Thursday, October 30, 2014

What the Fog Took: A Halloween Story

I was nervous as I rehearsed the conversation in my mind.  There were so many ways to say it, and most of them felt wrong – overly sensitive, accusing, weak.  I knew I had to approach one of my dearest friends with caution, because matters of race always seem to get volatile

I checked the photo again, just to be sure of my position.  One of my closest friends (we’ll call her April) had posted pictures from a Halloween party.  In them, April’s husband (we’ll call him Mark) wore my husband’s old Army uniform, with my married name embroidered above the left breast pocket.  April wore a silky kimono, a black wig, and her face painted chalky white (she is not Asian).  The photo was captioned “Geisha?  Or mail order bride?”

For context: I am a Korean adoptee, my husband is white, and we both graduated from West Point and served in the US Army.  I had recently come out of the fog – like many adoptees I had an awakening that opened my eyes to the reality of many uncomfortable things.  I harbored a deep, wrenching pain.  I was still surviving trauma.  And I could no longer pretend to feel white on the inside.  My awakening had happened over a series of years, probably from 2008 through 2010, and I was finally on the other side.

On the other side, though, things look different.  Being on the other side sounds like I was beyond the difficulties of the awakening, like a child who has finally realized the nightmare wasn’t real.  But instead of waking up from the nightmare, I had to wake up to it, acknowledge its reality, and learn to live with the pain of so many things.  

On the other side, looking at a photo of my dear friend dressed as a geisha while her husband wore my husband’s Army uniform and called her a mail-order bride – well it felt a little too personal.  And extremely wrong.

I decided to write her a letter.  

“Hey, I wanted to mention something.  I don’t know if you saw the link I posted to FB recently about racially charged Halloween costumes.  Basically it’s a campaign against certain types of costumes.  Look on my FB wall if you didn’t see it, a couple days ago.  It reminded me of some pics I had seen on Mark’s FB probably a couple years ago, of you and him at a Halloween party.  He wore Brett’s BDUs and you dressed as a geisha.  I’m telling you this because we’re friends and I feel I can be honest with you, and also because I know you always strive to be a better, more open-minded person.  That type of costume is offensive to some Asians.  It is the type of costume that reinforces bad stereotypes – the submissive, fetishized Asian woman.  I HATE that stereotype.   I also found Mark’s captions a little disturbing – writing “GI dude and his Geisha prize” sounds a little like a soldier getting his “oriental trophy wife”.  I’m sure that’s not what he meant, and I know he calls you his prize all the time.  But that stereotype is so disturbing for me because it was often assumed at Ft. Hood that I was the little “oriental wife” rather than the American soldier that I was.   Also, his caption “mail-order bride or geisha?” reinforces the same thinking – subservient, fetishized Asian women.  None of this might make sense to you, but I have lived with this stereotype my whole life and it’s hurtful to have my own friends involved in reinforcing a negative stereotype of my ethnicity.  That kind of stereotype supports racism – maybe not racial discrimination, but rather the kind that gets my kids made fun of in school.  It would be an insult and hurtful if a kid called one of my kids a “geisha girl” which is the same as calling them sluts or hookers, but with a worse, racial connotation.  I’m not angry or complaining, just being honest with you and because we’re friends we owe each other that kind of honesty.”

The backlash was terrible but predictable.  It started with simple disagreement.  It escalated to accusations that I was the jerk,that I was accusing April and Mark of racism.  I was told it’s “people like you” who take the fun out of Halloween.  I questioned myself, was I really being too sensitive?  Was I overreacting?  Was I throwing the race card, which sensible, mainstream minorities should never, ever throw?  Or was I simply asking for acknowledgement from a close friend that something she had done made me feel extremely uncomfortable with the stereotypes it reinforced for both myself and my daughters?

I still don’t know.  Neither of us backed down, and after weeks of back and forth via email and phone, we essentially broke up.  She couldn’t tolerate my intolerance.  I couldn’t tolerate her inability to acknowledge the validity of my feelings on the topic.  Over the phone, just before Halloween, I hung up the phone on the last conversation of our friendship and wailed.

I wailed because I had lost one of my closest, most trusted friends.  She was the one who taught my oldest daughter to ride a bike.  I had stood in her wedding.  We were raising our children together, and suddenly our children and husbands wouldn’t be friends anymore either, all because of this stupid sensitivity I had gained.  But once awake, I couldn’t lull myself back to sleep.  I was aware and gaining my racial and adoptive identity, which had both been denied to me for so long.  That meant some of my previous friendships – friends from inside the fog – wouldn’t be able to cross to the other side with me.  I wailed with my heart in my throat, our memories in my hand, and a desperate loneliness in my lungs.  I wailed like an abandoned child.

I still love and miss that friend and the bond we had.  I still question what I should have done differently, yet remain true to myself.  It feels unfair to me that, after all the other losses, the achievement of awakening should come with this disorienting new set of losses.  But I suppose that it was necessary, because I’m proud of the person I am now: strong, assured, owner of my broken history.  In the fog, I was a shape-shifter, eager to be liked and keep the peace.  Today, I am made of real substance, and I know myself and my feelings.  I miss my friend, and I’m sad to have lost her companionship, but I value what I gained even more: respect of, love for, and faithfulness to myself.     

I contribute to the Lost Daughters blog and several adoption-related anthologies, all in development. I wrote for the now-retired blogs Faiths and Illusions and Grown in My Heart.  I have an American family that raised me and a Korean family that lost and found me. Both families met in 2013.  I live with my husband, Brett, and four children (3 biological, 1 adopted from China) in Southern California. Find me at or on Facebook as Soojung Jo.