Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Some reasonably big news

I have some exciting news to share: I'm going to be traveling to Korea late next month!

This is much sooner than I had imagined I'd be going. This past August, as I got ready to move to Washington, D.C. and was just beginning to learn Korean, I had the vague plan that I'd visit Korea eventually—maybe in a year, or possibly longer. I'd take my time learning the language, making plans, finding a job opportunity—and then go.

But earlier this month, the day after Ash Wednesday, I got an email from Grace Song, the director of a group I've been involved with since moving to D.C. called Asia Families. (Asia Families is a really lovely organization for Korean-American adoptees and their families in the greater D.C. area; they run a number of programs, the most substantial of which is a monthly Korean culture school for KADs.) Grace wanted to know: would I be interested in going to Korea in March? In the past, they'd partnered with a church in Seoul to sponsor some trips for returning adoptees; they were interested in doing the same again for up to two this spring. It was completely unexpected and a bit of a shock—and an incredibly kind and generous offer—so I said yes, of course.

Coincidentally, at the encouragement of a friend from China, I'd applied months before to go to a short conference at university in Beijing just before the proposed time frame for this trip to Korea—and had heard back from that conference on the Tuesday before I received Grace's email. With some wrangling, it ended up being possible to manage both trips back-to-back. So I'll be going to Beijing for a few days, departing on March 22, and then will leave for Seoul on the evening of March 26th, where I'll be until April 4th.

It's all wonderful, to say the least, and I realize that I'm incredibly lucky—while at the same time, it's a little bit of a whirlwind. I thought I'd have much more Korean than I in fact have before I went, and so I'm somewhat frantically cramming as much as I can, while also trying to deal with all the other normal tasks of life, and planning the logistics of a medium-length trip—the flights, the visa for China, currency, etc. Please forgive me if I fall out of touch, don't have time to hang out, fail to reply to your email, or am otherwise absent between now and mid-April: it all has to do with trying to get ready for this trip, and a big part of that is the Korean language eating up my time. I really do miss all of that, and look forward to catching up once I'm back and have had some time to reflect and adjust to being on Eastern Time again.

I've fielded a few recurring questions from the people I've already told about this trip, and in the interest of sharing about international adoption, Korea, and the KAD experience, I'd like to offer some answers to the questions I've heard most frequently. I really am glad to share. If you have any other questions, please leave a comment! I'd be happy to add them to the list.

You don't have to answer this question if it's too personal, but—

First off, let me say that you really can ask me anything about adoption—my own, the institution at large, or any other aspect. I'm very open, relatively difficult to offend, and find great value in talking to people about something they rarely feel they get to ask about. Moreover, there is no question that I've been asked so often that I'm tired of answering it.

That said, I hasten to add that not all adoptees, and not all international and interracial adoptees, feel this way. Many do feel very hurt by certain questions; some are exasperated by having to answer the same questions again and again; others don't like revisiting what may have been, for them, a painful experience. So please don't take my openness as a suggestion that all adoptees feel the same way I do. As I've written elsewhere, every adoptee's experience is unique, and it's impossible to generalize. Basically, be caring, careful, and use good judgment.

However, I—speaking only for myself—am very glad to answer questions from anyone (friends, family, strangers), and in fact, feel individually obliged to do so. So please, go ahead!

Exactly what is the shape of your Korean right now?

Young, scrappy, and hungry. I feel like I've been able to learn a lot of Korean in the past six months—roughly what you'd get from a little more than a semester of college-level classes. It has been hard to manage while working a full-time job; the experience has certainly made me appreciate what is special about being a student. Language learning is much harder when your class only meets once per week. That said, six months of Korean, even under ideal circumstances, won't necessarily get you all that far into the language. In absolute terms, my Korean is still fairly rudimentary. It's tough: I can say things like "I'm really excited" or "I can't go because I have an appointment," but not things like "Help me find the eggs I bought yesterday" or "I'm worried that I might get wet if I don't bring an umbrella." Far from ideal, but better than nothing.

Have you ever been to Korea before?

No! This is the first time.

How long are you going?

I'll be in China March 23-26, and Korea from late evening on the 26th to April 4.

Is it a group trip? Will other people be there?

There are two of us. I just got to meet the other person, who is super nice and really cool, last week, and am definitely looking forward to spending more time together!

What will you be doing in Korea?

The schedule is a little vague right now. The very kind people at the church that's sponsoring this trip, some of whom I got to meet last week, did ask us for anything we'd like to do—items on our lists included museums and other cultural centers, trying about three dozen different kinds of Korean food, hiking (which is supposed to be great both inside and outside Seoul), and a chance to explore outside of Seoul. (Maybe Jeonju, which was highly recommended to me by some Korean friends recently, and is not far away from Seoul?) The church was also keen to have us present for Easter, which I will arrive for just in the nick of time. (The fact that this is all unspooling almost exactly between Ash Wednesday and Easter seems symbolic of—well, something; I'm just not sure exactly what.)

The big question: will you be looking for your biological parents?

There is a person at the church in Korea who has worked with some adoptees to conduct searches in the past; we haven't been in touch yet, though it would be great for that to happen, and we still have a month to go. I do realize that it's not much time, however. If it is possible, I would like to search.

This raises the good question: why? I have several different motives, but the one I feel most strongly about is clearest when contrasted against motives that I think, and worry, many people assume—that an adoptee looking for biological parents does so out of a sense of loss or lack, wanting "answers," searching for one's identity. Related, but similar, are stories of adoptees looking out of anger at or discontent with some aspect of their upbringings.

I don't feel any of those things. To be sure, they have motivated many other adoptees' searches; but I can't emphasize too much that they are not my motivations at all.

Instead, I'm doing this because I've had a profoundly happy life that has given me the confidence and sense of self necessary to engage with my adoption without feeling like it has to be my only identity—something I have always wanted to avoid as long as I can remember. There is no sense of longing gnawing within me compelling me to do this, no deeply buried pain. Other adoptees have found it liberating to reclaim their past by acknowledging it as trauma—I respect that, but I don't feel that way about my own life at all. I have had a life that is happy almost to the point of boringness. (You know what Tolstoy said about happy families.) It has been stuffed full of good things—one good thing after another, for the most part.

I have arrived at the conclusion that it is worthwhile to search for either or both of my biological parents (for sake of eloquence, I'm going to use the Korean word bumo to mean "biological parents" from here) at least once, because I have heard enough stories of bumo who really want to meet their biological children to wonder if that might be the case with my own. And I want to meet them if that's the case. I want to meet them and show them how full my life has been in just 25 years—the wonderful family I have in the U.S., the stories, all the literature and art and music, the sheer amount of joy that has been crammed into it all. I want to look because I've seen how much happiness open adoptions can bring both biological and adoptive parents. And frankly—excuse me for starting to get sappy—I can't help but feel that it's worthwhile to look because the effort of the people who have made me who I am, the friends, the teachers, and most of all my brilliant, incredible, loving parents, has poured so much love and certainty into my life that I have more than enough to share. It is a rare privilege for an adoptee, and I acknowledge it as such.

This may happen on this trip, or it may not. I'm also aware of the possibility that I may locate either of both of my bumo and find that they would prefer not to be in touch with me—maybe because they now have families of their own and have never broached the subject. If I don't manage to do this on this trip, then hopefully I will on a future trip to Korea. Either way, this trip is a great opportunity for which I'm very grateful: engaging with Korea this past year has never been a matter just of bumo, but also of claiming Korean culture as my own heritage.

I do experience some anxiety about finding either bumo and having only my limited textbook Korean, or speaking through an interpreter. But carpenters make chairs with the tools they have, not the tools the wish they had; and so do we all.

How do your parents feel?

They are wonderful and supportive, which I never doubted they would be. They are both very excited for me, which means the world to me. They are kind of superheroes, and there are no better parents out there.

How are you feeling? 

Excited, obviously. Imagine finally visiting a place that you'd been told was, in some sense, yours for your whole life—you'd read children's books about it, you'd always had it at the back of your head, even if sometimes it wasn't exactly at the forefront of your attention—and you'd studied its language and culture rather intensively for the past half year. It's basically like that. (It's not totally dissimilar from what I imagine the experiences of some of my Jewish friends on Taglit/birthright trips to Israel have been.)

Tired and stressed out, at the same time. It is hard to cram this around all the other things—the commitments, the appointments, the duties—in my life. I've been told several times that other adoptees go with no Korean and are perfectly fine, but my personal neuroses don't like traveling to countries and cultures without trying hard to acquire a working knowledge of the language—and it's one that seems so important in this case. The language is unusually hard. When acquiring language skills for travel in previous cases (French, Italian, Chinese), I also had the benefit of being a student, with great control over my day—and it is incredibly punishing to try to keep this up alongside a job, plus my sideline writing. (Which increasingly feels like a very small-time, rather pitiful, embarrassingly unsuccessful sideline; but I digress.)

Nervous? Only a little. I am not easily daunted.

Have more questions? Go ahead and ask in the comments section below!

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