This Friday is my Gotcha Day. It is the 35th anniversary of my adoption by my wonderful parents and immigration to America from Seoul, South Korea. This post is written in honor of my parents and in honor of my birth parents.
It's a strange thing, adoption. Beautiful and sad all at the same time. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for decisions made on my behalf over three decades ago and I'm grateful everyday for those decisions. However, it's impossible ignore the dichotomy of adoption. That split between tremendous joy and tremendous pain that surrounds being adopted. Someone's great gain is also, inherently, someone else's great loss. So, today, I honor both sides, that loss and that gain, for I am a product of the two. And while one cannot outweigh the other, today I choose to live in deep and humble gratitude for that pair, deeply intertwined, deeply embedded in who I am.
“So, how do you feel about meeting your first biological relative soon?”
It was a question that a dear friend asked me over coffee during my seventh month of pregnancy. Frankly, I was a little taken aback mostly because I hadn’t really thought of that myself. Having been adopted and brought to America at only three months old, I had never had the opportunity to meet any of my biological relatives. And, thanks to an incredibly strong, stable, and loving upbringing by my forever family, it had never occurred to me that my forthcoming child, (the one I was currently carrying in my belly, due to arrive in a few months) would in fact be the first biological relative I’d ever met.
But, let’s back up.
Me: At the time, a thirty-two year old Korean-American adoptee from Seoul, South Korea, raised in suburban Minnesota (not unlike many other twenty to forty-something Korean-Americans living in MN).
My Parents: Two incredible human beings. (You can read about one of those amazing humans here.) This couple, who had decided early on in their marriage that they wanted to add a child to their family through adoption, were also unable to conceive children biologically. When I look back on the landscape of my 35 years, I feel indescribably blessed to have been chosen by this particular couple to be theirs. Not only are they an amazing twosome, high school sweethearts from Fergus Falls, MN, married for 50 years (in August), dedicated to making the world a little bit better through their spirit of giving and providing a home for children in need as foster parents for twenty plus years, but they were also incredible parents. They made it their mission to make sure that, while my (also adopted) brother and I knew that we were their children, we also knew where we came from.
My Korean-ness: I was adopted from South Korea as an infant, at the time one of the youngest (three months old) to arrive in America. As a child, I was involved in a local Korean dance troupe, performing in my state’s Festival of Nations for several years in a row. My mom learned to cook Korean food, often inviting over friends and family members to participate in my heritage. When I was in fourth grade, my parents took me back to Seoul, Korea so that we could all experience my country of origin together. We visited again when I was a little older, in eighth grade.
Though my Korean heritage was a big part of my younger years, as I got older, and especially as I went through the awkward middle and high school years, I became more detached from my Korean-ness, sometimes treating my ethnicity the way I saw myself portrayed in pop culture – as a costume or “side show” to be used for laughs or entertainment. I saw people who looked like me portrayed as Mr. Yunioshi (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Long Duck Dong (Sixteen Candles), or Vietnamese prostitutes promising to, “Love you long time,” (Full Metal Jacket). If Asians weren’t being portrayed as villains or idiots or singing Christmas carols in broken English (“Fa ra ra ra ra” – you know the movie) then they were there simply there in the background, one of the United Colors of Benetton, to be checked off as “present” – check! It’s only now, as an adult and as a mother that I’ve begun to really own my Asian self with pride and without fear. Not a villain, not an idiot, not a comedic sideshow, not hyper-sexualized, not exotic. I’ve become much less ashamed or confused about my Asian-ness and about my womanhood. But, that’s another post for another time.
My Birth Mother: While we were on one of our trips to Korea, we were able to visit the orphanage where I spent my first three months of life. There, I was able to receive the little information we have about my birth mother. Surprisingly, they still had the records archived from my short stay there as an infant. Like many other adopted children’s records, mine held only information about my birth mother (nothing about my father) and simply stated that she was a young college student, only 18. The director explained that she was probably unmarried and in Korea, it is culturally unacceptable to have children out-of-wedlock. Women are shunned from society for having children out-of-wedlock, which is probably why I was given up. She gave birth to me in the maternity center of the orphanage and left me there shortly after. I don’t pretend to have any idea what that was like for her. I have only respect and admiration for a woman faced with one of life’s most difficult decisions. If you’d like to read more about that, you can do so here.
My Identity as an Adoptee: I think it is completely natural for adopted children to wonder where they came from, to wonder if certain traits or particular aptitudes came from their birth mother or birth father. I constantly and sometimes subconsciously searched for the similarities, and the spaces between skin color and shared talents to the place where where I belonged. I remember defiantly deciding as a child that I would just have to tell people that I was Korean….and English, Irish, Dutch, German, Norwegian, and Swedish…since that’s what my parents were. Though, no amount of defiance could keep me from being confused as the friend (instead of the daughter) whenever I was out with my beautiful white mother and one of my beautiful white friends.
From the first moment I was able to notice that my skin was darker, my eyes were different, my hair was darker than that of my white mom and dad, my parents answered honestly every question I had about where I came from. They never kept information about my background or the circumstances of my adoption from me. They always shared with me what little they had, whenever I asked for it. They went out of their way, ensuring I understood how much I was loved and wanted, while also reminding me how much I must have also been loved by my birth mother, for her to have given me up so I could have a better life. I truly feel like that is the reason why I was able to grow up with a healthy and positive view of my adoption experience and my place in my family. It wasn’t that I was magically immune to feelings of abandonment or questions about why. It was more so that I had been so blessed to enter into such a loving and stable environment that I never felt I was “lacking”. Perhaps, I would have a much different outlook if I hadn’t had this experience and this notion fills me with intense gratitude for my (adoptive) parents.
Now, back to my friends question.
There I was, coffee cup perched atop of my seven-months round belly. She asks:
“So, how do you feel about meeting your first biological relative soon?”
I was surprised at how dumbstruck I was in that moment. I truly hadn’t thought about this, so I think my response was something like, “Wow! I don’t know. That’ll be pretty cool.” Yep….. “Pretty cool.” That’s what I said. I remember actually feeling pretty emotional getting into my car and driving home that day. Because, while it was true, I would finally have someone that I knew… in person…who would be biologically related to me, I don’t think that I had ever felt quite so alone before. Because, really, the flip side of that question is: Until now, you’ve never known anyone to whom you are biologically related. The question hit me like a ton of bricks that seemed to bring to the surface other connections I hadn’t yet made. Thoughts that I hadn’t allowed to enter in rushed through my mind like a tidal wave:
- My mom won’t know how to council me through my pregnancy (having never carried a child of her own) and in many ways, this will be new to her too.
- What will it be like to hold my baby for the first time and to look down and see someone who looks like me?
- Did my biological mom hold me when I was born?
- Each new stage and each new sensation I felt, as my baby was growing inside of me, my birth mother once felt also, as I was growing inside of her.
- I had no idea how attached I would already be to this tiny little bean, who had made his home inside my swelling belly and I wondered if my biological mother had to fight the urge to become attached to me. Did she know the entire time she was carrying me that she’d be giving me up?
- Does she still think of me on my birthday and then again on my adoption day?
- And finally, yes, in fact I was about to actually know someone who is related to me. By blood. Who might look like me, sound like me, laugh like me.
When I thought about these things, it’s like something inside me broke open. Something that had long been sleeping, waiting for it’s opportunity to be allowed a voice. Waiting to be seen, noticed. Small things that I hadn’t even realized hurt. Like the way my cousins, when they turn a certain way, have my dad’s chin. Or how when another cousin laughs, the top of his nose crinkles just around his eyes, like my mom. Or, yeah, even the way that my friends were sometimes mistaken for my parent’s children instead of me. Or maybe, just never being able to say, “I have her hips or his temperament,” or, “I do this exactly like she does,” (nurtured traits aside – and yes, there are a lot of them). No one’s ever said to me, “You look so much like grandma, or you have your uncle’s nose.”
But with this new, little baby, I could finally allow myself to imagine what it would be like to hear someone say, “He has your eyes.” And maybe he would also have his daddy’s dimples and (if he’s lucky) his uncle’s eyelashes.
This little person, who would be my first biological relative. And possibly, the only one I’ll ever know.
All of these thoughts entered and re-entered my mind throughout the following months. I would mull them over. Turning them over and over in my mind like a stone in a river. Studying their ridges and their curves until they felt smooth in my hands.
And then September came, and he was here.
And everyday, since the first day I met him, I could sit and stare at him for hours without end. I could study his little face, and his chubby feet (mine) and dimpled hands. I could ponder the curve of his nose (Chris’s) and the shape of his mouth when he talks or laughs (mine). I could listen to the sound of his tiny voice, absent-mindedly singing to himself while he plays with his dinosaurs and his cars.
Am I any different from any other parent? Are these acts somehow independent of anyone else who has a child? Probably not. But I still think he’s amazing.
Shortly after Jonah’s birth, we were with my husbands family, his brother pointed out that he thought Jonah had my eyes and Chris’s stature, and I said that I thought he had his uncle’s eyelashes (Yes! He got them. Lucky little boy.)
I remember how struck I was at that moment. I had never been able to say that before. I’d never been able to look at another person and see something of myself in them. And then look again and see something else of another family member.
For the first time ever in my life, I was able to feel the interconnected web stretch from myself to my son, and then to his father, his uncle, his grandpa, his aunt, his cousin and on and on and on. For the first time ever, I wasn’t alone on this island with no tangible connection to anyone. I finally had a connection and it all started with him.
I suppose it’s a heavy burden for him to bear. And maybe without knowing or trying to, I value him differently because he is my blood. But, then again, how would I ever know? I’m just feeling what I feel, doing what I do. Just like any other parent, really, I’m plodding along, feeling my way as I go, praying to the universe that I’m not totally screwing him up.
So, how does it feel to finally meet my first biological relative? Honestly?
It’s hard for me to put into words how this feels. That may seem a bit avoidant, but I really don’t believe that I could find words big enough to describe how this feels. I think it’s something like forgetting to breathe, and being afraid to blink, and laughter through tears (or vice versa). I think it’s something like awe and gratitude and loss and gain and sorrow and joy all at the same time.