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.