Monthly Archives: August 2006

Relinquishment and Resilience: Uncovering the Past


미선언니 (Mi Sun, my older sister), 4th 이모 (my mother’s younger sister), me. 2006.8.19

 

Last weekend, I went to 신림동 with 미선언니 and 보림 (친구, Borim) to visit one of my imos (이모=aunt on mother’s side). It was meaningful, because Borim was the first Korean friend I ever had. We met at Creighton University in January 2001–the same month that my Korean mother passed away. (My Korean identity was reborn while at the same time my Korean mother was dying, unbeknownst to the both of us.) Borim also accompanied me when I met my Korean sisters for the first time in 2005. I wanted Borim to come with me last weekend, not only because I wanted to spend time with her, but I intended to ask my imo some specific questions regarding the circumstances surrounding my adoption.I first met 4th imo (I say “4th” because my family sometimes refers to her that way. She was the 4th child out of seven total to my maternal grandparents) last year at my grandmother’s 80th birthday celebration. I mistakenly blogged about her as being my “5th” imo. Anyway, she used to live very close to my mother. After I was born, she visited my mother daily in order to take care of Mi Sun while my mother cared for me. Last year when I met her, she gripped my hand tightly as she scrutinized my face (she loves to tell me that my face is the same as it was when I was a baby), tears rolling down her own plump cheeks.

At that first meeting, 4th imo questioned whether October 21, 1978 is my actual birthday. She insisted that it was an extremely cold day when I was born, and October in Korea is generally a mild month. None of my other relatives could confirm the validity of the date, so I began to wonder if October 21 was really the lunar date (which would mean that the solar date was somewhere around November 21).

Meeting my Korean family last year was always very intense, and although I was pretty committed to journaling regularly, it was difficult to sort through all of the stories my relatives told me. I didn’t know the specifics of my mother’s cancer, and I’d heard a vague account of my mother trying to reclaim me after taking me to Holt.

So last weekend, I went to visit 4th imo to see her house, eat some delicious food, and uncover some of the past. With the aid of Borim and my electronic dictionary, we were able to discuss many things in more detail.

4th imo lives in 신림동, close to Seoul National University. As we waited for 4th imo to meet us at the bus stop, Mi Sun said that she hadn’t been to 4th imo‘s house since her childhood. 4th imo eventually greeted us enthusiastically and walked us to her house nearby. It is small, but clean and decorated with photos and hordes of small knick-knacks (which always speak to me of fussy old ladies). 🙂 My uncle and cousins were absent, due to work and school obligations.

I’ve often wondered whether Holt or my parents gave me my Korean name, 현아 (Hyun Ah), because my two sisters have the same “middle” name (미선 Mi Sun and 미헤 Mi Hye). So I asked 4th imo about my name, and she said that I was nameless for a while. My mother told my aunt that she was waiting to name me. 4th imo said that 선아 (Sun Ah) was one of the names that she mentioned as a possibility. Then we discussed the fact that while it is common to have children named similarly (e.g. my cousins are 재은 Jae Eun and 재준 Jae Jun), sometimes parents choose to “break the rules” and choose totally different names.

After talking about my name, the topic of my birthday came up. 4th imo realized that she had probably been confusing Mi Sun’s birthday with mine (Mi Sun was born in November 1976), and October 21st is most likely my “real” birthday.

4th imo then began to reminisce about those days, and said that she was waiting for my 100-day celebration (a traditional party that celebrates infants’ good health in Korea). But my party never came, and when my 4th imo asked my mother about it, she discovered that my parents had taken me to Holt. My father was bitterly disappointed that I was a second girl, and he threatened to divorce my mother if she did not give me away. Eventually, my mother gave into my father’s bullying after I was two-months-old. They took me to the Holt Reception Center in December 1978.

My mother described to 4th imo about signing the papers that relinquished all parental rights, including the right to search for me in the future. 4th imo became extremely angry at my mother, and said to her “You should have given her to me to raise!” And so they went together to Holt in February 1979 in order to reclaim me, but Holt told them that I had already been adopted and was in America.

Which was a lie.

I did not go to America until September 1979, with my adoption finalized a few months prior. My story is not unique . . . I have heard many other stories with similar accounts of adoption agencies slamming the door in anguished birth mothers’ faces.

4th imo was very angry with my mother. She said that she didn’t talk to my parents for almost a year after they relinquished me. When Mi Hye was born, she was a very sickly baby, and 4th imo chastised my mother, “You know that Mi Hye is sick because you sent your other child away.” My female cousin was born shortly thereafter, and 4th imo cried bitterly in remembrance of me.

Over the years, 4th imo would watch the search shows on Korean television that showed Korean adoptees looking for their birth families. She was hoping to see me.

I asked whether she had any photos of me as an infant. My sisters’ family photo albums do not have any pictures of me. 4th imo said that she used to have a few, but they floated away in a sudden flood many years ago.

My mother was racked with guilt over giving me away. In 1994, she discovered large black spots on her skin that grew and grew. She was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in addition to a particular kind of leukemia (Borim originally kept saying that my mother had a “black tumor in the blood”).

Our father (who abused and fought with my mother and sisters daily) finally divorced our mother in 1998. My imos and grandmother have told me numerous times that despite my father’s handsome face, he was very cruel. After my mother passed away in 2001, he took all of the insurance money, leaving my sisters with nothing. My father is remarried and living in Incheon now with his young wife and son. I still have not met him and am ambivalent about doing so.

My family has told me that my mother wondered about me often. They all wondered what had happened to me. As she was dying, my mother was convinced that God was punishing her for having sent her daughter away.

I spent some time in 2005 naturally grieving for my birth mother. It was intense in the beginning, as I wrote about in a journal entry from that January:

I think I must be grieving for umma, for her hard life, for the pain she lived through, both emotional and physical. The pain that came from her husband, from losing a daughter. I’m grieving for the fact that I’m not going to meet her, that she never knew what happened to me, that I turned out okay.

I still think of my mother often, but that intensity has subsided. Although we talked about some serious and painful memories last weekend, the majority of my visit with 4th imo was happy and filled with smiles as she showed us photo after photo (after photo) of her family’s recent European tour. As we parted, she gave me a firm hug, and instructed that the next time I visit, I must spend the night and have time with my cousins.

~~~~~~~~~~

International adoption is complex. What you’ve read above might indicate that I only associate my adoption with pain and sadness. Perhaps I am a “bitter and angry and negative” adoptee. The kind that adoption agencies point the finger at. I think it is incredibly glib and short-sighted to only look at the happy-happy-joy-joy aspects of adoption. Why does acknowledging the sadness associated with adoption automatically label me as being “negative”?

As the wonderful T.S. Eliot quote that Tharon & Della put on their blog says:

We shall never cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will to be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

As many others have written recently on their blogs, I reject the false dichotomy and reductive binary of “happy” vs. “angry” adoptees. I also do NOT believe that every adoptee ultimately “evolves” into re-assimilating to Korean society. Certainly, I do not ever see myself living in Korea again permanently. But some adoptees choose to do so, and I think that vilifying the adoptee community in Seoul without knowing them or speaking to them is ignorance at its worst.

Some of the reforms that Korean people are calling for in regards to international adoption include giving birth mothers a longer grace period in order to change their minds about relinquishing their children. Currently, such a grace period is practically non-existent (around seven days). In the U.S., birth mothers have several months to deal with the complex emotions accompanying relinquishment. Sometimes, it can take many months to determine whether a kinship adoption (such as in my story) is possible.

This questioning that I have is not about trying to re-write the past or to wish that my life had turned out differently. And it is NOT about rejecting my adoptive family and their love (on the contrary, coming to Korea and meeting my birth family brought me closer than ever to my adoptive parents). It is to acknowledge my mother. And it is to acknowledge the thousands of mothers and families that lost something in the process–as well as future birth mothers.

They have stories that are worth hearing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

At the KoRoot 3rd Anniversary party this July, I was privileged to be able to view a screening of Tammy Chu’s new documentary film (a working version), Resilience. The film was also shown at the G.O.A.’L Conference, with the following description:

Resilience tells the stories of Korean birth mothers who gave their children up for overseas adoption. The film explores the reasons and circumstances behind their decision, which was often due to lack of social welfare support and women’s rights. For the very first time, despite stigma and discrimination from their own society, birth mothers bravely come forward to tell their stories of loss, struggle, and ultimately, of courage and strength.

The film is incredibly moving and powerful. I highly recommend viewing it when the opportunity arises (Tammy is planning to submit the finished version at various film festivals world-wide).

Finally (whew! Long post. Knew it was coming, since I’ve hardly blogged this summer), I will share with you a column from a recent edition (2006.8.18) of the Chosun Ilbo, Seoul’s pre-eminent newspaper. The column is Oh Tae Jin’s “Weekend Letter–Finding the Puzzle Pieces Lost for Adoptees.” (In Korean, 조선일보, 오태진의 주말편지, English translation of column provided by G.O.A.’L) I think it shows that Koreans are looking critically at international adoption.

In the dark, young adults were sobbing; some sighing deeply, and some lamenting. 150 overseas Korean adoptees residing in Korea and abroad were watching Resilience, a documentary last Saturday evening. The viewing of the film was the last part of the three-day G.O.A.’L annual conference held in Daebang-dong, Seoul. The 38-minute documentary brings out in the open the hidden voices of guilt-stricken birth mothers, at whom a finger of blame is pointed.

Mother 1: “I got pregnant after coming up to Seoul to work. I left my baby in the care of my relatives, and I was staying in the single-mother shelter. Meanwhile, my brother put my baby up for adoption, not discussing it with me at all.” She is married with the man who is the biological father of the baby. A while ago, her son contacted her from France.
“I was afraid of not having any excuse for abandoning my son. I could spot my son right away in the airport. It was so good to see him, but it was heart-breaking to let him go back to France. I talk with him on the phone, but it is painful not to be able to see him. I have done nothing for him. I hope he knows that I’m praying for him all the time, and I hope he understands the situation and why I could not keep him.”

Mother 2: “I got raped in my room, while I was working at a factory at the age of 16. I left my baby in the care of my relatives, and then my mother told me that she sent away my baby to a rich Korean family. I went on a mad search for my son for years and then finally gave up. Just one day, my son came back from the U.S. It was my happiest moment. I was thrilled to see him again. He told me that he was missing me, too. I didn’t want to let him go, but . . . “

Mother 3: “I ran away from home to escape from my father’s abuse when I was a middle-school student. While I was working at a gas station, I got raped. I realized my pregnancy after 7 months. I went to the Han River to commit suicide. But, I couldn’t make it and just cried my eyes out. The nurse showed me the baby at the hospital, but I didn’t take a look at him and just let him go.”

Her face is blurred out, and she sounds young. “There was no shoulder to cry on to ease my pain of being a mother at an early age. I think of my son whenever I have a hard time. How tall would he be? What kind of personality would he have? I want to be proud of myself when I meet him. Although I’m not a wonderful cook, I want to make him food and take photos with him. I want to see him and tell him how much I love him. I believe he will come and find me some day.”

The documentary ended with the narration, “Mothers took if off their chests and gained hope and reconciliation.” It was adoptees who gave an outlet for birth mothers to tell stories that went unheard before.

Tammy Chu, a documentary director who studied film in New York, said “I learned mothers gave up their children in large part to society.” That is, adoption is more attributable to a patriarchal society and social ignorance rather than the lack of maternal love.

Korean adoptees who steered their lives toward the birthland established an association for overseas Korean adoptees seven years ago. They admit there is emptiness in the heart where the birth family, motherland, Korean language, culture, and people should have been. Adoptees feel confused until they learn what they have missed. Now, they become grown-ups and try to find the missing piece. I hope that Koreans will be able to help them learn about their mother country.

Adoptees share pains and dreams and rely on each other. They are trying to understand their mothers and the country that gave them away. They spend years volunteering at child-care facilities where they used to stay, while leading campaigns to promote domestic adoptions. However, it is regrettable that Korea, their mother country, is still giving up its children for overseas adoption. In contrast, Korean adoptees grow toward becoming proud members of Korean society.

I support adoptees who return to Korea and choose to stay. I support adoptees who prefer to live in our adoptive countries. Most of all, I support what Oh Tae Jin writes in the last paragraph: “Adoptees share pains and dreams and rely on each other.” (He refers to the establishment of G.O.A.’L and other adoptee-founded organizations.)

And I support being honest about the past, sharing our complex stories. Stories that cannot be simplified to good vs. bad, happy vs. angry.

17 Comments

Filed under Adoption (the industry), Community, Conferences, Korean Adoptees, Korean family, Life in Korea, Organizations, Policy

Can you tell sarahkim from butter?

I know I’m late to the party (as usual) on this, but better late than never. Fun with the Advertising Slogan Generator.

  • Making sarahkim taste better.
  • Let’s face the music & sarahkim.
  • Turn loose the Outside In . . . And Back Again.
  • Ding Dong! Outside In . . . And Back Again calling!
  • You need an Outside In . . . and Back Again.

See below for the real post.

3 Comments

Filed under Media/Arts/Pop Culture

Conference Wrap-Up, Pt. II

This is going to be brief, as I waited too long to finish my Conference wrap-up, and many of my impressions are not fresh anymore. However, I’ve been plugging away at compiling the information from the evaluation forms from the G.O.A.’L Conference, so I’ve at least been thinking about it daily. (Check out the G.O.A.’L homepage for some pictures.)

The opening Friday night session was very interesting as JJT and KPN showed us slides from the forthcoming Outsiders Within book. Particularly of interest were some photos from various photographers, including Anh Dao Kolbe, whom I remember meeting a few years ago in Boston. JJT also read some excerpts from the notorious CHSFS letter that has been circulating. (More on that from me later…..in the meantime, JJT, Ji-in, Jae Ran, and KT Mee Hee are doing a great job addressing it.)

Saturday was busy, busy, busy, as I started the morning trying to put the finishing touches on the IKAA Power Point presentation. In the morning, I attended a presentation by a Danish Korean adoptee who talked about being in between identities (Danish….Korean) and how her concept of Korean-ness has changed and evolved over the years. Next, I split my time between a panel on domestic adoption in Korea and KPN’s presentation. After lunch, I moderated the panel on Adoptees in the Entertainment Industry, which had Amy Anderson (Korean adoptee comedienne from Minnesota, now based in L.A.) and Philippe Lapairy (French Korean adoptee who is a Korean television star). This was my 2nd time moderating a panel at a G.O.A.’L Conference (last year it was a panel about careers in Korea other than teaching English), and this year’s particular panel was interesting due to the good humor of the panelists and the fact that S.V. translated Philippe’s French. Moderating a panel feels a bit like pretending to be Katie Couric (or maybe SuChin Pak….at least she’s Korean and wears cool stuff like Santino Rice), especially when speaking into the mic. Philippe is so recognizable now in Korea that when he goes out and about in Seoul, he often has to disguise himself by wearing various hats and sunglasses. Amy’s comments were very insightful about the state of being an Asian-American woman in Hollywood and the comedy circuit. She’s currently pitching a sitcom to television networks, and I’ll be rooting for her to succeed.

I took a bit of a break after that panel to relax and chat with Amy, KPN, and T.H. Then those of us who were presenting for IKAA did some last-minute prep and later did our best to make our Power Point as exciting as possible and pump people up for next year’s Gathering in Seoul.

Dinner followed, and then I went back to KoRoot before heading to S Club in Hongdae for the after-party. Amy performed (great lines about Korean taxi drivers), and a band of adoptees (The KoRoots–so named due to the fact that 1/2 the group were residents here) rocked the house. Prior to the conference, I’d felt a bit like I was living in an episode of Making the Band, as I heard various members of The KoRoots bickering (“Doood, we need to be serious about rehearsing.”) But their actual performance was fun and amped–hope they can do the G.O.A.’L Christmas party.

On Sunday, the only event was a group outing to see the SJ B-Boys show, “The Ballerina Who Loved a B-Boy.” Before you gag on the title, let me just say that the show is absolutely amazing, and the b-boys are f*cking hot. I’d heard it was a great performance, but I was truly impressed by some of the avant-garde choreography (mixing ballet with b-boy moves). I wish I’d taken more pictures, but this will have to suffice. They’re just…..so……flexible.

Hope to post tomorrow as well about some issues that have been burning my brain the past week.


4 Comments

Filed under Community, Conferences, Korean Adoptees, Organizations, Updates

Conference Wrap-Up

First things first: about 100 new photos up on my Flickr site. (Looks like I need to add some more family photos . . . forgot to take pictures when I went to eat samgyetang with Mi Sun recently.) This post is going to be rambling and disorganized, just to let you know, because I need to meet some people for dinner in about 20 minutes, but I want to get this down before the work week starts (had Monday and today off . . . fantastic mini-vacation that I’ve spent mostly sleeping).

It was incredibly, incredibly busy in the G.O.A.’L office during the two weeks prior to the conference. I spent a lot of time working on our Power Point presentation for IKAA (which ended up turning out nicely, despite some font headaches), thanks to T.Y. for kicking my ass into gear. 🙂

The first night was Friday, which was basically the opening ceremony/dinner, and JJT & KPN’s presentation of Outsiders Within. I spent a lot of time working the registration table and got a little flustered when some VIPs appeared (a consul from the U.S. embassy, etc.). Everything went very smoothly, though, for the most part. The buffet was really good, as far as Korean buffets go. Had a fun time sitting with C. from Denmark at the “special” IKAA table, which happened to be situated directly beneath the blasting air conditioner. Only time that I’ve been cold here this summer.

The speeches by the Korean officials were mostly non-offensive, mostly forgettable. JJT & KPN’s presentation was cool, and I’m looking forward to reading the book this fall.

This post is taking longer than I thought, so it will have to be continued later . . . .

5 Comments

Filed under Community, Conferences, Korean Adoptees, Organizations, Updates

Waiting

…for the G.O.A.’L Conference to officially begin. The dinner begins at 7:00 p.m., and I have a feeling most people won’t show up to register until 6:00 at the earliest. Also waiting for the Conference booklets to arrive. Hoping tomorrow’s Power Point presentation doesn’t wig out on me.

Next post will be next week, as I have Monday and Tuesday off (Tuesday is Independence/Liberation Day). Most likely a G.O.A.’L Conference wrap-up…..and one of these days I want to write a KoRoot-themed post.

Highlight of this weekend will be Saturday’s after-party–Amy Anderson will perform, along with an adoptee band…..

1 Comment

Filed under Community, Conferences, Korean Adoptees, Musings, Organizations

Hot Sun–Yes!

First of all, let me direct you to Lee’s blog, which is authored by an Australian Korean Adoptee that I met at G.O.A.’L (and later KoRoot, where we were housemates for a week) recently. His blog has a much better documentation of typical Korean scenes as well as some nice pics of KoRoot and Hongdae nightlife. If I’ve been sucking at blogging lately, at least there are others out there doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well.

I am SO HAPPY that the rains are over. Woo-hoo!! Sure, it’s hot as blazes now, but I will take this any day over monsoon rains. Any day. I’m also very happy that my cold that desperately hung on for three weeks is officially over. No longer do I have to pop Sudafed every 12 hours, nor puff on my inhalator and listen to people exclaim, “I didn’t know you had asthma!” Combined with not having my cold and there not being any rain, my commute to the office is so much more pleasant, faster, and enjoyable. Sometimes I really like commuting on the subway in the mornings in Seoul. In the morning, there’s the higher likelihood that you’ll be smushed up against someone who recently showered, and I like getting subtle whiffs of people’s various soaps, lotions, colognes, etc. In the afternoon/evening rush hour, you’re more likely to be crammed between two sweaty ajashis (old men) that reek of one of three things (or perhaps a combo of all): 1) cigarettes, 2) soju, or 3) kimchi. The thing that makes it all bearable, however, is that Korean people, for the most part, don’t seem to have very offensive body odors emanating from every gland. And the subways are air-conditioned. (I shuddered at Mudeng’s description of the European subways being air-con-less.)

My health, however, is always shitty in Korea. I’m not sure why, although I think it’s a combination of stress, lack of variety in diet, pollution, chemicals in food, 2nd-hand smoke, lack of vigorous cardio exercise, lack of sleep, and extreme weekend drinking. Hm, yeah, I guess that’s probably why. Anyway, I feel like ever since I arrived, I’ve been dealing with one thing or another. I won’t go into the laundry list of ailments I’ve had this time (as soon as my cold cleared up something else appeared that required a doctor’s visit this week), as some of it is stomach-turning. Word of advice: to save yourself from dying of embarassment when talking to your Korean co-workers or the old pharmacist at the local 약국, I strongly suggest bringing your own mini-pharmacy when you come to Korea. Go to Target. Stock up. Pretty much everything here is “behind the counter” (although many things don’t require a prescription–including birth control pills). There have been many times when I’ve been longing for the anonymity of an Osco, where at the most, your embarassment is at the checkout counter.

Last week, I had my oral history interview with KPN, and we had an awesome good time! I rambled for a total of three hours (not consecutively), which surprised both of us. I saw the look of relief in her face when she clicked “stop” on the tape recorder. This was the third oral history that I’ve done this year alone. Each time I participate in something like this, it’s a different experience. I’m excited, b/c both KPN and another adoptee researcher from Colorado have both promised to send me copies of the interviews. Although I know I’ll cringe upon hearing my annoyingly girlish voice, I’m curious to listen to how I put my thoughts together. As I told KPN, yes, I am just that much of a narcissist.

It was cool, though, to kick it with KPN, and to actually listen to her after we finished my non-stop soliloquy. I respect her for being an independent thinker, and it was really interesting to hear her perspectives on group/organizational dynamics within the Korean adoptee community. I saw her give a presentation last Sunday for ASK (and learned a new term, “racial etiquette”) and am happy that she’ll be presenting at the G.O.A.’L Conference.

The G.O.A.’L conference is going to be 재미 있어! (that probably makes no sense grammatically–basically, it’s going to be f*cking great) I’ll give more details once it’s passed….

There’s no grand point to this post other than a little update…..

3 Comments

Filed under Community, Korean Adoptees, Musings, Updates