10 Hours Later
It was the spring of 1976. My sister and I spent time at a foster family’s house for several months before we were sent to America for adoption. We were taken away from the comforts of our grandparent’s home to get us ready for our departure to America. We no longer slept on the warm heated floorboards, they were replaced with cold cement floors of the city. I no longer smelled the sweet scent of the meju curing on the ropes hanging off the ceiling, that was replaced with the smell of garbage sitting in the city streets waiting to be collected. I no longer played with the neighborhood kids in the garbage pits in the village, the time now was spent watching Taekwon-V on TV; a cartoon about a super hero robot. I remember I was given a peanut butter sandwich to eat and told that food was plentiful and that I would be happy.
The few months seemed like years until we saw a familiar face again. Our grandfather traveled had traveled far to reach us in the city. It was a long trek for him to walk much of the journey from our small mountain side village to escort us on the ride to the airport in Incheon. I remember my grandfather getting out of the rented car and walking us down the street and stopping by a packed little shop to pick out a delicacy that we only dreamed about before. We were allowed to select a treat from the vendor. I remember my grandfather reaching into his cloth trousers to fetch a few precious coins to pay for the airplane shaped crackers for me. Before I knew it, I was no longer holding onto the safety of my grandfather’s soft but weathered hands and we were being pulled up the ramp to be loaded onto the plane by strangers.
As I was screaming and fighting the attendants to be with my grandfather, I glimpsed at his face as I was pulled away. I saw the warm streams of tears running down his leathery face. I could see months of sorrow escape upon his face and little did I know that it was the painful expression of making a tough but selfless decision to let us go, in hope of a better life for me and my two-and-a-half-year-old sister. It was a scene from the exorcist and I was the one who was possessed.
I fought, screaming and kicking at the attendants to get to my grandfather who stood stoic, like a statue, on the lonely tarmac. After several minutes of thrashing, my tantrums quickly dissipated as I realized another Korean girl was with me. She quickly grasped my hand to comfort me. Like most unencumbered children, we quickly bonded and we began to play. I think this was possible because she was near my age and one of the few individuals able to speak in my native tongue.
After a while we forgot what happened and the cries dissipated and were replaced with shrills of laughter. The stewardess passed me a banana and gestured me to eat and I bit into my meal without peeling it. The woman laughed at my comical antics and helped peel my banana as it laid mushed up by my attempts to eat it. She became fond of me during the flight and she took the shiny gold northwest flight lapel pin off her blouse and placed it in my hands.
I was told the plane had landed in Hawaii and my sister and I remained onboard as the girl was pulled away to head towards her next flight. Did she fear the next 10 hours would be her turn to kick and scream? My sister and I were fearful of being separated again. I remember seeing terror in the Korean girl’s face as she was pulled away off the plane. I could not describe what she looked like. I cannot remember her name. Forty years later, I still think about her and wonder who she was? I wonder if I have met her in my travels around the world. I wonder if she remembers me as I have remembered her?
I think I remember things in detail because it was a traumatic experience. I’ve since learnt that some people’s mind tries to protect itself during this extremely stressful time period and they remember nothing. Other individuals like me, seem to remember things in greater detail or believe the situation took a lot longer in time than it actually did. This phenomenon is called ‘slow motion perception‘ and it is a postulated mental state wherein time seems to be slowed down. People experiencing life-threatening situations sometimes report that time seemed to have slowed down. Of course, the event was not a physical life-threatening event but to a small 4.5 year old boy, being ripped away from my dear grandfather and thrown in a flying metal container – it was a terrifying experience!
Research conducted by David Eagleman established that time does not actually slow down for a person during a life-threatening event but rather, it is only a retrospective assessment that brings about such a conclusion. He measured time perception during free-fall by strapping palm-top computers to subjects’ wrists and having them perform psychophysical experiments as they fall. By measuring their speed of information intake, he concluded that participants did not have increased temporal resolution during the fall but, because their memories are more densely packed during a frightening situation, the event merely seems to have taken longer (source from Wikipedia).
Since that 10 hour plane trip, forever imprinted on my mind as the start of my journey of being an intercountry adoptee, I have followed my path and learnt many things.
For many of us adoption is a cross we must bear alone. The deep pangs of loneliness, emptiness and sorrow remain within. Even amongst the perfect backdrop of life filled with success and wealth, I can still feel alone. ‘Who am I’ is not a question but rather a reoccurring nightmare that haunts on a daily basis. No matter where I run, what I do or how I change … the question of ‘who am I’ finds me. It reminds me I do not fit in.
I am that odd jigsaw puzzle piece that was placed in the wrong box. I am misplaced. I do not belong to the world I was forced into and foreign is the place I seek to find. I call it homeland but it doesn’t feel like home. They too look at me oddly. I look like they do but looks are not everything. They know I am different – different language, different mannerisms and different smells. They know I am … different. It’s as though I am wearing a scarlet letter. During my childhood that letter is in the shape of my almond eyes, yellow complexion and shiny black hair.
I am reminded of the shame of who I am each time I stare at my own reflection. A shame for being different. Like I said … Who am I? Who am I? WHO AM I!
I would love to reconnect and find that Korean girl from my 10 hour plane journey!
To the girl on the plane.
Our paths crossed due to adoption. I wonder if you remember this journey across the ocean as it was a memorable experience for me. For a brief 10 hours we were the best of friends. We bonded as we were able to communicate to only each other.
My wish for you is that your life is full and complete. If you read this … please let me know so we can catch up over a cup of coffee.