FAQ: Adoption

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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?”

Han 한

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“Why did my real mother give me away? Who is my birth mother? Why did you adopt me?” I know that I can’t necessarily predict the day when my son will ask, but I know it will come. Do I wait until he first asks the questions or do I tell him from the beginning that he’s adopted? Is there a right or wrong time to begin this ongoing conversation?

As an adoptee, adoption is a relatively easy and straightforward topic for me to discuss. I’d like to think that I can be open and honest with my son about his adoption. Why would I wait for him to ask me why he was adopted? I don’t want him to feel ashamed because he’s adopted or think that his life before me was a secret. My hope for him is that he feels proud of who he is and how he joined our family.

I understand there is a possibility that no matter how transparent I am with my son about his adoption story, he may still grieve for the life he could’ve had instead and resent me for adopting him. In spite of all the wonderful excitement and immense joy that surrounds his adoption, there are those small quiet moments where my thoughts drift to the Korean word Han. Han has no English equivalent. It is a concept that means a sorrow caused by heavy suffering or a dull lingering ache in the soul. I know that suffering is a certainty in life. However, I’d like to believe that my son won’t experience any pain during his lifetime because he was adopted, but the truth is; he probably will. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful quote about the paradox of suffering. He says, “To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life.”

 

 

Three Dreams of Korea: Notes on Adoption by Lee Herrick

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1.

This one happens in the morning

as a nearby crow wakes me,

calling God, God, look at this:

I am on the steps of a church,

wrapped in Monday’s Korea Times

telling of the drought in Pusan.

You can live by the water

and still die of thirst, and I,

there on the cold brick steps,

am dying. But dying

means the presence of breath.

This one happens on Hangul Day,

Independence Day in Seoul,

where girls in purple satin

hanboks parade through

downtown streets. In this dream

I make eye contact with

every single one of them.

Another boy, a few years

older than I, rides

a tricycle in the streets

trailing the girls.

He sees me. He winks,

as if he knows how

everything will end.

2.

This one happens in the evening

just as daylight surrenders to the moon,

and the flute of dusk arrives.

It is cool.

I am wrapped in a sky blue blanket,

so whoever finds me thinks kindly

of whoever left me.

The one one finds me is a nun.

She opens the door, looking

beyond me

into the tired night,

then looks down.

She gasps softly.

She says, ahneyong, you sweet

beautiful child. She bends

down like an angel

and takes me

into her arms.

3.

This one happens in the cruelest moment

of the day, as heat curls flowers

into dirt. A man, drunk

with despair, screams at the sun.

His sorrow is a collage of

moths and ants, crawling

from his face to his chest.

I watch from the steps.

It is the year of the dog

and I am a part of it:

unable to speak

but an expert at listening:

to the old man from Laos who sits

on the steps two buildings down:

he is telling another man

how Hmong children become human

on the third day of life,

after the soul calling ceremony

and the burning of animal flesh.

He smokes from a pipe

and closes his eyes as he inhales.

I can hear all of his.

I can hear a woman rustling inside the church.

She is a dancer, so she speaks with her hands.

I hear her rise, sweetly

from her knees to her feet.

This means she believes

in dreams. I hear her

slide her hand, sweetly

along her hair. This means

she believes in the sun.

I hear her move towards me

and place her open palm on the door.

This means she welcomes me.

This means she believes

in the miracle of possibility.

The House with the Mezzanine

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What is your earliest childhood memory? Why are certain experiences easily remembered and others not? Do my memories impact me later into adulthood? Lately, I’ve been thinking about what my life was like in Korea. Understandably, I don’t have any conscious memories of Korea because I was an infant when I lived there. However, I still wonder how will I feel when I first walk into the streets of Seoul? Will I be able to recognize any of the sights, smells or sounds of my birth place? What, if anything will I be able to remember?

Like any new parent, I am excited about creating memories with my son. Similar to a baby book, my adoption agency suggests creating a Life Book in order to help fill in the gaps of my son’s past, specifically his life before me. My son is 14 months old and I wonder if he has already started to collect memories of his life. When he asks, “What was my life like in Korea?” How do I begin to help him sort through yet another loss?

A few years ago, I was introduced to a brilliant 20th century Russian artist, Oleg Vassiliev. Most of his paintings explore the idea of how memories get assimilated into our mind’s consciousness. What I like about his work is that he invites the viewer to analyze the past from a different perspective. During the time when he created The House with the Mezzanine series, he said, “The light of the past fades away if you approach it carelessly and look at it directly. It is very hard to touch the past without destroying at least something in it. Chasing the past is similar to chasing a ghost. But chasing the past is not merely the hunter’s passionate pursuit of his ever-vanishing game; to a greater extent it is a search for foundations and an attempt to turn back to the home you left long ago.”

Maybe I’m starting to understand that as an adoptee, there is perpetual loss. But inside that loss there’s a space where past and present intersect; a place where I  begin again.

Korean-ness noun. the quality or state of being Korean

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“Where are you from?” “Minnesota.” “No, where are you really from?” “Do you speak Korean?” “No.” “Have you ever met your birth mother?” It seems like everyone from friends, coworkers, and even strangers are intimately curious about my Korean-ness. There have been numerous interactions throughout my life which highlight that yes, in fact, I am Korean. One particular incident I can distinctly remember well. I was five years old attending an open house school event with my parents and brothers. As we walked from classroom to classroom, a teacher saw me and was convinced that I was lost, while the entire time I was standing next to my brothers. I remember feeling confused and not being able to explain what happened. I just knew that I was different. Then, right at the moment when you start to forget that you are Korean, you are abruptly reminded like the time a complete stranger approached me and started to speak to me in Korean. After a few seconds of giving him a look of total bewilderment, he realized that I had no idea what he was saying. Which is more awkward? An absolute stranger speaking to me in Korean. Or a white person who fluently speaks Korean.

Maybe I’m a late bloomer in discovering my Korean-ness because it wasn’t until my twenties when I first began to explore my Korean identity. I felt this relentless need to absorb all things Korean. I read every piece of literature written about being Korean American. I binge watched K-dramas (and you think Days of Our Lives is dramatic) and even sought out friendships with international Korean students because somehow I felt they were more Korean than my Korean adopted peers.

Twenty years later and I’m still exploring my Korean-ness, but with a different purpose. Now my intention is to provide my son with a home where he can see his culture represented. I’m curiously experimenting with cooking Korean foods (you had me at banchans), slowly learning how to speak the Korean language, and carefully researching bilingual books in preparation for our adoption. There are moments though, when I wonder am I Korean enough? One day will my son wake up and say, “Okay, mom, the jig is up.” Whenever these irrational thoughts begin to consume me, I find comfort in the insightful words from the beautiful poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. She says, “In the margins, fertile things happen. When things are fixed, things can’t grow. But in margins, things grow.”