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.

01 September 2015

The Twinkie Chronicles … American Assimilation in Korea

“Mama Bear. She is said to have birthed the first Korean.”

“Seoul is like the New York City of Asia!”

“Why is your name spelled ‘Losita’?”

“Can we get delivery McDonald’s?”

Exhaustion and hunger. Those two things result in “hangry” family dynamics. My husband and I insisted that we explore our new neighborhood and eat Korean barbecue. Just a few doors down … we found it.

Awkward smiles for the family, but a familiar one for me by the woman in the restaurant. She approached me speaking Korean.

The feelings of inadequacy, mixed with anticipation and fatigue, welled up within me. My mousy voice said, “Do you speak English?”

She shook her head but kept speaking Korean. She appeared sympathetic. I felt horrible.

We tried ordering beef but out came pork. Regret and shame consumed me.

I had spent the majority of my life trying to fit in … assimilating to survive in the white world of America. It worked adequately most of the time, and I have had more privileges than my peers of color because of it.

I can never fully assimilate, but my forced attempts at doing so sever me from my biological ethnic history. It’s survival in America. It’s shame in Korea.

If asked in my 20s, 30s and early 40s if I would ever return to Korea, I stated an emphatic “NO.” I never foresaw the yearning I would have in my later years. Many of today’s young adult adoptees amaze me. They have a sense of self that I am still struggling to find as I approach my 50s.

For our first full day in Korea, I allowed the kids to roam the neighborhood alone. This fact comforts me. They can learn to navigate together without me.

As lunchtime approached, I took them to Insadong, a Seoul tourist area where most speak some English. I visited my calligrapher friend and checked the antique alley for my fixer. I was able to order for us a nice lunch.

My learning curve is steep, but theirs is just peaking.