Sentient gratitude

“I’m precious up to a point…my value isn’t more than anyone else.” – Eve Ensler

“Why should I be grateful for something everyone is entitled to?” – 25 year old me

Apparently, “sentient” is now in the vernacular of pre-adolescent boys.  G used it perfectly in a sentence the other day.  The first time I heard that word, I had to look it up; 3 years ago.

There is something sentient when gratitude is in one’s repertoire.  The absence of it makes me wonder is he/she a sentient being?  As a parent, it is a mind-numbing habit to remind my children, “say thank you…what do you saaaay?”  It is even more labor to stand guard during the “thank you” note writing exercise after a birthday gift or holiday gift was given.  Broadly speaking, when we teach our children to say ‘Thank you’, we don’t tell them to say thank you for anything in particular.  It is with the general understanding that when given, when offered, when served, we say thanks, no discretion is really taught alongside that.

At what point do we forget this as adults?  Is it a sign of adulthood that we begin to discriminate to whom, under a certain condition, around a certain circumstance, we express gratitude?  Some of us become picky about when those words are uttered and even surprised when gratitude is expressed.  I am most astonished by those who simply never say those two words.

So much of being adopted is about projection.  When I sit alone with my own thoughts, I realize that so much of how I feel about being adopted is based on what I have absorbed from others- their thoughts, feelings and opinions about being adopted – rather than my own. I thought I should want to search for my “real parents,” I should be grateful for being saved and yes, I did believe I would be homeless and selling my body to survive in Korea.  How I feel about being adopted is not how I REALLY feel about being adopted.  But we live in a society that needs a label, a quick witted one-liner, a declarative statement – are you pro or anti, grateful or angry, good or bad?  As a child, I was told to be grateful.  Grateful was the undercurrent to everything that came out of my mouth.  If it didn’t come out with gratitude then it was admonished, frowned upon, too uppity.  So, over the years, in order to provoke, stir awake the complacency of the dominant American privileged narrative, I chose to give up expressing gratitude for being adopted.  Why should I feel grateful about being adopted when I had no choice, when no one asked me, when there was so much loss that accompanied me?  Did people who were born to their families express gratitude for being born?  What was I grateful for?  As a young child, I had a family, I knew I had a family.  So the ‘gift’ of family was not necessarily what I was to be grateful for, right?

Temper temper that feisty 25 year old…She was right and well, a bit concrete, don’t you think?  I have come to be less enthusiastic about these sentiments.  In my 20s, I had nothing but my voice, my story, my interpretation.  I was alone, no community, no home, no permanency.

Perhaps it the word choice, the word order.  St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital says, “Give thanks for the healthy children in your life.”  Give thanks rather than be thankful.  It feels more transactional to give thanks.  Perhaps that’s the sticky bit for me.  What am I giving thanks for that is in any way different than anyone else who is living and breathing?  I’m not.  But being adopted and all those projections placed upon me got me thinking and knowing that, this adoption status comes with extra work.  All this “should be grateful” thoughts has given me the opportunity to really think about gratitude, giving thanks in a deeper more meaningful way. The perceptions of how I should feel about being adopted worked its way into my psyche and forced me to come to a place of evolution.  It has allowed me to shine a light on a word woefully inadequate to describe the complexity of how I feel about being adopted.  Being grateful does not commodify me, nor diminish my value to exist. Instead, it has allowed me to stand more solidly, two footed, and less defensive about scapegoating adoption and challenges me and my perception of what makes me, an adoptee, grateful.

Having grown some dimensions now, I believe I have a wider sense of what I am grateful for.  I have community, I have family, I have love in so many dimensions.  I am more than my story and my voice is among a chorus.

I do not believe that being adopted absolves me of the entitlement to feel grateful, to receive kindly and give in return. I know I am right to keep “adopted” and “grateful” in separate sentences, but sometimes being correct is not enough.  Such gentle tolerance allows for other things to fall into place.  Keeping gratitude in my every day vocabulary allows for more love and grace to seep in, notwithstanding good manners.  If gratitude is saved for only particular situations and particular gifts, then it feels like I am falling prey to the very projections others have about me as an adopted person.  Then all the “shoulds” come out only breeding resentment.

Being adopted is still proudly in my grown up girl’s identity.  In the landscape of middle age, I am grateful for my partner and the relationship we created, for my children, for the love that is around me, for the sisterhood that claims me.  In my grown up world, I see the residual, hopeful consequences of being adopted and I am grateful.  My hands are full with nourishment, kindness, friendship, sisterhood, family and love.  If I examine each of the relationships I cherish most and follow that thread behind me, being adopted is a common denominator.  Being adopted has forced me to choose each and every time to take on more, give more, be more than I simply am.  Being adopted has allowed me to examine options, “what ifs”, the other.  The way I see it, to negate my gratitude for adoption would be in ways to mute the colors of my present life.  How could I have known in my 20s what I know now?  I was too busy trying to be heard and validated.  In my 40s I am validated every day by those around me, validated for the work I do, the words I speak, the thoughts I have and the love I give.  Would that anyone try and take what I have away from me now by telling me adoption had nothing to do with it.  I am not an island, I did not do this all by myself, I am not alone.  At every decade of my adulthood, my beginnings become clearer and deeper in perspective.  With that clarity, my present grows in abundance and my future expands.  For that, I am grateful.


It’s all about the subtext

The shame of the 1st gen, kyopos
The rejection of the .5 gen – born in Korea, immigrated
The pride of those who are legitimate
Each circle has it’s integrity but the lines are ambiguous and lost on me
I intersect all these circles through birth, marriage and friendships

“You’re more Korean than I am” says the Korean immigrant married to a Caucasian American
The world as the wife is mostly White except when she goes to Korea and “home”
Who can know the isolation and compartmentalization she has to do
What does she make of this fake Korean, married to a Korean and her bad Korean skills
Am I a wannabe or better, a mirror of what she ran away from?

“You want to learn Korean, I can teach you..”
I have become complacent in my role as student with all the fluency around me
Am I a fraud for trying to pass, for doing a 95% job in passing?
Are they letting me in because I pass for Korean or because they KNOW I am not and they like it that way

“It’s a Korean thing”
I can’t say that
I don’t know that to be true in my gut
My gut has been permanently altered in the adoption state
But through my White lens, it sure does feel like a Korean thing

Love is love is love is love
But staying committed challenges

Staying means committing
Staying means bearing humiliation
Staying means feeling one step behind
Staying means contending with rage
Staying means immersing
Staying means resilience
Staying means love

One day once a year

It’s been nine years since my hair went white, all around the outline of my face.  Where there is hair, pure white. I can remember when it happened.  It was about 2 months into the 3 month visit of my birth mother and brother.  My father-in-law, who notices nothing about me, noticed.  It was then that I knew I had a problem.  Like Rogue in X-men, under extreme duress, her streak of white appeared.  I wish I had such a fabulous streak, that could have looked so amazing.  Instead, it washed out my already pale face rendering a more invisible visage.

Lucky for me, my sister is a hairdresser/cosmetologist…color specialist extraordinaire!  She was thrilled to be able to do something for me, to use her magic other than the occasional hair cut.  I was not sure. I liked staying solidly in the lane of my own creation – sans make-up, sans color…all natural.  I was arrogant in my insistence in not giving a shit about what I looked like.

In the recesses of my mind and deep down in the depths of my heart, it was safe to stay in that space of resistance.  It was safe to not give into the self care my face and body were asking of me for fear of burdening any one and seeking anyone’s gaze.  Purposeful invisibility is a cloak I wear pretty much everyday.

Within a year, I began my trips to my sister’s house to get “treated.”  It has turned into a ritual of sister lunches and always loving conversations as we both live in middle age and seek each other as more than family, but good company.

Gaze.  I have fallen in love with this word.  It can sound soft, deliberate, beautiful, indulgent and yet pure.  Every couple of months, someone I love looks at me and approvingly sets me free to be gazed at without embarrassment or shame.  She even takes a photo of her work but always manages to capture me just as I wish to be seen and not what I look away from.

Gaze.  It occurs to me that there is only one person whose gaze continues to make me wildly uncomfortable and seen in a way that no one else sees me.  My birth mother.  She looks at me like she looks through and deep inside.  Our language is not the same because no matter how much I can speak Korean, it is not the language of my feelings, my yearnings or my secrets.  Instead, it is her eyes and her gaze that I avoid to match and thus I miss a lot. How do you put a price on what is lost in translation?  I heard that in a podcast I can’t recall now, but it struck me so true.  I think I continue to pay the price of being lost in translation a lot.

Facebook and it’s memories flashed up that it was indeed 9 years since her visit.  She isn’t living with me now, but, for one day out of the year, we make the purposeful moment to “talk” via kakaotalk.  The birthday. The real one, not the fake one.  The only one that is burned in her memory and her body.  It is the one time in a year she writes me first, she initiates.  This year, I am acutely aware of my lack of enthusiasm to talk to her.  Over 20 years in reunion and I am still finding new emotions in this relationship.

You see, she initiated contact about a year ago and not on my birthday and so out of her character, or at least the character I have known all this time.  She messaged me with a request to send her something. It was an innocuous ask, not unreasonable and definitely doable. I figured out a way to buy myself some time. And then she asked again 6 months ago and I still didn’t do it. What the hell is wrong with me? Sending her money is harder than what she really wants; hours of labor to earn it and asking others to help me wire it.

She wants something of mine; something of mine that she can wear and have me with her all the time. So simple.  So thoughtful.  So sentimental. An adoptee’s dream situation I suppose.

I’m not mad at her. I’m annoyed.  Her passivity and pain give me anguish and compels me to always look away.  This is the Umma I have been living with. This Umma responds to every call and every message with lots of “I’m sorry” messages and tons of “I love you” texts afterwards.  So her asking for something of mine has left me bewildered and completely not compassionate.  Very out of character of me.

“No” is not a word that pops out first from my mouth. Like water, I have a tendency to flow around, through, against adversity. A phone call, a lunch date, a reference, a resource, a question; I  will always figure out a way to say “Yes.”  The calendar is color coded to make sure no one overlaps or is forgotten.  So what IS my problem?

Perhaps the problem is that this long standing relationship has had no real ability to grow.  Each engagement feels like a reset.  The mother, the adult, in me clutches my heart as I know she thought her kid disappeared without a trace. But the primal 4 year old in me says, “I’m the one who was lost!”  And from there, the control of give and take has remained 4 years old.  I am in action toward this relationship when I want to be and on my terms.  The sending of gifts, money, text messages and photos…on my terms.  The request assumed something had changed in the dynamics of our relationship and I was not paying attention.  We are IN a relationship which means there should be an exchange.  She is right to ask of me…which means then I can ask of her?  She sees me as her daughter and AS her daughter, she can say anything to me with entitlement and without hesitation.  Does this mean I can do the same?  Is that what is going on now? Is that why I am annoyed? A new emotion that invites entitlement and position in a relationship? We are IN a relationship and I need to wake up before it is gone.

This year’s birthday wish ended with:
Umma – Send me messages from time to time, I like it.  It’s fun,  It makes me feel close to you.
Me – Who?  Me?
Umma – Yes
Me – ok

And just like that, we are entering a new phase of this very protracted reunion. While my hair is only going to get whiter and my body is showing signs of age, my 4 year old heart is still skipping along trying to catch up with my Umma.


Podcasts are my new obsession.  I don’t watch TV so radio is my lifeline to the world.  Conscious that the habits we do subliminally impact our children, I wonder if my kids will grow up listening to the radio too. I tried to stay away from “Serial” and all that it became, but got sucked in after one long trip to and from Boston.  Podcasts allow me to drive, cook, do laundry, keep my hands busy while my mind is unfolding images in my head.
Death, Sex and Money
Dear Sugar
Brian Lehrer
Fresh Air
(I list to shameless plug these shows in hopes you will join me in this obsession!)
And now…The Longest Shortest Time.  “When Mommy Means Everything” made me gasp.  At one and a half years of age, a new country, language and day-care situation rendered a little girl mute except one word “maman.” Listening to this story I was fascinated as this little one is not adopted but immigrated with her parents to the US.  The sheer newness of everything resulted in this most interesting consequence.
I find myself thinking about what happens in the brain of a child when such huge transitions occur. For this child it was wittled down to using one word. For some it is being mute all together.  For some the transition is so huge that they even grow up speaking with a slight accent making the listener wonder where are they from?
Coming to America at nearly 6 years old, I have no concept of how the transition happened. How did communicating in Korean one day get to only speaking English in 3 months? But there are moments when I know the synapses did not form gracefully. When I am tired I get gender pronouns confused..he…she…whatever. I would often say “4 and 3” instead of “3 and 4.” I still confuse “this Sunday” and “next Sunday”…in my head, they are the same Sunday.  Something happened.  With the rejection of my Korean identity, went the complete transformation of a NY accent and total English. My friend S remarked that there are times when she speaks and uses her “White person’s voice”.  Totally get that.  A phone interview in college confounded the office when I went in for the in-person interview as they thought the White Jewish woman they were expecting was late, who was that Asian woman sitting there on time?
The reason this podcast made me gasp was the moment I heard the little one’s voice declare, “Maman!”  after she has now come out of the fog of transition and is once again a happy, talkative, bilingual child.  That little voice pierced my chest and for a second, I relived a moment.  I have no idea what that moment was, I have no memory around it, I have no image in my head, but I know that one time in the inner workings of my brain, I did that.  I declared my Umma so exactly knowing she would be there.  I just can’t figure out when I stopped.  When did it happen that I no longer called out for her? And what did happened in the synapses of my mind?
I dream in Korean now.  The words flow in my subconscious and I often wake up with a jumble of Korean and English words swirling in my head.  I don’t watch TV because I watch Korean dramas.  Korean is the last thing I hear before I go to sleep.  It is funny to think that this superficial connection to Korea is what has opened the connections in my sleeping brain too – the Korean speaking child to the English speaking adult.  But, the only word that does not come from my lips with any amount of ease is “Umma” (Mommy).  It sort of comes out with an Americanized accent, there is no flow.
It has been a couple of months since my last call to Korea.  I excuse myself with very grown up reasons – work, kids, family, obligations, immediacy of life, health.  So “Umma” got even rustier and as the phone was ringing last night, I was practicing and hoping she will pick up the phone.  Umma sounds so happy these days as she cares for her newest grandson full time.  Jealousy toward my brother hits me, he gets to have her his whole life and now he gets to have her care for his son too.  It’s ok, I have her now.  The flow begins to happen and as I hear her chattering away about the baby and the oft remarks of how happy she is to hear from me and how sorry she is that she has to wait for me to call her all the time, I pause to turn off my ability to understand her. (It is a bit of a superpower trick I can do, turn on and off my ability to understand Korean as it suits me!)  Her voice sings and I can hear her smiling.  And when she realizes I have stopped talking, worry sets in that perhaps she has talked too much.  And then gratitude and regret sets in as she apologizes for making me do all the work.  “It’s ok, Umma, I just wanted to hear your voice.  I will call again.”  I am no longer mute, I can call her whenever I want.  I can ignore her whenever I want.
As I think about Umma this Mother’s day weekend, I am wistful.  That exacting moment of hearing an echo declaring her is not spontaneous.  That has been lost forever.  I cannot will her to be in my conscious every day nor can I take for granted that I can call upon her and bemuse the troubles of my daily life.  Every moment I turn my mind’s eye to her is thought out, planned, organized.  Some indiscriminate time and place turned my neurons and rewired me.  An unforeseen consequence I have learned to adapt.  In its stead, I get to hear “Mom” with childlike splendor…in my boys.
To mother….나의 어머니

No eating on the premises.

It’s been a long while since I have felt like THE adoptee at an adoption conference. The ones I tend to go to now have adopted people numbering in the double digits!  That place of privilege and confidence is something I lean toward and after so long in this profession, I feel really fortunate to have the protective bubble of others like me, some with bigger personalities and others with bigger voices so I can feel supported and righteous. It feels I have earned the right and paid the time to no longer put myself in that place of being a child, the amateur.

There is this thing that happens at adoption conferences that I wonder if it happens anywhere else? As one adoptee said, “I have to sit down and stay seated,  I feel like I am a walking consultation.” I get it, completely. If it is known you are an adoptee,  you will be stopped – often – by an adoptive parent who has fashioned herself as a professional but wants to talk to you about her kid. If you are presenting, you will not get asked about your paper or your research first…you will be asked by an adoptive parent professional about how to handle the behaviors of his adolescent…usually chased with a wonder if you went through similar feelings growing up. If you are at all revealing of your adoptee status, you will be asked your “opinion” not your researched/evidence based/clinical experienced thoughts.

You will then go to your car feeling dirty, spent, exhausted.

What I wish I could say out loud, but will do cowardly in print instead, is to express the desire to respond in kind…”So, my adoptive mother read everything under the sun about attachment and diagnosed me with reactive attachment disorder. Is this normal? What can I do about her intense anxiety that I will never form a solid attachment to her?”

There is a fine line between getting educated and devouring. I get the thirst for more.  When you raise a child, you want to be able to pre-empt everything. I just attended my kids’ school PTA fundraiser.  Teachers come and are always welcome. It would never occur to me to sit with them and ponder my child and assess their skills as a teacher based on an exchange over drinks. In fact,  it’s kind of frowned upon to spend too much time hanging around them or the school superintendent, even though I KNOW there were plenty of parents who would have loved to talk Common Core and their issues about testing.

When I speak on a panel,  I get prepared. I am ready for anything. I know how I will deflect the very personal and intimate questions to a hungry audience waiting for that checklist of things they should and should not do as the “very good” adoptive parent. When I come to talk about the work I do, perhaps I am less prepared or perhaps I am just weary of having to own that other preparation I have to do in addition to the presentation at hand.

So here I am with that icky feeling I get when at one of these adoption conferences pondering my options as to what I need to do to arm myself and be better prepared.

My dear friend M suggested posting a sign at every adoption related conference or gathering that reads, “PLEASE DO NOT EAT THE ADOPTEES!” I thought this was funny but now I am seriously considering it.

I feel so consumed by the firing squad adoption conferences require me to withstand. It’s nerve-wracking enough to make sure my presentation is good, that my case summaries make sense, that I have met the ethical standards of disclosure…I don’t really want to be doing free consultations and cheerleading for anxious parents. I don’t think I was invited to validate their choice to adopt but to discuss the very real issues adoptees struggle with. I do love bringing up my adoption identity in the context of the work I do, but it’s on my terms and how I believe it is at times, the most necessary tool in my box to engage a young client. It is not lost on me that I value and do use my adoption status. But it’s mine. It’s all mine to use at my discretion,  just as it is for all those adoptive parents. It is not all of me though. When I speak about attachment or trust or empathy, it’s not because I am unfinished in my adoption. It’s because I have most clearly done a ton of thought and work around it. I don’t come up with an understanding of a client based on how I see my adoption or the nature of my relationship with my adoptive parents. It’s because I have sat for hours and hours, years and years listening and reflecting, seeking and translating patterns of thoughts and behaviors joining my clients in their quest for more insight to themselves.

Do I sound defensive? Yup. I suppose I am. First we have to identify ourselves as “adult” adoptees, emphasizing very literally that we are adults. Now we have to prove our professionalism. Not sure if this is adultism or adoptionism, but it’s one -ism too many.

My new script has become this..
Adoption is different. It has it’s own developmental sine curve. At times it overlaps with what others typically know as a milestone and then there are times we adoptees hit those marks earlier or later or higher or lower. What I have come to believe is that this is all normal.  If it doesn’t make sense to you, get informed but please please do not consume the adoptees in the room, they need to be treated with respect and viewed as complete, whole human beings.  Please engage with kindness.

It’s complicated

I know I am an adult now that I can actually afford to donate money to my alma mater.  This means I get anywhere upwards of 3 to 4 emails a day from them telling me about the latest webinar, donation plea, book, speaker, etc.  Today, I got, “Do you know the signs of complicated grief?”
If I weren’t crying, I would get a good chuckle out of it.  I would see through the tears and know that, this will pass and in a little bit, my boys will be home and I will be just fine.  I will be calm and cheerful and curious and hopeful as I listen.  But right now, the depth of my sadness is at odds with my usual resolute demeanor.  So, I need to rip the band-aid off and just let it breathe.
I miss saying the word “Mom.”  Just to call it out into the universe, to say it out loud, to say it with a period at the end of it.  There was no time in my consciousness that I took saying that for granted.  I can still recall the moments when I was contemplating the transition from “Mommy” to “Mom” and even tried out “Mother” for a while.  It is this rare moment now that hearing it said to me does not scab over or harden that tender sore spot.
It’s complicated.  It is so complicated.  But, I find myself in a state of envy wondering if it is true labor or just like breathing that such relationships continue regardless of how I might characterize it?  Did I not work hard enough?  Is grit all it takes?  Is that the reward?  To say you have a mother…A mother, any mother will do.  Or is there a quality to being a mother that everyone has in mind? How are some able to take it all without discretion and others find that impossible?  I wanted to be the former and was for a very very long time.  Until…
Ellen Burstyn said, “Mother is a verb…you become the noun by doing the verb.”  Am I a noun yet when no noun is there in my vocabulary? If I don’t have that noun, then do I lose any credibility or faith that I can earn it?  Does one build on the other?  Every book I read on attachment, bonding and parenting writes about the mother-child relationship.  And when you read the books of pathology and dysfunction it sure feels like it all boils down to “mother.”  That relationship is THE foundation of a good one, the root of it’s evil.  It’s so complicated.
Always creative, other mother figures stand in and contain me.  But when those are so temporary and even more conditional, I am reminded once again that I must not take them for granted either.  After all, they are mothers to others and that seems to go just fine.  So I try “cafeteria style”.  It feels more accurate to live by – take what you want, leave what you don’t. I cannot be so casual with such specialness as a mothering relationship though.  So, I feel betrayed and floundering questioning again, if “mom” is not there, can I do it on my own?  Are my feet under me and will they keep me going?
There is no path of correct grief, but losing “mother” in my repertoire of daily words can feel liberating, peaceful, independent, strong and yet so wildly circuitous, scary and at times just sad.  It feels pretentious to say grief never ends, but it can be so unpredictable at times that it feels like you must cut it off, to end it abruptly just so living can happen.  So, when it comes thundering down, demanding to be acknowledged, I acquiesce.  This too will pass.

Funny Mommy

I am having a new relationship with humor.  I would like to believe I always had a sense of humor.  I am forever faithful to Ellen Degeneres and her TV show.  Since so many other people watch her, I believe I am in good humor company.  But now, I am also loving Key and Peele and Hari Kondabolu.  The whole Korean SNL ‘scandal’ is still brewing in my head all these weeks later.  I get fixated on things I don’t understand.  This usually means when I am feeling inconsonant with those who I feel are part of my community, my cohort, my allies.  The immediate first check is to figure out what is wrong with me? Too insecure to blame the entire group of “others”, I am still wondering what went askew.

Thank you, Key and Peele, you relieved me of my stress.  What timely coincidence that the week after all that went on over there in Korea, TIME magazine’s cover had these guys on and they wrote a brilliant piece on humor.  Rather, they encouraged “Make Fun of Everything”.  They wrote, “To not make fun of something is, we believe, itself a form of bullying. When a humorist makes the conscious decision to exclude a group from derision, isn’t he or she implying that the members of that group are not capable of self-reflection? Or don’t possess the mental faculties to recognize the nuances of satire? A group that’s excluded never gets the opportunity to join in the greater human conversation.”

It’s the last sentence that rang loudest for me.  Forever feeling like an outsider here in America and in Korea, the last thing I wanted was to find out my very temperament predestined me to being excluded from laughing too.  Grown ups are terrible at laughing.  We get embarrassed, red faced and try our damnedest to muffle it.  But hang around kids and they seem completely incapable of muffling anything.  They laugh at the same thing over and over again.  Bathroom sounds can get a group of 9 year old boys in peals for nearly an hour! Something happens, perhaps when the greater community around them, their peer group, begins to influence behavior, and all of that stops.  Humor becomes compartmentalized just like everything else.  As an adoptee, I think we have a bit of wickedness in our humor.  Besides the obvious misunderstandings of our names and faces, we can be pretty snarky about our birth families and our adoptive families. I wish we could share some of that humor out there too.  I don’t believe us to be “hothouse flowers”, but our self-reflection can go so far deep that it can get really dark in there.

I can’t honestly tell you how my laughter sounds.  However, whenever I am with my Umma, I listen hard for her laughter.  We have similar voices but only when speaking Korean.  So laughter is hard to come by when our senses of humor are bound by language, both literally and culturally.  Thank goodness for the kids, their antics drew her out and I have discovered that she has a lovely soft ring to her laugh.  Time and life has taken the deep belly snorting laugh, but she laughs.

So I am doing my best to laugh more, to find things funny and take in the fickleness of humor.  It must be working because I think I got the best Mother’s Day gift.  My dear husband decided to give me my own Mother’s Day a week early so I won’t need to share it with the other mothers of the family and lose myself.  He asked the boys what they love about me, how nice and embarrassing right?  My G just loved that I am always there for him….good diplomatic answer.  He quickly chimed in though when his big brother did the hard work of finding a great compliment.  P said, “I think Mommy is funny.”  WHAT?  I stand by my conclusion that my children are THE source of unconditional love. That one sentence is my proof.  My children think I am funny.  Laugh out loud, giggling, snickering, whispering, all of it.  They get my sarcasm, which can be pretty sharp at times and I am beginning to get a taste of my own medicine…and still they love.  I get the eye roll and quivering lip with tears emerging when I have gone too far and still each day ends with, ‘I love you more.”  They say women will fall for a guy who makes them laugh over many other external factors.  This woman has fallen for the two emerging men who laugh at her.

To my Mothers, to your Mothers, near and far…Happy Mother’s Day!  May it be filled with laughter!

When in Rome

I often think that the experience of the older child adopted is like the adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.”
I thought about this while having soup with my friends.

When I first came home I ate with my elbows on the table, head in bowl slurped up the soup with noise that annoyed the bajesus out of my parents. “Get your elbows off the table, this is not a horses stable” ring in my ears still. “What band do you play for?” Was the other oft remark. This was meant to be humorous at times and sometimes it was.  Mostly, though, it wasn’t funny at all to me.  It felt unnecessary and ruined the meal, the intention of why we were having family dinners at all.  The quest?  I was to eat silently. It was not so easy, thus constant “reminders”. 

Fast forward, to the year I spent in Korea. I am sitting in the cafeteria of the orphanage eating and I was struck by how noisy it was in the room!  Not because there were 50 kids, metal chopsticks on metal trays, but because of all the slurping and chewing that was going on.  I would often hear the staff cluck like mother hens, “he makes eating sound so delicious.”  Really, eating can SOUND delicious? It was just a matter of weeks living in Korea that I realized I could resume my life with elbows on the table, slurping and with my head down and it would all be ok.  When in Korea, do as the Koreans would.  If you have a chance to watch the Korean drama, ‘Let’s Eat!” you will totally get why eating sounds delicious.

In remembering these memories, I think about the young boy I worked with who got “rehomed” by his first adoptive family and told me, “I just didn’t understand the rules of their house.” His words hit my heart; that a 7 year old would have such wisdom. The “rules” were what I focused on with this kid as a novice social worker. Now I also get that he didn’t “understand”.  Of course.

In Korea, it makes sense to show you enjoy your meal by making sounds. In America it makes sense you show enjoyment with lip service. In Korea you show you loved the food by how you eat. In America you show you loved it by using words. Neither is more meaningful.  Now that I’ve got the rules straight, both seems just right in my head.

Checking myself

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.


Codeswitch, Part I

Code-switching – the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations.

Anyone who enters the adoption community or has gone through the adoption process quickly learns that our constellation has words all unto ourselves.  To hear an adoptee talk about her mother, we automatically know she is talking about her adoptive mother, no distinction needs to be made among us.  What’s interesting is that those who go through the adoption process are taught that a birthmother made an “adoption plan” while we adoptees say, “when she gave me up for adoption.” We learned that adoptive parents don’t like using the word “abandoned” so they are encouraged to tell their child, “you were put in a place to be found.”  We, adoptees know, we were abandoned and if not abandoned, we opt for alternate words to describe the severing of our connection to our family of origin.  There are so many ways that we have made “nice” with the concept of adoption so that those who benefit from it feel nice too.  What I think we have managed to do is code switch.

To be equitable, I do notice the adoptee community writing/speaking in code as well to describe how passionately angry they feel about adoption.  There are those of us who use “trafficking” and “kidnapping” in interesting ways to describe their adoption narrative.  While I do not disparage one’s own interpretation of their own story, I find these words speak the code of the adopted in a different way than I do. Code?  Accurate?  Truth?  My verdict is unclear. The effect is clear.

As more adoptees come forward saying not so nice things about adoption, it sort of feels like we are at a critical state of new understandings.  I am gratified that there are adoptive parents who are beginning the struggle to understand that adoption is complicated, sometimes amazing, alternatively painful and at its best, transformative.  The idea that we are “transforming” the discussion of race, identity and adoption has been at the core of many adult adoptee organizations starting way back in 1996!

Transforming is taking a lot longer than I anticipated from when I was an idealistic 20something.  One reason may be because the messaging is transforming on both sides.  As more adoptees demand a change in the way adoption is conducted, talked about and discussed, there is another side code switching to make adoption sound urgent, necessary and in peril of going extinct. I should clarify….international adoption.  Frankly, it’s driving me crazy.  Imminently, our legislators are seeking ways to pass the CHIFF legislation and their code is amazingly effective.   It makes me wonder what is wrong with my brain that I seem to read their words in a completely different way than what I see.  Right now, there are groups in the US who are in near hysterics about the “orphan crisis” in the world, mobilizing people to believe they must adopt, adoption is the only solution.

Every time this happens, I call upon my friends and colleagues who are adopted and it does feel like we are reading another language.  We don’t agree universally on every issue, but I appreciate the passionate civility we dialogue.  Our code has always been with the intention to have the adopted as the center of our focus.  It is clear and trusted.  I asked for help and I got it.

Melanie Chung-Sherman, my co-author, lives in a place that I swear speaks a different English at times.  Her “Blessings” sign-off at the end of every email causes me to chuckle and I look to her to help me better understand the language religion plays in the adoption world.  Living in a more secular, rather less evangelical, area has be me blind to the codeswitch.  She agreed to write with me and help clarify from her perspective the code switching that happens in the world of “saving the orphan” movement that I struggle with.  So, here is our list of how the code is switching in our heads.  I am hoping it drives you equally mad!  I am hoping when you read the CHIFF legislation and future media pieces on adoption that you may begin to see the code for yourself.

  • child advocates– code for those in support of perpetuating and increasing the number of foreign born children being adopted to White American couples.  If you read the list of supporters of the CHIFF legislation, the list of adoptee organizations and organizations internationally recognized as working for preserving children in their country/family of origin is glaringly light.
  • children in families first – code for children from third world countries into the homes of privileged, American couples
  • growing up in a family is a child’s basic human right – code switch for “growing up in an adoptive family in America”; perpetuation of international adoption
  • international adoption as a solution – code for international adoption is THE solution
  • best practices – code for ways to primarily advance the process and promotion of international adoption
  • orphan – a complex code word steeped in biblical meaning that has been simplified that has categorized  and subsequently emotionally petitioned the adoption community into action on behalf of children in need who may or may not be legally available for adoption. It does not diminish the fact that there are children without direct care, but is overly referenced for all children who appear in need and lacking a road to Christian salvation by Western standards. At one time this terminology was antiquated, but was revived at the height of the evangelical adoption movement.
  • rescue –to save a child in need by means of international adoption in a Westernized home (“being called to adopt”) and many times not critically considering the long-term implications for that child and first family, alternatives to permanency in-country or the possible reasons and/or methods in which a child was referred for international adoption originally. Taking on the theological salvation narrative and attempting to vertically apply to the child while overlooking the fact that adoption is about permanently building a family, not rescuing someone.
  • resources can be reallocated to achieve more timely, effective, nurturing, and permanent familial solutions for children living without families–code for taking existing federal funds already benchmarked to promote family permanency in-country and reallocating them to ensure international adoption policy, practice, and placement is securely funded.
  • shall lead the development and implementation of policies that will ensure the timely provision of appropriate, protective, and permanent family care for children living without families – policy codeswitch that will engender the least restrictive, fastest, and Western-centric measures to ensure international adoptive placement while deconstructing and maneuvering around current international and federal accountability standards in an effort to boost numbers of adoptions.

 And for the ultimate codeswitch, when we read that a piece of legislation is in keeping with the core American belief that families are the best protection for children, this really means, regardless of global cultural considerations, which include the impact of poverty, gender and social class bias, diverse social norms, as well as a country’s sovereignty, Americans still know what is best. Thus, it is only in an American family that a child can truly flourish.


Codeswitch, part II, A vs. A

I have been planning a vacation to California with my Korean family, Sun-Ohk and Won-Chan.  They have decided to come to the mainland of the USA for the first time.   We have agreed to meet them there.  One hiccup, they neither speak nor read English.  So I have taken on the herculean task of creating a fun filled week for two families.  I am a terrible vacation planner.  My brain does not work with any amount of glee looking at hotels, air flights, activities, car rentals etc.  I had to get a friend to walk me through it and seeing the sheer joy she had in helping me, I know I did not miss a calling of any sort.

Itinerary complete and sent to Korea, the first question back is, “can we go to Las Vegas?”  I had to laugh as all I could respond in baby Hangul was – “9 hours driving, too far, USA is very big.  Sorry.” Lots of apologetic emoticons later, we are sticking to my plan, thank you very much!

I write this all to say that perspective is everything.  If you come from a country that can take one afternoon to travel from one end to the other, a trip to another state should not be so bad.  Right?  So, if you are adopted into a family where you felt understood, saved, happy, full of love and resources, it stands to reason, you might have a very different perspective than from an adoptee who felt isolated, misunderstood, kidnapped or abandoned.  I often find that being adopted is never enough of a unifier for our community to stand firm in solidarity.  Even the idea of “giving voice to the adoptee” is not “giving A voice to the adoptee.”  Unfortunately, so much of where we grew up, how we grew up, events that triggered our epigenes along with time, place and age of adoption can challenge us to realize that we cannot always stand with our brothers and sisters in adoption.

Since working on the “codeswitch, part I” piece, I have learned of a couple of adoptee run organizations who have come out in support of the CHIFF legislation being pushed through Congress, and my gut reaction was not pretty.  I called people up to find out, in earnest, how they came to this decision.  In my almost panic, I had feelings of betrayal, shock, disappointment.  And then, I hit pause. Who the hell am I to judge?  To me, there are certain issues that are no brainers and I really was thinking that the company I kept in this crazy mixed up world of adoptees was on my side.  And if they weren’t, they had enough respect for our common sense of humanity that we could talk about it.  I am not prone to public hyperbole when it comes to speaking in support or against issues or perspectives.  I like doing it in person, one on one.  Adding the human factor makes things easier to come to some understanding.

In coming to a very different decision about how they feel about a piece of legislation, I fear the chance for dialogue is over.  Instead, it has now become adoptee vs. adoptee.  Now there is no room to talk about the issues and how to change them.

It is amazing how adoptees are used in a pawn-like manner.  Adoptive parent groups, adoption trade organizations will come out in favor or against something, but the minute an adoptee or adoptee organization comes out in favor, radio silence for the other groups.  An adoptee run group supports something and now no holds barred, it’s a go.

I wish we adoptees knew our power.  We keep demanding a seat at the table, but the reality is our table is set but the only ones with dance cards are the ones in support of international adoption continuing status quo.  Whenever one person stands up in support of adoption, they get lots of air play.  If there are adoptees who come against it, they are looked at as rogue, dissenting, angry and not given time unless they create it themselves via facebook or With great power comes great responsibility.

So, here’s the rub.  I am so glad that groups of adoptees are getting acknowledged.  I am proud of their hard work in empowering themselves and others.  I just wish we could play a little nicer WITH each other.  No one is being asked to be THE voice for adoptees, but the responsibility for those of us who do get the odd chance to be heard, I wish we could accept that we have the power to influence more complexity and diversity into the adoption discussion.  This rarely gets played out in public.  It would be nice to be the three dimensional people we are and help the public see we can disagree and change the course of how international adoptions are conducted and perceived all at once.