Adoption and the Loss of Not Belonging

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.

My Forever Family

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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.

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.”

5 Signs That A Middle Schooler Is Actually an Oversized Toddler

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Do kids purposely tantrum to torture us? And when it happens, how do parents respond to the dreaded tantrum? Whether it happens in private or public, this definitely has to be one of the most unpleasant parts of parenting a toddler. Most recently, I’ve been paying close attention to kids and their tantrums. What I’ve noticed is that parents usually respond in either one of two ways: ignore the child or negotiate. According to the book The Whole-Brain Child, author Dr. Daniel Siegel writes there are two different types of tantrums. An upstairs tantrum is when the child decides to throw a fit. He suggests with this type of tantrum to use firm limits and appropriate consequences and eventually the child will find the tantrum is ineffective. The downstairs tantrum, however, is quite different. This tantrum is when the child is so completely upset that he is unable to use his upstairs brain to control his body or emotions. One strategy he recommends is to connect with the child in order to help him calm down by using empathy and a soothing tone and voice. Once the upstairs brain returns, the parent can respond to the issue by using logic and reason. This seems like a relatively easy approach, but is it as simple as it sounds? Maybe. As the start of the new school year quickly approaches, I can’t help but wonder that if Dr. Siegel is right and this technique is effective with a two year old, then could this also apply to my twelve year old middle school students?

Middle school teachers experience a fair amount of tantrums. I often joke with my colleagues that some days I feel like my students are just oversized toddlers. They whine when they don’t get their way, scream while running down hallways (is the school on fire?), and have recurrent mood swings where they are besties with a person one day and the next day are complete enemies. Are middle schoolers merely a super sized version of a toddler? Maybe a toddler and middle schooler have more in common than I actually think.

5 Signs That a Middle Schooler Is Actually an Oversized Toddler:

  1. Toddlers have unstoppable physical energy. They constantly run, kick, and jump. Walk down any middle school hallway and what do you observe? Twelve year olds who look like an awkward herd of octopuses with spindly limbs that sway erratically as they zip past you in rapid succession.
  2. Toddlers are picky eaters. Sometimes they may eat one or two preferred foods and nothing else. Middle schoolers binge eat one thing and one thing only: Takis.
  3. Toddlers can be happy and friendly one minute and the next moment cry for no apparent reason. Middle schoolers have frequent mood swings. One day they adore you and emphatically declare, “You are my favorite teacher!” Followed by the next day where you are treated like a complete stranger and they can barely manage to lip sync a civilized “Hello.”
  4. Toddlers love to dance and move to music as a way to socialize. As one student recently admitted to me, “I used to dance. Now I just twerk.”
  5. Toddlers have the idea that adults should do things for them on demand. Similar to toddlers, middle schoolers can also act like complete tyrants. They earnestly believe that using the bathroom pass, getting a drink of water, or going to their locker needs to be done at that immediate second and if not given permission, the world may come to a catastrophic end.

I am certain that these untimely and tiresome tantrums are often unavoidable. Undoubtedly, my son will repeatedly challenge me with his tantrums and eventually reveal my worst possible self. But maybe throughout this messy and complicated parenting process, I learn how to be a more loving, patient, and empathetic person. And if this is the case, then I likely have a great deal of learning (and tantrums) ahead of me.  

 

Maritime Livin’

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We recently returned from an exciting and adventurous ten day vacation where we ate and drank our way through the Washington coast. The trip was a lovely balance of visiting with friends, hiking in national parks, and experiencing the maritime culture. Many times throughout the trip, I was constantly reminded how this is most likely our last kid free vacation before we meet our son.

My first reminder was when we arrived at the airport. I witnessed a mom who had to WWE wrestle her screaming daughter to free her panda backpack in order to get through the security line. Another time is when I breathlessly hiked up a hill in the Olympic National Park thinking, “There’s no way a toddler could possibly do this. As an adult, I can barely manage.” I look up and of course there’s a mom who walks past me with her top heavy backpack filled with camping gear with her toddler strapped in the Ergobaby carrier and I think to myself, “Yes, it is possible. But how is that any fun?” Or the time at dinner when I realized while devouring my delicious hamachi crudo and casually sipping my Oregon chardonnay that I need to enjoy this because these days are dangerously numbered.

I am certain that it is completely unrealistic and maybe even a bit naive to consider vacation travel with a toddler. How does it feel to be a parent on a three hour flight with a screaming active two year old? I don’t envy you. There’s the constant negotiation of snacks, the thrown toys, and any novel distraction you can imagine just to get you through the flight. Then when you finally arrive, how much beach time can you actually enjoy around nap time, sand throwing, and cooking dinner? How is this possibly a vacation?

I imagine that once I have a family, the vacationing will look dramatically different from our latest trip. There will be no more sleeping in at the dreamy Airbnb, the late night maritime debauchery with college friends will be limited, and a simple event like packing to go to the beach may turn into an epic production. However, I’m ready to trade all this in because I know that once I walk through the arrival gate with my son in tow, there’s a delightful and bittersweet, a magical and familiar, a lifetime of adventures that awaits us.