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.

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.

unmyeong

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

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

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

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

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

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

Relative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Butterflies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.