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.
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 does matter. 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.
Growing up, I remember there were two clearly distinct experiences when I felt noticeably different. One time a stranger in a store commented, “Your skin is so porcelain just like a China doll!” Or another time when a stylist cutting my hair declared, “I thought all Asians had straight hair.” Although these comments weren’t malicious, nevertheless, I remember feeling confused that my appearance should be different than what it was.
I know that early on in my son’s life, he will experience feeling different. He is Korean and will grow up as a minority in America. He will more than likely be teased by his classmates because of his eyes, nose, skin color or simply because he doesn’t look white. I struggle knowing that he may internalize this as him being inadequate and feel ashamed. How can I protect him from this? I know that I can’t. It’s entirely impossible.
As a new parent, maybe I’m naive to think that if I enroll my son in a Korean language immersion school, attend a multiracial church or have playgroups with other Korean adoptees, he will grow up to have a positive self identity. The truth is, that even if I do all of these things to support his connection to his Korean culture, there will still be moments when he will feel conspicuous and compromised because of his race.
I understand that my son doesn’t have a choice. He will leave his Korean culture and gain an American one. These are the losses and gains of being adopted. But maybe throughout his adoption journey, my son will be able to find a new space where he is able to create his own narrative that is completely free from the expectations and definitions of others.
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.
“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.”
“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.