Funny Mommy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.”

OHK

I seem to have left my blog in Korea along with my senses.  Last I wrote, I had not come to the meat of my journey, the real reasons I was anticipating my trip with so much enthusiasm.  The last three days of our trip was spent with my other family, the third one, the one connected to my orphanage.  My time at the orphanage is unmeasured and remains a mystery.  There is no one who is alive anymore to tell me where I was, who I was with and for how long.  I am unfinished about how I feel about those missing 2.5 years, but that time of “transition” must have packed quite a punch in the creation of me.  I can’t seem to forget about it and yet it no longer burdens me or terrifies my dreams.  Instead, I have been filling that hole with memories of people who have taught me that family can be a choice.

By week’s end, we said goodbye to the luxurious Lotte Hotel and began our weekend with S and W.  I can’t quite seem to find the right words for who they mean to me in my life.  W is from my orphanage and so my “little brother.”  The year I went to live in Korea, in the orphanage, S was a teacher there.  We spent so much time together talking and sharing the load of caring for the kids, it created an intimacy I have with no one else.  She was the only witness to a transformation that left me permanently connected to Korea beyond birth and culture.  I left Korea 20 years ago having found a soul mate in her.  So when S and W got married, it solidified in my mind the notion that they were my family.  Their children call me “Como” (Paternal Aunt).   And now, my children call them “Samcheon” and “Seungmo”.  Every person has a name depending on how you are related, so these are really special.

First priority was food for us and then for our visit to the orphanage.  My love for grocery shopping has not waned.  There are some things I hope will come to the States.  For one, there is a huge fridge of yogurts and instead of four packs, they come in twos and you can pack any multiple of two into a sealed bag – 10 for… Same goes for ice-pops among other things.   Nice.   Second, the ramen selection was AMAZING.  I wanted to skip through the aisle singing “Food glorious food!”  Third, all my favorite K-drama stars advertising everything and anything in full splendor and color.   For our trip to the orphanage, we pre-ordered pizzas.

Our trip to OHK was long, updated, modern and very familiar.  Things have changed a lot in the actual inside of the Home after the much publicized scandal of suspected abuse.  There was a complete revamping of the first floor of the two floor building.  Most apparent was the aesthetics of the place.  There were paper flowers and cute signs everywhere replacing the barren walls.  Second were the closed doors to the residential wings of the floor.  You can’t just indiscriminately walk around.  There were flat screen tvs in each wing replacing the one 16 inch that was in the cafeteria.  There were bunk beds in each room with only two or four kids per room.  I cannot believe the kids sleep in beds now, remembering that I had the only bed in the Home the last time I was there.   There are more boys than girls here so the girls are upstairs.  Bars and screens cover the windows now too.  CCTV and a high tech security system is in place now.  AND the kitchen!  In 1993, the kitchen was still open to nature’s elements with the girls waking up early to built a fire to cook the rice in a cast iron cooking stove that looks just like what you will find in the Korean Folk Village or an historical drama representing thousands of years ago.  The floor of the kitchen was made of stone and a hose was the source of COLD water to cook and wash dishes on the ground.  Now, there is a proper enclosed kitchen with fridges, range and oven, countertops and tiles on the floor.  That was a total OMG moment for me.

There seems to be an intention to humanize the children more too.  Each child has a box for shoes with his/her name on it INSIDE the home.  I cannot tell you how meaningful that was to S and me as we recalled the rubber house slippers the kids would wear, often mismatched.  S talked about how the shoes would be frozen as they used to be outside of the residence.  There is a photo of every child in the main office.  Necessary and at first glance a little jarring, but I liked it.  It acknowledges the existence of these children, something that was always missing when I was there.

And then there was much that didn’t change.  The room to the “study” was locked and unused.  Not a single kid was studying, reading or on the many computers lining the large community room.  What kid doesn’t want to be on a computer these days?  Something was wrong here.  The “library” was locked because of “water damage to the ceiling”….and yet on closer examination, the books look like they were the exact same books from when I was there 20 years ago and untouched.  What books would look so neat if 40+ kids were rifling through them even with the littlest amount of enthusiasm?  The inaction spoke louder than the pretty tour and words we were given.

Most of all, the Home was still so eerily quiet.  Visit any institution housing children and you will be startled at the silence.  It is always so quiet.  No laughing, no arguing, no talking.  The empty looks on the kids’ faces have not changed either, leaving me with that feeling that I must do something, but not quite sure what would be of any use living halfway around the world and knowing my next time to Korea is always just a wish amounting to lots of hope.  I forgot I could speak Korean and only stood in front of the kids, embarrassed at the grand introduction, and cried.  We ate together though.  Not one of the ten pizza pies went to waste.  One group of mischievous boys decided to deconstruct the pizza instead of eat it.  After a quiet round of elders looking at it and reprimanding them, I notice they begrudgingly sat down again and ate the entire pie.  As always, the elder boys and girls dictated the younger ones.

I am unsure as to how the rest of our little family felt about this visit.  We haven’t talked about it since that day.  I will just wait to hear when they are ready.  The boys went outside pretty quickly.  The shrimp, cranberry, pepper, sausage concoction of a pizza was not remotely appetizing to them.  S told me her own son rarely comes inside and her pre-adolescent daughter is less willing to stay inside and hang out with the kids as she connects the dots to this place that once was her father’s only home.  We promised them a chance to swim and play in water so our visit was short.  It was enough.

We brought kites, I couldn’t come empty handed.  This was fine as it was the little boys who were the only talkative bunch and they seemed to genuinely like the kites.  They must have known we were coming though.  I was amused that the only person they talked to was George.  The minute he got out of the car, they questioned whether he was indeed American and challenged him to say something in English!  Hilarious.

Our day ended with hours of fun by a stream that was supposed to be waist high for swimming.  Instead it was ankle deep, perfectly cold and enough entertainment for the kids to really bond and play.  We went from a five star hotel with $7 coffee to sitting on the floor eating over a butane powered flame and some cold beers.  The bathrooms were sketchy but brought back some funny memories for me.  My big boy was mortified when he learned that he needed to fill the scooper with water to “flush” the toilet but grateful he was a boy so he could remain standing!  No matter, it was good fun.  We sat by the water, S and me, talking talking talking.  Two ajummas now but laughing like we were still in our 20s.

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?
P – MOMMY!
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.

Privilege

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

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!

here, there and everywhere

There are quite a few adoptive families in my school district, some conspicuous, some not. I was waiting for my kids to come out of school when I heard a little girl’s voice scream “Daddy!!!.”  I looked to see an Asian girl jump into the arms of her Causation father.  Meanwhile,  her older sister, also Asian and adopted, and their Caucasian mother were looking on smiling. It was beautiful. A daughters exuberance for her father and outwardly displayed.  If only it was just another ordinary gleeful moment.  I smiled but in my head, I started to think and wonder how’s it going there in that family?  There is a child adopted in one of my son’s classes.  She knows it, and I know it, no one else seems to notice.  It feels like a secret club, the art of knowing something others don’t.  Then, I wonder, what does she think about being adopted and having to do all those class projects?  Her baby picture looks like everyone else in the classroom where six of the 21 kids are Asian, and yet it doesn’t.  It’s a referral photo.  I know it, she knows it…

I once told an Asian American friend of mine that there is a slight style difference for the kids adopted and those not; between the Americanized Asians and the adopted.  I am not caught by surprise when I find out he/she is adopted.  They move differently and most of the time, their clothes are different and their jackets are not buttoned all the way to the top with hat, scarf and gloves on either.

There is adoption in my church.  I am watching, listening and trying to put on a happy face while the excitement of creating family is cooed over.  I love these couples, particularly the gay couple.  I can’t wait till they are fathers.  All the while I am thinking, wondering, questioning, judging.  It makes me anxious and nosy and wanting to run out of the room all at once.  I know too much.  It never turns off.  Occupational hazard or personal life hazard?

I go to a dinner and the proverbial question of what do I do for a living comes up.  To say I work in adoption brings about a smile and “awww, that’s so nice.”  Pause.  Do I say I am adopted too?  Rather, what to do when the host or others introduce you as one who is adopted?  Mindful of that wedding I went to and outed as adopted on the receiving line.  Awkward and wishing for the floor to open up and suck me down. Really?  That’s how I am seen?  That is the conversation starter?  I AM the conversation starter?  I admit to not having thick enough emotional armor to shield me from wincing inside and the stomach begins to churn and I can’t wait to go home.

I am passionate about adoption, but perhaps not in the usual way that most people are accustomed to.  I am not sharing the glamorous story of how a child was saved or the exotic travels to far away backwards places to rescue a baby.  I have no harrowing story of the wait, the process, the delays, the angst, the heart in your mouth drama till a child comes home right where she belongs…. I don’t want to talk about my time in an orphanage.  What will it mean to you to know why I was “given up” for adoption.  I don’t want to talk about how I “tracked down” my birthmother or the miraculous way she found me.  I don’t want you to tell me what great parents I must have.  I don’t want to see that puzzled look when I say that life wasn’t all that great growing up adopted.  I definitely don’t want to talk about how grateful I must feel. I don’t need to hear about an adoption story gone well, wrong, amiss.  I don’t need to hear the whisper of how messed up a kid was or how blissfully happy and “totally normal”  your adoptee turned out.

Most of the time, I just want to know how the dinner came together, what drinks are good, the latest parenting mishap and what it’s like to do what others do.

Sometimes, I just want to have dinner, pick up my kids, fall asleep in church unnoticed and turn it all off.