After a traumatic childhood of watching my mother run around on the playground with her whistle (she was the playground lady), I realized the other day that this shadow in the sidewalk walks JUST like my mother. Then, I realized, “That’s YOUR shadow, Ginger.” This walk is a stride with a be-bop prance and a sideways method of running which involves a little kick of the heels (often, this also leads to running into things and tripping a lot). When I attempt to change my walk, I just end up walking like my dad, with straight legs and a purposeful gait (often, this also leads to humming simultaneously and a refusal to ask for directions). If I do too much purposeful changing of my walking pattern, I just end up walking like Wagger-Grace, Border Collie Extraordinaire!, which is to say, I just lay down a lot after practicing walking.
In Korea, familial relations and blood-ties are of the utmost importance. I know, because we just learned approximately ee-beck (200) different names for aunts, uncles, cousins, male cousins, female cousins, male cousins younger, male cousins older, female cousins related through your uncle’s wife, father’s sister’s brother’s wife’s cousin’s daughter’s cousin who is younger than you. Maybe I exaggerate. But there were A LOT of new vocabulary that distinguish familial relations that I didn’t even think about. Meanwhile, though you should know the familial connection, I can just call everyone oh-ppa (older brother) and uhn-nee (older sister). Whew! Law School Peeps: Remember the Table of Consanguinity? Yeah, me neither. The chart our professor gave us is like that but on crack and by gender of the speaker.
Blood ties are important in Korea, so important, there are government offices with the sole responsibility of tracking familial relations (this may also be because many surnames are the same). Blood ties are important also because Koreans have historically prided themselves in being a pure nation, quite homogeneous actually, with only Koreans. Blood truly runs thicker than water here (Or as T-Dawg says “wudder.”) Korea has a proud heritage and a interwoven vocabulary to describe family in a way that is literally and figuratively foreign to a distractable American girl like me.
This week, I celebrated the 32nd Anniversary of my adoption-arrival day (SN: I’ve heard other adoptees call this day various great terms, including: “Adoption Day,” “Airplane Day,” “Gotcha Day,” “Second Birthday,” and “Arrival Day.”), when as a 4 month old infant, I was transplanted into a new family. I then immediately slept for 72 hours to avoid confronting the trauma of this circumstance. My parents however, spent 72 hours watching me sleep. A bond was formed with such instantaneous love and adoration that has only been reinforced by 32 years of conversations, boo-boos, meals, stories, laughter, arguments, and the addition of three other children (as everyone knows, my parents would only have perfect children if they had only one, but for whatever reason, they wanted those other kids too).
And after 32 years, I do not question the strength of my “blood ties” even if different blood runs through my veins. As a social worker, an adult child, and an adoptee, I stand firmly in the “nurture” camp. I think more credit goes to my environment and the affection of my family than the inherent biology of my genetic makeup in determining my disposition, character, and skills. I feel that the nurturance I received as child did more work to form me into the independent, self-righteous, often-confused, always restless passion junkie I have become. I believe that attachment can be transferred to new caregivers; I believe that children can thrive in supportive environments; and I do believe that love is the best place to start in creating any family.
So, I am not willing to entirely discount the role of nature in forming my being; maybe my stubborn streak and over-analytic disposition comes from a like-situated biological mother. Perhaps my need to embellish funny stories or make other people feel comfortable comes from a father I will never meet. Or maybe, those qualities came from the two parents I already have… it would be impossible to discern.
I celebrate my adoption from a land far away and oft-imagined in my childhood. I celebrate a family that has loved me for 32 years, even though I at times feel like a misfit among them. I celebrate new connections and new breath and new memories of Korea…
It is impossible that so much time has flown by! There are still days where it seems surreal to be in Korea. The weather is finally improving, which also improves my mood – although every inch of my body is screaming: “Where is the pool floatie!?” I’m ready to be tan and too warm. Or at least wear sundresses and flip-flops.
After much thought, I’ve decided not to go anywhere for our little Spring Break this coming week; this will help me preserve my budget and enable me to enjoy my remaining 7 weeks in Korea so much more. I hate opting out of an opportunity to see other parts of the country, but I also want to be able to enjoy my daily life as well. I will, however, take a day-trip to Daejeon to visit my colleague from NAPALSA and see the University where he works. It will be strange to see someone from my old life – it feels so far removed from me. I miss my people, but I’m not finding that I miss my actual life… or rather, my life is not that spectacularly different in Korea? Maybe it’s having a daily routine and that my social circle is so much smaller (due to language barriers); maybe it’s that I have no need for constant contact with anyone via telephone. Or maybe, it’s just that from 6000 miles away, it’s easier to see the people who care for you and whom you need. And those relationships don’t really change, even with 6000 miles in between.
I continue to be intrigued by Korean romantic relationships. The “cuteness” factor is a requisite, and is also on overdrive. I’m not sure I would ever be able to successfully transition; I think the last time a boy did something exceptionally “cute” for me was in high school when the Love of My Teenaged Life sent me a Christmas card that said “Have a Meowy Christmas.” Even then, I felt really awkward with the cuteness. Also, I’ve lacked the genetic trigger which seeks approval for some time – even more explicitly – I refuse to seek any feedback at all (from friends and family alike, see “The Syndrome.”) in the context of my romantic relationships. So, when I hear several Koreans tell me that they must regard the thoughts, opinions, and approval/disapproval of their parents in choosing a boyfriend/girlfriend, I am clearly a bit baffled, though I do understand intellectually the cultural context in which these comments are given. Here in Korea, men and women also do not visit each other privately in their homes or show public affection openly, mostly because it’s considered rude, but also because of what other people might think.
The opinions of others is an integral part of decision-making in Korea, including but not limited to to the choice of: spouse, dress, cell phone, make-up/appearance, socialization, etc. More often than not, I hear echoes when asking about things people like. Diversity is a word that seems to mean something subversive in a culture that has truly been homogeneous for centuries. I’m not saying that people here do not have distinct personalities (that would be ridiculous), but the values that are regarded highly here in presenting oneself are nearly opposite to those applauded in the States. Everyone at home is trying to distinguish themselves from the pack of Others; here, it is better to be able to show respectful values, adaptability, and the ability to become part of the fold. I realize how hard it is to be truly different in Korean society… and perhaps I am becoming more grateful for all of those years I was given the luxury of being a misfit. I think often of my LSA Family, and wonder if any of us would have been able to flourish here… Regardless, I take nothing personally, but am intrigued to observe the differences.
I am likewise amazed that in Korean society, a person’s future becomes fixed a such a young age. Upward mobility is difficult, and parents make critical decisions when their children are still very young about the child’s potential, intellectual capabilities, and future employment options. The question is never: “what do you WANT to be when you grow up?” but rather: “What are you CAPABLE of demonstrating success at in the future for the rest of your adult life?” Here, it is rarely about want. I asked several professors and students what happens when a Korean chooses a career, but later is interested in a very different profession. The resounding reply was that Koreans don’t change their careers because their education is fixed. For those individuals without the opportunity, financial resources, or family support to become educated at a university, their opportunities are extremely circumscribed – not only professionally, but also socially. Generally, like-educated people socialize and marry one another (hmmm… I guess this is generally true Stateside too… it’s just a silent rule at home). Three careers in, I’m thankful that I have the ability to change my mind so freely (and much to the dismay of my family and friends and colleagues – frequently); it’s a unique blessing that I will try not to take for granted again.
As the time for the program comes to a midpoint, I am more and more committed to staying in Korea for a full year. There is so much that I have yet to truly experience, and also, I have been slacking when it comes to learning the language. It’s starting to click for me, but knowing how slooooooooo-oooowwww my learning curve generally is, I’m pretty sure I will just be getting the hang of hangukuh and hangul as I am leaving for SFO. To that end, I’m thinking of searching for a hagwan position as soon as my F4 visa comes back… or some kind of job that requires only English-fluency. Save your pennies, people. You’ll have to visit Korea next year. ^-^ (this means =) ).
By strangers (and sometimes friends) after discovering you’re a Korean Adoptee (FYI: this is generally a list of things NOT to say to a Korean-adoptee…I didn’t want anyone to be confused):
1. “Oh, do you know who your real parents are then?” Barring the rare occasion of a bad adoption/family, our adoptive parents ARE our real parents, just like the people who raised, nurtured, fed, clothed, cared for, and loved YOU are your REAL parents.
2. “Do you speak Korean?” Hm. We were mostly adopted when we were babies by parents who only speak English (or whatever language is spoken in the country where we grew up). So, no, we do not speak a foreign language just by virtue of our race.
3. “Are you from North or South Korea?” First, why does this matter? Will it dramatically change your perception of my adoption? Second, do you know what the Korean War is? Not many people have come in and out of North Korea for a while now.
4. “Oh! You must feel really lucky!” or alternatively, “How sad for you!” I do feel lucky, but not for the reasons you are probably exclaiming. I’m lucky because I have an amazing nuclear and extended family, and some really wonderful friends. For this reason, I’m not a sad person, although I still have feelings to process about my unique childhood. However, I’m pretty sure you think I’m lucky to be taken away from Korea because you envision it to be some third world country. It is not, and in some ways is even more modern than where YOU are from.
5. “Do you wish your birth parents had kept you?” or “Are you going to search for your real parents?” See #1, above. I think this is such an absurd and invasive question to ask. I think it’s hard for any person to imagine their life another way… Also, for adopted people, whether transracial, international, or domestic, a birth parent search is an emotional and often difficult process which requires a lot of thought. Asking this question with such casualness is disrespectful to the adoptee who must find the mental energy to ask it of themselves.
6. “Do you like Korean food?” Uhhh, not exactly sure what this has to do with being adopted, but, sure, I do. An even stranger question: “Do you like Chinese food?”
7. “Wow, it must’ve been really hard to find other Asians to date while you were growing up!” Yes, growing up in Arizona, there were very few Asians in my tiny hometown. It’s a good thing it’s no longer legally mandated for me to date within my race!
8. “Do Korean people eat dogs?” Usually, I get this question after JUST explaining how I was adopted as a baby and lived in the United States my ENTIRE life – just like you! A: I know no more than you do. (Of course, now I know that while uncommon in modern times, SOME Koreans do eat dog soup.)
9. “Are you a US Citizen?” No, I’ve been living here illegally for 30 years. Don’t tell anyone! In all seriousness: In recent news, there have been a handful of sad stories where adoptive parents innocently failed to complete the naturalization process for their children, whom never achieved legal citizenship. This is unfortunate and unfair for the individuals who are now facing deportation (usually because they have committed a crime or something to alert the government that they are not legal citizens). However, these stories are the vast exception to the rule. When a child is legally adopted, they are entitled to the same legal citizenship status as biological children. (LEGAL DISCLAIMER: This is NOT legal advice and should not be relied upon to take or refrain from taking any action. Please consult an attorney to evaluate your specific needs.)
10. “Will you adopt a baby too?” Will you? Some people feel very strongly about adoption for many reasons, which are generally extremely personal and require great amounts of thought. My status as an adoptee does not change this fact or process.
11. “Are they your REAL brothers and sister?” See #1, above. Also, let’s use SOME common sense. In my family, I have a 31 year old brother, a 20 year old sister, and a 16 year old brother. Three of us were adopted at 4 months old, while my 31 year old brother was 18 months old. So, I’m not a math genius, but don’t you think it might be a wee bit hard to have the same biological parents when I was living in Arizona for 15 years before my youngest brother was even CONCEIVED? By the way, none of us look even closely similar in size, shape, or color. SIGH.
To sum up: I am adopted. I am a person adopted from Korea, which means I was born in Korea but have lived in the United States since I was a tiny baby. When I tell you this information, it is not open license to ask completely ridiculous questions. Please use courtesy and common sense BEFORE asking your question, especially if you are a stranger. If you are not a stranger, then it’s probably okay to ask your questions, even if they are ridiculous; however, if you are a close friend, I reserve the right to harass you endlessly for asking an inane question and for making me ALAG.
Also, other adoptees are super friendly, good-natured people who will answer dumb questions because they think it will help you in the future. I’m not one of those nice adoptees. I believe that stupid questions deserve stupid answers. ^-^
So, ANY QUESTIONS???
Me: “So, I have this tiny, little obsessive crush on him. But I’m not sure he realizes I exist. He basically ignores me and never talks.”
Roomie: “Oh! He must just be shy. Don’t worry!”
(5 days later…)
Roomie: “Geen-juh! I talked to him. I said ‘Now, listen, you know Geen-juh is my roomie, so pleased don’t crush-ed her. Please be nicer and act more caring to her.’ So, I think from now on he will be much kinder and not crush you anymore.”
Him: “So, how is it over there? How are you fitting in?”
Me: “It’s okay. I’m adjusting pretty well. I’m having problems getting dressed in the morning.”
Him: “How so?”
Me: “It’s weird because I’ve been dressing the same for years…. but here that look is trendy and I don’t like being so trendy.”
Me: “What’s funny?”
Him: “Your desire to be different over keeping a style that you like.”
Me: “Well, when you put it that way it’s ridiculous!”
On White Lies…
Her: “Koreans don’t always say the truth.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Her: “Like, if someone looks old, we don’t say to them. We say ‘Oh! No, you have young face! Don’t worry!'”
Me (reflecting on the past four weeks): “Hmmm…”
Her: “Oh, I think many people have said this to you when you say your age is 32! Don’t worry! You have young face.”
Live From Denmark…
Director: “I am looking for people who play musical instruments for a performance we will have in May. Does anyone play an instrument?”
Me: “Uh, I played the violin when I was really young.”
Danish Adoptee: “Yes, I also played the recorder when I was really young, for like six years.”
American Adoptee: “Hm. I don’t think the recorder is the same thing in America.”
Danish Adoptee: “Why do you say that?”
American Adoptee: “Because in America people don’t play the recorder for multiple years; it’s just this piece of plastic with holes in it.”
Danish Adoptee (blinking): “Yes, that’s what it is in Denmark too.”
Me: “Um, we really don’t like cockroaches in our room. Can you take care of that?”
Him: “Why you don’t like cock-? It tastes good, like chocolate ^ ^…”
Other Adoptee: “Yeah, don’t you like cock???”
Him (to other adoptee): “Oh, do you also like cock…? G, when you find cock…, put it in her room so she will not be alone anymore.”