The Origin(s) Project explores human longing for connection

Sun Mee Chomet and Katie Hae Leo are finding that their experiences as Korean American adoptees are resonating with far larger an audience than they ever imagined.

The two joined forces to create The Origin(s) Project – essentially two one-woman shows, back to back – which they staged at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul this past June.

The show was such a success that, just five months later, they’ve brought it back for another run.

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Sun Mee Chomet in ‘How to be a Korean Woman’, part of The Origin(s) Project

Photo: Charissa Uemura

Their two stories look at the experience of being a Korean-American adoptee from two different angles, but both raise issues universal to the adoption experience.

In Sun Mee Chomet’s “How to be a Korean Woman” she details the longing an adoptee feels to connect with their birth family, no matter how wonderful their adoptive parents are.

“In 2009 I decided to search for my birth family – a serious search. I went to Korea and like many adoptees from my generation I found that there isn’t much information because of the poor records kept,” Chomet explained.

“My last ditch effort was this show called ‘I Miss That Person.’ It’s a reality show in Korea, for Koreans to search for lost relatives, and the most popular stories are about adoptees. It’s pretty humiliating for some people, but I decided I didn’t care, and I got on to the show.”

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In “How to Be a Korean Woman,” Sun Mee Chomet recounts her search for her birth family, and the harsh truths she learned in the process.

Photo: Charissa Uemura

Chomet eventually reconnected with her birth mother, but it wasn’t the happy reunion she imagined. The experience overtook her life, and her art.

“I’ve been a working actor in this town for 7 years, and you come across moments in your life where you have so much going on that you can’t be generous enough to play another character,” said Chomet. “I felt like I needed to work through this. But ultimately I don’t really feel like it’s about me because this is the story of so many Korean adoptees.”

Chomet explains that as the first major group of international adoptees, Korean Americans don’t have any role models to help them navigate the search for – or reunion with – birth families.

“I think Katie and I both want other Korean adoptees to know that they’re not alone. It’s a roller coaster; some adoptees have been united but don’t communicate any more, others still haven’t found their families, others are in relationships that are profoundly complicated.”

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Katie Hae Leo in “N/A” – her one-woman show is based on a series of essays she wrote, which is now working on turning into a book

Photo: Charissa Uemura

While Chomet’s story took her to Korea, Katie Hae Leo’s journey was a more internal one. Her story, “N/A,” explores the frustration of suffering illness, but having no family medical history to help diagnose what’s wrong. How do you fill in all the information about your body when you have no connection to your family?

“I think you do what a lot of us have done since we were kids which is make up stories. I remember when I was young having this image in my head of what my birth mom was like. And that’s based on what my parents told me based on what the adoption agency told them,” said Leo.

“I’m really fascinated by the stories we tell ourselves, because they reveal sometimes as much as the truth. They reveal who we think we are, who the culture has told us we are.. in fact they reveal more than the so-called truths sometimes.”

Leo said that over time she’s learned to see her body as source for clues about the birth family she may never meet.

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Katie Hae Leo in “N/A”

Photo: Charissa Uemura

Chomet and Leo expected their audience to be filled with other Korean American adoptees, but they were not prepared for the parents, spouses and social workers who also streamed in

“We were nervous about having parents come because I think adoptees often edit how much they long for their birth families, because they don’t want to hurt their adoptive families,” explained Chomet.

“We had spouses write that this show cracked open conversations that they hadn’t been able to have before in their marriage,” added Leo.

Non Korean adoptees came to the shows first run as well, including a group from AFAAD (Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora).

Now, as they prepare for the second run, Leo reflects that maybe it’s not so surprising the show resonates with audiences.

“The heart of this play is about human longing,” said Leo. “It goes beyond human adoption, to how we wonder about our past.

The Origin(s) Project runs October 25 thru November 3 at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul. After the run Leo plans to take a break from performing to focus on finishing the book that inspired her half of the show.

Chomet has plans to perform “How to Be a Korean Woman” at the Asian Artists Initiative in Philadelphia in December, at the Rochester Civic Theater in January, and in Seoul, Korea at The IKAA Gathering – a major conference for adoptees – in August 2013.

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