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.

Salvation by Lee Herrick

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The blues is what mothers do not tell their loved sons,

in church or otherwise, how their bodies forgave

them when their spirits gave in, how you salvage love

by praying for something acoustic, something clean

and simple like the ideal room, one with a shelf

with your three favorite books and a photo

from your childhood, the one of you with the

big grin before your knew about the blues.

I wonder what songs my birth mother sang in

the five months she fed me before she left me

on the steps of a church in South Korea.

I wonder if they sounded like Sarah Chang’s

quivering bow, that deep chant of a mother

saying goodbye to her son. Who can really say?

Sometimes all we have is the blues. The blues means

finding a song in the abandonment, one

you can sing in the middle of the night when

you remember that your Korean name, Kwang Soo

Lee, means bright light, something that can illuminate

or shine, like tears, little drops of liquefied God,

glistening down your brown face. 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, not where you feared you would be,

but here, flawed, angelic, and full of light.

I believe the blues is the spirit’s wreckage,

examined and damaged but whole again, more full

and prepared then it’s ever been, quiet and still,

just as it was always meant to be.

Thank You 고맙습니다

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As I get closer to “Family Day,” I can’t stop replaying the dreadful scene of my son sobbing with confusion and grief when his foster mother puts him in my arms, says good bye, and I walk away from her. There is no way to prepare for this day. I’m trying to manage my expectations by accepting the fact that this will be an extremely traumatic experience for my son and an incredibly sad day for his foster family.

My son’s foster mother is an incredibly strong woman who for now fourteen months, out of a selfless act of love, chose to foster my son. She knows that as a foster mother, she may never have the opportunity to hold him or even see him again. I have a beautiful picture of my son with his foster mother where she is adoringly looking at him with intense pride and playful wonderment. I cry every time I look at this picture but I know that my grief is nothing compared to hers. While I’m busily enjoying my new mom life where now I am the one who gets to comfort him, celebrate his small triumphs, and watch him grow; she is on the other side of the world quietly grieving for a son whom she cared for and loved deeply. How can this be the only way?

Every six weeks I mail a care package to my son where I am able to include a half page note to his foster mother. Each letter gets increasingly more difficult to write as I get closer to “Family Day.” Are there even strong enough words to describe the incredible gratitude that I feel for her? Maybe all I need to say is simply, “Thank you.”

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.

Hide-and-Seek

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“Be prepared for travel to Korea within the next four to eight months.” When I first read the email, I felt queasy, anxious, and utterly excited because at that very moment, time felt like it was happening at warp speed. Once my panic settled and reality set in, I thought, “This is definitely happening and I’m not even close to being ready.”

In order to prepare parents for travel, my adoption agency gave me a 47 page handbook. The purpose of the packet is to provide suggestions on how to best prepare myself for meeting my son. One section provides expectations for the first meeting. It clearly states, “It’s hard not to cry at the first meeting, but try to do as little as possible to create loud noises and anxiety in the room for the child.” After waiting nearly five years to finally become a mother, rest assured, there will be tears. How will I feel on the day when I’m actually able to bring him home? This is the same day when his foster mother, who has loved and cared for him, says good bye and hands him over to me, a complete stranger. This should seemingly be a joyful day filled with happiness, yet my son will be experiencing an incredibly traumatic experience filled with confusion and loss.

As I begin to prepare for travel, the logistical preparations of what to pack, where to stay, and what to bring on a 14 hour flight are necessary, but feel entirely insignificant. Now my thoughts turn to bigger questions like, “How will my son respond to me the first time I hold him?” “Will his foster mother want to meet him again one day?” “How will I be able to comfort him when he is grieving for her?” I’m beginning to understand that it’s naive to think I can be fully prepared to parent. Maybe parenting is like the game Hide-and-Seek. My son is “It” and he turns and calls out, “Ready or not, mom here I come.” I have no other choice than to begin and hope that sooner than later I am able to find my way to home base.

Pandora’s Box

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What does it feel like to be pregnant for nine months and make a birth plan to give your baby up for adoption? I can’t even begin to comprehend the unimaginable grief and loss that my birth mother endured. What is it like to know that you have a child but will never be able to experience a life together? When people learn that I was adopted from Korea, I often get asked the standard question, “Have you ever searched for your birth mother?” On the surface this appears like a seemingly simple question, but for me, the answer is extremely complicated.

Adoption doesn’t singularly define who I am. It’s one layer of my identity. Right now, at least for me, being adopted is more about knowing my identity than finding my Korean family. Certainly, there were times growing up and even lately when I wonder, “Do I have any siblings?” “Do I look like my birth mother?” Why did she give me up for adoption?” These questions will continually remain dormant in the back of my mind. I’m adopted. I will always wonder.

Now as I prepare to become a parent, many of these questions have resurfaced. A few months ago, I contacted my adoption agency. I thought, “I’m already traveling to Korea so I should at least try to begin the search for my birth mother.” However, I know it’s not that easy. Often times searches can take countless years to find a relative, much less a birth mother. And then, what if the improbable chance happens that I do find her? How do I start a relationship with a person who is a complete stranger? What are the expectations of someone who gave me life, but didn’t parent me? Maybe I’m not ready to open Pandora’s Box and release my unresolved hopes, sadness, and fears.

In the meantime, perhaps it’s enough to travel to Korea, experience the culture, and understand what it means to be Korean. And if one day my son declares the seemingly simple statement, “I’m ready to search for my birth mother.” I have a shared understanding because some days I have experienced that feeling too. The next time someone asks, “Have you ever searched for your birth mother?” I can simply and unapologetically reply, “No, not yet.”

Gains and Losses

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When we initially started the adoption process, my assumption was that we would adopt an infant close to the age of six months similar in age as when I was adopted. I clearly recall the adoption meeting when the presenter confidently explained, “Most children will be the ages of two and a half by the time the adoption is finalized.” I turned to my husband and barely managed to stutter, “But wait. Isn’t that a todd-ddd-ler?!”

Although I’m completely humbled and beyond grateful to become a parent, I can’t help but fantasize about the missed baby moments. I wonder what he sounds like when he cries. How does he prefer to be comforted? What was his wobbly first steps like? Now he’s beginning the toddler stage where he’s walking, saying omma (mommy) and becoming more independent. It’s been incredibly difficult not to be there to share in these huge moments of his young life. As I patiently wait to meet my son, I realize adoption is an inevitable and complex series of gains and losses.

This week my son celebrated his first birthday (called Dol) which is a significant milestone in Korea. The children wear a traditional Hanbok and a hat. The highlight of the celebration is where the child is placed in front of a table with objects. It is believed that whatever object is chosen, this will signify his future occupation. Then there’s the usual eating and celebrating. Although I enjoyed looking at the wonderful pictures, I still felt an overwhelming sadness because I wasn’t able to be there to share in his excitement and happiness.

My son will also experience loss. Even though he will gain a family who loves and adores him, he will lose his connection to his birth mother, his Korean culture, and race through adoption. He will wonder why his birth mother gave him up for adoption, question his identity, and more than likely internalize a number of different emotions that comes with grief and loss.

Maybe life is a continuous ebb and flow of gains and losses. It’s easy to be present when there are joyful and happy moments. But it’s when the losses are big and chaotic and the spaces feel too loud is when I want to run. I don’t know the losses that my son will experience, but what is certain is that I will be present for it all.

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.”

 

Patience Is a Virtue (sometimes)

“Good things come to those who wait,” “Slow and steady wins the race, “Haste makes waste,”“A handful of patience is worth more than a bushel of brains.” We can all quote by memory these annoying platitudes about patience (okay, maybe not that last one). When I was younger, I sang regularly in my church choir where we did a number of performances. However, one performance has vividly stuck with me even thirty years later. I can still recall and sing the lyrics to one song sung by Herbert the singing snail: Have patience//have patience//don’t be in such a hurry// when you get impatient you only start to worry//Remember, remember, that God is patient, too//and think of all the the times when others have to wait for you//

I don’t think that I’m a particularly patient person. I’ve been known to walk quickly in front of the elderly and children in strollers in order to get to the door before them. I have a horribly low tolerance for drivers. If a driver doesn’t go within two seconds of the traffic light turning green, they will definitely get a honk.  And on more than one occasion, I’ve said to my middle school students, “I can’t talk to you right now,” and quickly walked away. It seems like since the womb we’ve been instructed by our parents, teachers, and everyone around us that patience is an expected behavior. You often hear parents say, “Wait your turn, wait until we eat, wait until you are spoken to.” But what happens when you don’t want to wait? When patience is a virtue only sometimes.

Most recently, my patience has been exceedingly tested with our journey to become parents. My husband and I have been waiting to be parents since 2012. We knew that we wanted to have children and immediately started planning our family right after we were married. After four years of trying to get pregnant by completing fertility testing, two failed attempts of IUI and countless fertility acupuncture appointments; we made the decision to adopt. We are a year into the adoption process and now again we are waiting, but this time we are waiting to meet our toddler Korean son. We don’t have any other choice but to wait. But patiently wait? I’m not so sure. What does that look like anyway? Is patience lying in bed with tears welling up in your eyes quietly counting off the days and months until you finally get to meet him for the first time. Or maybe it’s giving yourself permission to walk through the toddler clothing section and letting the fabric run through your hands while imagining his tiny body in the I heart Minneapolis t-shirt. And even, maybe, patience is like the day when you silently surrender to the idea of writing a blog in order to keep your mind occupied and your heart from going wildly insane.

Do good things come to those who wait? Maybe. But I can say with certainty that within the next year, I’ll more than likely be repeating these same words to my two year old: “Please wait your turn, or wait until we eat.” And then if I’m lucky enough and if I’m listening closely; he’ll be the one teaching me how to be patient just like Herbert the singing snail.