I had my first dream in Korean. I talk in my sleep too. My dreams are most vivid the minute before I wake up and open my eyes. I can’t remember what I said, but it was in Korean. So surprised, I tried hard to go back to sleep to figure it all out. I was so excited! Alas, nothing.
A week later, I had my second dream in Korean. I was in a public bathroom needing to change my little one’s diaper. Looking for the changing table, I noticed all the sinks were full of water with clothing soaking in them. It felt like we were in a massive bathroom and upon quiet reflection, was it a public bathroom or was it? My little boy is sleeping soundly and with my right hand cradling his chubby cheeked face, I quickly futz with my left to remove his clothes. And then I hear her voice. A woman standing behind me holding a little girl and talking wistfully – “Aigoo, look at her legs, they are so skinny. I found her outside…Aigoo, she is so dirty…What to do….” I don’t look up, just glance behind me to see a woman carrying a little one. All I see is legs and yes they are skinny. I awake. Wait? Was that all in Korean? How did I know what that woman was saying? I am not a great dream interpreter, but this one hit me hard. I KNOW what this one was about but I was so distracted that it was in Korean, I have spent little time dwelling on the deeper meaning of it.
I watch Korean dramas just before sleep. The last thing I usually hear is Korean. After years of drama watching, the language is finally seeping into my unconscious. This “seeping in” of Korean has been a parallel process of seeping into the culture as well. With language comes deeper understanding, more questions and slow acceptance of how things are. Understanding how things are does not mean I accept, but I am becoming more and more aware that to be Korean means taking on more than just things I like, but also the things that I don’t or can’t.
The media has always been in no small measure a litmus of what we are doing, thinking about, hoping for and contending with. Just look at the cast of movies that were up for an Oscar this year – slavery, AIDS, aging, death, greed, bravery and yes, even birth mothers and adoption.
In the course of the several years I have immersed myself into Korean dramas, I have noticed trends. Adoption, birth secrets and abandoned children have always been a main staple. But now, so is single motherhood and international adoption. I haven’t seen one yet where they actually have an adoptee who is adopted to White/American parents cause the characters always return to Korea with revenge on his/her mind and speaking impeccable Korean. But the recently completed third edition of the “I Need Romance” series reminded me that I was not watching “Sex and the City” in the USA, but something entirely of a different culture and language. There was a character who got pregnant after a one night stand and at the ripe old age of 31 must contend with this being her first and last possibility to becoming a mother. Her Team Leader at work is also a single businesswoman with her own struggles with love and intimacy. When the word got out of this unwed mother-to-be, it was the Team Leader that got chastised – she is leading the first group in the company’s history with such a scandal, her leadership is in question, her management abilities is judged and it is HER job to fix the issue. Solution offered up by this male executive? Lie. Make up a fake wedding and send employee off for a month. 2014 and this is how Korea is dealing with this issue in its fantasy world. This scene was a crude and illogical reality check that I am not Korean after all. My indignation meant only that I still have much more work to do.
Reality check #2. I was interviewed for SBS TV Morning Wise show. They wanted to do a public interest story on the recent death of Hyun Su, the little boy recently adopted from Korea. The accused is his adoptive father. I don’t have to rehash the Korean adoptee movement that happened online, in Korea and in the hearts of so many of us who walked around like zombies mourning the brutal death of this little baby. Reading Facebook and blogs, I was under the impression that this news was big in Korea. I wanted to believe that all our words were being translated into Korean as we all watched in hopes that for a brief moment the world stopped in Korea. Alas, nothing. Reality sucks.
This interview almost didn’t happen. The reporter wanted to speak to Korean American leaders in the community about their reaction to this recent death. It took a friend and colleague, a leader indeed, to remind this reporter that she simply cannot do a story on international adoption and NOT interview an adopted person. I watched as the reporter asked questions for nearly 40 minutes to my colleague and then looked at me in wonderment as to what to ask me. And then I dropped the stat! The mother of all statistics – Korean adoptees represent about 10% of the Korean American community in the United States. There are over 110,000 of us here in the United States. That gets them every time. I have been saying this for years! And the fact that this statistic still blows someone’s mind reminds me again, we have so much work to do. This presumably smart, educated person who reports on Korean Americans to Korea never considered speaking to an adopted person about adoption. When I asked how significant will this story be in Korea, she responded, “Not very.” Her network is not known to do serious pieces, but she will do her best to make it interesting for their viewership who would prefer to hear about the latest celebrity gossip. When I asked how she felt about the adoptee activism in Korea, she really had very little to say. It simply does not register on her radar.
Stunned is my reaction and then slight mirth. I think adoption is incredibly interesting and I liken the issues facing domestic adoptees, and their rights to their original birth certificates, as THE last human right issue here. I think adoption and how it is conducted, perceived and portrayed is a paramount issue for this country and most definitely in Korea. Checking myself and my ego on this one. Adoption barely registers on most people’s consciousness. I got text messages from Korea today after the building collapse in Harlem wondering if I am ok. I got zero messages or acknowledgement from Korea about the death of an adoptee. More work to be done.
And then reality check #3 hit. The SNL Korea episode that blew up Facebook and all the adoption bloggers out there. Ah, humor. A language all unto itself. Am I the only Korean adoptee who did not think it was particularly offensive? I didn’t think it was funny, but I was not outraged. I have come to learn Korean humor can be incredibly cruel and biting. The level of shame that people are put through in the name of humor makes me wildly uncomfortable. For years, to my naive ears, I was offended by everything Koreans said to me, about me, about adoption, about my Umma, about my Americanness, about my size, my weight. Perhaps after decades of immersion in this community Stateside and in Korea, I was not overtly angry. My first reaction to the skit was, “Ouch, really makes American adoptive parents look racist and stupid.” And then a knowing thought of how predictable he would chastise his birthmother; she “threw away” her baby. And then a little smirk to the ironic rap of how Koreans abuse alcohol. But, in the end, I was thinking, hmm, we adoptees must have arrived in Korea if SNL is spoofing us. Dare I hope that this might begin another round of dialoguing, educating and conversing among my Korean mommy friends and others who remain ignorant of the issues we adoptees face? Will the controversy push Koreans to think about adoption and the issues of single mothers? What do my “orphanage siblings” think about it? What does my Umma think about it?
I don’t like Saturday Night Live in NY. I don’t watch it. I didn’t grow up watching the “brilliance” of John Belushi or Eddie Murphy. But if I recall correctly, there have been many many controversial skits over the years. I never found the show to be particularly funny either. I usually found it offensive and physically uncomfortable to watch. So, I suppose I came out with the same reaction to a Korean version. Humor is so culture specific. And no matter how much Korean I learn, humor alludes me at times. I just don’t get it. I don’t get Aziz Ansari sometimes and he is hugely popular here in the US.
I also don’t get why some adoptive parents felt compelled to apologize to us or on behalf of Korea. To me, this skit was more indicative of how poorly Koreans think of Americans and the not so good job they are doing raising “their” children to be competent in Korean language and culture. As an adult, I don’t feel much when an adoptive parent comes out in joint outrage. I don’t find it incredibly allying. Instead I reached out to friends, some who are adoptees and others who are adoptive parents. One mom and dear friend spent many rounds of emails and phone conversations with me. I get why she was sick to her stomach. She was responding like a mother, responding to the ignorance and judgement she predicts for her children as they struggle to learn Korean like a native and take pride in their ability to do Taekwondo. Mother to mother, I got the mother bear instinct she was conveying.
I do get why adoptees are angry. But I don’t know if SNL is where my anger would be directed to. I often hear people say that making it on SNL here in the US is a badge of honor. Being a guest on that show is a big deal in one’s career. To be parodied is in some weird way is an acknowledgement that said person or issue has arrived in the social consciousness of a community. So, perhaps a thanks with a small “T” to SNL Korea, for making adoption important enough to find a way to put it into their show?
SNL Korea apologized, but I am not so sure they know what they are apologizing for. Their insensitivity? Do they get why they were offensive or are they just being typical Koreans and apologizing for making noise, for creating a “scandal”, in response to the volume of discontent? If yes, that would really make me angry. There is no contrition in that, just a saving face. I wonder if we, in our outrage, managed to shame them the very same way we have felt shamed. For sure, this cast of comics won’t touch the topic of adoption again even though more Koreans are talking about adoption and international adoption because of this episode. Have we successfully shoved Koreans back into the closet so they will now never touch adoption again? That would be truly disappointing.