Club of the unknown

I remember when Etan Patz went missing.  The story effected everyone.  The story of this mysterious tragedy has resurfaced here in NY with renewed vigor as a possible location was excavated.  Meanwhile, we are approaching the one year mark since a young college student, Lauren Spierer, in my local area, went missing.  Two missing children.  I see the empty shells of faces in Lauren’s parents.  I can’t bear to watch the video of her father pleading for information.  I have stared at the photos of Lauren around my neighborhood – a smiling, beatiful face.  And all I could think about is how strange it is to have been found.

I wonder to my inner self how long it took my Umma to reconcile she will never see her child again?  I wonder how she wrapped her head around the idea that her child could be dead?  I wonder how long it was that she stayed in the empty space I see on Lauren’s parents’ faces now?  I wonder what was the last nice memory she held onto?  She talked about a pair of red shoes she bought me even though the store owner felt it was not appropriate for such a young child to wear them.  I wanted them.  I must have really loved them because I came to America in red shoes.  It bothers me still that someone replaced those red shoes but they represent a certain tenacity I must have had at five years old that I insisted on having something red on my feet.  When I showed them to her, we were both disappointed that they were not the same.  I still love them though.  It is the only reminder that I must have remembered Umma.

All other memories of her have vanished or had other faces transplanted in her place.  I remember sitting in a car watching the window slowly roll up and I am crying and waving to two figures crying and waving back to me.  I always thought they were my maternal grandparents.  I later found out that it was indeed my maternal grandmother, but the other figure was my Umma.  It is really hard not to be mad at my brain for erasing her.  Is this what a child does when she can’t make sense of such an event?  She cuts out the love and makes them disappear?  I imgained her dead.  It makes sense now why I did, but it haunts me that I could be so cold.

Guilt sets in too.  I actually lived.  I had chances to smile, to garner some success, to find love.  All the while, my Umma did not know; time did not move for her.  She lost her smile, her joy  and I wonder if she can even begin to take that back now.  Is it like riding a bicycle, you never forget how to smile?  I feel guilt in the very decision to live and not act like I was lost or missing.  These multiple transplantations made me strong, curious and seeking.  Her absence and my erasure of her allowed for me to emotionally protect myself.  It does not take way the tug in my chest to want to understand why, to have a definitive answer.  How does the human brain compensate for trauma, loss and pain?  How do I not believe this most unlucky event in my life set me on a path of more unlucky happenings?  Was it to prepare me for more?  Or have I invited more my way because I stood too tall among the weeds?  At every turn in my life, I have created these walls so as to keep pushing off of them and move forward.  Some people call it resilience, others denial.  I am far from denial, but being resilient is sh— hard.

There will always be someone else who suffers more, experiences more pain and is tormented far more.  It just feels like an awfully small club these days.



…everyone, no exception, must have a tribe, an alliance with which to jockey for power and territory, to demonize the enemy, to organize rallies and raise flags….tribes gave visceral comfort and pride from familiar fellowship, and a way to defend the group enthusaistically against rival groups.  It gave people a name in addition to their own and social meaning in a chaotic world….the drive to join is deeply ingrained.  – E.O. Wilson (Newsweek magazine, April 9, 2012)

I can’t wait to read the rest of this biologist’s book.  I think I read the opening three paragraphs at least four times declaring YES! each time.  I am always struck that in my profession of therapy, the presenting problem may be adoption or something else, but it always ends up being about finding and losing and finding again a definition of family and belonging.  In reading this article it affirmed for me my desire to belong to a group and label it so.  Not that I am an extremely concrete person, but I need to know what box I put myself in and who I choose to ask to join me.  And now I know, this is natural, the way we humans all do it.

However, I find myself in a conundrum.  I find, we adoptees, tend to do the complete opposite in our tribe…we faction, we subgroup, we demonize a whole lot.  We label when we repel labels, we point fingers when we hate being outcasted and we judge almost hoarding our resources leary of sharing.  I don’t think this is what a tribe is supposed to do.  Are we, adopted people, a tribe?  Or has our life experience and the tribes we were adopted into muted our common label so much that we cannot see each other?

I admit to having an intense feeling when I read adoptees decimate adoption as genocide.  I admit that I have an equally intense reaction when I hear adoptees gushing with gratitude and feeling saved through adoption.  And then I withdraw and want nothing to do with adoption, adopted people and the “A” gets shoved down the list so I don’t have to deal with it.  I also fear that I get judged pushing me further out of the group.  To those who are searching, I am the freaking lucky one who got found.  To those who are seeking, I seem to have it nicely wrapped up.  To those who are angry, I am in denial, succumbed to the dark side of happy adoptions.  To those who are grateful, I am a hypocrite.  And if I am being truly honest, I think the same of others in my own tribe too.

Despite all the judging, I love this crazy tribe of adopted people.  I love that we are so diverse and cannot get along all the time.  The compartmentalizing is a bit crazy making and perhaps the outward expression of the dischord we have inside having been transplanted at such young ages.  But I will continue to come to the group with the approach that I am meeting extended family.  Surely we can find something we can like about each other even with all the exceptions to our stories.  If anything, being adopted (present or past, depending on how we choose to see it) gives us a name.  I suppose then, that it is up to us to define our social meaning…is that we are collectively working towards?

I keep going back to my kids when I get stuck.  I keep thinking  about what the message is that I want to convey to them? What neural pathways of communication and community do I want to create?  Is casting the net as wide as possible a good thing or overwhelming?  My big guy likes his alone time, and while I get unnerved by it, I respect it and think it rather brave of him to walk away.  My little guy is right in the middle, in the thick of things, and I admire that too.  But I am constantly pleasantly surprised that they choose to come back home, to my husband and me.  Despite their pushing of boundaries, back talk, anger, frustration, they keep coming back to their homebase.  Despite my fears of worry that they will like another family, another relative more than me, they keep looking for me.  I am their tribe.

Ok then, I get it.  For me, the tribe of adoptees has become my homebase for better or worse.  In the past 20 years, I have decided this is my tribe and it is the strength and passion of this tribe that allows me to push away and return with little ceremony.

Made up story…

Every night for the last seven years, I laid with my boys to sleep.  Please don’t judge the family bed, for us it has worked amazingly well.  While the bed-hopping still continues, they have been sleeping in their own room, their own bunk for quite some time.  And of course, once resenting the idea of laying there wasting precious alone time, I find myself missing the stories.  I told lots and lots of stories of magic gardens where insects talk, of stars and galaxies far away, of adventures by Toot and Puddle and the great feats of dragon taming two boys P and G would dare to try.  I tried to resist the temptation of morals at the end of the stories, some were just plain fun and silly.  No two stories were alike and I realized I needed to stop when my big boy started to finish the story knowing where I was going.  Despite our conflicting endings and my exasperation at times to “Just go to sleep!” my boys loved ‘made-up story time.’  It has been a revelation to me as I was always told that I was rather boring and unoriginal, gullible and uncreative.  Parenting sure does salve old wounds and old insults.

Of course, there were times when a story got repeated.  The taming of the dragon and saving a town got lots and lots of replay.  The one that got the most replay though was the stories of each of my children’s births.  My first born had a rather dramatic coming into the world and he insists on hearing it far more often than my little guy.  True to form, like all children, they never tire of hearing how important, delightful, hard, dramatic and wonderful their arrival into our family was.

One night, my wise big boy asked me my birth story.  I was dumbstruck.  He had known my Umma and knew she was the woman who gave birth to me.  And he knows I am adopted and have someone else I called “Mom.”  But I could not share with him my birth story.  I don’t actually know it.  It has never occurred to me to ask my Umma.  I would like to say that it was out of protection of breaking an old wound, but I believe the wound is mine, not hers.  I am sure as a mother, she would love to share any dramatic moments of my arrival, but I don’t think I am ready to hear it still.

Instead, I decided to make up my fantasy adoption story.  This is pure fantasy in so many ways, but I know it is a growing reality for many younger adoptees.  I am glad of that.  So, here goes my made-up, fantasy, once upon a time….

Once there was a little girl who came from a far away land.  She loved this land for all it’s smells, music and dancing.  But the little girl wanted very much to be with a family, a mommy and daddy she could call hers forever.

One day, she got on a very big airplane all by herself and landed in a land that she never heard of before.  Standing before her was a man and a lady who said they were her new mommy and daddy and they would be a family forever.  And the little girl was very happy.

But at night, the little girl would cry when she thought of that far away land.  She missed her friends, the smells, the music and most of all the beautiful dancing.  And the little girl was very sad.

Time passed and the little girl soon forgot her far away land and her memories were replaced with new smells, new music and new dancing.  And the little girl was very happy.

Soon, the little girl grew up and she was a lady herself.  She thought of that land far away and wondered if it was still there.  So, she got on a very big airplane all by herself again.  When she arrived, the young girl was welcomed by the wonderful smells, music and dancing she remembered from long ago.  At night, the young girl would cry because she forgot so much of her far away land and she wondered if it was all a dream.  And the young girl was very sad.

Time passed though and slowly the smells began to water her tongue, the sounds again beat in her heart and the dancing would thump through her body like a beautiful full drum.  And the young girl was very happy.

But at night, when she was trying to sleep, she missed the smell of her mommy and the musical sounds of her daddy.  And the young girl was very sad.

So, the young girl decided to return home to share her story with her mommy and daddy.  Her mommy and daddy were so glad to have her home again and hear of her adventures.  And the young girl was very happy.

More Stars

As the last post of 2011, it is befitting that it be about the last days with my Umma in America.   So, here goes:

I have begun to tell the boys of the imminent departure of their grandma and uncle and I am overwhelmed with P’s reaction.  He has been very sad and tearful and today he saw my Umma packing one of her bags.  In the process of unwrapping things out of their boxes to make them fit into the suitcase, there was a lone paper star that fell off a holiday bag.  To digress for a moment, there is a tradition at our church that during the Christmas Eve service, we sing carols and during each song, people go up and bring a paper ornament to decorate the naked tree up at the altar.  An angel for “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, a bell for “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” – you get the point.  My favorite is the star to be sung with “Oh Holy Night”, it is the sweetest song and the music fills me to tears every time.  My Umma took a star and then told me that when she was pregnant with me, her conception dream was of stars, milliions that shown in the sky and she grabbed one for herself and put it in her pocket.  She loves stars and it seems to be a sign for me in her heart. I have been thinking about this moment for a while now, it is beautiful and sad and lovely all at the same time.  Perhaps she was always meant to gaze at me from afar. 

So, P picked up the paper star and stuck it on the window and said, “when I look at the star I will think of grandma and uncle…I wish I had more to put on the window.”  I translated that for my Umma and she smiled and told him she loved him and gave him a kiss (which he did not wipe off his face).  A beautiful quiet moment for the three of us. He does not want them to go but assurances that we will see them again, seemed to prevent him from crying.  

The aftershocks of this visit has been most profound in my relationship with my Korean Mother-In-Law.  It would be an understatement to say that she and I have had a rough road.  Getting to accept her form of mothering has been hard.  These recent months she has seen me more vulnerable and has been generous with her compliments on my diligence.  High praise indeed.  My MIL has been amazing.  Of all the “mothers” I have, I am struck by how much she has shown compassion, understanding and love toward me.  Like her tiger sign, she has been protective of me and has offered some really nice perspective.  She has been somewhat bemused at the many misunderstandings I have had with Umma, but this time she was insistent that I listen in a different way.  She said that I need to tell her how I feel.  I insisted that I have tried to which she persisted, “do it again.  She needs to hear your heart.”  She said I have not really said how I FEEL about HER, how I feel about her being in my life.  Instead, I kept saying how grateful I SHOULD feel knowing other adoptees would kill for a chance like mine.  She then said that my Umma needs forgiveness from me.  I need to say those words out loud, in English, it doesn’t matter how.  It needs to be said for her but mostly for me.  Food for thought. 

It occurred to me that I have not really told her that she was forgiven.  I have told her to not worry about me, that I have a good life now, that I am ok and that there is nothing to forgive.  But indeed I do need to forgive her as clearly as there is anger prominently perched on my chest.  I do need to say “I forgive you”.  I have never said it.  I am finding it hard to do it in English or Korean.  Perhaps that is the sticking point then through all of this and I am not sure if I can.  I asked my MIL to say it for me, to translate it so that Umma can understand, and she said she would not, it has to come from me directly.  She is right.  I have a task to do and I need to muster up the courage to do it.  It is a whole lot harder than I thought.  Forgive her.

I bought a Korean-English dictionary prior to their visit and it has served me well if only to show my Umma the word “forgive.”  She said it outloud and quietly hung her head.  This small gesture seemed to be just the thing to thaw my heart.  Is this what healing looks like?  I am not sure she was ready to be forgiven, or perhaps like her daughter, she didn’t feel that this needed to be said?   She commented on how hard this has been and I didn’t disagree as a polite Korean would have done, I just said, “yes it was, but I want you to go home with happy thoughts and peacefulness.”  And that was that.  It wasn’t done with a whole lot of grace standing there in my kitchen in my pajamas but it’s done.  I meant what I said in my head and someday I will mean it in my heart.

I helped my Umma pack and George laughed and remarked that this has been the longest stretch of time and conversation I have had with her since she got here.  I know! It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.  My heart was a bit heavy.

The day of their departure came and for a few scary hours I thought it would not happen.  A huge snowstorm swept China, Korea and Japan.  No matter, they are on their way and I am home.  It was not hard to say goodbye to my Umma, honestly it wasn’t.  We seem to have been getting along nicer as this time drew near, so I am at peace with how it all went down.  My brother on the other hand, I didn’t want to let him go.  He gave me the biggest hug and I wanted time to stand still.  I am so grateful for him and so happy we got to spend time together.

I am free now.  I did it!  My tiny home feels suddenly huge!  The boxes of toys have been shifted around and the extra blankets and pillows stowed away and I feel grand.  I felt like taking jetes around the room!  It was all bittersweet though as my children ran around saying, “goodnight haemi (grandma) and samcheon (uncle)!”  as they have for the last 90 days of their lives.  It felt like always for them and so my P was teary.  BUT, my G, little stinker stayed true to his feelings.  I asked him if he was sad that they were gone and he looked me dead in the eyes and shook his head.  Brutal but so true….I just had to smile.  I am guessing they will like Mommy a whole lot more now that she may be less crabby.

The End…for now.

I wanted to write this blog for the sole purpose of getting this part of my life out there for others who may be in my shoes.  I am grateful to those who have continued to read.  The thought of living with birth family was never a fantasy of mine, it was never a wish.  Now that it has happened, I feel stronger for it.  As adults, we choose the people we want to share our love with, and our birthmothers are no different.  I could so easily just step away and barely stay in touch.  I could live my busy life without a thought to her and her well-being.  But every time I look in the mirror, I see her.  Seeing her has allowed me to see me.  She remains in my consciousness and I find myself still tethered to the idea that we could be more.

I wish you all a wonderful Holiday Season and send you best wishes for the New Year.  For my fellow adoptees, I wish for you a beautiful 2012 filled with many chosen memories.


I am going away for the Holiday break and don’t plan on writing till 2012

In thinking about the Holidays, I am remembering my one and only Christmas with my Umma and brother.  Here were my words at the time:
Christmas came and things went pretty much as I hoped and my heart is full knowing that we got to celebrate such a big holiday as a family.  Not that it was easy, my Umma insisted on going to church on Christmas day, causing a small rupture of chaos in me.  She had to be pushed with a temper tantrum on my part to persuade her to come to Christmas dinner at my in-laws.  They came to the Christmas pageant and got to see the boys in their comedic splendor.  Alas, they both sat stonefaced much to my chagrin and frustration.  They came to Christmas Eve service, which is my favorite of the year and my brother insisted on sitting behind the rest of the family, really?  What was that all about?  Still, I can honestly say Christmas was great.

Each week, I come up with new realizations usually in the form of criticisms, but I guess that is yet another privilege in this new mother-daughter thing I am having.  My Umma has a childlike way of being.  She lights up when I give her clothes that don’t fit me, she lights up when she gets something special to eat….sense a pattern?  I have no courage to ask her for anything.  The few times I have intimated, I have been perplexed at the lack of response.  I told her how much I like certain Korean foods, she still has cooked nothing in the way of a meal for me or my family.  Even when we are eating, I have seen Korean mothers fuss over the dishes to move their child’s favorite dish closer to them and insist on eating more and more.  She does none of that for me, though plenty for my brother.  She continues to only talk to him and send him to me when she wants something.  Where is all that Korean/Asian hospitality that I hear so much about?  I see the way she mothers my brother, it’s instinctual, immediate.  Not towards me though.  I am disheartened that she continues to skulk and scurry around me like a little mouse and speak in whispers.  She rarely says anything to me, we walk about each other as if we are in bubbles afraid to touch in case the bubble bursts.

All this time I thought it was just me who was uncomfortable around her but I do believe it is mutual.  Since she never got beyond the first meet in her head, this relationship is beyond her imagination.  She can’t seem to move.  She is stuck and sticking to her story, the only one she really had all this time.  She says to anyone who will listen how sorry she is and how she has so much remorse.  For 15 years she has been outwardly sorry.  It feels tired and I am not sure how much more I can tolerate.  I can’t make her feel better but I can’t make myself want to make it easy for her either.  I have given away my love and loyalty too easily in my life, and the one time it should matter most, I am standing firm to not to.  The one thing I wanted out of this visit was to still like her, I fear that is waning.

I am just counting the days and hours till their departure.  One more week and then they are gone.  I realize though that in my backwards happiness, my children are sad to see them go.  P teared up as he learned that this is their last week and he does not want to see them go.  My Umma and brother have been here for so long that in his mind, this is normal and should continue just as it is.  In my elation to see them leave, I hope I can muster up a somber face as they depart.  Terrible, but true.

Having had some separation from these feelings, I am struck by how angry and hurt I continued to feel.  It is suffocating readingthese words again.  How different it is now that she is not in my space.  I have called her more times these last few months than all the years I have known her collectively.  I finally got an international calling plan, the final commitment to staying connected to Umma.  Getting calling cards was the last of the walls I created for myself to keep her at bay.  I can call her now anytime, morning, night and twice in one day if I want.  I don’t, but knowing I can is comforting. I sent a package of slippers for her and boots for my brother.  Korean folklore is that you never buy someone shoes…and if you do, they give you a dollar.  Something about the recipient walking all over you or out of your life.  I just like buying Umma footwear because I love that we have the same size feet.  I don’t think she will be walking away from me anytime soon.

Thanksgiving revisited

I had been writing alot about the visit/stay of my birthmother and brother and quite frankly got depressed continuing the saga as there seemed to be little let up of the anger, resentment and confusion infused throughout the rest of the time they were here.  There was an end to it, if only because they simply left and are not in my presence. But Thanksgiving is tomorrow and this time two years ago was a watershed moment for me and the truth of my feelings about how I internalized my adoption story.  Partly out of protection, partly out of self-preservation, I never really allowed myself to express the anger I felt about being adopted, abaondoned and the pain that arose from blending all my identities.  I am one who always wants to take the high road and go through difficulty with grace and decorum.  The wrath was intense and my Umma got the brunt of it.

Here is how it went down.  The holiday season began with a couple of “come to Jesus” moments.  Weary of saying how tough this journey had been, I found that I was discovering a whole new vocabulary to describe the breadth of emotions that goes into conducting a tour of visitation like this.

I have been known by those very close to me to have a very long fuse.  Well, my fuse burst the day before Thanksgiving lending me to feel most unthankful at the most inopportune time.  I think it was a combination of being exhausted and feeling taken advantage of by my guests.  Eight weeks in, cooking, working, taking care of two toddlers and constantly worrying about what to do for my houseguests, I felt strung out, wrung out.  I was making apple pies and told my Umma to leave the apples only to find them all cut up and going brown after putting the children to bed.  Apple pie.  Seriously not a huge infraction, but she didn’t listen to me and didn’t cut them the way I wanted them to be cut.  Not only had I asked her not to touch them, I said it in Korean certain she understood.  I burst out in sheer anger in a way I hope never to repeat.  What started as a misunderstanding, a desire to be helfpul ended with me yelling hysterically, I was viscerally shaken inside and my anger scared me.  Those apples represented to me the chasm of difference between her and me.  Apple pie was a part of my past, part of my adoptive family’s traditions and something I did alone to cherish those memories.  Her desire to help amplified that we were just not the same.  I have no shared history with her and thus everything I was reacting to was a reaction with no perspective.

The tirade unleased the filing cabinet of woes and ultimately was my first and only time opening up to my brother and Umma on how it felt to grow up here, with a family that I wished would have showed me more love and security and the embarrassing confession that I had been emotionally on my own.  I looked at my Umma and my brother with my hands empty trying hard to express how barren I was feeling.

I was told that I needed to express how much I was hurting inside.  I was told to a certain extent that my Umma was prepared for this and that she knew she needed to hear some of it.  But I don’t think this was even in the realm of possibility of comprehension for my Umma.  She didn’t leave her “room” for two days and sent my brother to do her bidding and talking.  Seeing a grown Korean man cry was tough and I was bitter that his tears were not for himself so much as it was for the two women in his life – Umma and me.  I felt bad he got the brunt of it and grateful he stood firm listening to my rant.  Afterwards, there was no apology, only an explanation that she is Korean and therefore not demonstrative of her emotions especially when it comes to love and concern.  Really, the culture card was going to be used now?  Bullshit, I knew she was capable.  During our scant visits whenever I went to Korea, she was very demonstrative, smiling, animated.  I did not see that woman here during this visit.  Did our meager situation surprise her, was she disappointed?  Was she embarrassed that she had envisioned living in the lap of luxury coming to America?  Was she sad that I didn’t have the easy breazy life that people usually think of when they think of Americans?  I will never know.  She said nothing, but cried and cried.  I didn’t want to unleash, I didn’t want to be the one to throw out the reality check that not all adoptees live the dream life they were supposed to have.  I didn’t want to be the example of success hard earned and happiness gained only after a ton of hard work.  I was proud of myself for being able to say what I did but wished there was another way, without the ugly cry.  And there in lies the mother of all misunderstandings.  The only thing she said was really the most profound truth of all…”I never thought about how you lived here, I never thought about whether you were happy, sad, doing well…I only wanted to find you.  I only thought about the day I would see you again.”  Point. Blank. Period.

All this time, I was hoping she would care about what the last 30+ years were like for me.  I was waiting for curiosity, detailed questions, an inquisition of how I became the person that I am.  Mismatched expectations leads to failure in a relationship, I should have known better.

Two years after this moment, I am not any better at loving my Umma.  We have an understanding though.  We move on from this moment forward.  We live in the present, through the eyes of my children and my grown up self.  She isn’t the mother of my past wishes, but the mother of the here and now.  She prays for me and thinks of me every day.  She can now close her eyes and envision what I am doing day to day and that brings her comfort.  She waits for my phone calls and is surprised happy to hear from me every time.  Until we see each other again, time stands still a bit.  This time, I am ok with that.

This Thanksgiving feels like the usual traditional one that I have had since I got married.  Turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, pie…kalbi jhim, kimchee, hobak juk, dduk and pears.  Perfect, predictable, comfortable.

Wanting to end this on a funny note…here are two photos that so beautifully represent me.  Ironically, they were taken at the same store.  Yes!  There is a place for us betweeners:


Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

To send or not to send?

What’s wrong with me?  I just packed up five bags of clothes, toys and books to donate.  I just sent off two boxes of bags to a child welfare agency so that children won’t be putting their belongings in a plastic garbage bag.  I would think nothing of giving money or expensive gifts to friends.  I can’t say no to any request my sisters make and for that matter my children too.  What is misfiring in my heart that I struggle with how much to send to Korea to my Umma and brother?  Why can’t I happily send money their way knowing they need it and are too proud to ask.  Why do I get frustrated that my brother is without a job yet again?  Why do I get aggravated that my Umma puts on a cheery voice of “don’t worry!”

To send or not?  How much?  How much is too much?  Is it insulting?  Why is it?

I am fortunate to have birthfamily who make zero demands on me, my time or my finances.  They never make the first move, always waiting to hear from me.  Most of the time, I am ok with it, but today, I am frustrated.  My brother has lost his jobs and their situation has little improved.  So, I am sending money, with the committment to send each month.  It is the only way I know how to stay connected at this point.  To think of them through this action is my only way of staying in their lives.

My friend is helping me translate a letter to them.  Always hard to have this conversation.  She and I are not on the same page.  “You never lived with them….if you were a millionaire then ok, but this is too much.”  What am I starting here?

I need to do this.  I can’t sleep if I don’t.  I am getting on the slippery slope but what else can I do?

Picking my head up….

Hello?  Still here.  It has been too long since my last posting.  I am most grateful for the messages I have received this past week from strangers who have taken comfort from my words.  Having that sense of connection has been the single best gift this blog has given me.  So, here I am, poised to do more.

Why so quiet?  Perhaps it’s because I am a year older again! Perhaps the change in weather.  Perhaps it is because I have gotten lost in the world of Korean dramas and find my heart missing and longing for another way of life right now.  Perhaps the duties and obligations of volunteering for the PTA has gotten me so aggravated that I can’t look at the computer.  I don’t know, but I was in a funk and who wants to read yet another diatribe of angst from a middle aged adoptee?

My brain has been foggy though and I am not one to put something out there if it doesn’t have some order in it.  My conclusion is that I miss my Umma and especially my brother.  It has been two years now since Umma has been here.  Since then, our lodging situation has changed and I keep looking at this place thinking it would have been so much easier if we lived here back then.  We would have had more space to move around and I would not have felt so stifled.  I looked at my three piles of laundry waiting for me and find myself thinking if she was here, my space would not be in such disarray.  I know when I am too busy when things stay on the floor past their requisite 24 hours.  I am not sure if I miss her, but I am missing having a mother to worry about me and to keep tabs on my well being.  I hate the way Koreans make blunt observations and feel the necessity to say it out loud, but I feel a need for it right now.  That stream of consciousness dictating my pulse.

There is this belief that when you hit 30 you are really an adult, whereby the wrongs and injustices of your childhood is no longer squarely on the shoulders of your parents, but have made their way onto you to make with it as you see fit.  There comes a time when you can’t keep looking behind you to blame for your being stuck, being angry, being hurt and being childish.  I felt so liberated when I hit 30.  I was no longer in charge of my sisters, I was thinking marriage, I had a career and I paid for everything all by myself.  I could come and go with no one to account for.  But, now in my 40s, I am dumbstruck by my simple childish desire to still be mothered.

It is a complete pipedream.  I am terrible at being mothered.  My skin nearly begins to crawl thinking about this fantasy.  I am a nurturer, the mother.  My supervisor loving reminds me, “mothering oozes out of every pore of your body.”  But this past week, I was tired and weary of standing up with arms outstretched to comfort someone else.  I wanted it to be my turn.

Perhaps life is too good now.  I have the luxury of wishing such a wish.  All basic necessities of life are mine and so I want more.

I spent yesterday with two old and marvelous sister-friends – adoptees, Korean, mothers.  We don’t talk about much in great detail about anything, but it felt so comfortable to be with them over kimpap, fried chicken and a Hite.  Our kids are growing up and while they don’t see each other often, I was struck by how nice it was to see them all play together, no squabbles, no tears.  We are all Aunties to them.  They have more mothers in their lives than the three of us put together.  Perhaps they sense the loveliness of this family connection.  I am relieved for them and bit wistful for me.

What’s an adoptee to think?

I never watch adult TV during the day anymore.  Two small kids home for the summer, it’s been mostly Phineas and Ferb.  Today, I had to be up and out early to do a workshop for a culture camp nearby.  The parents get together the day before pick up and they get people like to come in and get them thinking and talking about race, identity, adoption, family, etc.  I was pleased to be there, but sad to realize that once again, preaching to the converted.

This morning, I got to see five minutes of Good Morning America and about three minutes of the Today Show.  Both shows had something about adoption at the exact point I tuned in.  What’s the likeliood of that ever happening?  First story, the now infamous “Hot Sauce Mom” – Alaskan mother using hot sauce and cold showers to discipline her child adopted from Russia.  The second story, a birthfather fighting for custody of his child who was allegedly relinquished by his girlfriend to a family in Utah

I admit it, the sound of adoption gets my juices going.  I can’t help it, occupational hazard.  I HAVE to watch.  I know, that these are the few and in-between cases., but these stories burned me up and the emails went flying to my “List” buddies.  First thought, of course it has to be a negative adoptiopn story.  No one ever hears about all the good things that happen in an adoptive family, how adoption is a wonderful thing.  Wait, yes we do!  And I admit, those stories get me all riled up too.  So, what’s my problem?  Why am I ready to rain on someone’s parade the minute another happy parent adopts a child?  Why do I question the legitimacy of it and whether it was handled ethically?  Why do I get so angry to hear yet another child hurt by the adoption process and look for someone to blame?  Why does it matter so much that the media get the terminology right, that they portray it “fairly” and accurately?  Why do I question the “experts” that get on the shows to make commentary?  Who the hell am I?

I don’t know the answer exactly, but I know I am not the only one.  I take it heart when a child gets hurt, used, abused, exploited, idiolized.  Perhaps the reality that to adopt is so purposeful I am repeatedly heartbroken when it goes all wrong or portrayed inaccurately.  At the most crucial points in a child’s life, he/she depended on an adult to make the right decision, the best decision, and to know that person failed brings out the very worst in me.

So why am I posting these stories?  Cautionary tales?  Food for thought?  Call for change?  All of the above.

November…six weeks into the visit…trying to tamp it all down

Unique – being the only one, a being without a like or equal

I always hated this word, it is such a lonely word.  It makes one feel like an island and humans are social creatures not meant to be stand alones.   Nevertheless, I found myself in the unique position of being a being who has no like or equal again.  But watching Umma sleeping, I was startled as to how much I looked like her.  It was a mirror into my future self and it took my breath away.

Nearly halfway into this visit, I have to admit, I was struggling, stifled by ugly words in my throat. I was beginning to find flaws in people who I had no right to judge.  To look at them, Umma and my brother, and wish they were more like me really was so unfair.  I was seeing them through a lens they could not conceive.  Even if I spoke to them in Korean, I don’t think they would understand.  They would feel the emotion, my anger, my sadness, my frustration but really, what could they say?

The misunderstandings were piling up.  On this day, my brother started to talk about his plan to study more Englis.  Typical doer, I took that idea and ran with it.  A simple statement of thought to come back to the US some day and improve his current station sent me on a frenzy to figure out how to get some English lessons under his belt before leaving for Korea again.  After presenting this offering to him, he shut down and said, “No, I will be fine.”  He brought a book with him (a dictionary of sorts) and simply made a promise that things will be different when he returns to Korea.  My first thought? Bullshit.  I knew that wouldn’t happen.  I pressed him.  He was in America and should take advantage of proper English classes, even if it was only a month.  I was pushing him to consider this as an opportunity.  He said no.  He didn’t want me to pay for classes, he was fine.  I was angry at his pride and took it as lack of motivation.  From that lens I began judging and it was not pretty.  Every day our mornings began with emails from his friends complaining of no work.  Finally after days of this, I asked him if there wasn’t any other job they can do – grocery shop clerk, taxi driver, delivery man…he pondered and said nothing.  I pushed again – surely there was a job somewhere.  If construction was not providing it, there had to be something else.  No response.  He will worry about that when he goes back.  In my mind, that was imminent.  If it was a difference between zero dollars or ten dollars, then why wouldn’t you try for ten?  Any job?  My frustration mounted and silence deepened.  We are at an impasse.  I was beginning to sound so very American in my ‘can do’ attitude.  Obnoxious really.

My only soundboard was George.  He is not a man of many words, but when he speaks, it is worth listening to.  He put things into perspective for me, my brother’s perspective.  Right then, all my brother could see was that I was the lucky one, the one who got out.  Motivation was a luxury.  My brother grew up with nothing and probably a crappy family.  Really, I have no idea what sort of a mother Umma was to him.  He grew up in an abusive home.  His father beat both of them.  He grew up with a shell of a mother and an angry absent father.  And then it hit me, I could have grown up there.

Again with the “what if.”  If I went back to my birthmother, I could have been raised by my brother’s father, an abusive, harsh man.  He would have been my stepfather.  I would not have had a college education.  I would probably have married an abuser…the statistics prove that.  I would probably still be me and busting my ass to work and make ends meet.  In minutes George was able to put such a real life in front of me, I saw it all.  I tried to imagine what it would be like to be hit hard.  I couldn’t do it, it wasn’t like a spanking a child gets as discipline.  I wondered for a few more seconds who I would be not knowing all that I was right then.  I couldn’t do it.  It was completely alien to me.  So, I let it go.  I stopped pushing.  But it was eating me inside.

What had not changed in all the weeks they were here was that I was still the third wheel.  I was still an outsider.  Umma and my brother had a relationship, a meaningful one, they were a family of two.  I was still not included in their conversations.  Simple things like what I cooked for dinner was a conversation without me.  Their perception of mystery meat was contemplated between the two of them.  “It looks like fish”, “no it’s chicken”…Not a word or question to me.  They sat each and every night sullen, quiet and talking between them about the food, about the kids, about me and not one word was uttered in my direction.  And then there was the damn ketchup.  I know I should not have been insulted, but I was.  After an hour or so in the kitchen thinning cutlets, egg, flour, fry and pasta and salad…they bring out the ketchup.  Really?  Without even trying it they have deemed it inedible without that damn red stuff.  Hot sauce I didn’t mind, but the ketchup bottle pissed me off.  In my vain attempts to participate in their discussion, I just looked like a lunatic, hands flying, English splattered in to make the sentences complete gibberish.  The reminder that they didn’t understand just added fuel to my anger.  “Talk to me!” I demanded, “Don’t ask each other, talk to me, ask me…”  They looked at me with a blank stare and a pale offering that all was well.  Instead, my Umma went for a second helping of food, knowing that this would hurt her stomach.  I tried to stop her but she insisted.  Great, the martyred mother was eating her child’s food to show her love.  I can’t take it.  They were suffocating me.  I felt stifled and unable to breathe and so I withdrew…back to the quiet shell, back into that darkness that lived all my letdowns and frustrations.  I was the third wheel.  I was not her daughter or her sister.  In this place, my home, I was a meal, a warm place to sleep, someone with more than they.  They have learned nothing about me really.  Actually they probably thought I was the biggest toddler ever, temper tantrums and stomping abounding all over.  They have asked me nothing of my past, of what I think about, what my life was like.  I am struck by how much my Umma can say but she never chased it with questions of me – what are you thinking, how are you dealing.  I just got statements – if you are happy I am, aigooo life is so hard for you, you are so busy…she has offered nothing, not even herself.

I wrote these words late one night.  At my darkest hour, halfway through thier visit, I was mourning.  The mother I wanted did not exist.  It is laughable at the very notion that anyone gets what they want.  But this want of mine, this want of a mother figure who got me, who would TALK to me, who would give and take from me….did not exist.  In my frustrated silence and growing aloneness, I was back to that five year old child waiting to hear a mother’s call and feel safe.  These middle weeks were filled with flashbacks of the most visceral kind.  I found my outreached hand that quickened when my Umma came close, to keep her at bay, a startling reaction.  I found myself in tears of wonder as to how much love could one offer with the painful knowledge that grown ups can truly leave a child behind and never look back.  I was brewing a resentment toward Umma.  I was feeling indignant that her statements of love were not enough for me.

Time kept marching on though.  And with each week ticking by, I was beginning to learn that this journey had become less about my Umma and me getting along and more about me feeling things I never allowed myself to feel, giving them air to explode and letting go.  Every time my Umma looked at me, I saw the love there, the yearning.  I continued to feel as if my skin was inside out but the wincing had stopped.

Always resourceful, Umma and I met with an old friend who Umma met over ten years ago.  Kay was a translator on a tour with me and she was the one who gave me the first interpretation of my story.  (Just an aside, Kay too was divorced and lost her sons for over 17 years as they went to her ex-husband.  She reunited with them and shared candidly how challenging that reunion was and continued to be.  She had a special empathy for my Umma.)  At this meeting my friend Kay reiterated how happy Umma truly was to see me, the life I created and my little family.  She only came to the US to see for herself, to see her daughter.  I began to accept that this was really her singular agenda.  I was becoming less incredulous at the sheer simplicity of it.  Kay allowed me too the space to explain some of my thoughts.  I finally told her that I never expected to have her here for three months.  Looking back, it went quickly, but then, it was too much.  I also shared my struggle with reconciling the time warp we were experiencing.  I had been on this journey relatively alone so now to hear Umma talk to me and express love felt like an intrusion.  I shared how much it unnerved me that they just sat in my apartment all day and did nothing.  I was troubled by their presumed boredom and wanted to fix it.  Alas, from their eyes, they were on holiday and perfectly content and were amused by my constant motion.  A much needed laughable moment.

And so, I began to just live my life with silent witnesses observing my every step.  I took Umma and my brother to work with me, a conference at NYU where I was presenting.  They got to see me working, happy and in my element.  At days end my Umma said she was proud of me.  I never heard that growing up and in just six short weeks, I heard it gushing from Umma with every nerve and muscle in her face.  This time I was unnerved but in a good way.