The Korea Herald


[LLG] A story of loving and letting go, repeated 19 times and counting

Cho, a biological son in a foster home provider family, shares his family's 13-year journey of providing temporary shelter for babies awaiting adoption

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : Jan. 31, 2024 - 16:53

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Taken from Cho Ddol-bok's webtoon series Taken from Cho Ddol-bok's webtoon series "Foster Family!"

In 2011, Cho was 12 years old when the first baby arrived.

He recalled sensing the presence of a new family member in the house when he came home from school one day -- the air smelled different, with the scents of milk and of an infant.

Entering the house, he stumbled over baby products. Then, there, in the center of the living room lying on a blanket neatly spread out, was a small baby.

“The baby was so tiny and I constantly checked to see if he was breathing,” said Cho Ddol-bok, now 26, in an interview with The Korea Herald. Ddol-bok is the pen name he uses for his webtoon series, “Foster Family,” based on his family's true story.

Typically, a foster family cares for a child under 18 years old who cannot be taken care of by their parents due to various reasons, such as a parental death, imprisonment, illness or domestic violence.

“What my family does is a bit different,” he said. “We take care of babies whose adoption is confirmed.”

For 13 years, his family has provided care for 19 babies in total. Most of them were awaiting overseas adoption. Since it involves a lengthy process, the babies stayed with his family for as long as one year.

Although the number of babies adopted overseas has significantly declined over the last few decades, babies are still being adopted by parents overseas. In 2022, 142 babies were adopted overseas.

The 19 babies were all "dongsaeng" and “mangnae” in the family, Cho said. Dongsaeng in Korean means a younger brother or sister, while the latter term refers to the youngest member of a family or group.

Because he was just 12, he didn't fully understand what his family becoming a foster home meant, or the emotional journey that would entail. He was just excited to see the little babies.

"I was just like, 'Oh, I am happy because we have a baby at home,'" he said.

The first baby stayed with them for about a year. Then, an American couple -- that baby’s adoptive parents -- came to take the infant. They seemed to be kind and nice, but it was the first time Cho’s family experienced the pain of separation.

After they left, he felt like he was going to die and sobbed for about 30 minutes in the bathroom.

“After experiencing that pain, I vowed to myself that I would not feel ‘jeong’ for any other babies,” he said. “Jeong” refers to the warm feeling of emotional attachment between people who have developed a close relationship.

After some time, another baby arrived.

“At first, my initial feeling was unfamiliarity. The new baby didn’t seem as cute as the previous one,” he said.

One day passed, then two, and eventually a week. All of a sudden, this second baby became another endearing member of his family. “There, I have a new beloved dongsaeng again," he said.

The cycle repeated itself with each departure and arrival of a new baby. He never got used to the pain of separation, nor did the intensity of his emotions diminish.

There was no dramatic trigger for his family to start taking care of the babies, Cho said.

His mother was watching TV and learned about foster homes and babies who need a temporary family through a public service announcement, and thought it would be good if she also did that.

To this day, Cho's mother has never regretted that decision. Nor does she intend to stop caring for foster babies anytime soon.

She said her home should always have a mangnae.

Having infants and toddlers in the house is not easy, but it has brought many joyful moments to the family, Cho said.

Naturally, he developed a keen interest in and understanding of baby care. He now understands the importance of reading infants’ cues, particularly their crying.

"I feel happy when a baby greets me when I come home. I feel the happiest when I am playing with them," he said.

One day, when one of the foster babies -- just 10 months old -- walked out of his room on his own into the living room where Cho was, Cho clapped. Then the baby walked back into his room, only to reemerge again. So Cho clapped again and the baby repeated this performance for 30 minutes.

“Babies seem to seek compliments and enjoy when we give them a big response, a grand gesture or a loud sound (such as clapping)," he explained.

There also was a phase during which Cho assumed these babies' biological parents, whoever they were, must have been bad, irresponsible people.

One day, one biological mother who was sick and in financial distress sent his family a hat that she knitted for her baby. This loving gesture made his assumption disappear.

"Each person has their own circumstances, and there may be some unavoidable situations," he acknowledged.

Recently, Cho’s family reunited with their very first foster child, who is now a junior high school student. The child visited Korea from the US together with his adoptive parents.

“Of course, he couldn’t speak Korean and didn’t remember us. That's only natural,” Cho said. Because of the language barrier, they couldn’t have a long conservation.

But Cho’s family felt happy, because the child looked great.

“His mother told us that he excelled in his studies and read many books.”

Growing up in a family fostering children, Cho sometimes felt like he and his family were “pouring water into a bottomless pot,” referring to a Korean saying questioning whether all of their efforts were worth it. But he now thinks all the love they have given wasn’t wasted or forgotten, and the family has done the right thing.

Their love is not going to be reciprocated, but that's okay. All Cho and his family want for the babies they cared for is to "live happily, doing what they want and enjoying their lives," he said.