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.

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.”

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!

INFJ

After 10 days of international travel, I was invited to a Korean culture camp for adoptees and American born Korean kids.  This camp is special in that it melds the two communities – Korean adoptees and American born Korean kids.  While I thought I was showing my age by admitting that college was the first time I was fully and openly in the company of other Korean people, I am again learning that this continues to still be the case depending on where a child is adopted.  It is still possible for an adoptee, no matter the age, to feel like the only one.  I often find that the melding of American and Korean culture is still a challenge and often not fully addressed without a full commitment from the adopted person to go all in.  I am hoping this camp will hang around more so our future kids won’t feel so alienated from the community that most emulates them.  However, working at a sleep-away camp with your kids in tow is a weary experience.  On the one hand, I was fully engaged and engrossed with everything that was going on at camp, but felt like I had grown that mysterious third eye watching for my kids.  It was kind of crazy to see them in the mix of all these Korean American kids.  I could see them taking things in for the first time – grace in Korean, bowing at the end of every class, calling all the elders “teacher” and the celebration of Korean independence day literally made their jaws drop.  My big boy morphed in completely.  My little one proudly proclaimed he neither showered nor brushed his teeth all week!

So much acculturating, traveling, laundry…I was exhausted and wished for nothing more than a week to speak to no one.  I thought it was post-camp blues, but I realized that for the last three weeks, I have been in constant motion and constant thought.  And then I remembered, I am an INFJ of the Myers Briggs personality assessment.  A rare breed, we INFJs.  My desire to be mute and sit in silent contemplation could only be excused as a severe case of jetlag and the odd little personality quirk of mine to think ALOT before speaking.  As exciting as it is to do all that I did in August, the ideas and thoughts kept going in circles while my hands were busy being Mommy.

Now that I am in the comfort of a schedule and the kids are occupied with a remarkably smooth transition to school, I find myself reflecting over the last month the changes I experienced in Korea and in me.

The big wow for the kids about Korea was the motion sensors on the escalators.  We first avoided them when they were still thinking they were broken, ’cause that would be the case here in New York.  I can’t wait till America owns this idea too.  What stood out for me was seeing young women smoking in public.  After multiple visits where the ladies bathrooms would choke a horse with the smoke that filled the air, I was amused.  This development has also seemed to have impacted the men smoking  There are designated locations where smoking is permissible.  Still the men totally outnumber the women.  The nicest thing I saw was that PDA has now transcended gender.  It used to be only girls would hold girls hands and boys would walk with their arms over other boys.  Now heterosexual couples hold hands.  Finally!

Korean elders are bemoaning the demise of the Confucian ways.  Children are now being spoken to in formal Korean and that is disrupting the hierarchy that keeps the chain of respect in tact.  And yet, the very nature of etiquette is bred in the language.  The suffix -ayo/-eyo is never not used to indicate formality, politeness and distance between an older and younger person.  So I am not so convinced that the public face of Korea is in jeopardy.  Korea will remain ever polite and the expected suppression of freely expressing oneself  is still going strong.  We are still talking about Korea.

While it was really lovely to not be snickered at when speaking English out loud, I need to learn how to speak English Korean-style.  It is possible to order in English but not a guarantee you will get what you ordered.  By the time my kids travel to Korea on their own, I truly believe Korea will be bilingual, but not just yet.  I nearly laughed out loud when the English translation was sounded over the loudspeakers at the train station.  “This station stop is Uljiro Sam Ga.”  What is so funny about this is that “Sam” = 3.  If only they would say “This station stop is Uljiro Three Ga”  every single English speaker would know exactly where they are!  My last little gripe would be that no matter how modernized Seoul is, visions of its third-world past is not all together obliterated.  We loved the Korean GPS, it just didn’t save us from walking around in circles for hours to find my friend’s store.

My last thought of Korea is a personal fashion dare.  The next extremely sunny day, dare I open my sun umbrella instead of my sunglasses? I found myself eyeing them in their lovely colors and designs.  It was a moment that when in Korea, do as Koreans do…not yet in New York.

The changes in me are more conflicting.  I am forever seeking to find my place in this community of Koreans, Korean Americans and adoptees.  I am loving how easily I transition from English to Korean now both in language and mannerisms.  I am proud of the hard work put in to find such an equilibrium.  Yet, I am struck by how embroiled I can feel with the conflicts in our community of adoptees who differ so much in my perspective, my delivery, my deliberations on being adopted, being Korean and American.  I think I am finally finding the right words though.  In my adopted self, the profession I sought and the way I operate, I seek to be “eminently useful.”  I heard that phrase in church of all places.  I am at my best when I feel useful, involved, personally engaged. Being at camp getting kids to talk about race, culture and identity was thrilling.  Getting adoptees to share their stories and have others affected by them is empowering for them and for me.  Being asked by a Korean professor to teach others what I know about adoption was a high.  Coming home to sit with adoptees as they find their words to better understand themselves, create a sense of family, self identity and worth has made me feel eminent.  While I am always curious about the grander politics of adoption and I do want to be present as policy is discussed, I am realizing my INFJ ways more and more.  I work better one on one.  A contradiction here as I write these words to send out to the nebulous in hopes to reach more people outside of my little world.  Maybe there is more changing I need to do.

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.