There’s a melancholy seeping out of my bones. It seems a sort of thing awakened by being here in Korea. Don’t misunderstand, our time here is wonderful and will make for lasting memories. However, just because the experience is beautiful and memorable doesn’t distract from or minimize the contradictions that live here.
Likely one of the strangest favorite things I have about Korea is just the smell of the air. It holds an evocative urban musk laden with flavors of food wafting out of homes, restaurants, and markets alike. I sometimes just enjoy throwing open the small windows in our little apartment at night to pull the heady scent into my lungs, into my soul. There’s an equal dose of comfort and sorrow that blooms in my chest. I don’t often have an opportunity to smell the air due to mandatory masking outdoors so I take it in when I can. I am comforted by the sense of home the air brings. It’s oddly and wonderfully a smell of home and can magic up moments from my childhood.
I also feel sorrow for the loss of family, home, and comfort, not only because of going back to the States and eventually being adopted but also for being away so long and missed opportunities to return. A hole of which I’m becoming more fully aware is only becoming more defined. Questions I haven’t often entertained before are bursting forth with a force that doesn’t permit me to ignore them. Who would I be now if I had been allowed to stay? What would my life be like? How much more connected might I feel to this place if I had come to study here in college? The answers aren’t easy because my life would have been very different and likely difficult in many ways.
I don’t regret being adopted. It also wasn’t really a choice for me to regret. Being asked in a court of law at the age of 10 if I wanted to be adopted is not the same thing as a choice, so let’s be honest about that. My adoption truly gave me the privilege to reach this specific point in my life so I cannot regret it as it would make everything and everyone I have now evaporate. It certainly does not make my adoption, or any adoption, any less confusing and complicated.
I was asked a few months ago if I thought my life would be better had I not been adopted. My answer was I couldn’t say. I cannot truly say if my life is better now because I was adopted or would be better had I not been. I believe that my life would have different challenges if I had stayed either with my birth family or my birth mother. I do also wonder if the complexities I am experiencing with my identity and culture would exist in the same way.
Try as I have, untangling all that is rumbling around in my mind, heart, and soul seems an impossible task. Wonderful experiences I have been having here aside, the mountain of baggage (read: trauma) that exists is a bit overwhelming at times. The contradiction of everything feeling so familiar while also foreign is dizzying. It is a state of in-between that has me lost like I am aimlessly wandering.
While we have been here, my birth mother has visited a few times and I’ve also been able to see my birth father’s younger brother. My relationship with my birth family is messy and confusing and beautiful in its own way.
Out of necessity, I have become quite talented in self-preservation and self-protection. But from that need and talent comes what can sometimes be a barrier in cultivating relationships in which I feel safe and able to be vulnerable. Abandonment runs strong in my story, thus I have a great aversion to anything that might threaten to trigger any similar event. Often this means keeping people at arms’ length.
I’ve become quite good at giving the impression of full self-disclosure and vulnerability but, with practice, I am quite adept at keeping large parts of myself safely hidden. In this, I am not boasting. It is not exactly a healthy way to engage in relationships with others and I completely own that. I also recognize that nearly all of my most meaningful, important, and primal relationships were marred by abandonment, even most recently. As such, I feel I have very good reason to have put these practices to use and to stop comes at a great potential cost to myself.
Over the last year or so, my birth mother and I have talked regularly over the phone. The distance between us, our language barrier, and the nature of our conversations kept our relationship in a comfortable place for me. Broaching that distance and comfort has left me exposed and anxious. I have never tried to make my relationship with my birth mother anything more than it is, rather I’ve tried to sit in the ambiguity. I’ve exercised a good deal of caution in our relationship, again for the sake of self-preservation and protection. I feel compelled to both shroud myself to ensure safety and open myself up to the possibility of a new phase of our relationship.
I have gained new insight into my own past and history as a result of our conversations. I have had so many questions growing up about the twists and turns of my life that led me to my adoption. For the obvious reason of being adopted at age 10, some things aren’t a question, such as the death of my birth father. However, questions abounded when I thought about all the moves I made in my life and how those moves came to be. When I met my birth mother the last time two years ago, I bombarded her with them. While she was able to explain some of the timeline, there were still some large holes. She since wrote a letter that she never sent to me but chose to give me during this trip.
I shall respect her privacy as well as mine and not disclose the full nature of those letters. What I think struck me most both in the letters and in our conversations during my last visit and this is how very much she loved and wanted to keep me. As adoptees, we are often told the story that our birth mothers/families were unable to keep us but loved us very much and wanted the best for us and thus chose adoption. Now that I am an adult, I can better understand this narrative and the compulsion people have in telling this story but as a child, internally, I could only grasp the pain of being left. My birth mother is honest and open about her mistakes and flaws, almost to a point of being unfair to herself. She carries a lot of blame that is not hers to own. She had never relinquished me, it was not a choice she made.
I spent my childhood believing I was unwanted and not good enough. Meeting my birth mother and 아줌마 (ajumma, who raised me the years I lived in Korea) and hearing their grief and pain of losing me began to put some of those broken pieces back together. They told me of the tears they cried when I had to go back to the States. They told me I begged to stay here with my birth mother. My mother was powerless to stop my return as was I. This certainly isn’t to say that I wish things had been different. But more that I, too, am a parent now and understand the deep love I have for my children and it helps connect me to the pain she must have experienced.
She asked me if I resented her at all. I opted for honesty and told her that I did for a while. In part, because my five-year-old self didn’t fully grasp or understand the situation and partly because of how I had come to understand her through the eyes of others. Later, I think I was unconsciously unwilling to consider letting go of the resentment for fear of hurting my adoptive parents. They had always expressed support in me meeting my birth mother but I don’t think I ever felt fully confident that doing so wouldn’t cause them some pain. I can say that the anger I had before has subsided to near nothing, especially with having a better understanding of her and her situation.
So while melancholy has come to knock, there’s a healing happening here, too. It’s a healing that began a few years ago and continues. When I reconnected with my birth father’s family a couple of years ago, the love, affection, and grief I felt further reinforced how much I had been wanted as a child. I came to realize more that it was less about my flaws or faults and more about the challenges and struggles they all grappled with, as we all do.
All of this healing and reconnection does not make these relationships any less messy, confusing, or complex. Indeed, it might make it more so.