After 10 days of international travel, I was invited to a Korean culture camp for adoptees and American born Korean kids. This camp is special in that it melds the two communities – Korean adoptees and American born Korean kids. While I thought I was showing my age by admitting that college was the first time I was fully and openly in the company of other Korean people, I am again learning that this continues to still be the case depending on where a child is adopted. It is still possible for an adoptee, no matter the age, to feel like the only one. I often find that the melding of American and Korean culture is still a challenge and often not fully addressed without a full commitment from the adopted person to go all in. I am hoping this camp will hang around more so our future kids won’t feel so alienated from the community that most emulates them. However, working at a sleep-away camp with your kids in tow is a weary experience. On the one hand, I was fully engaged and engrossed with everything that was going on at camp, but felt like I had grown that mysterious third eye watching for my kids. It was kind of crazy to see them in the mix of all these Korean American kids. I could see them taking things in for the first time – grace in Korean, bowing at the end of every class, calling all the elders “teacher” and the celebration of Korean independence day literally made their jaws drop. My big boy morphed in completely. My little one proudly proclaimed he neither showered nor brushed his teeth all week!
So much acculturating, traveling, laundry…I was exhausted and wished for nothing more than a week to speak to no one. I thought it was post-camp blues, but I realized that for the last three weeks, I have been in constant motion and constant thought. And then I remembered, I am an INFJ of the Myers Briggs personality assessment. A rare breed, we INFJs. My desire to be mute and sit in silent contemplation could only be excused as a severe case of jetlag and the odd little personality quirk of mine to think ALOT before speaking. As exciting as it is to do all that I did in August, the ideas and thoughts kept going in circles while my hands were busy being Mommy.
Now that I am in the comfort of a schedule and the kids are occupied with a remarkably smooth transition to school, I find myself reflecting over the last month the changes I experienced in Korea and in me.
The big wow for the kids about Korea was the motion sensors on the escalators. We first avoided them when they were still thinking they were broken, ’cause that would be the case here in New York. I can’t wait till America owns this idea too. What stood out for me was seeing young women smoking in public. After multiple visits where the ladies bathrooms would choke a horse with the smoke that filled the air, I was amused. This development has also seemed to have impacted the men smoking There are designated locations where smoking is permissible. Still the men totally outnumber the women. The nicest thing I saw was that PDA has now transcended gender. It used to be only girls would hold girls hands and boys would walk with their arms over other boys. Now heterosexual couples hold hands. Finally!
Korean elders are bemoaning the demise of the Confucian ways. Children are now being spoken to in formal Korean and that is disrupting the hierarchy that keeps the chain of respect in tact. And yet, the very nature of etiquette is bred in the language. The suffix -ayo/-eyo is never not used to indicate formality, politeness and distance between an older and younger person. So I am not so convinced that the public face of Korea is in jeopardy. Korea will remain ever polite and the expected suppression of freely expressing oneself is still going strong. We are still talking about Korea.
While it was really lovely to not be snickered at when speaking English out loud, I need to learn how to speak English Korean-style. It is possible to order in English but not a guarantee you will get what you ordered. By the time my kids travel to Korea on their own, I truly believe Korea will be bilingual, but not just yet. I nearly laughed out loud when the English translation was sounded over the loudspeakers at the train station. ”This station stop is Uljiro Sam Ga.” What is so funny about this is that “Sam” = 3. If only they would say “This station stop is Uljiro Three Ga” every single English speaker would know exactly where they are! My last little gripe would be that no matter how modernized Seoul is, visions of its third-world past is not all together obliterated. We loved the Korean GPS, it just didn’t save us from walking around in circles for hours to find my friend’s store.
My last thought of Korea is a personal fashion dare. The next extremely sunny day, dare I open my sun umbrella instead of my sunglasses? I found myself eyeing them in their lovely colors and designs. It was a moment that when in Korea, do as Koreans do…not yet in New York.
The changes in me are more conflicting. I am forever seeking to find my place in this community of Koreans, Korean Americans and adoptees. I am loving how easily I transition from English to Korean now both in language and mannerisms. I am proud of the hard work put in to find such an equilibrium. Yet, I am struck by how embroiled I can feel with the conflicts in our community of adoptees who differ so much in my perspective, my delivery, my deliberations on being adopted, being Korean and American. I think I am finally finding the right words though. In my adopted self, the profession I sought and the way I operate, I seek to be “eminently useful.” I heard that phrase in church of all places. I am at my best when I feel useful, involved, personally engaged. Being at camp getting kids to talk about race, culture and identity was thrilling. Getting adoptees to share their stories and have others affected by them is empowering for them and for me. Being asked by a Korean professor to teach others what I know about adoption was a high. Coming home to sit with adoptees as they find their words to better understand themselves, create a sense of family, self identity and worth has made me feel eminent. While I am always curious about the grander politics of adoption and I do want to be present as policy is discussed, I am realizing my INFJ ways more and more. I work better one on one. A contradiction here as I write these words to send out to the nebulous in hopes to reach more people outside of my little world. Maybe there is more changing I need to do.