It seems every time I am in a hotel for an adoptee event, there is some correlation with the Korean War.  Once again, I walked in the lobby to see men in uniform commemorating the armistice of the Korean War.  Even a coffee at a neighboring hotel, I find the one set of seats next to a group of veterans from England talking story with each other.  Curious “unmyeong” or destiny?  No matter, it has not dampened one minute the celebratory nature of IKAA’s gathering.

Admittedly, my participation in the gathering events are peripheral in nature.  I am here with my kids, so I am out and about most of the time walking a ton without really thinking about what is going on back at the hotel.  My boys have made friends with another family with boys their age with the same obsession for Minecraft and card games.  The only difference is that they are from the Netherlands.  I am always amazed at the lack of ceremony stood on the fact that verbal communication is troubling.  My big boy pulled out a set of Top Trump cards and for the next hour, they were all hunched over sitting under the hot humid sun playing cards and trying to navigate the point system without the aide of a common language.  Of course, our crazy American school system lags behind in learning other languages and with a year of English under his belt, the oldest one at 10, managed just fine.  Then again, Minecraft has its own language which none of us adults seem to understand at all.   They enjoyed each other so much we went swimming all together after our day trip without skipping a beat.  Unmyeong.

Meanwhile, we adults are completely dependent on English no matter where the adoptee was raised.  So thankful for that personally.  However, it is the Korean that is giving some of us trouble.  For our first family excursion out, some of us brought our birthfamily members along for the day.  Despite the many looks from the other Korean Korean people who knew full well we were not natives, our birthmothers, sisters, brothers, cousins, neices and nephews blended right in without fanfare.  It was lovely despite the awkward silences and broken Korean/English passing through.  Even when my Umma was living with us for three months in NY, we didn’t get to spend this kind of quality time.  She watched the shoes while the boys waded in the water, she fanned the boys to cool them from the heat, she gossiped with me about her thoughts on how much to push my brother to get married.  I find I am not so prickly this time around.  Language is less of an issue this time, but I think I am just getting used to her as well.  So far so good.

Of course, you put a group of adoptees together and then find our kids get along nicely, we start to talk and share our stories.  It is never lost on us that our lives have had odd destinies.  I could have been Dutch and she could have been American.  Our birth parents are not different in their thinking.  My Umma thought I went to Europe and another adoptee’s birthfather thought she was sent to the United States.  Unmyeong.

What has happened over the last day has been filled with many wonderful memories for my children already.  They made friends, they have eaten quite a lot of bulgogi and while they miss their puppy in New York seem to be just fine knowing they are going to be in Korea for more days.   For now, Lotte Hotel is home.

Tonight, George and I got to go out for a spell and have that drink we rarely get to have alone.  Umma was happy to stay in the room with our sleeping babies.  Lovely.


Spicy is relative.  Here in Korea, when someone says things are not spicy, buyer beware, it is.  At least if you have to feed children not used to the relative nature of what constitutes spicy and what does not.  Our accommodations are beautiful here at the Lotte Hotel, but the food situation has forced our little family to seek elsewhere in search of something a little more accommodating to our wallets.  Aside from jetlag being my nemesis (thus writing at 2AM), it seems we will need to actually patron the many American restaurants I keep poo-pooing in order for the children to have a full meal without worry that they will end up fuller from the water in order to cool their tongues.  Traveling around Korea is different already this time.   George and I however, are in spicy heaven.  We ordered way too much food and after tasting some of the best chili chicken wings, were happy to give it away to a couple of homeless men in the subway. It felt just like New York City for a moment.

We have had lots of relatives to greet from the time we got off the plane till well into tomorrow.  I knew this would happen, but glad for it nevertheless.  There are three sets of “family” to meet after all.  My Umma and brother greeted us with flowers and my Umma was all dolled up in a simple hanbok.  I already kicked myself for not capturing the moment on camera too confused trying to figure out the phone situation, dealing with a quesy stomach  and gleefully happy to see my dear friend S and her family who were at the airport to go on a vacation to the States.  It was my one moment to meet her family.  S and I have known each other since the orphanage days and I have always wanted to meet the parents who raised her so wonderfully and created a soul so beautiful.  To me, she is heaven sent, so to thank her parents was a true honor.

The reality of having my boys here set in all too quickly, with my big boy getting sick from the plane ride.  Ironic to know his stomach is as weak as mine as I recall all the vomiting I did en route to the America so many years ago.  He braved on for the rest of the evening trying to take it all in.  “Mommy, Korea is just like New York, only with a bunch more Koreans.”  No fear, so far so good.

We planned our trip so we could relax and take in the sites over the weekend.  Lotte World was our first major stop.  We had an unplanned guide with us.  CYJ, one of my orphanage brothers, joined us for the day.  He was gracious to give up sleep to show us around and help us navigate.  My last time at Lotte World was 20 years ago and I cannot recall a single moment.  It functions more like Playland and Great Adventure simultaneously.  We got there way too early waiting for the doors to open only to be mobbed by tons of kids, families and groups by days end.  Korean ice cream and melon ices were a huge hit with a declaration that next time, the boys will be more ready to try more rides.  There is a “next time” in their heads already.

CYJ was 15 when I was at the orphanage last time.  He is in his thirties now and getting ready to get married.  Soft spoken, gentle and kind, my boys took to him immediately.  He tried hard to communicate with them in English while snapping photos and little videos of our day.  By days end, he had a full video montage accompanied with music for us.  It was amazing.  I don’t ordinarily put anything here of my children, but I will try and post his video if I can.

CYJ caught me up on what is going on with the others.  I will be meeting up with a few more by the end of the week.  He informed me that the latest scandal at the orphanage was due to an extortion plan by a father of one of the kids.  All allegations have been deemed inaccurate, charges have been dropped.  August 15th is “going home day” in Korea, so all the OHK alums will meet up and spend the day with the kids who remain. We will have a mini version on Friday or Saturday of this week while my family is there.  I look forward to going with a lighter heart.  Admittedly, I was not surprised that scandal would hit the orphanage.  Personal feelings and hopes that the institution would shut down aside, I am relieved that nothing truly terrible happened to that child.

I leave you tonight with an image worth a chuckle.  I decided to pack for five days with a simple rotation of clothes throughout the week.  I thought we would be good.  After all, having multiple changes of clothes feels like a first world problem and being caught wearing the same thing days in a row is no big deal here.  I blame it on a brain fart on my part as the heat, humidity alone accumulates more changes in a day than anticipated.  Good thing I brought detergent.  What happened later in the day feels like a MacGyver moment.  The bathtub filled with water and clothes got me feeling like a housewife (ajumma) thinking “same stuff, different location.”  Only in Korea, does it seem to make sense that I am once again washing clothes by hand, wringing them out of all their water and decorating our room with wets things.

Now, to get over the time difference and hoping the boys sleep till well past dawn would be the next best achievement right about now.  One moment the boys were literally passing out at dinner and the next wrestling like wolf cubs on the bed.  Jetlag in full steam.

Next on the agenda, breakfast that won’t cost $50 a head!



What’s that saying, “not my first rodeo?”  This is not my first time to Korea, not my first long plane ride with young children.  There are no firsts for this go-around.  There is a full itinerary, there is a plan.  So, what’s the apprehension?  Why still the butterflies?

I have been going back and forth with my Umma about our pending trip.  There is nothing new about it particularly and yet thinking about seeing her makes me anxious.  Being with her has all the potential to make me feel euphoric and unfulfilled all at once.  Our last conversation was so ordinary in the way one talks to a parent as we planned and stated our thoughts on how much time we will get together.  While I can bask in the simplicity of how ordinary this phone call was, it always feels like a first.  Every time there is movement closer to each other and every hang up makes me sigh in apprehension that nothing will go as I hope…one step forward, two steps back.

Me – So, you will come to the airport?
Umma – Yes.
Me – So, you will come to the hotel on Monday and stay with us till Thursday?
Umma – No. I will go home. Your brother needs dinner.
(Pause. Insert eye roll and thoughts of, my brother is a grown man, I am SURE he can figure dinner out for himself.)
Me – What? Your home is so far from Seoul, that will be way too hard for you!
Umma – It’s ok. I will be fine. I am healthy and strong and it will not be so hard.
Me – But, I got the biggest room for us at the hotel, there is a separate bed for you too. You must stay with us. I don’t know when I will be in Korea again. I thought we would see a lot of each other this time.
Umma – We will talk about it when we are together, ok?

“We will talk about it when we are together…” Makes sense. We will see each other and we will hash this out. So ordinary. What every parent would say in a situation like this. I just need to be in the same air space and all will be sorted. Of course, there are many other grown children who have moved far from home and are petulant when they realize that those who remained are the primary thought.

There is nothing ordinary about this. Because underneath it all is my inference that I am, yet again, the third wheel, the one who is not part of the family. Never mind that it is taking everything I have to make this trip possible. Of course, I have a right to demand her time! Or do I? The seesaw goes back and forth. I am not worthy of her time. I am the one who disappeared. I am just a visitor in her life. I can’t trump my brother. He is her rock, her stability, her priority, her family.

The head starts to rationalize. I know it is absolutely bizarre for Umma to want to be in the company of me and several hundred other adoptees in a hotel room. There is no way she wants to meet other birthmothers, see other women walking with their adopted children. She has no interest in being in the company of these other women. My work in adoption and my identification with the adoptee community is wildly uncomfortable for her. She does not want to hear about my plans to visit the orphanage. I am not an orphan to her.  She is not an intrusive person, so it just makes sense she wants us to have our alone time and rest without her.  Further rationality ensues when I know I will probably be grateful she isn’t on top of me.  Our room will be a safe cool haven for the long hot days that I will be out and about. Jetlag has no predictable pattern so my kids will be up at all weird hours.  I will want to walk around in my pajamas and not have to worry about her comfort.

The heart is not so rational.  It starts to worry and mild panic begins.  This may be the last time I see her.  The next time I go to Korea will be when she is sick or dying or dead.  I am not typically a pessimist, just haven’t figured out how to turn my skin right side out so the tougher part is shielding my heart from disappointment, rejection, silence, apathy and so little time to cultivate a happy memory of her.  I am anticipating the end before I have begun.  What if this is the last time I see her? The little girl has not caught up with this grown woman.  Almost twenty years in reunion and I am still stuck in a time warp.

This will all go by so fast.  May my feet stay on the ground long enough to keep me tethered to the present.


What do you get 40 kids who are stuck in an orphanage, most likely not adoptable and so used to people coming and going dropping off things to make their giver’s heart feel better?  I remember being at the orphanage when boxes of fruit and goodies would be delivered.  The requisite girl and boy would come into the office to pay their respects, say their ‘thank you’, and quickly get shooed out of the room never to see the contents of those boxes again.  I don’t want to be just another face, but I will be.  After phone calls were made to my friend for suggestions, I ignored her wistful voice and thought I had it sorted.  I got my kids into it as well.  But after realizing that an entire suitcase could be relegated to purchasing things that are really of no value to the kids, I have resigned myself to going to Korea sans gifts and doing what my friend suggested all along….and George too.  The suggestion?  Eat a meal with them.  My friend is not  a stranger to the whole deal, not an anonymous do-gooder.  Her husband is my orphanage “brother” and they go every year to visit and reunite with others who have aged out.  I know it sounds so incredibly simple, a bunch of pizzas.  I couldn’t be convinced that was all I could do.  I should know better.  What kid needs some useless shit that will get lost or thrown out eventually when you share a room with five or six other kids and you have a designated space of about a drawer?  Guilt washed over me knowing that my suitcases will be filled with toys and presents for my kids and for dear friends and family.  Guilt motivated me to think about making the financial sacrifice and using up precious space in bags too heavy already to carry.  I should know better.  Time is far more special, more memorable.  It is time that has kept me connected to my old Home and it is time I want to spend with my brothers and sisters who aged out.  So my gift to OHK is a day spent together.  After all, we are family.

Still, I am a gift giver. I love giving gifts.  Thinking about the packing, the list has begun – the plane entertainment, the electronics and the clothes.  But it’s been the presents, the gifts from my heart, that matter the most.  That has been a year long project.  Aside from the fact that it is really really hard to get anything “made in the USA”, you can pretty much get anything you want in Korea now.  My first time back to Korea, in the 1990s, there was still a black market. I went there, three flights down among the shopping markets, in search of vanilla to bake cookies for the kids.  No luck.  But I saw cans of coffee and other English labeled goodies with expiration dates well past.  I don’t think such a market exists anymore.  They have been replaced by Home Depot style warehouses with aisles and aisles of American goods.  I have managed to find USA made products and enlisted some talented artist friends to make some personalized gifts as well.  They are all beautiful and I really hope I did well.

I have made a list of presents to bring home for family and friends Stateside enlisting Korean mommy friends to help me with how to say them in Korean so I get the right thing. On the flipside, they find it humorous the things I want to bring home.  They are a bit perplexed by my sheer delight in little household products that I think are “so Korean.”  I know I am not alone in going crazy for that kind of stuff, the cute mispelled English stationary, socks for furniture legs, ornaments for the cell phone, hair bobs, jade, anything that looks like it belonged in the Joseon dynasty.  It almost seems like to be Korean is to fall the for the cute stuff.  The cheese factor seems to dissipate en route squarely landing me into the place where I think every one of my friends must have it.  So, my list is carefully crafted and I will due my best to not forget anyone.

The final list is for me.  I have been to Korea enough times now not to fall for the trendy stuff.  I have been gawking at Korean dramas for years now and see things that catch my eye and wonder if I could have it. Every time I go to Korea, the inner me ages a little more. This time I am going as a mother. This time, my family is picking me up at the airport. So ordinary and yet…

My list:
– name stamp (dojang) for the boys
– traditional twin bands that married women of nobility wore
– my hojuk (family registry)
– fun, must have fun!

lucky me, lucky lucky me

I was edited this last time writing about my pending trip to Korea.  While I am there, there will be another Gathering of Korean Adoptees.  There will be hundreds of adoptees in Seoul just for this event.  I must commend IKAA for putting together another great event for Korean adoptees all over the world to come and play, interact, learn, share and be a part of a bigger community.  This year, the planning committee outdid themselves and have created an event for adoptees and their families.  Thus, my family is participating in those events – Children’s Park, Suwon Folk Village, Martial Arts School…very fun indeed.

In preparation for this trip, there is much talk around our home about the pending travel to Korea.  My boys are really excited.  My big boy is curious, my little one not so much.  I have gone over the agenda with them and shared with them the specialness of this visit.  Which led to this conversation on our drive to camp the other morning:

P – Are there going to be other kids there like us?
Me – Yeah, so, you will see lots of other kids whose Moms and Dads are adopted.  But the coolest part is that a lot of them may not speak English, they may speak Danish, Swedish or other languages, not just English.
G – What?  Why?
Me – Cause their Mommies and Daddies were adopted to places like Sweden and Denmark and France and so they grew up speaking other languages.
P – That’s so cool!
G – Mommy, you are so lucky that you are American!
Me – Huh?  Why?
G – Then you wouldn’t have met me!  Or Daddy or P!

Right.  Nothing like a concrete six year old to put things into perspective for me.

The idea of adoption has never been a novel discussion in our home.  My boys are very curious about what my orphanage looks like.  The idea that I came from an orphanage is somewhat of a fascination to them.  While I assumed they understood my personal connection to adoption, my little one reminds me that talking about it has new meaning every time.  He came home one day to inform me of a classmate who is adopted.  Which led to another conversation of note:

G – Mommy, did you know G was adopted?
Me – yes.
G – You did? How?
Me – well, with a name like (insert Italian surname), and an Asian looking face, I kind of figured that out. Do you know who else is adopted?
G – (Jaw drop, eyes bugged out!) YOU ARE?
Me – yup. And do you know who else is adopted?…(and I rattle off a long list of sisters and “aunties” both my boys know)
G – (Again, mouth agape…no words) Wait, all of them are adopted? What’s adopted?
P – Yes! Adopted means when a mommy gives birth and can’t take care of a baby and she brings the baby to an orphanage or something like that. And another mommy and daddy goes to an agency or something like that to ask them to help them and then they take the baby home. Don’t you know?
Me – (stunned look on my face) Well, that’s one way of putting it. How did you know all that?
P – I don’t know, I just know it.
G – Wait, am I adopted?
Me – No
G – Am I going to be adopted?
Me – No. You have one mommy and that’s me.
G – Well, then do you know who your mommy is?
Me – Yes, and so do you. It’s wei-halmoni. She is gave birth to me.
G – She did????

With bathtime over, the conversation ends. My little G always keeps me on my toes. It takes a few rounds of these conversations before it all sinks in. He reminds me though, that my being adopted does impact his life in no small measure. This trip to Korea is a very big reminder that adoption has a generational link in a way I had anticipated but only now seeing to fruition. My children’s connection to Korea, to being Korean and American, is not like the other kids around here. I see the wheels turning in my big boy as he sorts out what kind of a Korean American he is. His curiosity and pride is so connected to my sense of curiosity and pride. His frustrations and confusions are mine as well. I am merely baby steps ahead of them.

20 years, 10 days

Young Jin, Soo Mi, Sang Hoon, Yong Hoon, Il Nam, Won Chan…

I’m going to Korea.  Two weeks and the countdown has begun.  The gifts have been purchased, made and assembled.  The packing still needs to be done.  A good friend just moved her entire home, surely, I can pack our life for a ten day trip!  I’m nervous, excited, anxious and really hoping that everyone will enjoy this trip.  The boys will be old enough to remember and make memories of their own.  I hope the seed of good will be planted so they will want to make this exodus again and again.

This trip was made possible by a cooking contest run by Also-Known-As.  Who knew my culinary skills in Korean fare would win me a ticket to Korea?!  I am pleased to inform that I have mastered yet another great dish since then but all the while creating a list of food I want to eat in Korea.  Another adoptee I haven’t seen in over a decade just recently asked me, what’s on my list of things to eat?  Very important question.  A chuckle came over me because inside, I knew, only another adoptee would ask such a question.  Of course it was all street food, poor man’s food, I like to call it.  I want to eat my way through Seoul.

A casual remark by George reminded me that I am going back to Korea 20 years from the time I first went alone, with two large suitcases, to my orphanage to do some “good work” and came back a changed person permanently.  It has been 20 years since I last saw some of the people I mentioned above, my orphanage siblings – children then.  Some of them have stayed in touch, others I will see for the first time since we last said goodbye.  Some married, had children, some not yet.  All of them, grown ups.  None are connected to their first families and are connected to each other like family with their shared experience of being an “orphanage kid.”  As is the usual case, I call one and then what follows is a series of phone calls or emails from others.  This time, Kakaotalk is the medium and Hangul the language of choice.  20 years has made my Korean much more user friendly and I can’t wait to see them all, their spouses and their children.  The central point of meeting is the Lotte Hotel.  I am anticipating many late night lobby gatherings.

My Umma will be with me.  She is coming to stay with us while we are in Seoul.  I got the biggest room possible for all of us to be together.  It has been over three years since I last saw her.  I call her pretty regularly now.  She is retired from working at the hospital as an aide and depends on my brother financially and they remain just the two together.  She takes aquatic classes, watches a ton of TV, sees some friends and goes to church.  She says she is well.  I will see for myself.  She got a phone line in her apartment now, so I am guessing things are looking up.  It strikes me funny that this reads like I know her now.  What an ordinary list of things to say about one’s mother, right?  Well…then, there is this thought too – I will not be visiting her home, I will not get to see her living arrangements.  I never do.  So yes, we are still working on our relationship 19 years later.  It will be good to see Umma.  But, I am anxious to see my brother.  I can’t wait really.  I just want a big hug from him.

Truth is, since I won that free ticket to Korea, I have been planning for this trip.  Months and months of thinking about and preparing for just 10 days.  The anticipation is at fever pitch right now.  Trying to tamp down my expectations but really really happy all at once.  I am going to Korea to see family, my family.  This is a family reunion.

I am seriously hoping Umma will babysit the boys so that George and I can take in Korea for some evening fun.  I don’t easily associate Korea with “fun.”  I have never gone to just be in Korea.  So, I guess what I am looking forward to the most is to walk around and be ALL IN.  This time, there is no reason in the world for me to be anywhere else.

Table talk

I got a new dining table. The old one was a hand-me-down from George’s parents. Their taste and style is very different from mine and while I confess we got a big nudge and help to purchase this table, it is pretty awesome.  It is strong, durable, stable and huge; fit for many more playdates, dinners, coffee time.  Still, if that fancy table could talk, it could tell a tale or two.  It got so wobbly as it amassed hours and hours of resting elbows, heartfelt stories and still more cups of coffee.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a slow evolution of Mommy friends in my circle.  Typical to past experiences, my first group of friends tend to be everyone but Asian, usually international.  Over time, I see the tide change to include more and more Asians and Asian Americans.  It is like my identity formation revisited.  This time it feels a bit different though.  I didn’t feel avoidant, just shy.  With every year, my language skills improve, my navigating the fine line between being Korean and being American is becoming seamless and frankly, I am getting too old to worry as much.

This past year has seen a growing flow of coffee time and table talk with more of my Korean Mommy friends. Inevitably our talks get more intimate as we talk about being in this country, raising our children and reflecting on the life they had “over there.”  We commiserate over the woes of having Korean Mothers-In-Law and being married to their sons and have dabbled in the bigger social welfare issues in Korea for women and children.  For the most part, I am just like all the other Korean mothers save for the fact that my kids are the only ones who do not speak a word of Korean.  Part occupational hazard, part temperament, several have come to me to ask for help, for comfort, for a chat.   I am always acutely aware that there will aways be a part of me that is outside.  It may play a small part in why they talk to me.  They know that our conversations stay with me, they don’t diffuse out to the community.  As one mother said, you tell one person, you might as well tell 100.

As with anyone, the more you talk the better you know.  The more you talk, the more being Korean is a three dimensional construct, not just about food, clothes and dramas.  I especially love when these women are able to give me a dose of reality in my small, but ever shrinking, love affair with Korea.  They remind me that growing up in a homogeneous community, where I would have all the privilege of color/nationality/language, it would not have immune me from the daily struggle to be heard, loved, comforted, confident, safe.  They remind me that as women and mothers, they are far more free here.  They speak to the reality of the pressures of conformity and the continued biases of the Korean way.  Their polite silences remind me too when my American/Western judgments come through and truncate my expectations of the progress that is assumed by a tiny country growing economically at a pace its society just cannot/will not sustain.

I feel less in the learning process of being Korean these days but more in the experience of being Korean. Yet, there are times when being in is just messy.  It is one thing to learn about Korean culture, another to be embroiled in it.  It is something I simultaneously covet and abhor.  Inside, I yearn (with a capital Y) to have cultural context infused in me but when it happens, I cringe and push it away like a virus.  To hear grown women tell me their worth is based on whether they have a son or daughter makes me furious.  And yet I KNOW the feeling of relief that washed over me the day my first born son came into this world.  I shake my head when I see a strong, smart, capable woman tamp down her desires, pursuits in order to save a marriage, keep the in-laws happy, for the sake of keeping up appearances.  Infidelity, divorce, death….all have shown me the inner workings of Korean families.  None are exclusive to Korean families, but the navigation of how these issues resolve has opened my eyes to the deeper appreciation I have for the strength of these women but also the interesting quagmire I feel as a Korean American woman raised in an American home.

I find myself pondering about the young Korean American adoptees behind me as they grow and navigate their sense of womanhood.  After all, the navigational compass comes from the women in front of her, primarily her mother.  Her mother, who is Caucasian, American/Western.  If they are lucky, they will grow with people of color in their world who they can resort to as possible templates to emulate.  It has taken me decades to figure this all out and while my mantra remains, here, we have choices, I know I am talking crap as I am fully aware of the conformity I seek in being accepted by these other Korean women.  I want to honor the legacy and history of the women in front of me that enable the idea of having choices.  I want to be included in that line of women to give such empowerment to the girls behind me.  But I am torn between wanting to trash the perception of choice and extol it.  Because, layered on top of these choices is a society that remains ever so slow to change.  I often say I can choose the aspects of being Korean I like and discard or ignore that which is unacceptable to me. That sounds great intellectually, but the thing I am seeking is that fixed confidence my Korean Mommy friends have that despite what they go through, they are ever so capable of navigating this crazy path with grace, acceptance, anger, passion all the while remaining so intrinsically Korean.  Being ‘all in’ means getting confused, lost, making mistakes and being judged.  How to impart that tenacity to the next generation of girls who might want to walk this path with me?  Perhaps it is the very act of getting mired, lost and making mistakes that help to transcend this missing epigene that I lack, that many adoptees lack, to try on repeatedly till we can find our own comfort zone of grace.

Launching of the Handbook to implement the Guidelines for Alternative Care for Children

It is a dangerous thing having friends who actually want better for you.  I get regular emails from a dear friend who is always letting me know of the greater world of international child welfare enticing me to fantasize of the possibility of doing social work in the way I dream.  Even living so close to New York City, it is rare to get the chunk of time needed to engage.  Lucky for me, I married the right man who endorses just about every chance I get to play with my fantasy.

Sent email reading…“Please make it home in time to pick up the kids from school, skip taekwondo, stay home to work on the cars for the pinewood derby so no one needs to be shuttled about and I will be home by 5:30 to put dinner on the table.”  Thus, by 3PM, I am sitting in UNICEF house to witness the Launch Event of Moving Forward: Implementing the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.

Facilitating the presentation was Susan Bissell, Associate Director of Child Protection at UNICEF.  In my mind, Ms. Bissell has the most amazing job.  More pointedly, she has the most amazing memory.  I met her once and she has been gracious to remember me every time I make contact with her.

Jennifer Davidson, Director for the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland shared the process in developing the Handbook.  She offered that in launching this Handbook offers a new paradigm.  To me, she offered hope that there were real tools to use from the simple front line practitioner to the government of a country to change the way we see the care of a child who needs intervention and others to take the charge in giving them care.  The writers chose to highlight programs from countries – none represented twice – implementing various recommendations.  From the US was the adoption agency, You Gotta Believe!, an agency that specializes in finding homes for adolescents and kids who age out of foster care.  Anyone who has ever heard Pat O’Brien, Executive Director of this organization, would walk away believing in him and his mission.  I still remember a marvelous story Mr. O’Brien shared years ago of a creative mother, a curse word and a birthday cake.

Third to speak was Cecilia Anicama, Programme Specialist to the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence against Children.  What stood out of Ms. Anicama’s presentation was the affirmation that we need to prevent institutionalization.  That statement wasn’t made to pander to the audience as she knows all too well, there will always be children who need to be cared for outside of their family of origin.  But institutionalizing a child exposes a child to violence six times higher than a child who is placed in foster care.  Ms. Anicama specified this violence in terms of bullying, abuse and violence by other children.  An affirmation again of what I learned living with the children of the orphanage I came from.  It felt like “Lord of Flies”, I don’t think I was far off in that analogy.

Minister of Social Welfare of Indonesia
Inspiring that a country that actually commits to implementing the guidelines and use the Handbook as a tool to inform government.  A country that espoused a “system of child welfare as institutional care” in 2005 with 8000 child care institutions where 90% of the children are not orphaned or abandoned has a right to be optimistic about their changes as by 2011, Indonesia set a national standard of care that targets education, health, parental support and social welfare for children.  I think the standout statement was when Minister Sunusi admitted to a governmental re-evaluation of the funding of institutions and suggested that funds were changed to family support with a comprehensive assessment of a child’s needs.

Listening to Minister Sunusi, I had the fantasy that someday, the Minister of Health and Welfare of South Korea would say something along the same lines.  While talking to one of my orphanage brothers recently, I am reminded our orphanage is still a home to children, not one legally free for adoption.  My old Home exists for the parents to temporarily place their children while they get their act together, get a job, get remarried, etc.  But I know, rare is the kid who escapes the stigma of being an “orphanage kid” as rare is the kid who gets to leave the Home before the age of 16, forever a second class citizen.

The room was nearly 60 plus full of people and I felt so small and inconsequential knowing that many were doing the work that this Handbook was recommending.  Hard questions were asked about how to promote this new paradigm of child centered thinking where there is so little in the way of funding and resources.

Language was the most profound concept for me while listening.  Global initiatives and working with people who use words differently, speak differently, will push one to be polite, respectful, circumspect, careful and very specific.  With dissonance there comes even more care in the choice of words without losing the passion for the work that needs to be addressed.  There was the call to make a distinction between “residential care” vs. “institutional care”.  Too, culture was all enmeshed in the rhetoric.  It was brought up that there is an Eastern European country that has physicians encouraging parents to place their special needs newborns into an institution, eschewing these babies away.  I know they are not the only one choosing to hide away their less than typical babies to be raised in aggregate care rather than in the arms of humans, especially their parents, who will touch them, reach out to them, be touched by them, see them with potential.  An education not just for a society to change the way they see their children, but the education may even begin with the most educated of society.

Adoption was everywhere in the discussion.  My ears perked every time I heard the word being used.  It was refreshing to hear it in the context of a list of alternatives for children, in neutral but necessary terms. I believe that is where the word adoption is suited best, within a context of options.

The paradigm I was hearing and envisioning was a space in which the child was the source and center of intervention options.  I hope I was getting that right.

Please read the complete Handbook with me.  I am halfway through.  http://www.alternativeguidelines.org


If you are living a life where there seemed to be little choice, little care in how you think or feel; where happiness as a possible pursuit was dashed, I wonder if it is nearly impossible to think of life as privileged based on the color of your skin, your gender or sexual orientation?  I do workshops on race and racism with adoptive parents, mostly Caucasian adoptive parents to children who are not.  I had a father, Caucasian, who was genuine in his confusion as to how I could possibly label him “privileged.”  How dare I – who knows nothing about him, what he has lived or how he has struggled – possibly say he comes from a place of privilege based on his gender and his skin color?  He’s right.  How dare I?  But how could I see it and he can’t/won’t? I am a woman, adopted, Asian American. How would I cross that chasm to bring him to my world?  What was I inviting him to see?  Will seeing it be worth all the work, resentment, pain and shame?  What would it take for him to know what it feels like to be me?  Is it just because he has a kid that looks like me?  Is that enough of a reason for him to get it?  While I don’t think so, it is a beginning.  I want him to get it as a human being, not just a father of a child who was born from a Korean person.  But for a moment, he was willing to listen because I look like his kid.

It isn’t right for me to want to humble this man into believing that he has walked through life without having to second guess his right to be in a room, in a restaurant, in a store, in a place of higher education, in a neighborhood.  If he does know those feelings, does he get that he has far more places to escape to than I do?  What is my end goal in getting in touch with these feelings?  Compassion for people like me, like his son?  Perhaps it is compassion for himself so he can own his privilege and in that owning be open to others who are not.

It got me thinking of how I could convey to this Dad a way of thinking that comes to me pretty regularly based on traveling in this country in places where my face was clearly an apparition, not just the Caucasian world I would add.  There are places I don’t go not because I can’t but because I won’t dare.  There are some places in this country where it would not fall on my radar of options even if I think myself brave and adventurous; not because of fear or insecurity but because of fear of death.

More subtly and consistently is the knowing what privilege does for anyone.  With it, I know eventually I will be accepted if I make one connection.  Without it, I feel unwelcome and most definitely waiting for a chance for someone to take the risk in getting acquainted.  That simultaneous feeling of unwelcome and waiting is really humiliating.

I think what is slippery for an adopted person of color though is that we live in privilege, see it up close and personal and most often operate from that same sense of knowing as our Caucasian parents do until…. the line gets cut off right behind them in a restaurant leaving you behind, until you are spoken to loudly because the assumption is you don’t speak English, until the dressing attendant passes you by to give your options to the other girl who matches your Mother’s complexion far better than you do.  A one off?  Could be.  An embarrassing moment?  For them maybe.  Completely understandable?  Not totally.  Not if you are in my shoes today and every day.

At the same time, I fully suspect there are transracial adoptees who believe themselves to be a version of their Caucasian upbringing and believe that shared history entitles them to the same privilege as their parents.  How humiliating when it is not.  How disturbing to see such ignorance within our own community.  How helpless it feels to see the pain of realization when that changes.

I find myself ruminating about the father who was brave to challenge this notion of privilege.  I felt as if he was was listening to a vocabulary that was all new.  He was genuine in his non-understanding of it.  I think what put me off was the defensive posturing that went along with it.  Again, privilege without knowing it. Getting defensive feels like a luxury.  Who has time to debate whether racism and privilege exist or not? Yet, time is what I really want. Time to talk, to listen, to challenge and to invite.

What strikes me odd about the conversation of privilege is that I am the one doing the thinking, the inviting, the asking, the educating as if I am the pied piper hoping for followers to hear the music when others don’t.   I cannot imagine living in one or two dimensions, homogeneous and passively engaged upon.  But I doubt there is a sense of privilege in that either.  What is the subtlety I keep twisting in my fingers that have no words?  As I see it, it is my privilege to see the differences, the times when inequality happens.  I love the music and colors I see in my world of being other. It is my narrative burden and yet I am empowered.  I am empowered by the challenges overcome, the pain transformed and the celebration of uniqueness. I want others to see it, to reflect on it. Without it, I would feel so empty. I don’t really think of it as a burden, it is a privilege for me to talk to people about this subject matter.

I always leave workshops hoping to gain more members (allies?) of my world of color.  Not confident that I do.  After all, I know that that father can walk out of the room and never have to think about this again.  He doesn’t absolutely have to get it.  He actually will still be loved by his son; he may even be given a pass of forgiveness for not getting it.  Privilege. But I fear his world will be absent of a real connection to his child and the legacy of the family he created by adopting him.  I know too many adoptees who leave their relationships with their parents behind because this cannot and will not be open for discussion.  For them it is not just a matter of privilege, but of life.


Home is together
Home is C- making a racket
Home is a castle wall to any danger
Home is peaceful
Home is a remedy to sadness
Home is a big room full of love
Home is where fun begins
Home is G saying, “Do I have to?”
Home is sometimes like a movie theater
Home is a place where treasures are kept

My big boy half heartedly belabors the writing homework he gets but I love the end products.  He is a lovely poet and this one made my heart sing.  The luxury of motherhood right now is that my children are young.  They still go to bed when I tell them to and sleep through the night without a thought to sneaking out or taking their “toys” to bed with them to play all night long.  They still opt to host sleepovers and they have yet to drag out the goodbye from a playdate, happy to be going home.

As in everything, developing as a human cycles round and round – come close to me, keep away from me…again and again.  We feel so needed when our babies are born, they seem so small and helpless.  We are the beginning and end of every day.  Even at their first launch, they are still wanting home….and then they hit middle school, ugh. It’s not my turn yet, but P’s eyes are lifting and the thoughts are deeper and the comparing and measuring up is getting more deliberate.  “Couldn’t we just get a smallish house?”; ” His brother is a bit annoying”; “Why does it matter if the logo is on the outside of the car, we can see it on the inside?” ; “She used to be her friend, but now she isn’t, I don’t get it.”  The thoughts of how others run their home are coming up; questions about nannies, housekeepers, cleaning ladies, working moms, working dads, who coaches, who doesn’t.  The response, “that’s how we do it in our home” is becoming less sufficient.
Consistently a late bloomer, it wasn’t until my 20s when it hit me that all families run differently, really really differently.  Rules were nebulous as every home had different ones.  I feel like I have been a watcher of families, mothers especially.  Watching and taking note like facing a huge buffet.  Other homes had a little bit of sarcasm, heavy serving of touch, peppering of questions, smattering of pet names, tons of eye contact, presentation of choices and compromise.  I wasn’t comparing, just taking inventory of the rules that I abided by and realized that as an adult, I can now choose the rules I want to follow and create.  Now a mother, I am the giver and keeper of rules.  My home is run by countless rules and I wonder at what point will my children realize that they can defy, bend, denounce, trounce and experiment with them.  I fancied myself a control freak of only my own life.  After all, I don’t ask them to comply with my sense of cleanliness, order or what constitutes as a toy worth saving.  My gestures of cleaning, organizing and general swirls of constant motion are for the most part ignored by all the other residents of the home.  My rules make sense to me but in fairness, it helps that I am a bit more compulsive around here as it keeps the home humming smoothly and makes for a less crabby mommy.  However, it seems my control issues are creeping up as pink flags in ways I have not suspected.  My sense of order and orderliness keeps me busy so I don’t have to sit.  Did I grow up with this? Perhaps.  I am being reminded these days to have more fun.  To my children and husband, they could not care less whether the dishes are put away before bed, the closet doors are closed, that the floor is vacuumed or scrubbed on my hands and knees, or whether the shower curtain is pulled back with a ribbon not an elastic.  My doing is in turn the “not doing” of others and thus my very controlled world.  My doing is my way of contributing to the passing of time in a productive manner not lazily.  It is how I show my worth in my home.  Again, my rules, no one else’s.
I think about how ‘worth’ is brought up a lot in the adoptee world.  Am I worth all that I have?  If I don’t keep moving, will my worth cease to exist?  Is my worth wrapped around what I cram in one 24 hour period?  The idea of existence and worth, deserving to be here when the alternative throughout life was that I could have fared much worse.  Ugh, here comes the gratitude thing again.  Does it matter a whole hell of a lot?  Yes, this is the essence of it all!  And no it shouldn’t.
We hide our worst selves in the privacy of our homes.  If being this “organized” allows me to be calm outside, so what?  In writing this, I am reminding myself that it is what is going on with the humans in my home that matters and gives me the strength to live outside serenely.  My boy’s poem was a wonderful reminder that despite all my rummaging around to keep order, he sees home in the most comforting way.
So, I am cutting myself some slack here.  The floors will only get cleaned once a week!