Yes, upon visiting the dentist this morning, I was shocked and ashamed to learn that I have a few cavities. I’ve never had a cavity before in my life, so I’d been under the assumption that somehow I was immune . . . my teeth were just that good. Not so fast. I suppose not visiting the dentist for an entire year in Korea wasn’t such a great idea. And I’m sure all the coffee I’ve consumed upon my return to the States hasn’t helped.
I told myself that I wasn’t going to procrastinate this week, but I must get this off my chest. As some of you may remember, my job for this quarter has been very interesting. I’m working for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions at the UW and reading applications for the incoming freshman class. Thus far, I’ve read somewhere around 800 applications . . . with 2 1/2 more weeks of reading to go. It’s a fascinating thing to read people’s personal statements. I’ve read everything from a wrenching story about a boy who had to escape Somalia on foot with his family after watching his uncle get shot in the head to about a million stories of various applicants tearing their ACL (as I told J.N., not the most original personal statement topic). One of the best parts of reading applications is sitting around with my fellow graduate students, making the occasional sarcastic comment or sharing a moving story.
Out of these hundreds of applications, I’ve read three that were Korean adoptees. One was the first file that I read today . . . and it just killed me. One of the things he wrote was that he often wonders about his birth parents and questions what his life might have been like if he had grown up in Korea.
But he said, “I’ve stopped doing that, because thinking ‘what if’ is disrespectful to my parents and family.”
I have heard similar feelings expressed by so many young adoptees that I’ve met over the years through culture camps . . . and those same words have escaped my own lips. All of the adoptee applications I read followed a similar theme: explaining how their birth parents were unable to keep them, how being adopted has prompted them to question their identity and at times experience loneliness/isolation, and then reassuring the reader that they are happy in their lives with their adoptive families. And yet they can never forget that they are different.
I wish there was a way I could tell these teenagers that questioning our pasts and wondering about our birth families is natural. Just because we are curious about our beginnings–our roots–does not mean that we love our adoptive families any less. And yet, there is a subliminal message permeating society that says it does. A few years ago, “Dateline” ran this special about a Korean adoptee from Colorado going back to Korea to meet his birth family. The ridiculous title of the piece was “A Test of Love.” Before each commerical break, Ann Curry would ominously intone, “Which family will he choose?” (cue eyeroll)
Christmas in Belleville, IL
I remember looking at a photo album when I was around 6-years-old, browsing through pictures of the day I arrived at Kansas City International Airport in 1979. My mom was in the kitchen, making dinner, and I was asking her questions about my adoption. I asked her why my Korean mother wasn’t able to keep me, and my mom gently said that she didn’t know, but it must have been because she was very poor or too young to have a baby. My eyes brimmed with tears, with an emotion I couldn’t name. My mom, noticing my silence, asked me “Are you sad, because you’re thinking about your Korean mother?” I quickly turned away, so she wouldn’t see the tears. I knew that I didn’t want my mom to think I was sad, but I had no idea why.
Parents want so badly for their children to be happy, and I think ultimately children want to please their parents. So this UW applicant shoves away the “what if” questions. But censoring oneself and denying valid emotions doesn’t lead to happiness! I understand that some adoptees don’t have a desire to go to Korea or search for their birth families . . . but I think that we should be allowed to make that choice ourselves without the spectre of guilt hanging over our heads.
One of my classmates said to me, “I’m sure adoption must be better now than when you were younger.” Maybe in some respects (there are more resources available now than my family could have ever dreamed of). And yet this questioning about love remains . . . .
My Korean mother with my older sister, 미선언니. 사랑해.