What is Loss Anyway…

I have some of the most amazing friends in my life. They make up part of my chosen family. During these pandemic times, I have stepped back to reflect on life, relationships, and many other aspects of my existence. Part of this reflection has also been on how and where I have channeled my energy. In large part, exploring and confronting the not-so-pretty parts of this is how I came to decide to leave my job. It was no longer where I wanted or felt fulfilled in expending my energy. My relationships have similarly been under the microscope. Perhaps it is from this reflection that has caused the rift and tension in my relationship with my adoptive parents. My rediscovery journey has churned up a lot of unspoken feelings leading me to consider not only what I want in a meaningful relationship but also where healthy limits are with my own well-being.

One such incredible friend has long been a source of care and support in everything from my professional career to exploration of culture to parenting. She began following this blog since the start and felt compelled to share it with some of her Korean colleagues, which lead to a connecting Zoom call last Saturday morning. One of her colleagues is someone I had already met but the other was new.

Our conversation moved along naturally and centered around connecting but also my blog and experiences. I’ve written about this on occasion here but I think central to my journey, rediscovery, and reclamation is truly about loss. As I’ve said before, I recognize that for many adoptees who were adopted at an age so young to not have recollection likely breeds an abstract sense of loss. A loss rooted in something cognitively understood but without a tangible source to identify. I admit that these are conclusions I have drawn based upon reading memoirs, posts, and words of adoptees.

For me, the true pain and yes a sense of emptiness comes from the loss of something very real. Nine is not such a young age to not have concrete memories yet young enough that many of my memories are often vague and fading rapidly as more time passes. It is a phenomenon that is difficult to describe in words because it’s more of a feeling.

Korean was my first language. My recollection and the little facts I know tell me my parents spoke little English, particularly my 엄마 (eomma, birth mother) as she still has little knowledge of the language today. Korean is what I spoke in the home until I was eight and moved in with my aunt whose husband and children did not speak the language. I managed to still speak from time to time with the Korean community and at obligatory Korean school. It’s likely that my Korean started dipping down around this period but it is with certainty that it died out completely when I went to live with my parents.

I had over nine years to develop a foundational sense of self and identity tied closely with my Korean roots, in some ways maybe more so than some of my cousins due to my years spent living in Korea. Even still today, I can be transported back to a past moment in time. It’s strange the small memories our brains choose to protect and preserve when so much else is lost. I have an unshakeable impulse to nod my head slightly when speaking to or interacting with Koreans. It’s typically in the context of greeting, accepting or giving a gift, or affirming something that has been said. I am not consciously aware of it but I can feel my body move of its own accord in this most natural way. It’s similar to the effect tasting or smelling Korean food has on me. Some of that intense rush of recognition has diminished with my recent enthusiasm of recreating Korean dishes in my own kitchen but I feel that tug when I taste or smell something new that’s not actually new.

When I was in Korea about 12 years ago, I tasted 순대 (sundae, blood sausage) for the first time in probably 20 years. The moment those flavors met my tongue, I was overcome with familiarity. It’s not a collection of memories so much as a deep sense of knowing, being transported home. I sometimes miss that visceral reaction as it’s become less with bringing more of those flavors home. I find comfort in knowing, hoping that when our kids are older they, too, will experience that. The taste of Mom’s cooking, the taste of home.

It is precisely this loss that I reflected on during my Zoom chat. I sometimes like to rationalize my experiences. I like to take it out of my emotions and feelings into my head where I can feel better equipped to handle it. No one who knows me would say I am an unemotional person, no one. I recently resigned to diving more fully into the Enneagram. I am not one to put a whole lot of stock into personality tests and such, and as a good friend of my mine likes to say “it’s all made up anyway.” That aside, I have come to the conclusion that I am solidly an Enneagram 4 Wing 5. Those who are blissfully unaware but would like to learn more, check this out. All this really to say, that I live in between the worlds of the heart and the head.

For me, this can mean that while I sit with feelings rather well, I sometimes like to shift them to cognitions. This happens most commonly with emotions or experiences that I’m not yet ready to tackle fully. Being able to examine them rationally allows me space to process it in the background emotionally until a later point when I can feel better equipped to confront it all. It’s also a way for me to minimize my experiences and the hurt associated with it. Saturday was the start to moving this loss from a cognitive space to a more emotional one.

Nine years. Nine years of living and breathing this part of myself that died the day I went to live with my parents. Nine years of not trying to learn and integrate it into my life but naturally being my life. Losing that sense of myself and spending nearly 20 years doing little in approaching it has really bred that untethered feeling. I also lost my family and my connection to that part of myself. And truth be told, I often wonder whether my immense effort now to reclaim and rediscover that part will ever bring me to where I could have been or where I want to be. I feel a great deal of frustration with how hard I have to work to regain something that was merely part of me at some point.

I grappled with this during 설날 (Seollal, Lunar New Year). Leading up to the holiday, I had been excited to share with my husband and our kids this part of my culture and tradition. But on the day, I found myself feeling melancholic and anxious. One for all the 설날 I had missed and all the other Korean things I had missed and lost but also fear of doing it all wrong. I didn’t have some core memories or experiences or people I could lean into to guide the traditions and practices of the day. I was just going by what I had read and learned almost from an outsider’s perspective. It is the ultimate bout of Imposter Syndrome.

Part of my Korean tutoring has included reading texts. One such text was about 돌 (Dol) or 돌잔치 (Doljanchi), the Korean tradition of celebrating baby’s first birthday. Oddly, this tradition is one I remembered when I went to live with my parents. I can recall telling them about the cool tradition, 돌잡이 (doljabi), of placing items on a table. The tradition says that whatever the baby grabs first foretells their future. Though I remembered this tradition, over time my memories of it began to fade to a point where I began to question my own knowledge. I have experienced this a lot with my memories of Korean traditions, culture, food, etc. I begin to doubt my own experiences and memories because I start to question if I really know my own culture. It was because of this doubt that I did not follow this tradition with our children. Dragon asked me about this when I read this piece to them. She was utterly disappointed that both she and Monkey had missed out on this tradition that they both found “cool.” The more time passed being further divorced from my culture had me not only questioning my own understanding of my roots but lead to me not engaging because of doubt and fear. It’s a vicious cycle.

This loss can feel all-consuming at times. The yearning I have to fill this loss has existed my entire life. If I’m not careful it can become the undercurrent in my life determined to drag me under, bordering on festering into full-blown regret. I refuse to live in regret. For now, I try to fight against the creeping Imposter Syndrome hiding backstage waiting to jump out. I fight against the undercurrent and am plowing forward with reclaiming and rediscovering. It’s full of hurt and pain and loss but also joy and peace and home.

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