(I told this story recently as part of the Shine storytelling event. The theme was “Family.”)
I love Korean food. We live in a city with the highest concentration of Koreans outside of Seoul, so there are a ton of restaurants.
And when I first walk in, I am an awesome Korean.
“Annyounghaseyo,” I say, awesomely. And because she assumes I’m fluent, the hostess lets let out a stream of Korean words back at me, but…I’m done. It’s over. Because that’s it. That’s all I’ve got. I can say “hello” and “thank you,” and if I think hard, the word for “delicious.” But that’s it.
I’m not a very good Korean.
But it’s not my fault. It’s my parents’ fault. No, it’s not my parents’ fault.
I was adopted from Korea as a baby, and you know, I’ve always really loved that. I never remember not knowing. We celebrated Homecoming Day and I got a party, and it usually involved ice skating.
So it always surprises me that, even as an adult, people ask me the same questions I got asked as a kid. “Were you adopted by white people?” “Do you want to find your real parents?”
International adoption started in the fifties, but to a lot of people it is still such a mystery.
I grew up looking into the brown eyes of my mother and the blue eyes of my father and I never thought anything about it. Family, to me, means the people who took you to ballet and piano lessons, and mopped up your puke, and listened to you gag on and on about boys, and who grounded you when you got caught with one in the house.
When I was seven, my mom asked me if I wanted to participate in a study being done about adopted kids. This grad student from a local university was interviewing adoptees of all ages, and even at that age, I was like, someone wants my opinion? Yes. Yes, I will do that.
So I meet this woman in her office, and I remember sitting across a big desk and she had a big pad of paper and a pencil cup and that academic lamp, and I was pretty proud of myself. Like, I was a pretty verbal kid and read a lot and knew some big words. I knew how to sit still.
And I’m pretty sure I thought this woman was a big dummy. Like, she had to do a study to figure this stuff out? I’m living it, yo. I’m here, and I’m ADOPTED. I probably thought it was my civic duty to educate her about what it was like being ME.
She asked me some basic questions – which I ACED – and then she said –
What do you think your birth parents looked like?
I was speechless. And for me, that was a big deal. I remember feeling really hot all of sudden, and really aware that I was wearing sweater tights and that my feet were dangling off the chair. That’s a profound humiliation, you know. When your feet don’t touch the floor. As adults, we assume we’ll be able to feel the ground under our feet. During interrogations they should seat suspects in high chairs and see what happens.
It’s very unnerving.
So when she asked me that question, I did what all Type-A people do: I bullshit my way through it. Actually, I OVER-bullshit my way through it. Because THAT is what a Type-A person does.
I said, Oh, well, they both had dark hair. Straight. And…my mother had a pretty smile and she had straight teeth and covered her mouth when she laughed and my dad had a mole on the left side of his neck, and he can’t skip and he likes old movies and they both appreciate art and like to travel and read and watch the news.
The woman looked at me over that giant desk and I saw that she had stopped writing. Your father had a mole on his neck? she asked.
Yeah. And he shoves his hands in his pockets while walking and doesn’t have very good balance. And they both have a great sense of humor, I said, with authority.
The woman just kept looking at me, and not in the way I was used to, from adults. So I kept talking to try and change her expression. I went on and on about my birth parents, their hobbies, their pet peeves, their favorite foods, which side of the bed they slept on, their political leanings.
You said you were seven months old when you were adopted from Korea.
Yeah. I know.
The interview ended not long after that, and I left feeling like I’d let the woman down, somehow.
Years later, as a grown up person, when I thought about that interview, and all the words I’d used to describe two people I had never met – I realized that I had described my parents. The only parents I had ever, really, known. And that as a kid, as much as I wanted to honor the idea of the people who had made me come into the world, I only had one set of references. I only had the brown eyes of my mother and the blue eyes of my father, and her pretty smile, and straight teeth, and his off-balance walk, and the mole on his neck.
But I do like knowing that somewhere, probably stuffed into the back of a filing cabinet, some now PhD in psychology has this dissertation with this bizarre asian kid describing, in precise detail, the existence of two people she had never met.