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.

I See You, I Hear You

I had never seen a Black person until I attended a private Christian school in North Minneapolis. I recall looking out the window of my parents’ station wagon driving down West Broadway Avenue. Scattered store fronts and restaurants lined the block. Black people stood highlighted on the street like statues-permanent fixtures in the backdrop of my Whitewashed world. I drove this same route for three years. During that time my family never talked about race. Race didn’t exist.

Like many transracial Korean adoptees, I grew up racially isolated from others who looked like me. My neighborhood, my school, and my friends were white. There was a period of time when I was so entrenched in White culture that unless I looked in the mirror, I forgot that I was Korean. One Halloween my friend and I dressed up as Madonna and I thought, How can I be Madonna? I’m Korean. I realized the color of my skin made me different from my family and if my parents didn’t see race, then how did they see me?

Child development research shows that by six months old infants are able to discriminate the differences in skin color. By two years old they are able to name colors and apply this to skin colors and by five years old children categorize by race and express bias based on race. When people claim they don’t see color or that all lives matter do they think this absolves them from racism? Or if they see it, it has no meaning to them? Being color blind contradicts how we develop as humans and disregards the fact that we live in a racialized world and have been socialized to believe that white skin is better.

When I learned about the murder of George Floyd, like many others, I felt so much rage. But I wonder when the protesting is over and the hashtags have disappeared how will I take my anger and use it to dismantle anti-blackness in my family, in the Asian American community, in my classroom, and in my neighborhood? It’s not enough to be angry. It’s not enough to put a Black Lives Matters sign in my front yard or post Angela Davis quotes on my Instagram. To be an anti-racist I must show up. I must listen. I must continue to do the hard work if I want my son to live in a just, safe, and humane world free of racism and hate.

I haven’t stopped thinking about George Floyd. How must it have felt to have a violent angry knee on his neck. I think about the eight minutes and forty-six seconds of pain he endured before he cried out for his momma. I think about how in that moment his soul summoned all the mothers of the world and I imagine us holding him up chanting in unison, I see you. I hear you. I see you. I hear you. I see you. I hear you.

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.

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 my body never lets me forget.

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.