Almost 40 years after being adopted from Korea to America and 4 years post-reunion, I am finally allowing myself to not only ponder and answer this question, but to grieve and cry over what I am finding as I face the answers honestly and truthfully.
This question has always felt like one that I was not allowed to ask. Or if I did ask it, then I had to answer it with an unwavering, "You should be grateful you didn't grow up with your birth family, because your life would have been so much worse. You're better off now that you were adopted to America!"
Furthermore, this question has always felt like one that was pointless and counterproductive to ask...because how can you ever really know the answer? There are an infinite number of possible scenarios--both good and bad. To ask "what if?" felt emotionally dangerous, uncertain, and potentially damaging to my well-being. It most certainly felt like a Pandora's box, and I did not dare open it.
I think ultimately I was not ready to face the complexity of such a question...until now.
The truth is that, for me, to not face this question was causing me heartache and strife. It lingered in my mind like an unwelcome solicitor loitering outside my door that refused to go away. I thought it would demand something of me that I did not want to give, and if I opened the door, it would never leave but only continue to harass me until I lost all hope.
But once I opened the door, I saw it was not an unwelcome solicitor, but an old friend that had been longing and waiting to be let in--not to harass or harm me but to give me a safe place to be honest with my thoughts and my emotions.
And so now, I ask myself, what if my Omma and Appa and I had been given a chance to be together? Would it have changed all of us? Would we be different people today?
See, in my case, in my story, it plays out like a true Korean drama (for those of you familiar with Korean dramas, you know exactly what I'm talking about). Since reuniting with them, and hearing their individual accounts of what happened, it is clear that my Appa and Omma truly loved one another, and that they both regret with bitter sorrow what happened. (Just for clarity, they are not together.)
I cannot help but wonder if my Omma had been allowed to keep me, if my Appa had been given the chance to care for my Omma and me as he so fiercely desired, how different our lives might have been, how differently my Omma's and Appa's lives might have been? I wonder who they would have become? I wonder who I might have become?
And I cannot help but wonder if just maybe we might have been happy--no less and no more than we are now perhaps. Certainly we would have had our dysfunctions and griefs (and certainly I have experienced my share of dysfunctions and griefs as an adoptee). But we would have been together. We would have been a family. I would have grown up with those to whom I was naturally born, with those whose eyes and mouth and hair and skin I share. With those whose language and land and people I first belonged to. With those whose hearts and minds and spirits I have always had.
Why should I not be allowed to ponder such thoughts? Why should I not be allowed to feel deep emotion about such possibilities? Why should I not be allowed to entertain what could have been? Why should such inquiry be deemed forbidden or unhealthy or useless?
When I think about family, it is not perfection that makes a family worth fighting for. It is not having all the answers that makes a family worthy of preserving. And certainly money and education are not the qualifications for keeping a family together.
Simply, if a family wants to stay together, then should not they be given the opportunity to do so? And if they are forced apart against their will by circumstances and people beyond their control, is it not a tragedy? Is not an atrocity? Is it not something we should never want to happen again?
I am not naive. I have no doubt that our family would have faced dysfunction. But what family hasn’t? What family still doesn’t? When I think of family, whether adoptive or biological, I think of all the heartache, strife, and tumult we face, and yet we still strive to stay together.
It is finally having my own children, I believe, that is bringing all of this to the surface and compelling me to examine these questions more deeply. It is seeing my son and my husband and feeling something I have never felt before. I am learning about family in a way that I never have felt before. I am coming to know what family is in a way that I never have experienced before.
I see my son and he is a part of me and I am a part of him. It is the same with my husband and my son. We were, we are meant to be together. Just the other day my husband said something very profound to me. He said, "Look at him. He doesn't want anyone else. He wants you. He's your son. He knows you are his mom. He would cry and lose his mind if he was taken away and put in some other family. He doesn't want someone else to be his mom. It would traumatize him. He wants you."
And come this summer, we will have a little girl, who has already further deepened my understanding and experience of what it means to be an adult adoptee and how this affects my connection to both my Korean and American families.
Now here's the thing, because I ponder these questions does not mean I do not love my American family. Or that I wish they were not a part of my life. That can be the Catch 22 of being an adoptee. Some of us feel forever caught in between. People want you to choose one or the other. But sometimes, you can't. Sometimes, you wish you could have chosen both.
I also realize that not everyone wants to or needs to ask these questions. I realize that it is not possible or productive for some to ponder these questions. I am simply expressing that for me it is necessary. The way my mind and heart work, I cannot thrive if I do not process these questions and allow myself to respond and feel.
I am not grateful that I did not grow up with my Korean family. But nor am I ungrateful for growing up with my American family.
I just wish now, with hindsight, that I could have grown up in two places with two families all at once.
But what's done is done. And there is no changing it.
So, the best I can do is to embrace what is while allowing myself to grieve what never was and never will be.
To read more posts written by Mila at Lost Daughters, click here.