I am grateful that I did not have to grow up in need or want.
I am so grateful that I was given a family rich with love and wealth. I am so grateful to have grown up in a family that, even with its dysfunctions, stuck together and provided for one another.
But it is a circular notion for me—this concept of family. And it brings me back again to the question of what is family?
Truly, the concept of family intrigues me.
What is family? It is more than blood. In some ways it affords no choice, and in other ways, family is all about choice.
My birth mother was able to let go of me. As painful as it may have been—and as much as she probably felt she had no other choice, she still decided to let me go. And I became a daughter to a mother and father who were not my blood. A sister to brothers who were not my blood.
And they remain my family as though they are my blood. And truly, even though I have close friends who know me in ways that my family does not, there is an intangible, indescribable quality and connection to family that cannot be replaced or substituted.
Is it simply the time that I have spent with my family—that they are the only people who have known me for all of my life? Is it the choice that we make over and over to love one another because “we’re family.”
And yet, how is it, then, that even though I was a foreigner, this family was able to take me in and love me as their own?
The lines of family blur for me. The concept of family remains simultaneously loosely yet tightly defined in my mind and experience. It is not one side of the coin versus the other—it is the whole coin.
My family truly is my family. I look nothing like them. Personality-wise I stick out just as much as I do physically. Growing up wasn’t always roses, and in fact there were times we could have killed one another without remorse. And even today, it is not as though we are all the best of friends.
Yet, still, you better not mess with my family. Don’t you dare slander or hurt one of my brothers. And don’t ever claim that my dad and mom are not my real dad and mom.
I love and guard them fiercely in my heart.
When I express my misgivings and apprehensions about having children, people always respond to me by saying, “Oh, don’t sweat it. Trust me, it’s different when they’re your own.” Or women tell me, “Once you give birth to that child and you’re holding her in your arms, something special happens.”
And I can’t help but think to myself, “What does that mean?” Because honestly, to me, that logic doesn’t mean a thing to me.
The mother I know and call “mom” didn’t hold me on the day that I was born. She didn’t have that “special connection” from carrying me in her womb for nine months. She didn’t gaze into my eyes on the day I was born and feel that unspoken bond that can exist only between a mother and her child.
Rather, she chose to love me as her own.
The idea of family is in some ways very magical. In other ways, it has nothing do with magic or inherent blood connections. Rather, it is the perception that a bond exists because of shared blood, genes, ancestry, etc. But really this so-called bond may be subject to choice just as much as picking a mate or a friend.
We perceive an inherent bond with our “family” because, well, of course, “they’re family.” And so, automatically we spend more time with them, devote our hearts and lives to them, bend over backwards…because again “they’re family.” They take precedence over jobs or friends, because, why? Yet again, “they’re family.”
And why do we view them as family? For most, it is this perceived biological, blood connection that causes us to assign to them a level of significance and commitment that outweighs other relationships.
Family is from where we came. Our origins. We owe our family due respect and devotion. For without family, we would not have life.
And here, to me, is where lies the truth of family bonds: family is what gives us life. Not simply physiological life. But true life.
For me, family is more than blood and ancestry. Family is the group of people without whom I could not have known love, and therefore, life.
I do not share their blood or their genes. But they took me in as their own.
And even though my mother did not physically give birth to me, she gave me life.
Without her love and devotion to me, without her choice to take me home as her very own daughter, I could have died. Not only a physical death, but an emotional, social, and spiritual death.
In the truest sense, Jeon, Seon Soon was my birth mother. She had the courage to give birth to me and bring me into the world.
My mother had the courage to continue to give me life by pouring her own into mine.
We all know that being a mother or a father is more than simply creating a life. Such is only the beginning and most certainly the easiest part. Yes, being a mother or a father must also involve nurturing and cultivating life, and to me, by definition, must involve the constant giving of love.
A mother or a father is neither, without love.
It does not take love to incubate a life. It does not take love to provide material needs and wants. And although we have basic needs without which we cannot survive, without love we cannot live.
I am ever grateful for my family, with all our quirks and flaws, our annoyances and imperfections—I cannot help but smile and laugh aloud when I think of all the ways in which we are family.
Although I don’t know every detail of each of my brothers’ lives or every thought or feeling of my dad or mom—I do know that there is not a family in the world who could give to me the lifetime of laughter and tears, mystery and wonder that my family has endowed to me.
I love them. They are my blood.
There is also this notion with which I grapple regarding the “bond of blood.”
As I have made clear before—I know who is my family. And I would not change who they are for anything in the world.
Yet, as I expressed previously, there does remain “an intangible, indescribable quality and connection to family that cannot be replaced or substituted.”
And here again, I enter the circular question of “what is family?”
For although the family I know is my blood, I still cannot seem to extricate myself from the longing for the family that is also my blood.
Even though I have never known my birth mother or birth father, somehow I still feel wildly and uncontrollably connected to them. Although this blood connection was practically severed on the day that I was born, it has found its way back to me and continues to pull at my heart, at my life, at the core of who I am.
This is a much more difficult issue to resolve emotionally—this issue of simultaneous disconnection yet connection regarding my birth family. The simultaneous sense of rejection and longing, animosity and affection, separation and association.
Why do I long for a people I have never known? What is it that compels me to seek out one with whom I have no connection other than biology and genetics?
To this question, I must ponder the possibility that the power of biology and genetics is more than cold, hard science.
I am not referring necessarily to something mystical. But rather to something inherent, intrinsic.
Why am I so baffled that I would long for my origins? Is it not human to long for that from which we came? Is it not human to long for connection and, with that, meaning?
And what more logical place to go than to where one originated? The beginnings of life remain an ever-mined source of curiosity, inquiry, analysis.
We as humans long to understand. We are not satisfied with mystery. Not that we must ultimately unravel mystery, but rather we love mystery for its ability to be explored, discovered, for its ability to challenge us, inspire us, humble us.
And what greater mystery to provoke such an exploration and curiosity than the mystery of one’s origins?
Who, not knowing from where they came, does not long to know something of those beginnings?
Those who do not question or search, I will not claim to know or understand…yet I do wonder if there is not a piece of who they are that remains tucked away, hidden, just waiting to burst forth if given the opportunity.
Exploring the unknown can feel dangerous and disconcerting—it is to disturb that which is seemingly at peace. But to gaze upon all the wonders of the sea, one must shatter the surface of the water and plunge into its dark and terrifying depths.
And that is the mystery of my Korean family…they are a far off ocean of which I know nothing. It is not that I wish to abandon my American family to go in search of this elusive, unknown Korean family.
Rather, I must hold tightly to my American family—for they are the only family I know—to have courage and strength enough to seek out mystery.
I will always be the creation of the family that chose to become my blood and the family—although unknown to me and I to them—who remains my blood.
I am not either-or. Those who share eclectic origins shed labels and one-way definitions.
When dealing with human identity, it is not a choice "between" but rather the convergence of many.
Hence, I continue to seek meaning and identity beyond the adoption box.