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.

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.

practice makes permanent

My little one has gone off to first grade!  I thought I would be used to this leaving and growing up thing, but it still tugs at my heart.  No tears this year, so I must be growing up.  After all, I did this before a couple of years ago.  But the thoughts are still there.  I cannot imagine my G going off to another country at this age let alone to his own big boy bed next door to sleep through the night!  From the second G was born, he didn’t know a single day without Mommy right by his side and well within his sight.  Like his big brother, G went to work with me often and only after a pair of Buzz Lightyear wings years afterwards did he finally feel ready to leave my bed!

My boys love being home.  Even when they are having the time of their life, they need little encouragement when it’s time to go home.  They have yet to agree to a sleepover to a friend’s, even Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  They have no qualms about letting me know they want to go home.  They have no need to adjust their ways.  They have no reason to adapt to a new situation no matter how impermanent.

I realize comparing what my children are living and what I have lived is like comparing apples and oranges.  By the time I was almost six years old, I had been in the care of at least three different strangers, an orphanage and a Buddhist temple.  There is still the question as to who they all were, I have no memory of names or faces.  By the time I came to America, my birthmother was gone, out of my head.  I made her dead a long time ago.  At what point did she die?  I have no idea.  It pained me to tell her that I thought she no longer existed.  She seemed to get it though.  “You were only a baby, what else were you going to think if you never saw me again?”  It’s not like someone sat me down to tell me what would happen next, where I would go, who I would see or how many sleeps it would be.  I was told to be good, to be caring.  That is all I could remember.

By the time I was almost six years old, I had a lot of practice taking care of my inner thoughts.  I had relegated my fears to dreams.  With practice my smile became permanent.  So by six, I had the wearwithall to take that crazy plane ride and embark on a new journey, no questions asked.  Like many others, I walked into my new home and never looked back.

It continues to be a personal journey to figure out just what I am entitled to.  I had somehow parsed out “entitlement” from the definition of “right” as if they were different.  I keep thinking I have a right to know my past, my absent years.  But I stop just at the point of saying I am entitled as if that is too much to ask, too wrong to desire.  As if I could alter the English langauge on my own!

Practice makes permanent.  Still practicing.


Happy New Year!

In a few weeks, all calendars will have recognized the transition to a new year.  I returned from our winter holiday in the tropics on the first day of 2012.  Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, the new year rang in on the East Coast.

January 1 is a big day for Koreans.  It took me a while to get and appreciate the importance of why my now Korean American husband had to get up way too early to go and celebrate the day with his family.  While dating though, it made celebrating the New Year’s day a little anticlimactic.  Wanting to share the day with the one I love and spending most of it alone was not so fun.

I enjoy it more now.  Aside from the great food, the kids get into it with the whole sebe thing (bowing to the elders and getting money in exchange).  There are some traditions we have incoporated into our lives.  This one, I really cherish.  So, we dragged our tired butts to Grandma and Grandpa’s house practicing the very long phrase (nine Korean syllables to the English three).  The bowing was rather humorous but I am glad we went.  It meant alot to the grandparents.

It still trips me up when anything Korean is incorporated into my daily life.  10 years ago, such a morning would not have existed for me.  I think about all the Korean people doing the same thing as we did, as I would have done my entire life, if only…And now, it feels so natural.

I have made my rounds of calls and text messages to Korea – Umma and brother, YJ (my little from the orphanage), George’s cousin.  Last call was to Sun, my dear friend.  We laugh a lot to fill in the spaces for words we do not know in our respective languages and our Konglish is something no one else can understand.  I always go in another room and make sure she is home so she is not embarrassed to talk to me.  Anyone listening on her end would think she is completely mad or something.

We have known each other for exactly 18 years this week.  Our first time together was sitting vigil all day and night at Kangnam hospital for a boy who got hit by a car on new year’s day just outside of the orphanage.  No doctor would come to see this boy who had no money and no family to speak for him.  My American cash could not sway any of them to come out in the wickedly bitter cold to address his medical needs.  Luckily, the man who owned the car was wealthy (an imported Volvo speaks volumes) and he was able to gain the boy admittance to a great hospital in Seoul two days later.

Kangnam hospital is a Catholic Hospital and at the time I was a practicing Catholic.  Sun is Buddhist.  All night long we exchanged dictionaries and had the deepest most profound conversation about religion – what we believed in, who we prayed to, why we prayed, should we pray.  We talked about the irony of our budding friendship at a time of great stress having witnessed the hardhearted to the compassionate in just a couple of days.  She concluded that my presence in her life was enough reason for her to believe in my God.  Her presence in my life at that moment confirmed for me my faith in humanity.  My relationship with God was forever changed and I have not been a practicing Catholic for a long time.

We are ajummas (colloquialism for old married women) now with children of our own.  But hearing Sun’s voice makes me feel young, happy and loved.  She continues to remind me of the goodness in others.

I don’t make resolutions but I try.  This year, I will try to remember I don’t have to work so hard at loving and accept that everyone really does the best they can.

Replacement child

My first job out of grad school was as the policy analyst at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.  The timing could not be better as one of the major projects I had was the first survey of adult Korean adoptees in preparation for the First Gathering of Adult Korean Adoptees in Washington, DC.  I loved the job.  I loved my boss.  She was thoughtful, thorough and relentless in her demand for perfection and accuracy.  She is one of the best in synthesizing research and presenting it in palpable and provocative tones.  She made me think about my adoption story and helped me define a place for it in my career so that it was not front and center.  This idea encouraged me to do my work on my own time, which I think was the best advice.  I would pay that advice forward to any adoptee interested in working in adoption.  Do the work on you on your own time.

Simultaneous to my getting this job, I got to be a counselor/cooking instructor at a culture camp for Korean adoptees.  There was a group we ran for the kids to talk about being adopted.  It was in that group that a little girl got up and presented a photo of a baby, not her.  She introduced herself as a “replacement” for the baby in the photo.  “I am replacement child.”  My heart hurt for this little girl.  She had gone years with the knowledge that she was not the one chosen for her parents and the burden of making sure her parents did not regret saying yes was clearly all over her face.  I was immediately angry at her parents. How could they make her feel so unwanted?  How did the mere photograph of a baby trump the real presence of a baby in their arms?

Fast forward 7 or 8 years and I am reading the letter exchange between my parents and the directress of OHK orphanage.  I am struck by a paragraph…. “KYJ is no longer available for adoption, her father came to reclaim her.  But there is another little girl with the same name and birthdate.”  I was a replacement?  When I asked my mother, she could not recall.  After all, she said yes to a referral based on nothing but a letter of gender and age, no photograph, no medical, nothing else.   It didn’t matter.  I was a child in need, she was waiting to be a mother.  Could there be anything but serendipity in that?

What I have come to understand is that words matter.  The specificity of words matter.  It is a wonder that anything in the world of politics and policy gets accomplished so mired are the players in the words that it can be crippling.  I learned from the Institute that a birthmother is not a birthmother until after she has given birth and actually relinquished.  An adoptive parent is not an adoptive parent until they actually have a child they adopted and are actively parenting.  A child can be a true orphan or an orphan on paper.  There is a big difference between the two.  The latter can be a matter of creation.  From life, I realized that I never identified as a replacement, a substitute.  But, I have never really lost the “orphan” in me and I have separated the concept of emotional abandonment and legal abandonment.

Which brings me to my last point and to current time.  If abandonment has to be a legal fiction in order to be adopted, does that mean there is trafficking involved or is it fraud?  Or is it something else?  I found myself among these words when I was speaking to a wise sage in my life.  There was something she said that jarred me – “intention.”  I have found myself lost in the provocation of emotion when “trafficking” comes up in our context.  And yet, I acknowledge that there have been those who walk into ethical quagmires and made questionable choices – agencies, facilitators, prospective adoptive parents, even birthfamily members.  Is it fraudulant, neglect, trafficking if I was a replacement child for another who was not able to be adopted?  Was it the case when the directress of the orphange openly admitted to sending me away without due diligence in finding my birthmother?  Even if she had no legal right to me?  What of my parents who asked no questions, supposed nothing and didn’t even remember that letter as anything significant.  Who intended what?  Does intention change the meaning of one’s actions?

I have no right answer, just a personal jaunt through all the landmines we walk as adopted people when coming to terms with our stories.  I don’t look at this through a policy perspective or a clinical case study.  This is life.

Volunteering orphanage style

There was only one time in my life I kept a journal, 1993-1994, the year I lived in Orphans’ Home of Korea (an orphanage in Uijongbu, 50 miles south of the DMZ).  I still can’t bring myself to read the words I wrote so many years ago.  I am sure most of the pages were about my pitiful adjustment to a country I could not claim.  It probably includes too many pages of my angst over losing a boyfriend and many friends who could not relate to the experience I was having.  I was foolhearty to think that I could do it alone and without support.  It still remains the single highest accomplishment of my life.  It was also the toughest thing I ever did but not for the reasons most people think of when volunteering in another country.

I went to Korea in lieu of the Peace Corps to “give back” and to “teach the children”.  How naive.  I quickly realized that I was the one getting more out of this experience.  After a couple of weekend visitors dropping off cartons of food or supplies, it became apparent that it kind of sucked to be on the recieving end of charity.  We all know what forced gratitude does to a person.  There was no joy for the children, they were neither grateful nor aware of the gifts as often times they actually didn’t get to see it, eat it or use it.  Things were doled out by the staff of the orphanage with such indignation that the kids just grabbed it and walked out of the room with little in the way of a gesture or word of thanks.  I felt contempt by the staff that the kids were getting things over and above what other children who were not orphans were getting.  I watched painfully as a child was reprimanded for losing her schoolbag and watched with horror that this child had to beg for a new one when I knew there was a whole closet of supplies waiting to be used.  I recall the epic battle to win the keys to the library so the children could study and actually use the books that were donated only to be told that their dirty feet were ruining the library and after only a month had to resign myself to giving back the key.  I watched a beautiful box of strawberries go bad because “the children won’t appreciate them”…in other words, why bother giving it to them.  The other Teacher (Sun) and I ended up making strawberry jam in hopes to salvage what was left.

It reminded me of a piece that got passed around among my friends last year…(http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=130998857).  In thinking about that year away, I was the beneficiary.  I got to give, to learn Korean, to learn about Korea, to travel, to feel like I was special and even got to meet my birthmother that year.  I walked away from that year with THE experience of a lifetime that culminated in a killer essay that I am convinced got me into Columbia University.  That year changed my lifepath and gave me purpose and drive to become a social worker.  It kept me focused and gave me a sense of accomplishment at a really young age.  It gave me the confidence to believe that nothing was impossible.

What was left in Korea was the same 52 kids who still stayed an orphan, never reunited with their birthfamilies and who grew up fending for themselves.  I would hope they would remember that crazy year with that American Unnie/Nuna who was nice and gave them some hope in their lives.  I hold onto the hope they remember the many attempts to bake cookies on the outdoor fire stove, paper chains and decorations that went up for the first time during the new year celebration, the outings to the movies and karaoke.  I really hope they remember the hours and hours of listening to their worries and concerns, the gentle nudging of their imaginations to hope and dream bigger and the feeling that there was someone who really cared about them.  Really though, I am sure they don’t think of me at all.  Their life path was set way before I got there and I did little, if anything, to change it in a different direction.

I have always been proud – almost covetous – of the time I spent in Korea maybe more because I haven’t met another adoptee who did what I did.  There are only a few people who have sat and looked at the boxes of photos and trinkets I collected.  I speak in cursory brushes about that time to as not to trample on the amazing memories I have of that year.  I have met those who have given back in smaller ways, for shorter amounts of time and through better funded organizations.  I admit, I judge.  After hearing presentations and seeing slideshows of photos of their time with the children, I look at them with judgment.  It’s not fair and all wrong.  I know the feeling of pride and sense of goodness that comes from such an experience.  I don’t have the courage to push to ask what has happened since for those babies and children?  What good did you really do?

I ask that of myself all the time.  What good did I really do?

A True Love Story

Once upon a time there was a little boy named Won and he arrived at an orphanage in Uijongbu, South Korea when he was approximately three years old.  He didn’t exactly know how old he was nor his birthday.  As it would for so many, he only knew his mother’s name as Umma.  She told him to wait for her in a busy market and never returned.  He was scared, weeping and absolute in his desire to return to the market so his mother could claim him. 

It took him years to realize that his mother was not going to return and to this day, they have never met again.  Won is a slender framed boy, with an angular face, probably more to do with his lack of eating.  He kept to himself and never really connected with anyone at the orphans’ home.  In time, he became the oldest boy and with that came the privelege and responsibility of keeping all the other 20 or so boys in line.  He woke them up early to excercise, chided them for not keeping their clothes clean, demanded silence when he watched the news on the only TV in the Home,  disciplined them harshly without raising his voice once, woke them up on weekends to work outside on the farm during kimchee making season and drove them for a treat once or twice a year.  The other boys acted like punks when he was not around, but were incredibly respectful of him.  In their eyes, he was the rare “orphan” and really had no other home.  They feared him and would never cross him.  He stayed longer than most boys as he had a driver’s license and ended up working for the Home.  He kept his aspirations close to his vest, and never revealed his burning desire to leave forever. 

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Sun.  She is the youngest of four children, two boys and two girls.  She grew up in a typical middle class family.  Her father was raised by a wealthy family who educated him and allowed him to do well for himself and his family.  From her words, she grew up in an idyllic situation.  In high school, she had a terrible car accident that derailed her path to college.  She humbly attended a lower trade high school and was really demoralized as to what future she might have.  Being kind hearted and always wanting to do something with children, she decided to apply for a job at an orphanage.  She was dissuaded by her mother who went to temple every day to pray her daughter would change her mind.  Sun came from a devout family who believed in giving to others so it was not a stretch for her to want to do this hard work.  Her mother feared that her daughter would end up being a spinster and not be valued as a marriage prospect if she did this line of work.  After many tears and discussion, Sun went to Uijonbu to work in an orphanage.  She lied about her age when she got there as she realized she was only one year older than Won, the oldest boy.

Sun learned quickly that Won was different from all the other boys.  He was identified as a “true orphan” and her heart broke for this quiet sullen guy.  Won was not impressed and didn’t really acknowledge her for several years.  He had seen workers come and go and never stay for long.  Sun was just one of many “teachers” who came and cared for the children.  However, Sun proved to be very different.  Aside from her diligence and cheery personality, she didn’t leave.  Year after year, for three years she stayed and took care over the children as if they were her own.  She disciplined lovingly and the younger children grew to really love her. 

Nearly seven years went by and Sun confesses she has feelings for Won, but doesn’t dare admit it outloud.  Working in an orphange was taxing on her body and soul and she decided to leave the orphanage to try and branch out on her own and open a nursery school.  It was not long afterwards when Won decided he had enough of the Home and applied for a construction job.  He was able to leave with some money as he earned his keep at the Home.  Won and Sun go their separate ways but remain in touch.

A year later, Won earned a job at a car manufacturing company.  He is proud of his job and calls upon Sun and they begin to date for the first time, finally confessing their love for each other.  One year later, they marry. 

To marry an orphan is no simple matter.  Emotionally and societally, this is not easy.  Sun’s parents loved Won and admired his work ethic and never took pity on him.  They respected his story and agreed to a very small wedding so he would not be embarrassed that no one was on his side of the room.  They helped the happy couple with a honeymoon to Australia and helped them purchase an apartment made for employees of the car company.  They became his family.  Sun’s father, having been raised by another family, empathized with his new son-in-law and saw him as a person who loved his daughter.

It would be an understatement to say that Won and Sun live happily ever after.  They do.  They have two beautiful children, a wise daughter and exuberant son.  Still, Won’s status as an orphan does not go unnoticed.  His daughter is often chided for having no relatives on her father’s side.  In a country where the father’s side are considered “real” and the mother’s side is considered “other”, Sun and Won have a rather unorthodox family.  Won has worked for the same car company for years now and everyone knows he is an orphan.  The women in the apartment complex often mention it and chide Sun for being married to such a lowly man. 

No matter, the love these two have for each other has sustained.  Rather, the faith Sun had that her love would be enough is truly the gift of family Won so much desired and deserved. 

I love this story.  Every bit of it is true.  I have had a front row seat to this love story and am in complete awe of it.  Because we are from the same orphanage, I consider Won my brother.  And in turn, his children consider me their Aunt.  So, it is with great joy and pride that my neice goes to school and rebuts her teasers that she has an Aunt in America!

Canary in the International Adoption Mine?

South Korean Adoptions: Canary in the International Adoption Mine?


Please read this article.  I was on the radio show Dawn Davenport does and find her to be really holistic in her approach to adoption and the needs.  My only bone of contention would be the research quoted.  I think it is a slippery slope presenting research these days.  The reality is for every research paper that says adoption is successful, there are others that dispute it.  It depends on who the author is and the premise they want to support.  Even looking at the old papers by Howard Alstein and Rita Simon there are ways to read between the lines that dispute the notion that international adoptees fair better than non-adoptees and African American adoptees in Caucasian families.   When it comes to self-esteem and pride in their ethnicity, I have never bought into the notion that we, Korean adoptees, fair better.  How could we, when so many of us didn’t even identify as being Korean Americans when we were younger?

I digress.  Please read it and let me know what you think?

Oprah speak

I am unabashedly an Orprah Winfrey fan.  I watched every episode of her 25th Season enraptured, inspired, tearful and always with anticipation.  If you hear her enough times, you get to know her speak.  There is something she consistently says, “you are right where you are supposed to be.”

I think about my fellow adoptees when they talk about adoption being cultural genocide and at times demand for things to be undone, redone, obliterated.  Me, and my Amercian dreams realized, sympathizes but it has become clearer for me that I am not where they are completely.  That is not to say that I have not had my share of struggles, betrayals, withholdings and strife.  I have much to be proud of overcoming, but I think I was never quite there.  I cannot be there.  I think I was born like this.

I am reminded of when I volunteered one year of my life in a Korean orphanage, my orphanage, the place I called home before coming to the States.  There was a phrase the children would say often in reference to some theoretical question they were indulging me with to answer – ge nyang.  My transliteration is terrible, but the dictionary translation was “as is.”  It can be used when you are making plans and don’t really care where they go, when you don’t have a strong opinion about something and in this example, it was used to say “well, that’s life.”  My first reaction was incredulity and slight indignation – what the hell does that mean?  As is?!  But in time, I SAW “as is” in action.  It was resolute not surrender and peacefulness without being patronizing.  These were the kids who were never going to be adopted or reunited with their birth families.  Their status as second class citizens, as invisible, was permanent and yet there was no entitlement, regret or anger.

Over the years, as many of you have read, I have kept in touch with these kids who are now adults and have families they have created for their own.  And still I find joy, fun, celebration and little complaint among them.  They seek and they find in each other that which we as overseas adoptees often cannot.  I wonder if there is a cultural abyss I am missing.  I push them to tell me their thoughts and their answer is ge nyang Unnie/Noona (big sister) and I am politely shushed and a little embarrassed that there is no drama in the discussion.

So perhaps, if I truly believe I am right where I am supposed to be, this adoption thing was just a part of that.  It was supposed to happen?  Feeling a bit existential today.  Ge nyang.

August 16th

Adoption Day, Airplane Day, Anniversary, and my least favorite, Gotcha Day….the day you came home, the day we became a family and for some, the most celebrated day of the year.  Whatever you call it, it is a day that belongs to, relatively speaking, a small club.  It is the day that my sister A and I remember quietly with a simple phone call for it is a day only the two of us share forever.  As a kid, I loved this day.  It felt like a second birthday, only better, more special probably because my mother made a big deal about it.  To know my mother, it has to be said this was HUGE.  But as we got older, this day became more about my sister and me declaring and affirming each other as family, no party, no celebration.

This year, it was no different.  A phone call, message left.  Done.  Except it wasn’t.

I was away for a spell, visiting family, when the wonders of technology found my phone connected to Korea of all places with a simple text message – “Hellow??”  It was CYJ, a “younger brother” from my orphanage.  He was working late so the time difference didn’t matter.  I was thrilled.

CYJ was a teenager working hard to get through school the year I spent working at OHK (my orphanage).  There was always something special about him and I even tried to bring him back with me.  His older sister/mother hen even gave him her blessing to go to America and get the “opportunity of a lifetime.”  This never happened.  Over the last 17 years, we have stayed in touch.  Every time I went to Korea, I called and tried to meet up.  Upon aging out of the orphanage, CYJ began his solo life working in construction, like every other male of 17 years.  He was lucky, he had a big sister who had aged out already and had a place to live.  No money, just a chance to work.  In time, he stuck with his computer skills and now works in an office for a design company.  I have met one girl friend who had to break up with him once her family found out he was an “orphan” and I have seen photos of his current love.  Too cute.  Every time we meet, he talks about coming to America to visit me and maybe get out of Korea for good.  Every time, I pocket him a little money and give him a big hug to sustain us for our next visit.

CYJ is a kind, soft spoken young man with a quick smile and an open laugh.  But he is a Korean man, quiet and reserved and gives away very little about how hard his life has been.  He lets me know about all the others – where they live, what they are doing, who got married, who has kids, who became a Christian….all of the essentials.  He shows me photos of the group – ski trips, picnics, nights out.  Sadly though, I never get to see the others.  I have lost contact with them.

17 years is a long time to keep in touch with a kid who has not had a home base to speak of.  We have both been guilty of changing addresses, emails, phone numbers so much.  But every time, he finds me someway so this text was a wonderful surprise.  I can’t write in Korean and his English is spotty at best, but in minutes I managed to find out he was anticpating a reunion of sorts.  On August 16th, he was on his way back to OHK with his sister and her daughter to meet up with a bunch of others, extended family of sorts.  Every August 16th, they do this.  They come back and hang out with the kids who remain and catch up on their whereabouts in life.  He rattled off their names and it was quite a list.  Snapshots of their young faces flashed before my eyes.  I probably wouldn’t recognize any of them anymore.  But he promised to let them know he talked to me and will give them my email and phone number.

So, on this day in August as I acknowledge the day I came to this country now home, CYJ is with his “family” in the only place he has called home.  This day means so much more now.  It is bittersweet to think that two very different family moments are happening at the same time at polar opposite ends of the world.

I hope I hear from some of them.  I need to get back to Korea soon.