reunion between birth parents and child symbolizes the climax of this long-lost relationship—the big reveal. But, as many adoptees who have experienced this will tell you, it’s much more complicated than that. And, oftentimes, questions around why and how one was adopted are not necessarily entirely clear even after the dramatic reunion.
It was no different in Matthews’ case, and to this day, he’s still not entirely sure why or how he ended up at an orphanage in Seoul in 1985. What was written in his adoption paperwork was that his parentshad been struggling financially, and eventually separated when his mother gave birth to him. This, along with the stigma against single mothers in Korea, made it too difficult for his mother to raise him. Nothing about a sibling, let alone a twin brother, was mentioned in the documents.
But in a letter prior to their meeting, his biological father told him a very different story. He and Matthews’ (biological) mother had moved to Geojedo, an island off the southern coast of South Korea, where the father got a job. His mother had grown sick during her pregnancy, and after a midwife delivered their twin boys, two months premature, all three were rushed to the hospital. The mother suffered from excessive bleeding and was in critical condition. Meanwhile, the babies were struggling. One would get better in the coming days, but Matthews would not. Not being able to afford health care for their sicker son, his father said he reluctantly gave him up for adoption.
“I was told from the hospital that [only] one of the boys recovered to be able to get out of the incubator,” his father wrote in the letter. “I had to make an important decision for all of us. I was told internationaladoption can provide good parents and homes, and give wider opportunities for children. I hope you understand having you adopted was the best choice I could make at that time.”
Matthews actually believes that he wasn’t expected to live long after he was born. Reading between the lines of the letters from his biological parents, he also believes his mother did not know of his father’s decision to give him up until after he was gone.
“I actually think my mom never saw me, ever, until she met me this summer,” Matthews said.
“I can’t stop crying with joy and sadness,” his birth mother wrote in her first letter to him. “Dear my baby, I cannot find the way to describe how painful it has been for all of us. After I was told [that] you were relinquished, I considered looking for you, but your adoption had been already made, and I wanted to believe that you would have a better life there.”
Matthews admitted that he felt mostly awkward during that first meeting at the adoption agency. He remembers standing still, enveloped in his mother’s arms, and catching a glimpse of his sister in the background, also crying. “Me being not a very emotional guy, it was very uncomfortable,” said Matthews. “I did feel the sadness from [my birth mom]. I felt heavy on the inside. But I just stood there, feeling very uncomfortable. This was my first time meeting them.”
Matthews said he didn’t have a list of questions prepared. He didn’t even ask them to clarify the circumstances around his adoption. He felt bad enough that, prior to their meeting, he had asked them to do a DNA test to confirm they were indeed kin.
“My biggest fear was meeting them, and then two days later, being told that we weren’t related,” he explained. “After you’re told all these great things, that they’re still together and that you have a twin brother, you want that to be real. If that wasn’t true, that would’ve broken my heart.”
That long, emotional embrace from his mother was followed by small talk—that’s all Matthews said he and his biological family, perhaps still shell-shocked, could manage at their initial in-person reunion. Jason Hwang, Matthews’ friend who is bilingual, interpreted for him and his family.
Hwang was also part of a small film crew Matthews had brought to Korea. Long before news of finding his birth family, the rapper, who is also a productions director at the Asian American entertainment portal International Secret Agents, had planned to make a personal video memoir of his trip to Korea. After talking to friends about his birth family search, they urged him to take a crew along to document his milestone trip, noting that there was a larger story here that could be of value to other Korean adoptees, as well as Asian Americans who could relate to these issues of identity and family.
Matthews was initially hesitant. He didn’t want to exploit his biological family or jeopardize their relationship.
“It’s an extremely personal topic,” he said. “It was definitely a concern from the beginning and the No. 1 thing that I discussed with my production crew. I emphasized how much I wanted to respect this situation, not just my family, but also the issue of reuniting with my family, since it’s something that affects adoptees.”
He finally decided to document his story, believing that it could open people’s eyes to the Korean American adoptee experience. But he also remained fiercely protective of this new relationship and wouldn’t allow the crew to film his first meeting with his biological family. In fact, his birth mother only appears once in the film footage, and that’s when she’s saying goodbye to Matthews at the airport.
Notably, three of the five-member film crew were Matthews’ personal friends, too, and they were deeply touched by what they witnessed.
They saw a mother who often wouldn’t let go of Matthews’ hand, and a father who was glad to see his once-sick baby had grown into a healthy young man. They welcomed Matthews to their home with a massive spread of homemade Korean food.
While in Korea, Matthews got sick with a very bad cold, and the film crew noticed that his biological mother was very concerned, giving him ginseng and other Korean traditional medicine, and trying to make sure he was well fed. They couldn’t help but wonder if this was a mother, who never had the chance to nurture her sick newborn, trying to make up for that now.
“Getting the opportunity to care for him, I think, was a blessing for her,” said Jon Maxwell, the director of Matthews’ documentary, who was with Matthews for the duration of the Korea trip. Maxwell is also a Korean adoptee, who tried unsuccessfully to locate his birth parents 11 years ago.
In total, Matthews got to spend about three full days with his biological family. He learned that his father is an engineer. His mother, a housewife, is one of the sweetest persons he’s ever met. His twin brother is a physical therapist, and his sister is a police officer. They were all healthy and financially stable. They were all fine. They’d just been living without him for the past 28 years, and, actually, that’s the best scenario Matthews said he could have hoped for.
Matthews also got to meet his aunt and uncle from his mother’s side; they were the only two people besides his parents who knew of his existence.
“My brother and my sister didn’t know that I existed,” said Matthews. “They found out two weeks before I got there. I was this dark secret of the family.”
That’s why he was especially relieved that his twin brother, Ki Seong, and younger sister, Ye Seul, were very welcoming of him. The siblings showed Matthews around Geojedo, where they were all born, pointing out the home they lived in and the schools they attended. Ye Seul would often hold a parasol over her brothers as they walked along the streets. The twins discovered that they shared strange hobbies like collecting random trinkets and vinyl toy figurines. Both had scoliosis and weaker eyesight in one eye (Matthews, the left, Ki Seong, the right). Ki Seong is actually a few inches taller than Matthews, whose growth may have been stunted by his early medical problems. Eugene Choi, the executive producer of Matthews’ documentary, and his friend of several years, also noticed the brothers had similar mannerisms, like clearing their throats often and the way they handled chopsticks, “shaking” the food a few times before eating it.
But perhaps what’s most striking is that the brothers shared the same passion for hip-hop music. In an attempt to fill silent spaces between them, Matthews randomly asked his brother what kind of music he liked. He was shocked to learn that, when each was in high school in the early 2000s, they were inspired by American rapper Eminem. Ki Seong was, in fact, part of a four-person underground hip-hop band during his college years. His parents, however, discouraged him from making a career out of the passion. It was while Matthews was studying at San Diego State University that he started the rock-hip-hop fusion band, afterschoolspecial, which kicked off his career as YouTube musician DANakaDAN.
“That was fascinating,” Matthews said. “That we have that commonality is incredible to me.”
* * *
PERHAPS WHAT MAKES it even more incredible is that Matthews’ pursuit of a music career grew out of his drive to search for his identity, both as an Asian American and as an Asian American adoptee. He’s been able to talk about issues of identity through his music, and especially loves performing. “The only time I feel alive is when I’m performing,” he said. “The only time I’m living in the moment is when I’m on stage. It’s a feeling I can’t ever have at any other time.”
His adoptive mother, Lynne Matthews, admitted she wasn’t exactly pleased to find out that her son wanted to become a rapper because the schoolteacher had never been a big fan of hip-hop. But she came to peace with his pursuit once she realized how it gave him a medium to express himself.
“It gave him a voice he didn’t have,” she said. “It let him go into his inner feelings, and he became a much happier person. Growing up, it seemed Dan felt as if he wasn’t allowed to talk about his feelings. So I almost feel like he needed it because it gave him a desire to tell his story.”
Matthews said there wasn’t a particular moment when his adoptive parents sat him down to tell him that he was adopted. He remembers just always knowing. Having Caucasian parents also made it easy for him to see what adoption meant.
“Growing up as an adoptee, you have a very unique outlook on things because you’re different as is,” Matthews said.
His childhood pictures show the typical scenes of a little boy playing in a sandbox, smiling in his Boy Scout uniform and celebrating Christmas with his extended family.
But Matthews also experienced being teased because he was one of the few Asian faces at his school. It wasn’t until high school, when he became a member of a student-led organization predominantly run by Asian American students, that he was able to embrace his Asian identity.
“I felt like I really belonged when I was with that community,” he said. “Not that I didn’t feel like I belonged when I was with my adoptive family, but that’s when I really strived towards figuring out exactly who I was. I really went out of my way to find Korean stuff, like eating Korean food, and not even just Korean, but Asian stuff.”
But Matthews is quick to add that, despite these challenges, he’s grateful to have been raised by such supportive parents. In fact, when he thought about doing a birth search, his biggest concern was hurting his adoptive mother’s feelings. In the documentary, she recounted what Dan told her at that time: “‘If it makes you feel uncomfortable, I don’t need to do it now because no matter what, Mom, you’re my mom. You raised me. Birth search or not, nothing will ever change that.’”
Lynne Matthews told Dan that she knew from the day she adopted him, this day would come, and that it’s only natural for him to look for his birth family.
“I feel very fortunate and blessed,” said Dan. “I feel very lucky that I had a very positive experience growing up. Some adoptees haven’t had that. Even during college, I didn’t have to work. I had parents who allowed me to focus my energy on getting involved in school and not worry about other things. I feel blessed.”
Since returning home from meeting his biological family, Matthews admits to feeling a little stressed about how to stay connected to them. Looking back, meeting the family was actually the easy part, he said.
“Things happened so well in Korea,” he said. “My [biological] family was happy that I ended up OK. And I was happy to show them that I ended up OK.”
Though he felt little emotional attachment to his birth mother upon first meeting her, by the time he was saying goodbye to her at Incheon Airport, his reaction was far different. “[It] surprised me because I usually don’t cry, but I cried when I left,” Matthews said.
After returning to the States on Aug. 13, he has been in a “weird post-stage,” he described. Every now and then, he’ll exchange text messages with his birth family, but only after a month since meeting them, they’re already running out of things to talk about with each other.
“They live in a different country, miles apart, and we don’t speak the same language,” Matthews said. “I’m really, kind of nervous about the future. … I only really had, maybe three full 24 hours that I spent time with them, and that’s all they’ve been to me in my entire life.”
Matthews has had to get used to the idea of now having “two moms,” which he think is “totally cool.” But he also couldn’t help but think about how, after his adoptive father passed away from cancer, he had to get used to not having a dad. “I’ve got my biological father, who I’ve met for three days,” Matthews said. “So do I have a father now? Or do I not?”
For Matthews and his brother, however, music has been the common language. “It’s been nice because, since I’ve been back in the U.S., we’ve shared music. I’ve sent him songs, he’s sent me songs,” said Matthews. “It’s one way for us to connect.”
* * *
There are a multitude of emotions that Matthews is still processing after his birth family reunion, and he’s written about the experience to help him express the confusion, the stress and, ultimately, the gratitude he feels.
How would you react to the news, alone in your car / They found your mother and a twin man that’s f-cking bizarre / I damn near crashed into a wall, feelings joy but sorrow / You should sleep on it, I thought, comprehend it tomorrow / But with tomorrow came no answers, no time to process / To ingest what had just happened, so it amounted to stress / And I confess I didn’t feel something, at least a real something / People would ask me all the time, I lied to conceal something
So go the lyrics of Matthews’ song, “Afterwords,” from his soon-to-be released album, Is There Anybody Out There. Its February 2014 release will coincide with the premiere of the four-episode documentary, aka DAN, that recounts his journey back to Korea.
For now, one of his goals is to use his story and experiences from this past summer to help other adoptees, especially the ones who may be struggling to find their identity. Matthews plans on visiting several college campuses in the country. “I just want to drive conversations about this subject, especially [to have] younger adoptees, college kids and high school kids, to have them watch [the documentary] and make them go, ‘I feel really good about watching this,’ and inspire them to talk to their friends and parents about their feelings,” he said.
He notes that his story should not be seen as representative of the Korean American ad optee experience, but rather is just one of many. “There are a lot of adoptees that are like me, that don’t like talking about adoption or maybe are ashamed of adoption, or maybe had negative experiences with their adoption, or maybe a positive story that was never shared.
“It’s an important part of their identity as an adoptee. No matter what they say, it shapes who they are, and they should be having conversations about it.”
As for the conversations he’s having with his newly found family in Korea, he said, as challenging as it’s been, he’s committed to doing whatever it takes to make them a part of his life.
“It’s very important for me to continue this relationship. I’ll probably need to learn Korean,” he said. His brother may actually be coming to the States in November to join him for one of the college campus visits he’s planning to make.
“Until six, seven months ago, I thought I could’ve gone my entire life without this,” said Matthews. “That freaks me out, because now, I can’t imagine my life without any of this.”
This article was published in the November 2013 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the November issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).