Colorlines: “A Mother Adopts, and Discovers Her Own Racism”

I haven’t been posting full articles on this blog, reserving the space at the Adoption Gazette instead, but I found this article especially fascinating. If you click on the headline, you will also see there are several comments and discussion threads spawned by this article.

Whether you agree with the comments or not, I think that this essay shows how much race still matters.

A Mother Adopts, and Discovers Her Own Racism By Lisa Lerner, ColorLines

Knee-deep in my past

I recently came across this e-mail I’d sent to someone about my upcoming trip to Korea in 2000, my first.

It shows that even back then, at a time I considered myself to have
been in great denial and very apolitical about adoption issues, I still
felt it was important that I search for what was missing in my life,
and that it was important to do so with like-minded people.

Here is an excerpt of this email:

Last night . . . my family had dinner with a woman from Taegu and her
family. Her husband is caucasian . . . her kids are about the same age
as mine. I happened to find out in October that she lives only 1 1/2
blocks from me. For the past three years we’ve lived 1 1/2 blocks
apart, and she is from the same city I am from.

C-H looked over all my papers and showed me maps of Korea and Taegu.
She explained a lot of things to me about the time and place when I was
adopted. She herself is the 7th daughter of 8 kids. Her mom almost left
her to die since she was so disappointed she wasn’t born a son. Her
father [forced] her mom take care of her and thankfully, her mother
snapped out of it.

So it was interesting to talk with her about all these things. She
seems to think my birth mother will for sure recognize me if she sees
me on [tv] or in the newspaper because of the circumstances surrounding
my abandonment.

I was left at a very specific, well-known building late at night
during a time when there was a city-wide curfew, so C-H believes my
birth mother lived less than an hour away from downtown Taegu. At the
time there were limited busses and the rails, but hardly any cars. As
she is telling me this, I am feeling overwhelmed.

Six months ago, I had no idea I would be at this point searching for
my birth family. I never thought I would. I basically gave this
information to the universe and all these things are falling into my
lap . . . whatever happens, whatever I find, it will be a part of me
forever. I am allowing myself to be vulnerable because it is the only
way I can grow.

This trip is ostensibly about a search for family, but it is way
more than that. It is a search to come full circle as a person . . . I
have always felt a part of me was missing, that part of stepping on my
birth ground, of breathing the air of my people, of walking in the
footsteps of my kind.

Yet if I come home without any knowledge or information on my birth
family, I will have . . . walked side by side with others taking the
same journey. It is not the results of the answers to all my questions
that is important to me, it is the courage to take the journey itself.

As I revisit that first trip to Korea with the Searching Seoul
show and now this letter that I wrote, it’s making me step back and
think more about how different I am now than I was back then.

And yet, some things never really change. That sense of wanting to take the journey with others who are like me has not changed. It is why I write and share my thoughts and feelings on this blog.

A sigh of relief

Last night at 10:30 pm. CST, my "show" was on. I conveniently had more important things to do, namely, support my friend hw, whose concert happened to be the same night. At 10:30 pm CST, I was at the lovely and charming Moscow on the Hill
with a large group of friends for the after-show party. I remember
looking at my watch almost exactly at 10:30 and thinking how relieved I
was to be there instead.

I’ve now had a chance to view the Searching Seoul
update. Well, it wasn’t quite as painful as I’d expected it to be.
Because it is only a half hour show, they had to cut out a lot of the
original piece. Which means you only see me crying half of the time I did in the original.

The "update" part was actually all right. There was still too much
hyperbole for my liking – for example, in the introduction to the
"update," Jason Davis (the reporter) says we came home "bitterly disapointed." Not just disapointed, but somehow he decided I was bitterly
disapointed.He also said that we were "two baby orphans" when I was in
fact, almost 3 years old when I came. Also, he perpetuates the idea
that all adopted Koreans are the result of unmarried women. While that
may be the case in the past 15-20 years, it is not the reason the
majority of those of us in our 30s-50s were sent out for adoption (but
that’s another post for another time).

Oh, and he called a plate of galbi, bulgogi.

At any rate, I felt I came across as much more put together and not
such a sap. Plus, I like my hairstyle much better now. It was so short back then!

KSTP
is supposed to be sending me DVD copies of both the original show and
the updated version. I will let you know when I get copies made. But
until then, here is a chance to see it online. Warning: it’s very slow
and the resolution is pretty bad (at least it is on my computer).

For those of you with internet explorer, you can view each segment
online. This will only work with IE or Netscape. Click on the links
below for each segment, and then once on the page, click on the VIDEO
link. I would be happy to hear your feedback.

For segment 1: "Return to Korea" .
For segment 2: "Going on national television"
For segment 3: "Returning Home"

Such a tease!

Seoul

Here is a link to the promotional video of my "Searching Seoul"
documentary, which will be aired on Saturday night at 10:30 pm. in the
Minnesota/western Wisconsin area (you will need to use explorer or
netscape to view the video).

Searching Seoul Video

Can you ever go back home again?

Six years ago, Jason Davis traveled with two Minnesota women who
were among the first Korean children to be adopted by Minnesotans, as
they searched for their birth families.

They came home from South Korea empty-handed. Now, join Jason Davis
as their dramatic story continues … find out what happened -after-
the trip that changed their lives! That’s Saturday night at 10:35 p.m.

I will let you know if and when I get copies made.

Searching Seoul Update

Set your tivo, folks. Searching Seoul is set to air on June
17th at 10:30 p.m. If you are from MN or WI and you happen to catch it,
I’d be interested in your thoughts.

We caused a little bit of a ruckus last Wednesday, after all our
neighbors saw the KSTP-Channel 5 van parked outside our house. Mike and
Phil (from the news station) filmed us doing such natural things such
as: walking the dog, sitting on the stoop, playing with water balloons
and looking at photos.

It’s hilarious to think that so much staging is involved in order to show us as being "natural" on t.v.

I asked whether this would be available to be purchased through the
station, but they said no. However, I will get a DVD copy and am free
to make copies and "give away" as many as I want. So I will check out
the costs of copying and shipping – check back on that one.

I am extrememly nervous about seeing my face on tv again. First,
because it was a time in my life when I was just one big bundle of raw
emotions. And at a time in my life when I wanted to present myself as
so put-together, the whole world (it seemed) saw me as this sad, sap of
an adoptee. And a clue for those who have never dealt with the media –
it’s so hard to control them. You can say all the things you want and
one thing that’s iffy and sure as hell that one thing will be what’s
aired. And just like the Korean television producers, I’m sure it’s no
accident that I’m crying in a majority of my airtime.

It’s such exposure! The other thing that makes me cringe thinking
about this, is that I was so new and naive about so many things – I’d
never been to Korea before, so in a way I was kind of robbed of that
first experience. Having a camera in my face isn’t exactly a stellar
way to see your birth country for the first time. I didn’t want to have
all my emotions on camera! So, although I feel I’m portrayed as
emotional in this documentary, I also feel that I held back a lot, and
in a way that’s bad. I needed to be able to process and feel my way
through this experience.

In the end, I guess I feel it was still worth it. As an outside
viewer, I’d really have appreciated seeing it, especially if I was a
newbie to the adoption identity process. I guess it’s just hard to have
your life in a fishbowl and open to such scrutiny.

I just hope that this is the end of my 15 minutes. I think I’ve had enough of "reality tv."

BiBimBap

In an earlier post in which I used Korean food as a metaphor for my
journey to figure out how to blend my Korean, Adopted and American
identites together, someone referred to this essay which I’d written a
few years earlier.

This piece was originally published in Transcultured magazine (published by Also-Known-As in New York) in 2000, shortly after I returned from my first trip back to Korea since my adoption in 1971.

BiBimBap

On the airplane from Los Angeles to Seoul, Korea they
served Bibimbop for lunch. Thin slices of beef, seaweed, carrots,
cucumbers and other vegetables neatly placed in separate piles in a
bowl and served with a side dish of rice and tubes of sesame oil and
hot pepper paste. It was the first time it hit me that I was actually
on a plane, on my way to South Korea, to search for my birth family.

For months it didn’t seem real, even as I received my airline tickets in the mail, or read the Lonely Planet’s Guide to Korea,
or began eating kimchee and mandu at the Shilla Restaurant near my
house in preparation. I was like a bride planning her wedding day, with
little thought to the emotions I would feel once the big night was over
and reality sets in. Instead, I was so excited at being served Korean
food that I took a picture of it, to the humor of my Korean seatmate,
and followed his example as he dumped the rice in the bowl, added the
oil and hot pepper paste and mixed it up.

I had prepared myself to be shocked by Seoul and Korea. I thought
the senses would overwhelm me. I’d heard that other adoptees had
experienced long lost memories when they smelled certain foods or
recognized buildings or sounds. Maybe such things will happen to me, I thought.

But instead, I was surprised by how ordinary I felt.

As I walked down the streets, I thought my past would be pasted on my forehead – a big A for Adoptee.
There were little things caught my notice- standing in the "Foreigner"
line at customs, the loud way we laughed compared to the quiet demeanor
of the Koreans we were with, the traffic – but nothing about being in
Korea was making me feel unwelcome or uncomfortable.

I felt comfortable in my skin.

Whether noticed by the others in my group or not, I had a lot of
ambivalent feelings about searching for my family. While I told virtual
strangers – people at the Y where I work out, parents in the
parent-child classes I attend, friends of friends – I kept most of the
birth search plans quiet to my family members, especially my adoptive
parents. It’s not that I questioned my feelings towards them, but I was concerned about their feelings.

My parents have never openly supported my desire to connect with my
Korean-ness, not that they were forcefully against it either. It was
never discussed, even when I would point out magazine or newspaper
articles about a Korean Adoptee meeting their birth family. To my
knowledge they never read those articles, they certainly never
discussed them. Their feelings are that I’m American, raised American
and I should be satisfied to be American. Or maybe they were just
waiting for me to bring it up. My mother recently told me about a
co-worker whose 19 year old adopted Korean son was having "problems".
"Like you, he was never interested in being Korean until recently," she
told me.

I know she is referring to an incident that happened when I was
about four or five years old. My parents tell me I would cry whenever a
Korean person would try to talk to me. First of all, I didn’t know real
Koreans existed in the very Caucasian suburb I grew up in. Second,
since I was adopted at almost three years old, maybe I was scared they
would take me back to the orphanage – I doubt I was trying at that age
to "deny" my heritage. Or maybe I was just shy, and wary of someone
speaking a language I had learned to forget.

So, I played the role of the good orphan. I was grateful,
obedient, quiet, and did well in school. I didn’t want attention so I
did whatever I could to blend in. I despised questions over my
ethnicity or queries over my unusual family situation. It was painful
to be singled out.

Yet at the same time, I always wanted to know more and feel more
connected to Korea but I was afraid to hurt my parent’s feelings. I
felt so out of place as it was. And I had no other family anyway; this
was it. They were my only option. I was at least smart enough to know I
didn’t want to jeopardize the only place I’d been able to call home.

For many years, I never had a desire to meet my birth
family. I was satisfied with the thought that if my birth parents
couldn’t take good care of me, I was better off. I’ve never been bitter
about it since I’d always held on to the romantic notion that it was an
act of love. When pushed, I’d have answered that I was curious about
them, for medical reasons, of course, but that I considered my
adoptive parents my real parents. But when my daughter reached first
the age I was when abandoned at 14 months, and then the age I was
adopted, it really hit me what I’d lost. But even then, I assumed that
searching would be useless. I was abandoned at Taegu City Hall. There
were no records of family members dropping me off at an orphanage. I
just suddenly appeared, like Moses in the bulrushes. Whatever story was
behind my abandonment, I assumed I would never know. Ironically, it was
about this time that my mother became interested in charting her
family’s genealogy. Suddenly my mother "found" my adoption files in a
box in the basement. And it was soon after this that I found K.

K and I had first met as six-year-olds at the summer church camp our
families attended. For several summers we would meet up and pretend we
were twins, and given the fact that we were the only two Korean
Adoptees at camp, all the other kids believed us. Eventually, as it
often happens, we lost touch.

One day I was reading the current issue of Korean Quarterly
and I came across an article about an adoptee who was facing issues of
identity for herself and her family of four biracial children. Since
becoming a mother myself, this was something I had been concerned
about. I worried that I had nothing to teach my children about their
heritage since I had never known it myself.

It was my friend K. I contacted her the very next day. As we began
to catch up on our lives, I was struck at how similar our paths had
taken us – early marriages, children, stay-at-home moms, and now,
involvement in the Korean adoptee community for the first time.

It was she who brought to me an offer to go to Korea with 6 other
adult adoptees. Although my husband and I had planned to go to Korea
the year before, a new baby and tight budget had postponed the idea.

I wanted to go but was worried about one of the requirements. This
was to be a birth family search. It was to be adoptees only; no
spouses, children or adoptive parents.

There would be no need to explain why we felt what we did, no split
loyalties between wanting to preserve adoptive families feelings and
our own longings for birth family. We all knew what it was like to grow
up with those dual feelings. For myself, I had just come to a
willingness to want to meet my birth family, and now I was given the
opportunity to do something proactive instead of just thinking yeah,
maybe someday.

I didn’t find any birth family while in Korea. People
ask me if I’m disappointed, and honestly I feel hostile when I’m asked.
How would they feel if they had spent countless hours and
dollars into a search only to come up with no proof that you existed
past the made-up date the adoption agency placed on your record? Of
course I’m disappointed.

I’m also frustrated at Korea’s lack of proper record keeping, and
angry at their cavalier acceptance of giving up their unwanted children
as if we were just another export from their country. I’m downright pissed
at the social attitudes that prevail still and keep Korea from making
the changes to eliminate the needs for orphanages and international
adoptions. I’m somewhat relieved that I didn’t have to deal
with the shock of finding my birth parents and I’m scared that someday
I will. I’m sad that I wasn’t able to experience growing up in a family
that looked like me. I’m thrilled that I finally experienced the
culture and food of my people. I am filled with a sense of pride at
being able to walk down the street in downtown Seoul and look like I
belong there.

For the first time ever I was able to see myself reflected in the eyes of the people I passed by.

So now I am trying to process things. Instead of finding answers I
now have more questions. How do I incorporate the new me into the old
me? How do I try and transition the newfound sense of pride of being
Korean with my pride at being American? The blurring lines make me
uneasy.

Like the Bi Bim Bop served on the flight to Seoul a few weeks ago,
my life had always been compartmentalized into separate sections. There
was the orphan, the daughter, the wife, and the mother; the Korean, the
American, the assimilator, the rebel. But you can’t enjoy the dish by
eating it in its separate piles. To truly experience it you need to add
some rice and some heat and stir.