Saturday, November 21, 2015

Korea: The Deep Sigh of Relief at the Border

In 1995, my husband and I moved to Rwanda, just one year after the genocide that took more than 800,000 lives in 100 days. We arrived to find shards of glass on the walls of our compound and metal gates with gatekeepers. It was a country still in conflict.

Expatriates were advised to take R&R frequently. I was naive and visibly shaken all the time. Every stream or stairwell had my mind racing with dead bodies and floating limbs. I could not shut the memories of the loss that played out on every face I met.

In those days, our place of respite was Uganda. After going through all the roadblocks with machine-gun totting teenage boys rifling through our washbags, we would finally cross the border where we drove on the left and let out an audible S-I-G-H of relief. Every muscle in my body would relax.

Today in Seoul, I feel the same stress taking hold of my body and squeezing me tightly. Just walking down the street can be stressful. Seoul is certainly not dangerous, but the trauma of original family loss is the same as a death.

Top this with the language barrier and the connection with single mothers and mothers of loss, and the tension in my body becomes so tightly wound.

In October, after six weeks in Seoul, we took a much needed R&R to the southern tip of South Korea, an area called Namhae. After a long car journey, we settled with our three kitties in the hotel. We explored the Buddhist Temple and the serene mountains which reminded me of my life in the Appalachia. I felt at peace again. When I find that peace within myself, the sweet yielding to my fate and acceptance of the known facts veils my anxiety.

I stood outside of the Boriam Temple, gazing in. The people in the temple were at peace, quiet and reflective. I entered the area where you take off your shoes, but I stopped there. I yearned to enter, but I felt paralyzed by my guilt. Once again, I was reminded that I was an outsider, no longer connected to a faith that may have been my own.

I stepped outside and took this image … a shadow of myself looking in and wishing to be a soul on the wall.

No one wanted to leave once our three days were up. I had made the audible S-I-G-H as we left the city limits of Seoul. Crossing over again, meant that I would tense up … my irrational Mom outbursts and control issues would return. The triggering faces and crowds of Seoul would once again hit me head on.

Since returning, I am tighter than ever. I visited my adoption agency, but that experience will need to wait for another post. I do not have the energy to address that.

This week, we celebrate the one American holiday I love … Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving means a homecoming, much like Chuseok here in Korea. My home is ambiguous. What made “home” was my mother, father and grandparents; they are no longer living. My kids now love the holiday for their father’s roast dinners, but here in Korea we only have a microwave.

So, our family is heading to Japan for Thanksgiving. Japan is where my parents lived when the plane from Korea brought me to them on a chilly day in December. Japan holds the loss of my parents’ first born, stillborn son and the beginning of my life as a puertorriqueña. Japan revived my parents’ marriage in the wake of my father’s lost son.

I am looking forward to that deep S-I-G-H as our plane lands.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Korea: Marriage, White Privilege and Bullies

Marriage is hard. It’s exhilarating at first; then the relationship slides into routine. Add children, and it shifts from the couple to the kids.

As an adoptee, this is bliss until the moment you realize you have some deep-seeded racial identity issues. It isn’t that I didn’t know I had them, I knew I wanted to be white. But I never felt strong enough to speak for myself, so I stayed silent, dated only white guys and you know the rest of that story.

The strength in our marriage is that we are able to adapt and learn. Sometimes, the learning is hard for both of us, as we learn that we are the two extremes that play out in our children. Many times, I get frustrated and angry without explaining why. That is truly tough on my husband.

Monday, he took the day off so that we could take a much needed family break at Lotte World Adventure, “the largest indoor amusement park in the world.” There was joy and excitement. We were taking selfies and “wrecking noobs.”

No one spoke English, and we often wandered around not really knowing what to do. Of course, as usual, when we tried speaking or ordering, the cashier would always look to me and talk to me in Korean. Then, my sheepish voice would reveal that I was an American. That’s a running theme here … Korean women speaking for the family as a whole. But my voice is again silenced in that role.

My husband can speak English, and Koreans rush to help him and find translation. Or they just throw up their hands and make a face.

Two distinct things happened to us that day. We learned about white privilege in Korea, and how it isn’t the same as just plain bullying.

The first incident happened as we waited to give one another whiplash on the bumper cars. As we inched up to the front of the line, the ticket woman asked us how many we had in our party. My husband held up his four fingers. She counted and allowed the two women behind me to enter and take the last two remaining cars. This, of course, sparked our families competitive side.

We watched for the fastest, most responsive cars and yelled out to one another what car we were eyeing. It was sheer family fun! As the last group cleared the track, my husband, son and daughter began to rush toward the cars, but the ticket taker stopped me at the gate and asked for my ticket. She hadn’t asked my husband for his ticket, and my ticket was in my husband’s pocket.

I called his name once, louder a second time and then I shouted his name in panic the third time, telling him I needed my ticket. He was trying to seat himself in his car, so he was a bit perturbed that I had yelled at him. He showed my ticket, and I was allowed to enter the arena.

My head was spinning. “Hadn’t she just a few minutes before counted us as a party of four? And why would she separate me from my family?” I felt stupid and less than. Once we got off the ride, my daughter sulked saying she was embarrassed by what had happened … Mom yelled and Dad was visibly irritated.

I apologized, and we moved on to our next adventure. But as we waited again for the next ride, we had the same thing happen. This ride took families, so we were once again counted. When my husband gave the young woman our four tickets, she questioned where the fourth person was, and my husband had to point out that I was his wife.

There are many things I have tried to rationalize … “maybe the Korean women hold the tickets, maybe my kids look more like my husband and less like me, maybe I just do not look like I belong in my family.”

As we took off in our fake hot air balloon, I let my family know how I was feeling. This second time, they came to the realization that I was indeed not seen as part of our family. I was othered, and it stung just as it always does.

In the old days, when I spoke to adoptive parents and social workers, I advised them to make sure they had put themselves in a situation where they were the minority. But that day, I realized that even if a white person is the minority, he or she still holds white privilege and is afforded things based on that role in our world. 

When my husband and I lived in Rwanda, we were in the minority, but he was viewed as superior, and I was inappropriately touched and questioned by teenage soldiers. As a Korean woman, I feel less than no matter where I am. Most times, I am a lone Asian woman, so there are no allies. In my aloneness, I am quiet and try to blend into the background.

Having said this, I want to tell you what happened next. Our last ride was a Magic Pass ride, so we we were able to miss some of the queuing. Once we got to the final part of the line, I noticed two teen boys behind us staring at my son and making rude gestures about him. They were looking at my son, making faces and laughing. When I realized what was happening, I began to stare at them with disdain. They noticed my stare and began to hide behind others in line between us.

Feeling that I had stopped it before my son noticed, I moved my gaze to the front of the line. Here I witnessed a group of eight teenage boys. The most attractive one wore a white shirt and a Kpop hairdo. He was making fun of my husband’s nose. Using his hands, he acted as though he had a large nose and made odd gestures with his eyes too. The other seven laughed and looked back at my family.

Again, I stared at them, showing my disgust. They, too, looked away and hid. They would quickly glance to see if I was still there, and my laser gaze met theirs. I wanted them to feel ashamed and scorned. I whispered to my husband that this was happening so that he could stare at the eight in front of us, and I could stare at the two behind.

Once that ride was over, so was I. We left Lotte World and moved to our favorite restaurant. We arrived to the cheerful staff who always serve us. They were chatty and friendly. Dinner time is our family time to discuss our day. My husband opened with discussion about the eight boys. He asked me if I wanted to tell the story.

But I began with the story of the two boys. My husband asked why I started with that story, but I felt our son needed to know he was being targeted as much as he needed to know that his father was targeted too. You see, in my mind, these were not instances of racism against my husband as a white man, but instances of bullying. The boys would make fun of anything different, and it wasn’t based on a power structure.

My kids understand so much already about racism and bullies, it seems fair they know the full story. They see their parents disagree, discuss and assess together. It isn’t always pretty, but they know we love one another and that disagreements are not cause for divorce in our family. There is respect. While it may take us time to fully understand, we work to see the other’s side.

We have a few more months here in Korea. I doubt this will be the last day we will need to detox, but boy, was it a doozy.

Friday, November 6, 2015

“I am done with crying … ”

Since the death of my father, my shell has hardened. There are few things that make me cry …

My children have seen me cry so few times, that when I cry, it terrifies them. I broke down the first week we moved to Seoul, but not necessarily because of sadness. My tears flow because of hurt. I have explained to them, that meetings with agencies will NOT bring tears. Tears here are reserved for those I love. Tears are for the lost connections.

Last night, I attended the puppetry artistic performance, “Untold Story,” about an adoptee named David. There were three very beautifully crafted puppets for the toddler David, the teen David and the grown man David. Five actors of the Pangaea Arts worked the stage, the puppets and acted scenes in David’s life.

Each scene plucked a memory from my mind. The most poignant “core memory” was the airplane ride back to Korea as an adult. All the things that David experienced, I lived and relived and continue to relive as I walk the streets of Korea.

The complexities of adoption played beautifully as though I were watching scenes from my own life … the tenderness and wanting of the adoptive family, the scenes of teasing, the isolation amidst so much love. All these scenes added to my quilt of comfort, another layer in the adoptee community.

After the performance, Pangaea Arts invited the KoRoot group back to the dressing room to see the puppets. There was joy and excitement to see the puppets.

But then, the performance group asked us for our feedback. They wanted specifics of how we, as adoptees, felt. Moments like this are often few online, so I am always taken by surprise when someone who isn’t an adoptee wants to know my opinion!

One person in our group, of whom I had never met and who spoke Korean, spoke up. She had cried and embraced the life-sized David. I felt for her and fought my physiological urges to cry. But then, as someone translated, I sobbed.

Her words were the words I needed to hear from someone all my 48 years. She said she had given her baby boy to my adoption agency, and she had been searching for him. He is currently 26 years old. As my agency has blocked me, it has blocked her from connecting with an adult son.

She shook as she told how she had been told her son would “have a better life” and that she had believed this for so many years, yet the scenes of bullying and the ever present “Where are you from?” question broke her. She never wanted her son to feel disconnected from her and his country. She never wanted him to feel the pain adoptees express. She said she would “have this hole in her heart” until she could see him again.

I moved closer to her and had Pastor Kim translate. I told her that her strength in this situation would be passed to this son. That we, adoptees, are looking for our mothers and have never forgotten them. I also told her how I wished she were my mother. We embraced and cried together.

As I left the theatre, I was angry with myself at first for crying and I muttered, “I don’t usually lose my shit in public, unless I am angry.”

Tears are not shit. Tears are more valuable. Tears mean we feel. Tears mean we care. Tears mean we are connected.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Once you know, you cannot unknow.

I sit in our small apartment in Korea … my shoulders tense.

Each walk outside our door brings me deep anxiety. Lately, I have reflected on the days when I began my blog. Those were the salad days … the sunny, joyful days. I began this blog in 2007, six years after my mother’s death. I had always meant to write a book to tell about my experiences growing up as a Tennerican with slant eyes and chemically curled big hair.

As my life was changing from the me-focus to my children, I realized that I wanted them to know the oral stories of our family. I had written countless black journals, but who wants to comb through those? So, I decided to begin my life story in a blog. It seemed a good way to document our small family’s history … what little I knew of it.

The first three posts were picked up by my adoption agency and featured in its magazine. I was a proud “chosen” one. That was the language my family was taught to use to describe me and make me feel special.

Oh! The posts we had! So much fun and fluff! I met my two Asian friends in Virginia and wrote of the antidotes they shared with me about my Asian culture. We talked of our “Caucasian” husbands and how our children were often interchangeable.

I would continue to struggle and ask, “Who was I?” … a Tennerican, a mom to two “Hapas” but definitely not really Korean.

My blog has become a study in how one comes to terms (albeit very late in life) with the struggles of identity as an international, transracial adoptee. There have been landmarks in my later life that have influenced my thinking about who I am.

One of the first was meeting my first Korean adult adoptee … happenstance in a tiny cafe in Madison, Wisconsin. It was life-changing. I met others as well. Each one was a curiosity to me. One in particular shared so many similarities (including adoption decrees signed just days from one another). We began a quick, yet fleeting friendship.

As I limped along learning, I began to understand more fully the complexities of adoption and how it intersected with other aspects of my identity.

One evening at a Korean celebration, this Korean adoptee friend and I sat at a table with another younger, adult adoptee. There was a discussion about how a four-year-old Korean adoptee was wanting blonde hair. While I saw this as a feminist issue with a basis in the princess phase, my adoptee friend argued it was a race issue. I shared that my own daughter who had a Korean mother as a role model wanted Ariel’s red hair at age four. But my friend burst out that I was “ignorant” about adoption and my own identity issues. She angrily said, “You have only started your journey and have no idea. I will ask you when you finish your journey.”

Reflecting on that now, I realize she jolted me. Her words struck me like the cold shower on an drunk’s face. Having lost a crucial friendship that day, I sought the help of the younger adoptee to process the conversation we all had had. He introduced me to the work of Susan Harris O’Connor. Her work validated me. Her work made me more than a one-dimensional person. Another landmark passed.

Then, I became an adoptee with a mission. I wanted to help others like me, but what I didn’t realize fully was that I needed the help. I needed my eyes open; I needed an education. The beginning of this education came in the form of a panel; here I met John Raible. He encouraged pride in my narrative and in being Asian. That would be my last agency panel.

In walked the Lost Daughters. These women have seen me at my most vulnerable. They listen and reflect. They are honest and respectful. I could ask for no better support.

My work with the Lost Daughters began in the fall of 2013. This relationship has pulled me through some of my darkest moments. My search for my family began after seeing the film on Philomela Lee. I realized that searching was not solely about me as an adoptee, but also about the mothers I left behind in Korea.

This search became problematic as I petitioned for information and traveled to Korea. I have learned of the injustices adoptees face, the roadblocks by agencies, the power of the adoption industry and the deep shame in the Korean culture.

I have learned that single mothers in Korea are given a mere $59 a month while orphanages (like the Baby Box operator) receive $900 a month for each child in their care. All these things, I cannot unknow.

I can no longer be the blissful adult adoptee who only focuses on the beauty of her life with her adoptive family for somewhere one woman grieves for me on my birthday and another remembers the fleeting seven months I spent with her as my Omma.

I can no longer walk around ignoring the racism of both of my home countries for somewhere my half-brother faces racism as a half Korean-half Puerto Rican and knows little of his birthfather’s life.

I cannot forget or lie. I cannot be silent or politely hold in the frustrations I have. To care for myself and my family, I need honesty and transparency. We all deserve that faith in humanity.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Wearing Adoptee Proudly

Today, I woke from a restless night. Yesterday, I visited my adoption agency with my children. Again, we were disappointed and left with only a sliver of hope that they would look more to “see if anything in my file stood out.”

But this morning, with sleep in my eyes, I read the words of my Lost Daughter sister, Rebecca. She wrote how my pendant had given her strength and reassurance as an adoptee.

My intention in creating the Pregnant Belly Bowl and its adoptee pendants was to show the community of adoptees. All the pendants were made to be given at first to my Lost Daughters’ sisters. Each takes two hours to carve and polish, then a full day to stoke the fires of the wood kiln. Much work goes into them, but the love and work was worth it for my sisters.

I appreciate their work … their understanding … and most importantly their support when I am feeling weak.

Korea has weakened me. It did last year as I tried to come to terms with the fruitless meeting with my agency. It weakens me today as I roam the streets of Seoul as a temporary resident, a longterm tourist.

I find myself turning my pendant around to the Korean stamp side while I am here in Korea. I find that I just cannot bear to see the sorrow and shame of the viewer once they understand the written word on my pendant.

Once at a ceramics workshop in Wisconsin, a woman said to me, “I am really surprised that you would want to wear that so prominently.” I told her I was not ashamed of being an adoptee. She then said she was an adoptive parent and that the adoptees she knew tried to downplay their identity as such. Then she said something surprising. “You’re brave.”

No, I AM an adoptee.

There should be no shame in that word. It is who I am. I have been made by an original family, a foster family, my adoptive family, my spouse, my children and myself.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Korea, the force behind #FliptheScript in 2014

I have been silent on my blog for a few weeks.

In the first few weeks of our move to Seoul, I celebrated and explored the Korean culture with my small family, but as my persona moved from a tourist to a resident, my mind couldn’t keep up.

There is joy, comfort, sorrow, confusion, frustration, betrayal and anger.

I hope to write more in the coming days to properly celebrate #FliptheScript, and all it did to bolster the adoptee voice. For now, I leave you with tweets from my days …

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Korea: The next generation of women …

Since that moment, when the face in the mirror seemed that of a stranger, I had wondered from where my features came.

In walked … 23andMe. “Welcome to you,” it said. I spat like a crazy woman one morning to find out who I was. Being an unknown is highly frustrating. You’re an other, an outlier; and frankly, it sucks.


The results arrived soon there after, and I was reminded that long ago, a Chinese international, fellow grad student once told me she thought I didn’t appear Korean at all.

This all struck me as odd. Me? Equally Japanese and Korean with a dash of Chinese? Wow. Since moving to Korea, I am only beginning to fully understand the complexities of a country I thought I wanted as my own. The ever present need within me to satisfy someone else fills me with shame. I cannot nail down my identity. I need an anchor.

Around me, I have watched the younger set of adoptees embrace their original cultures. They attended culture camps, learned their native languages and visited their countries well before marriage and kids, and more have begun to find and connect with their original families. I want so much to have their confidence. They proclaim that they are American. American in Korea.

I once proclaimed I was “American.” I have since struggled with this idea and flopped between American and Korean. One minute, I will be Korean. The next, I meet a Korean man my age who tells me he has a daughter my own daughter’s age. He shows me a photograph of her; she’s sweet but looks very unsure of herself. He asks me, “Isn’t she fat? Very fat.” I am once again reminded of the false sense of beauty and the pressures on Korean women to be an ideal. Pressures are also on the men to achieve and make lots of money to snatch the ideal beauty.

These ideas have worn me down, and yet …

The strong women emerge. Our family attended the Kim Unmi Dance Company’s 70th Anniversary of Korean Independence celebration performance. Their goal? To “awaken the social consciousness.”

The performance focused on the women of Korea during the Japanese occupation. Sadness flowed in the tension between mothers and sons parting as the men were sent to fight. Mothers’ sadness was a common thread throughout.

The most profound movements of this dance were those that focused on the young women of the war. In one powerful scene, a Japanese soldier pulls white cloths that seem to symbolize the waters that flow between Japan and Korea. Each band of cloth is pulled taut so that another Japanese soldier may stand on its end and look to the shores of Korea.

Once all the soldiers are lined up at the shore, young women are seemingly pulled toward them, wrapped in the water’s white foam. They wash ashore at the soldiers feet, but the soldiers are stoic. The women writhe, struggling to break free but are wrapped in the bondage of the sea.

Image provided by the KUM Dance Company

Suddenly, the men ravish and thrash the women as they try to escape. There is violence against them and eventually they die … their limp bodies are thrown on the death cart.

Image provided by the KUM Dance Company

In the following scene, I witnessed a mother’s remembrance of her lost children. She lit incense and knelt. The bodies of women appeared in angelic layers of white crepe. They were free from the bondage of war.

These images solidified my beginnings … why my DNA reveals the struggle among the people I outwardly represent. It was exhausting and terrifying to watch. Women and war.

Here however, a woman, Professor Unmi Kim of Hanyang University, leads this group of dancers in changing the course of conversation. She makes statements about the use of women in the past, the power of business women today and the strengths of mothers.

Mothers. That brings me to the most profound experience I have had so far. Since choosing activism and my part on the Baby Box, I have longed to help the women of KUMFA, The Korean Unwed Mothers Families Association on a personal level. Once we landed, I scheduled a time for our family to volunteer. It was an easy gig … playing with the most delightful young children.

After our work finished, a mother who spoke English insisted I stay. She wanted me in this very large group of single mothers. I felt honored and inadequate. A news crew from Korean Broadcasting was there taping the class the women were taking.

The reporters noticed me and my husband and asked if I wouldn’t mind being interviewed. I agreed. But I was not the one they should have interviewed. They repeatedly asked me why I would be supporting the group. I spoke of how I saw the face of my own mother in these women’s faces and how the bond between mother and child is so strong. I said these women were brave, and yet, the reporter did not want this sound-byte. He said he didn’t want to know about my adoption, but he wanted to know the American way. I felt inadequate to answer his questions. I told him America did not put the same stigma on single mothers that Korea does and that mothers had value. I left it at that.

As long as I keep my mouth closed, I mix in. Old women stop me to ask for directions, but I must then reveal my insecurities. I pass but only for so long … I am American, reluctantly.

Just like anything else, I cannot live in absolutes and Korea cannot either. The absolutes are crumbling as the next generation of Koreans begin to pave the way.

In Korea, single mothers receive a mere $59 a month for each child while group homes and orphanages receive $900 a month for each child. 

If you are looking for ways to help the women of Korea, consider making a contribution to KUMFA; you can donate through its PayPal account at Your donations help single mothers settle in housing and provide for their children. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Korea: A Thanksgiving of Another Kind

The market was bustling as my daughter and I sussed out our lunch for Friday. I was especially excited to see the variety of things for sale. It was like nothing I had seen before in the market. My favorite melons in small sizes, peeled chestnuts, Korean pears as big as a size 3 soccer ball and gift packs of Spam.

The expectation of Chuseok was infectious. Women rushing, squeezing and choosing the ingredients to feed the souls of their children. It felt very much like the build-up to Thanksgiving in the days of my youth. (Today, the build-up to Thanksgiving is less than I remember as it seems to be eclipsed by Halloween and December holidays.)

Thanksgiving in those days was my favorite holiday. It meant not only time off, but time to hang with my family and eat really good food. My mother loved it because it was her time to show her stuff. Our little family would gather with my grandmother, and the entire weekend included treks to cousins’ and aunts’ houses for more good food. We would sit around the kitchen table, mostly the women, as the men watched the Tennessee Vols play ball. My husband enjoyed the women’s table. If you left the table to pee, you knew everyone would talk about you. I often would hold it.

Korean Chuseok is very similar as it celebrates the coming together of families. For me, this is bittersweet. My grandmother, my mother and my great aunts are long gone. Thanksgiving for me today, is just my husband, my kids and me. So, it seemed this Chuseok would be more of the same.

On the Eve of Chuseok, I had my Mom’s day off. I wrote for the Lost Daughters, then went to Ehwa Women’s University area. Most shops were beginning to close in my neighborhood of Sinjeong, and the subway seemed skeletal. The tired faces of the elders on the train had my mind racing. Could they be without family too for Chuseok? Were they mourning the loss of a child to adoption? Am I that child?

Yet, when I walked out of the subway station into Ehwa, life presented herself as young women shopped with friends and some shopped with their mothers.

I remembered my days of shopping with my mother during the Thanksgiving holiday and then it hit me … how profoundly alone I felt and how I missed these moments with my family.

I bought dinner from the 7-Eleven, returned to our apartment, peeled a few chestnuts and tried to sleep. Lately, sleep does not come easily, and when I slide down into dream land, my dreams become anxious tales of being back in Wisconsin … empty-handed.

Chuseok began like any other, but I was looking forward to time at KoRoot. KoRoot supports adoptees when they return to Korea with translations, a guest house and a place to reconnect with other adoptees. I needed this time; this was my homecoming.

As usual, finding it and navigating the day with the family had its little moments of “family drama,” and once we arrived, my kids were ready to leave. I enjoyed reconnecting with Pastor Kim of KoRoot and bringing a copy of Dear Wonderful You to its new home.

Eating really good Korean food healed my soul. Seeing and meeting so many other Korean adoptees again gave me more strength to continue. Many of them had been in Korea for four, five and even fifteen years! Noticing my connection, my husband offered to take the children home to give me time to reconnect.

Once again, the community of adoptees pulls me up. I found my home for now, and homecoming was sweet.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Your Daddy’s Gone

This week, my father’s birthday came and went.

Birthdays, as you know, are very difficult for me. My birthday is a fabrication, a lie, a secret that only my original mother could reveal.

My father’s birth certificate says that he was born on September 20, but in fact, he was born on September 21. The story, as told by my grandmother (Abuelita), goes like this …

On the day my father was born, my grandfather was overjoyed, so much so he celebrated to utter inebriation. When he finally appeared to register my father’s birth at the town office, he gave the wrong date to the registrar.

My father honored his mother’s words and her story. He knew she would never forget the day he entered the world. His connection to her was sealed that very 21st of September. So, throughout my father’s life, he used September 21 as his birthdate.

This year, the sorrow of losing him mixed with the comfort of knowing him. His life was one of suffering, silliness and sweet moments with his family. I hope to have as many of those moments, whatever they hold, as he did.

As I walk the streets of Seoul, just as he did in 1965 and 1966, I think of him eating rice for breakfast and sweating as he ate kimchi.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Korea: The Ghost Walk

We are in a sea of me’s. Everywhere, people walk about not knowing the scrutiny I subject them to.

Anyone could be a relative … a parent, a sibling, a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle or a cousin. But none of us know it. We are secrets wandering and searching for the key to the box that will set us free to love those who are biological relations.

I think of my domestic adoptee friends in the United States and realize the torture they have felt from the very beginning. You are a stranger to those who share your DNA. You study those who have your traits and long to know if there is a connection between you … an imaginary thread that connects you.

In their first week as Koreans in Korea, my children are learning this as well. My goal this week was to take them to the haunts of my last trip … places that bring me comfort and center my soul. For the most part, it has been a joy to revisit the wonder I felt and watch my children feel the same.

We visited Insadong, Gangnam and Hapjeong. By their third day, they seemed comfortable.

Yet, their minds were playing similar earworms. After the trip to Gangnam, my daughter said, “I just saw a man that looked like Papito.” She is searching for my half-brother, an uncle that would bring her Papito back. Just seeing his features or his mannerisms in a Korean man comforts us. If we found him, we would come full circle in this crazy, complicated thing called adoption.

My son is quieter and shares when it is overwhelming. When a middle-aged man in the Burger King took his tray to clean up, he shared that he felt a connection to him. He recently had a job as a bus boy, but he was struck by the fact that this man was older and doing his former job.

Here we talked about how I felt connection to them as an adoptee … how my imagined story of poverty and desperation lead to my adoption … how I imagine that these “others” are me.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Twinkie Chronicles … American Assimilation in Korea

“Mama Bear. She is said to have birthed the first Korean.”

“Seoul is like the New York City of Asia!”

“Why is your name spelled ‘Losita’?”

“Can we get delivery McDonald’s?”

Exhaustion and hunger. Those two things result in “hangry” family dynamics. My husband and I insisted that we explore our new neighborhood and eat Korean barbecue. Just a few doors down … we found it.


Awkward smiles for the family, but a familiar one for me by the woman in the restaurant. She approached me speaking Korean.

The feelings of inadequacy, mixed with anticipation and fatigue, welled up within me. My mousy voice said, “Do you speak English?”

She shook her head but kept speaking Korean. She appeared sympathetic. I felt horrible.

We tried ordering beef but out came pork. Regret and shame consumed me.

I had spent the majority of my life trying to fit in … assimilating to survive in the white world of America. It worked adequately most of the time, and I have had more privileges than my peers of color because of it.

I can never fully assimilate, but my forced attempts at doing so sever me from my biological ethnic history. It’s survival in America. It’s shame in Korea.

If asked in my 20s, 30s and early 40s if I would ever return to Korea, I stated an emphatic “NO.” I never foresaw the yearning I would have in my later years. Many of today’s young adult adoptees amaze me. They have a sense of self that I am still struggling to find as I approach my 50s.

For our first full day in Korea, I allowed the kids to roam the neighborhood alone. This fact comforts me. They can learn to navigate together without me.

As lunchtime approached, I took them to Insadong, a Seoul tourist area where most speak some English. I visited my calligrapher friend and checked the antique alley for my fixer. I was able to order for us a nice lunch.

My learning curve is steep, but theirs is just peaking.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Korea: The Reckoning

A whirlwind of planning, setbacks and finally a day of “what happens, happens” lead our small family of four (plus three, very patient kitties) to our Korean Air flight. The week prior had held the wrong person’s nightguard not fitting my mouth, the boy’s fractured bone and non-compliant pet micro-chips.

Once the bags were in the van, my friend, Cynthia, at the wheel, and a trio of crying cats cruising down the highway, my mind shut down. I wanted to chat those last minutes with my friend, but I was physically and mentally spent. I immediately fell asleep.

Since my father’s death and the subsequent news of an older half-brother, my life had no time to tailspin. I held it in, again. Small releases of steam came out as cursing at kids and small grown-up tantrums. My remaining little family had been tolerant, but I felt selfish in not allowing them the time to process this trip with me. Shit, I didn’t have time to process.

I have been silent in my sorrow … silent in my fears.  What if my children hate Korea? Will they hate me for the yearning my heart has had since my first trip back last summer?

As the lights dimmed on the plane, and my daughter fell fast asleep, the tears ran down my face. We had done it. We were making that pilgrimage to the place of my birth … the place my father loved … the place where my brother was left. Questions flooded my mind, and I felt I was drowning. Would I find Daddy some closure? Would I find my parents too? Would my brother feel upset with me for not finding him sooner?

I have been lost more times than I can count. Lost from my original family, lost from the only parents I remember, and lost from my big brother. I have almost lost my little family too. I often feel very alone in my sadness.

Just as I had talked myself into this frenzy that I know so well, the hands of my husband came from behind my seat to show his caring and knowing of my fears.

And I am back. The focus. My search. Sharing the joy of the small wonders I found in Korea with my little remaining family …

Not many are able to take this journey. I understand that … and I am grateful for this opportunity.

I am ready to land on my feet.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Twinkie Chronicles … Privilege at an Indigo Girls Concert

Since the early 1990s, the lyrics and music of the Indigo Girls have mirrored themes in my life. They console me, comfort me and cajole me. I love that.

When they came to a town close to me or to a friend, I arranged child-minding to never miss them … Knoxville, Nashville, Denver, Charlottesville, Madison and Iowa City. Their concerts always felt like a family reunion … fans of all types resembled my life and my activism for equity and justice … that is, until I moved to the Mid-West and more specifically Madison.

There is something about seeing them in the South. Perhaps it is the kinship I have felt with them as Southerners. I love “Southland in the Springtime” which rarely plays in the Mid-West. But the overall prevailing camaraderie with the crowd is different.

Recently, they returned to Madison. This was my third concert of theirs since moving to Madison. I invited my Tennerican friend to come see them with me. He’s like a brother to me, a Puerto Rican with Tennessee ties. We were ecstatic! We arrived early and were within the first ten in line to go inside.

As we sat down, a young man sat next to me. Jovial and excited, we began a conversation. He offered to buy me a drink, though I declined. We waited. The space in front of us was a mosh pit, not exactly what I was accustom to, but from our seats, we could still see despite the crowd in front of us.

As the Indigo Girls entered the stage, we cheered. I told the man next to me that I was excited about seeing Lyris Hung. When I said this, he said, “Well, if I weren’t queer, I would do Amy hard. But I also love Asians and think I will end up with an Asian man someday. As a matter of fact, my friends call me ‘The Rice Queen’!”

I was in shock. A man who I had initially seen as a nice enough person was now showing signs of misogyny and racism. This was a precursor to more obnoxious behavior from this white, gay man.

Lyris Hung made her appearance on the stage with the Indigo Girls the year before, at concerts in Madison (on the same Overture Center stage) and in Iowa City. Seeing an Asian musician was a welcomed sight. Since seeing her in Madison and feeling the energy of the “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” I wanted to see more of what her contributions would be to the band that spoke to my heart.

As the set progressed, Amy played the song “Fishtails.” This song speaks of the loss of a father, and of course, it spoke to me since my father’s passing was still an open wound. I had listened to it repeatedly since buying the album. It was the moment I was waiting for. But just as Amy poured her heart out to meet mine about our shared loss, a group of white women in the mosh pit decided to joke and laugh loudly. I was crushed and angry.

Approaching them, I said, “Do you mind taking this conversation outside? I am trying to enjoy this song.” This didn’t quite sink in; they looked at me, dazed. When I walked away, my friend saw them glaring at me. They continued to stare at me throughout the night and chatting amongst themselves like a cluster of sorority sisters, beers in hand and talking loudly. They only came to life with the music of “Galileo” and “Closer to Fine.”

My friend wanted to approach them during the concert, but he expressed his fear that he would be seen as a disruptive Puerto Rican man.

White Madisonians do not realize the prevailing scrutiny that people of color, especially Blacks and Latinos experience. Madison is painted as an idyllic, liberal college town. It is liberal … for whites. White liberalism is a dangerous kind of liberalism where people believe that they cannot be racist because they hold other forms of liberalism high. They are active in liberal politics, the environment and issues surrounding gender equality, but only equality as it applies to whites. Now, not all Madisonians are this way, but the prevailing comfort and smugness of liberalism discredits any dissension in the ranks.

As the evening at the concert progressed, the white gay man decided to stand alone in front of his seat, despite the pleas from the women behind him. Addressing him as “Sir,” they politely asked him to sit in his seat or moved to the mosh pit. We all had chosen our seats for the luxury of sitting and listening; he refused to budge. He stood and scanned his phone, not at all paying attention to the music.

The women approached an usher and asked that someone talk with him. The usher refused. A white, stubborn man, regardless of his gender would not be asked to change his behavior. I just imagined the scene if it had been my friend, a Puerto Rican man standing in defiance. My friend was just as annoyed but recognized his place in this environment.

Despite the annoyances, we enjoyed our time together in a place filled with music that speaks volumes to us, and I was able to get photographs of Lyris to show my girl at home. The image of an Asian woman successful in her musical pursuits.