A Picture Conveys a Thousand Emotions

by Sara Jones/Yoon Hyun Kyung, adopted from South Korea to the USA.

I have no photos of myself before I was 3 years old.  I have a few photos after that age taken at the orphanage.  Staff members took photos of children to send to sponsors or potential adoptive parents. In one of the photos, I am wearing a Korean hanbok but I am not smiling in any of the photos at the orphanage.

One of my orphanage photos

A few months ago, I came across a photo (not one of mine) that literally made me feel like I had been thrown back in time. The photo was taken in 1954 at a well. The well has high cement walls and a pulley system.  Rusted metal drums sit nearby.  Two young boys are drawing water while a little girl stands near them. The 1954 photo helped me visualize what life might have been like for me in Jeonju, South Korea. 

Here’s what I see when I looked at that 1954 photo:  I see an older brother, about 8 years old, a younger brother almost 6 years old, and their little sister who is 2 years old. They are poor, but don’t really know anything different. They live with their grandmother and father in a rural village in South Korea. Their father is the oldest of several children and some of their aunts and uncles are still quite young. They are all struggling through the economic disruption that has happened in their country. Their father worked in manual labor and was injured. So the boys help their father and keep watch of their little sister. The little sister is used to staying near her brothers. Sometimes the children go to day care and the boys sneak the little sister extra corn snacks. Her brothers are her protectors.

The children don’t know that their father is making an excruciating decision. Their father can no longer provide for them and thinks his only choice is to send them to the children’s welfare center. The little girl has no idea that she will be separated from her father or even from her brothers. The children also don’t know that their father will soon take them to a well and give them each a tattoo on their arm, using a needle, ink and thread. He is worried he will never see his children again. In the 1954 photo, the children are just siblings, sent to the well for the day’s water.

The children might have wondered why their father was taking them to the well the day he gave them their tattoos. The oldest son cries as his father gives him the tattoo. As the father gives his oldest son his tattoo, he says to him, “I will come back for you.” Before the father gives his little baby daughter her tattoo, he hugged her.

It’s been a long 3 years since I met my Korean birth family. The distance from the U.S. to South Korea feels longer and harder with the pandemic. The language barrier weighs on me constantly. How will I ever communicate with them?  

Some things need no words. Like this moment 3 years ago of my Korean family and I at the well in Jeonju, where my father gave us our tattoos. Watch the video here.

To listen to more of Sara sharing, watch her Ted talk here which has over 2m views
Read Sara’s other ICAV post The Adoption Fairy Tale

Shape Shifting

by Marie, a daughter lost via adoption from her Chinese father who shared his story last week: The Sin of Love

I put the truth on a pedestal, but I also see how she’s a shape shifter, whose form changes depending on who holds her and their state of mind. In the few months since I found my father, I believe he’s understood my need for the truth and tried to offer it to me. But that truth keeps changing as my arrival in his life has been equal parts joyful and traumatic.

Confronted with me, the lost daughter he’s longed for, he’s also reliving the past. A past he’s suppressed because it was too painful, alone with memories in a society which erases birth parents and their grief, as if it is something they had agency to prevent. He had no wise mentor and no safety through which to process his pain and loss, not only of me but of his first love. I believe the woman he loved died to him when she signed the adoption papers. While acknowledging she probably had no choice, he couldn’t reconcile that woman with the one he loved eternally. So although he had clues as to where she was, he never looked for her because his love must surely be gone — the Agnes he loved couldn’t have given away their child; in doing so she compelled him into signing the adoption papers too. He tucked away that grief and entered a life in which loss unconsciously drove his decisions.

Years later he sleepwalked into a marriage. Another pregnancy would garner his commitment to his wife and to another child he couldn’t lose this time. But Agnes was a silent guest in his marriage and family – she would never leave, and neither would I.

Since I’ve returned, the truth evolves and shifts. Agnes has been unconsciously a perpetrator, a woman who gave up her flesh and blood and simultaneously a victim of a bigoted and controlling mother who altered the destiny of all three of us. As the months since our reunion have gone by, my father has been tormented by the past: guilt, anger, confusion and loss have plagued him with what he calls “sudden floating rubbish”. Neither of us can ask Agnes what happened from her perspective because she died in October 2016. 4 years before I found her obituary and 5 before I found my father and confirmed it was her. In her absence we both thrash about with what we know, attempting to piece together the puzzle which for me has even more missing pieces which are gradually leaking out of the memories my father accesses in flashbacks and increasing empathy for my mother. He stares, as I do at the one photo we have of her, posted on her obituary. She is young and smiling and though her features individually aren’t mine, somehow her face echoes mine. I saw myself in her, knowing who she was as soon as I saw the picture.

As he moves through the memories now with an altered lens of compassion, and perhaps conscious of how I would view my mother and how he wants me to feel about her, my father has revealed memories which again shift reality and truth. As my birthday approaches the revelations seem to be increasing. In his recollections, now she’s happy and smiling on the day I was born. They named me together and all seems fine when he leaves her that day. But a week later he’s called to sign adoption papers and compelled by a judge to do so when he refuses. He would never make sense of the decision and never talk to Agnes again to unpack what happened. His anger and confusion would hold her at a distance more successfully than her absence, until I arrived sending photos of myself in which she is ever present. In the last week he has seemed to need to share new puzzle pieces, as he puts it back together himself. He now believes he has wronged her.

In his own grief he couldn’t comprehend what a traumatic loss she endured. Yesterday he revealed another piece of the puzzle. When he finally searched for Agnes, he too found her obituary so he sought out her brother, his friend, to find out how she died. What he was told led him to believe she took her own life. This news has shifted reality again for me. While not knowing anything of her life, I can only assume losing me was a devastating event which forever impacted her state of mind and her family life.

I can’t help correlating the month of her death with its anniversary of my adoption. I suspect each year my August birthday would summon a silent grief and perhaps linger through to autumn when two months later, I went home with another family and within a few months unknown to my parents, to another country. I don’t know if she knew when I left the mother and baby home. It’s not clear to me if I was with her for those first two months of life or living in its adjacent orphanage under the care of nuns. Unrelenting in their views of what was best, the nuns lied to my father when he travelled the seven hours from Taiping to take me home, where his mother awaited, wanting to welcome me to their family.

What the Church told anyone is under question and with Agnes gone, perhaps only her siblings might know. It’s possible she shared something with her second daughter or husband. As I think of my maternal sister, I now wonder if my existence would unlock a mystery for her too. If she never knew about me, perhaps her loss also involved a traumatic secret lost in death and added to her grief. I remain stuck with what next in my search – for now just happy to be part of my paternal family and all the absorbing realities of getting to know the family and culture I lived without for almost 49 years.

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