Marissa and Hannah Brandt grew up like most other all-American sisters from Minnesota: playing hockey. This month, they have been competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, playing on opposing teams, which speaks to the girls’ starkly different life beginnings. Marissa plays for South Korea. Hannah plays for the United States.
Marissa was born in Korea, her biological mother relinquishing her rights. While Marissa doesn’t know anything about her biological parents, it is likely that she was one of the 80 to 90 percent of South Korean adoptees born to single mothers in the 1990s, according to research released in a 1999 article, Adoption, Adoption Seeking and Relinquishment for Adoption in the United States in Advance Data. When Marissa was just 4½ months old she traveled halfway across the world to meet her new parents, Greg and Robin Brandt, who raised her just outside Minneapolis.
Marissa was Greg and Robin’s first child. After 12 years of marriage the couple adopted Marissa because they thought they weren’t able to have biological children. However, just two weeks before baby Marissa’s arrival, they discovered that Robin was pregnant and just 11 months later Hannah was born. The girls share a close relationship. Hannah remembers, “We always did everything together growing up … I considered my sister my best friend.” Marissa has always felt the same.
Even though the Brandt family was close, there were also challenges for Marissa growing up in a predominately white community. “I wanted to ‘fit in’ as much as possible. I wanted to be white with blonde hair and not look Asian at all,” Marissa said.
Marissa’s feelings are common among transracial adoptees. According to a 2009 survey by the Donaldson Adoption Institute, 78 percent of Korean adoptees with two white parents either thought of themselves as white or wanted to be white as children.
The Brandts tried to provide a positive multicultural outlet for the children by taking them to five years of Korean Culture Camp. Hannah loved the clothes, the food and the Taekwondo. But Marissa wanted nothing to do with it. At 15, she finally told her sister and parents she was done. She wanted to fit in, and the camp wasn’t helping. The Brandts did not go back to Korean Culture Camp. Instead, they focused their energy on a sport the sisters had come to love: hockey.
Hannah had played the sport almost from the time she could walk. Marissa had originally been more attracted to figure skating, but at age 8, she abandoned her graceful loops to smack sticks and shoot pucks in the rink, where she could be closer to her sister.
Marissa recalls, “I loved to play hockey but doing it with my sister made it that much more fun. We had so many road trips, tournaments, hotels, everything, as a family.”
Hockey was not only an easy way for Marissa to spend time with her sister — it was a way to fit in with the other kids despite her outer appearance. Hockey is huge in Minnesota, which calls itself “The State of Hockey,” and boasts of more rinks per capita than any other state. Inspired by the joy of the sport, by family, and by a desire to fit in, Marissa began to master the game.
For the next decade, the Brandt sisters would almost always play on the same team, cultivating remarkable talents for ice and aim. However, when Marissa and Hannah split up to attend separate colleges, Hannah’s hockey career exploded upward, even as Marissa’s seemed to wind down. Hannah was drafted first for the University of Minnesota Division I team, then for the U.S. national team. She took the world championship silver in 2012, then gold in 2015. She was a favorite for the 2018 Olympic draft.
Meanwhile, Marissa played college hockey for the Gustavus Adolphus College team, the Gusties. They were an excellent team, at a good school, where Marissa was happy, but they were also a third division team.
It was at this moment that chance intervened. Hannah’s college goalie coach had heard that Hannah had a Korean sister, who was excellent at hockey as well. It so happened that the coach, Mitch Baker, was married to Rebecca Baker: a goalie coach for the South Korean team, who split her time between home in Minnesota and training in Korea. Rebecca, who is one of several Americans South Korea has brought on to make their upper-mid-tier team competitive with global giants like the U.S. team, got in touch with Marissa and invited her to try out for the Korean national team. Marissa recalls her vertigo when “a couple weeks later, I was on a flight to Korea where I knew no one, did not speak the language and was terrified.”
Marissa passed the tryout with flying colors. In 2016, Marissa Brandt joined the team of a nation she had spent her life trying to disown. The great irony of Marissa’s return to her birthplace is that it was made possible by her union with the hockey culture of her adoptive home.
At first, the return was almost a rerun of the Korean Culture Camp that Marissa had so disliked. Midwestern Marissa had difficulty stomaching the pungent palate of Korean dining, which rests on fermentation, garlic and spice. At times, she would eat meals entirely of plain white rice. She felt alienated, even on her team.
“I do not speak or understand any Korean, so even talking to my teammates was difficult,” Marissa said. “Some can speak English, some can speak very broken English, and some have no idea what I am saying.”
But over time, Marissa began to warm to her teammates, and through them, to Korea. Despite the cultural barrier, her teammates were welcoming and kind to her, trading passes and language lessons. Then, in April 2017, the Korean women’s hockey team won the world championship.
“It was after we had won the gold medal and the Korean flag was being raised and our national anthem was playing … I remember in that moment that I was so proud to be from Korea and to have my roots here,” Marissa said.
Now, as Marissa has had time to reflect on her time spent in her birth country, she says she realizes how important that connection is — and should be — for other adoptees as well. Asked what advice she had for young international adoptees like herself, struggling with identity, Marissa says, “I would tell them to definitely go back to their roots and where they come from. I want them to experience what I felt during those World Championships and really be proud. Don’t be embarrassed or not wanting to stick out.”
She continues, “For me, I always knew at some point I would want to go back to Korea … I just never thought in a million years it would be in this way. I have learned so much about this culture and have made so many new friends. I am so grateful to have this opportunity and especially to share it with my sister and family. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Now Marissa’s family has joined her in Pyeongchang, to cheer on both her and her sister. Her adopted homes have been reunified — in the Brandt family, and in Korea.
Baylor Odabashian is a journalist, community activist, published surrealist poet and experimental folk musician from California. His two gay mothers taught him that parents are the people who love a child most.