By Jen Bakken
Oct. 9, 1996 at 3:55 p.m., a baby girl was born at Red Cross Hospital in Daegu City, Korea, weighing 7.45 lbs.
After a short stay in a baby reception home, she lived with her foster mother, Sohn Youn Hwa, in Seoul, Korea. After six months, this little girl became Mark and Wendy Middendorf’s first daughter, who they named Nicole.
This year, Nicole turned 11 years old and making a wish, as she blew out her candles, wasn’t necessary. Over the summer, Nicole, her parents, and her younger sister, Danielle, took a trip to Korea, her birthplace.
Their vacation of a lifetime was a trip others only wish to experience, and now this Delano Middle School fifth grade student has memories she will cherish forever.
Mark and Wendy adopted their daughter through Children’s Home Society and Family Services of St. Paul. It was through this same agency they were able to embark on a tour of Korea.
The couple saved for many years, wanting to take their daughter on this trip to experience her country and its culture. Children’s Home Society and Family Services arranges these culture tours for adopted children and their families. The Middendorfs, along with other families, took the trip in June.
A visit to the family home, in Maple Plain, reveals many artifacts and memorabilia from their 21-day vacation, which included a 12-day tour of Korea through the Children’s Home Society, and another three days in Seoul, Korea, along with four days in Tokyo, on their own.
When talking about preparing for the trip, Nicole said, “I was pretty excited because I’ve never been there before.”
Their first experience with the culture, people, nature, markets and beauty of the country began with a visit to a Korean folk village in Suwon. This is also where they first tasted a traditional meal, a lunch consisting of various dishes and a main dish of rice, carrots, mushrooms, seaweed, and a raw egg on top, stirred into a hot metal bowl.
In Seoul, they visited a Korean War museum, attended a cooking class, and then went to spend an evening with their Korean host family. While there, they enjoyed a traditional dinner while sitting on the floor.
“We were lucky in that our host family mother could speak English,” Wendy said.
The Middendorfs played a game of badminton with their host family and found it neat that badminton is played anywhere without a net.
With 40 percent of Koreans being Christians, they attended services at the EunPyung Methodist Church, where they enjoyed an orchestra and a choir.
A day at the market proved interesting, as there was merchandise everywhere and deliveries are made with many boxes stacked on the backs of bicycles. It was here that Nicole and Danielle purchased hanboks, a traditional Korean dress.
Each morning they were awake by 7 a.m. and having a breakfast buffet including everything from fruit, cereal, pancakes and eggs, to rice, noodles and seaweed. This is where Nicole discovered a new favorite food, seaweed. It is prepared thin and crispy, like a cracker.
“Which is much better than it sounds,” Wendy explained.
A memorable moment during their trip was when they met the woman who was Nicole’s foster mother, Sohn Youn Hwa. Wendy remembered the woman who cared for her daughter the first six months of her life,
“She was a very sweet woman, who, in an instant, remembered Nicole and assured us of that when she opened her photo album and saw her baby pictures it was a very touching moment,” Wendy said.
Nicole and her foster mother exchanged gifts and even though interpreters were available, words weren’t needed as they formed an instant bond.
This isn’t the only special relationship Nicole developed in Korea. Even though the youngest in the group, she became close to many other children and young adults. One young man, in particular, named Mike, who during the trip met his birth family, still keeps in contact with Nicole today.
During time at the orphanages Wendy became very emotional. At Sung Roh Won Babies Home, they learned the parents have never signed these children over, so chances are they will never be adopted. With their stranger anxiety, some of the older children wouldn’t let anyone hold them. They did hold babies that were about two months old, and played with children who were 1 to 5 years of age,
“It was very emotional and I was crying a lot,” Wendy said.
Much of this culture trip was emotional for the Middendorfs, but they enjoyed many things including a visit to the beautiful Secret Garden, taking a bullet express train to Taegu at about 180 mph, and taking a pottery class. They watched folk dancers and acrobats, experienced the hustle and bustle of the Seoul nightlife, and tasted green tea ice cream.
Almost every dinner was a Korean barbeque where you cook for yourself, at the table, over a flame. Both Nicole and Danielle loved preparing their food.
Very early one morning, Mark took a mountain hike with 15 others from their group to experience the Haeisnsa Ceremony, which is a drum ceremony performed each day at 3 a.m. by monks to wake up the animals, birds, fish and all living creatures.
He also visited the dividing line between North and South Korea and, during time spent at an all boys school, Mark, who is a musician, handed out his CDs. The CDs consist of his own music, and the boys crowded around him for autographs.
Checking into hotels was different than it is here. In Korea, if there is more than three in a group, two rooms are necessary; therefore, they spent much of their trip sleeping in separate rooms. Some hotels had mats on the floor instead of beds, and shoes were left outside the door with slippers provided for use inside the room.
Nicole found crossing the streets frustrating, “Oh gosh, I hated crossing the streets there, no traffic lights or anything!” she said.
Wendy found swimming in the hotel pools funny, “You couldn’t just jump in,” she recalled.
First, they had to check in, rent a locker, change, get slippers, get a robe, towel, bathing cap, then shower before finally jumping in the pool.
A very special time for Wendy was being at the hospital where her daughter was born. The maternity ward has been turned into a physical therapy department, and she admitted it was not as emotional as it could have been.
While putting their feet in the very cold Eastern Sea, it was cloudy and windy, but they still walked the beach and played in the sand.
Nicole and Danielle refused to try a piece of raw fish wrapped in lettuce while at a fish market, but the rest of the group gave it a try, including Mark and Wendy.
Most of the time they were taken to each place by bus, and it was the custom of the bus guides that if someone was late, they had to sing for the group. Wendy, Nicole and Danielle each had to sing, but Mark, the musician in the family, did not.
It is impossible to mention everything they experienced during their culture trip as they enjoyed so many different activities each day, but Wendy kept a journal, and they took many wonderful pictures.
Some moments would be hard to forget, however, such as the moment when their daughter spoke at the farewell dinner, wearing her hanbok, and the difficulty in saying goodbye to all the great people they had met.
The Middendorfs plan to visit Korea again someday and, even though Nicole will be old enough to meet her birth mother when she is 13 years old, she is not certain she wants to.
“Maybe, a long time from now,” she said.
They also hope to take a trip similar to this but to China, where Danielle is adopted from, when she is older.
Whether it is from the journal, pictures, or extra special moments, the Middendorf family is sure to remember their vacation of a lifetime forever.