24 December 2015

Fighting Affluenza

The last few days, my husband’s coworkers shared their love of the great Korean outdoors and hosted our family in the mountains of Muju, South Korea. Outfitted with skis and passes, our kids enjoyed the slopes of a park that reminded me of my childhood home in the Appalachian mountains. The ski scene was very reminiscent of the ski culture in the United States.

The scene outside our room window.

Large groups of school kids, families and others flocked to the mountains, just as tourists did in my hometown at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.

In those days, my grandmother cleaned at the local motel. The work was hard and paid little. Even though she is now gone, I always remember her worn hands whenever I stay at a hotel or motel. The women and men who clean rooms have the most thankless jobs.

They are invisible elves who come and clean the very things we hate to do in our own homes … the toilets, the bath drain, the sinks, the dishes and the bed linens.

Packing up today, our teenager decided he would not be doing the dishes before we left because he believed it was housekeeping’s job. Earlier, I had bumped into a young man that reminded me of my son … earphones in and listening to his music. As I stepped on the elevator, he smiled and skipped out the elevator and down the stairs. At first, I thought he was another young resort resident kid on a trip, most likely playing pranks on his fellow fieldtrippers. But later, I saw him pushing the cart of dirty linens down the hallway.

Flashing back to my own experiences of seeing my grandmother clean after really filthy folks, I lost my temper and told my teen that he needed to clean the dishes and help the housekeeping staff have a nice Christmas eve, one where the work would be less so that they could enjoy more time with their families. I did what I resent adoptive parents telling me. I told him he should be grateful that he could have such a vacation and not have to work as the young housekeeper did.

Later, I regretted my manner in engaging my son. But as we did our final sweep of the room before checkout, my teen offered his money to leave behind in the room.

16 December 2015

The Dandelion Seed

Since moving to Korea, I have looked into the eyes of mothers, young ones and old ones. Of course, I am more thorough in my scanning as I look into the eyes of older mothers. The tired women who board the train to somewhere.

Several activities have brought me face to face with birthmothers. The recent National Assembly forum introduced me to the birth family group, Dandelion.

Somehow, my mind’s eye always knew this connection to the dandelion. I have been fascinated by this flower for some time. How the seeds spread and make colonies elsewhere away from the mother plant.

But now, I know more about the shame left with the mothers of Korea and the longing mothers and fathers have for their dispersed seeds. They know so little about how those seeds fared.

One mother who has touched me deeply is Ruth. Her name and her story give me hope that somewhere my mother longs for me. Ruth holds photographs of her son, Jun, Min Kee, a Holt baby like me. From my number #5596 in 1968 to his K90-848, she received photographs from his adoptive mother, Marianne, for a few years through the agency.

The photographs dried up years ago, but she longs to know the man he has become. He would be twenty-five. She and I wonder where his seed landed and if he wonders about this country where the initial roots that supported him in the early days took hold.

Just as I am thwarted by Holt from knowing what little documentation they have on my early days, Ruth is thwarted from contacting her son. For now, I long to be her daughter, but the language barrier keeps us from truly communicating.

If you have information on Jun, Min Kee, please private message me. We have photographs that I feel I cannot share here, but in private, I can. 

06 December 2015

Dear Non-Adoptee …

Dearest Non-Adoptee,

Remember the innocence of childhood? I suspect you asked your mother, as my own children do, about that day you entered the world. It’s magical to think of that first breath, the wonder of a brand-spanking new brain just starting to spark.

If you are a firstborn, I suspect your parents recorded the dates of your first smile, your first tooth, that first crawl across the floor and then the monumental wobbly first step. All those things make you a living person who will grow up and later share these special moments with your own children.

I ask that you now understand me. Those moments which I preciously hold for my children are the same moments I want to hold for myself. Holding and staring at the few photographs I have of myself as a baby have sustained me for 48 years, but now, I know there are other notes taken by those who knew me during these times. Surrogates of a mother hold those memories of my life before I was someone’s “firstborn.”

One of my childhood memories that my adoptive mother shared with me was her sadness in seeing me walking in my first birthday photograph, a photograph sent to her by my foster mother via Holt Korea. She wanted that moment to hold for me and pass down to me. The loss of that milestone brought her great sadness and brings me sorrow to this day.

Imagine if someone, a stranger, held these precious memories … photographs, records of that first year, the developmental landmarks.

Saturdays are my days in Seoul to relax with fellow adoptees or spend much needed time with my little family of four. But this Saturday, I spent it with not only adoptees who were silent, but with non-adoptees who drove the conversation.

The one-sided conversation was sterile, matter of fact and rehearsed. The same words were repeated … “KAS is not allowed,” “no systematic guidelines,” “the law does not allow” …

Such surgical words applied to my life experience. Asking for my adoption file, all portions of my file is my plea to be that child of wonder looking for the information that makes me feel part of the human race.

KAS, Korean Adoption Services, is the governmental agency that acts as a liaison between the adoption agencies and the adoptees in post adoption services; adoptees are asked to submit requests for information through KAS. The KAS social worker handling my case fielded questions, but it seemed she lacked the understanding of why adoptees feel passionate about holding those files.

It is no fault of hers or yours that she and you were not adopted. How can you know what adoptees want or need?

And yet, our lives are now revealed as more nuanced than the agency script of a “better life.”

My plea to you is to be an ally. Understand that the things you cherish about your first years are the exact things we seek for ourselves and our children.

In humble sincerity,

05 December 2015

Love is enough, until it’s gone.

Blocked from knowing my history, a product of the Baby Box theory, I only remember the love of one family. It wasn’t the choice of my adoptive family (or what I will refer to as “my family” in this post) to keep me from my first family. The members of my family believed for all legal purposes that I was an orphan that became their daughter and sister.

I have very fond memories of my family. As I sit in Seoul, peeling chestnuts and eating them raw, I remember the chestnut orchard of my grandfather. I would hang and swing from the branches of those mighty trees in the fall weather of East Tennessee. It was idyllic and comforting. I loved breaking apart the prickly pods to reveal the raw meat of a nut no one else loved as I did …

In Seoul, I bought a bag of corn chips, much like the Bugles my grandmother bought for me from the vending machine where she cleaned rooms at the local hotel. My family’s life was simple. We lived simply, just as I imagine my first family did. It seems fitting that I would become the daughter of a set of parents who grew up poor as well.

The days of reminiscing with my parents are gone. My mother passed just as I was becoming the mom she had taught me to be. For years, I struggled with the loss of her.

My father and sister stood with me when my mom died. Their grief was mine and mine, theirs. We spoke among ourselves about her impact on our lives. I shared with them the pains of feeling alone in my parenting.

My younger sister would soon have a little one of her own. Feeling comfortable with infants (after having my two), I cherished the time spent with her as she struggled to wrestle motherhood to the ground. One day, she said, “You have done the very thing that would have made Mom so very proud.” That was a golden moment in my life. I was “Mom.”

My father’s family became the strength in the lives of my children as they grew up only really knowing my father and not my mother. We made many trips to Puerto Rico to connect. They feel they are Puerto Rican.

But our time with my father was also fleeting. His death this last January was a blow we never imagined at the time. He had been my link to Korea … his time there, his love for the country and his honest interest in my original family search. He was my supporter when the world’s eyes saw me as a disloyal adoptee.

In the following months, I would learn more about my father’s time in Korea and his short love affair that resulted in a son … a man only two years older than me and the physical embodiment of the identity I had spent my entire life building.

What I wish adoptive parents would consider is that once they pass on, the adoptee is truly alone. We are left with a family that is only ours by association. In my case, my extended family works to stay connected, but deep down, I feel separate. My children and I long for a connection to the one man who embodies my father and my biological Korean side.

My writing is not for my late parents. My writing addresses me as a person, a mother, an adoptee, my parents’ daughter, my original family’s lost daughter and as the foster child to a foster mother I can only see in faded pictures.

This post was originally published on the Lost Daughters blog for National Adoption Month.

30 November 2015

Mariette Williams: In Her Own Words

For this final day of National Adoption Month, I think it fitting to republish my Lost Daughters’ sister, Mariette Williams’ own words. So many times, adoptees are asked to tell their stories to the press; and so many times, our stories are misconstrued through non-objective wording.

Words matter a great deal. As an academic in journalism, I am shocked at the stories that have a “slant.” Mainstream journalism feels bought and sold just as adoptees’ narratives are told from every aspect but the adoptee’s point of view.

If a writer cannot be objective about a story, the story should be told in first person. Plain and simple.

A Search for Family in Haiti Raises Questions about Adoption: The Whole Story

By Mariette Williams

On Friday, November 27th, I woke up to a barrage of twitter notifications. I had been waiting for a few days for Ben Fox, the Associated Press journalist, to post the story of my reunion with my family in Haiti. He had said it would be posted during the Thanksgiving weekend. When I clicked on the link to read the story for the first time, I was stunned.

I retweeted the story a few times, but I wasn’t sure how to explain in 140 characters that I wasn’t comfortable with the story, that it had missed the mark. On Friday afternoon, Ben texted me and asked if I was okay. I said I thought 85 percent of the article was good, but there were some situations that were inaccurate. I didn’t go into too much detail, and I decided to try and put it out of my mind. But it kept bothering me. I didn’t sleep well on Friday or Saturday night. I had to explain myself before I could let it go. On Sunday afternoon, I sat down and wrote Ben this email:

Hi Ben,

I’ve been thinking about this story all weekend, and I can’t let it go until I address some things that you wrote. Like I texted you on Saturday, I think 85% of the story is good and accurate. But there are some things that are bothering me, and I'll address them below.

“Four days later, Sandra gave her side in a letter to Mariette. Sandra noted that her adopted daughter could have ended up with some other family, or might not have survived in Haiti at all. She said she had always prayed Mariette would return to her country to meet her family. 
‘I feel we have all been victims of deception, but I also believe God is ultimately in charge,’ she wrote. 
For almost two months afterward, Mariette didn’t speak to Sandra. 
She was furious.”

I actually asked you not to write about this letter. I asked my mom for space while I was figuring things out. I was not “furious.” Hurt? Yes. Confused? Yes. Shocked to find out my mother in Haiti had not consented? Yes. This was a private, personal letter, and I am surprised that you used it.

“She decided to go to Haiti to celebrate her mother’s 70th birthday. Sandra gave her a necklace and earrings as gifts for Colas. 
Mariette seethed. She left them behind.”

I showed you the card and the necklace. I explained to you that I would not bring them because I didn’t think it was an appropriate gift. The card said “Thank you for sharing your daughter with us.” Given the circumstances, I didn’t think that was the right message. Should I have brought the earrings? Maybe. If you wanted to include this, you should have given the context of the card. “Seething” is an inaccurate description.

Up to this point, I think the story is okay. When we get to Haiti, everything kind of falls apart.

“She was surprised, and a little annoyed, that her Haitian relatives weren’t at the airport.”

Nope, not true. I had arranged to have a driver from the guesthouse pick me up. My family was supposed to meet me at the guesthouse. You saw yourself that we landed at the airport and there was a gentleman holding a sign with my name on it. I rolled my bags into his van, and you followed us to the guesthouse in your own vehicle.

“Over the coming days, Mariette could get little more from her mother. She cursed herself for not learning Creole.”

I said my biggest regret was not learning Creole. I said that if I could change one thing, it would have been to learn more Creole. I did not curse myself.

“She had planned to spend the night at the house. Instead, she traveled two more hours to the one hotel in Pestel.”

Again, not true. It was never the plan for us, or me to stay at my mother’s house. You had brought it up the day before that you would like to travel to Deron. I agreed that it would be good to see the house where my mother lived. When we arrived, we spent a few hours there talking and taking pictures. As we were getting ready to leave, you asked me, “Are you going to stay here tonight?” And I looked at you like you were crazy and I said, “No, I’m coming with you guys.” I had no cell phone reception and no way to getting in contact with you. It was never my plan to stay there.

“The next day, Junette said she would like to either move their mother to the capital or fix up her home, where two or three of her children and their families stay at any given time. The implication was clear: Mariette would pay.”

When was this? Junette met us back at the guesthouse after that long and crazy ride back to Delmas. We ate cake, you took some pictures, and then you went back to the AP house. When was this conversation?

“Her brothers walked through the home with two barefoot contractors. Mariette ended up with a rough estimate of around $5,000 — far more than she could afford.”

We both know that the $5,000 number was inflated, and it is not “far more than what I can afford.” I was sitting in front of my mother’s house with Evens, who was helping me translate. I asked my mother how I could help her. She told me I could help her with the house. At that point, my brothers called the neighbors to get an estimate for the work that could be done. I brought it up, and I am more than happy to help my mother with her home.

“Her family saw her as the rich American relative. Her youngest sister and a niece hinted that they could go to nursing school, if they could only come up with the tuition. Colas wanted to prepare a meal, but didn’t have money to buy a chicken. Mariette paid.”

As for my younger sister and niece, they had been studying for the nursing exam, something that is very difficult to pass. On our first day, we sat around the table and they told me that they had passed the exam. Great. My mother praised God, and said that I was like “good luck” for them. They did not ask me to pay for their schooling.

Most importantly, my mother was not prepared to have me and a camera crew and a reporter show up to her home. She explained through a translator that she was embarrassed that she didn’t have anything to serve us. She was also embarrassed to have a camera crew in her home, taking pictures. It was very intrusive, and she never complained. She gracefully made us coffee and brought out chairs so we could sit around her yard. Before she arrived, the plan was for us to meet up in Delmas. Also, before I arrived in Haiti, she had told me that she didn’t want to give any interviews or to appear on camera. But any request we made, she complied. You asked her questions, took her picture, and she gave an on camera interview. I think she did more than her part. I gladly gave her $5 to buy dinner.

What about that interview I gave in front of my mother’s house? I said that I was grateful for my adoption, that everything I have I am thankful for. Why not include that? Or the conversations we had that I had a great childhood, growing up on a farm in British Columbia? Being able to attend a private school? If you weren’t pressed for length, why not include that?

Both my mom (Sandra) and I were disappointed in the tone of this article.  It didn’t feel like good journalism. You filled in the blanks in places, presenting a story that wasn’t accurate. I know you were trying to go for a narrative, but it didn’t work.  We had such an opportunity to tell a great story. Adoption is so complex, so beautiful and at the same time so heartbreaking, and you missed that. Although adoption gave me so much, it was still very important for me to know where I came from. I waited for four months for this story to come out.  Not for any personal gain, but to share my story and give hope to other adoptees still searching for their families. I am thankful for your friendship and your help navigating while we were in Haiti. I could not have done this trip alone. I don’t regret going or the new friendships I have with Chery or Evens. I am only sorry that my Haitian family was portrayed the way they were, and that you left out much of my positive comments about my adoption.

I wish you nothing but the best going forward,


Ben and I have since talked and he has apologized, but the story cannot be undone. I still feel it necessary to explain my side of the story.

I know that very few people who read the first story will read this, but I am at peace knowing that I shared my side. In all of this, I believe even more strongly than before in owning and sharing our own stories, which would not be possible without personal blogs, podcasts, and social media. It’s not just important to tell a good story, we are responsible to each other to tell the whole story.

21 November 2015

Korea: The Deep Sigh of Relief at the Border

In 1995, my husband and I moved to Rwanda, just one year after the genocide that took more than 800,000 lives in 100 days. We arrived to find shards of glass on the walls of our compound and metal gates with gatekeepers. It was a country still in conflict.

Expatriates were advised to take R&R frequently. I was naive and visibly shaken all the time. Every stream or stairwell had my mind racing with dead bodies and floating limbs. I could not shut the memories of the loss that played out on every face I met.

In those days, our place of respite was Uganda. After going through all the roadblocks with machine-gun totting teenage boys rifling through our washbags, we would finally cross the border where we drove on the left and let out an audible S-I-G-H of relief. Every muscle in my body would relax.

Today in Seoul, I feel the same stress taking hold of my body and squeezing me tightly. Just walking down the street can be stressful. Seoul is certainly not dangerous, but the trauma of original family loss is the same as a death.

Top this with the language barrier and the connection with single mothers and mothers of loss, and the tension in my body becomes so tightly wound.

In October, after six weeks in Seoul, we took a much needed R&R to the southern tip of South Korea, an area called Namhae. After a long car journey, we settled with our three kitties in the hotel. We explored the Buddhist Temple and the serene mountains which reminded me of my life in the Appalachia. I felt at peace again. When I find that peace within myself, the sweet yielding to my fate and acceptance of the known facts veils my anxiety.

I stood outside of the Boriam Temple, gazing in. The people in the temple were at peace, quiet and reflective. I entered the area where you take off your shoes, but I stopped there. I yearned to enter, but I felt paralyzed by my guilt. Once again, I was reminded that I was an outsider, no longer connected to a faith that may have been my own.

I stepped outside and took this image … a shadow of myself looking in and wishing to be a soul on the wall.

No one wanted to leave once our three days were up. I had made the audible S-I-G-H as we left the city limits of Seoul. Crossing over again, meant that I would tense up … my irrational Mom outbursts and control issues would return. The triggering faces and crowds of Seoul would once again hit me head on.

Since returning, I am tighter than ever. I visited my adoption agency, but that experience will need to wait for another post. I do not have the energy to address that.

This week, we celebrate the one American holiday I love … Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving means a homecoming, much like Chuseok here in Korea. My home is ambiguous. What made “home” was my mother, father and grandparents; they are no longer living. My kids now love the holiday for their father’s roast dinners, but here in Korea we only have a microwave.

So, our family is heading to Japan for Thanksgiving. Japan is where my parents lived when the plane from Korea brought me to them on a chilly day in December. Japan holds the loss of my parents’ first born, stillborn son and the beginning of my life as a puertorriqueña. Japan revived my parents’ marriage in the wake of my father’s lost son.

I am looking forward to that deep S-I-G-H as our plane lands.

11 November 2015

Korea: Marriage, White Privilege and Bullies

Marriage is hard. It’s exhilarating at first; then the relationship slides into routine. Add children, and it shifts from the couple to the kids.

As an adoptee, this is bliss until the moment you realize you have some deep-seeded racial identity issues. It isn’t that I didn’t know I had them, I knew I wanted to be white. But I never felt strong enough to speak for myself, so I stayed silent, dated only white guys and you know the rest of that story.

The strength in our marriage is that we are able to adapt and learn. Sometimes, the learning is hard for both of us, as we learn that we are the two extremes that play out in our children. Many times, I get frustrated and angry without explaining why. That is truly tough on my husband.

Monday, he took the day off so that we could take a much needed family break at Lotte World Adventure, “the largest indoor amusement park in the world.” There was joy and excitement. We were taking selfies and “wrecking noobs.”

No one spoke English, and we often wandered around not really knowing what to do. Of course, as usual, when we tried speaking or ordering, the cashier would always look to me and talk to me in Korean. Then, my sheepish voice would reveal that I was an American. That’s a running theme here … Korean women speaking for the family as a whole. But my voice is again silenced in that role.

My husband can speak English, and Koreans rush to help him and find translation. Or they just throw up their hands and make a face.

Two distinct things happened to us that day. We learned about white privilege in Korea, and how it isn’t the same as just plain bullying.

The first incident happened as we waited to give one another whiplash on the bumper cars. As we inched up to the front of the line, the ticket woman asked us how many we had in our party. My husband held up his four fingers. She counted and allowed the two women behind me to enter and take the last two remaining cars. This, of course, sparked our families competitive side.

We watched for the fastest, most responsive cars and yelled out to one another what car we were eyeing. It was sheer family fun! As the last group cleared the track, my husband, son and daughter began to rush toward the cars, but the ticket taker stopped me at the gate and asked for my ticket. She hadn’t asked my husband for his ticket, and my ticket was in my husband’s pocket.

I called his name once, louder a second time and then I shouted his name in panic the third time, telling him I needed my ticket. He was trying to seat himself in his car, so he was a bit perturbed that I had yelled at him. He showed my ticket, and I was allowed to enter the arena.

My head was spinning. “Hadn’t she just a few minutes before counted us as a party of four? And why would she separate me from my family?” I felt stupid and less than. Once we got off the ride, my daughter sulked saying she was embarrassed by what had happened … Mom yelled and Dad was visibly irritated.

I apologized, and we moved on to our next adventure. But as we waited again for the next ride, we had the same thing happen. This ride took families, so we were once again counted. When my husband gave the young woman our four tickets, she questioned where the fourth person was, and my husband had to point out that I was his wife.

There are many things I have tried to rationalize … “maybe the Korean women hold the tickets, maybe my kids look more like my husband and less like me, maybe I just do not look like I belong in my family.”

As we took off in our fake hot air balloon, I let my family know how I was feeling. This second time, they came to the realization that I was indeed not seen as part of our family. I was othered, and it stung just as it always does.

In the old days, when I spoke to adoptive parents and social workers, I advised them to make sure they had put themselves in a situation where they were the minority. But that day, I realized that even if a white person is the minority, he or she still holds white privilege and is afforded things based on that role in our world. 

When my husband and I lived in Rwanda, we were in the minority, but he was viewed as superior, and I was inappropriately touched and questioned by teenage soldiers. As a Korean woman, I feel less than no matter where I am. Most times, I am a lone Asian woman, so there are no allies. In my aloneness, I am quiet and try to blend into the background.

Having said this, I want to tell you what happened next. Our last ride was a Magic Pass ride, so we we were able to miss some of the queuing. Once we got to the final part of the line, I noticed two teen boys behind us staring at my son and making rude gestures about him. They were looking at my son, making faces and laughing. When I realized what was happening, I began to stare at them with disdain. They noticed my stare and began to hide behind others in line between us.

Feeling that I had stopped it before my son noticed, I moved my gaze to the front of the line. Here I witnessed a group of eight teenage boys. The most attractive one wore a white shirt and a Kpop hairdo. He was making fun of my husband’s nose. Using his hands, he acted as though he had a large nose and made odd gestures with his eyes too. The other seven laughed and looked back at my family.

Again, I stared at them, showing my disgust. They, too, looked away and hid. They would quickly glance to see if I was still there, and my laser gaze met theirs. I wanted them to feel ashamed and scorned. I whispered to my husband that this was happening so that he could stare at the eight in front of us, and I could stare at the two behind.

Once that ride was over, so was I. We left Lotte World and moved to our favorite restaurant. We arrived to the cheerful staff who always serve us. They were chatty and friendly. Dinner time is our family time to discuss our day. My husband opened with discussion about the eight boys. He asked me if I wanted to tell the story.

But I began with the story of the two boys. My husband asked why I started with that story, but I felt our son needed to know he was being targeted as much as he needed to know that his father was targeted too. You see, in my mind, these were not instances of racism against my husband as a white man, but instances of bullying. The boys would make fun of anything different, and it wasn’t based on a power structure.

My kids understand so much already about racism and bullies, it seems fair they know the full story. They see their parents disagree, discuss and assess together. It isn’t always pretty, but they know we love one another and that disagreements are not cause for divorce in our family. There is respect. While it may take us time to fully understand, we work to see the other’s side.

We have a few more months here in Korea. I doubt this will be the last day we will need to detox, but boy, was it a doozy.

06 November 2015

“I am done with crying … ”

Since the death of my father, my shell has hardened. There are few things that make me cry …

My children have seen me cry so few times, that when I cry, it terrifies them. I broke down the first week we moved to Seoul, but not necessarily because of sadness. My tears flow because of hurt. I have explained to them, that meetings with agencies will NOT bring tears. Tears here are reserved for those I love. Tears are for the lost connections.

Last night, I attended the puppetry artistic performance, “Untold Story,” about an adoptee named David. There were three very beautifully crafted puppets for the toddler David, the teen David and the grown man David. Five actors of the Pangaea Arts worked the stage, the puppets and acted scenes in David’s life.

Each scene plucked a memory from my mind. The most poignant “core memory” was the airplane ride back to Korea as an adult. All the things that David experienced, I lived and relived and continue to relive as I walk the streets of Korea.

The complexities of adoption played beautifully as though I were watching scenes from my own life … the tenderness and wanting of the adoptive family, the scenes of teasing, the isolation amidst so much love. All these scenes added to my quilt of comfort, another layer in the adoptee community.

After the performance, Pangaea Arts invited the KoRoot group back to the dressing room to see the puppets. There was joy and excitement to see the puppets.

But then, the performance group asked us for our feedback. They wanted specifics of how we, as adoptees, felt. Moments like this are often few online, so I am always taken by surprise when someone who isn’t an adoptee wants to know my opinion!

One person in our group, of whom I had never met and who spoke Korean, spoke up. She had cried and embraced the life-sized David. I felt for her and fought my physiological urges to cry. But then, as someone translated, I sobbed.

Her words were the words I needed to hear from someone all my 48 years. She said she had given her baby boy to my adoption agency, and she had been searching for him. He is currently 26 years old. As my agency has blocked me, it has blocked her from connecting with an adult son.

She shook as she told how she had been told her son would “have a better life” and that she had believed this for so many years, yet the scenes of bullying and the ever present “Where are you from?” question broke her. She never wanted her son to feel disconnected from her and his country. She never wanted him to feel the pain adoptees express. She said she would “have this hole in her heart” until she could see him again.

I moved closer to her and had Pastor Kim translate. I told her that her strength in this situation would be passed to this son. That we, adoptees, are looking for our mothers and have never forgotten them. I also told her how I wished she were my mother. We embraced and cried together.

As I left the theatre, I was angry with myself at first for crying and I muttered, “I don’t usually lose my shit in public, unless I am angry.”

Tears are not shit. Tears are more valuable. Tears mean we feel. Tears mean we care. Tears mean we are connected.

04 November 2015

Once you know, you cannot unknow.

I sit in our small apartment in Korea … my shoulders tense.

Each walk outside our door brings me deep anxiety. Lately, I have reflected on the days when I began my blog. Those were the salad days … the sunny, joyful days. I began this blog in 2007, six years after my mother’s death. I had always meant to write a book to tell about my experiences growing up as a Tennerican with slant eyes and chemically curled big hair.

As my life was changing from the me-focus to my children, I realized that I wanted them to know the oral stories of our family. I had written countless black journals, but who wants to comb through those? So, I decided to begin my life story in a blog. It seemed a good way to document our small family’s history … what little I knew of it.

The first three posts were picked up by my adoption agency and featured in its magazine. I was a proud “chosen” one. That was the language my family was taught to use to describe me and make me feel special.

Oh! The posts we had! So much fun and fluff! I met my two Asian friends in Virginia and wrote of the antidotes they shared with me about my Asian culture. We talked of our “Caucasian” husbands and how our children were often interchangeable.

I would continue to struggle and ask, “Who was I?” … a Tennerican, a mom to two “Hapas” but definitely not really Korean.

My blog has become a study in how one comes to terms (albeit very late in life) with the struggles of identity as an international, transracial adoptee. There have been landmarks in my later life that have influenced my thinking about who I am.

One of the first was meeting my first Korean adult adoptee … happenstance in a tiny cafe in Madison, Wisconsin. It was life-changing. I met others as well. Each one was a curiosity to me. One in particular shared so many similarities (including adoption decrees signed just days from one another). We began a quick, yet fleeting friendship.

As I limped along learning, I began to understand more fully the complexities of adoption and how it intersected with other aspects of my identity.

One evening at a Korean celebration, this Korean adoptee friend and I sat at a table with another younger, adult adoptee. There was a discussion about how a four-year-old Korean adoptee was wanting blonde hair. While I saw this as a feminist issue with a basis in the princess phase, my adoptee friend argued it was a race issue. I shared that my own daughter who had a Korean mother as a role model wanted Ariel’s red hair at age four. But my friend burst out that I was “ignorant” about adoption and my own identity issues. She angrily said, “You have only started your journey and have no idea. I will ask you when you finish your journey.”

Reflecting on that now, I realize she jolted me. Her words struck me like the cold shower on an drunk’s face. Having lost a crucial friendship that day, I sought the help of the younger adoptee to process the conversation we all had had. He introduced me to the work of Susan Harris O’Connor. Her work validated me. Her work made me more than a one-dimensional person. Another landmark passed.

Then, I became an adoptee with a mission. I wanted to help others like me, but what I didn’t realize fully was that I needed the help. I needed my eyes open; I needed an education. The beginning of this education came in the form of a panel; here I met John Raible. He encouraged pride in my narrative and in being Asian. That would be my last agency panel.

In walked the Lost Daughters. These women have seen me at my most vulnerable. They listen and reflect. They are honest and respectful. I could ask for no better support.

My work with the Lost Daughters began in the fall of 2013. This relationship has pulled me through some of my darkest moments. My search for my family began after seeing the film on Philomela Lee. I realized that searching was not solely about me as an adoptee, but also about the mothers I left behind in Korea.

This search became problematic as I petitioned for information and traveled to Korea. I have learned of the injustices adoptees face, the roadblocks by agencies, the power of the adoption industry and the deep shame in the Korean culture.

I have learned that single mothers in Korea are given a mere $59 a month while orphanages (like the Baby Box operator) receive $900 a month for each child in their care. All these things, I cannot unknow.

I can no longer be the blissful adult adoptee who only focuses on the beauty of her life with her adoptive family for somewhere one woman grieves for me on my birthday and another remembers the fleeting seven months I spent with her as my Omma.

I can no longer walk around ignoring the racism of both of my home countries for somewhere my half-brother faces racism as a half Korean-half Puerto Rican and knows little of his birthfather’s life.

I cannot forget or lie. I cannot be silent or politely hold in the frustrations I have. To care for myself and my family, I need honesty and transparency. We all deserve that faith in humanity.

02 November 2015

Wearing Adoptee Proudly

Today, I woke from a restless night. Yesterday, I visited my adoption agency with my children. Again, we were disappointed and left with only a sliver of hope that they would look more to “see if anything in my file stood out.”

But this morning, with sleep in my eyes, I read the words of my Lost Daughter sister, Rebecca. She wrote how my pendant had given her strength and reassurance as an adoptee.

My intention in creating the Pregnant Belly Bowl and its adoptee pendants was to show the community of adoptees. All the pendants were made to be given at first to my Lost Daughters’ sisters. Each takes two hours to carve and polish, then a full day to stoke the fires of the wood kiln. Much work goes into them, but the love and work was worth it for my sisters.

I appreciate their work … their understanding … and most importantly their support when I am feeling weak.

Korea has weakened me. It did last year as I tried to come to terms with the fruitless meeting with my agency. It weakens me today as I roam the streets of Seoul as a temporary resident, a longterm tourist.

I find myself turning my pendant around to the Korean stamp side while I am here in Korea. I find that I just cannot bear to see the sorrow and shame of the viewer once they understand the written word on my pendant.

Once at a ceramics workshop in Wisconsin, a woman said to me, “I am really surprised that you would want to wear that so prominently.” I told her I was not ashamed of being an adoptee. She then said she was an adoptive parent and that the adoptees she knew tried to downplay their identity as such. Then she said something surprising. “You’re brave.”

No, I AM an adoptee.

There should be no shame in that word. It is who I am. I have been made by an original family, a foster family, my adoptive family, my spouse, my children and myself.

30 October 2015

Korea, the force behind #FliptheScript in 2014

I have been silent on my blog for a few weeks.

In the first few weeks of our move to Seoul, I celebrated and explored the Korean culture with my small family, but as my persona moved from a tourist to a resident, my mind couldn’t keep up.

There is joy, comfort, sorrow, confusion, frustration, betrayal and anger.

I hope to write more in the coming days to properly celebrate #FliptheScript, and all it did to bolster the adoptee voice. For now, I leave you with tweets from my days …

29 September 2015

Korea: The next generation of women …

Since that moment, when the face in the mirror seemed that of a stranger, I had wondered from where my features came.

In walked … 23andMe. “Welcome to you,” it said. I spat like a crazy woman one morning to find out who I was. Being an unknown is highly frustrating. You’re an other, an outlier; and frankly, it sucks.

The results arrived soon there after, and I was reminded that long ago, a Chinese international, fellow grad student once told me she thought I didn’t appear Korean at all.

This all struck me as odd. Me? Equally Japanese and Korean with a dash of Chinese? Wow. Since moving to Korea, I am only beginning to fully understand the complexities of a country I thought I wanted as my own. The ever present need within me to satisfy someone else fills me with shame. I cannot nail down my identity. I need an anchor.

Around me, I have watched the younger set of adoptees embrace their original cultures. They attended culture camps, learned their native languages and visited their countries well before marriage and kids, and more have begun to find and connect with their original families. I want so much to have their confidence. They proclaim that they are American. American in Korea.

I once proclaimed I was “American.” I have since struggled with this idea and flopped between American and Korean. One minute, I will be Korean. The next, I meet a Korean man my age who tells me he has a daughter my own daughter’s age. He shows me a photograph of her; she’s sweet but looks very unsure of herself. He asks me, “Isn’t she fat? Very fat.” I am once again reminded of the false sense of beauty and the pressures on Korean women to be an ideal. Pressures are also on the men to achieve and make lots of money to snatch the ideal beauty.

These ideas have worn me down, and yet …

The strong women emerge. Our family attended the Kim Unmi Dance Company’s 70th Anniversary of Korean Independence celebration performance. Their goal? To “awaken the social consciousness.”

The performance focused on the women of Korea during the Japanese occupation. Sadness flowed in the tension between mothers and sons parting as the men were sent to fight. Mothers’ sadness was a common thread throughout.

The most profound movements of this dance were those that focused on the young women of the war. In one powerful scene, a Japanese soldier pulls white cloths that seem to symbolize the waters that flow between Japan and Korea. Each band of cloth is pulled taut so that another Japanese soldier may stand on its end and look to the shores of Korea.

Once all the soldiers are lined up at the shore, young women are seemingly pulled toward them, wrapped in the water’s white foam. They wash ashore at the soldiers feet, but the soldiers are stoic. The women writhe, struggling to break free but are wrapped in the bondage of the sea.

Image provided by the KUM Dance Company

Suddenly, the men ravish and thrash the women as they try to escape. There is violence against them and eventually they die … their limp bodies are thrown on the death cart.

Image provided by the KUM Dance Company

In the following scene, I witnessed a mother’s remembrance of her lost children. She lit incense and knelt. The bodies of women appeared in angelic layers of white crepe. They were free from the bondage of war.

These images solidified my beginnings … why my DNA reveals the struggle among the people I outwardly represent. It was exhausting and terrifying to watch. Women and war.

Here however, a woman, Professor Unmi Kim of Hanyang University, leads this group of dancers in changing the course of conversation. She makes statements about the use of women in the past, the power of business women today and the strengths of mothers.

Mothers. That brings me to the most profound experience I have had so far. Since choosing activism and my part on the Baby Box, I have longed to help the women of KUMFA, The Korean Unwed Mothers Families Association on a personal level. Once we landed, I scheduled a time for our family to volunteer. It was an easy gig … playing with the most delightful young children.

After our work finished, a mother who spoke English insisted I stay. She wanted me in this very large group of single mothers. I felt honored and inadequate. A news crew from Korean Broadcasting was there taping the class the women were taking.

The reporters noticed me and my husband and asked if I wouldn’t mind being interviewed. I agreed. But I was not the one they should have interviewed. They repeatedly asked me why I would be supporting the group. I spoke of how I saw the face of my own mother in these women’s faces and how the bond between mother and child is so strong. I said these women were brave, and yet, the reporter did not want this sound-byte. He said he didn’t want to know about my adoption, but he wanted to know the American way. I felt inadequate to answer his questions. I told him America did not put the same stigma on single mothers that Korea does and that mothers had value. I left it at that.

As long as I keep my mouth closed, I mix in. Old women stop me to ask for directions, but I must then reveal my insecurities. I pass but only for so long … I am American, reluctantly.

Just like anything else, I cannot live in absolutes and Korea cannot either. The absolutes are crumbling as the next generation of Koreans begin to pave the way.

In Korea, single mothers receive a mere $59 a month for each child while group homes and orphanages receive $900 a month for each child. 

If you are looking for ways to help the women of Korea, consider making a contribution to KUMFA; you can donate through its PayPal account at kumfa.volunteer@gmail.com. Your donations help single mothers settle in housing and provide for their children. 

27 September 2015

Korea: A Thanksgiving of Another Kind

The market was bustling as my daughter and I sussed out our lunch for Friday. I was especially excited to see the variety of things for sale. It was like nothing I had seen before in the market. My favorite melons in small sizes, peeled chestnuts, Korean pears as big as a size 3 soccer ball and gift packs of Spam.

The expectation of Chuseok was infectious. Women rushing, squeezing and choosing the ingredients to feed the souls of their children. It felt very much like the build-up to Thanksgiving in the days of my youth. (Today, the build-up to Thanksgiving is less than I remember as it seems to be eclipsed by Halloween and December holidays.)

Thanksgiving in those days was my favorite holiday. It meant not only time off, but time to hang with my family and eat really good food. My mother loved it because it was her time to show her stuff. Our little family would gather with my grandmother, and the entire weekend included treks to cousins’ and aunts’ houses for more good food. We would sit around the kitchen table, mostly the women, as the men watched the Tennessee Vols play ball. My husband enjoyed the women’s table. If you left the table to pee, you knew everyone would talk about you. I often would hold it.

Korean Chuseok is very similar as it celebrates the coming together of families. For me, this is bittersweet. My grandmother, my mother and my great aunts are long gone. Thanksgiving for me today, is just my husband, my kids and me. So, it seemed this Chuseok would be more of the same.

On the Eve of Chuseok, I had my Mom’s day off. I wrote for the Lost Daughters, then went to Ehwa Women’s University area. Most shops were beginning to close in my neighborhood of Sinjeong, and the subway seemed skeletal. The tired faces of the elders on the train had my mind racing. Could they be without family too for Chuseok? Were they mourning the loss of a child to adoption? Am I that child?

Yet, when I walked out of the subway station into Ehwa, life presented herself as young women shopped with friends and some shopped with their mothers.

I remembered my days of shopping with my mother during the Thanksgiving holiday and then it hit me … how profoundly alone I felt and how I missed these moments with my family.

I bought dinner from the 7-Eleven, returned to our apartment, peeled a few chestnuts and tried to sleep. Lately, sleep does not come easily, and when I slide down into dream land, my dreams become anxious tales of being back in Wisconsin … empty-handed.

Chuseok began like any other, but I was looking forward to time at KoRoot. KoRoot supports adoptees when they return to Korea with translations, a guest house and a place to reconnect with other adoptees. I needed this time; this was my homecoming.

As usual, finding it and navigating the day with the family had its little moments of “family drama,” and once we arrived, my kids were ready to leave. I enjoyed reconnecting with Pastor Kim of KoRoot and bringing a copy of Dear Wonderful You to its new home.

Eating really good Korean food healed my soul. Seeing and meeting so many other Korean adoptees again gave me more strength to continue. Many of them had been in Korea for four, five and even fifteen years! Noticing my connection, my husband offered to take the children home to give me time to reconnect.

Once again, the community of adoptees pulls me up. I found my home for now, and homecoming was sweet.

23 September 2015

Your Daddy’s Gone

This week, my father’s birthday came and went.

Birthdays, as you know, are very difficult for me. My birthday is a fabrication, a lie, a secret that only my original mother could reveal.

My father’s birth certificate says that he was born on September 20, but in fact, he was born on September 21. The story, as told by my grandmother (Abuelita), goes like this …

On the day my father was born, my grandfather was overjoyed, so much so he celebrated to utter inebriation. When he finally appeared to register my father’s birth at the town office, he gave the wrong date to the registrar.

My father honored his mother’s words and her story. He knew she would never forget the day he entered the world. His connection to her was sealed that very 21st of September. So, throughout my father’s life, he used September 21 as his birthdate.

This year, the sorrow of losing him mixed with the comfort of knowing him. His life was one of suffering, silliness and sweet moments with his family. I hope to have as many of those moments, whatever they hold, as he did.

As I walk the streets of Seoul, just as he did in 1965 and 1966, I think of him eating rice for breakfast and sweating as he ate kimchi.

05 September 2015

Korea: The Ghost Walk

We are in a sea of me’s. Everywhere, people walk about not knowing the scrutiny I subject them to.

Anyone could be a relative … a parent, a sibling, a grandparent, an aunt, an uncle or a cousin. But none of us know it. We are secrets wandering and searching for the key to the box that will set us free to love those who are biological relations.

I think of my domestic adoptee friends in the United States and realize the torture they have felt from the very beginning. You are a stranger to those who share your DNA. You study those who have your traits and long to know if there is a connection between you … an imaginary thread that connects you.

In their first week as Koreans in Korea, my children are learning this as well. My goal this week was to take them to the haunts of my last trip … places that bring me comfort and center my soul. For the most part, it has been a joy to revisit the wonder I felt and watch my children feel the same.

We visited Insadong, Gangnam and Hapjeong. By their third day, they seemed comfortable.

Yet, their minds were playing similar earworms. After the trip to Gangnam, my daughter said, “I just saw a man that looked like Papito.” She is searching for my half-brother, an uncle that would bring her Papito back. Just seeing his features or his mannerisms in a Korean man comforts us. If we found him, we would come full circle in this crazy, complicated thing called adoption.

My son is quieter and shares when it is overwhelming. When a middle-aged man in the Burger King took his tray to clean up, he shared that he felt a connection to him. He recently had a job as a bus boy, but he was struck by the fact that this man was older and doing his former job.

Here we talked about how I felt connection to them as an adoptee … how my imagined story of poverty and desperation lead to my adoption … how I imagine that these “others” are me.