Cavities, questioning, and love

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.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Cavities, questioning, and love

  1. Great post. It’s full of so much truth. The guilt thing just happens naturally, doesn’t it? I fight against my own guilt feelings on a regular basis, wanting to open my adoptive family’s eyes to what I’ve been struggling with all these years, yet not wanting to give them the impression that I resent them for it (or at least wanting to soften that blow as much as possible).

    Funny how 10 years can change a person. I am sure that I wrote my fair share of scholarship and college admissions applications that made mention of my battles with racism or my upbringing as an adoptee. But at that stage, I still felt an aversion to revealing myself as that “other.” We do a lot of growing up in those years, don’t we?

  2. I really like your post, too. It’s amazing what time does for us.

  3. sarah,

    this is prolly by far, my most favorite blog entry you’ve typed up. i think the pictures give more of an emotional tug on my heart because it’s visual. seeing the differences between an adoptive family and a biological family not only run skin deep but socially and emotionally.

    i was thinking the other day how adoption agencies were so evil — not that this is a new thought. this comment is going to sound completely redundancy, but it’s weird to imagine a business is forming a “happy” family. and their export/product is innocent children.

    i remember when i had asked to volunteer/intern at the adoption sector of lutheran social services (lss) in mn . i remember walking into one of the social worker’s office with pictures of her own family (she had 2 children adopted internationally) in her office. along with pamphlets, posters, and “information” sheets about adoption.

    this woman has benefited from the business of international adoption both personally and professionally. i’m both appalled and grossly fascinated by this.

    besdies good intentions and ideas of what a family is supposed to be, it continues to boil my blood to know that the korean government still sends their children abroad. of course, ask, goal, and other people within the adoptee community here in seoul are doing what we can to educate or calm or our own concerns and heated opinions about this issue.

    like heej said in her own blog entry, there are times where i just want to punch a random korean in the face. my anger and sadness sometimes overwhelm me that it makes me want to say “fuck it” to learning korean at 이대 and living my life here.

    as you (ji-in and lee, respectively)stated that time does amazing things. but for me, now, time seems completely irrelveant because i feel my emotions and my thoughts have remained just as confusing and intense…

    but that’s just me :

  4. I honestly don’t know where my politics and head would be at with respect to the adoption experience without you and Ji-in.

    Thanks for sharing a beautiful entry, sarahkim.

  5. Gar

    International adoption is such a heartwrenching issue, but perhaps nobody can truly understand as those who are the adoptees. The Wing Luke Asian Musueum in the ID had a great exhibit on international adoption several months ago… too bad it’s not part of the perm. collection, because I think the people who benefited the most from the exhibit were the adoptees and their families.

    I often wonder about how the next generation of international adoptees will define their experiences, primarily the large numbers of young Chinese girls that are being adopted here in the US by mostly non-Chinese families…

  6. Thanks for the feedback, everyone. I’ve been meaning to write about these applicants for some time, and reading that file this morning triggered something.

    Ji-in and Lee–Yeah, reading these essays has definitely prompted me to wonder where my head was at 10 years ago. (Also some dialogue w/ K.T. and H. brought that up as well….). I just re-read my statement for Boston College (I am a certifiable NERD–over Christmas I transferred all of my old iMac files to my Powerbook….so I have everything I’ve written since 1993). It’s completely boring!!! It’s a wonder they accepted me. I didn’t talk about adoption AT ALL (although I identified myself as Korean-American, interestingly).

    H.–I know exactly what you mean about the stark visual contrast. It’s so powerful, and like K.T. said, it’s weird to see other adoptees’ photos. I loved Hee Ji’s post, too…..and as I was telling you tonight, it reassures me to know that we’re all on the same page. Because at times I feel like I’m crazy at school…or at least they think I am. Makes you wanna punch someone in the face, right? 😉

    J.G.V.T.–Glad you liked the post. And if it wasn’t for you, I would still be mostly oblivious to Filipino-American issues/culture….sometimes it’s good for me to take a break from Korean adoptee stuff and expand my horizons–otherwise it can be way too intense.

    Gar–You raise some interesting points in regards to the next generation of international adoptees. It’s something I think about a lot, especially considering that many of our issues keep repeating themselves (guilt, etc.). As for the Wing Luke exhibit…..I had mixed feelings about that. I felt that they put a very “shiny, happy” spin on adoption, and for me, they did not capture the adoptee experience. Although my friend, K.A., did a great job with the narrative.

  7. Sarah,
    Wow, just checked this and have so much running through my mind. I will say I love how honest and open you are in your posts. It is appreciated on my end for sure.

  8. Wonderful post… this is exactly why I think Korean adoptees need to talk with and befriend other Korean adoptees. It’s such a comforting feeling to know that the feelings we experience are normal for us.

  9. Anonymous

    very heartfelt post…

  10. Ben

    thanks for sharing, sarah. you’re pretty lucky that you have a photo of your birth mother… most adoptees don’t even have that much of a connection to their past. although, i can see that if i had a photo of my biological mother, it would definitely raise more questions than answers.

  11. Hi, Sarah,

    I don’t know if you’ll see this comment, as the original post goes back to Feb. I just wanted to thank you for putting these feelings into writing, and hope that adoptive parents find them and take them to heart.

    My kids roll their eyes at me when I bring up their first families, but I do it from time to time, not to push or intrude into their very personal feelings, but to send the signal that it’s not only natural and OK for them to be thinking about their families and yearning to meet them, but that I welcome and support them.

    I hope they really hear me, and aren’t holding back out of a false sense of loyalty.

    Margie (an adoptive mom)

  12. Anonymous

    My g/f’s name is sarah kim, and I decided to google “sarah kim,” and this is the most interesting site i’ve come to in a long time. Your biological mom looks so happy in that picture, but just by the fact that i know that she had to let you be adopted…ugh… it brought tears. That normal looking induvidual who is probably a lot younger than you in that picture was probably fearful and probably angray at the world. I’m am MD in California, and i run into patients who are confused about the world, and this is what i see in her. I may be wrong about this, but i’m just speculating. i’m a recovering alcoholic and an addict, and i know about running away from my problems… anyways sarah, thank you for sharing yourself to the world.
    -david-

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