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.
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.
It’s been 14 months since my son joined my family and I’m still learning how to navigate the complex and often times emotional world of being an adoptee who is also an adoptive parent. I’d like to think that as an adoptee I somehow have an inside advantage to understanding the nuances of adoption, but to be honest, there are moments when being adopted makes my relationship with my son that much more complicated.
Maybe post adoption is similar to mothers who give birth and experience postpartum depression because like these mothers, I didn’t feel a sense of euphoric joy and happiness that I’d expect following my son’s adoption. Instead, for the longest time, I felt a deep sense of guilt for adopting him. Sometimes when my son is sleeping and he wakes up crying out for his foster mother or when he makes up songs by singing, “Family-mommy, daddy, M,” it’s especially in these beautiful yet heartbreaking moments when I wonder how could I take my son away from his foster mother, his culture, and everything familiar.
Not only has my son’s adoption created feelings of guilt, but it’s also triggered many strong emotions and more questions about my own adoption. How do I avoid projecting my feelings about my adoption on to what he’s experiencing? Some days I want to be able to shut off my thoughts and pretend we’re not an adoptive family in order to be free from the expectations and pressures of adoption.
I’m beginning to understand how my son’s adoption will affect and define our relationship. He and I will always have the shared experience of being adoptees. Perhaps it will take time to be completely comfortable coexisting in the spaces of being an adoptee and an adoptive parent-a unique relationship which can feel all too familiar, yet entirely uncertain at the same time.
There are some families in the adoption community who celebrate the day their child arrived into their family by calling it “Gotcha Day.” This day is similar to a birthday celebration with family and friends. It’s presumed to be a joyous occasion. It sounds incredibly happy and loving, but in some ways the term feels a bit perverse. As an adoptee and now an adoptive parent, the word “gotcha” implies that my son is a commodity. What’s missing from this narrative is that “Gotcha Day” doesn’t acknowledge my son’s feelings of grief and loss over the abandonment of his birth family. Should he be expected to feel happy or grateful that he’s adopted when he’s experienced a deep and sudden loss?
As my son’s one year anniversary date approached, I started to experience mixed emotions of happiness and sadness. Wasn’t I supposed to be excited that he made it to this significant milestone? I have vivid memories of the first day of custody where on the van drive to the hotel my son reached down to grab the door handle struggling to get free. Or during that first evening when he cried out for his Omma (foster mother) while he ran to the hotel room door. How would his body respond to such a visceral traumatic experience one year later? And then it happened. The grief came in the middle of the night. My son woke up sobbing and calling out for his Omma and Bo (foster brother). I didn’t know how to comfort him. I held him tightly in my arms and whispered, “Omma loves you. You love Omma” as we both cried and let the year of loss wash over us.
I understand that throughout my son’s life, and even possibly every year during this time, his body will remind him of the day he left his birth family, his foster family, and his culture in order to join my family. Because my son is adopted, the gains and losses are a very real part of his life that needs no cause for celebration.
When I was six weeks old, I was abandoned and found in front of a steel factory in Daegu City, South Korea. The stranger who found me brought me to the nearest police station. I was referred to the White Lily Orphanage where I spent two weeks in their care until I was placed into a foster home and then finally adopted when I was six months old. When I first read this information from my file, I was shocked. The fictitious scenario that I had created in my mind of how I was adopted no longer matched the painful facts of my early life in Korea. Once the initial shock wore off, I was left with so many questions. How could my birth mother abandon me? Why didn’t she bring me to an adoption agency? What was she thinking the moment she lifted me out of her arms for the last time? Some days the weight of my unanswered questions feels overwhelmingly endless.
International adoption in Korea has a messy and complicated history. Since the 1950s it is estimated that up to 90 percent of children placed in orphanages or adopted have been to single unwed mothers, many of those children of who were abandoned. There’s a citizenship law in Korea that if you are abandoned then your birth father is considered “unknown.” This allows abandoned children to be deemed a citizen and therefore gives them access to government assistance, employment, and education. Yet, under this same law, if my birth mother had raised me as a single parent these same benefits would not be afforded to me. Maybe her only “choice” was relinquishment.
I’d like to think that during those six weeks while my birth mother cared for me, she didn’t agonize about her decision or was traumatized and shamed by her pregnancy like the pervasive unwed mother narrative suggests. Instead, this smart resilient woman knew exactly what she was about to do. Maybe my abandonment didn’t come from a place of sadness or desperation, but rather from a place of hope and love.
If I ever have the opportunity to meet my birth mother, what would I say to her? I would tell her that I understand her decision to relinquish me wasn’t actually her choice. I would say that I too, understand grief and loss. I survived. I am here.
Lee Herrick writes in his poem “Salvation”
…I wonder what songs my birth mother sings and if she sings them for me what stories her body might tell. I have come to believe that the blues is the body’s salvation, a chorus of scars to remind you that you are here, flawed, angelic, and full of light. I believe that the blues is the spirit’s wreckage, examined and damaged but whole again, more full and prepared than it’s ever been, quiet and still, just as it was always meant to be.
May 24, 2017-Seoul, South Korea
I wake up, eat, and get dressed. Omma (mother) packed a big red suitcase filled with my clothes, bottles, hanbok, toys, and my blanket. I board the bus with my family to my adoption agency. I know this route well because I take this bus once a month.
Eastern Social Welfare Society- Seoul, South Korea
When I arrive at the agency omma begins to cry. My foster brothers try to comfort her, but she continues to cry. I ride my favorite orange bike in the lobby. I play with the toys. Everything is familiar. I know what to expect. A strange woman and man enter the room. They speak in funny words that I can’t understand. They nod and smile at me while they speak. The strange woman starts to cry. She reaches out and holds omma’s hand.
There is a white van waiting for me in the parking lot. Omma places me in the arms of the strangers. I don’t cry. I don’t struggle. The van stops at a stoplight. I reach down for the door handle, but I can’t open it. I start to panic. I am frightened. The strange woman speaks to me, but her words are of no comfort.
Somewhere in Seoul, South Korea
I arrive in a room. I look around. Nothing is familiar. I don’t recognize the smells. This isn’t my house. I am confused. I run to the door. I say, “Omma?” I say it again, but this time louder. She doesn’t answer. I am silent.
Like many Korean American adoptees growing up in America, I was curious about my birth country and hoped one day to visit. Many adoptees take advantage of the popular homeland tours that their adoption agencies offer. I never had any real intense interest in doing a birth country tour. I just assumed that one day I would visit Korea on my own. It wasn’t until the adoption of my son that I had the opportunity to return to Korea. How do you emotionally prepare for a reunion trip? There wasn’t a guidebook that told me how to do it. How was I expected to feel? I wasn’t quite sure. The only certainty I had was that I would no doubt feel an extraordinary sense of belonging, but also a profound feeling of loss.
The euphoric sense of belonging happened immediately when I landed and walked into the densely crowded Hongik subway station. Here I was greeted by a sea of black haired and brown eyed chatty high school students who rapidly walked towards me. My initial thought was that everyone looked like me. It felt entirely surreal to be surrounded by people who physically resembled myself.
However, the more time I spent in Korea, the more my sense of belonging started to wane. This was especially evident when I tried to communicate by using my textbook broken Korean. Many times the servers at restaurants handed the English menu only to my white husband or when it was time to order ignored him and talked directly to me. Once while I rode the subway a woman started a conversation with me. I looked at her and replied, “Sorry, I speak English.” I’m sure people thought, She’s Korean. Why can’t she speak it? I felt like a foreigner. I was a foreigner.
There’s a place in Seoul, Korea called Namsan Tower. This tower sits atop a mountain and has spectacular panoramic views of the city. When I reached the observation deck and looked across the vast mountains over my birthplace, the stress from the week overwhelmed me. I started to cry. My husband asked me what was wrong but I didn’t know. Maybe I grieved for the life I could’ve had in Korea. Perhaps I felt regret for being in Korea and not searching for my birth mother or maybe I was disappointed because I realized that Korea would never feel like home.
When I think about my son’s adoption, I have these moments of irrational fear that he will resent me because I was the one who removed him from his birth country. He will be angry with me because he will never fully know his culture and not be Korean enough. The truth is that my son’s birth mother made an adoption plan. If he hadn’t joined my family, he would’ve been adopted by another family. He didn’t choose to leave Korea. The choice was made for him.
I understand that even though I was born in Korea, I will never be Korean. I will always feel like a stranger when I visit Korea. It will never feel like home. Nevertheless, the deep longing to return to the place where I began still remains strong.
Because I’m adopted, I’ve had a number of uncomfortable conversations filled with unwanted questions about being adopted. Now my son is starting to experience these same conversations. Like the other day when a complete stranger approached us in the grocery store and proclaimed, “He’s so cute. Where did you get him?” How am I expected to respond? Do I reply he came from my stomach or from Korea?
“Your son is so lucky to have found you,” is a phrase often used by others to describe how my son should feel because he joined my family. The assumption is that I saved him from his sad awful plight and gave him a better life. Or am I the lucky one because he’s my son? The reality is that luck has nothing to do with my son’s journey and how he joined my family. Adoption is much more complicated than that. There is grief and loss experienced by my son, his birth mother, and myself. Should I take these remarks as well intended compliments? Some may say that I’m being too sensitive but if you are an adoptee, adoption is very personal and likely to be filled with many strong emotions.
Even now as an adult adoptee, I still haven’t quite figured out the appropriate ways to respond when these awkward conversations happen. Do I walk away, ignore the person, share information, or educate? I know that I should take on the educator role, but some days I simply don’t have the space to care about what a stranger assumes about adoption. I want to walk away, but then I don’t because I am reminded that my son is internalizing these comments and paying close attention to how I respond.
I understand that because my son is adopted, people will ask him to share personal details about his adoption. Maybe the only thing I can do is empower him to feel proud about being adopted and know his story so that when he is faced with the uncomfortable question, “Where did you come from?” He can confidently reply, “I’m adopted. I was born in Korea. How about you?”
I have a photo album filled with pictures of my son from the day we first met him in Korea. The pictures include his foster mother and my husband and I playing and holding him. To be expected, we are all smiling and filled with incredible joy on this happy day. Lately, however, when my son looks at these same photos; it triggers both confusion and sadness.
This week was a particularly hard grieving week for my son. He usually enjoys looking at his photo album, but on this particular day when he looked at the picture of himself playing with his yellow toy bus, he was completely inconsolable. He ran to the door, pointed to my car, and cried omma (mommy). Even though I read all the books related to adoption and grieving and have first hand experience as a transracial adoptee, I still wasn’t prepared for this. I was taken completely off guard. How do you explain to a grieving two year old that he can’t get in the car and see his foster mother? Or explain how his life in Korea had to end so he could begin his new life with me. I stumbled through my words fighting back my tears and eventually managed to explain that it’s okay to be sad. I reassured him that one day he will fly in an airplane to visit his omma and play with his bus. Now every time he sees or hears an airplane he looks at me with a huge grin and confidently says omma.
During the first few months after my son joined my family, he loved to sit on the arm chair of the couch looking out the window in the porch and watch the cars and buses drive by. I used to think this was because he is obsessed with vehicles, but now I wonder if he sat there hoping and waiting for his omma to return. Some days he clearly misses Korea and has deep memories like when he insists on wearing his favorite shirt that smells like his foster mother or when he opens the refrigerator door, points to the jar of gochujang and says omma with a wide happy smile. My heart breaks every time he says her name and the only words of comfort I can say is that she can’t be here, but she still loves and cares for him.
I understand that because my son is adopted he will experience tremendous grief and loss throughout different stages of his life. As he gets older, his grief will change and our conversations will become much more complicated to navigate. But I also know that no matter how much I comfort him in his time of need, I can’t take away his grief. It will always be.
There were many emotionally challenging days during my two trips to Korea. However, one of my most profound experiences was the day I visited the Baby Care Room where my son stayed before being placed into foster care.
On this particular day there were 25 babies to one caregiver in a small room the size my living room. At any given moment there were multiple babies who cried. Some cried because their bottles had fallen and needed to be propped back up on their blankets in order to be fed. Most babies cried simply because they needed skin to skin contact in order to be lulled back to sleep. I was told that I could stay and hold the babies for only a half hour. I stayed for over an hour. When it was time to leave, I walked back into the crowded sidewalk and stood there and cried while my husband wrapped me in his arms. Grief came over me in heart wrenching guttural sobs. I cried for my son. I cried for myself. I cried for the tiny week old babies who I had just held in my arms.
Sometimes when I lay next to my son and watch him fall asleep, I think about his time in the baby care room. I wonder who was there to comfort him when he cried. Did anyone hold him in their arms and look into his eyes when he was fed? When he stirred who was there to lull him back to sleep? I understand there isn’t anything I can do about missing those first weeks of my son’s life. Nevertheless, the grief is still strong. Now I am the one who gets to comfort my son, but only because he had to first lose his birth mother and then his foster mother. And it’s in these still quiet moments when I am acutely aware of our loss.