I have a little pendant that I’ve worn for many years. It’s tiny thing, a little gold filigree oval with the word ???, omoni, which is Korean for mother, in the center. I don’t remember where I bought it, from an online store I think. But I do remember that I fell in love with it when I saw it. I wore it because it reminded me of the most important role in my life, being a mom to my children.
Never, as I wore it, did it occur to me that I might be crossing the line between cultural respect and appropriation. Believe me, I’ve crossed that line, mostly unknowingly, but I try to be sensitive to it. I just didn’t think in cultural terms when I wore this pendant, I thought in terms of the fact that omoni is the Korean word for the most important role of my life.
It goes to show that even when we think we “get it,” we may miss the mark by a mile. I certainly did. A post at Sang-Shil’s that I read is what pulled me up short. Go read, and come back.
My husband and and I never have asked our kids to call us appa or umma – I want to make that clear because wearing my pendant was never about that. The point is that it was about me – my thoughts and my ideas on how to respect and honor their culture. In honesty, I didn’t question for a moment that my kids or any other Korean adoptees might find it odd, uncomfortable or offensive to see a white woman wearing a pendant proclaiming herself omoni. I wore this little pendant for close to fifteen years because it made me feel good – proud and sentimental, too. I also believed my children would see it as a sign of love and respect for them, as well as their culture, people and language.
I failed, however, to see the obvious, which is that I’m not omoni – my children have omoni in Korea. Those omoni have missed an entire lifetime of being mom to these amazing kids. While I’ve had the joy of watching them grow up, they have had to bury their pain in wondering. The very, very least I can do is give them, and my children’s aboji, their rightful titles.
This changes nothing about the relationship I have with my kids – I’m mom, we love each other as deeply as people can, and I’ll be there for them as long as I’m alive. I think, actually, that respecting the people who gave my children life makes our relationship that much stronger.
And so I’ve put the little pendant away – I won’t be wearing it anymore. I thought about sending it to Korea for my son’s mother, as I bought it when he was very small. But I think instead I’ll give it to my daughter. Perhaps she’ll wear it someday, when she’s an omoni herself. Or maybe, if she is fortunate enough to find her omoni, she’ll choose to give it to her.
Somehow that feels right.
Margie Perscheid is the adoptive mother of two Korean teens. She is a co-founder of Korean Focus, an organization for families with children from Korea with chapters across the country. Margie is on the Board of Directors of the Korean American Coalition DC Chapter, a former board member of KAAN, the Korean YMCA of Greater Washington (now KAYA), and ASIA (Adoption Service Information Agency). Margie writes about her intercountry adoption experiences at Third Mom. She, her husband Ralf, and their two children live in Alexandria, Virginia.