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.

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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. www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch

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 change.org. 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.

optical illusions, 3D stereograms and eye tricks

Ever stare at one of those prints where you are supposed to cross your eyes and slowly step back and a 3D image is supposed to pop out of the picture?  Some people get it immediately and listening to them explain the image to someone who is not seeing it can be alternately humorous and incredibly awkward, especially if you aren’t seeing it either.  It feels like the world is conspiring against you and you are a complete idiot for not “getting it!” AND THEN, Eureka!  You see you and of course!  Why would ANYONE think it would be something else?

The crazy bit about those pictures is that once you see the new image, you can’t undo it, you can’t NOT see it.  The picture has changed forever.

I am always thinking about my ongoing obsession with topics of race, identity and adoption.  I have been preparing for a presentation to do with a friend and colleague on this topic.  We realized that our lives have come full circle and our paths have met again talking about the very same things 10 years ago!  I look at my bookshelves and half of the shelves are filled with writings of Asian American authors who through various memoirs, fiction and non-fiction, keep writing about these very same topics.

I have been reading The Accidental Asian by Eric Liu again and Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce.  Interesting mix of reading but pretty much sums up where my head is lately.  Always seeking a metaphor to explain what my mind’s eye experiences, I liken staring at one of those 3D pictures to conversations on race, identity and adoption.  Once you see the pain, the loss, the injustice, the dishonesty, the hypocrisy, the racism, the aggression, the privilege…you can’t not see it and feel it and be changed by it.  Once you experience the amazing moment that someone gets how complicated adoption can be just by simply stepping into another persons narrative and holding it, it is impossible to not hope that others will see it too.

I saw some relatives this weekend while they were waiting for another one of their kids to begin the process of launching into adulthood, interviewing for college.  Along the way of our lovely coffee, we got to talking about adoption.  I love these relatives.  They are curious, witty, brilliant and always loving to me.  Someone they know is adopted and at the age of 50something, has been found by his birthmother.  His birthmother never married, never had any other children and was beginning to be described as a bit strange.  His children have a hard time relating to her and while they call her “grandma” they are perplexed by her oddity and cold ways.  Didn’t I think that was odd?  Didn’t I wonder why this woman went to great lengths to find her son only to be so cold and distant?  No, I said.  I didn’t think it was odd.  I began to use words like shame and grief.  I suggested that for her, I wonder if time has stood still?  She might have searched, but perhaps her grief has morphed to grieving the past AND the present.  Perhaps she doesn’t know how to convey warmth, never having felt entitled to show those emotions to her one and only child?  And now her grandchildren?…”Oh, I never thought of it that way…”

Onto the next story of how adoption has hit their lives, this time of someone young and in college and adopted.  He has been found by his birth sibling and has now learned that his birthparents actually got married and he has full siblings.  Wow!  How crazy is that.  Facebook found his birth family but not of his choosing.  How must THAT be like?  To be found?  Well, I was found too…I have to say, I hope he has lots of support and stability around him, he is in for one very interesting ride.  But I wonder if he knows he can create boundaries, can say no, can opt to put them at arms length…at least while he is still trying to figure himself out, as he is not yet a grown man still on the path of creating his own identity. “Oh right…you’ve got a point there.”

That moment, when the conversation goes from interesting anecdote to questions to a quiet, “Ohhh”…is that the moment that the 3D picture comes into focus?  Has the image created change in perception?

This is all in the course of one conversation and while the work I do generates a fairly higher percentage of these stories for my ears, I am reminded that the perception of adoption, about search and reunion, about birthmothers, about class and culture have felt more and more like I am seeing one image and they are seeing another.  I do not mean to insult, nor be hyperbolic in my claim that this feels like a burden in any way, but I am struck by how there can never be a casual conversation around these topics with me. But I struggle to find the right inviting words to stress just how desperately I want others to see what I see.

It is as important to have these conversations as it is for me to talk about the latest weather phenomenons, the latest credit card breach and what my kids will be doing for the summer holiday. It is essential for me in my hope that at the end of the conversation, there will be another person who will be moved to educate, correct, validate or invalidate their next chat with someone else. I am in the business of collecting allies, fellow seers of the 3-dimensional sides of adoption.

In reading Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce, I started doing what I usually do, flagging pages and writing down quotes I didn’t want to forget.  After the first chapter, I stopped.  It was getting ridiculous.  Ms. Joyce has way too many noteworthy quotes.  I realize I have been in this work for a very long time since she mentioned just about everyone I knew or hear of in the field.  It has been scary and oddly satisfying to read that this person, a non-triad member, someone who had so little personal connection to adoption, sees my community the same way.  She sees the underbelly of adoption, the business of it, the ethical quagmires, the conflicts of interests and the suffering of the children who grow up having been pawns, not cherished human beings.  Her sarcasm and dry wit is palpable as she relays the messaging of various agencies, church organizations and prospective adopting parents.  Reading this book has made me understand that words like “orphan” and “adoption” have becomes so altered these days that I don’t recognize it for what I have always believed them to be.  I am beginning to wonder if I have been fooled all along and it is me that needs to re-examine those pictures again.

Put a label on it

When I was 16 I was talking in name brands.  I didn’t know it then, but I am acknowledging it now, I think it is in my DNA to do so.  My Korean DNA.  At 16 I was an awkward, very skinny, very gangly albeit graceful ugly duckling.  I hid in baggy clothes too busy trying to hide the violated, teased, mislabeled shell of a body but I was thinking brands and styles that I had no name for.  For the longest time, I thought it was a remnant of my issues with class and arrogantly belittled the notion of succumbing to pop culture and being a slave to fashion.  I think I need to reconsider.
I had one Korean friend in high school who always wore the latest trends and was comfortable in black in a way I wished.  It took going to college and meeting more Korean American kids to realize that there was a dress code I was longing for and by sophomore year, I was fully immersed in the black code of dress.  My long black hair and pale skin and gangly parts were beginning to make sense.
By the time I was in my mid twenties, all my girlfriends were Korean and adopted.  One would think that our common Americanized culture would have come through in our attire, but what happened was that I found girls who spoke my language of labels, trends and yearnings. In fact, we laughed and cried about all the ways we tried to make ourselves look American and failed miserably.  I believe in our quest to try and assimilate, we were practicing the art of defining our DNA, the part that looks at dress code and accessorizing as diligently as we look at character.  It took “Sex and the City” to teach me the words like, Manolo Blahnik, Birkin, Prada, Jimmy Choo, Gucci and the like but in reality, it was my girls who loved this show so much who gave me words to describe the trappings that accessorized my body.  It is a wonder that we Korean adoptees actually have sessions at conferences and gatherings where we learned about make up and how to apply it.  I have hosted and facilitated those very same glamor girl sessions for my younger Asian adoptee girls to grand success.
I am not a label whore, but I know them.  I know them like it is important things to know.  Hang around enough Korean women and you will well appreciate the language of labels as not just gossip material or symbols of status or class, but also the language of commonality, humor, glee and yes, even joy.  My Americanized semblances scoff at the dropping of a brand, but in my heart, I understand it…I appreciate it, and for damn sure – if I like it – I am online looking at it when I get home.
Pulling the lens back a little, I would widen my community beyond the Korean or Asian adoptees I know.  I have heard parents say their Latin American adopted child is super label conscious much to their dismay and slight confusion.  I have oft heard the comments that they can’t understand why it matters so much.  These parents, so busy trying to build the inner core of their child but so comfortably sitting in their privilege of looking mainstream have a hard time realizing that there is more to labels than a high price tag.  I would offer that for many of us international, transracial, transcultural adoptees, it is a way to fit into the very bodies that look and feel like no one else in our families.  We are a group of people who have been stared at, examined, pointed at so often, it is making sense to me that we would have a slight obsession of how we look without a clue as to HOW we look.  Clothes make a man….perhaps clothes make a human too?
So, in my writing of this post, I am mindful I am up way too late into the night thinking about one of the most superficial things a person can think of.  Why am I wasting my time justifying the perpetuation of an industry so vacuous?  Well, it’s the holidays and I am still online shopping for my Korean family and I am laughing at myself as I click on gifts that have certain names as if it truly matters.  Because the care in which I am examining such items is equal to the love I have for these people.  I am thinking of things I never felt I had a right to think about for people I never felt I had a right to yearn for or love.  Does one have to connect with the other?  As insanely superficial as it sounds, well?  For tonight, yes.  yes it does.
Happy Holidays to you!  Hope your shopping went well and your kids are as happy as mine are today and STILL believe!  Oh Magic!

RACE CARD PROJECT

I am an NPR/WNYC junkie.  Brian Lehrer saved my sanity when my little one would sleep only in a car seat every morning for his nap.  So for two hours I would drive around and listen to Brian.  My daily intake of NPR expanded to many other segments and in particular Michele Norris and her Race Card Project.  This project came at a time when we believe ourselves to be living in a post-racial society to which I consistently balk.  However, it also stimulated my curiosity as to where we, Asian/Korean American adoptees fit into the perception of race and identity within the larger context of this discussion which so often gets bifurcated to black and white.

This past summer, I was asked to come to a culture camp for Korean adoptees and American born Korean children to facilitate a conversation on their sense of identity as children with a hyphenated identity.  The Race Card Project was the perfect way to get the campers and counselors thinking, talking and creating their ideas on how they see themselves, their community and America.  What started out as an exercise of creativity for the counselors and teachers and subsequently, the campers (ages 11-16) became THE project for camp.  Everyone contributed at least one card, some multiple cards, and posted them on a wall in the cafeteria.  Not one was identical to another.  This one week long camp also brought daily visitors who were intrigued by the display and also added their thoughts on cards as well.  The result was an amazing presentation of the 6-word essay challenge.  It was so exciting, I got permission from every participant to publish the wall of essays.  

What stood out for me was how much has not changed in the world.  These are kids who are being raised in a more diverse world of wider definitions of race and family and yet, the feelings of difference, uniqueness, prejudice and misperceptions still pervade.  It is our package that consistently alters our inner realities of what it means to belong and to whom.  However, all is not doom and gloom.  I found myself laughing out loud to the immense humor that arose from this discussion too.  Our younger kids may be facing the same as we did, but their core is a lot more intact making room for more sarcasm and inside jokes.  Lessons were learned all around.

I have sent this to Michele Norris twice now and have never heard back from her, so I am putting it out there for my readers.  I hope it inspires you and maybe someone will be able to reach Ms. Norris.

The challenge is to create a 6 word essay on race and/or identity:

We are all people of color

Not one or the other, in-between

I eat with forks and chopsticks

I am more than your stereotypes

Toast for breakfast, rice for dinner

I’m me, not only my face

I know exactly who I am

Adaptation: the true Korean adoptee experience

I’m not my parents, I’m me

I have always known my identity

We are all one in a billion

Foreign because of my Asian name

In the end we are all people

Oriental is a cookie, not me

I am me that is it

Malleable as clay, imprinted as stamps

My name doesn’t mean anything, sorry

You know you have yellow fever

I use chopsticks at home, mostly

Race is only one broad term

It’s always about rice and noodles

Life is more complicated than speaking English

We are doctors but also patients

Korean-American is not Korean or American

As a foreigner, they categorize me

Home is where you make it

I don’t eat cat or dog

I decide what shapes my identity

Race is nothing but a word

No, I can’t do your nails/laundry

Everyone has feelings, so be nice

Transcending into one world as Korean

White privilege makes me feel guilty

Adoption is different, difference is pride

I am a Korean American girl

Race is nothing but a word

Color is just color, not identity

Be yourself, but also be unique

Guess what?  I suck at math

The world is a melting pot

I really like being Asian (Korean)

I do not bow like that

My skin color is kinda yellow

Not all of us are cousins

Asian doesn’t mean I am Chinese

Guys, I actually don’t speak Korean

I bet I’m a better driver

We the people appreciate our life

I don’t speak like Ching Chong

I do not love my calculator

I’m just as American as you

This is not the 40s anymore

We are more than our appearance

I’m Korean American, are you jealous?

I heart my long Asian hair

We have better hair than you

People think I’m quiet, I’m not!

Americans are just jealous of us

Watch out for our nuclear weapons

I am a yellow rice love

I’m actually good at math

Wish I was a k-pop star

I don’t work for Samsung, What?

Need help with your math homework?

Starcraft is not my national sport

My parents actually loved me

God made me for a reason

I am not a rice farmer

I’m from Korea and I’m adopted

My heritage is who I am

Don’t be hatin’ cuz I’m Asian

I’m blazian and I am proud

Racism will last until the end

I am Korean, deal with it

Different colors different people all human

 

Kin

I saw “Frozen”.  Awesome!  Beautiful!  Love!  Ok, so my boys thought it was “slightly girlie.”  No matter, I hope everyone sees it.  What made it so special for me and probably most adults was the love of sisters, siblings.

I saw two sisters who have their children attend the same school as mine.  I see them walk together to drop off their kids.  Their physical resemblance is uncanny and while unique in their individual appearance, they are sisters.  They have the same kind of hair and walk the same way and even wear similar jackets.  It is really lovely to see.  I think, how nice for their children to grow up in such a tight knit family where everything is contained and insular.

Over dinner one night, my nephew from the other side of the family asked aloud “Aunt Joy, where is your family?  Don’t you have a family?” Dramatic pause from others who heard that blunt question.  I was a tickled.  From the traditional standpoint, I have it covered.  I married into a family and we spend a whole lot of together time.  From my children’s perspective, they are covered with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in the usual traditional sense.  For me, my identified family is a little less traditional.

It has taken me a long time to be comfortable with the constellation of the chosen family I have.  I don’t think as a 40 something year old woman, I need to be tethered to my family of origin.  But the holidays are here and it always brings up the natural questions – where do you go, what do you do, who do you spend these special days with?  In my twenties it was totally ok for a bunch of us to just gather, New York city is perfect for those of us in transition.  Everyone is transitory, so the idea of “chosen family” felt trendy. But time makes us settle and revert to the ways we grew up.  But when you choose to change your life’s path it still gives people pause.  For some reason, to sit in a room pretending to be family because that is what you do during the holidays seems to be common.  Thus a fair amount of alcohol is required to muster.  It comes up a fair amount in the work I do where the common question around this time is, “Do I have to go?”  I have the smallest of samplings, but I am struck by how many adoptees struggle with the idea of going “home” to a place not of their choosing.  The questions of loyalty, family, identity, love, tolerance and belonging come up in poignant color as they decide to go or choose another option.  This conflict of choice flows too powerfully through all these different questions.  For some it is absolutely insane that I would offer the option to stay in their apartment and invite friends to play.  For some it is the perfect invitation to begin thinking about themselves, to begin protecting themselves, to creating a self.  For some there is no choice. Of course, this is not just applicable to adopted people, but that is my world.  I just notice how organic, albeit challenging, it can be for others.  But for my community, it is so deeply layered.  Too often I find the adoption component and the race component are the extra societal layers we keep having to work through before even getting to think about who we are and what we need.  I often grapple with the notion of those personal thought vs. what is expected.  Oh sure, it is easy to say, the hell with them, they can think whatever they want, but when you have grown up for decades now as the walking billboard for international adoption, societal expectations of your identity pinned on you, it is much harder to be so cavalier about what others think.  The perpetual “micro-expectations” inferred in comments and questions can cut away any possibility of a tough shell.  And so, what is left is “Do I have to?” rather than “What do I have?”

I ask this of myself all the time.  I have had a fair amount of sister action lately, watching “Frozen” was just the culmination. One sister traveled across country and one lives an hour’s drive.  As the oldest, I love mothering them especially because they let me.  Our language is food so you can well imagine, delicious.  There are things I cook for them that only I do and they make small requests via text for things they love, mostly of the Korean persuasion.  We are not sisters related by blood.  We don’t look alike, walk alike or think alike.  We have made very different choices.  We were adopted into the same family but we commit to choosing each other to have as sisters.   We remain stalwart planets in each others orbits.  Still, they are only one small part of what I call “family.”

I have had the good fortune of creating new friendships each year I am in school with my kids.  And yet it is the short and sweet texts of “happy thanksgiving!” or “I went to a EF and thought of you” or “got some great deals today!” from my adoptee “sisters”, “Aunties” to my children, who make me feel at home.  We don’t always get to see each other in person, but it’s easy.  Love should always feel this easy.

I went to an event that celebrates adoption and foster care.  One woman, who was at one time a foster child, defined family as “people related through kinship.” I liked that.  I would define my family as kin too, “kindred spirits.”

Threading the needle

I mess up idioms.  I have often been caught saying, “I’ll see it when I believe it” much to my husband’s derision.  I also have a habit of saying “5 and 4” instead of “4 and 5”. I chalk this up to not having English as my first language during my formative years.  As much as I love the English language and finding new ways to say things, I do find that talking about adoption has made me even craftier.  Words matter, they always have.  After all, it was words that made me feel less than others and it is words now that make me feel I have competency.

I keep hearing the term “threading the needle” lately in our national political discourse.  I think it is perfectly fitting in adoption work and policy too.  On the one hand, being adopted does not qualify me in the category of “special needs,” and yet, I do believe being adopted is special and there are needs we adoptees must have in order to feel safe and secure and belonging to our adoptive families.  On the one hand, adoption is just like every other way of forming a family except when it’s not, when the “adopted child” of a said couple is excluded by that adjective distinguishing him from all other children in the family.  On the one hand, adoption is permanent and yet we have been challenged again and again when a child is rehomed, sent back on an airplane or when the country where the child was born claims her as theirs.  Different, the same, just like, as if…I realize I am threading the needle of descriptives to try and accurately address our community.

It came to a head for me when I read Kathryn Joyce’s Slate article.  This article cannot be read while you are eating, your body will reject the food by sheer gag reflex.  Ms. Joyce’s plain and simple words will make you cry as she gives voice to children who have experienced the horrific and survived and others who have perished.   Yet as I was reading this article, I was thinking of David Pelzer and his memoir “A Child Called It.”  Mr. Pelzer was not adopted and his story, among many others, are equally horrific.  I add this because, as thorough as Ms. Joyce was, I found myself threading the needle of understanding the complication adoption naturally breeds.  What stuck out for me was the paradox of how horribly wrong adoptions can go and yet the need for it.  On the one hand, there are families who should never have been able to adopt a child and yet it was another adoptive family who said yes to that same child and loved deliberately so that he/she can begin to heal and know what it means to have a family.  On the one hand, adoptive families are “forever” and “just like” all other families and yet we demand oversight, progress reports for decades, statistics and a level of lifelong scrutiny no other family must endure.  On the one hand, we expect adoptive parents to claim their child as their own and yet are mistrustful that they will.  On the one hand, adoption agencies/facilitators/attorneys aid in the creation of a family and yet are given no legal recourse to say “no” to prospective adoptive parents.  When I was an adoption social worker in placement, I would have loved to have them sign an affidavit that says that they will not say racist remarks to their children, they will not spank their child, they will move to an area with more diversity, that they will honor their child’s birth/family, that they will seek assistance and support when things are getting rough.

Why does this matter?

When I finished reading David Pelzer’s book, I found myself honoring Mr. Pelzer’s courage and survival with a tsk tsk and judgment of his mother as mentally ill.  When I read articles of abuse of adopted children, there is a wholey different lens from which I read it.  When I read these articles, I don’t get the sense that I am reading about the survival and courage of the child, but rather an examination of the adoption system.

What’s the problem with that?  I think one reason is that there is a fundamental truth we keep not wanting to say.  Adoption IS different from giving birth to your child and parenting your child.  It just is.  I keep going around and around and it comes down to this admission.

My reality is that adoption is not just like anything else. It is just different.  it is more than just another way to bring a child into a family, it involves a different way of parenting and there are different issues that need to be addressed time and time again well into adulthood.
So, I find myself standing on this very precariously thin line in knowing that not every child can nor should stay in their family of origin, and he/she will need to belong somewhere else with others.  As long as that is true, we must never stop being creative in finding ways to give safety, support and love to that child.  As long as that is true, adoption must and should remain in the multitude of options for a child.  BUT, as long as adoption exists, we must continue to seek ways to make the child the center of decisions.  From that vantage point then, I believe we must seek accountability and responsibility from organizations like Joint Council on International Children’s Services, National Council for Adoption, Congressional Coalition on Adoption, North American Council on Adoptable Children and the Council on Accreditation.  The leaders of these groups, past and present, should be held to a higher level of scrutiny in what their core beliefs are and how they implement them.  Every one of these groups uses and manipulates the problems facing vulnerable children to fit their greatest constituency.  I wonder what would happen if they actually had more people who went through their system as their actual constituents and in turn had them dictate their policies.  Sure, there are adoptees who believe that adoption is best, that their lives were only positively effected by being adopted, but it would sure be challenging for them to say that too vociferously if they were in the same room with other adoptees who said otherwise.  The longer I am in the work of hearing stories, the thinner the line gets and I am finding threading the needle awfully difficult.  Why?  Because, for every situation I hear about, I can actually name a name and picture a face making every decision personal.

Thank you

As a parent, I am always listening for politeness, especially in my own children.  It’s interesting to see who of my kids’ friends remembers to say “thank you” and I know I am not the only one keeping a mental tally of the ones who do or not.  I try and remember to say “thank you” often.  My big boy recently asked me why I say thank you to the maintenance man/superintendent of our apartment complex.  I reminded him that this man, who works seven days a week, spends most of his time cleaning and tending after a whole lot of people, us included.  He is the reason our lights work in our building hallways and that the leaves and snow are cleared in our parking lot.  It reminded me of something my Aunt told me when I asked her the very same question as she was picking up dirty towels at the spa where she worked.  My Aunt lives in Hawaii.  While it would seem she lives in paradise, that paradise has been decimated due to hurricanes and other natural elements many times.  Each time, the residents of her island work hard to create paradise again for all those of us who go to escape life.  Hawaii is life for my Aunt and when she got a job after months of not working, due to a disastrous hurricane that left most resorts and hotels flattened, she was grateful.  So she said thank you to every customer who dropped a towel on the floor because it meant she had a job.  I will never forget her simple, matter of fact way of expressing it too.  “Thank you”…it was so humbly and honestly coming from her each and every time.

The only time I get a bit sketchy on the gratitude thing is in the context of my adoption. Growing up adopted, I had a tendency to itch when I heard people tell me that I should be grateful I was adopted. Gratitude is a hard pill for me to swallow in the context of how I got to where I am.  I have a tendency to feel grateful with shame all at once.  But I wonder if my allergy to gratitude permeates other areas of my life? We don’t have to be grateful to be adopted, we shouldn’t be made to feel grateful for anything that every other human being seems to have an inalienable right to have and it does not have to remove gratitude from the other aspects of our lives. And yet, if I were really being honest with myself, there is one area I fail to be truly grateful.

Today is my real birthday, the one that my Umma acknowledges.  I woke up to a message from my brother and it was lovely.  He is happy today too.  He has found love in his life and I am so grateful.  I am grateful to the woman who has said yes to him and has taken him as the full package, meaning Umma included.  Forever the big sister, I had to grill him, much to his amusement.  It felt nice, natural, real. Grateful.

As I think about the day I was born, my thoughts of Korea are never too far.  Today, I am grateful to Korea and to many of my “people.” This is not an organic sentiment that comes out easily for me.  Truth is, my place in Korea, my sense of pride of being Korean, my understanding and misunderstandings of Korea were not created in a vacuum.  What I took away from being in Korea recently were not the great conversations I had with other adoptees.  I actually had very few of those.  Instead, it was the conversations and time spent with the Korean Koreans who worked so hard to put the Gathering together for my fellow adoptees and me.  While I don’t deny that the adoptee organizations worked HARD to organize and mobilize, there were Korean Koreans who dealt with the sponsors who only spoke Korean; sponsors and politicians whose perceptions of adoptees prejudiced the way they manipulated the money they were willing to spend, who demanded changes to the itinerary, who wanted certain speakers removed, who wanted many many things.  There were the Korean Koreans who woke up earlier than anyone else roaming the hallways to make sure everything was set up correctly, that there was enough food, that the bus came on time, that the drivers were compensated appropriately.  There were those who waited patiently for participants who showed up 30 minutes past the allotted time, who stood on line with us to navigate food orders, ticket purchases, all the meanwhile assuring that Korean hospitality was presented with a smile.  I humbly thank the Korean Koreans who struggled to speak only English to us to make sure we got everything we needed, wanted, demanded and yearned for.  I thank the Korean people for showing me their pride and love for their country.  My heart filled with pride and love too as I know I am of these people.  I thank the many Korean people who complimented my earnest attempts to speak Korean.  I nearly bursted with childish boastfulness knowing I was understood and praised.

In Korea, we need other non-adopted Koreans to not just be our allies.  They must at times, many times, be our voices too.  They do this with the same level of passion, anger and insistence we would.  We speak about needing allies in the adoption community – adoptive parents, birth parents, non adoptees, politicians, service providers.  Yes, we need them.  But, for the many of us who hunger to claim our birth culture and identity, we could not do it without the gracious, reluctant, confused and overwhelmed fellow citizens of our birth country.  I admit great impatience and frustration in learning the “Korean way” and am embarrassed at the many temper tantrums I throw in having to explain and explain why we must be in Korea, seek Korea and learn the Korean way. I admit to thinking “screw the Korean way, I am American, and this is just untenable!” I admit to being childishly angry that I can’t understand and just go with the flow as the Koreans would. Deep down, I suffer from envy cause I want to fit naturally and with ease. But in the meantime, I must express gratitude. I need those Koreans to do what I cannot and at times, will not.

So tonight as my birth day is dwindling down, I say thank you. Kamsahamnida!