. . . I will be on a plane to South Korea. I am embarking on my third trip to Korea since 2000 (also the third trip to my birth country since I was adopted) – interestingly, I will arrive in Seoul on the 20th, only one day shy of the day the metal stork brought me to Minneapolis on July 21st, 1971. Thirty-five years later, I’m coming full circle.
Only this time instead of coming to the U.S. alone, sitting on an escort’s lap (my parents did not come pick me up, instead I was delivered to them by a “helper”) I will be surrounded by Mr. Harlow’s Monkey and my two children ages 9 and 13. This is the first trip to Korea for the Mr. and the kids. I am thrilled to finally be at a place in my life where I want to include them in this journey, which has been such a struggle for me for so many years.
The first time I went to Korea, I traveled with a group of 7 other adult Korean adoptees from around the U.S. I only knew one other person in the group, and it was a tough trip. Tough for many reasons – I didn’t really know who I was, I was just in the beginning stages of exploring my Korean identity, and I was doing a birth family search. Along the way, many in our group began to fight with each other, a result of the immense stress we were under. I witnessed three reunions as some in our party found their Korean family members. Each time, we were treated to a big, bulgogi dinner and it was really tough to be happy for our friends while feeling despair that our own searches were coming to dead ends.
My adoption has been both a burden and a blessing and I don’t dwell on either of those dichotomies very often. It’s true that I have enjoyed great privileges as a result of my adoption but I don’t feel obligated or responsible to proselytize to others with words like grateful and thankful. While I do feel grateful and thankful for many things in my life, I do not feel grateful that I lost my country, my language and my Korean family through adoption.
But I also don’t feel that I’ve suffered a burden that has so damaged me that I need to be pathologized. Do I have “abandonment” issues? Ya betcha. Do I feel that I’ve been able to accomplish some things despite my “issues”? Absolutely. Do I feel that many adoptees struggle their whole lives with a paradoxical tug-of-war with their thoughts and feelings about adoption? Most that I’ve met have.
I’d like to think that this time, I’ll be much more centered. I’m not looking for myself this time, maybe that is the major difference. I’m so glad that I had the chance to take those two other trips to Korea, able to wander aimlessly in the streets and feel like I was just one more Korean in the flow of pedestrians walking down the sidewalk as one drop of water flowing down the river Han; so indistinguishable from all the others that no one would be able to pick me up and emphasize my differences.
I’m expecting this trip to be hard in other ways. Especially dealing with Mr. HM in a country that is still quite homogenous and hoping the stares and whispers are kept to a minimum. Having to explain to people why I “look” Korean but can’t speak the language and won’t know all the customs. I also hope that my kids learn to be proud of the country they are a part of even though they live so removed from the daily life of a Korean kid. They are at an age where I think it will be shocking to them, even though they live in a diverse neighborhood, to see all Koreans, everywhere they go. They know that I am adopted; they know I am sad that I’ve lost so much. They will be traveling to my orphanage and they will see the city where I was likely born. We will go to the mountains and temples near my birth place and they will get a historical perspective behind their almond eyes and dark hair and small-bridged noses.
Here in America, I have only been able to give them a very cultural tourist sense of Korea. Sure, we eat often at the Korean restaurants in town; I cook Korean food a fair bit, and many of my friends are Korean. But there is often this sense that “Korea” is this old, folk tale of a country. They will be shocked at how cosmopolitan Seoul is. I hope they see more similarities in the two countries than differences. I hope they come back to America with an understanding that we are part of a larger global community. If my dream comes true, Korea will be more to them than a geographical location, a type of food and a language that trips up their tongues. I hope their taste of Korea is so delicious that this becomes just the first of many more adventures there.
Jae Ran Kim, MSW is a social worker, teacher and writer. She was born in Taegu, South Korea and was adopted to Minnesota in 1971. She has written numerous articles and essays and is most recently published in the anthology “Outsiders Within: Writings on Transracial Adoption” from South End Press. Jae Ran’s blog, Harlow’s Monkey, is at http://harlowmonkey.typepad.com/