It is far too early in the morning to make decisions that last a lifetime and yet you did. You made our decision for us as you packed us away with our memories. I sometimes wonder if you held our hands as we walked away from the life we knew. Having little idea that we were walking the final walk, we approached the day like any other. Like any other…
How simple it is to walk through life when you have nothing but a name to hold on to. How difficult that life becomes when that name is taken from you and a different identity is given for you to adopt as you adopt yourself. I walked away an Ahn. I walked with you as a Korean and left your life a stranger. More strange now is the face and name I wear today, a stranger heart you have never known. A loss of name was not my first lesson in pain. That was yet to come.
We made our way through the morning streets of Pusan. Past the sights and smells I knew and had no clue that it was my last time to experience them. We waited in front of a building for a bus that would never come as you said your goodbye. Is parting such sweet sorrow when half of those that part have no inkling of the finality taking place? It was sorrow for us. How were you able to hide your tears as we showed you our fears?
My soul still waits for you in Pusan beside my empty heart. My right hand holds the shadow of your own and my left hand grasps for my sister’s in the night. The only thing left for me is a mind and it betrays me each day. Putting memories in the wrong order, placing hope where it does not go. I scream at my mind at the same time I miss my soul. I scream at my dead heart at the same time I miss a beat. I scream at your memory to turn around just once.
Just this one time.
I’ve never liked the sound of children crying. I’ve always avoided orphanages or hospitals when I can. Something about the sound of unhappy kids in a forced situation sends my mind scrambling to my memory box. I pry it open with hesitant care as I look inside my past. A past filled with those same cries in my head… only this time they are my cries, my screams in the night.
There are moments in life when you know you are truly alone. I have a feeling at some point I realized I was on my own when the only hand left for me to hold was taken from me. You came like a sneak thief in the night and stole the only companion I had ever known. You selfishly tore her from my side so she could remain by your side… to comfort you till you die. You killed me twice that day. The hope of seeing you again went without a sound, but the loss of hope of seeing my sister again did not go unannounced. I let the world know it with all my sound.
Left, but not forgotten. Adoptee, but not adopted. I remained in between the worlds I knew and a nightmare that had become my reality. My name was taken with my clothing and I was given a new role in life assigned by a number. To live life seeking something lost. To never know what that lost thing was. That was the meaning you left for me as you left me to find my way. A way that did not lead back to Eastern shore, but instead sent me to an unknown coast. A place where crying children are sent to learn how to cry alone.
A person can think about a lot while trapped with their thoughts at 40,000 feet. An airplane becomes a thought tomb and our bodies squirm for freedom from our metallic coffin. Fortunately for me I don’t remember my journey to America. I imagine I was very confused, scared, and exhausted by the time I arrived in Memphis, Tennessee. Many years later I would return for the first time to my homeland and experience what true culture shock is like when you are immersed into a society that is foreign to you. I assume that same feeling was felt when I walked off that plane into a white and black world and was introduced to my new parents.
America gave back instantly to this orphan. I am told one of the first foods I would eat were French Fries from McDonald’s and unsurprisingly I still love them to this day! My new brother gave me an unsure smile and a stuffed dog named Fluffy. I was suddenly accepted, but my journey towards accepting myself was just beginning. I left the airport Korean and walked into a world I knew nothing about. I only knew that everyone was excited about something and that something was apparently me. I couldn’t understand why their words were so strange and it wasn’t until after speech therapy that I learned what those abrupt sounds they kept making meant.
The life of an adoptee is all about change, adaption, and trying to find stability. After the trauma of rejection runs its course we quickly find a need to find some type of stability through acceptance. I have seen what constant rejection can do to a child having had a friend who was repeatedly let down and rejected again and again. It wears on you and thankfully I didn’t know the burden it places on your heart until later in life. I at least found love and acceptance before finding out the pain of not being wanted once more.
When you grow up in a white and black world and you aren’t white or black it becomes a struggle to feel accepted. As a Korean with no Asian friends, I found I had little reference as to what an Asian was. Why we looked as we did, why people thought I looked differently at all, and why I had to explain my family constantly to random strangers. When your life is a puzzle you try and piece together a stained glass of your life. You grow to appreciate the whole picture of yourself including the tape used to hold it together. It only becomes difficult when people poke holes in your image and force you to adopt their own.
I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi and was quickly informed I was different. My mind plays tricks on me and memories flash of a yellow bus that picked us up on our street. I remember pencil breaking contests, a bully of a white kid that lived down the hill and pestered me, and going to my speech therapy class. I see bags of marbles and hear the sounds of CH and TH till I am tired of anything that resembles English. Through the learning and the growth of my childhood I never once considered that I was not yet truly learning about myself. I had time for that later I thought. What was there to learn?
The birth of a tongue doesn’t occur when you are born. Your speech is learned when you are young and begin to communicate for the first time. This is the learning process of all humans and yet what if you allowed a child to learn just enough to know their tongue and then displaced them to a foreign world. What if you took everything they knew and forced them to learn a new reality?
I took speech therapy and language courses from a friend of the family during school hours. She came and tutored me, awarding me bags of marbles for lessons accomplished and well done. I learned how to unlearn Korean fairly quickly and with that transition I found a new American tongue. A southern tongue full of twang, ya’lls, and southern comfort. I began building within the person I was meant to be, but remained on the outside the shell of what I was.
It is funny because as easily as I learned to forget my culture I found it was much harder to relearn it later in life. To reconnect with what has been trained out of you and to find yourself in a memory that was never real. That is what life sometimes feels like as adoptees stare at themselves in the mirror and what they have become. Are we truly a picture of our true selves or have we become instead a product of our path in life. Is there really a difference? I still don’t know the answer to that question.
When you are adopted as a young child your life is not all about adoption. It only becomes centered upon that reality when people make you realize you are different. That your life isn’t “normal” and you aren’t where you are supposed to be. That is when the walls of security we have built come crashing down and we seek a new safety blanket only to find that there is none. There is only the power of acceptance.
I remember a steady path of incidences that reminded me of my adoption. They appear like stepping stones in my mind and many of those points in time are pain points of mine. I think the hardest part for an adoptee as they grow up in a foreign country is finding not only acceptance, but also understanding. Seeking, searching, striving to find someone that can relate to your struggles… that might be able to understand where you truly come from. This is the reason why many adoptees find solace and comfort in communicating with other adoptees. This is also why so many of us take rejection so hard because we have never fully recovered from the first rejection in our life.
In a smiling world that believes you should smile all the time, I found my smiles where I could. My family life was real life and not the thing of Disney tales. There were smiles, tears, fears, and laughter growing up and I have fond memories of my early life in Jackson, Mississippi. I remember being different, but I also remember growing to love this country I now called home. I am thankful that someone above thought I needed a break finally and allowed me time to heal and to grow. Remembering all the while that I was not an adult yet, I was still a child that wanted only one thing. To be wanted and accepted finally.
Jason Chandler Cushman