NOEL KING, HOST:
Beginning in the 1950s, the U.S. experienced a surge in international adoptions. It peaked around the mid-2000s but in that time, millions of children were adopted and brought here to the U.S. As they've grown into adults, some of them are trying to learn more about where they came from, which is something that NPR's Ashley Westerman knows a little bit about.
ASHLEY WESTERMAN, BYLINE: Four months ago, I took a plane halfway across the world to find a woman I hadn't seen in 30 years, my birth mother.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Did you see that sign that says Heart of Mary Villa?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: A left turn.
WESTERMAN: Turn left.
It was a steamy Saturday morning when I arrived at the Heart of Mary Villa, a home for unwed mothers in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. I spent the first 10 months of my life here as an orphan, given up by a young, unwed Filipina who couldn't afford to raise a child.
I'm walking up the path here to get to the house.
When I arrived, I was greeted by one of the nuns who had helped search for my birth mother.
Hello. (Foreign language spoken). Good morning.
LEA COMIA: Welcome.
WESTERMAN: Thank you.
COMIA: Nice to meet you. I'm Sister Lea.
WESTERMAN: Sister Lea Comia (ph) and I spoke for a bit, and then she led me into a cream-colored room with green trim. This is the room, she says, where the reunions happen. It turns out a lot of adoptees have been in this position. And, like me, they also want answers.
DEBBIE RILEY: The key motivating factor, I think, is, you know, filling that void of really wanting to know more about who I am and where did I come from, and, what were the circumstances of my relinquishment?
WESTERMAN: Debbie Riley is the CEO of the Center for Adoption Support and Education, or C.A.S.E., in Maryland. Her adoption agency is one of the many who say there's been an uptick in adoptees searching for their biological parents. While there aren't hard numbers on who or how many are searching, one thing for sure is that more adoptees than ever are entering adulthood. I just turned 30 this year, and I've always wanted to search. Now just seemed like the right time. Like many in my generation, I want to know more about who I am. I already know the Ashley who grew up with a white family in rural Kentucky. I want to know more about the Ashley born in the Philippines. Who was I? Who could I have been? Who was my mother? Do I even look like her? While doing this story, I talked to several adoptees who had also searched for their birth parents.
SHANA KAUFMAN: Yeah. I'm Shana Kaufman (ph).
WESTERMAN: Shana Kaufman is one of them. She didn't think about searching for her birth parents until she and her husband started the process of adopting their son from South Korea. Kaufman was adopted from South Korea in the early '80s. She had her own reasons for wanting to find her birth mother. We met at a restaurant in Harrisonburg, Va.
KAUFMAN: For some reason, I sort of thought, you know, something must have happened between my birth mother and I. Maybe she had me and just felt nothing. Maybe she just knew she couldn't love me.
WESTERMAN: Kaufman says it only took about three weeks for the Korean adoption agency to find her birth parents. Record keeping all over the world is just better today than it used to be. Soon they were exchanging letters and photos.
KAUFMAN: And I remember looking at her photo and seeing my face in her face, and it was so nice. I had never seen a face that looked like mine before. That was really emotional for me.
WESTERMAN: Kaufman found out the adoption story she was told wasn't true. Instead of being given up by a single mother, she was given up by a married couple who had already had two daughters and decided they couldn't afford a third daughter. Kaufman found out that she does have a younger brother. Within six months, she met them. Kaufman remembers being very nervous walking into the room to meet her parents and older sisters.
KAUFMAN: I had to tell my feet, you know, what to do. Move forward. Turn left. Smile. That stuff. I had watched a couple of reunions on YouTube, and I was sort of expecting loud wailing or, like, aggressive hugging. But she didn't do that. She cried silently. And it was really touching.
WESTERMAN: A lot of adoptees have different reunion experiences. Kaufman's reunion has been positive so far. She still keeps in touch with her Korean family, as she calls them. She texts her older sisters and has spent weeks in Korea with them. Others aren't so positive. I've heard stories of biological families asking for money and struggles between birth parents and adoptive parents. Luckily, my parents have always supported my decision to look for my birth mother. I didn't have any expectations when it finally happened.
Hi. When Lucita Timbal Picana (ph) walked into the room, she hugged me like a mother who had been missing something for decades.
LUCITA TIMBAL PICANA: (Foreign language spoken).
WESTERMAN: As we talked, I realized I didn't recognize her. I didn't see my face in hers. I was prepared for this, though. I'd already seen photos on Facebook. That's how she was found, on Facebook. Social media is actually making these kinds of reunions a lot easier. The Internet has also given rise to online communities where adoptees are not just talking about finding their birth parents, but some are even trying to conduct their own searches that way, too.
This is my family. So I'm the oldest.
We sat flipping through a photo album of my life. Sister Lea had to translate. Lucita doesn't speak a lot of English, and I speak hardly any Tagalog. Though it was kind of a strange interaction, we talked this way for a while. As it turns out, my adoption file was accurate. When I came along, Lucita was unmarried and couldn't afford to keep me. She wanted me to have a better life. When she got pregnant, she left home and pretended to work in Manila. She gave birth to me in secret. She's married now and lives in a village by the sea with her husband and four children, my half-siblings. That's the family and life Lucita went back to after our meeting, just like I went back to my family and life in the U.S., but we were both changed, at least a little bit. I got some burning questions answered about where I came from, and Lucita, well, she got some peace of mind. While we were talking, Lucita told me she was worried I would be angry with her for giving me up.
COMIA: She's thankful to God that you are successful and you have a good life.
WESTERMAN: I have. I have had a really good life. And you did the right thing. And I'm not mad about it.
Then I watched as 30 years of guilt and sadness melted away. Ashley Westerman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.