Monday, August 27, 2007

Mistaken identity

I never took my husband’s last name. I was too attached to my Latino name, the one given to me by my parents. In fact, I embraced their heritage as my own.

Though my mother tried to keep me in touch with my Asian side, I rebelled. I rejected things Asian and clung to things Puerto Rican and southern. In grade school, high school and college, I was often paired with the Asian boys, though I was never attracted to them. However, they did become some of my most treasured friends.

In second grade, my mother helped my brownie troop dress in traditional Korean dress and learn a Korean dance for a community international day. I still have the dress she so painstakingly made for me. I also kept a scrapbook with the Korean flag on it that she had bought on one of her trips to Korea. But in everyday life, I, too, forgot my own biological past.

However, I was often reminded. In grade school, I was teased about my eyes, and chants about the Chinese would be used to me to intimidate me. Once in college, I was at a frat party and wearing sunglasses. A brother came up to me and said, “Wow, you actually look normal with those sunglasses on.” Normal. My life was never normal, but I love it that way.

In one large college class, I sat. The professor started calling roll. He said my name, and looked around the room. He was scanning for a Mexican, a Puerto Rican, someone who wasn’t me. I raised my hand. His gaze passed over me, as if to say, “Oh, she doesn’t understand English well.” He then repeated my name again. And I had to clear my throat and say, “Um, that’s me.”

Another classmate’s mother was doing research on the make-up of our freshman college class. Her daughter was in my Spanish class and told me her mother had mentioned a Latino student who had ticked the incorrect Asian American box. She told her daughter that she would have to change the data for that student. The classmate revealed to her mother that such a young woman existed … me.

I still struggle with the race question. What box should I tick? Should I answer “yes” to the question of Latino descent? I usually tick “other” unless there is the wonderful option, “prefer not to answer.”

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Oh, how they forget!

My family has accepted me from the first day. At times, they forget that I am adopted, though it is shockingly apparent to those who don’t know us.

My mother has had so many of those moments. Once as a teenager, I was fantasizing about what my own family might be one day. I said, “I wish I could have a red-headed child.” My mother said casually, “You could. I’m a red-head, your grandmother was a red-head … ” I asked her, as a smart teenager, “Have you looked at me lately?” And her response was, “Oh, I guess not.”

Another time, I sat with her at the Opryland Hotel bar. We ordered drinks, and the server asked for my identification. My mother was brooding as I produced proof of my age. She was fuming. I asked her what was wrong. She said, “I’m your mother. I wouldn’t allow you to drink if you were underage!” I tried not to laugh, and I calmed her by saying, “Mom, SHE doesn’t know that I’m your daughter.”

My sister is my parents’ biological daughter and six years my junior. We grew closer as we both reached early adulthood. One evening, we attended a Blue Nile concert in the Old Town area of Knoxville, Tennessee. We sat very close together, hugging and wrapping our arms around each other. Later, we noticed some disapproving looks. We were truly puzzled until we realized that we didn’t look like siblings.

In Puerto Rico, where my father’s family lives, they, too, have forgotten my biological roots. The first time my husband and I brought our infant son to the island, a cousin took us around to the city hall. There we found a photograph of my father’s grandfather, a former mayor. My cousin held up my infant son and said, “He looks just like him!” My husband and I smiled, enjoying the absolute love.

In the beginning ...


Close to forty years ago, my parents, after a painful still birth, decided to place their hearts in my hands. [I will always refer to my adoptive parents as “my parents”.]

At six months old, I was left at the Chong Yang Ri police station on May 24, 1968. No name, no information. I became the Holt Adoption Program’s #5596. I was given a name, Sook Hyun Kim, and a birthdate, November 15, 1967. In the first images of me, I appear frightened. But by nine months, when my parents received their highly anticipated letter, my photographs revealed a chubby, happy girl.

For obvious reasons, I remember very little of that time. All I know is from photographs and my mother’s recollections. I spent my first birthday away from my parents, but my foster parents were kind enough to send photographs of me on that traditionally special day in Korea. I wore the full traditional dress. And I appeared to be walking, this fact hurt my mother deeply. “I wanted to be there for that milestone,” she once told me. When I was eventually brought to Tennessee to meet my mother’s family for the first time, my grandmother ran over and grabbed me out of my mother’s arms, saying, “Give me that thang!” From that moment on, I was theirs and they mine.

I became quite the novelty in the small east Tennessee town of Newport. At that time, there were no Asians in Newport as far as my family knew. I was just one of them. On occasions, people would stop my mother to chat about the little “China doll” that sat in her shopping cart. One woman asked in a whisper, “Will you tell her she’s adopted?” My mother replied calmly, “Oh, she has only to look in the mirror! But yes, she knows she was chosen.”