When I was five-years-old my family and I were at an open house for my brother’s new school in a rural White community. The classroom was crowded with excited students and smiling proud parents. Families were busily milling around looking for their child’s desk. A stranger approached me. She bent down and told me that she would help me find my parents. I felt confused. Why did she think I was lost? I was standing next to them. Even though I couldn’t articulate what had happened, it made me feel separate from my family. This was the first time when I felt like I didn’t belong.
Like many transracial Korean American adoptees, I grew up racially and culturally isolated from others who looked like me. My neighborhood, my school, and my friends were White. During family holidays I was the only person of color. My family and I never ate a Korean meal or watched Korean movies together. I was so completely entrenched in White culture that unless I looked in the mirror, I forgot that I was Korean. Even though I knew that I was internationally adopted, my parents never discussed my race. Not talking about it made me feel ashamed. I internalized this silence that me being Korean was something that should be kept hidden away. The feeling of not belonging began to manifest deeply inside me. It felt normal not to belong.
This aching feeling of not belonging followed me to college where I first began to explore my Korean identity. I felt an urgent need to make up for lost time by consuming everything related to Asian American culture. I feverishly read Korean literature, watched K-dramas, and found meaning in anything Korean. Although I was taking back my culture on my own terms, I still felt like I was standing on the peripheral of my truth; straddling two cultures-not Korean enough or too American. I didn’t fit neatly inside either box. During my sophomore year, I befriended a Korean exchange student. I shamefully told her I was adopted and desperately asked her to help me translate my adoption papers. I often felt alone trying to navigate my feelings without any support systems.
Being an adoptee, there is a constant struggle of confronting loss; the daily reminders are present everywhere. Mostly, though, I feel like an imposter who is fronting for a real Korean like when my son asks me to spell a Korean word and I have to use a translation app or when I stumble with the ingredients while cooking bibimbap. I am envious of other Korean Americans who grew up in families where they learned how to speak Korean and inherently understand the cultural nuances. How does it feel to have this cultural knowledge, the ability to move freely without any emotional strings attached?
I grew up believing the common adoption narrative which claims my adoptive parents did the best they could with the resources they had. I understand now how this thinking is problematic because by centering them it dismisses my experiences. I don’t have any doubt that my parents loved me, but that wasn’t enough. By not acknowledging my adoption experiences and denying my racial differences it created a lot of pain that I am still learning how to reconcile.
My identity is still evolving and changing but becoming a mother has helped me redefine what it means to be a transracial adoptee. My son is also a Korean adoptee. I wonder if this is my chance to raise him differently than how my parents raised me. It has been healing to be able to provide him with the cultural and racial mirrors I never had. I am teaching him how to be proud of his identity and in turn I am learning how to do this for myself. Consequently, motherhood has given me the strength to hold space for him so he can ground his fears, and unlike my experiences, he will know that where he is standing is exactly where he belongs.
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.
When I was in Korea, I had this fantasy where upon taking custody of my son we don’t return to America. Instead, we stay and live in Korea. In this perfect world my son gets to visit his foster mother anytime he likes and is able to retain his language and culture. I become fluent in Korean, travel to Jeju Island, and together we eat copious amounts of kimchi and mandu. I know this fantasy is partly created from experiencing reverse culture shock, but mostly because I want to protect him from the inevitable grief and losses he will experience because of his adoption.
It’s been only two short months since I’ve become a parent, but what I’ve quickly learned is that parenting is hard, really hard work. I also know that parenting can reveal my best and worst self. My worst self was truly evident the second week upon arriving home. My son was experiencing intense separation anxiety where he was completely inconsolable if I walked into the next room without him. There were days when the constant whining felt like a permanent soundtrack and all I wanted to do was shut the door and cry. On these particular days I realized my only choice was to survive, wake up, and do it all over again.
Now after being home for nearly seven weeks, parenting has become a little kinder. I’m learning how to better predict the rhythms and patterns of my son. He appears to be bonding well and has begun to form a healthy attachment towards me. Unlike before, he can now look at his foster mother’s picture without crying omma and running to the door. He trusts me more each day by letting me leave the room without him. He is starting to understand that when I leave-I will always return. This is permanent. He is my forever family.
How do you talk about race with your child? How early do children start to recognize that not everyone has the same skin color? Is race one of those topics you should discuss openly and honestly with your child like how to safely cross the street, or why you shouldn’t talk to strangers, or the dreaded “Birds and the Bees talk”?
I’d like to think that as a person of color I have some extraordinary insight about how to talk about race, but the truth is, I don’t. Talking about race is simply uncomfortable. Is it because if you’re white it conjures up a great deal of emotions like uneasiness, defensiveness, and possibly even anger? And if you are the person of color, undoubtedly, there are feelings of shame, hurt, and at times isolation.
I understand and accept the fact that by adopting my son and bringing him to live in America, he will be judged by his skin color. There will be school playground incidents where kids will make fun of him because of his physical differences-his eyes, his nose. More than likely I will have to explain to him the hurtful name calling and navigate the tricky questions he will ask about not being white. Others will try to pigeonhole him because he is conspicuous and he will feel vulnerable living in a mostly white world.
Maybe the platitude, “Love is all you need” doesn’t apply in this situation. I can’t love away my son’s pain and grief, but what I can do is help prepare him for the messy complicated reality. As his parent, I do need to be honest about the hurt he will experience when kids ridicule him for the first time because of his eyes and skin color. I do need to be candid and tell him that his race doesmatter. But mostly, I need to be empathetic about how he feels because when that inevitable day arrives where he realizes for the first time that he’s not white, then my only choice is to quietly listen.