In the Shadow of My Family Tree

Originally published in Korean Quarterly, Spring 2004 Vol 7, No. 3

In the Shadow of My Family Tree

It all began with Martha Stewart. Yes, the same domestic diva whose recent decorating consisted of contemplating paint swatches for a jail cell; a few years back, I was taken with an issue of her eponymous self-titled magazine. On the front cover was a gorgeous, original rendering of a family tree. Inside the issue were many more examples, some using tree branches and cut paper leaves, others with photographs and calligraphy. I have never been daunted by a Martha Stewart project before, but as much as I wanted to, this was one I knew would never be attempted.

Humans are obsessed with their personal histories. What pride to trace your forefathers to the Mayflower or a past president or a king or queen. Witness the naming of sons after fathers (my husband is the third generation John in his family). Family names are important – I named our son Tate after my maternal grandparents, the same ones who claim descendency from Oliver Wolcott, who penned his signature on the Declaration of Independence. There is a whole industry surrounding Genealogy; web sites to search, books on compiling the data, magazines for the home anthropologist on the most beautiful and elegant method of presentation. More than mere surnames or the family schnoz, we desire to pass on to the next generation family culture, mythology, implied inherited virtues, and a historical context in which to frame the family’s journey.

I am adopted. I am trans-racially and trans-culturally adopted. What sounds exotic and mysterious to others is just a plain old fact to me. I was abandoned, found, placed in an orphanage and adopted a few years later. I have a life story, it’s just that no one knows what it is. I have spent periods of my life speculating; was I the product of a young unmarried birthmother, or the youngest in a poverty-stricken family forced to abandon me because they could not afford one more mouth to feed, or did my mother die giving birth to me? What I do know is that I was born sometime in 1968 in South Korea. That part of my life story is shared by the thousands of other Koreans adopted as children over the past fifty years.

I don’t recall having much issue with my lack of personal history until I had my first child. There were other issues to be sure. I was living and calling the people who cared for me my family, assuming their identities while ignoring mine. My parents say that when I first came to the U.S. I was very negative towards anything Korean, especially if someone spoke Korean to me. That is probably why they never dealt with my cultural heritage in any way – perhaps they took their cues from a scared and lonely three year old who had spent more than two thirds of her life in an orphanage and just wanted a permanent place to consider home. I was considered an American, period. I didn’t attend Korean culture camps, eat Korean food, attend a Korean church or learn to read, write or speak Korean. I never complained about this, even though as I reached my teen years it was something I thought about daily. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful at being given an opportunity to achieve the American dream.

Personal history only became a big deal for me when I became pregnant with my daughter. At my first prenatal check I had to fill out a standard medical history chart. Until my pregnancy I’d never had a reason to have regular medical care. Was there heart disease or breast cancer or diabetes in my family? Had I had chicken pox or German measles? I knew nothing of my personal medical history from birth to 3 years. As my belly grew so did the frequency of family history issues. At my baby shower I received a baby book and on the second page, there it was – two solid pages of family history waiting for my pen to fill in the blanks. I filled in John’s side of the family and my adoptive parents side.

But what is missing says more to me than anything else – somewhere out there is the rest of my history, the family who will never have their names documented in my genealogy because I will never know them. When I was a teenage I often had dreams about bumping into my twin sister in the midst of a huge crowd of people. I didn’t have a desire to actively find my biological family back then, but I was always dreaming about running into them at the local Dairy Queen or while walking around the lake. In my dreams, I always knew instinctively know they were my biological sister or brother or mother or father, even though I don’t remember being able to see their faces. Somehow I just knew.

My Korean name is Kim Jae Ran. That was the extent I knew about myself until a few years ago when my mother gave me a file she had found while cleaning out some boxes. Inside contained the sum of my whole life Before Adoption – mostly developmental reports from the orphanage and letters from local politicians helping speed the adoption process along.

Instead of first steps and first words, my files consists of “Jae Ran needs a lot more affections for her dark moods”, “Seldom gets smile as she is so spiritless” and “likes to play with children. Giggles and plays well.” My early childhood is a series of progress reports. How strange it was to read what someone thought of me as a baby. I often wonder what it was like for my birth mother or family to give me up. They wanted me to be safe so they abandoned me close to the local police. I wondered if they ever thought of me. When both of my children passed the age I was when I’d been abandoned I had a minor soul shaking. It was incomprehensible to me to have held on to my babies for fourteen months, then think about abandoning them.

My daughter Lucie was born in the image of her dad. From the beginning I was obsessed with who she looked like. Did she have my eyes? She had my nose. Her face shape and hair color were definitely not like mine. She had her dad’s skin color, eyebrows and curly hair. I assumed she would have the shock of thick, coarse inky black hair typical of Asians, not the fine, curly light brown hair from her paternal side of the family. All my friends and family members said it too; she looks just like her daddy.

This upset me. I’d spent my whole life standing out, the only dark head in family photographs. I wanted my children to at least resemble me. But as my kids grow, I begin to see myself more and more in them. I see my nose, and my smile too. I was going through some photos recently when I found one that I couldn’t believe was me, it looked exactly like my son.

My family tree is starting to fill up under me; the names of my children are the first small sprouts of new growth. I’ve included my adoptive family’s history for the baby books because after all, they are the ones who have been the known part of my kids lives.

However there are spiritual blanks where the Kim family’s names should be. I see the personal history and family I don’t know as the shadow of my family tree – not the big leafy one represented by my adoptive family and their history, but as the strong silent presence fluttering behind it. My adoptive family is the one who guided and raised me, shaping my character; but my biological family is my instinct.

I hope that somewhere on the other side of the world is the family whose family tree has a shadow space on a branch where my name should be.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

8 thoughts

  1. I love this site. I am an adoptee (27) and practically every entry on your site is really touching for me. Keep writing – I’ll be checking in & reading!!

  2. Thank you. I just found your site and I am learning so much. This family tree blog is quite interesting to me. My Mother was adopted (domestic) and I do not know my father as he abandoned us when I was about 7, I learned of his death last year (35 years later). So my family tree has many holes, almost like an adopted person. Then to add to that our two youngest children (we have 6, 4 bio) we adopted in China. SO our tree continues to have leaves filled with holes.
    I appriciate you and the time you have taken to share your thoughts and feelings. I am learning so much, I hope to pass on what I learn to benifit my children.
    Gratitude, with open ears and heart…

  3. Sometimes family trees aren’t all they seem to be. I’m fifth generation native Californian, but that doesn’t mean my mom is going to come visit any time soon. I can trace my roots all the way to the Cival War, and my husband is fourth generation from South Dakota, but who really cares if most of the time, our “family” consists only of those whom I have dinner with every night.

  4. Karen,
    while your point may be valid and true for you, it is really inappropriate to tell me, or any other adoptee, that family trees aren’t important or “all they seem to be.” I’m taking it under assumption that you were not intending to be dismissive, but your comment could be taken that way.
    For everyone who has suffered or experienced some sadness or loss, it is not helpful to be told by someone who hasn’t experienced that loss that it isn’t a big deal.
    I would hope instead that you would offer empathy and understanding, or at least attempt to be open to understanding, even if it doesn’t ring true as an experience for yourself.

  5. Not hostile, Karen, I just wanted to point out that adoptees are often told that our feelings are not valid, and typically it’s done through the lens of “it’s not that important” or “well, I had a similar experience” or “it doesn’t bother me, so why make a big deal out of it?”
    Your comment is common, I’ve heard iterations of it before, and I want to make sure that adoptive parents and non-adopted persons understand that we want to have our feelings and experiences validated, not silenced or dismissed.

  6. I just found this post (and your blog) and wanted to add my thanks. What a poignant post. I’m neither an adoptee nor an AP, but I am a lesbian mom with a child conceived by (anonymous) donor insemination, and I often think about what questions / feelings of pain or loss my child might experience in regards to their family tree and its shadows. Many thanks for the blog, in general, too – I’m learning a lot as I read through it.

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