Mother

In my mind we sit across from each other in a crowded restaurant. The curve of your back reflects against the dark moonlight, a printed silk scarf holds the wisps of your gray hair away from your face.

You gaze tenderly at me and I slowly memorize the lines around your brown eyes, the shape of your small hands. I imagine that I see a reflection of myself; a glimpse of my truth revealed in the corner of your smile.

I hesitantly ask what you said to me when you held me for the last time. Did you kiss me before you walked away? Maybe you don’t remember until the persistent silence of your mistake never lets you forget.

In my dreams I call out to you, but when I wake you are never there.

How could I possibly think that you love me?

Words of forgiveness stay buried deep inside my mouth so instead I chase your shadow in my poems; let the grief shatter like broken glass

leaving fragments of myself behind

and wait for the answers

I know will never come.

Disappearing Lines

Sometimes when I walk into a room

I search for another Asian face 

the contours of our eyes-

monolid and hooded

the object of taunts

smooth slanted eyes

don’t smile too wide

disappearing lines.

Lids pulled back 

my cheeks burn hot 

I want to fade away.

How was school today 

my mother asks

every 

day 

Does she notice that I hide behind 

my small brown eyes

inside the silent spaces

of my body’s burden?

Sometimes when I walk into a room

I search for another Asian face-

and when I find her,

I see myself

and I feel less alone.

A Korean Adoptee Birth Story (Four Versions)

1.

Seconds after my first breath

a nurse whisked me away 

A bloodline 

severed

like a snapped branch

before it falls

My birth mother laid in silence

her empty swollen body 

With eyes closed

she pleaded for another choice

2.

A faded manilla folder sits on the agency shelf

Stark pages of my fractured truths:

Single and poor

my birth mother exploited 

a baby for profit

the transaction made

Documents falsified

Birthdate: Certain 

Birth mother: Unknown 

3. 

I am six weeks old 

nourished by my birth mother’s breast

the sound of her voice 

lulls me to sleep

Saranghaeyo, my beautiful baby

I was told my birth mother wanted to keep me

but like me, she does not know

how to reconcile with a stranger

4.

A young woman descends down the jetway holding my small body wrapped in a soft pink blanket. She walks me into a room surrounded by a haze of fluorescent lights. I can feel a warm hand stroke my cheek as she lays me into a stranger’s wide open arms. I look into the camera. I do not cry. 

A worn photograph, 

proof of my origins

What is left to reclaim?

And I wonder which version

my birth mother retells.

A Better Life

I met a young American couple

eager to love

who signed their names on the dotted line

The documents read: 

A sweet baby girl who needs a loving family 

The birth mother wanted 

a better life for her daughter.

Countless rows of

black haired babies

born on the other side of the world

Asleep in rectangle cribs 

each with assigned names-

Burden, Mistake, Orphan,

ready to be shipped overseas.

I’ve been told my adoption saved me

I’m a miracle-

lucky to be alive

How could anyone know 

that I would grow up to be

invisible?

And when I saw my face in the mirror

I knew that

I could never belong.

The woman asked with conviction, 

Certainly you had a better life, though?

I politely smile

And tell her

the happily ever after ending

I know she wants to hear.

Displaced

Don’t assume that I am

grateful to be here

Six Asian women shot

left for dead

Can you hear me? 

Your violence is killing us

I’m drowning in a bottomless pit of whiteness: 

Keep my head down, don’t be too emotional, 

always be agreeable,

And don’t 

look too Asian-

assimilation

Are you surprised that I can speak perfect English?

The look on your face shows so much disdain

Chink, go back to your country

I want to scream, Fuck you. Do you think I want to be here?

Exhausted from proving I exist,

I swallow my pain  

The moment I stepped off the plane

with my brown slanted eyes

and coarse black hair 

I stuck out from the sea of blonde waves

and fleshy white faces

A mother once told me that I looked just like a 

china doll

and I believed her

I imagine my birth country 

where mountains 

give way to the sky

the blossoms of lilacs 

fall like snow 

and gold leaves of ginkgo trees

line the streets below

At night crying babies soothed

on backs of black haired 

ommas

singing our ancestors’ songs

Given away at birth 

my homeland is a myth

Go home you say? 

I have no home. 

I turn and walk away. 

A Beautiful Song

For Jung-In, a Korean domestic adoptee, who was 16 months old when she died from child abuse on October 13, 2020. 

A broken arm

and fractured

bones

with bruised legs

your listless body 

shattered like glass 

beneath the dark sky

***

Day after day

the walls closed in 

the panic in your screams

the lonely cries

turned to silence

***

Didn’t the adoption agency 

promise you a safe and loving family?

An adoptee isn’t a commodity

to trade in

get a refund

or cancel for free

gutted and thrown away

there isn’t enough rage 

to fill the empty nights

***

In my dream

I cradled your broken body on my chest

the slow rising 

and falling 

of our breath

tethered by

our deepest wounds

you didn’t cry,

instead, you sang a beautiful song

which carried you far from this world

your spirit set free.

Adoption and the Loss of Not Belonging

When I was five-years-old my family and I were at an open house for my brother’s new school in a rural White community. The classroom was crowded with excited students and smiling proud parents. Families were busily milling around looking for their child’s desk. A stranger approached me. She bent down and told me that she would help me find my parents. I felt confused. Why did she think I was lost? I was standing next to them. Even though I couldn’t articulate what had happened, it made me feel separate from my family. This was the first time when I felt like I didn’t belong.

Like many transracial Korean American adoptees, I grew up racially and culturally isolated from others who looked like me. My neighborhood, my school, and my friends were White. During family holidays I was the only person of color. My family and I never ate a Korean meal or watched Korean movies together. I was so completely entrenched in White culture that unless I looked in the mirror, I forgot that I was Korean. Even though I knew that I was internationally adopted, my parents never discussed my race. Not talking about it made me feel ashamed. I internalized this silence that me being Korean was something that should be kept hidden away. The feeling of not belonging began to manifest deeply inside me. It felt normal not to belong. 

This aching feeling of not belonging followed me to college where I first began to explore my Korean identity. I felt an urgent need to make up for lost time by consuming everything related to Asian American culture. I feverishly read Korean literature, watched K-dramas, and found meaning in anything Korean. Although I was taking back my culture on my own terms, I still felt like I was standing on the peripheral of my truth; straddling two cultures-not Korean enough or too American. I didn’t fit neatly inside either box. During my sophomore year, I befriended a Korean exchange student. I shamefully told her I was adopted and desperately asked her to help me translate my adoption papers. I often felt alone trying to navigate my feelings without any support systems. 

Being an adoptee, there is a constant struggle of confronting loss; the daily reminders are present everywhere. Mostly, though, I feel like an imposter who is fronting for a real Korean like when my son asks me to spell a Korean word and I have to use a translation app or when I stumble with the ingredients while cooking bibimbap. I am envious of other Korean Americans who grew up in families where they learned how to speak Korean and inherently understand the cultural nuances. How does it feel to have this cultural knowledge, the ability to move freely without any emotional strings attached? 

I grew up believing the common adoption narrative which claims my adoptive parents did the best they could with the resources they had. I understand now how this thinking is problematic because by centering them it dismisses my experiences. I don’t have any doubt that my parents loved me, but that wasn’t enough. By not acknowledging my adoption experiences and denying my racial differences it created a lot of pain that I am still learning how to reconcile.

My identity is still evolving and changing but becoming a mother has helped me redefine what it means to be a transracial adoptee. My son is also a Korean adoptee. I wonder if this is my chance to raise him differently than how my parents raised me. It has been healing to be able to provide him with the cultural and racial mirrors I never had. I am teaching him how to be proud of his identity and in turn I am learning how to do this for myself. Consequently, motherhood has given me the strength to hold space for him so he can ground his fears, and unlike my experiences, he will know that where he is standing is exactly where he belongs.

Winter Air

I was born in late summer 

across the Yellow Sea 

where the damp winds blow inside

the shallow shores

the salt 

wet on my tongue

a motherless daughter

abandoned in the street 

this is how the story goes

I wonder what is the truth?

***

Did my birth mother name me 

after I was born?

Jung Ran 정란 means orchid

perhaps the sounds of my name

flowed gently from her soft lips

like when a mother cradles her baby

and whispers, “I love you”.

***

What is your mother’s surname?

The passport gripped tightly in my hand 

my head bangs against 

the echoes 

too heavy inside my ears

My daughter, you were wanted. 

You were not a mistake.

***

Last night, I imagined

I bloomed delicate purple flowers

that leaned into the eastern sun 

years of being dormant 

the petals turned brown 

not ready to leave this world 

the roots dug into the muddy earth 

I breathed in the cool winter air

reborn like a bright moon 

in the night sky.

Somewhere Near Daegu

When I was a girl

I saw a mother carry her baby

bundled under bare arms

cold from the autumn rain

she steps under the neon sign.

The smell of sesame oil

heavy in the air 

an old man pushes his cart 

and grins

as if he knows how the story ends.

I once believed 

everything was true 

that angels sang from heaven

and dust

fell 

from the black 

sky.

A daughterless country 

lost inside the 38th parallel 

And I wondered whose side I’m on

Last night I had a dream

a mother was riding her bike 

across a dirt field 

her daughter holding 

on to long black hair 

slick from the warm heat 

the mother hears a distant cry

like so many times before

ancestors 

calling her home.

The Day You Were Born

img_0260

I imagine your first piercing cry 

as you entered this world

Your birth mother’s silenced

screams 

bore down 

fists clenched tight

Her outstretched arms

reached for you

Delight turned to panic

as the words of Confucianism 

entangled her thoughts

How can I possibly keep him?

***

Her dark eyes 

captured with fear

The stale smell of antiseptic 

against her blood stained sheets

a flood of shame 

as your strong legs kicked about

finding your place in this world

***

A boy with love 

full of wonder

She exists in your being

Did my birth mother take care of me?

Holding space 

inside the hard questions

I softly close my eyes 

and breathe in 

her sadness.