From A FarTheresa Hak Kyung Cha, from Dictee
Or what kindred and relation
what blood relation
what blood ties of blood
what race generation
what house clan tribe stock strain
what lineage extraction
what breed sect gender denomination cause
what stray ejection misplaced
Tertium Quid neither one thing nor the other
Tombe de nues de naturalized
What transplant to dispel upon
There have been 200,000 South Koreans adopted abroad since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
One of those was you, my mom, shot across the ocean (in a plane?) accompanied by some random woman, headed into the arms of an equally unfamiliar woman. Did she hold you on the flight, were you afraid, were you lonely? Did you cry?
To think of this is too strange. I imagine instead that you came in a small dinghy or floating basket covered with blankets, like Moses in my Bible coloring book. Maybe you walked here across the ocean, fully grown and fully clothed, emerged onto the shore of this country, your hair tangled with seaweed and robes dripping with salt water.
The Korean War marked the beginning of Korean adoption in the U.S. as 1,000 “mixed blood orphans” that had been fathered by American army men and Korean women faced racial stigmatization and isolation from Koreans that valued racial homogeneity. It seems important to mention here the undeniable connection between war, specifically violent U.S. interventions abroad, and increased foreign adoptions between the two countries. There are hidden yet undeniable histories of violence behind adoptions; not only war, but histories of children being forcibly, coercively removed from mothers, histories of cultural death, of racial isolation.
The tidal oscillation of your Korean left us swimming in the aftermath of your push and pull. One morning we would wake to the smell of japchae and find pieces of paper scribbled with tiny Korean characters tucked into our notebooks. The whole family would parade dressed in traditional silken Hanboks, still stiff and creased from boxes. During one of these cultural outbursts you sent me to Korean Immersion camp in Minnesota. During another you went to Korea for nine months, leaving me and my brother Owen to subsist on microwaved Indian food that dad made. Our house still holds artifacts of these inundations: a box of Hanboks, folded and packed away, bowls of stale sweet potato noodles, Korean picture books tucked among English ones.
Sometimes when I come home from school break and we are the only two in the house, I will curl in bed next to you and cry and cry as you tell me these stories. This is me trying to catch and hold this strange family history; the story of how we came to be.
Post-WWII, thousands of children were sent from Japan to the U.S. Post-Vietnam war, many refugee children were sent to white American homes. As U.S.-sanctioned state violence rose in the Central American countries of Guatemala and El Salvador, orphaned children, usually from indigenous families, were brought to the U.S. Not to mention histories of violence and coercion within the United States with the infamous efforts of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the fifties to put displaced Native American children in homes of white families as a mode of cultural destruction.
In high school my orchestra-stand partner was a fierce, trenchcoat-wearing lesbian adopted from China. We lost all our music and never practiced, so we fake-played from the back of the second violins. I think we considered ourselves fraudulent Asians. There was a certain shame disguised in our humor as we doodled boobs on our music instead of listening. From her, I learned the words Twinkie and whitewashed, I used them to explain myself. The Twinkie™ and all its creamy, cakey, golden goodness needs no introduction. Twinkie—yellow on the outside, white on the inside, an Asian person that acts so white it warrants an explanation.
Long after the war had ended, Korean adoption continued. The infrastructure put in place to expand post-war democratic relations between South Korea and receiving countries is called by some an economic market specializing in the “export of babies.”
This seems strange, feels strange to write. Adoption is political, it is economic. It is also extremely personal. Let’s not forget these are people we are talking about—they are too easily abstracted into figures, abstracted into historical moments. This is me, lying next to you in your bed, wiping my snot on the pillow, trying to make sense of these incongruous histories.
There have been more than 200,000 South Koreans adopted abroad since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
You left for nine months, and came back with a suitcase full of stone bowls,
You told me later about how you did strange things while you were there,
You rode the subways for hours, talking to no one.
You said that they looked at you funny, how funny to see someone that looked like them,
But when you spoke it was all wrong, they asked what was wrong with you
You said you were adopted.
In her paper “The Origins of Korean Adoption: Cold War Geopolitics and Intimate Diplomacy,” Elena Kim marks the travel through space of an adoptee’s return to their country of birth as a “journey back through time, a temporalization of space,” postulating that “Traveling such a temporal path entails multi-directional movements, not simply from present to past or future, but sometimes from one present to another.” You—a multidimensional time traveler—I imagine you swinging somewhere between here and there, caught in the space-time continuum, between the past that was and that present that could have been. The plane that you came here on suspended somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. In one possible future, I was never born. We talk over Skype in our living room across the many hour time difference an ocean away. You are blurry, your movements lag.
I wrote you to ask you about this; to ask you about many things that I have never fully known. You responded by Word document sent through email.
I had this feeling that if I could just become Korean enough to“pass” as a real Korean, I could go back, be accepted back, or at least feel that I was choosing to leave Korea on my own terms. It was not something I was even aware of, but deep down, I felt anger, deep shame and sadness, which made my relationship to the country and to my Korean friends very complicated. Studying the language was difficult, if not impossible. I could never get any traction. I would get very good at it, then stop for so long I would have to start up again as a beginner.
When I was in Korea, I felt like someone else. I was a nomad. I refused to have a cell phone. I took no pictures. I kept to myself. I would leave odd little care packages around, with clothing and other essential items wrapped in bags. On doorsteps. Near park benches. At bus stops. No idea why. I felt homeless. Or I was caring for the homeless. It felt like a communication to the entire country.
The area in Maine where you grew up was almost completely white, besides you and Mina, your adopted sister. This superimposed white identity has become part of our personal history. This whiteness created by an erasure created me, created a void every time I try and trace back the lines of my descent in my head and instead just hit the wall of my skull. Every time I am racialized.
Being adopted, I think I imprinted on my white family from birth. In elementary school, I could not honestly tell I was Asian when I looked in the mirror. In fourth grade, I remember riding home on the bus, looking at my school picture all the way home, wondering how people could tell I was Asian.
In “Adoptees as ‘White’ Koreans: Identity, Racial Visibility and the Politics of Passing Among Korean American Adoptees,” Kim Park Nelson traces location and dislocation of whiteness in Korean adoptees. Complex racializations of Asian Americans in the U.S. at that time meant that Korean adoptees were racialized as white by adoptive families. This familial unification over the claiming of white American culture as a “single culture and national identity” meant assimilation at the cost of erasure of ethnic difference.
I don’t know if they took away your names when they adopted you
Or if someone just forgot to tell them
You were called Jenny, your sister Sarah.
Bearing the names of the white folks in Maine as masks.
They made you search for those names
with them you found your lines of kinship, or lack of.
Now you Sun-mi, and she Mina
A reclamation? A return?
It is not until grad school, age thirty, when I first learned to write my name in Korean. A Korean friend’s mother taught me how to write “Sun-mi.” I was like a kindergartener, my letters all big and shaky.
One of Huffington Post’s explanations for why so many people are adopted from Korea is because of a jus sanguinis (“right of blood”) clause within laws of Korean citizenship, stating that automatic citizenship is obtained only if you are recognized as the child of a Korean national father. This clause was complicated by the fact that pre-1998, abandoned or stateless children found within the Korean territory were automatically naturalized, perhaps explaining why 80-90% of children born to single mothers in Korea were abandoned. Though this clause was dismembered in 1998, allowing for children born to Korean mothers to also become citizens, the shame and stigma of being a single parent remains. This shame tied to the blood laws and blood lines, a blood-oriented culture that I cannot fully understand, is countered by the shame of Korea as a developed country whose children are abandoned and that sends so many children to families overseas.
My brother and I are your only blood relatives, your only Korean relatives.
I don’t know your adopted parents’ names. Somehow it just never came up. All I know is that your mom was outrageous and loved animals. You told us once about the time she gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a bird. They rescued horses, nearly dead, skin and bone, patchy balding horses that they would haul in their VW bus with the seats put down: Floyd, Mustard, and Gentle Ben, Black Beauty, all ferocious and damaged. Sometimes I wonder what they were thinking, your parents, when they adopted a child from Korea and one from the Dakota Sioux Tribe, in addition to their two white white white biological sons. You said your mom adopted you because she wanted girls, girly girls, real girls. Instead they ended up with you, an unruly tomboy who refused to wear pantyhose.
Though your adopted parents died before I was born, the material goods that they passed on still reside in our house—an antique wooden table, a cast iron sewing machine, a technicolored orange afghan. But these remnant possessions are not sufficient to reconstitute an extended family. When I think of your side of the family, I think instead of the Korean families in Amherst that you befriended. We would visit their houses that smelled funny and felt warm. We ate japchae in the living room of their blue apartment building, we ate japchae in the basement of the Korean church; me and my brother holding the crinkly cellophane fish that we had made as a Sunday school activity in our sticky hands—japchae—I remember disliking the rubbery clear noodles. They were too false, too plastic.
It wasn’t until recently that I learned the importance of food, of Korean food. The AsZian Fuzzzion food that you would make: lo mein noodles in hard taco shells, a side of Annie’s mac and cheese—white culture meets diasporic longing. I scoured the internet for food recipes that you refused to teach me, or didn’t know how:
Taste of home?
I filled in the gaps of information that you can’t learn online; I asked my white friends who were “into fermenting” how to brine the kimchi. They taught me how to push the cabbage leaves under the salty water with a bowl, so they don’t get moldy. After weeks my kimchi tasted like the sour of defeat, and anger at the things you were never able to teach me. Do I succeed in fooling them? I wonder. ARE YOU FOOLED? The only mark of authenticity is my twinkie yellow outer shell that I hide behind. But I learned these recipes from the internet, I want to scream. No I do not know how they are supposed to taste, no they do not remind me of home.
Regardless, it feels vastly important that I create this food. All of my racialized insecurities, all of the ways that I perceive myself as false, or vastly not enough melt away as I stand in the co-op kitchen surrounded by all of the Koreans I have met here. I cannot express in words how deeply whole it feels to be sitting in the basement covered in bits of messy bibimbap, and too sour kimchi, and internet recipe amalgamated inventions, surrounded by all of you, quietly slurping tofu stew that tastes of home, real or imagined. We exhale collectively, out of our mouths come small soft clouds of fire.
At the end of your response to a list of questions I sent you about this piece, you wrote me this, titled Charlotte and Owen.
If I strip away all the “cultural markers” or checklists that I have created—fluent in the Korean language, able to make kimchi, and everything else that I once thought necessary to do in order to “be Korean”—I am left thinking about, well, you…
Perhaps there are many paths when it comes to identity. I am learning this from you. Recently, I learned that making kimchi by your side, with you leading the way, humming and so carefree about “everything kimchi,” made me feel so happy and whole.
be more fluid, more forgiving than I could have ever imagined. Did I need to live through all these stories to arrive at this place? Perhaps this interview is an unexpected gift, a roadmap for anyone on a quest, with a few lovely shortcuts along the way. May anyone following along feel invited simply to start where we left off, chopping cabbage, humming, and feeling free.