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?”
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.
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.
During the time when I was struggling with my infertility, I also had to come to terms with the fact that even if we adopted, this would be my only child. I remember feeling unleashed with anxious nagging thoughts like, “Doesn’t he need a sibling to play with?” “Will he feel lonely?” “What will happen when I die and he has to face the burden of caring for me alone?” I know that these thoughts are based entirely on my own fears and assumptions of what I expected my family would look like. Even though, I can’t seem to shake my periodic pangs of regret.
I think family planning can be a life changing decision. I envy the parents who have the luxury to decide how many children will be in their family. In my case, life’s circumstances chose for me. Maybe I’m still struggling with the loss that I will have only one child. Isn’t that enough? Why don’t I feel more grateful? Shouldn’t I feel overwhelmed with joy that at least I get to be a parent?
One of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Gilbert, introduced me to the concept of holding on to the “stubborn gladness.” The idea was born from her favorite poem A Brief for the Defense written by Jack Gilbert. In one part of the poem he beautifully writes:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight.
Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our
gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.
I love how this poem compels me to find a quiet space in the center of my disappointment and loss and to take hold of the wonder and the joy-the “stubborn gladness.”