I wasn’t going to post until the end of the month, but the last four days have been extremely interesting, and I want to blog about it. Plus, I also want to procrastinate. (No surprise……. however, I don’t know when/if I will ever get around to addressing the things that I listed previously. I’m always doing that….making lists of things to blog about and then not doing it. One of the people I met this weekend said in her brief bio that one of her hobbies is making lists–which she regards as its own literary form.)
Anyway, I spent Friday–Sunday at the Wallace Falls Lodge for the opening retreat of the ACLF Community Leaders Program. I actually first heard about this program two years ago when I was apartment-hunting after first returning to Seattle from my year in Korea. One of the rooms I was looking at was in a condo owned by a Vietnamese American guy in the Central District. The room was too small, but he was nice and when I told him I was going to be starting at the Evans School, he recommended that I check out the ACLF program. I looked up the website, was intrigued, and made a mental note to look again another time. Later that year, the ACLF program coordinator (and Evans alum) sent a message to all current Evans students regarding a one-day ACLF conference in Shoreline. I attended and felt relieved to be in a room full of politically-active and community-minded APIAs. It was a great networking opportunity, and I loved being able to talk to the Evans alum who understood and sympathized with a lot of my frustrations regarding grad school.
I’d wanted to do the ACLF Community Leaders Program last year, but the majority of the program takes place during the summer, and of course I spent last summer in Seoul. So this time around, I am really thrilled to be able to participate in the program, mainly because I want to be able to network with other local APIA leaders in a way that goes beyond “hi & goodbye” (which is what I mostly experience at local events). Emphasis here being on “local” and “APIA”—I love networking & establishing relationships with other community leaders, but most of the people I meet are specifically Korean adoptees who are decidedly not local to Seattle.
So, I carpooled to Wallace Falls with two of the other participants, dozing off due to being exhausted from worrying about (yet not writing) my DP. When we arrived, many of the ACLF board members greeted us. One of them asked us, “Are you ready to have an intense weekend?!” Err…yes? I was a little surprised by the question, because I had the impression the weekend would be a relaxing time in the woods. The weekend did end up being more intense than I’d anticipated–although it wasn’t a bad thing, I think, as I’ll explain later.
I am NOT a fan of ice breakers, but the one we did after the welcoming dinner was the best one that I can remember doing. We each gave the background story and meaning behind our name(s). Even though the room was chock-full of people (there must have been at least 30+ people in the room), I was interested in every story. And I was struck how this was the first time I’ve ever been in a structured program designed for the APIA community as a whole. The diversity in the room was incredible. And even after the board members left and only this year’s CLP class remained (along with our facilitators), we were still a very diverse group (Chinese American, Korean American, Japanese American, Filipino, Vietnamese/Laotian, Pacific Islander, hapa/mixed, Iranian American, etc.).
It had been a long time since I’d been on a retreat (not since my AmeriCorps days) and even longer since I’d been on such a touchy-feely retreat. (Touchy-feely in the sense of emotional and personal…..no hanky panky ensued.) Probably not since my CCSJ days at Creighton have I been in a group that emphasized personal sharing so much. I definitely enjoy personal sharing; however, I left the weekend with little insight into what my fellow participants do in their professional/organizational positions. I’m hoping that I’ll learn more about that as we go along in the program.
Since the weekend was full of sharing our personal backgrounds/heritage/stories, naturally a lot of what I shared had to do with being adopted. During the names-ice breaker, I shared how my new Korean name is Mi-ran (in order to match my sisters, Mi-sun and Mi-hye). Afterwards, one of the other participants said quite sincerely how my story sounds so sad, and asked, “What was it like meeting your Korean family?”
I never know how to respond to this question (although I didn’t mind that she’d asked it). It’s not something that’s easily summed up into a one-sentence answer, so I usually just say, “It was complicated.” Throughout the rest of the weekend, I was a bit paranoid about coming off as the “sad adoptee.” (Like that photo of me in ColorsNW which seems manipulated to make me look like the “sad adoptee”–but it was eyeliner, not a tear!) The reality is that there is indeed a lot of sadness (if that’s even the right word) in my personal story and in a lot of stories about adoption–because there is a sense of loss, identity confusion, etc. However, I think the “sad adoptee” label can often be dismissive, and people can make the assumption that an adoptee’s acknowledgment of loss somehow translates to rejection of adoptive family, bitterness, lack of objectivity, etc.
I hadn’t been in a retreat environment like this since doing my year in Korea, and I realized that I hadn’t openly shared my stories from my current perspective to complete strangers before. Well, I have talked about my experiences, but usually I’m talking to other adoptees or classmates from grad school, or I’m in a more professional setting like an interview. Normally, I’m pretty calm when I relate my story, precisely because I want to dispel the image of the “sad adoptee,” and I don’t want to give the impression that I have “issues”–because then I fear I will lose credibility.
For some reason, though, on Saturday night, during our “personal symbols sharing,” the environment in the room made me feel extremely anxious about appearing vulnerable. I think it might have been the language we kept using about “safe spaces”—something that I value, but it contributed to the atmosphere of group therapy. My face felt flushed the entire time as I waited for the moment when I felt comfortable to share; others were tearing/choking up only mildly during their sharing. I ended up going after the other two Korean Americans shared; most of us talked about our families, and I was no different.
I brought this random folder that I keep in my room that is labeled “birth family” and has bits and pieces from 2004-2005 when I was in Korea. It has translated letters and email correspondence between my Korean family and myself as well as various photos (including a group picture of all the Korean adoptees from the 2004 Gathering). All the activities we’d done earlier in the day had been leading up to me talking about how I found my Korean family, so I started relating the story–a story I’ve told many, many times since everything happened two years ago.
My voice was shaking, though, which is not normal for me, and then I was horrified when I tried to keep talking and no words were coming out. I was talking about the irony of how my Korean mother passed away just six months before my first visit to Korea in 2001 and how I never had the chance to meet her. Before I knew it, I was crying in front of the group and ready to die of embarassment. And I’m not talking about just a trickling tear, I was actually trying not to sob while my eyes and nose were running. Everyone was incredibly supportive, however, and eventually I was able to finish the story while clutching tissues someone handed me and focusing on a log pole in front of me. There is something gutteral about the emotions surrounding adoption, I think, because it is such a major event in our lives that happens (most of the time) before we are fully conscious and self-aware.
I was worried about this public display of raw emotion, because the nature of this program is professional, and also I was worried about my aforementioned fears of being labeled “sad,” etc. I’m also a bit concerned because during the weekend I didn’t get to talk much about my involvement with the adoptee community beyond my own issues, and there were also no opportunities to talk about the complex transnational issues in adoption. But I trust that these opportunities will present themselves in one way or another during the next six months of the program. I’m hopeful that it was a good thing to have such an honest reaction in front of the other participants…..as long as they don’t think I’m crazy.
Overall, I am really excited about embarking on the CLP program. The retreat was a nice opening, and I was amazed how I was connected to almost everyone there through mutual friends. I continue to marvel at how small the active APIA community is in Seattle….
The other interesting part of the past few days was hosting Kim Park Nelson and Laura Briggs for a seminar on transnational adoption at my university on Monday. All the maneuvering it took to bring them both here paid off, because the seminar was thought-provoking and a nice break from my regular routine. We were even able to sell three copies of Outsiders Within. I hold a lot of admiration for both of these women for being so fiercely intelligent and unafraid of confronting the dominant (sentimental) rhetoric surrounding transnational adoption.
My Korean professor actually canceled our daily class so that everyone could attend the seminar (she even threatened to take off points if people skipped it.) And then she proceeded to ask some of the most interesting questions during the discussion period. There was also a Brazilian transracial adoptee in the audience who was visibly moved by the seminar and thanked all of us profusely for holding it. (A few of my Korean classmates left early, and it was obvious that they had been forced to attend. And one elderly white woman left in a huff–Laura guessed that she must have been an adoptive parent.)
So even though the seminar attendance could have been better (I especially wish that more of the faculty members who I know have adopted children had come), the seminar itself was meaningful for a few people, and that’s what matters.
I will end with a hilarious vignette that took place on Sunday night.
KPN joined a few of us for dinner & discussion at Tamarind Tree, a popular Vietnamese restaurant here in Seattle. It was KPN, two of my Korean adoptee female friends, and myself. We had a really great talk about a wide variety of topics–Kim’s piece in Outsiders Within, her course on Korean adoption at the University of Minnesota, issues within our community, etc.
All of a sudden, this random white woman approaches our table. She leans down and places her hands on KPN and JB’s backs. I think she must know KPN personally, so I look at her expectantly.
I’m sorry to interrupt, but I just had to come over here to tell you that you are all SOOO beautiful.
As soon as the words tumble out of her mouth, I immediately start laughing hysterically. I was laughing so hard, I couldn’t breathe. Meanwhile, KPN has a look of confused irritation and JB & HP have their lips pressed shut with disdain at the woman.
KPN eventually says, “Ok…….Thank you????”
I think the combination of my laughing fit along with the others’ annoyance gave the lady a definite “go-away” vibe, so she quickly apologized again for interrupting and then scurried back to her own table.
It was all so incredibly bizarre. The room was full of Asian people of varying ethnicities, including the restaurant servers and owners. HP and I were wearing rumpled fleece, and I still smelled of campfire smoke from the night before. Possible reasons for her approaching us:
- She’s an adoptive parent, and she was excited to see what her daughter might someday grow up to be (Sassy Hour ladies, you can feel me on this).
- She recently returned from a trip to Asia.
- The four of us really are that stunning.
I expect weirdness like that in Kansas City, but not Seattle….. guess it never hurts to have these kinds of reminders of what’s out there!
Everytime I think of that lady, I start laughing to myself now–I’m sure she’s glad to have had that effect on me.