Montpelier man retraces roots to S. Korean orphanageStefan Hard / Staff Photo
Andrew Whitney, of Montpelier, smiles Tuesday while working in the kitchen at the Wayside Restaurant with co-worker Brittany Brothers, of Orange. Now 39, Whitney was brought to an orphanage in Seoul, South Korea as a young child. He was adopted by a family in Vermont at age 6. He has since travelled to Korea three times to research his past there.
MONTPELIER — A local man who is likely a familiar face to many central Vermonters has recently returned from a powerful journey to his homeland of South Korea, where he found some answers — and closure — about his beginnings at the Gonsaengwon orphanage.
Andrew Whitney is a longtime Wal-Mart employee who has greeted untold numbers of customers and performed other tasks at the big discount store in the Berlin Mall. He also works at the busy Wayside Restaurant on the Barre-Montpelier Road.
Whitney, 39, was recently chosen to join a tour back to South Korea with other adoptees from that nation. Invited by a South Korean organization that works to connect adoptees to their pasts, he only had to pay his airfare and felt fortunate to be selected again for the trip.
On this third journey to his homeland, he found several important new pieces to the puzzle of his early life. According to Whitney, this trip was the most fruitful in putting together the pieces of his identity.
In a small break room in the back of the Wayside kitchen, where he has worked part-time for about four years as a dishwasher and food prep worker, Whitney pointed to a photo collage on the wall, showing images of himself and the friends he met on most his recent journey, and photos of the orphanage where he was placed as a young child.
Brian Zecchinelli, co-owner of the Wayside, pointed to the photo of Whitney in front of the modest orphanage, marveling, “He went from there to living in Montpelier.” Zecchinelli said he is one of the most hard-working young men with one of the most positive attitudes he’s had the privilege to encounter, saying he is a joy to have on the Wayside team.
“We’re blessed that he chooses to help us out,” said Zecchinelli.
That’s a testament to Whitney himself, of course, but also to the people who raised and nurtured him along the way.
When he came to the United States, Whitney was raised in Royalton and adopted at age 6 by Gordon and Fran Whitney. The household included the Whitneys’ biological child and two other adoptees, an American girl and a second South Korean boy.
On his three trips to South Korea as an adult, Whitney has learned many things about his past that have helped him to understand his life.
What he had been most hoping to find on this third pilgrimage home was his family. This was the first time that enough information had been put together for Whitney to be able to actually make it to the orphanage where he lived for part of his early childhood.
Then, he learned some sad news: His parents had died, and that was why, at about age four, he was turned over to the orphanage.
“I was born in Mokpo; the province is Jeollanam-do,” explained Whitney.
“So basically, for a long time, I didn’t know what happened to me. ... I was turned over to the orphanage.” That was all he had been told growing up, Whitney said.
That was in 1978, when he was estimated by the orphanage, based on his height and weight, to be approximately four years old. He does not know his real birth date, said Whitney.
He said he was at the orphanage for only some four or five months, but when he returned earlier this summer he had a familiar feeling, as though he had been in the bedrooms and in the kitchen previously. He also seemed to recall a piano that he saw, though he doesn’t retain many specific memories about his years there as a child.
After his stay at the orphanage, Whitney says, he was transitioned for a period of time to Seoul, the capital of South Korea, in preparation for his formal adoption.
The date he came to America to meet his adoptive family, the Whitneys, at Logan Airport in Boston, is forever etched in his mind. While he may not know his exact birthday, Andrew will always remember the date he joined his new family in America — Sept. 20, 1980, he remembered with a smile.
When Whitney arrived in America, he had never been to school and didn’t speak a word of English.
After elementary and high school, he went on to study history and politics at Johnson State College, where Washington County State Sen. Bill Doyle was his advisor and teacher.
The earlier trips he took were in 2002 and in 2006, and he’s continued to piece together his story.
“Back in the 70s, record keeping wasn’t complete like it is now,” said Whitney. “On each of my trips, I’ve found out more. ... I was always told that my orphanage did not exist, but I found out that it did exist.”
On his second trip to South Korea, the adoption agency helped him to find his interim foster parents, who had him after his time at the orphanage and before he was adopted by his American parents.
“I never really knew what my story was,” said Whitney. That includes how exactly he was turned over to the orphanage — whether by family or the police, he is not certain which.
While the news of his parents’ deaths was very sad, Whitney says, he also now feels some closure. “When I first heard the news, I cried a lot. ... It was very devastating. But it’s part of my story,” he noted.
“I look at the positive aspect — that my parents cared,” Whitney said.
Whitney added, “In Korea, abandonment (of children) is a very, very big problem, and a lot of children are abandoned. They are left at a church or police station anonymously, and a lot of times they get left on the street. ... Because of that, the adoption agency I went through always thought that I was abandoned, and that’s why they told my (adoptive) parents that.”
Finding out his parents had died, “It was hard, but you know what? It was a comforting thing in a way; it provides closure,” said Whitney. “I was not abandoned.”
Of his past, Whitney said, “I never really stopped wanting to know.”
“I’ve had a good life in the U.S. I’ve had very supportive parents, and I grew up in a state where people cared about each other,” Whitney said of Vermont. He said he is grateful for his life and for knowing more about his beginnings back in South Korea. And even though he learned some sad news on his recent trip to his homeland, he said his positive attitude remains unshaken. “If something bad happens to you in your past, you still have to move on,” he says.
One other significant thing that happened on this last trip is Whitney learned that the name in the adoption records from the orphanage was not assigned at the orphanage; it was the name his family had given him: Park Il Nam. Park is the family surname and Il Nam translates to “first son,” he said.
With that information, more may become apparent to Whitney is his ongoing search for self.
“What I’m thinking is now that I have my real birth name, I could do a search on that, and see what I can turn up,” said Whitney, with a hopeful smile.
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