Friday, December 13, 2013

Well, #theyasked …

Last winter, my sister, hooked me on yet another social medium … Twitter. I blamed her youth (six years my junior).

Truth be told, Twitter has opened my eyes, and allowed me to speak more freely about issues of race, gender and adoption. I’ve discovered role models of color, strong women and fellow adoptees. Refreshing … like that ice-cold Coke on a hot Tennessee summer’s day.

This week, I stumbled across Kat Chow (@katchow) and her #theyasked thread. It began with an NPR Code Switch article from May.

Around the same time as this article, many of my friends sent me this YouTube video, via both private messages and emails.



All of these things have come rushing back this week. Two separate people queried in sensitive ways. Change is happening, and that’s refreshing! The question most commonly asked of me this week was, “I detect a Southern accent … ”

To which, I replied, “You do, indeed!  I’m from Appalachia, the Tennessee side.” Then, there is the usual discomfort in their faces, like they are trying to figure it all out. I understand their confusion, but continue as I normally do, acting oblivious to the true question that is lurking behind their smiles.

Call me narcissistic, but I enjoy watching this quizzical look. You see, I have lived this uncomfortable moment for 46 years … always wondering who I am and “where I am from,” questioning my language, my legal name and the face that looks back at me. All these fabulous things meld into the person I am today … the anomaly that confuses and causes uncomfortable moments.

It certainly makes for interesting conversation. The addition of my husband’s English background causes even more confusion as I use words like “toilet” for bathroom, “holiday” for vacation, and all the rude “b” British terms.

This British connection caused me to hide the YouTube video, sensitive to my in-laws and my own children, but now, I realize that such things spark the race conversation. What is even more interesting are all the comments people feel so beholden to make.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Mothers Without Children

The human interest story, as Martin Sixsmith explains, is about “the weak-minded and ignorant.” The feeble do not deserve the mind of a newsman. However, if you read my blog, you enjoy the human interest story. We all do, and Martin Sixsmith becomes magnetized by the story of Philomena Lee.

We gravitate to the human interest story because it validates our own lives as living, breathing people who feel. We feel love, loss, pain, anger and sorrow.


Going into the Sundance Theater today, I anticipated the emotions. A movie about adoption? Stop right there. I know about adoption all too well … right? I’ve lived it.

This story’s viewpoint floored me. I felt shellshocked as I left the building. In my last post, I reviewed Closure, another adoption film and was touched by the mothers. I began to wonder before seeing Closure and Philomena about my own story … about my first six months.

In my fantasy birth story, which I have based on my own experience from my children’s birth stories, I am conceived around Valentine’s Day (though I doubt Korea celebrated Valentine’s Day in 1967), and I am born two weeks early, around noon.

My mother would have cuddled me and immediately started breastfeeding me. She would love me those six months, but being an impoverished woman, she would be struck with the hard reality that she could not feed me breastmilk exclusively after six months. She would have another mouth to feed without the means to do so. I am also a girl, not a desirable boy.

So, on a spring morning, May 24, 1968, she wraps me up and leaves me at the Chong Yang Ri police station. I imagine she waits at a side shop, her watchful eye focused on her precious bundle. As someone takes me inside the station, tears stream down her face. She walks quickly, then breaks into a run. She hopes to be taken far away from the hurt and pain of letting go.

She wonders about her little girl, just as Philomena says, “I’ve thought of him every day.” I imagine the heavy load of losing a child. I imagine the anger and frustration of feeling hopeless. I imagine the grief in not knowing the fate of your child.

I have lived my life believing that I would never find my birth family unless they came looking for me, but what I have seen in Philomena and in Closure, is the rarity of being able to know the truth. The hurdles and road blocks put up by unscrupulous abbeys and adoption agencies. If families searched, would they find their child? Only if they have the means to do so, and that is rare.

Martin Sixsmith spoke of the “weak-minded and ignorant.” I argue that they are neither, but rather, forced to accept the reality of poverty and powerlessness. It saddens me to think of the mothers without children who long to be mothers again.

It is my turn to take a step, my turn to ask the questions, my turn to weave that loose thread.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Road to Closure (Spoiler Alert)

The evening before the weekend adoption conference, this film played at the Minnesota Transracial Film Festival.


In it, I followed adoptee Angela from Bellingham, Washington, to a town I know well, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Her journey is emotionally agonizing, yet beautiful. The filmmaker’s eye is keenly sensitive, yet honest.

Emotions pooled within me that I hadn’t known … a yearning, an aching for biological parents. I have spoken of my adoptive parents through much of this blog. But this night, I began to see the struggles and agonies of those whom adoptive children have left behind.

Angela is brave enough to confront these yearnings, as so many of my Lost Daughters’ sisters have. At 46, it seems futile for me to search … I think my parents could be long gone. But as this movie illustrated, it was bigger than Angela and her original parents. There were siblings, a grandmother, aunts, uncles, and others who wanted to know the lost sibling, granddaughter and niece.

Angela’s biological father also finds that he is not sterile as he had been told, and that in fact, he has a daughter! His delight is infectious. It reminded me of the delight in Haley’s father’s eyes on seeing her in China (Somewhere Between). I imagine the pain of these fathers and of Dusten Brown. It is not enough to recognize the loss of the original mother, but the pain and injustice to fathers who only want to love their children.

I also viewed a side of the adoption industry that troubled me. While I have read these things, to see them in action was agonizing. The agency in Angela’s original mother’s case revealed only scant, but troubling information about Angela’s biological sister’s “severe depression and possible multiple retardation,” reported in 1996, despite having the information about her whereabouts and adoptive family directly in front of her. The adoption agency worker in her Southern way carefully offered to contact “a worker at that office … to see if they have any way of contacting the other family.”

On the other hand, a touching, true testament to Angela’s adoptive mother’s love, was revealed. Every year, she had sent Angela’s birth mother a card with a letter chronicling Angela’s life. True love transcends all. But unfortunately, the adoption agency did not follow through and pass on these letters of love from one mother to another. In this film, Angela, her original mother and her adoptive mother share in the opening of this time capsule … so many years late in the opening.

Just as Angela’s adoptive mother had, my father and mother honestly shared all the information they had with me from a very early age. My parents respected me as an individual and loved me. I couldn’t ask for more … but then again, I just might need to ask the agency a few questions …




Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Adoptees are a family.

As an adoptee, there are so many people who create your sense of self … adoptive families, birth families, and most importantly, adoptees. The latter has not come into fruition for me until this year. In September of last year, I met my first Korean adult adoptee. It was a serendipitous meeting.

So much has happened in this last year, but the cap to this year has been my connection to the Lost Daughters. I have learned so very much from them. The stories are all so different, but then again, so familiar.

How we got here has shaped us, and we continue to grow. The internet has granted us access to so many people. Again, only this year have I dived into the sea of social media; the wading has ended.

This flood of people has taught me so much about the struggles we all have … struggles with seeing our original birth certificates, struggles in not having birth certificates, struggles in blending two very important families into one.

Adoptees converged on St. Paul this weekend for the Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative Conference. My drive to St. Paul had me in a twist of ambivalence. I feared rejection again from the group for having loved my adoptive parents, rejection from having not searched for my birth family, rejection for just being me.

What I discovered was a group that welcomed and enveloped me, as tentative as I was. We are our comfort. Thank you, adoptees.


Enveloped by the Lost Daughters.


With my Lost Daughter sisters.


With Deann Borshay Liem of First Person Plural.


With Fang Lee of Somewhere Between.

Friday, November 15, 2013

My friends and family made me.

This week was my birthday week. Saying “week” must sound selfish, but to be honest, it is the best way for me to celebrate. My mid-November birthday was “given” to me by the Korean government so I have no “birth story.” I have my first pair of shoes that show the year I was born (Sheep). They have cracked with age much like my identity. So, give me a birthday week, people.



My week began with my friend, Adrienne. She and her son visited. Her story of the weekend is here. Adrienne has been my link to my birth country, Korea. She brought me beautiful Korean gifts.



My birthday week brought lovely gifts from my friend, Katherine. She reminded me where my heart lies … Virginia.



But the most poignant gift came from my kids. Their gift was this movie (from my wish list).


I promised them that we would watch it as a family when I return.

So, to cap off my week, I am headed to St. Paul to the Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative Conference. This will be my way of filling in the cracks. Stay tuned …

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

We are entitled.

Yesterday on a drive around town, my son again opened up the conversation. “I know you are going to hate this, but … ”

These days with a teen, I just never know what is going to be said. One painstaking one was, “I didn’t choose to be born.” Choices. We all have them. Some more than others.

In my teenage days, my stab came in the form of “I wish you had never adopted me.” I’ve been turning all these sayings over in my head, and I regret that last one, just as my son apologized for his.

This week, I was also reminded of my time in Rwanda in the 1990s. Choices in Rwanda were more fundamental. Choices were built on survival. Do you fetch water or go without? Do you trap animals in the forest or go hungry? Western eyes would enter and assess with Western views. Fundamental survival is not a Western worry.

I see parallels in the adoption community. Some adoption agencies and potential adoptive families look at adoption as a way of saving the adoptee. Saving a child from the culture of have nots. But what is it they do not have? A plethora of dining choices? Filtered, bottled water? The newest technology? A chance at fleeting fame?

Much has been said about international adoptees’ lack of gratitude. If a teenage adoptee is not the model teenager (though what teen is), there is the option of rehoming. But what person is grateful when he or she have no choices or too many?

Child adoptees have no choices. They do not choose their parents. They do not choose their futures in families. So what can we do as a society that cares for our children and the future of our world? Listen. The voices of adult adoptees should not be hushed or asked to take a more thankful tone. Adult adoptees are actively looking out for the futures of the young. Choices in the lives of child adoptees need to be mindful and adapted based on past mistakes and successes. 

As a parent, I have parented with a level of choices for my children. When they were small, I realized that my children really did not have the ability to make educated choices, so I often gave them two accepted choices. Now that they are older, I struggle to offer the choices that will ultimately determine whether or not they will make the choice I would. My son is old enough now to see my cracks and flaws and point them out. He sees my choice may not be the best one.


So, his question yesterday ended with “ … I don’t want another phone unless it is an iPhone.” Imagine my frustration. He saw it, then said, “Really, Mom. You love your iPhone and cannot do without it.” Point taken. 

In the 1970s, when Nike became THE shoe, I had a similar conversation with my father. “I don’t want my buddies, I want Nikes!” My parents did not have the means to buy these expensive shoes, so I heard this little ditty as I walked the halls, “Buddies, they cost a dollar-99. Buddies, they make your feet feel fine … ”

My father responded by drawing the Nike symbol on a piece a paper and asked if I might hand him my buddies so that he could draw that coveted symbol on them. Okay, Dad, after all these years. Point taken.


Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Woman in the Mirror


When I was small, my mother would often be presented with this question:

“Will you tell her she’s adopted?”

My mother’s response was always, “Oh, she has only to look in the mirror!” I talk about this in my first blog post in 2007. When I began this blog, it was to honor my mother and father and to record my history for my children.

The last year has brought many revelations. I’ve met more adoptees, watched adoption movies, written for the Lost Daughters … and I have looked in the mirror more closely. 

Today, as a transracial adoptee, I am often presented with this question:

“When did you know you were racially different?”

Initially, my simplistic answer was, “When I saw myself in the mirror.” But that answer is really a reflection of my mother’s story and her answer. I have repeated that answer for close to 40 years.


Now, the mirror reveals so much more. She’s Korean, yes, but she also still sees the white Tennessean, the Puerto Rican, the wife of the white Brit, and the mother of mixed race children. Unfortunately, the rest of the world only sees what the mirror reflects.

Perhaps that is my biggest frustration. I am so much more than Korean. 


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Love that Breaks the Mold

Re-homing and litigations have flooded the media stream. I have watched these stories repeat the anger and anguish in the Lost Daughters sisterhood. This frustration and repeated hurt weighed heavily on me.

Just as I felt I could take it no more, my family flew into town! All those negative feelings fell away from me when I saw my father, my sister and my niece. 


It was a euphoric weekend. Words cannot express what my photographs can. It was a joyous time, filled with laughter and love. My father can be so infectiously funny; he brings out the comedian in my son too. 



My daughter told me she heard my sister’s “Mommy voice” but that my sister’s voice was more “thoughtful.”  We were told by my children and my niece that the events on Sunday would not include us! Little did they know, we were thrilled by this declaration, though we didn’t show our delight.

But my sister and I were able to spend time with our father and each other.



We honored the legacy of our mother, in my separate photography project, Portrait of a Feminist.


And while I never was able to photograph my mother’s hands, my memory served me well when I saw my sister’s hands. Hers resembled those hands I remembered … the ones that comforted me, embraced me and held me throughout my life.



Many may ask if this biological resemblance might make me long to have the same. I do not. They might ask if I am saddened that I do not share this physical similarity. I am not. My family is that … my family. Their love sustains me, just as it continues to do for my children. 



Those who know us see the love that broke the mold. Even those unfamiliar with us see it. This Monday, I took my niece to my daughter’s school so that she could see my daughter. A teacher politely said, “I didn’t know you had another child.”

I replied, “Oh, I don’t. This is my niece.”

“Oh! I thought she was yours since she looks just like your daughter!” 

Other friends, upon seeing the photographs of our daughters, wrote things like, “Looking at 2 mini-me’s!” 

We just chuckle, because we know that biologically, our girls are not similar. We love the assumption though!


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Perfection is a Façade

An article on Carol Shipley’s new book, Love, Loss and Longing: Stories of Adoption, took my breath away this morning.

Her words had played out in my head for so many years. She said she wanted to be the voice for the voiceless. I had lost my voice years ago. I gave up to become what society wanted me to be.

I became white, Puerto Rican, and an academic over-achiever. My parents glowed as they would say, “It’s not us. She’s naturally smart. She’s so neat and intelligent. It’s in her genes.” They were proud, and I wanted to please them.

My academic achievements were also driven by my outward appearance. As an Asian, I was viewed as a mathematical genius. Teachers and college professors would encourage me to pursue mathematics. Mathematics did come naturally to me, but I yearned to express myself in words and artwork.


Shipley is quoted in the article saying that adoptees internalize an “adoption bargain” that manifests in the need “to be a perfect model daughter so the choice that the adoptive parents made will have been worth it.”

While I know my parents would love me no matter my performance, internally, I struggled with myself to be perfect in every way. I still exhibit this as an adult. I want to be the model parent, the model wife, the model person. As I spiral, I see this quality in my son. He also wants that perfection. He fears failure. Good grades are often not enough for him. I want to help him, but I still find myself struggling with the same demons.

Is there a person in Korea who could help me? Or did that person fear failing in parenthood? By all accounts, she did an excellent job in nurturing me until I was six months old. Her care and nursing has kept me healthy, and I have passed on her flora to my own children.

Here’s where my feelings rush in. I wonder about her and have since that first moment I knew I was pregnant. Not being able to ask her what she felt as I moved underneath her skin is a difficult feeling to suppress.

Shipley says, “The adoptee goes through life not wanting to hurt others, and in doing so, buries her own hurt.”

As a child, my hurt was recorded privately in journals. There are volumes of journals in our basement, spanning the days of “I love Donny Osmond,” to this blog. My emotions rush out on paper or over the keys. I also put much of my energy in trying to help others who might be in need or hurting. Social activism is my outlet. And sometimes, the hurt for others overcomes me.

This blog has helped me to know that others are out there hurting as I have. It has been a cathartic journey. I thank you for following; it heals me.




Monday, October 14, 2013

American = White

I am exhausted. The shutdown, the politics, the racists.

Our lives are consumed by the government shutdown. The man is growing his beard until he can go back to work. That makes me cranky. I can’t kiss that.


But back to my rant. The hardest part for me is the showing of the rebel flag. I grew up in the South where the rebel flag flies high and proud … bumper stickers, t-shirts, flags on the back of pick-up trucks. I moved to escape them and the constant ridicule they brought me. I moved to erase the feelings of fear.

Despite my move from the Deep South, I am reminded that the attitudes and pride in those attitudes still live on. Just this summer, as I was enjoying a outdoor, public dance, a woman stood with her back just feet from my face. Her shirt emblazoned with that familiar, fear-evoking flag.


Now, our president is faced with this same flag. Let me repeat that: Our president is faced with this same flag. The Washington Post blogger, Jonathan Capeheart truly sums up my feelings when he writes:
“For those of you who would push back by saying we’re overreacting, that the Confederate flag is nothing more than a symbol of regional pride, save it. That flag you revere so much is no better than a Swastika, a threatening symbol of hate that has no place in American political discourse.”
The Politico, backs up this idea as it quotes Samuel Wurzelbacher, known as “Joe, the Plumber,” from an article he wrote. Wurzelbacher writes:
“Admit it. You want a white Republican president again. Wanting a white Republican president doesn’t make you racist, it just makes you American.”
I interpret this to mean that if you are American, you want a president like you … white and male. This frightens me, that people in our country feel so strongly about this. That white equals American.

As a young Asian adoptee raised predominately by a white, Southern family, I once bought into that belief. I felt white, despite almost daily teasing that told me the truth … I was Asian.

I left the South almost twenty years ago. I love my Southern family and enjoy holidays where I can stay safely in the confines of my childhood home, but the moment we leave the house, the images from which I want to protect my children are everywhere. They are shocked at the sight of the flag. They know what it means, and I want to protect them from that gut-gripping fear I feel when I see it.

And yet, I cannot protect them. The divide in our country is emerging, and it is very much along the lines of race. I want to believe that the majority of Americans will soon see this divide and demand a reconciliation that respects our president because he was elected president, regardless of his race.


Friday, October 4, 2013

Motherhood … a job well done?

At thirteen, I sank into depression. I became a person no one would recognize today, and I wrote my mother letters that said, “I wish you had never adopted me.” Those words wounded her.

I wouldn’t understand or remember the wounds until the week after her death. Going through her things, my sister and I found one of my teenage-angst-ridden letters. This was the only negative letter amongst every letter I had ever written her, a drawer full of letters from my days in college to our days in Rwanda. Our last joyous days before I became a parent were also there captured in this photograph from her visit in 1998.



All my teenage anger is now coming to the surface as I have my own thirteen-year-old. He’s struggling with himself, and often his words cut me just as mine cut my mother some 33 years ago. 

I am thankful for the friends who have supported me, but at times, it is hard. More seasoned parents will recall their troubles and say, “My mom was such a rock,” or “My mother was there to support me and show me the way.” Most do not know my personal struggles with the loss of my mother. I politely say “Thanks.” It is nice for those mothers and grandmothers to have that final realization that their job was done well in the end.

I wrestle with that. My mother didn’t have that realization, but I know she would have relished it. I am still on that rough road to finding the end … well-done.


Monday, September 23, 2013

The loss she must feel.

My words fail me. Her loss is great.

She will no longer hear the voice that has nurtured her for almost two years, the voice of a man who loved her but lost her at first.

Loss and grieving. Many of my adoptee friends express this loss, but none can imagine the torment she must feel now … at the ripe old age of four.

She was found but is now lost again.

If only I could ease her pain. If only I could hug her to hide the haunting of a new surrounding. But that should be the job of the person she trusts the most … her father, Dusten Brown.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

“We can’t change people by fighting them.”

With the recent media coverage, the adoption agency from which I was adopted, Holt International Children’s Services, has spoken out. The guest columnist, Susan Soonkeum Cox, is vice president for policy and external affairs for Holt International and a Korean adoptee.


Upon reading this column, I was happy to see the agency speak out. What sparked hope in me was these words from Ms. Cox:

“Education, training and matching take time and resources. But it is time and resources well spent when it results in adoptions that work -- for the child. 
This is why Holt and other credible adoption agencies support the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which has been ratified by the United States and 90 other countries. The convention provides global standards that ensure birth families, adoptive families and adopted children have the security of processes and systems designed to protect them. 
The Universal Accreditation Act, which takes effect July 2014, requires every international adoption service provider to be Hague accredited and compliant. This will narrow the gap between unethical practitioners and competent, professional service providers. The act also includes prosecution for unethical practitioners.”

But then, I read the comments. I knew what they might contain because I had been alerted to the column through my connections to Transracial Eyes blog.

Upon reading the remainder of this blogpost, many adoption activists might call me a “KoolAid Drinker.”

That said, I need this dialogue, and the message Ms. Cox has written. I need to believe that the laws and regulations will change to advocate for children. I need to believe that there will be more adoption research, more adoption accountability, more adoption discussion.

I understand the hurt and pain felt by the commenters, Paper Orphan and Daniel Ibn Zayd. Their pain has prompted their activism. Their pain is raw, and and the wound is angry.

But I am fearful that the hurtful words only discredit their message that adoptee welfare needs to be the primary concern in adoptions.

The experiences of Paper Orphan and Daniel Ibn Zayd should not be ignored; their voices need to be understood. However, in a forum of comments, if there is anger, those who need to hear the message to unite for change will only stop listening.

Rather than fighting amongst ourselves, I would prefer to see us united and focused on the future of other adoptees … those young children like Baby Veronica and those children who have been re-homed or swapped. The voice of a large adoption agency pushes the issue to the forefront, and with our smaller voices, all will be a force for change.

Words are powerful. Words are the tools of change, but they can also incite war and loathing.

Change is sweeping the country for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and questioning individuals. Change is coming for the feminists. It’s time to see change in the adoption community. All this change comes as we work together.

What Patrick once said to me bears repeating, “We can’t change people by fighting them.” 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Children are not commodities.

This week has worn me down. Recent revelations in the media on adoptee re-homing, underground swapping and billboard advertisements filled my inbox.



My initial response was shock and horror, then raw anger. Once again, children are seen as commodities. They are advertised, bought and sold.

What keeps reoccurring is this underlying assumption that children are objects. They are selected, placed, advertised, re-homed, swapped and trafficked. They are the subject of lawsuits where a winner-take-all attitude reigns. And all of this takes money. Those with the funds can do as they please. Forget the young life that is being molded and shaped by these disruptive experiences.

I’m a birth mother. Some may argue that as a birth mother it is easier to love, but I think that if a person wants to be a parent, she can do so regardless of how her parenthood evolved. My adoptive parents are the perfect examples, and I learned so much from them.

For me, motherhood is about loving my children despite what they might say or what they might act out. My mother heard my teen voice angrily say, “I wish you had never adopted me!” I knew it would hurt her, and at that age, that was my goal. When I expressed my regret at having said this, my husband revealed his simultaneous “I wish I had never been born!”

For me, motherhood is respecting my children as they become their own individuals … even if it is counter to my individuality. Motherhood is also about supporting them until they are adults and eventually letting them go.

I will leave you with this lovely New Yorker story of a couple who loved their son unconditionally. More simply put, they felt what their son felt. These parents understood to the point of setting their own desires aside. They loved enough to support (both emotionally and financially) their son’s desire to return to his birth country and his original father.

The Baby Veronica case, re-homing and underground swapping are flooding the media. I am hopeful that this media attention will open up more constructive dialogue and lead to more substantive change.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

Remember that line from Tennessee Williams’ play, A Streetcar Named Desire? Blanche DuBois, spiraling out of control, reaches out to the doctor who is taking her away, saying, “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”


I have said this to myself often. Initially as a teenager, I made the connection with Blanche because of her accent. It seemed the southernly way for the women in Tennessee. We quoted her and spoke in our thickest accents.

Later, I realized the tragedy of Blanche’s life. As a feminist, I understood hers was a life to be avoided. And yet, in my early college days, I played out many of Blanche’s foibles. Some of my anxieties were rooted in my feelings of racial inadequacy. Unlike the Asian attraction on the West Coast, most in Tennessee were more repulsed by me than attracted.

Unlike Blanche, I did find love from a young Liverpudlian. What attracted him to me was his lack of American male “Stanley” qualities. He respected me as an equal. (I always hated when men would open the door for me. Frankly, they were obstructing the doorway.)

Like my relationship with my adoptive family, I have noticed that I seek deep, family-like friendships. Since beginning my writing for the Lost Daughters, I see similar things happening among them. They are like sisters. Is it that we, as adoptees, have so readily accepted strangers as family, that it makes our friendships more complex?

Over the years, I have adopted additional family members … Kayla, LaDawn, Patrick, Alberto, Jules, Jenny,  Marlene, Kathy, Katherine, Adrienne and now Amy. They are my sisters and brothers. They have accepted my Blanche-like ways. Those who haven’t? Well, my adoptive papers show the darker side of my psyche:



Thursday, September 5, 2013

How Hands Define Us

In the summer of 1987, a few months after my grandmother died, my mother stood, shoulders slumped and shaking. The scent of biscuits had pulled me into the kitchen.

She was silently sobbing. I hugged her and asked what was troubling her.

“Oh, I just remembered something as I was making biscuits,” she said. I looked at her in that knowing way … asking her to continue without using words.

“Shortly after your grandmother died, I went to the kitchen to clean out things. When I opened the Crisco, I saw where she had used her fingers to take the Crisco out to make biscuits.”

I imagined the tracks made by my grandmother’s hands. She cooked without measuring, and most everything was homemade. I remember her hands.

As a teen, I would often sit down with my grandmother … clip, file and clean her nails. She had the sweetest hands, tired from years of working the land and feeding her family. I can remember them, but I regret never learning to draw well enough to reproduce them.  Ironically, I began my coursework in photography that following fall after her death.

It is those we love who define us. The best I can do now, is document the hands that define me. I began late, so I have no images of my mother’s hands either. They are imprinted in my mind as well.

So, I present one of my most intimate series of photographs.


The series began with this image I made of my daughter and my husband’s mother’s hands. My mother-in-law is the only grandmother my daughter has left.



This summer I traveled to Tennessee to capture the hands of my father as his wrapped around my daughter’s.


Then, I found the woman who served as a surrogate mother to me in my early years as a young professional.


Here are my daughter’s hands.


This has inspired my son to also document my hands. Here are mine wrapped around my daughter’s as we sat in a restaurant talking with friends.


But this is my favorite hands photograph, taken by my husband. This was the decisive moment where the love of my kids presents the definitive definition of me.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Model Minority

Why are Asians considered the “model minority”?

Because we don’t lash out but slink into depression when we are called “Chink,” “Cambodian Refugee,” “China Doll,” … ?

Because we try overachieving to distract from our insecurities?

Because we try to overcompensate by using humor to diffuse uncomfortable situations?

Because we appear to fulfill someone’s unrealistic fantasies about Asian women?

Because we can be held up as “equals” but not featured as strong, competent people in sitcoms, movies or ads?

Because we are numbers in the “minority count” while our Black and Hispanic friends are discounted?

This “model” doesn’t seem too ideal to me. Keep your moniker, thank you.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Cusp of Fall

Today, I had a lovely “last days of summer” day with my children.

We began our day with a rally for women’s rights at the Wisconsin State Capitol. My sweet girl sat in the soft grass and played with her brother and a friend’s daughter, as I worked on my newest photographic project, Portrait of a Feminist.


While I was energized by my work today, I was more amazed at my kids’ supportive presence. Our day was so harmonious.

My son did his goofy faces, and they had spoon races.



But as our day winded down. A sorrow soaked our souls. Our last minutes in the car were filled with three people silently crying as the loss of our sweet summer hit us hard.

A few years ago, my tune would have been different. Now, I sense my children growing older and looking tentatively at their futures as independent beings. It’s bittersweet.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Rights of Baby Girl

In the months since the June decision by the Supreme Court, the fate of the Baby Girl, Veronica, has flooded my mind, my emails and my conversations.

So many bloggers have written their opinions, but one blogger, both a social worker in the adoption field and an adoptive parent, stood out. In her post, she poses this very poignant question:
“At what point do you do what is in a child’s best interest and sacrifice your own heart?”
The way I see it, our society is becoming more about what we have. For the adoptive parents, it is having the child, no matter what the risks to her well-being. I understand their pain in having had a baby and having it taken away. Birth mothers do this every time an adoption occurs. In this case, there were missteps, but the bottom line should be what is best for Veronica, not how can justice be served?

Media spots and the frenzy that comes with the coverage should not factor into a decision. Voices that say she would be “better off” with the adoptive parents assume that wealth is the key to happiness. That parents who could give her more could ease the hurt of separation from a father she has come to know is naive at best. And what is meant by “more”?

Love is not more money. Love is just as the blogger wrote … sacrifice. A sacrifice of self.

As this blogger points out there is added trauma in multiple moves to different families.

Baby Veronica has the right to be spared this trauma.


Friday, August 23, 2013

My Cloak of Comfort

Yesterday, I heard a story of a woman similar to me.

This woman quit her job and moved away with her husband, who like mine, traveled a lot. In the past few years since the move, she found it more and more difficult to find employment in her new home base. So, she decided to move back to her old town and find employment. She was quickly hired but had to leave her child behind with her mother.

Hearing this story, filled me with envy. I felt selfish and resentful. I imagined myself moving back to Virginia and rejoining my former boss in our dynamic duo of design loveliness. This imagining quickly dissipated as the reality set in.

I love my children. I am fiercely protective of them. I cannot and will not relinquish their care. The other challenge in this overblown dream is that I no longer have my mother. My sister lives in Washington state, and my father lives in Tennessee. I have no one to come to my rescue if I were to decide to pursue such a dream.

We walked the halls of both of my children’s schools today. They were energized, but also reluctant. It was a bittersweet day. As the constant heavy rain fell, it seemed so apropos. We need it, but it still saddens us. 

Just as I felt helpless, my book of womenfolks beckoned me. As I sat in the parking lot, waiting for my son to finish soccer practice, I read this passage:

“Every Friday, Viola and Frances (my mother) started the morning at The Beauty Shop. Dorothy would wash, tease and spray the mothers’ heads. It took hours.

In that time, my sister and I would spin in the salon chairs, bask in the dry heat of the hair dryers and hear the latest gossip. We loved Fridays.

Afterwards, we crossed the street to the Belk department store to browse. Here, my sister and I would play in the circular racks. My mom bought my first training bra at Belk.

From there, we would make our way to the grocery store, White Store. At the end of the first aisle, there was a Coca-Cola machine.


For 25¢, we would get an ice-cold Coca-Cola in a glass bottle. After a few sips, my grandmother would slip me 10¢ to go next door to pick a candy from the 5 & Dime.

I always went for the huge sour apple lollipop. It woke my cola-cleansed tongue with a stinging sour.”
Recalling the sheer joy of those days, on a day like today, was like the womenfolk in my life wrapping themselves around me. They were telling me that the sadness I felt, the loss of self, wasn’t that at all. It was the beauty of life and being one of them.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Womenfolks

In the summer of 1996, just days before our plane took off for Rwanda, I bought a book called Womenfolks: Growning Up Down South by Shirley Abbott. This book became my guide to the women in my life.

It is a book filled with the stories of Southern women, poor Southern women. It comforted me in the days I spent, lonely in Kigali. Days I wished I could hear my own mother’s Southern drawl. I imagined my grandmother’s mother teaching her how to be motherly, how to garden and how to take care of her man.

These Appalachian women are my history. Some would argue that I could seek out another history … one where I was still from a poor family. One where a mother taught a daughter to garden or to take care of her man. Same story, different country.

My daughter asks about the history of the women in her life. She has been robbed of the stories my mother could have told her, so it is left up to me to relay them. The good, bad and funny.

She asks for them to be told and retold. So, I have started a journal to record the history that I feel is my history and hers. The history of the women in my life.

Here’s my first entry about my grandmother, Viola:
“Viola worked at Bryant Town Motel, owned by the son of Ed, her youngest brother. She worked there cleaning rooms with her sister Beula. Beula was her best friend. 
In the early days before this job, women didn’t reveal their pregnancies until they began to show. When Viola and Beula were pregnant at the same time, one revealed to the other that she had missed her time, to which the other said, ‘Me, too!’ 
Viola was pregnant with my mother, and Beula was pregnant with her cousin, Tommy. (There is a sad story about Tommy’s death.) 
Viola and Beula cleaned rooms at the motel later in life, after jobs at Stokely’s, a canning plant in town. Viola’s husband had retired from Enka – a metal smithing plant. I still wonder why she worked at the motel. 
Her husband had bouts of abusive behavior. Was she happy to be away? She enjoyed hanging out in the motel rooms with her sister.


In the summers when I visited, she would take me along. I was given a bag of Bugles from the vending machine, and I played with toys left by those whose brief stay had left them – unintentionally. I imagine the guests remembered them when they were too far away to retrieve them.  
I loved entering a room and looking under the bed … anticipating what surprise was awaiting my discovery.  
I spent my summers with my grandmother. They were filled with bean shelling, berry picking and canning. The large garden in the back gave my grandparents their food for the year. Only staples were bought at the grocery store on Fridays.  
My last summer as an only child, my parents and I left in the morning to return to Kansas. I remember crying hysterically as I looked out the back window of the car. I screamed, ‘My grandma, my grandma!! My grandma, my grandma!!’ as I reached for the glass of the back window. My tear-filled eyes watched my grandmother growing smaller and smaller.”


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fall in the South

Oranges, yellows, reds,
Speckled on the mountains. 
God’s shaker overseasons. 
He tempers it with the cool mist. 
His painting is complete. 

Apple trees heavy with fruit
Cling to the mountain. 
They beckon the tourists. 
Warm apple cider donuts. 
Hot drinks.
Chilled noses,
Red and running. 

Mothers carry tissues
Minding the youngins. 
Over yonder
I see the lazy mother. 
Draped in her peppered blanket,
She is ready for the sweet hibernation. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Tale of Two Families

Our circle trip began late this July. We were on a mission, two families in ten days … my family in Tennessee, and my husband’s in Canada.

The trip began gleefully with a music mix from my friend, Amy. The first day of driving was shortened by a stay at an Indiana horse ranch. After a couple of nights and a trail ride, we were back on the road to Tennessee.

At first, I had extreme hesitation. While I love my family, I do not love the closed minds and prejudices in Tennessee. We began with the stark contrast of Adult World and the huge cross along the interstate.


The anxiety began to creep in and cover me just as the kudzu drapes and kills the trees in Tennessee. Racist memories from my childhood flooded my mind. I took deep breaths so as not to alarm my kids. Since having children, I worry about their well being, and more specifically, their racial identities.

The conversation in the car began.

“Who are we seeing in Tennessee? Are we going to Papito’s house (my father)?” the kids asked.

“We are not going to Papito’s house. We’ll be staying in Knoxville, where your dad and I met. And you will be meeting your Puerto Rican cousins today,” I answered.

“When are we going to Canada? How long do we have to stay in Tennessee?” the kids continued.

“We will be in Tennessee for a few days, and then we will meet up with your cousins in Canada,” my husband answered.

The conversation then moved on to my husband’s family. Canada is home to his aunt. She and her husband own a lake cottage where we had planned to meet my in-laws for their 50th wedding celebration; however, due to my father-in-law’s recent health decline, my husband’s sister and her family would be the only Brits coming to the party. The kids asked about their relatives across the pond. They all talked happily about similarities. My husband spoke of how our daughter reminded him of his sister at her age. Other biological family traits were bestowed on the kids, and they beamed.

I felt myself receding. My kids weren’t interested in seeing my Puerto Rican family as much as they wanted to see my husband’s. Granted, we haven’t seen my Puerto Rican family in more than five years. Plus, there is the language barrier. But I must admit, I felt slighted. My son does not identify with his Puerto Rican family, but my daughter does. I want desperately for my children to feel the love that I have felt from my family.

The Puerto Ricans, also known as the “Gonzos,” are my family. When someone asks me where I would like to live, I say Puerto Rico. With this side of my family, I feel sudden comfort and security. The Gonzos talk about my son’s resemblance to our great-grandfather. The Gonzos kiss and hug and dance. Boy, do they dance.


We met my father and my cousins, Missiel and Kike, in Tennessee and went to Dollywood. Missiel and I reminisced about their childhood visits to Tennessee and teased Kike. I learned my Spanish pronunciation from my cousins in our backyard. My children stood on the periphery. Missiel and Kike have two children each. Kike’s daughter followed my daughter and wanted to bond with her.



The boys played a little at first. 




And my father encouraged more play together as they all sifted for treasure.


While things were going well, most times, my kids still clung to one another.


Then, we found the perfect ride to unite all children … against the grown-ups.


As the boys played and joked, Missiel leaned over to me and said, “Noah is a Gonzo! He and Andreas have the same motions!” All the tension and anxiety within me suddenly slid off, and I felt just as I always have when I am with my family … loved.