Wednesday, January 23, 2019

One Child at a Time*

With my foster family in South Korea

I recently published an essay titled, Colonized through Adoption.” After I published the piece, I realized that I could have just as appropriately titled the piece, “Erased by Adoption.**”

But then, I thought to myself--or I could simply write an additional piece examining the ways in which I have experienced erasure through adoption.

I have been intensely reflecting upon my adoption and reunion recently, primarily because this January of 2019 marks a decade since I reunited with my Appa and Omma. Who I am and how I frame my adoption have dramatically evolved over the past decade. It would be diminutive to qualify any of these changes as good or bad. Rather, I can only recognize that they have been necessary.

One of the necessary paradigm shifts that has transpired over the past decade is recognizing the painful truth that I, along with so many of my cohorts, have been erased by adoption. Through adoption, we were required to participate in the erasure of not only our ethnic and cultural identities but our genetic and ancestral identities.

Once we arrived here in America, we disappeared. What do I mean by this statement?

An original performance piece I wrote and subsequently performed in the fall of 2018 attempts to elucidate this erasure through poetic prose:


was the beginning

of a New Death
for Two Hundred Thousand of Us

We vanished and

are vanishing
like a secret

that lies down with the dead,
as though we had never lived.

Being born in Korea of Korean people only to be taken from them to be given to White America and its people demanded that we forsake the identities bestowed upon us through DNA and history.

And yet, how does one erase DNA and history?

Adoption has taught me, one child at a time.

Taking a Korean child from her original family, people, community, and nation and placing her in a foreign family, people, community, and nation requires the erasure of the previous. It’s inevitable and necessary, both practically and for survival.

I forgot everything, because I had to do so in order to survive within a community that was ultimately hostile toward people that look like me. I was adopted in 1975--not too long after the American/Vietnam War which had followed previous violent conflicts between America and Asian nations, including World War 2 and the Korean War. Furthermore, I was adopted into a White American military family.
Halloween, 1982

Hence, I spent the majority of my childhood growing up on U.S. military bases both overseas and here in the States. The irony of being an Asian child adopted into a White American military family growing up in Asian countries and otherwise on U.S. military bases is not lost on me. As I addressed in "Colonized Through Adoption," my life was the exemplification of Whiteness as both Savior and Oppressor, Savior and Colonizer.

Imagine being the lone Asian face riding your bike, playing on the playground, walking to the bus, attending school--but on a U.S. military base? Imagine finding yourself in this context as a child, coupled with the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype.

Subconsciously, a child takes all that in and knows what needs to be done. You make yourself disappear. You make sure your Asianness vanishes, as though it never existed.

And at the time I was growing up, folks didn’t even know what Korea was. I was attending schools consisting primarily of Caucasian children who had not yet been alive long enough to know that the world was inhabited by other Asian countries beyond China, Japan, and Vietnam.

People often refer to the Korean War as the forgotten war. While I was growing up trying to explain to my friends from where I had come, it wasn’t only the war that had been forgotten. It was as though the country had been forgotten, and with it, as though the people from whom I had come never existed.

Because of my utter isolation from Korean and Asian communities due to my complete submersion within White communities, there were times that even in my child’s mind I began to wonder if perhaps Korea was a make-believe far-off land contrived to keep children like me in the dark, away from the families to whom we truly belonged, or maybe to protect us from a peril that would otherwise endanger our lives.

Or maybe, I was who the adoption papers said I was--a child abandoned by her mother and Korea, an insignificant place, so poor and so forgotten, that no one cared to inform their children of its people or their existence.

This is the inevitable and cruel erasure I speak of. The forced and choice-less vanishing that we adoptees must ultimately endure in order to steel ourselves from what is obvious to not only us but to everyone else around us--we do not belong.

So, we accept our Korean names being replaced with American ones. Our original languages being replaced with English. We accept that we have White parents and that we are being raised as White sons and daughters. We accept that we will most likely never know who we look like or why we are who we are. We accept that while we were born in Korea and we look Korean, we are expected to forsake those origins as though they never existed and replace them with White Eurocentric origins. We accept that when we are asked to create a family tree for a school assignment that not only we but our eventual children are expected to simply draft ourselves into a genealogy as though nailing a frond from a palm tree onto an apple tree is perfectly normal.

Adoption and erasure are inextricable from one another, just as war and killing are two sides of the same coin.

The moment I began to have the courage and strength to acknowledge this truth is the moment I began to redress that erasure. Of course, I cannot magically rematerialize all that was erased. But I can begin to examine what faint markings remain and either rewrite or write anew what I discover along the way.

The erasure by adoption need not be complete nor permanent. For while it is true that adoption erases DNA and history one child at a time, it is also true that DNA and history can be and will be reclaimed one adult at a time.


*The month of January 2019 marks a decade since I reunited with my Korean family. I am publishing a series titled, "Reflections from the Other Side of 10 Years Post-Reunion" to honor and explore what I have learned over the past decade.

**You can read more regarding the topic of identity erasure, here and here.