Letting in the Light

When the ’Stay-at-Home’ ordinance was first enforced by the governor, I jokingly admitted to my husband that I will be good at this because I’m such an introvert. People exhaust me. I get my energy from being alone. However, I quickly learned that social isolation is hard.  When I only interact with my family, the world feels incredibly small. I miss seeing my community of friends and eating leisurely dinners out with my family at Zen Box. It feels weird to stand across the street when I talk to my neighbor. I miss the normalcy of my life: Lake Nokomis trails crowded with runners, laughing faces inside coffee shops, and the bustle of traffic on Cedar Avenue. I want the certainty that my four-year-old son will be able to play at a park with his friends and that my husband will be able to return to work. I want to be able to leave my Minneapolis bungalow without feeling terrified that one misstep in the bread aisle will get me sick. I am grieving the loss of my old life. I want it back. I hate that I am this anxiety filled scared person. 

I am truly trying to cope with the uncertainty of this new reality but among the cacophony of confusion there are moments when I can only hear the sounds of my rage. I am pissed off that the federal government is profiting while people are dying. I am tired of Trump spewing his racism by calling it a “Chinese Virus” inciting violence against Asian Americans. When I leave the safety of my home my anxiety spikes because I’m scared that if I cough a stranger might scream at me to take my filthy virus back to China. It’s hard to be anything other than angry. 

The other day a friend and I were commiserating about how crazy everything feels. She told me to focus on what is positive in my life. She said at least I’m still healthy. She’s right. I am healthy but that doesn’t separate me from those who are getting sick and have to die alone. I recently read in the news that doctors are having to make decisions about which patient is going to receive a ventilator and ask themselves whose life is worth saving. This magical thinking is not only dangerous but I believe it is complete bullshit. 

Am I selfish for sitting in my rage when my life is better than so many others? My inner voice tells me to let go of the rage. You will be okay. But does that matter? People are still dying. I’m sinking deeper into isolation and I’m still terrified that I will get sick. So until I get through to the other side of this reprehensible shitshow, make no mistake-I’m going to stay fucking angry. 

But how do I navigate my own life right now? Some mornings I’m exhausted just thinking about what to cook for breakfast. How do I get through another day without breaking down and crying? This morning as I sat next to my son at our dining room table doing schoolwork, my mind was racing with thoughts about how my response to this pandemic is so different from others. I can take a walk with my family without the mental stress of thinking about how I’m going to pay my mortgage. My ambitious son has a functioning computer, numerous books to read, and plenty of food to eat. At the end of all of this, I must trust that I will be okay. That he will be okay. My husband will still have his job and we will all have health insurance. Hopefully, what is the best outcome for my family? That my son will have learned how to read and that our family vacation to Florida will only be postponed. My financial security affords me with little discomfort. I’m ashamed that I feel relieved that I don’t work at a restaurant like my friend who lost his job and doesn’t know if he will be hired back. 

All of this is brutally unfair. I hate pretending that any of this is normal. I wish that I could predict that what I do right now matters. That my decisions have truth. I can only create space to let in the light. Cling onto hope that we will make it through. 

A Birthday Letter

Dear Birthmother, 

Today is my birthday

I took an afternoon walk along the Han River 

where I stopped to peer over the edge 

of the low concrete bridge

Below me a sea of black haired 

mothers bobbing in the midday heat 

a glance up from a familiar face-

high cheekbones round moon face 

I want to believe that was you birthmother

but instead it felt like a painful reminder 

of another year gone.

Have you looked for me?

I’ve always searched for you

inside the crowded stalls of Dongdaemun market 

in the brown eyes of wrinkled faces 

Among the stone Buddhist temples

In the vials and swabs of my DNA

yet-

I am still 

your missing daughter.

For nine months 

you gave me life inside

your womb 

And birthed me out of trauma,

out of han

that

seethed 

deep inside the 

wounds of our damaged bodies 

And each year on my birthday 

when I’m alone,

in the stillness of the night

I let myself dream of 

jeong, a deep mother-daughter 

love 

And I wonder if I believe 

in possibility.

A Conversation With My Social Worker

0B612309-DC0E-4610-863F-660E0E975255

When she speaks, I imagine my Korean name Jung Ran Jo. I see my foster mother’s photograph vanishing into the sky like gray embers from a smoldering fire the smell of burning papers disguised as truth seeps deep inside my lungs. I catch my breath. My thoughts lost in slow motion.

“Why do you distrust me? Of course I wish there was no imminent military threat from North Korea but your adoption file is not here.” I watch her long fingers fumble a thin Manila folder marked United States; her eyes divert from mine. Why are you blaming North Korea? I want to shout, “It’s not 1953!” I want to pound my fists on the table in a fit of rage and scream, “I am more than a fucking paper orphan among an empty family registry!”

I am a wife,

I am a mother,

I am a sister,

I am a missing daughter

a yellow foreigner-”Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees look at these,” a classmate chanting from the swings pulls back the corner of his eyes. I feel my face grow hot with embarrassment. I try to yell but my words are like chalk stuck inside my throat-

I’m American,

Korean American,

No, I’m a Korean adoptee.

Now twenty years later I am sitting in a stiff blue chair across from a new social worker at my adoption agency still trying to reclaim what is mine. Two hundred thousand babies exported overseas and I wonder if she feels any shame. I turn away and look out the small picture window. I can glimpse in the distance black haired strangers who are mirror images of myself hurrying down the crowded streets and I am triggered by an aching feeling of loneliness.

She interrupts my thoughts, “Ah, here is your adoption file. I’m sorry if this caused any misunderstanding.” She acts as if I’m supposed to be grateful because she conveniently found my file; granting me access to understand how I came into this world. I clench my folder like a fist against my chest. Decades of grief turns back into rage. I meet her eyes and I snap. “I refuse to be silent anymore.”

Gone to U.S.A. On

1.

It happened in the evening.

I am left on a sidewalk in Korea

Swaddled in the shame of my beginnings.

The smell of rotten eggs lingers heavy in the air like a lifetime of regrets.

A woman looks down at me and says, annyeong, you beautiful baby

I make no sound.

She lifts me into her arms

And carries me towards grace.

2.

It happened in the daytime.

Exported like a shiny new cell phone

I arrive a daughter in a new country

The model adoptee-grateful and lucky

The other shadowed among your whiteness.

A woman cradles me in her arms and whispers, welcome home.

3.

It happened slowly over time

The grief unearthing from somewhere deep like worms crawling out from the dirt.

I wonder what my birth mother said to me as she held me for the last time.

Did she say I love you, I’m sorry…

Maybe she doesn’t remember

But the body never forgets.

4.

I am here.

Born into this world

Under the August moonlight

Broken and whole

Loved

Abandoned

And found.

Finding Reconciliation in the Goodness

I’ve always hated the platitude, It was meant to be. Why do people say that? It’s as if something so out of your control was certain to happen that no one could have prevented it. I’d like to think that I have more agency in my decisions, but lately I feel like I’ve been experiencing an uptick of it was meant to be moments.

Shortly before the school year started, I found out that my son’s preschool was reviewed by the State Health Department and received 30 violations. I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions, but 30 seemed like a lot. The problem was that he loves his preschool and his teachers and has met some good friends there. I tried not to panic and started researching my options. I have a Korean adoptee friend who sends her son to a Korean language immersion school. For as long as I’ve known her she’s always talked about this school with such glowing radical love. She keeps telling me to take a tour. Check it out and see what you think is usually how our conversations end. So I did.

Raised in racial and cultural isolation, I went years without interacting with other Korean adoptees. Most of my friends were white. I looked at the world through a white lens. So when I walked through the halls on the school tour and saw black haired children with Asian faces and Korean teachers who greeted me with annyeonghaseyo and the entire time I kept thinking, This is what it feels like to be surrounded by people who look like me. I couldn’t stop staring. It felt weird. I wanted to hug every student I passed. I was envious that these kids had a place where they could come and be themselves. And in those brief seconds I felt like I belonged, too.

Each year the school has a student performance to celebrate Chuseok-a major Korean holiday. I volunteered to pick up food for the event. As I drove back to the school-alone in my car; I started to cry. Somewhere in the giddy excitement of preparing food, photographing my son wearing his traditional hanbok and posting his smiling pictures on Instagram; decades of loss was triggered. How would my life have been if I stayed in Korea and learned how to speak my birth language? What kind of mother would I have become if I had never been relinquished by my Korean family? And knowing what my life is now does that even matter?

I know that it seems like It was meant to be that his old preschool was a mess and somehow I ended up getting the last opening at the new school but I believe that things don’t happen blindly. Maybe all this goodness was sitting there waiting and I only had to listen. Perhaps sending my son to a Korean school is a way for me to reconcile with my own loss of language and culture. Maybe something in me is starting to crack open and I’m beginning to heal. And maybe somewhere deep inside all this longing is my voice-me finding my truth.

Holding Space

My son recently turned four-years-old and each year I feel like he’s getting more sophisticated with the kinds of questions he asks. Like the other day while we were driving in the car, we drove past a cemetery and he noticed the plots and asked why the stones were sticking out of the ground. I explained that when people die they are buried and the person’s name is written on the stone so their family knows where they are. Then he asked, “Why do people die?” I told him that we get old and our bodies aren’t meant to live forever. The car went silent and I was relieved because I’ve never had to explain what death is to anyone before, much less to a four-year-old on a Monday morning.

As he gets older, he is also asking more questions about about his adoption. Recently, he asked, “Why can’t omma (foster mother) come and visit me?” I could tell that he was confused and wanted to cry. I was crushed but I held back my tears and told him that I wished she could come visit right now. I asked him what he would tell her. I tried to remain hopeful, but I was frustrated that I didn’t have an answer. I felt angry that I couldn’t take away his sadness and in that moment the burden of his loss felt too heavy to carry.

I felt emotionally overwhelmed and doubtful that I said the right thing so I checked in with a brilliant group of Korean adoptee mothers who like myself are parenting a Korean adoptee. We discussed how the adoption talks are going and they reassured me that I wasn’t alone. One mother said that having these nuanced conversations with our children is like using a muscle. The more I use it, the stronger I become. I was reminded that I can’t take away my son’s grief, but I can hold space for him. I don’t always know how to answer his questions, but I can walk alongside of him on his adoption journey. And in the meantime, I’m learning how to let go of the rightness and wrongness and just be.

The In Betweenness

This week I had the opportunity to learn Hangul with two other Korean adoptees. I didn’t know how I would feel about learning my birth language. Would this trigger any feelings of sadness or loss? As we started the lesson, I was immediately surprised by how empowered I felt as I practiced saying the consonants out loud. Listening to the sounds over and over gave me a sense of healing. Maybe it was the fact that I was reclaiming my culture. Now I wonder what took me so long.

One of the losses of adoption is loss of culture. As a transracial Korean adoptee, I grew up in a predominantly white culture with little to no exposure to my Korean heritage. I lived in mostly white spaces. Being Korean was not talked about and I assumed that I was left to navigate my cultural identity on my own. Coming into my Koreaness was slow and at times a lonely transformation. In some ways, I consider myself a late bloomer. Eventually, in my early twenties is when I started to explore more of my identity. I researched Asian movies and books grasping on to anything I could find. I remember reading the book The Woman Warrior written by the Chinese American author Maxine Hong Kingston and how afterwards it made me feel so proud to be Asian. This was a turning point.

When I had a family, one of the values I wanted to pass on to my son was Korean culture but at the same time I knew this would be impossible. I was raised in white culture. How could I possibly teach him the traditions of a culture that I didn’t even know myself? Sure, I can cook bulgogi, sing along to the music of BTS, and even celebrate Seollal, but this can only sustain me for a while. At some point the jig will be up and I am still left wondering if I am Korean enough.

Maybe it doesn’t matter what I do to feel more Korean. Or the measure I place on my Koreaness. Perhaps what’s more important is finding a space where I no longer have to define what it means to be Korean-a place where I can fully accept the in betweenness.

Alongside Us

9A3346C8-678A-414B-9A79-785CEB937A55.jpeg

This week my son learned how to ride a two wheeler bicycle. With each milestone he experiences, I have a tendency to get very emotional. Of course I started to cry. When he realized I was crying he asked, “Mommy sad that I ride the big boy bike?” What is it about milestones that gives me such pause? Maybe it’s the reminder that he’s growing up and there’s nothing I can do. Perhaps it’s the panicky feeling I get knowing I can’t possibly hold on to the memories forever. Why can’t everything slow down?

One of the losses of adoption is that I didn’t get to experience some of his earlier milestones like the first time he learned how to walk. I wonder how many steps he took before he fell. What was his first word and how did he look after his first haircut? I will never know.

This month marks another milestone for my son. It is the anniversary date of when he left his foster family in Korea. Each year around this time, his body reminds him of the grief and loss he experienced. His brain knows the moment when he said good bye to his foster family and was uprooted from everything familiar. On this day, his body told him that he was in danger; something wasn’t right. Two years later he relives this trauma while he sleeps by waking up shaking and crying. He is inconsolable until I rock him back to sleep.

Sometimes I think about what my son’s life could have been like if he stayed in Korea. I don’t think about it in terms of whether his life would be better or worse, good or bad, rather how it would be the same. I have no doubt that he would be experiencing life like most three-and-a-half-year-olds by going to preschool, learning how to sing the ABCs, and making new friends the entire time with his same giggly smile and determined personality. I’d like to think that if he stayed in Korea with his birth mother, he would be content and happy.

As I mark his progress in the world at each milestone, there’s a part of me that wishes his birth mother was running alongside me-alongside us-cheering him on as I let go of his handlebars for the first time and watch him pedal away.

Big Conversations

My son is three-and-a-half years old and lately he’s been obsessed with his anatomy and how it works. We’ve had many conversations like, “I have a butt. I go pee.” I always matter of factly reply, “Yes, you do. Everybody does.” He’s also very curious about where babies come from. The other day, I listened while he role played with Cookie Monster who birthed a small bunny rabbit. There was an ambulance ride to the hospital and even crying. It was everything you’d expect giving birth to be like from the active imagination of a toddler.

I’ve always been open with him about his adoption. I normalize it by having conversations often. He knows that he was a baby in his birth mother’s tummy before he joined my family. Because he’s still very young, I’m not certain he’s able to fully understand who she is or how she’s part of his family. However, one day, he asked, “Birth mother take care of me?” This question was completely unexpected. I waited a few seconds and thought carefully about my reply. I answered, “Yes, for a short time and then she made an adoption plan for you to live with omma and then with mommy and daddy. Each of us took turns taking care of you.” Then I reassured him that we all love him.

I know this conversation is the first of many that I will have with him about his birth mother. He’s young now, but his questions will become much more complex and his desire to know more with greater detail will increase as he gets older. As a Korean adoptee who has a Korean adopted son, I understand that one of the losses of adoption is the unknown answers to the multitude of questions. How will he feel when I’m unable to give him details about why he was given up for adoption? Or that I have generic information about who is his birth mother-eye color, height, weight-and I can only repeat back the spotty fill in the blank answers from his adoption file. How will this be enough?

Sometimes there are moments when I catch myself thinking about his birth mother. I wonder if she has the same happy giggle as him. Maybe he gets his strong determination from her. Does she think about what her life would’ve been like if the circumstances were different and she raised him as her son? Maybe there will be a time in his adoption journey when he will have the opportunity to meet his birth mother and get answers to his questions. Perhaps he won’t want to meet her or there is even the possibility that she doesn’t want to reunite with him. Whatever he chooses to do, my hope is that he trusts me enough to come to me with any questions about his adoption-big or small. I will listen. He will know that my love for him is unconditional.

Photo Album

img_5222-1

I remember the day when I first met my son at the adoption agency in Seoul, South Korea. I woke up that morning feeling a range of emotions from complete anticipation, to sheer happiness, to utter anxiety. I waited nearly a year to meet my son and now I was just hours away. I didn’t know what to expect. As I sat in the coffee shop waiting for my visit, so many anxious thoughts spiraled through my head. How will I feel the moment he is placed in my arms? What if he cries when I try to hold him? What do I even say to him?  I have a small white photo album filled with pictures from that first visit. It includes many beautiful family photos of us laughing and playing together. One of my favorite pictures is where my son’s foster mother looks at him adoringly; the love completely radiates from her face.

The first few months after my son joined my family, we had a routine where each morning we looked at the pictures in the Korean photo album to help ease his transition. Most days he was eager and content to look at the photos. He liked to talk about the pictures and point to the trucks he used to play with. However, on this particular day the pictures triggered feelings of confusion and sadness. He started to cry and became completely inconsolable. My son ran to the front door, pointed to my car, and cried out, “Omma.” I wasn’t prepared for this. I panicked. How do I explain to a grieving two year old that he can’t get in the car and be with his foster mother? I stumbled through my words, fought back my tears, and eventually managed to explain that it’s okay to be sad. I reassured him that even though his foster mother was in Korea, she still loves him.

My son has vivid memories of his life in Korea and when he shares them out loud the gravity of his loss is both heartbreaking and beautiful. One morning while I helped him get dressed he picked up his Korean striped monkey shirt from his foster mother, smelled it, and insisted on wearing it. Or another time when he opened the refrigerator door, pointed to the small red bottle of gochujang and confidently said, “Omma” with a happy wide grin on his face. Recently he found a container of baby wipes in his dresser drawer. “Go to Korea when I bigger. Give to omma’s baby?” he excitedly asked. I remember a few weeks after my son joined my family, he liked to sit on the armchair of the couch and quietly stare out the front porch window and watch the cars and buses drive by. I used to think he enjoyed this because he is wildly obsessed with vehicles but now a part of me wonders if he was patiently waiting for his foster mother to return.

Adoption is complicated. I understand that as an adoptive parent with every gain I experience, there is an unspeakable loss for my son. Even though I gained a beautiful family, my son didn’t choose to be adopted. The truth is that in order for me to become a mother he had to first lose his birth mother, his foster mother, his birth language, and be uprooted from everything that was familiar. Sometimes I feel like my son’s and my relationship has added layers of intensity than other mother/son relationships. Because of our shared experience as adoptees, I am acutely aware that my son may struggle with being an adoptee in much the same ways I did by questioning his identity or trying to find a sense of belonging. I have moments when I fast forward my life to when he is a teenager. I imagine we have an argument and he tells me that I’m not his real mother. I know this is coming from a place of anger because being separated from his birth family was out of his control. The pain he feels is real. Or perhaps one day he decides to return to Korea and realizes that because he doesn’t speak the language or know the culture he isn’t Korean enough. However, while he’s in America, he doesn’t feel or look American enough either. I understand that as an adoptee my son will have to learn how to navigate the space of being both Korean and an adoptee. My hope is that one day my son feels like he is accepted; he is in a place where he truly belongs.

It’s been a year and a half since my son joined my family and there are still emotionally challenging days when he misses his foster family and is sad. I can’t predict what triggers his grief, but I’m learning how to better comfort him. Like when he says, “Mommy, walk around.” I know this means that he needs to be comforted. I pick him up, swaddle his feet and legs in his blanket and we walk around until he feels relaxed. Then I ask if he’d like to look at his Korean photo album. Although we’ve paged through it countless times, I can tell that each time he talks about the pictures it helps him create meaning from his loss. As we sit together with his head resting on my shoulder, I wonder if there’s a way I can ease his pain. Somehow take it all away. And it’s in these still moments that I choose to surrender to the grief; I know it will always be. As I continue down this path of motherhood, I understand there are so many uncertainties. However, the one certainty I do have is hope. My hope is that my son knows he isn’t alone on his adoption journey. I am here for him now just like I was the days that lead up to when he was first placed in my arms.