Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Visiting Korea: It's not a "vacation"

People often refer to my two trips to Korea last year as "vacation."

Did you and your husband have fun on your vacation to Korea last year?

Wow, you must have had so much fun traveling to Korea on vacation last year?

Well, at least you got to go on vacation TWICE last year.

I don't think most people weep uncontrollably while on vacation. I don't think most people meet their biological mother and father for the first time in over three decades while on vacation.

I don't know that returning to the land from which you were cast out and seemingly irretrievably lost necessarily qualifies as a vacation. And I don't think that visiting the land where you were "orphaned" and left fatherless and motherless is necessarily the makings of a fun, restful, refreshing vacation.

Would you call a two week trip to visit your dying mother a vacation? Would you call a weekend trip to attend the funeral of a loved one a vacation? Would you refer to a trip to mediate between your divorced parents a vacation? Most people would not refer to such trips as "vacations."

To get technical, a vacation is defined as "an extended period of recreation" or "a respite or time of respite from something" (respite is defined as "a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant").

I think most would agree that the aforementioned circumstances would not qualify as recreation or as respite from something difficult or unpleasant, but rather quite the opposite.

What's my point?

I made two trips to Korea last year, one in June/July and one in September. People I know often seem to make the mistake of viewing these trips that I made as "vacation."

Although there were aspects of these two trips that involved some fun activities, emotionally these two trips hardly qualify as "vacation." In particular, the purpose of these trips was not recreation and respite. I didn't go to Korea for relaxation and rest or to galavant around the country.

I went to Korea to meet the mother who gave me away me only days after I was born and the father who never even saw me because my Korean mother disappeared on him and kept my relinquishment a secret from him until years later.

I went to Korea, a place where I died the same day that I was born, not to vacation, but to try to find answers that had eluded me all of my life. Korea is not a place of recreation and respite for me, but rather a place burdened with pain and loss, a place that stirs the deepest of heartache and a reservoir of ambivalence and sorrow.

So, please, don't make the mistake of correcting me when I say visiting Korea was not a vacation.

Visiting Korea, for me, is akin to visiting a broken home marred with dysfunction and a shared history of strife and loss, and yet simultaneously it inevitably draws me back by the bonds of a love and curiosity that both confound and comfort the restlessness within me that ultimately will never know peace.

The Yellow Elephant

Lesson #1770 :

Square peg + massive force =

jam into round hole but still does not “fit”

I’m a semester away from high school graduation. The last place I want to be is in the midst of a family reunion with loads of people swarming about.

I have not seen most of these people in at least ten years.

Besides intensely disliking large gatherings, I even more intensely dislike large gatherings with people whom I’m supposed to pretend to be happy to see when in fact neither one of us can remember the other’s name since the last reunion we attended—whenever that was.

Nonetheless, I am here. I feel lost, awkward. I’m a feral Siamese—hanging out with packs of Great Danes, German Shepherds, and St. Bernard’s—skittish, freaked, and ready to scratch your eyes out.

I scan the packs, trying to find the one St. Bernard that I can actually trust. He’s my hiding place under the bed when I have no bed under which to hide.

I finally spot him.

I simultaneously admire and envy my youngest brother, Geoff. He makes this all look so easy.

I sit there quietly, watching Geoff and the ease at which he mingles through the crowds of family and relatives.

Suddenly someone taps me on my shoulder, “Hello there. Are you supposed to be here, honey?”

“Excuse me?” I say.

“Did you come here with someone? Are you supposed to be here?”

“I’m sorry, what? I don’t understand.”

“This is the Chatham Family Reunion.”

“Oh, I see—uh, yes, I know. I’m Missy. That’s my Dad over there.”

“Oh, really? I’m sorry. You’re who?”

“I’m a Chatham. I’m adopted.”

“Oh. Really. Yes, okay.” The woman furrows her eyebrows. She still looks a bit confused and equally perturbed. She quickly turns away and wanders off.

I sit there feeling small and misplaced. Someone, please, get me out of here.

But I have to stay.

These strangers are my family—whether they believe it, or don’t believe it.

Whether I feel it, or I don’t.

We are all family.

* * *

Even though that happened almost twenty years ago, it still makes me wince.

I don’t remember what the woman looked like or who she was. But I don’t feel too bad about it, because I’d bet a million bucks that if she saw me again, she’d still ask me ever so kindly, as though I were a five-year old foreigner, Are you supposed to be here, Honey?

* * *

[Click here to read the entire series on "Growing Up as a KAD"]

Monday, August 30, 2010

It's not for pity's sake

A a few months ago in a post titled, "Why being adopted as an infant does not nullify adoption loss", I listed some examples of how being adopted affects my daily life, even in the most mundane, daily activities, whether shopping with my mom or boarding an airplane with one of my older brothers. More recently, I have shared a few examples in a series, "Growing up as a KAD," of what I experienced as a Korean-American adoptee growing up within an American- and Caucasian-centric community.

I want to clarify that I share such examples not to try to elicit pity or to try to demonstrate that I'm some kind of victim of a unique, unprecedented suffering (which is clearly not the case), but rather simply to exemplify exactly what I stated above (and in the original post): being adopted affects an adoptee's daily life beyond infancy and into adulthood--really for a lifetime.

The reason I'm making this seemingly redundant clarification is that some of the comments that ensued in the discussion following the original post seemed to indicate that particular readers were missing the point. Also, this is a topic that, much to my chagrin and exhaustion, many adoptive parents and the like continue to question and doubt or misunderstand and ignore. As Raina wrote, "There are people who are, at this very minute, talking about adoptees. They’re discussing whether we have a right to our opinions and emotions. Whether we should speak out or shut up. There are actually AP’s who are debating the pros and cons of listening to the voices of adult adoptees."

The fact that adoption affects our lives as adoptees from infancy through adulthood seems to face consistent questioning and skepticism--the validity of our emotions and experiences undergo a peculiar mix of scrutiny and dismissal--and therefore, requires ongoing clarification and explanation (which I find ridiculous and annoying, but nonetheless, necessary).

I think it came to the forefront of my mind again recently, because I myself am pregnant and will be holding my own infant child some time early next year. Experiencing pregnancy and anticipating motherhood emphasizes for me personally yet again that being adopted is a lifetime experience with lifetime consequences--and the fact that I was adopted as an infant certainly does not preclude me from experiencing these ongoing, daily consequences of being adopted. In fact, no matter the circumstances of any given adoptee's adoption, there are always long-term consequences. It's your choice whether you decide to acknowledge this truth.

Furthermore, even more poignant is the truth that although I was adopted as an infant, as I approach motherhood, I still have to recognize and manage the ways in which my experiences as an adoptee could potentially affect the way I will parent my child-to-be. Now, if that doesn't exemplify for you how profound and reaching the very real repercussions of being adopted are then I don't know what in the world will.

In a previous post, I briefly discussed some of my initial thoughts and emotions regarding the unique ways in which I am experiencing pregnancy as an adoptee. This is again, a clear example of how being adopted affects my life as a whole from infancy through adulthood.

It is such a detrimental and oppressive misconception that those of us adopted in infancy will somehow bypass the consequences of being adopted whether they be the ongoing grief and loss or the daily discrepancies and discriminations we face from those around us.

Understand this--I don't feel sorry for myself. When someone makes an ignorant comment or treats me differently, I don't obsess about that person, and I know full well that the person who interacted with me in such a way doesn't waste another second thinking about me once the interaction is done. But again. That's. Not. The point. I am not attempting to demonize any particular individual nor am I trying to build a case as to why my sob story is more "sobby" than yours.

I recall these examples truly and simply to help others understand why and how being adopted is a lifetime experience that comes with ongoing daily consequences that are not nullified simply because one was adopted as an infant (or otherwise) or because the adoptive parents are viewed as near saints. Whether a momentous life event like marriage or giving birth or a more mundane event like going to school or stopping by the grocery store, adoptees encounter consistent reminders of the fact that we are adopted and how that permanent status has changed our lives forever in both small and big ways--regardless of when or how our adoptions have taken place.

So, the next time you catch yourself thinking that those of us adopted as infants or adopted by the metaphorical equal of Mother Theresa herself (rest her soul) got the better end of the deal, because you think we won't experience the negative consequences or difficulties beyond infancy...

Please, take some time to think again...and again, as many times and as long as is needed, until it becomes second nature to catch yourself thinking that those of us adopted as infants (or otherwise) did not get the better end of the deal. But rather that we simply were the recipients of a deal over which we had no control, and although this is not unique to adoptees alone, we, along with the truth of our experiences, remain uniquely dismissed and criticized for our need to be acknowledged.

Nonetheless, we must ultimately learn to navigate and manage the complex and ongoing consequences of that deal, regardless of whether you or anyone else ever cares enough to choose to recognize the very truth that so many deny.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Middle School Math: Asian - Oriental + Chink = Run

Lesson #1201:

Middle School Math:

Asian - Oriental + Chink = Run

To any White friends I made during middle school, I was everyone’s little “Chinese” friend, except for the obvious fact that I was not actually Chinese.

“But it’s all the same, right? You’re all Asian, right?”

“Sure, we’re all Asian, but it’s kind of like you’re all White, but you’re not the same White as the White people in England or Australia or Ireland, or something like that.”

“What does it matter any way? Korean, Chinese, who cares?” Just as Alice finished up her sentence, I felt something hit me in the back, and then in the back of my head.

I turned around.

“Hey, you oriental! Hey, chink! Do you understand that?!”

Alice ran away.

I still felt a bit disoriented. I heard cackling and loud, raucous laughter. I was trying to figure out what was happening, when I felt another object hit me in the forehead. I looked down the hill, and I saw a group of three boys laughing and pointing.

One of the boys had a giant soda cup. He reached in and pulled out a piece of ice. At the same time, I saw one of the other boys pick up a rock. They both began to throw their found objects in my direction.

A part of me stood there in disbelief, not wanting to comprehend what was unfolding. I didn’t want to believe that this was actually happening to me. Finally, it all began to process, and I realized that they were indeed throwing rocks and pieces of ice at me.

Move your legs and feet, dumby. Get out of the way. Do something. Don’t just stand there like your some kind of idiot.

I turned back around and started running with my head down, trying to cover it with my notebook.

I couldn’t believe what was happening. I thought to myself, surely, this is a mistake. Surely, I’m having a bad dream. But the throbbing at the back of my head told me that this was anything but a bad dream.

I stopped for a second and looked back again. I had made it over the crest of the hill. I couldn’t see the boys anymore, which hopefully meant that they couldn’t see me either. Maybe it was all a mistake. Maybe I misheard what they said.

The street ended at the top of the hill where it met with the street on which I lived. I took a left. Just two houses down on the left, I reached my house. I made my way up the driveway. I got to the front door and dug out my house key from my backpack.

I paused. This is my home, right? I looked around at the yard and the front of the house.

I unlocked the front door. It cracked open; the alarm was beeping. I keyed in the code. No one else was home.

I made my way up the stairs to my bedroom. When I reached the top of the stairs, I examined the arrangement of family photos perched atop one of the cabinets.

I wanted to take them all down and bring them to school, so that everyone could see that I was just like they were. I’m the same. See, my family looks just like yours.

I got to my bedroom and closed the door. I put my book bag down.

I stood in front of my long-way mirror. I turned to the side and then back facing forward.

Every time I saw myself, I was still surprised to see this short, black-haired, almond-eyed girl staring back.

But the world never forgets what it sees. And it does its best to make certain that I, too, won’t ever forget the way it sees me.

* * *

Alice and I did not talk anymore after that incident, which clarified that what had taken place that day had not been a bad dream or a mistake.

I never told anyone about what happened, hoping that pretending as though it never happened would make it hurt less.

My mom eventually asked me about Alice. I told her that I didn’t like Alice anymore, that she wasn’t a nice friend. My mom didn’t ask me any more questions. She simply said, “I’m sorry. Well, don’t you worry, honey, there are more nice friends out there to be made. Don’t worry yourself over the duds.”

I wanted to say in response, “What if I’m one of the duds?”

But instead, I just gave her a smile and said, “Thanks, mom.”

* * *

[Click here to read the series on "Growing Up as a KAD"]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Kindergarten & Racism: Welcome to the Real World, Kid

Lesson #501:

Kindergarten + Playground = Education

Choing-chong-dong-dung! Choing-chong-chung-chong!

My classmates are jumping around in and out of my face, in a dancing, clown-like way. They’re all laughing and pulling at the corners of their eyes.

I crinkle my nose and squint my eyes, as I pull my head back, and wonder to myself, What are they doing? They look and sound so silly.

I look behind me. I look around me. I feel confused. Why are they doing that?

I feel something in my chest sink. Something about this hurts, but I’m only five years old, and I can’t make sense of it.

So, I just laugh. Not because I think they’re funny, but because I guess that maybe I should laugh, too, so that I at least look like I get the joke, even though I have no idea what’s going on.

* * *

Once I get home from school, I race to the bathroom, because I’ve been holding it since afternoon naptime.

I flush the toilet and go to the sink to wash my hands. I step up onto my little stool so I can reach the faucet. I turn the water on, and happen to glance at the mirror.

As I catch a glimpse of my reflection, I am surprised by what I see.

I splash some water on my face. I try to smile. I hurry down off of my step stool and slap the light off.

All of a sudden, what happened at school during recess begins to make sense. And I realize that the other kids on the playground weren’t talking to me—they were making fun of me.

* * *

After five short years of living, a kind of harsh light began to crawl out from underneath its rock.

That day on the playground, it flexed its shoulders and pushed up the rock until the rock stood on edge.

The light quivered a bit, and then gave the rock one last heave.

The rock tumbled back and landed with a thud. The light began to pour itself out into the open.

That kind of light does not know how to lie. It is brazenly honest.

When I got home from school that day, the light had followed me home. It hit the mirror, and for the first time in my life I became uncomfortably aware that somehow I was never going to be like all the other kids.

I had begun my education.

That day I learned that grown-ups don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to words. That day I learned that words hurt more than sticks or stones ever could.

* * *

[Click here to read the entire series on "Growing Up as a KAD"]

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

How a 6 year old tried to explain her adoption to her peers

Lesson #642:

Heaven = babies – orphans = perpetuate fantasies/ticking time bomb

Heaven dropped me like a bomb.

At least that’s what I used to like to tell all my little friends at elementary school in Mayport, Florida when I didn’t know how to explain why I looked so different from the rest of my family.

“I dropped out of the sky from heaven. I didn’t come from my mommy’s tummy like you did. I came straight from heaven,” I would proudly declare.

My little girlfriends at recess would widen their eyes and coo, until one of them would speak up and ask, “But, wait, I thought you came from an orphanage.”

And just like that, my logic slipped into my Kool-Aid and dissolved.

“Well, after the orphanage, God took me back up into Heaven, and then he brought me back so that I could be with my family.”

“You’re weird,” one of the girls would say.

“Do you remember the orphanage? Was it like the movie ‘Annie?’ ”

I could feel them ebbing away, “Uh, no, I don’t really remember. Not really. I was just a baby.” Their faces would fall with discontent and boredom.

“Let’s go swing!”

And off they would go to the swings, while I stood there alone, watching them laugh and whisper in each other’s ears secret things that I knew I would never know.

* * *

[Click here to read the entire series on "Growing Up as a KAD"]

Monday, August 23, 2010

What I learned as a 5th grade Korean-American Adoptee

Lesson #1002:

Korea = 0

During the fifth grade, while my family and I were living in the Philippines, I remember a girl named Jill. She and I were in the gifted class together at the elementary school on the U.S. military base, Subic Bay.

I remember her so well because everyone thought we were sisters. We were the same height. We both had long, straight hair--slick and black like motor oil--and almond-shaped slits for eyes. Our skin was the color of burnt caramel from playing on the jungle gyms in the tropical sun during recess. Our birth dates were even the same, June 5, 1975.

But the similarities always began to fall apart when the knowledge came out that she was Japanese and I was, well, what are you?

Korean? What’s Korean? Is that like Chinese? Is that a country? I’ve never heard of Korea. Are you lying? Are you making this up? Tell the truth.

* * *

Although we were living in the Philippines, we were living on a U.S. military base, attending schools consisting of primarily Caucasian children who had not yet been alive long enough to know that the world was inhabited by other Asian countries beyond China, Japan, and Vietnam.

People often refer to the Korean War as the forgotten war.

While I was growing up trying to explain to my friends from where I had come, it wasn’t only the war that had been forgotten. It was as though the country had been forgotten, and with it, as though the people from whom I had come never existed.

Sometimes, I would wonder if Jill really was my long lost sister. Maybe I was really Japanese, but for some reason, my papers had mistakenly or subversively identified me as “100% pure Korean.”

Maybe Korea was a make-believe far-off land contrived to keep children like me in the dark, away from the families to whom we truly belonged, or maybe to protect us from peril that would otherwise endanger our lives.

Or maybe, I was who the papers said I was, and it was simply that Jill was not my sister, and I was not Japanese, and Korea was an insignificant place, so poor and so forgotten, that no one cared to inform their children of its people or their existence.

* * *

[Click here to read the entire series on "Growing Up as a KAD"]

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Expecting: Experiencing Pregnancy as an Adoptee

So, I've been keeping a secret for the past several months. As many of you noted in your responses to the entry previous to this one, I've been pretty absent for a while.

Overall, I've been less active on my blog and in the general blogosphere over the past several months. But I have a great excuse and one that will probably fuel several new entries in the months and years to come.

My husband and I are actually expecting. As you've probably guessed from the title of this post, it's not a package in the mail or an inheritance that we're expecting, but a person. To spell it out, we're pregnant. And this is my, our first.

In large part, my decreased activity in the blogging world can be attributed to being bedridden for almost two months due to severe nausea and pregnancy sickness. As I have entered the second trimester (I'll be 17 weeks tomorrow), the sickness is beginning to ebb ever so slightly. I still feel nauseous 24/7, but it's not as severe, meaning that I can actually move around now and sit up straight for an extended period. Yay.

So, that's the big news.

As you can imagine, being pregnant and the prospect of being a mother opens up a whole new realm within the--to utilize some psychobabble--adoptee psyche.

In some ways, I haven't wanted to think about what I'm feeling or what this means to me. But of course, it's inevitable. I can't not think about it. In one way, I was so sick that I couldn't think about it. In another way, I think I needed my own time to process, to linger, to ruminate.

But now that the misery of pregnancy sickness is beginning to lift and as I'm getting more in touch with what I'm feeling, the emotions are flooding forth.

In all honesty, it is not easy to find the words to express how profound this experience is for me. Giving birth is profound for any human being. Yet I do believe there is an added profundity that is unique to the adoptee.

First of all, for the longest time, I never imagined myself having children. And well, with that said, I never thought I'd get married. Well, obviously, I got married. And now, I'm going to give birth to a child in less than six months. As an adoptee, at least for me, both of these experiences are incredibly startling and transformative.

A while back I posted an entry titled, "Did meeting my biological parents diminish my desire to conceive biological children?", in which I began to delve into the psychological reasons--both the healthy and not so healthy reasons--as an adoptee specifically, of wanting to have children.

Now that I'm here, pregnant and awaiting the arrival of our child, it becomes so evident--as usual--that you just can't ever be fully "prepared" for certain life events, whether marriage or reunion, whether death or birth. No matter how much I tried before the fact to imagine or anticipate what I would be feeling and how being pregnant would affect my life, and in particular as an adoptee, none of it could substitute for the reality of being in the midst of it all.

I find myself thinking of my Omma and feeling this inextricable connection to her as I experience pregnancy. I can imagine all the more clearly what she must have been feeling--all the fear, the loneliness, the isolation. I asked her in a letter if she suffered serious pregnancy sickness while she was pregnant with me. Indeed she says she did. Knowing her now and experiencing pregnancy help me to have a depth of understanding that otherwise eluded me.

And then, of course, there are my own fears that begin to seep out. I am having recurring dreams of an eery and despairing vividness, in which I find myself weeping and pleading with my husband, Michael. I'm on my hands and knees, gripping his pant cuffs in my hands, begging him not to leave me, as he stands there so unlike himself--cold and aloof, unmoved by my pleas. A deep and unshakable sense of doom and desperation permeates the dreams making them feel so real and so true.

Fortunately, I slowly awaken to the sound of my own audible sobbing and to the embrace and consolation of my husband, telling me that it was only a dream and that he will never leave me. Although I've had dreams in the past of Michael and me getting into arguments, they have been few and far between and did not involve him leaving me. Yet ever since becoming pregnant, such dreams have increased in frequency and intensity, each time, Michael is leaving me, his decision inevitable and unchanged.

It is no surprise to me, however, that I am harassed by such dreams. I have had conscious thoughts in which I fear experiencing the same fate as my Omma--that some unanticipated event will unfold resulting in the tragic separation of Michael and me, and ultimately, leading to the demise of our dreamed future together as a family...

Yet simultaneously, I experience awe and wonder that I am carrying a child within who will bear my DNA and hence the DNA of my Omma and Appa, of their mothers and fathers, that will emerge with likenesses and characteristics that only those of the same flesh and blood can share. My eyes fill with tears when I contemplate that this child will be the biological child of my husband and me--that this child will be able to know from whom and where he or she comes--and in full.

I cannot wholly grasp how profound it is that this child of ours will know both his or her American and Korean grandparents. Our child will have the fortune of growing up knowing who he or she is. Our child will not know what it is like to not know the basics of his or her identity. And this brings me to tears in a way that it would not if I were not an adoptee.

I cannot fully comprehend what this means to my Omma and Appa, who lost me over three decades ago, and yet to whom I have now returned. They will now know the child of their lost child in ways that they could not know me. And our child will know my Omma and Appa in ways that I could not know them. Just the simple fact that our child will grow up knowing that my Omma and Appa exist and who they are is surreal and incomprehensible at the moment...

I ponder how I automatically think that I will need to explain to our child why "Mommy" has both Caucasian and Korean parents, yet realizing that initially our child won't think anything of it--to him or her this will be normal, this will be the way it has always been. Life will always have included Grandpa and Grandma and Haraboji and Halmoni. To our little toddler, it will be simple and uncomplicated. It will just be.

Realizing this makes me wish that it could be so simple and so innocent in my mind, in everyone's mind.

It brings forth even more poignantly and more urgently the deep longing, the relentless hope onto which I hold that all of the ones I love could be one family one day. I imagine our child, still innocent and unaware of man-made divisions and discriminating love, playing in a room where all of my family, both the Americans and Koreans, have gathered together to overcome the separation and fears that I hope our child will never have to know...

Monday, August 9, 2010

outsider among outsiders

I often feel like an outsider among outsiders, an outcast among outcasts.

I walk the fence at times, which is anathema to those on either side of the fence.

Adoptive parents hope for me to see adoption one way, while adult adoptees hope for me to see it another way. Adoptive parents hope for me to be "that" kind of adoptee, while adult adoptees expect me to be "this" kind of adoptee. And when I am neither fully, I find myself a loner once again. I find myself once again being expected to choose a side, to choose to whom I will be loyal. Being in between is considered unacceptable, inviable, limp.

There are those adoptive parents along with unidentified others to whom I am not grateful or happy enough. There are those adoptees and unidentified others to whom I am not angry or indignant enough. And still there are others who would say, why the heck do you care about what others think? If only what others think about us did not affect the way they treat us.

I am supposed to jump down from the fence to one side or the other. I am not permitted to climb back and forth, because those from either side would choose to believe that they are inevitably incompatible.

And it is this inherent human tendency to dichotomize, to separate, to compartmentalize that makes me both loathe and despair any attempt to synthesize what it is that I might think or believe or want regarding adoption.

I am angry, weary, frustrated at the ongoing misunderstandings, at the dissension, the politics, the cliques, the arguments, the sides.

Sometimes, I don't know what I think about what I feel or what to think about what I think or what to feel about what I think. I just know that there are times that I want to scream and tell all the different voices and opinions clambering for attention to be silent once and for all.

Sometimes, I just want to forget. Forget everything that I know about adoption.

Supposedly, hope awaits at the bottom of the box. Yet there are long moments when the bottom seems more an abyss to which there is no end and in which I will never glimpse nor reach that which I seek--

that is, if I ever come to understand what it is that I am seeking.