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

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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

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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.

 

The Realities of Doing a Birth Search

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As an adoptee, I’m often asked if I’ve ever done a birth search or have met my birth mother. On the surface this may seem like a simple straightforward question, but the answer is often much more complicated. When I tell the person that I’ve never tried, I’m usually left feeling regret, guilt, and even sad. Throughout different times in my life, I’ve had numerous thoughts about my birth mother. Does she ever think about me? Maybe she’s waiting for me to contact her? Has she told her family about me? If I ever meet her, how will I deal with the unresolved emotions that I’ve compartmentalized and buried for years?  

About a year ago, after spending considerable amounts of time going back and forth thinking about doing a birth search, I finally decided to take the first step. I’m not sure what prompted my decision. Perhaps it was the assumption that my birth mother is in her sixties with grown children of her own, possibly with grandchildren, and she may be more open to a reunion. Regardless, I sent an email to my Korean adoption agency requesting my file. Surprisingly, three days later, I received an email with my adoption paperwork. I didn’t know how to feel or what to expect. I wished there was an instruction manual on what to do when you receive a 20 page document filling in the gaps of the first six months of your life, but there isn’t one. I knew that whatever was written in my file could completely alter the course of my life or leave me feeling incredibly disappointed. My adoption like all adoptions in Korea was closed. Did I really think it would be that simple where my birth mother’s name was listed and I would be instantly reunited with her? I was abandoned on the street in a city of three million people. What did I expect? I didn’t even know if my birthdate was accurate. Or if my birth mother named me. I can’t help but wonder why she didn’t leave her name, an address, or a note. Maybe she never intended to be found.

Sometimes I try to imagine my life reunited with my birth mother and having a relationship with my extended Korean family. I wonder how that would play out. Would I be accepted into the family or be a shameful secret? How would my birth mother who is a complete stranger try to manage a relationship with me in spite of all the years in between? Would the loss be too great? Perhaps it’s not even possible.

As the years pass, it becomes easier to let go and accept the fact that I may never know the details of what circumstances lead to my adoption.  A part of me understands that it’s unlikely that I will ever have the opportunity to experience a mother/daughter relationship with my birth mother. There are many losses that come with adoption, but beyond any other adoption loss not knowing my birth mother in a personal meaningful way remains one of my most profound losses.

 

Belonging

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Growing up as a Korean adoptee in a predominantly white family and community, I understand what it feels like to not have a sense of belonging. There were moments in my childhood where I wanted to fit in so I acted white and sometimes felt white, but over time there was a quiet disassociation of my Korean identity. My most vivid memory was during Halloween when my best friend and I dressed up as Madonna. I felt so inadequate. How can I look like a white pop star? I’m Asian. It validated my insecurities that I can never be an American. My Koreaness set me apart.

Shortly after returning from my first trip to Korea, I again started to question my own sense of belonging. Where do I belong? How do I fit in? Even though I looked Korean when I was in Korea, I didn’t feel Korean enough and when I am here, I don’t look or feel completely American either. My experiences in Korea made me realize that I had to be intentional about creating spaces where my son can see others who look like him and have the opportunities to make connections with other transracial adoptees. As a new adoptive parent, I was overwhelmed by this prospect. It was exhausting to always have to think about it.

Now even as an adult adoptee, I’m still trying to navigate being Korean, a person of color, and an adoptee. I understand this will always be a part of my identity. However, when I’m with other Korean adoptees I can be completely myself because there’s a shared history and a common language. I am completely understood. It’s in these collective moments when I think that maybe this is what it feels like to truly belong.

I understand that because my son is a transracial adoptee he will struggle to figure out where he fits in. He will constantly question his identity and his adoption. My greatest desire for my son is that perhaps at some small still moment during his adoption journey he will be able to look at himself in the mirror and feel like he is truly accepted-that he belongs.

…But the plants want love, too-

they lean into the sun like children diving

off the board saying watch me,

watch me, but it’s mostly just the sun

watching, the air caring

about the browning leaves before you

come and snip them

And the roots-I should insert

easy metaphor about my own

deep ones or lack of them

born, loved, left,

found, chosen, loved again and again,

these roots digging into

the earth like an apology

poem excerpt from Korean Adoptee Thinks about Plants by Lee Herrick

Just Right Days

This past week my son started preschool. He was overly excited about his first day. He couldn’t wait to start, but I on the other hand, was a complete wreck. All the typical anxious thoughts ran through my head. Will he like it? I hope he eats his snack. Who will help him when he needs to use the bathroom? Later when I picked him up I asked him how was school. He smiled big and replied, “Just right.” I was completely relieved. I let go for a moment, but deep down I knew this was only the beginning.

Schools are a place of contradictions. Like any parent, I know that when my son goes to school he will learn wonderful new things about himself and the world that are beautiful, but in this same place he will experience how ugly and unkind the world can be. My son is still young, but the day will arrive when he comes home from school and he’s upset because someone on the playground made a racist remark by pulling back their eyes and calling him a “chink” or maybe a more subtle comment like being asked where he’s from implying that he’s a foreigner or “the other. “

Later when my son reaches high school, he’ll notice that in history class there is little mention of any Asian people, how they contributed to America, who they are, and why they are living here. I can’t help but wonder whose voices will be amplified? Whose narrative will be omitted? Will my son have the opportunity to learn about how during the 19th century the Chinese came to America because of the California Gold Rush and became the first immigrant laborers who built the Transcontinental Railroad yet faced extreme discrimination and was later banned from immigrating to the United States? Perhaps when he studies WWII his textbook dedicates a small paragraph to explain how Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to internment camps, or will that be completely deleted? And finally, I wonder if the only Korean person he will ever learn about is the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and the negative images portrayed about him in the media. How does this racial invisibility in school impact his perceptions about himself? How will it shape his worldview?

I’d like to think of my son as a strong and resilient person who will be able to easily navigate any microaggression he encounters and be unscathed. But the truth is that when these experiences happen, it will be confusing and hurtful. I want to be able to protect him from these painful experiences but I know that it’s simply impossible. Instead, I can give him the support and confidence he needs to feel proud of who he is and who he wants to become. In the meantime, I am hopeful that his “just right” days are infinitely possible.

Why Representation Matters

When I was growing up, I was a huge Charlie’s Angels fan. I remember watching the television show religiously. I was enamored by the beautiful Hollywood hair, the glamorous sexy clothes, and their smart investigative skills where each show ended with the crime effortlessly solved. My loyalty for the show was so steadfast that my friend and I often wrote scripts and acted out scenes from the show. I always played the part of Kelly. She was my hero. As a Korean American, how did this white movie star with wavy brunette hair become my first role model?

Even though I attended a large suburban high school in a metropolitan area, there were only a handful of people of color in my school and I can only remember five other Asian students. My circle of friends were all white. My best friend was white. I existed in and easily maintained a white culture. I walked through high school not noticeably affected by my race. There was a whitewashing that occurred and until I looked at myself in the mirror, I completely forgot that I was an Asian American.

It was during my twenties when I began to explore my racial identity by seeking out Asian American films and books. What I quickly learned was that Asian American female actresses were non existent and if they were in films, often times they played the stereotype role of the fetishized girl, the “dragon lady,” or “china doll” who is seen as the “other.” Asian American men, on the other hand, were completely reduced to either the caricature of the martial artist like Bruce Lee or the emasculated man like the awkward foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong from the movie Sixteen Candles. His character was intended to be the comic relief. Jokes were made at his expense while he spoke in broken English and gongs played in the background.

These are the images that I grew up seeing in television and media. These negative stereotypes impacted how I viewed myself and created my racial identity. Now as a parent who is raising an Asian American male, I wonder who will be his role models? Will he grow up seeing strong Asian American men in popular culture who fall in love, have successful jobs, and live complex “normal” lives? How will he internalize the absence of representation?

This past week I attended a show at Theater Mu. This theater company casts all Asian actors and seeks to represent the diverse stories from the Asian American experience. The show ended. The actors came out and bowed to the audience. As I clapped hysterically, I looked out on to the stage and all I could see was a group of talented Asian actors who looked like me. It was in that quiet fleeting moment where I felt validated. I existed. And that’s why representation matters.