by Yung Fierens adopted from South Korea to Belgium.
This is Lee Keun Soon, my mother.
In 1976 and at the age of 26, Lee Keun Soon was trapped in an unhappy marriage with a violent husband and she was a mother of two little girls. She was bullied on a daily basis by a dominating and spiteful mother-in-law and according to local tradition, had to live with her to serve and obey as the dutiful daughter-in-law.
Right after the birth of her youngest child, she couldn’t cope any longer with the abuse, beatings and cheating of her husband, so she ran away.
It wasn’t only an act of desperation, influenced by probably postpartum depression and exhaustion right after giving birth, but foremost it was seen as an act of open rebellion. Such disobedience wasn’t only slightly frowned upon in a paternalistic and hierarchical society, it needed to be punished in the most severe way possible.
After a family council, led by the child’s grandmother, it was decided that the baby girl should be taken to an orphanage and be put up for adoption. When Lee Keun Soon returned home, they told her little Yoo Hee had died due to her mother leaving her behind. Broken by guilt and shame she resigned into being the dutiful and submissive wife and mother society expected her to be and had two more children.
Thirty years later, her dying mother-in-law admitted the sick baby she left behind was living somewhere in a country far away, probably given a different identity.
Lee Keun Soon left her husband, this time for good and started searching for her lost daughter.
At the same time, a girl somewhere in Belgium, was testing out this new thing called “the internet” and sent an email to the orphanage she came from. The email was just to say, “Hi.” She hadn’t any other expectation as she was led to believe she was an orphan.
Fast forward a year later, mother and daughter finally met at Seoul airport.
This isn’t just a rare story that happened decades ago in some poor backward country with little means or infrastructure. It’s not a slight blip in the history of a country that prides itself on respectful, spotless and impeccable behaviour towards others.
Jung Yoo Hee, who by then went through life known as Tamara Fierens (that’s me!), visited the same orphanage her grandmother relinquished her at. In this orphanage she counted 25 little babies, amongst them one tiny premature girl still in an incubator. These babies were all waiting to be shipped abroad to live a new life with adoptive parents.
Their nurse told me that 20 of them were delivered to the orphanage by family members of the birthmother; mainly fathers, brothers, uncles or grandfathers.
When I asked her if the birthmothers had given their consent for the child’s adoption, she remained silent and changed the subject. The date was 20 December 2007.
by Christina Soo Ja Massey, aka YooNett adopted from South Korea to the USA.
The Tears of Trauma I cry as a helpless Orphan, I cry as an Adult throughout my Life.
This piece of art deals primarily with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Trauma of being abandoned, left to fight for my Life, but being unable to do so … The fear, anxieties and hopelessness of the situation. I attempted to convey how this Trauma persists throughout my Life. I have come to my Adopters already deeply scared only to relive old Experience via new Scars.
I was adopted to a white family in the south of Sweden from north India in the late 70’s and as soon as I arrived in Sweden, I was told to stop speaking weird and that I was now Swedish. We never spoke about India growing up. If I did ask, I received short answers then a lecture on how horrible India is with crimes, rape, child marriage and killings of baby girls. Because that’s all India is, right? Thank colonisation! I had a packed bag next to my bed with the clothes and jewellery brought from India, just in case.
The trauma of growing up like this invited self-hate and suicidal thoughts and I can’t tell you what stopped me, but animals were my best friends who I would seek solace from when low. There was never a mention of race, only how lucky I was to be brown and my eyebrows and hair would be ridiculed to the point that I would pluck my eyebrows to near extinction and colour my hair to breaking point. I heard talk about race hate but since I’m white, why would this apply to me? I was a white person on the inside who didn’t like to get her photo taken or look at herself in the mirror, as it was a reminder of my colour. I was a white person living in a white world without benefitting from what this means. People from India are not represented in mainstream fashion, music, films and the media and many think that by using one person of colour, they’ve represented us all.
Growing up without anyone looking like me caused much trauma as I found it very hard to accept myself and to find my identity. I wasn’t accepted as white yet this was what I identified as. I wasn’t accepted as Indian but didn’t identify as such. In my early 20’s, when I started to travel abroad more, I realised how uncomfortable I was in my own skin and if a person of colour walked into the room, or anyone mentioned the word, I found it uncomfortable as I realised they were also talking about me. I would divert the topic to something else whenever possible. I started noticing I was often the only person of colour in most rooms, especially in equestrian training and competition which was my whole life growing up.
I have dreamt and fought to become a filmmaker since I was very young. I pursued this despite my family who didn’t see it as a profession, within a Swedish college who didn’t accept me where university tutors laughed in my face on several occasions, amongst funding bodies who excluded transracial adoptees, with Scottish filmmakers who would not let me in and deleted my credentials on a film crew database. I have read many personal statements by Swedish people of colour who relocated to America for a chance at progression within their field. I too was accepted there when I finally gained the courage to apply to do an MA in filmmaking at their two most prestigious filmmaking universities. Do you still think I should be grateful?
The first time I met Indian people after being adopted was when I moved to Scotland, I was 24 years old and so intrigued and uncomfortable. In my mindset I still saw myself as white and did not relate what was happening to me to be about race. I was cautious of Black people and saw myself above Asians, just in a way I imagine white people do but can’t explain how or why. It kept me safe, mentally. Sometimes I miss this, it was easier to handle than the truth.
In 2020, I became more active in anti-racism activities as I know others who did and I joined many social media groups. There was one particular Scottish group where I live which made me feel very uncomfortable because I was faced by many people of colour with strong confident voices. I found my own without being shut down or drowned out by white people and I came to realise everything which was stolen from me: my culture, my beliefs, my voice as a person of colour, my dignity, my heritage, my language and my roots, my identity. I was sold for profit to privilege others but for which I would never experience the privilege through the Christian faith which I was brought up with. I felt so betrayed. When I continuously keep hearing from my white acquaintances and friends that “You get what you put in”, I started to believe I was just lazy and untalented. I did not take into account their head start and the extra hurdles I have on my journey as a person of colour. It’s a lot to take in and I’m SO ANGRY!! Do you still think I should be grateful?
As I started to strip away the whiteness I inherited via adoption, I came to realise that some things are harder than others to remove. My language still needs altering in some ways and I find myself apologising in horror as I become more aware. A few months ago I was asked why I keep using the word “coloured”. It never occurred to me that I was saying it and I’ve even told others off on many occasions for using it. In Swedish, “coloured” is “färgad” and digging deeper I realise it’s still widely used in media and by people in everyday language. After having spoken to several Swedish people and observing the media, I’ve come to realise that there is no alternative wording, so I have decided to establish it, about time!
In Sweden, the English phrases are used and never translated as it makes it more palatable for white people and puts distance between the person and the issue. I have created a Swedish anti-racism page as I really believe in creating the changes needed with a less interactive approach giving white fragility no space. There’s so much about my upbringing I need to unpack and unlearn. The majority of Swedish social media and anti-racism pages I’ve found so far speak only of the prejudice Jewish people face as it’s what white people feel comfortable with. This is not racism through, it’s antisemitism.
I wear my colour/oppression on my skin for all to see and at no point can I ever hide or change this. Why is all this important when talking about my trauma as an intercountry adoptee? Because it shows the very deeply rooted racist societies in which Black and Brown are sold and the deeply rooted internal racism it creates in us. I hate myself for being like this but I hate the people who did this to me more. Hate is a strong word, I’m making no excuses for using it. It’s mental abuse, violence and rape. Do you still think I should be grateful?
I’m now re-building myself as an Indian woman. A person of colour. A transracial intercountry adoptee and I’ve found yoga is helping me heal although I feel like I’m culturally appropriating it, I know it’s my culture and I have every right to it. Recently I found out I was born a Hindu, so my deep connection to yoga is natural. The more I decolonise yoga, the more I decolonise myself. The most damaging incidences to my healing process have been Indian people speaking down to me for not having grown up there, not speaking any of the languages, nor knowing the culture or religions well, nor dressing in traditional Indian clothing or cooking Indian foods.
For those who are Indian, you are so lucky to have what was denied me. You’re so lucky to know the smells, roots and the love of our beautiful country. I have as much right to any part of it as you and as I’m still learning, I’m grateful to now have understanding people in my life helping me heal. I have privilege in that my accent and whitewashed ideologies fits into Swedish life and people raised in India have privilege in that they didn’t live through the trauma of losing their whole identity via being sold off, and didn’t grow up with the same level of internalised racism, nor seeing parts of the culture on display and being sold back to them. I believe that my inquisitive nature and yearning to learn is the reason why I’ve been open to change and (un)learning. I’ve educated myself on Black history and the trauma of colonialism.
I believe that as an adult it’s my responsibility to educate myself and learn what I can do to make this world safe for everyone. I am currently working on a documentary film and a book about my life and journey. I recognise many of us are doing this. Our experiences are unique and they’re ours. We all have different ways of coping and I have big trust issues with white people, especially Christians. I see a lot of white centring in my daily life and white adoptive parents speaking about how transracial adoption affected them and the trauma they faced. I’m healing every day and writing this was a step forward.
I have one question for you. Do you support human trafficking? There’s no “but”, just as I could also ask, “Do you support racism?” There’s only “Yes” or “No”. If you would like to support and help children, have a look at what you can do.
I am still processing the murder of 6 Asian women in the Atlanta spa shootings. I have been posting and sharing throughout my social media accounts about my anger, my distrust, the audacity of law enforcement and society for protecting white terrorist fragility and blatant denial of racism. I can feel tension like a chink in my armour of forced composure. But I am not only processing this all as an Asian woman. I am also forced to process this threat as an Asian woman adoptee, who has been raised in a world and by people who look like that terrorist. Worse yet, I have been raised by people who have ideologies in similar veins of that terrorist. Where do I begin to grieve, where do I begin to process, how do I begin to let you know how I feel when I have spent the majority of my life living under the same roof of whiteness that claims to love me but harms people who look like me?
If I were to ask my white evangelical adoptive parents their feelings of the mass shooting in Atlanta, they will question if it was race based. After all, not all the victims were Asian. If I were to ask them if certain political leaders in powerful positions where responsible for fuelling anti-Asian sentiments, I would be met with “fake news”. But if I were to ask them if they love their Asian daughter, I would be met with “yes, however, I don’t see you as Asian, you are just our daughter”. How do I process a grief and fear so real and palatable, when it is ignored and denied by those who are supposed to be my forever protectors? How do I put it into words and wrap it, so it is presentable and comprehensible for others to see the contradictions? In this lies the problem, the problem with racism, its systemic and institutional power that is subtle but feels like bullets, and shrapnel, and death.
This is all to say that as much as my white adoptive evangelical parents claim to love me, they cannot love me. Because they cannot recognise the terrorism they have inflicted onto me my whole life. They cannot love me fully because their “colour blindness” has prevented them from seeing the whole spectrum of my identity and how I go through life. They cannot truly love all of me because they refuse to acknowledge their own racial bias towards me, and how they raised me in that environment. They cannot love me entirely because they cannot confront their whiteness, their own racism, and how they contribute to a culture of white supremacy.
I have had some extended adoptive family members reach out to me, reassuring that they care, letting me know they are worried for my safety. On the other hand, I have not heard one whisper from my immediate adoptive family. None of them. Their silence speaks volumes. I am still processing what it means to be Asian in America. I still think about the time I was told me to go back to where I came from, as if it was not whiteness that forcibly re-homed me to a country that despises me. To a country that sees me as a virus, a fetish, a communist spy, a threat and fantasy to be colonised from the East. I am still absorbing and trying to understand what the violence towards people that look like me means to me. I struggle with this all, but I struggle with this in addition to being an Asian female adoptee. I struggle to process what this means when the people I was raised by refuse to see me as an Asian woman. And that refusal could cost me my life.
by Mila Konomos, adopted from South Korea to the USA. Poet, artist, activist.
I have been processing the Aloneness of #MotherLoss a lot lately.
Intellectually, I know what self-talk to cultivate. I know I am not alone. I know that I have people in my life who care for me and value me.
But this aloneness is deeper than that.
This aloneness is the the aloneness of Mother Loss.
I feel so alone so often because I do not have a Mother.
I lost my First Mother at 5 days old.
I lost my Foster Mother at 6 months old.
I grew up with a Mother who could not see my trauma. Hence, she did not know how to love or comfort me through the loss, pain, and grief of my Adoptedness.
I feel alone because I was always alone in my pain and grief.
I feel alone because I have spent most of my life crying alone.
I feel alone because I have rarely known what it is to not be alone, not only physically but emotionally.
I feel so alone so often, because Mother Loss is a loss that remains for a lifetime.
There is no way to replace a Lost Mother.
No one else on earth can compensate for a Lost Mother.
Only One Mother bore me in her own body. Only One Mother’s heartbeat, breathing, and voice were what I heard for 9 months. Her scent, her face were as though my own.
I watched a documentary recently during which the narrator said, “Babies think they are a part of whomever they are within.”
This is profound in the context of Adoptees severed from our mothers as infants. We must have experienced separation from our mothers almost as though being ripped in two, torn away from ourselves. Split violently apart.
I have to allow myself to grieve this Mother Loss. It is eternal. Even 12 years post-reunion, Mother Loss remains. I can never get back the Mother I lost. I cannot retrieve the over three decades of my life that I was lost, compounded by the loss of language, culture, and geography.
There is a pain and loneliness that is hard to describe when you find what you had been looking for all of your life and yet it still slips through your fingers.
This pain of being so close yet still so far.
As though looking through a window but never actually getting to go in.
For more from Mila, follow her at her website, The Empress Han. Her newest poetry album Shrine is being released in May 2021.
by Annick Boosten, adopted from India to Belgium, co-founder of Adoptie Schakel. Many thanks to Maureen Welscher & Jean Repplier for original text and translation.
I was adopted from India at the age of four. My parents already had a son David, who is four years older than me. There was another son but unfortunately he had a metabolic disease that killed him when he was eight months old. Due to the disease being hereditary (David appeared to have it too, only to a lesser extent) my parents decided to adopt a child. My parents are hardworking people who are always busy, the type who always say, “Don’t whine, just get on with it.” That’s how they raised me.
My mother worked furiously to teach me the Dutch language so that I could go to school as soon as possible because I came to them in December then by January, I had to go to school. When I used to object and say, “I’m sure they do that very differently in India,’ my mother replied, “You’re not in India, you’re in Belgium and that’s how we do it here.” I am very happy with my parents but sometimes I would have liked them to have known me a bit better, to have been a little more empathetic. As a child, I was overloaded with expensive clothes and all kinds of electronic toys as compensation because my parents worked so hard. During the holidays, I was sent to all kinds of camps so that my parents wouldn’t have to take off from work. I would have much preferred if we had been closely involved as a family and my parents made time for us to do fun things together. I’d have preferred a day at the beach than an X-box or Playstation.
Now that I have a son of my own, I give him a kiss every day and tell him how very happy I am with him. I do this even in those moments when I might be a bit angry because he doesn’t want to sleep. I missed that sort of interaction with my parents.
Thoughts about being Adopted
When I came into our family, my parents had already been told by the children’s home, “You better be careful, she remembers a lot of things”. I told my mother whole stories about a blue house, about a lady who took care of me, that there were rooms with other small children. I told it in such detail that my mother decided to write it down. When I visited the children’s home in 2018, the walls turned out to be painted blue. The woman in my memories was probably my biological mother. The official statement is that both my biological parents had died and that I was therefore eligible for adoption.
At the age of twenty years old, all kinds of scandals became revealed about abuses in Indian adoptions. I had already heard these stories from other Indian adoptees, but my parents were annoyed if I started talking about that. They just could not believe that something as noble as adoption could be fraudulent. My parents are strict Catholics and had wanted to do something good by adopting. These stories did not fit into their view of things. When the adoption association responsible for bringing Indian children to Belgium, De Vreugdezaaiers, was dissolved, they could no longer close their eyes to the abuses within Indian adoptions. As a child, I always went to the family days they organised for Indian adoptive children and their parents. I then decided to establish the Adoption Link. Adoptie Schakel means connecting people and bringing them into contact with each other. In doing so, we mainly focus on the world of adoption in which we strive to strengthen the bond among adoptees and among birth parents. We also help adoptees who are looking for their biological parents by means of DNA research.
I had never been so preoccupied with my origins before. For years I had a relationship with a boy who was not at all open to it. He thought it was nonsense to go in search of my roots. I had to continue to build my life here and leave the past behind me, or so he thought. So I didn’t really feel supported. When that relationship ended, I became involved with Ionut. He is a Romanian adoptee, something I didn’t know at the beginning of our relationship. After two weeks I found out. I had already noticed that he tanned very quickly in the sun, while all Belgian men were still pale during the summer. Then he told me that this was because of his Romanian genes. I was jealous of the bond he had with his Romanian family. Every year he went on holiday there. At one point I thought, “That’s what I want too! Maybe I can also find new contacts within my biological family.”
Having a Family of My Own
That feeling really took hold of me when I wanted to start my own family. I did a DNA test, and to my great surprise a number of matches appeared. It seems that many of my biological family had been given up for adoption. My father’s grandfather had seven children and all of whom gave up children for adoption. I have contact with some of them in America through Facebook. It also turned out that my father had not died. Through his brother, I came in contact with him and decided to visit in 2018. It was a terrible experience. I was just three months pregnant and felt terribly sick. My father also turned out to be ill with some kind of contagious disease. He was in quarantine and I had contact with him through a hole in the wall. I was not allowed to come any closer. The Indian taxi driver translated my questions and my father’s answers, which took forever. I had written down many questions, but in the end I forgot to ask them. Anyway, I did ask the most important question, ”Why was I given up for adoption?” And the cold answer was, “When your mother died, I gave my brother money to take you to an orphanage. That way I could get on with my life and marry a new woman.” My father thought that he was not at all to be blamed. That’s just the way it was in India. I was astonished. He had no remorse at all and never went looking for me. He had just continued his life, involved with another woman with whom he conceived children. He dared to ask me if I would enjoy meeting them. I told him, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not at all interested in half-brothers or sisters.” I also said that I would rather commit suicide than give my child away, which he thought was very strange. When I said goodbye I told him that I didn’t want any further contact, and he seemed fine with that. He did, however, give me a name of my mother’s family. He told me that she came from Sri Lanka and that I should look for her family there. One day I will do that, but now I don’t feel like it. I will do it when James is old enough to realise what it means to me to look for biological family – perhaps when he is about eight or ten years old.
When adoptees asked me, “Should I search or not?” I would always answer, “Yes.” I still think it’s good to know where you come from. It’s not always easy to deal with a bad experience. I know people I have advised to do so and who, after returning home, were very upset because the meeting was not what they had hoped for. I feel guilty about that. I too had a bad meeting but I prefer to share my opinion and my experiences. The choice is then up to them. Luckily I can look at it and think, “That’s just how it is.” I would have liked it to have been different, but that’s just the way it goes. Fifty percent of my genes are his anyway. So any bad qualities I have, I can attribute to my father, haha. When I’m in a temper, I shout, “Sorry, it’s my father’s genes!”
Being in a Relationship with another Adoptee
Having a relationship with someone who’s also adopted is very nice. Ionut and I really understand each other. For example, understanding what it means to be away from one’s biological culture and parents, having to adapt in adoptive country, the feeling of being a stranger. The areas we don’t understand each other on can be a stumbling block because we both have very different adoption stories and our own ‘baggage’. In that respect, our adoption history is completely different.
I had never realised how important it was for me to have my own biological child, something so closely connected to me who carries my DNA. I held James in my arms and saw how he looked like me and how happy that made me feel. James is clearly a product of myself and Ionut. I like to see similarities of myself in him, which I never expected would make me so happy. As parents, we both want to spend more time with our child than my parents did. The family bond is very important to both of us. I always say, “Your child is your heirloom, not your property.” We want to give him warmth, love, affection and trust and above all, he is allowed to be himself.
Growing up in an evangelical white Christian home, I learned the story of Moses before I learned the story of Santa or Easter Bunny. White Christianity was a core pillar in my years growing up. Like Moses, who was orphaned and floated down the Nile to be rescued, adopted and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, then to grow up and save his people the Israelites, I too now bear that responsibility. After all, I was an orphan, affected by policy, soared across the ocean to be raised by another people, and it was my duty to one day go back home and save my people, just like Moses did for his.
As I look back to a painful time of adolescence, scarred deeply by shame, guilt, white Christianity, and white saviorism (an extension of white supremacy), I also laugh at the irony of the story. As an adoptee who advocates for adoptee rights and the abolition of the adoption industrial complex, I am bombarded by demands to be grateful for the good white people that saved me. In lieu of being denied basic human rights, autonomy, forcibly rehomed, bought, and sold; I am still gaslighted into silence for speaking out. I am shamed for holding the systemic institutions of racism, capitalism, western imperialism, white saviorism, and the exploitation of vulnerable communities for the benefit of whiteness, accountable. Bombarded by the message that I should be indebted to the west for all the best it has given me: opportunities, education, escape from the clutches of poverty, and most importantly, my chance at salvation and living under the blood of Jesus Christ! I am never far from someone condemning me for my lack of gratitude, reprimands of how my story is not an accurate representation of their understanding of adoption and its beauty. The ones who curse my name are not and have never been a transracial, intercountry, transcultural, adoptee of colour.
I always appreciate the irony that Moses, like myself, would have been hated for what he did. The Moses that is praised for saving his people and admired by millions of people around the world are the same people, who condemn me and my stance on abolition. Why? Moses turned his back on his adoptive family and people. In fact, it could be argued that Moses is responsible for drowning his adoptive people in the Red Sea. Moses was seen as a prince, had the best education money could buy, in the wealthiest family, and had unlimited opportunities. Moses escaped the absolute clutches of poverty and slavery, yet he gave that all away, turned his back on his adoptive family, and everyone accepts that he did the right thing. Moses is hailed a hero, his actions are justified and his choice to choose the love of his people and family goes unscathed. Why is the love for my people and family any different?
As I have aged, studied, and examined the exploitation of the privilege, power, and systemic oppressive policies that are pillars in upholding the adoption industrial complex, I give back a burden that was never mine to bear. A multi billion-dollar industry that profits from family separation and the selling of children to the wealthy west and mostly white communities, I no longer feel a sense of doom in carrying the mantle of Moses. Rather, I embrace and hope to be the Moses for the adoption community. I have no desire to save my people, as adoptees have no issue in wielding their own power. I aim to liberate adoptees and remove barriers for adoptees to access tools to liberate themselves. Yes, I will be your Moses and I will provide a path through the sea of guilt, shame, obligation, and much more. I will be your Moses and watch the adoption industrial complex drown, with all of its supporters. Yes, I will be your Moses, just not the Moses you expect me to be. And when you ask me to look back at my adoptive family and all that the west has given me in hopes to shame me, I will point to your scriptures and show you that Moses chose his people over profits. Moses had his loyalties to abolition; Moses chose to relinquish prince-hood, power, and the most pampered lifestyle and what most would consider a “better life”, for the right to reclaim his birthright in family, culture, race, and identity.
So, when you ask me to be grateful, I will smile and remind you that it is in fact you who should be grateful, I could have drowned you.
by Cam Lee Small, adopted from South Korea to the USA, therapist at TherapyRedeemed.
Not all children get to ask this question before they become adoptees. And not all expectant mothers get a chance to answer.
I know there are so many kinds of circumstances represented in our community, even as you’re reading this and as you contribute to this very special adoption community to which we belong.
This question came up for me as I wondered about my own mother recently, and was brought further to the surface as I watched some clips from The Karate Kid.
Adoptees experience a loss of choice and voice when it comes to such a decision, to parent the child or relinquish for adoption… and WAY TOO MANY adopters dismiss their child’s feelings about it. Too many.
Let. Children. Grieve.
Don’t tell adoptees they’re making a big deal out of such a small thing. Ask why adoption agencies and power brokers within those institutions have made such a fortune by disrupting these sacred relationships.
Please let us grieve that. And allow us to wonder, “What if?” Even if the answer is unresolvable, that someone is here to hear it with us, to acknowledge its weight.
Because we certainly weren’t meant to carry that alone. May our message to one another be, “You don’t have to.”
by Michelle Y. K. Piper adopted from Sth Korea to Australia.
Two years today, they told me you were dead.
15 years from the day I turned 18 until the day I officially began that dreaded, infuriating, dehumanising, grievous process of trying to trace you; 15 years of constant internal conflict, a fierce war raging within.
Remain loyal to the family, society, culture, and country I had been relinquished to; remain obedient to the process of forced assimilation, never questioning or asking why? (at least never out loud) and ALWAYS “grateful” for the privilege to be alive and living in one of the greatest countries in the world (Australia); continue to ignore the ever-deepening awareness of agonising turmoil and grief consuming my soul borne from the empty, rootlessness of my erased past.
Or… Face what I have always so desperately avoided.
Questions… All those questions. So many, many questions. Impossible to voice out loud even to myself in secrecy and solitude, yet impossible silence within the confined walls of my Psyche.
15 years to amass enough courage to search for you; I searched, and a year later I received “the call”. A call I’d been on constant edge waiting for, a year of repeatedly checking my emails and phone. It came from a stranger in a government office, who had only just been transferred to my case. A transfer I was neither asked nor informed about.
On the 2nd January 2019, a strange, unfamiliar voice explained who she was and why she was calling. You were dead. You died exactly 2 months after my 23rd Birthday. You died on the 6th July 2009. 2009, I was 10 years too late. My father could not or did not want to be found. That was it.
For over 30 years, being adopted meant nothing, or at least I told myself it meant nothing. Just a word to explain away the inevitable whispers of confusion when people crossed us. “Did they just call her mum?”, “Maybe the dad is Asian…? They don’t look like half/half’s though.” I was used to these comments, my entire life’s been layered with racism, some out of ignorance, some without doubt intentional. But being adopted was not something to be dwelled upon, simply a fact; accepted and acknowledged only when unavoidable. But unavoidable became impossible.
That call, that damn call; no matter how fiercely I fought back would demolish the foundations of every wall I had established; a myriad of walls forming the incomprehensible and impenetrable maze of protection I had completely encompassed and lost myself within.
15 Years to find the courage to look for you, but a lifetime of wondering….
Was I ever in your thoughts? Did you ever think of me? On the day of my birth? When that inevitable date once again came full circle, a date that would forever mark each year we have spent apart. Another year gone; another year of life missed. Another year of what has been a lifetime of separation. Did you think of me at Christmas? At times of family, cultural and traditional celebrations, when milestones should have been reached. When recipes, secrets, and the stories of our ancestors should have passed from Mother to Daughter. Did you ever wonder as I do now if or how much we look and are alike?
Did the same irrevocable, emptiness, loneliness, grief, and self-loathing consume you as it has me? …..Did I mean anything to you?
Did you, on the day you gave birth simply walk away and never look back? Erasing every memory, every moment, every emotion. Erasing me. Did you reject me from the moment we ceased to be one, refusing to acknowledge the life you had so painfully bore into this world? Did you even once, hold me in your arms? Was my existence always a disgrace? A corruption in the flow and purity of bloodlines. The product of the worst kind of offence one can commit against a culture and people whose social, ethical, political and legal systems are fundamentally embedded in the principles of Confucianism. Was I always perceived as an abomination? An ignominy, an abhorrent consequence of defying what is so vehemently indoctrinated in our people from birth, so fiercely prized and expected from each child from every generation. Obedience. Respect. Respect of your elder’s and absolute obedience in following directives. Know your place, in family, home, and society, in culture and country. Fail to comply; step outside the social norms and be condemned to a life forever tainted by shame, rejection, and dishonour.
Or, on the day you gave birth did your gaze fall upon me, desperate to memorise every detail that time would allow? Did your arms find me, enfolding me close, tightening your embrace? Did you memorise my scent, that beautiful, sweet baby scent while your mind commenced an onslaught; vivid recollections of the 9 months passed? The pain, terror, love, bewilderment, and confusion. The internal struggle of a decision impossible to make yet impossible to disregard. Did your mind force upon you the memories of my first movements you felt within? Undeniable proof of the life growing inside? Did you remember all the times you found yourself cursing me for the morning sickness, or when it became impossible to move around freely?
Did you recall all the times you had spoken to me, and soothed me? Patting your stomach and smiling with happiness and contentment when my restlessness ceased at the sound of your voice? Did you recall all the one-sided conversations you had with me, admonishing me for your weight gain, bloated ankles, constant need to pee, and general discomfort? Did you remember thinking none of those things mattered when you finally beheld the face of your newly born daughter in front of you? Did you remember and retain these precious moments with as much desperation as I did the day my daughter was born? Did I remain an only child? Or were there future children that were deemed “worthy” to keep?
You left endless questions with no definitive answers, not even in death. The agency who sold me insist you are dead, while the government itself cannot seem to confirm this.
What am I meant to do with that? Please 어머니, tell me.
Do I hold onto hope that somehow you are still alive..? Cling desperately to the childish, naïve dream that MAYBE, just maybe, you are? That maybe you’re not dead, but looking for me, maybe I was one of those children never willingly relinquished. Or take the word of the agency who trafficked me, sent me overseas and accept you are gone?
Will it ever be possible to heal if I tell myself you’re dead? How am I supposed to mourn you? How does one weep for a face it cannot remember? How do I release myself of someone who, no matter how much time and distance was placed between us, is still everything I am, yet everything I don’t know? How can I be free when your faceless form haunts my dreams? When each day I am struck by a renewed wave of painful understanding of all that has been stolen. All that’s been lost. For all that has been erased. For my parents who will forever remain faceless strangers, parents I will never have the opportunity to know or meet. For the brothers and sisters I will never know. For the Aunty and Uncles, the cousin’s, and grandparents. For the history of my people, I remained so ignorant towards until now; for the heart-breaking and brutal history of our country; still at war after 70 years, divided, literally torn in two, poisoned by political corruption, military coups, and slavery. Of trafficked children, The Forgotten Generation; a generation who fought, died and rebuilt our country, now languishing in poverty pushed to the fringes of society living in isolation and squalor, afraid to ask for help for fear of “burdening” the country they fought and died to protect. For the enslaved comfort women abused, raped, tortured, and murdered by the Japanese. For the Sewol Ferry Tragedy, which began to sink on the morning of the 16th April 2014, where 304 of the 476 passengers on board, 250 of them students perished; trapped on a sinking ferry, while the captain and crew escaped, telling the passengers on board to stay where they were. Obeying their elders (that prized attribute ingrained from birth), the students placed their trust in the orders given, they remained where they were, waiting to be rescued. A rescue that was never attempted, a rescue that never came. Parents, family, teachers, classmates and survivors alike hysterical, stranded on the shoreline, still receiving messages from the remaining students trapped inside that they were still alive in what was an almost completely submerged vessel. Parents helpless to do anything but watch as the last visible section of the ship sank in front of them. And then nothing. Silence, as the shock and magnitude of tragedy that had just unfolded before them set in. A moment of disbelieving silence before the blood curdling, guttural cries only a parent who has just lost their child can make. Footage later released, revealed to the world the last 20 minutes of some of the students trapped inside. The memories of which will haunt me forever, faces I won’t ever forget. Messages of love and apologies to loved ones, that still produce physical pain to hear.
To watch my people suffer, to die in the most horrifying ways, to feel the overwhelming outrage, and unbearable grief that has consumed our nation time and time again but to be unable to be there with them, to grieve with them; did you never consider how painful these moments would be? Did you ever imagine how much agony it would cause just to observe my native language? When everything appears, sounds and feels so natural, until you remember, none of it makes sense to you. You can’t decipher it. You don’t understand it. You can’t speak it. Did you ever consider just how high a price your baby girl would pay, for that “better” life you were so sure she was going to? If you, my own Mother could not find it in yourself to raise me, whether from the shame, dishonour, or just for being a “bastard” (YES, my adoption papers actually use this word!), if you feared for me, for the prejudice, discrimination, and stigma I would have endured had we remained together in Korea, how could you think that throwing me into a world of white where I was one of maybe 5 Asians for over 18yrs of my life would be to my benefit? Did you honestly think that those of the western world wouldn’t reject me? Debase me, use my status as a Korean adoptee against me in the most humiliating and degrading ways conceivable? If you; my own mother, my own family, my people and country viewed me as nothing more than a product for export, why would anyone else?
If you did in fact die in 2009, you died at the age of 46.
I’m aware you never looked for me, never once tried to find out where I was. And now you’re gone, (maybe), I don’t know. The fact that I don’t know enrages me, consumes me with a desperate hopelessness and despair. But, if you are gone… How could you leave and never say goodbye? How could you leave without ever reaching out, never once trying to find me? Didn’t you care how I was or where I ended up? How could you leave me with so many unanswered questions? No photo for me to remember you, to study your face, to memorise. No last parting words of wisdom or advice. No letter of explanation. Nothing. Just an endless, hollow silence.
And so, inside the now grown adult, still remains, the frightened, confused, rejected, abandoned little girl, who will never grow up. Who will never know why you didn’t want her, why you didn’t keep her? What it was it you saw in her that repulsed you so much you cast her aside and across the seas; keeping the existence of the baby girl you once bore so many years ago a shameful secret, you literally took with you to your grave.
Michelle has published other articles about her experience as a Korean intercountry adoptee at Korean Quarterly.