Chapter 1: The Summer of 2000
It all began with the simplest of gestures, a gift from my parents and a chance to rediscover the heritage I never knew. My parents approached me before my last year of High School was complete to see if I was interested in attending a “Motherland Tour” that was hosted through Holt International, the same adoption agency that had coordinated my being sent to the United States in 1983. I never had much of an interest in learning about my nationality, having grown up with very little contact with other Koreans. So when my parents asked if I wished to go as my senior graduation present I didn’t hesitate to say that I would. As a boy that had grown up in a rather large protective bubble this was an opportunity of a lifetime.
The plane taking me to Korea was departing out of Seattle, Washington and was the meeting point for the other participants on the tour. I arrived a day early along with some of the other adoptees that were coming from out of town. Many individuals ended up meeting us at the airport the day of the trip since they were living on the west coast. This was my first real experience with Asians from other parts of the United States and having been raised in Mississippi and Tennessee for my whole life my southern accent was embarrassingly apparent. The very bright side of the trip was the male to female ratio of women my age, the advantage in numbers heavily favoring the women. I was confident this was going to be a great trip upon seeing this.
I wonder looking back upon the frame of mind of many of the members on that plane. How many were hovering at 45,000 feet trapped with their thoughts and fears? I had no apprehensions prior to going to South Korea that summer. My adopted parents and I had a strong relationship and they had been very open about my adoption. It wasn’t exactly a relationship that could be hidden due to the differences in race and because of that I believe my parents were very honest with what information they had about my past. Unfortunately that past included less than ten sheets of paper that told my life story prior to being adopted. It was a story that began in that orphanage in Busan, South Korea and no amount of wishing could ever cause the previous chapters of my life to magically appear.
It is a hard thing to live life knowing you were not wanted. Many adopted children share this realization with each other, but we hate to be compared to one another. We want to be individuals so bad after being forced to be just that, individuals. Pushed out to try and shine alone it isn’t hard to believe that we might loath to be compared to “he or she that was also adopted.” I am grateful that my mother and father decided to adopt me and saw something in that face staring back at them. I imagine I was one among many they looked at. Their decision to choose me and the life I had lived to this point was solidified in the confidence I had as a person. I knew who I was on that flight to Korea and I had no idea that the image I had of myself was about to be shattered.
We landed in the middle of a sea of Asian faces. It was overwhelming for me and a large part of that was the absence of white and black skin. I suddenly felt like I belonged, but at the same time I felt very much a foreigner in my own country of birth. It is a difficult relationship to describe unless you live it and living the life of a tourist in your own birthplace is a little embarrassing. We were indeed a bus full of picture taking “out-of-towners” and I remember feeling noticeably uncomfortable a few times because of this apparent feeling. There was no “return” feeling for me and the discomfort from just that realization should have been a rude awakening of what was to come. I believe the presence of the other members on the trip caused me to get over my embarrassment far faster than I would have alone.
The trip followed a planned schedule as we made our way from Seoul south towards Busan and Cheju Island. We traveled by bus a lot which was an eye opening experience into how bat shit crazy Korean bus drivers are. I swear I lost a few years of my life during those terrifying hours on the bus and I will forever have memories of the impossible U-turns those drivers made! We crossed Korea visiting Buddhist temples and museums, learning about the culture and traditional Korean way of life. It very much was apparent that the whole trip was gauged at trying to paint our birthplace is the best of colors. This was obvious when we made an unexpected stop in front of a building where a group of expecting mothers was waiting to meet us.
There are intricacies to Korean culture that they as a people like to use as excuses for burying issues they don’t wish to address. This particularly frustrating habit is one I would encounter several times through my life, but in this instance this characteristic was highlighted to me by the inclusion of this visit. We met a group of expecting mothers that were in the process of deciding to give up their children for adoption. I believe that the coordinators of the trip believed that this interaction would serve two purposes. It would show these expecting mothers that “all adoptees end up happy” and it would also give the adoptees a face to the woman that may have given us up. The sad part is that I suspect some executive thought this was a great idea and in reflection I couldn’t disagree more. I remember the meeting being awkward, since almost none of the adoptees spoke any Korean, and forced. It very much had the appearance of being for “appearance.”
I think that meeting really added to my whole perception of the trip up until that point. It felt cosmetic, touristy, and was probably why I viewed the trip in such a way. Their basic setup was created to present the adoptees on the tour with a view of their motherland, but at the same time it was a very controlled trip. There was a director of Holt with us, his name was David, and each day was plotted like a novel. Prior to going on the trip we had each filled out a packet with basic background information on us. The coordinators thus knew the limitations for the group, such as the fact that none of us spoke Korean or had ever been to the country since being adopted. This fact made it easy to dictate what we did on the trip and what we saw.
We were each asked in the paperwork if we would like to visit our orphanages and see where we came from. I had originally said I did not want to go because I had already seen my records and did not feel a need to visit an orphanage I had little wish to see. I found out that I was not the only person on that adopted from Busan Orphanage so in the end I changed my mind and went on the cab ride with the other two adoptees to an inconspicuous building we were told was our “homes.” I have never been thrilled about orphanages and hospitals, the feel or smell of the places make my skin crawl. I remember the same feeling when walking into the building that held the shadow of my past. I was unaware at the time that those innocent steps would be the start of a hopeless quest for answers.
We sat waiting our turn to see the open book with our translator and the director of the orphanage. An album that held our entrance photos and documented our “processing” into the orphanage was sitting in an office waiting for us to gawk at our past. I had already seen the picture waiting for me, so I was less apprehensive, but there was still an awkward atmosphere around the group. When it came my turn I smiled and nodded at the photograph I had already seen and began to make my planned turn to the door when a motion from my translator stopped me.
His hand reached over the left page of the book and a finger pointed at a line drawn from my photo to the one below. He spoke rapidly in Korean and a certain note of urgency in his voice caught my attention. Turning to me he placed his hand on the book and said “there is a line drawn from your entry to the girl below you. The footnote here says that this is your “Noona” or sister. The director is trying to find out more information, I am very sorry you had to learn this way.” I remember tears, papers being shuffled, and more tears. With a few sentences my world had been rocked and I struggled to understand why I suddenly felt lost. It was only the start of a realization about the harshness of life that would come close to killing me.
A second book was placed in front of me and I waited to see what Pandora’s Box awaited me within these pages. I was still in shock at this point, but these moments I won’t ever forget. It was a visitor registry that they were showing me and the line they had circled held my mother’s name and address. The director gathers, from what I do not know, that my mother came back and got my sister have had a change of heart. He was very sympathetic though and I will forever be grateful for his kind offer that I did not take. He said “she doesn’t live far, I could take you there.” He could take me there, he was ready to go with me. What might have been had I talked over my translator who hurried said that it was against Holt International policy for an adoptee to approach their birth mother in such a way. We would need to speak to David who was the director of the trip.
I am not sure why I didn’t demand to go. At only 18 years old and having been raised in a fairly strict family it can be assumed that I just went with what the authority at the time said. “It isn’t allowed” sounds fairly simply to understand. There was still a great deal of shock going on internally and I am fairly certain I was crying periodically throughout these revelations on my life. Before I realized what was happening we were back on our way to meet the rest of the group and my small window of opportunity was closed. In all fairness there is no guarantee that had I gone with the director that day I might have met my mother, but there is a far better chance I think that I might have seen her face. Regardless, there is no going back in time and I don’t think meeting my mother was first and foremost in my considerations at that point.
As I sat there with only my sorrow as my only comfort I believe that I thought of many things. Meeting these new “important” members of my life I don’t think was one of them. The reaction of the rest of the group, the response of my parents, and the possible change in relationship I might have with my adopted family were definitely on my mind. No one can really know how they would respond in a similar situation unless they had actually thought about and considered it, but who places themselves in such situations hypothetically out of boredom? The strings that held me together as a person were loosened a little that day, but I wouldn’t realize just how much until more strain and time had been placed upon them.
We met the rest of the group at a hotel for lunch. They were all happy and chattering having just seen some museum or other tourist attraction. It was quickly noticed that I was sitting with my face down on a table and the translator obviously rushed to report what had happened at the orphanage to David. I felt a hand on my shoulder and concerned eyes asked me if I was holding up ok. You can never truly tell the heart of another person, but I believe he was sincerely asking me. At such a young age and not being one that loves attention I put on a brave face in front of David and the rest of the group. I told him I was fine and even nodded my head in understanding that the “search process” had to wait till we were back in America.
I shoved my pain to the backseat of my mind and forced myself to have fun the rest of that trip. This shall be ironic later on in life, but I think I truly wished to have a good time while in Korea. It was my first time out of the country and there were a lot of other Koreans my age on the trip. This was a foreign concept to me. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee most of my life and had very few Asian friends in my life. Having gone to a school that was mostly black and belonging to a family that was white there were very few people I had met that could relate to me racially. Korea was such an eye opening experience for me that there were indeed other Asians in the world and even places where there were only those of my kind. I believe I appreciated the world a lot more from that trip.
I also developed a strong taste for alcohol. We stayed in a number of hotels throughout Korea that were all very high quality. Technically we were told not to drink alcohol if we were not twenty-one, but no one listened to that “rule” because the legal age in Korea is eighteen and that is a very loose age in most parts of the country. Our nights were filled with kimchi topped pizza from Pizza Hut and every kind of alcohol you could imagine. I met a new friend named soju on that trip which is the favorite liquor of Koreans. I think my tastes buds really connected with the food there, but more importantly I tried to drink away this new feeling of sorrow I wasn’t prepared to recognize or deal with at the time. The growing ball of emotion that I felt hardening from being ignored was not something I was mature enough to deal with.
I don’t remember much of the rest of the trip. It was kind of an alcoholic haze of denial and that is exactly what was intended. There were some great people on that trip and some bonds were formed that might have lasted for a lifetime. The reason they didn’t was mainly because my focus in life shifted that day in Busan when I found out about my past. I have always made friends easily in life, but keeping those friendships has been hard because a disconnect was created internally on that homeland tour that can never be healed. That disconnection to wanting or needing certain relationships in life was directly associated to my mother and the pain from realizing her rejection was only slowly beginning to haunt me. I would have the rest of my life to consider the “whys” and “how” of everything, but the pain did not wait on a start gun before making its presence apparent.
I spent a lot of nights in tears of frustration during the remainder of the trip up until the day we flew out. The frustration was from knowing I was about to leave the answers I sought, but I saw no way of finding them alone at that time. It would have to wait till I returned and got the help of my parents. They would know what to do, they always did. I spoke to my parents briefly before departing on the plane and they told me my friends had inquired if it would be alright for them to stop by and say hello when I got home. My mother’s voice held a hint of concern as she could not tell my state of mind or how I was holding up, but I was still putting on brave faces so I placed one on again and said that was fine.
We left Korea with a dinner and a small celebration, but my heart had already gotten on the plane. When my body joined it the following day I shut the world out with headphones and endless music. I flew back to Seattle and then connected on to Memphis and my waiting family. My mother’s face is still in my head when I recall returning home that night. Her look was a mixture of concern, love, and a determination to ensure nothing was going to change. I admire now her strength during my journey, both her and my father’s, I am not sure how I would have held up having a child I raised searching for his biological parents. Their support during this period of my life cannot be overstated.
A few of my friends met us at the house and I handed out some small gifts from my trip and told some small stories to be polite. I was exhausted and just glad to be back within my familiar surroundings. There was an instant feeling of “that was a bad dream” syndrome happening and I embraced the comfort of knowing that all my problems were an ocean away. The love and physical presence of the only family I had ever known helped to push the demons away for a time. Thoughts of college and being roommates with my best friend Tim were gradually growing as the primary focal points of my life. I welcomed the distraction and did not realize that the added stress was definitely not what I needed. I should have faced my struggles then, but instead I shrugged the trip off a little and told my parents “there is a whole process.” I then immediately shelved the whole idea. I was definitely not mature enough to deal with it at this point in my life.
Chapter 2: Unhealthy Distractions
College was everything I was told it would be and more. It was a mixture of unhealthy distractions, finding attractions, and growing from a self-conscious teen to a more confident adult. I am not sure about the confidence part, but there was definitely some growing happening. A love for alcohol sprouted quickly and the only thing that kept me from turning into a freshman dropout was a hellish outbreak of acne for the first time in my life. I had a few pimples in high school, but apparently the stress of the past several months and the new college diet was enough to make my face explode. It caused me to become somewhat of a hermit for the first year of college, which probably in turn helped me to focus as much as I could on my studies. Unfortunately my facial issues also kept me closeted with my depression and unsettled thoughts around my birth mother.
I don’t remember the exact day I decided to find them. I am sure it was a well thought out decision contemplated over a bottle of something cheap and freely partaken from. My search was not well planned or thought out and much of that was due to being uneducated in the search process. There were also limited resources for finding lost family members in comparison to today, in 2001 there were few reliable agencies helping adoptees in their search. It is even harder to find reliable help when the country of origin differs from the United States. I ran into numerous issues finding people willing to devote the time needed to assist me in my family search. There were some Koreans that reached out and responded to my emails and I was even told my story was put into a local paper. Nothing came from these attempts and my frustration mounted.
One night I began an email to the director of the orphanage who had originally offered to take me to find my mother that day. I still grappled with not having accepted his offer and the guilt from missing that opportunity would aggressively bubble to the surface each night.
The past unknown can be bore, when no knowledge is had of that which was tore.
When the seal of history is cut, A piece of your heart can be seen to jut.
From that wound so small, so infinite. All you knew is surely bent.
Pain deeper than any well, can surely seem like the fires of hell.
But that pain, that gift, although so small, Starts the pieces of the puzzle to fall.
That puzzle, the key, to finding yourself, Is the inner soul’s manna, its being, its health.
That stranger that walks a different life, with whom you have so much strife.
Your identical twin, your brother, your soul. Whose relations with you takes its toll.
It is his place you wish to be. To be able to say, hey this is me.
But his life is not your path to take. The Gods have rolled their dice, it is their choice to make.
What trials and tribulations each shall endure, we should rejoice we don’t have more.
Kill the image you wish to be, Your fate before you never flee.
Until those gates you should climb, Be glad of the days that you may dine, On the fruits of life and wine.
Until you dance with death and die, To spit in the devil’s eye.
Man’s greatest triumphs can sometimes be found during his most difficult times of adversity.
This is my new saying when I reflect upon the “Dark Ages” of my life and my deepest days of depression. I am often not a praying man, which is odd considering my father is a priest and a doctor, and I don’t consider praying in times of need and praying to win the lottery as being a “praying man.”
I feel comfortable talking about my dark ages now, perhaps it is the mask of my pseudonym that gives me courage; but no, it is actually because I have moved on to greener pastures. My dark ages were a product of finding my birth mother at the age of 18. This came about in the most innocent of ways, in the form of a senior graduating gift from my adopted parents, my real parents in my eyes, a gift of adventure and excitement. It was a trip to Korea with a group of other adoptees from Holt International Adoption agency. I could never have dreamed prior to that trip, a trip I packed for with such excitement and enthusiasm, that it would be a trip that would usher in my darkest days. Granted, I had an acceptable childhood (no childhood is perfect), I had already struggled with demons of race and depression. I never considered that those demons would be small compared to the Devil I was about to encounter.
I really won’t get into the specifics of the trip unless someone asks or I am inspired to do so at a later date. Needless to say, since I have already provided the window to view it through, this trip was awful. I had been provided my adoption package by my adopted parents at an earlier time so I “thought” I was prepared for this trip. I “thought” there would be no surprises. I was wrong, depressingly wrong.
I found the information about my birth mother and my blood sister in Busan, South Korea, in a pathetic orphanage that I don’t even remember the name of. I have never liked hospitals or orphanages and I now knew why. No one, unless you are also adopted, can understand the pain that is brought when you are faced with the reality that you were not wanted. Add to this the pain that your mother decided one sibling was less trouble than you would be, and what you have is a maelstrom of emotions, regret, and anger. My storm could have killed me, it almost did.
When I returned I immediately went to college. A time that was supposed to be filled with excitement and growth, was instead filled with depression, anger, weed, and alcohol. I filled my time finding things to fill my “hole.” It did not help; it only delayed the sorrow and pain that I had to face eventually. When I dropped out of college after three and a half years the only welcoming I really wanted was a grave. Failure had become a part of me and it evidently had originated when I was left on that lonely street in Busan, South Korea in 1983.
I become a drunk. At 23 years old I was a first class alcoholic. I recently read Anthony Bourdain’s book “Medium Raw,” and part of my inspiration for writing this comes from him. The other part comes from my loving wife and my two wonderful children, all three of whom I continually feel that I do not deserve but I am forever thankful that I have. So thank you Anthony for the courage to speak or rather to write.
I remember, vaguely of course, stopping every day at Joe’s liquor store and buying a daily pint of the rawest whisky I could find, I believe it cost around $3 dollars a pint, and feeling like the drunks I had always despised I would begin to guzzle it on my short ride home. Before you judge, YES I know this was highly stupid of me and irresponsible, but who can ever say they were responsible while being depressed and drunk? If you know anyone that can make that claim I can in the same breath claim that bastard is a liar. Alcohol was my friend, my confidant, and his name didn’t matter whether it originated in Mexico, America, or hell even some African country. It didn’t matter as long as it felt good touching my lips.
It was late; I would say 3 am, when I saw him. He was not what I expected and I really can’t be sure if it was him or if he just gave me a glimpse of what I would see if I ever really met HIM. I was drunk; I think Braveheart was playing in the background. I was in the upstairs of my parent’s house, yes at age 23 I was living at home again another dagger to my heart, and I felt a presence at my door. In my childhood my father used to have the (then) annoying habit of standing behind us and watching our TV show with us. I never thought about it then, but looking back, he just wanted to be with us even if we did not particularly, at age 15, want him there. This presence was not a comforting one; I felt the hair on my arms stand. I saw a man, it was a man, but he was a shadow of a man at the same time. He looked at me and something awakened in me, it was fear. I had never been so afraid in my life. Keeping in mind that alcohol and weed are the nectar of the gods and that with those coursing through my veins I had thought myself fearless. I was mistaken. With one look the Devil showed me my humanity and all I could think was that I desperately wanted to live. I cried and shut my eyes and when I opened them he was gone. I still to this day do not know if I was dreaming, I really doubt it.
Fear can drive a man crazy, but it can also drive a man to life. I look back on that day and I realize that fear had kicked my ass back into gear. Today I am content. People ask me if I am “happy” all the time, I don’t think like that anymore. I look upon my life with my wife and my daughters and I realize… sometimes being content is enough.
If you want to read the rest of my adoption articles please visit http://aopinionatedman.com/category/my-adoption-articles/
You gave me nothing but a name. A name I do not even acknowledge. Some people say that you gave me the gift of life. But how can I credit that to you when you also gave me the gift of death. Or at least longing for it. I bear your semblance upon my face and your cowardness upon my arms. They appear as etch marks to label the passing of a singular day. Mother’s day, the only day you truly own my thoughts.
And my anger.
Jason C. Cushman
I could trace my past all day. Drawing question marks in the sand. Rewriting history so many times over in an attempt to understand what happened. Does it ever really help?
I could trace the lines of your name. But would I ever know you any better? Rewriting words that will forever be a mystery to me. In a language that I will never know.
Could I retrace the lines of our connection? And in that act find forgiveness? Or would instead my pencil dig into the whiteness of the paper. Attempting to stab the heart of my pain.
Could I retrace my life and rewrite my tragedy so it never occurred? Placing instead moments of obnoxious happiness into my story. Not in an effort to hide the past, but instead to erase it completely. Forever.
Jason C. Cushman
I read a ton of adoption articles and posts. I continuously see the words “the birth mother was so selfless in the adoption process.” I can’t swallow that. Granted some women are in a hard place and their action is what is best for them at the time, but don’t feed me the line “she was selfless.” If anything we might as well change that to “selfish” since the decision is about her. To claim the decision is about the child when that child is not yet even born yet is idiotic to me. I can’t accept that.
As an adoptee I understand the feeling of rejection that often comes with the realization that you were given up. We have TV to thank for providing a myriad of “reasons” why this takes place, but ONLY one reason is ever the “true” reason per individual. That is what many people just don’t get when they speak of adoption and adoptees. They don’t understand that hypotheticals and “what ifs” don’t mean shit to us. They just don’t and they provide zero comfort at night.
When I reflect upon my life I often wonder “what would have been” had I never gone to Korea in 2000 and found out about the existence of my birth mother and birth sister. Would the plans and dreams I had already meticulously laid out have come to fruition or would some curveball have come that would have ensured my feet landed in the exact spot I am today. Who can say? I do know that I feel very little value in the knowledge gained and in turn I carry a huge burden because of that day. That period in my life helped solidify my hatred for my birth mother. It may be a cold hate, dormant even, but it is still hatred. It flares up every time I read the words “the birth mother was selfless.” In my case she wasn’t, she was a selfish termagant.
It is my second year in college. Depending on how you look at things or who you talk to, my life was going just fine. Depending on what you looked at and what you examined, I was the same person. Those that knew me knew that something was a bit off, those that were meeting me at college for the first time simply thought I was a cool guy that got moody sometimes. People talk about “bipolar” issues but that word would not apply to me since I had so many different levels of moods it was amazing anyone could be around me. I was the smoothest talker and the life of the party or I was the reclusive guy that really just wanted everyone to get out of his apartment. And if you are curious, yes I had plenty of girlfriends (some might even say a lot), but I cannot remember most of their names and the ones I do remember are just memories. Nothing and no one was a focal point during this period.
It’s 2 A.M. and I am busy typing another email to the orphanage employee in Korea. Surprisingly I am getting great responses from people in Korea, everyone except for my contact at the actual orphanage. I have had no trouble convincing people in the news industry that I am serious about finding my birth mother, but the employee at the orphanage seems to be handling me with the common Korean courtesy reserved for subjects that they wish to ignore. Namely, they keep putting off or ignoring something in hopes that it goes away. I am a persistent human being, especially at 2 A.M., so I wasn’t going anywhere. The time difference in Korea was particularly frustrating at this point because I had to sit and wait for responses. It was encouraging though to have various people in Korea I had never met before offer their support and assistance.
If you have never met many Koreans you may not know this, but most of the stereotypical jokes about our names are true. Like the American name Johnson or Williams, there are staple last names in Korea. My last name was Ahn and that is very common, in fact if you threw a stone in a Korean market you would probably hit a few Ahn’s (and they would be very mad so don’t really do this). The key element in my case file, I just decided to name it a case file because that sounds much more fun, was the home address my mother had left when she returned for my sister. This address was step one and because God decided I deserved a break, step one is where she was at. It turned out she was still living there, but the orphanage employee, who oddly enough was the one that found this out for me, called her before telling me. He then informed me of the following.
“I am sorry, but I told her that you were looking for her and your sister and I asked her if she would like to speak with you. She said “no,” and for you to stop trying to contact her or your sister. When I tried calling her a second time, the line had been disconnected. I am truly sorry.”
And that is how it happens, one hand to pat you on the shoulder, the other hand to slap you in the face.
Each year I post on Mother’s Day a message to my birth mother. It is a simple post.
Dear Birth Mom,
I still hate you one more year.
Ahn Soo Jin
These posts have been some of the most hated writing on this blog and I understand why. I don’t think people understand the “why” behind the posts though or why I rarely address my birth father.
I see my father every day. I see his face in the mirror looking back at me and I know what the bastard looks like. You see I am him, I have to be. For sons we are always connected to our fathers even when we don’t know who that father is. It creates a mind fuck actually because we that are adopted must ask ourselves if we hate our own image. How truly depressing is that thought.
Do I hate my father? Honestly, not as much as I hate my mother. There is no connecting story, no sneak thief in the night leaving me on the street. Perhaps he left long before I was abandoned, I will never know and it really makes no difference. He will always be a stranger to me. As dead as dead can be.
The same cannot be said for my birth mom. She is very much alive. She has kept me from meeting my sister. She has refused to see me. To me she is the very definition of a bitch and I will always hate her. Will it forever be an active hate? No, probably not. In fact I feel as if my hate towards her is a dormant fire now, very much alive and yet not active.
Hate is a strong emotion that can serve a person that knows how to dominate it. I do not allow my hate to control me, even though some might claim that harboring hate IS allowing it to control you. I assume those people probably have good lives free of lingering pain. Good for them. I am not so lucky and have chosen instead to keep my hate as a companion. It keeps me warm at night as others cheerfully offer “happy mother’s day” to their loved ones. I see two eyes on those nights and they will always belong to a stranger.
We are on the train heading to Pusan. Rob’s mom and I are going alone, which is fine by me since the fewer witnesses for any potential emotional breakdowns the better. We do not talk much on the trip, I think Rob’s mom knew I was nervous so she left me to my thoughts. As Korea’s countryside sped past in the train window, I couldn’t help but wonder what I had missed growing up in this wonderful and foreign country. It is especially ironic to feel like a foreigner, when you were born in that country.
Déjà vu, I am sitting in the Pusan Orphanage office again. I am face to face now with my email nemesis, who oddly enough does not show any surprise at seeing me in person. The other Korean office ladies alternate between working on various tasks and shooting us startled looks every time they hear us speak English. If you are Korean, but speak English well, other Koreans generally tend to think you are showing off if you are speaking English in conversation with other Koreans. Did I mention it is really hot in this office, in Korea, and that there are very few AC units?
Rob’s mother and the orphanage employee begin a lengthy conversation in Korean that seems to end abruptly. I can tell from her change in demeanor that something has occurred, I simply have no clue what it is.
“They are saying that they made a second attempt to contact your mother and that she has not changed her mind. She has further said that they are not to give her information to you and that you are to stop trying to contact her or your sister,” Rob’s mom said to me.
It is funny how you notice things in times of completeness. Whether that is complete love, complete sadness, or completely any other emotion something seems to heighten your senses. I remember a fly hovering around my head as I heard this news. It is funny, one minute it annoyed me so much, the next it vanished and I had completely forgotten of its existence. Kind of scary to think about that actually, considering if I had been driving a car while receiving this news I wonder what would have happened then?
“Tell this guy that I don’t want anything from her!” I almost yell. “Tell this asshole I just want to see them once, if my mom doesn’t want to meet me then tell her I just want to see my sister!”
More conversation in Korean takes place.
“He says he is very sorry, but it is the policy of the orphanage to protect the wishes of the parent. He also says it is very unfortunate because she lives close to here.”
Bleakness, a pain in my chest, and a sudden need for alcohol takes hold of me.
I am not sure how many posts this is going to take or how many shots of whiskey either. To be perfectly honest after I wrote “Depression and the Devil,” in my archives I did not plan to write on this topic again. But then I see the articles on the Russian to America adoptions being frozen, then some of the most ignorant comments on CNN website by Americans… I assume. The level of unknowns when dealing with adoption is high. Every child has his or her experiences, every host family has there’s. I do not criticize people with differing experiences, hell flip a couple cards a different way and I am an East African militia, who knows? Bottom line if you have NO experience on a topic, none at all, walk on eggshells. It is a sensitive topic.
Why is this topic so sensitive. I mean I even saw a commenter on the cnn.com blog say ” ADOPT AMERICAN” like it is a product. Amazing, sad actually. Unless you are using money to get pregnant, the money you use for an adoption is blood money. It is a promise to them that whatever happened before will never happen again. If you break that promise, you have spilled blood money. Because what you have essentially done is broken that child’s heart a second, third, or hundredth time. I have my stance on immigration policy, adoption is not immigration. Adoption is a gift of hope.
It is hot in the Summer of 2000. I am sitting here with two other adoptees and our translator. We are at the desk of one of the employees at the orphange in Pusan, South Korea (Koreans call it Busan) where I was adopted. It is really humid, many Koreans in the country and lower class deal without AC. Orphanages are probably lucky to have salaries. People in orphanages of South Korea are unwanted or cannot be cared for. Most times the action of placing them there is deliberate. I was ashamed to learn that those with mental illness are shunned in most Asian cultures, you can deny it, until you study the high number of mentally ill or even “handicapped” kids in orphanges. Koreans, as Asians go, are a prideful people. Imperfections are hidden, if you think I lie just watch a seasonal Korean drama. Our TV portrays our stereotypes and our realities as well.
The orphanage employee opens the old dusty record book from 1983 with a picture of me “entering the system.” It could have been one of those late night tug at your heart advertisements. My translator reaches over and asks something in Korean while pointing at an arrow from my picture to the girl above.
“He says that is your sister.”
Some scrambling and shuffling of paper, computer keyboard being used, tears… I just remember tears. I end up in the bathroom of the orphange. It is gloomy in here, possibly the set for the next North Korean horror movie, I am handed a tissue by the translator. Damn…
Gifts of a stranger, a nameless man who in some societies would be called my father. A man I have never met, and yet I receive a gift from him every day it seems. With the coming of age comes the revealing of his face. I see it in the mirror, even if I have never dreamed it. My hand touches my cheek and I just stop myself from striking… it is me…it is me.
“Hello bastard,” I sometimes say to myself in the morning. I smile. It is the smile only one that comes from adoption can crack. It is a bastard’s smile.
It is a gift from a stranger.
It is a gift from my father.
Before I write this and possibly hurt more feelings know that next to my wife and daughters, there is no one greater I love than my adopted family. My adopted mother IS my mother.
I had my assumptions on adoption. I was adopted, ergo, it was a good thing. I even had great parents and growing up at least half my siblings loved me and by Vegas odds that is considered GOOD. So I was pro adoption. I saw some signs adopting kids didn’t always turn out in a story book ending, another Korean boy I knew went through the harder realities, but even he did not suffer the atrocities I later found out went on.
So I am in Pusan (Koreans call it Busan), South Korea, as I wrote in an earlier post, and I am with the other Holt adoptees. The employees at the orphange say they wish to bring out a group of ladies that want to give their babies up for adoption. They want to find out if America was a nice place and if we would speak with them. So we all got a turn to say something.
“Ahnyoung ha sae yo” I say in my horrible Korean. I then proceed to tell them America is a nice place. I really don’t remember much more of what was said other than a lot of smiles. Perhaps more smiles then should have happened for what was going on. At this point in the story of my life I had not yet grasped the heartache that was happening. I was still “ok” with everything. But now in adulthood, with two children of my own, I would never let anyone take them. I suppose if I throw a bone I can place my birth mother amongst the same smiling faces of those women in the orphanage that day. Instead most days she is the shadow that placed me on a doorstep then like a thief she snuck away in the night. Sometimes I wonder if she looked back, most days I hope she turned around and tripped.
I ran from Korea. I ran as fast as the flight home took. Once I hit the ground in Memphis, I went home to my parents, jumped in my car, and started running some more. I fled as far East from Korea as I could, driving straight back to my apartment. Pretty insane actually, considering I had just flown from Korea which including stops was around eighteen hours or so travel time, and then the drive to my apartment took about 6 hours. I didn’t care; I think at this point I did not care about anything.
It is 3 A.M., a normal occurrence for me these days, I am up and I have a glass of something dark next to me. I have had several. I have taken to brushing my teeth with a beer, it helps save the time I would need to walk to the fridge. I have grown to like the taste of toothpaste and the hops of beer together, match made in heaven. I am awake because I just broke up with a girlfriend, I don’t even remember her name or which one it was, and I am starring into the dark in my room with the lights off.
Suddenly, I take my arm and I shove everything off my desk onto the ground. The noise inevitably wakes up my friend Rob. I have begun showing these spurts of anger, these murmurs from my heart seem to radiate hate. And then it passes… and like a placid lake after a storm, nothing seems to have occurred.
“You ok dude?” Rob asks hesitantly, as he opens his door slightly.
“Yep, just reorganizing,” I say nonchalantly.
Rob knows, as my best friend and roommate, he can’t help but know that I have changed. And like the man that has worn many masks, I cannot tell I have changed because I have cut myself off from… myself. It really is an amazing talent, to be able to self-destruct and not be able to feel it or even to tell that it is happening. It is an extraordinary human talent that we have, our magic red button of self-destruction. When we feel depressed or dispassionate, I mean to the point where it is almost beyond suicidal, you are then in a very dangerous spot. Everything becomes surreal, add in the effects of alcohol and some (a ton) of marijuana, and you have the perfect slow cooking recipe for disaster. You definitely aren’t going to class, I can tell you that much.
It is Christmas of 2002 and I am at home in Memphis, TN. My mom is making some holiday cookies in the kitchen and I am sitting at the table contemplating whether or not man can even understand life (I obviously have no idea what I was thinking about at the time). Life has not been going so well. It has been a rollercoaster of emotions, never knowing fully if I am past the pain until the pain taps me on the shoulder. It is a sad way to live life, constantly looking over your shoulder. The worst part was I was not looking over my shoulder for a person or a thing; I was looking over my shoulder because I did not want to look forward.
“I need to ask you for a favor,” I say suddenly to my mom. In a rush to now finish what I wanted to say, I hurriedly continue, “I would like to take my next year’s college money and go to Korea and search for my birth mom and sister.”
You could have heard a mouse fart. I had no idea what she would say, but I knew that if I had even the slightest chance of seeing this through I would have to convince her before my father.
“What exactly do you think you will get over there that you cannot here?” she asks the obvious question and the one that probably should have shot down the whole plan from the start.
“The guy at the orphanage is a jerk; he will not take me serious unless I go there. Rob and his mom are going to Korea this summer, they said I can go and stay with them.”
“I will talk to your father about it,” she said, but the hug she gave me let me know that I had been heard, truly heard.
My prodigal son adventure had begun.
“He says that the picture underneath yours is that of your sister,” my translator almost whispered as in one sentence he brought down the stability of all I knew about myself. The popping sound of my lifelong bubble of comfort had not yet registered to my ears when the director of the orphanage began to speak again. He proceeded to relate what he thought had occurred that day in 1983 and his words coaxed the building tears from their hiding place. An immediate struggle between despair and the need to remain in the present began to play out internally. Through it all the same sentence kept replaying in my head. “That is your sister.” I wept and wondered whether or not the knowledge gained was worth the pain I felt. I had little idea that this was just the first page of a long journey to come.
I traveled to South Korea after High School at the age of eighteen with a group of adoptees participating in a “Motherland Tour” sponsored through our orphanage Holt International. My parents had approached me near the end of the school year and had offered as a graduation present to send me to Korea to learn about my heritage. Most of my life in the United States had been lived as a typical Caucasian from the South, the only glaringly obvious difference having been my skin color. It was a mark of my heritage that would forever distinguish me from the rest of my friends and would make me the target at school for most of my life. Ironically my race and cultural hardships growing up had not made me eager to embrace a culture I did not know. Instead the life I lived and the lack of friends from the same nationality created the pallet for an individual that saw his skin color as mostly a burden growing up.
My parents and I were close throughout my childhood and because of a large religious presence in our lives our friends, daily lives, and even our extracurricular activities were often dictated by the norm of the group. My father’s status as an Orthodox Priest and assistant pastor in our church directly correlated and affected the lives of his three adopted children. My older brother Jon, my younger sister Beth, and myself were all given wonderful lives by our adopted parents. They became the only parents we knew and their openness was evident in that they never tried to hide our adoptions. It would have been nearly impossible to hide the fact that my sister and I were adopted separately from South Korea a year apart, but my brother was Caucasian and he too was given what information my parents had on his past. Because nothing was ever hidden from us about our past I knew everything in my file prior to going on the Motherland Tour in the year 2000. I knew all the information that was to be found on my side of the ocean.
I viewed the trip as a vacation until it became a milestone of harsh reality in my life. When we landed in Seoul I was greeted by a foreign sight of Asians everywhere I looked. It was such a stark contrast from the normal scenery was I used to observing in Memphis, Tennessee and Jackson, Mississippi growing up as a child. On the one hand I felt like I finally belonged and had found my people, but on the other I instantly felt like a tourist in my own country. It is hard for anyone to be displaced from their culture and to feel like a stranger when they return, but it is incredibly hard on adoptees because there is also a sense of embarrassment or guilt that attaches itself to our hearts. Through no fault or willingness of our own we were packaged and sent to eagerly waiting arms in other countries and upon our return we are greeted with such an overwhelming sense of shock that it makes us question what nationality we really are. This sad fact was true even more so for me because I was very ignorant about Korean people and their culture having grown up in life with no Korean or Asian friends.
The beginning of the trip was filled with hotels, museums, tourist attractions, and temples as we made our way south from Seoul towards Busan.
Seoul never sleeps. It is still the Summer of 2000, but we are waiting to depart back home to the United States. I called my mom and she said a few of my friends wanted to meet me at our house after I arrived if that was ok. They were hesitant, the grape vine of information must have let them know something possibly traumatic had happened to their friend while in Korea. Suspicions should not be hindered from the fantastic, I was obviously a North Korean spy now.
We are sitting in my dining room. My family and a few of my friends are here, I hand out a few gifts. I don’t really remember too much from this period, it is kind of like a dream that someone told me about that I then feel like is my own. I probably could remember more, I probably don’t really want to. I do know that while in Korea I developed a love for the spirits. In Korea you just need to be able to crawl to the bar and say “Soju!” and the God of soju appears. I was eighteen at the time, took first grade twice to learn English for those counting, so drinking sounded like a remarkably great idea. I recall guzzling a pint of rum, post finding out my big news, then proceeding to spread my breakfast, lunch, and dinner all over Pusan. Yes, drinking was definitely for me. Now let’s go to college…
It is early in my 2001 school year. My plans of alcoholism have not gone well, mainly because I broke out with the worst case of acne in human history. I hadn’t had much dealings with these small boils from hell, but in the end they were a blessing and a curse. They were a blessing because they turned me into a reclusive monk that had no desire to see other people. I was thus not engaging in your normal first year of college sins. Oh sure, I drank beers and hit the bong, but I wasn’t out leading a fraternity into the next era of white collar supremacy or scoring the winning touch down. I was leader of ten alliances in Utopia and won multiple Starcraft tournaments… can I put that on a resume?
My search did not go well the second year. Yes it was inevitable to search for them. I had their names and a picture of my sister, that was it. I found out from the agency, after they got my sister’s record out, that my birth mother had given us both up for adoption. She had changed her mind a few days later and come back and gotten my sister because she was older, and probably easier to care for. It makes sense, I have a basic understanding of how survival works; I have the Discovery channel and I watch it religiously.