My origins have not left me, my history still lingers in archives and attics, my blood relatives may still be circulating somewhere in the region from where I was scooped up and transported out of South Vietnam and into the United States in 1974.
Sure, as an eight-month-old infant, I had no idea what was going on around me and there was no way I was given any choice in whether I stayed or not.
Being uprooted and re-settled, and re-named and re-homed, all within my first year of life, made not a dent on my infant memory.
The failure of recall of all the micro and macro events and faces behind them who coordinated and shaped my early beginnings was expected and encouraged.
I was trained to not look back at the person I was prior to my transformation into a naturalized U.S. citizen.
My infanthood as an orphaned foreigner was seen as illegitimate; my “real life” was only recognized when I became an American citizen.
But what I cannot remember is still what I cannot forget.
What I do remember are the many times when I withdrew from my community because it became readily apparent to me that I was never going to truly settle quietly and comfortably into the life crafted for me.
What I cannot forget is my adoption was meant to ostensibly wipe the slate clean for me while at the same time wipe my mother and my father and their child off the face of the earth.
As an intercountry adoptee from the early 70s era, I became so assimilated into my adoptive country’s white culture and value system that it wasn’t until I reached adulthood, that I became keenly aware of being disconnected from my intrinsic and inherent origins and wanted to do something about reclaiming them back.
At various stages throughout my adult journey of adoption, I began to unravel and explore my origins which included exploring the language, the religions, the foods, the customs and value systems of my birth land. This can also include exploring and embracing the ways one’s birth culture celebrates certain milestones.
A huge change over time for me has been that when I married, I felt so totally Australian that I didn’t even consider embracing my Asian origins by wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress, the ao dai or by having my wedding embrace any of the traditional Vietnamese customs. Now, over a decade later and after returning to my birth country twice, I wish I had included elements of my Vietnamese origins into my wedding.
An Indian intercountry adoptee friend of mine, adopted to Sweden, is willing to share with you her thoughts about what it means to embrace her origins on her special wedding day. You can read Jessica’s thoughts here.
Hopefully, by sharing our thoughts we will help other intercountry adoptees feel positive about embracing and exploring their origins. It is totally normal for intercountry adoptees to want to do this even when we are happy in our adoptive lives. It is a healthy thing to want to explore who we are racially, where we come from, exploring the customs and traditions of our origins, embracing the cultural elements we connect to and displaying it in whatever ways we feel comfortable.
A few days ago, I was invited to attend the filming of Sarah Henke to cook with a famous TV Chef from Korea 전현숙. He came to Germany to interview Sarah, a KAD chef who works at a restaurant and recently earned the coveted Michelin Star. During the filming of the program all guests were interviewed and asked a panel of questions. One of the questions was, “When was the first time you ate Korean food and do you remember eating Korean food as a child?”
Remembering distinct tastes: In 1990, I was mistakenly sent to the wrong training program by the US Army. Months before my training took place, I had signed up to be an engineer but cooking became my new profession. I was surprised to learn I was attending the Army’s culinary school at Fort Lee, VA. One of my instructors was from Korea and his name was SFC Park. He immigrated to the US in his teens and had a thick Korea accent. My friends and I would laugh every time he would tell us to place food on the cookie “shit” (sheet). A few weeks into the culinary program I became one of the top students and was recommended by SFC Park to be one of the students allowed to take an advance cooking course and train under a Master Chef in the evenings.
Several weeks into my training, SFC Park pulled me aside and asked me if I liked Korean food. I answered truthfully and stated I never grew up eating Korean food and did not remember ever eating it. That weekend I crawled into SFC Park’s car and we headed to Richmond for the area’s annual Korean festival and I feasted on numerous Korean dishes. All the flavors were new but wonderful! I gorged myself with Bulgogi (BBQ meat), Kimchee (fermented cabbage) and Japchae (sweet potato noodle dish). One dish caught my eye as I passed dozens of dishes and it contained a tupperware of what looked like tree leaves. I was informed they were not tree leaves and were “delicious” sesame leaves called Kkaennip. I grabbed a leaf and popped it into my mouth and began to chew. As soon as I tasted the distinct flavored leaves, I knew instantly that I had eaten this before. My face was filled with excitement and I rushed to my cooking mentor and told him that I remembered eating the dish when I was young.
Remembering clothing: When I was 5 years old I visited my grandmother’s farm. It was a last minute decision and my grandmother had to rummage through the closet to look for clothing I could wear outside whilst following her doing her chores. I remember seeing her toss out oversized scarves, gloves and hats as they were pulled out of the closet and compared to my small frame. A cap immediately caught my attention as she pulled it out of the closet. It was an olive drab green army cap with ear flaps. I became really excited and I told my grandmother that I remembered seeing a picture of my father wearing a similar cap when I lived in Korea. My grandmother looked at me and smiled. She said matter of factly, “I think you have a great memory or a great imagination”.
In 1996, I enlisted into the Active Component Army and signed up to go to the location of my choice. I turned down a chance of attending West Point and a full ride scholarship to St. John’s University for a chance to enlist in Korea and find my biological family. Newly assigned medics to Camp Casey, located in Dong-du-chon, were sent to the clinic to have their skills assessed and given on-the-job training for 30 days before being allowed to work in their assigned unit. During my training, I worked with the pharmacist Mrs. Kim. She took a look at me and asked if I was Korean. I explained to her that I was adopted from Korea. I also shared that I was looking for my biological family and she told me she would try to help.
Fate had it that Mrs. Kim so happened to attend College with the director of Eastern Social Welfare Society and she forwarded her friend a copy of my adoption papers. Within the first week, I was notified they were able to locate my aunt and she immediately traveled to see me at my base to introduce me to my father. During my initial meeting with my aunt, I inquired about a picture of my father that hung in the entrance of our home when I was a small boy. She immediately withdrew a black and white photo of my father wearing the hat from her purse and gave it to me to keep.
Remembering activities: I was overjoyed to learn that I would be heading to Korea at my first duty station as a newly minted second lieutenant. During my second tour to Korea I had my third physical trigger that reminded me of my childhood in Korea before moving to the United States. One weekend I was walking through the streets with my fellow lieutenant buddies from the s1/506th Infantry (Band of Brother’s Unit) near our base at Munsan to find a place to eat grilled meat. We walked several blocks looking for picture of cows or anything that gave an indication the restaurant served grilled meat. We found a sign with a picture of a cartoon pig and cow so we went inside to order food. George, the tall thin West Point graduate, made cow noises to indicate that he wanted to order bulgogi. I laughed at him and told him that Korean cows did not make the same sounds as American cows. We had a good laugh over his antics and I noticed the restaurant was using round cylinder-shaped charcoal to cook our meat. I pulled my buddies in and told themof how I remembered my grandmother cooking on these things when I was a boy in Korea.
That same year I met with my aunt again and asked her about my grandparent’s kitchen. I told her I remembered my grandmother cooking on top of the charcoal and she told me it was true. It wasn’t uncommon for country people to cook on charcoals that were used to warm the flooring of the houses. The charcoal cylinders served a dual purpose. She was surprised by the detail of things that I could remember from my childhood.
What the experts say: A week ago, on my drive to work I listened to a recent episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast. It is about how memory actually works and how understanding this relates to our relationship with the truth (podcast link is below). His multi-podcast lecture states that long term memories cannot be trusted. Individuals have a tendency to mask over memories with other stories that were told. The podcast indicates people are easily influenced by others and the environment around us and its not uncommon for our memories to change over time.
Jeffrey A. Vernon a physician summarized the podcast well by saying, “Literature shows our memories are more fluid and changeable with time than we’d like to believe; our memories are colored by our emotions both at the time of the event and the time of recall; and often contain details that never happened but, rather are “filled in” at a later point to “complete” the memory. The memory of our overworked brains often doesn’t have the attention span or processing power to constantly take in and record the entirety of life going on around.
I do agree with Mr. Gladwell and numerous studies that our memories become fragmented and do change over time. For instance, the fish I caught at the lake becomes bigger and the money I won at the poker game becomes greater. I do believe there are memories that we hold onto and can retain for the long term. Sure, some of the details can be fuzzy but the overall information is correct. We can often verify these important events with others that viewed the moment with us. I remember looking into my son’s big bright eyes when he was born. I remember being promoted to top position at the Korean Hospital in Afghanistan. I know these events to be real and validate them.
In Closing: I’ve spoken to several thousands of adoptees through face-to-face interactions and through social media. When I share my memories, many adoptees have expressed regret for not remembering their past. Many were several years older than I at adoption (I was 4.5 years when I was adopted to the United States). Some adoptees will question the authenticity when speaking about their adoption story because they have a hard time remembering details or events before a certain age. I don’t think individuals need to beat themselves up for not remembering anything. Sometimes the brain forgets in order to protect itself. I have witnessed this in the military. We often call the event battle fatigue, shell shock or combat stress reactions. It’s not uncommon for the brain to shutdown and forget things during stressful situations.
Lastly, children can age at different times. I’ve experienced this with my own children, where one child had high cognitive abilities at an earlier age than my other child. This could be another explanation about why people can’t remember – they simply were not at an age where their brain was developed enough to remember. I think it is good for individuals to dismiss their thoughts altogether because of this uncertainty. Memory dissipates and becomes foggy even for the smartest of individuals. If you feel that you recall something that nobody else does – keep it in the back of your mind and try to validate those thoughts as you learn more about the situation. I did and I was able to validate them to be true.