finding out a father has stage 4 pancreatic cancer
being in love with a domestic abuser
mending from a relationship breakup
Their stories are not my story. However, unlike the reports of the heart-breaking cultural shifts in Afghanistan, the disturbing conditions at the Mexico border and the continuing horrors of structural racism including the attempts to discredit it, being invited to enter pain and fear with family and friends, feels sacred. A bond. The overwhelming nature of injustice involving strangers can tip more easily into helplessness. Or worse, relief that being too far removed absolves responsibility.
Yet to sit, to listen, to hold another’s hand is to be someone who feels that pain is somehow her native homeland, a place where she is welcome, an experience with which she is familiar. Yet to assume too much is off-putting. To be too breezy is callous. To offer too much is awkward.
After a tearful conversation over the car speakers or a softly spoken conversation from a hospice bed, to return home and to dance with attempted precision along with music videos feels too joyful, yet also restorative.
There are some places that cannot contain the events they hosted. One of those places for me is the Novotel Ambassador Busan, a hotel within a train ride of a park where I had been found at an indeterminate age, possibly 9 months old.
Before COVID restrictions, as part of a summer job, I was in Busan and assigned a suite with an ocean view. The juxtaposition of an ominous park and a luxury hotel, prompted me to call out to my Korean adopted colleague with whom I shared the room, “Korea, look at us now!” Our laughter, like the location, was filled with more than mirthful ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ.
The last time I was in Busan, the Novotel was being renovated. The upper floors had been torn down. I looked up into the empty space where that improbable suite had been. The emptiness of sky contained more than the physics of space and time could define. Monsoon season made the sky unpredictable. So I remember the void as a hazy gray, but then also as brightly lit.
Previous visits, out of the window of the Novotel, I had watched fireworks from above, coincidentally on the 4th of July, but most likely as the festive ending to a Haeundae beach concert. Another time, I had raced back to the Novotel after having leapt up from the table of a nearby “like mother’s” restaurant. The heat from an unusually hot pepper I had been enjoying with samjang had explosively started to take hold. Since we had paid for the food in advance, I left friends at the table as I attempted to spare them the overflowing tears as I ran across intersections to the privacy of my room. On yet another occasion, a roommate and I worked out on Ellipticals in the 10th floor fitness room during our day off. Overlooking the beach, in 90% heat and humidity, this memory feels elevated and warm, like a dream.
The Novotel has proximity to
a coin laundry
SaveZone (where a bathing suit I selected was literally taken from me by a Korean granny or “aljuma” before I could try it on because she didn’t think it was for me)
Where time and space can smash glass, concrete and metal, words can restore. A location can defy the past by introducing a present with both a disconnection and deep connection to a distant origin story.
Over plates of seafood damp with the same sea that lingered on our bodies, I remember an aljuma selecting the baby octopus for its tenderness. She cut it up, set out sauces and chopsticks. She urged us to enjoy. Our English giving us away as foreigners. Our features, tying us to the city of our birth.
If your cell tissue has ever been malnourished–both physically and emotionally, especially before language has developed, the memory of this is eternal. Time and space may mute its whimpers, its greed to survive at all costs, its resulting shame–but portals accessing this darkness lurk and pierce through periodically.
Each day life is a reward in itself if you live in relative safety with access to clean water and healthful food. Ironically, awareness is not apparent if you have never known otherwise. Those who have received constant nourishment are often ready to reassure those who haven’t, “It wasn’t your fault.”
If it wasn’t my fault, what is the alternative?.
Blaming yourself is irrational. It is narcissistic. Exhausting.
All of these are much more manageable than powerlessness.
Intellectually, you can clearly see that you’re not to blame. Yet, the blame is the means of survival–if I can get myself into this mess, I can get out.
Strangely, the portals that have swung open, unleash a heart to bleed all over.
a student who moves and leaves unexpectedly midway through the year
a table too crowded to accommodate one more
syllables and sounds of a language heard only in the womb
recognition of a physical feature on another, thought only to be yours
an unlikely connection with a stranger
The open portal is an echo. Recently, a sudden realization of a presence at someone else’s indescribable grief. Solidarity with a shadow.
Writing is a struggle against silence. -Carlos Fuentes
When I first read this Fuentes quote on a t-shirt printed by my university writing center, I thought that “struggle” seemed . . . melodramatic. The irony is that my internship at that writing center was to support students composing papers. This responsibility, at times, was excruciating. The temptation to focus on mechanics was strong. To spot a homophone misuse was delightful when compared with the real work: to sort through weighty vocabulary, to construct meaning, sharpen thesis statements, organize supporting details, etc.
My deepest respect were for the doctoral students whose first language was not English. God Bless them! Like weight lifting, you would have to clear your mind and focus. Your eyes plucked words from the pages and forced them into coherent thoughts. Each page, the words accumulating like pebbles on a scale. The pages and pages and pages of words and quotes would not have qualified as “silence.”
As a sporadic writer, silence has recently made itself known as a growing threat. As a university graduate, I hadn’t fully calculated these factors in alliance with silence:
Fear of rejection
A misplaced sense of security that I have already written or that a powerful memoir has already formed miraculously in my soul and I need only to be its stenographer one day soon
Possibility of oversharing
Protection of privacy (related to telling others’ stories in a way that would betray)
Secrets meant exclusively for a specific audience–not for general consumption
All of these items expose vulnerability. Vulnerability is a magnet. The depth or shallowness of the connection formed by magnets is baffling and sometimes unintended. A comparison might be like when my magnetic watch band clicks onto a metal table rim at a restaurant.
As I consider a deep affection to the writing and music of specific authors and musicians, I wonder if my attachment is inconvenient or awkward–like my watchband on the table. The magnetism of my heart was intended for one thing, yet its power can latch inconveniently.
In the case of my devotion to being a member of a fan club, this sense of connection appears to be mutual and heartfelt due to the group’s social media messages and videos, appearing to speak directly with the viewer. As I write, my vulnerability at revealing a powerful source of joy is an attempt to turn the tables on a giant magnet at the center of a pile of scrap metal. I feel both anonymous, similar to landing in a scrap metal heap with other fans. At the same time, weirdly it’s unnerving to also feel selected, somehow, seen. This juxtaposition is inexplicable.
Writing attempts to connect. Yet, in breaking the silence, it disperses thoughts into a vastness. The attraction that vulnerability unleashes has consequences beyond our calculations or original intent. That consequences might also be silence, which is painful.
Silence can both keep a person from writing. And also, be the painful result of having written and receiving no response.
The struggle is real. The struggle is not overstated. The struggle continues.
::silently raising fist in solidarity with Carlos Fuentes::
Summer used to freak me out because of the emphasis on the body. I had a ranked list of body parts that were the worst to get mosquito bitten since my allergic reaction involved immediate heat and swelling:
Bathing suit areas
Foot / Hand
Mosquito are reportedly attracted to “sweet blood.” This means mosquitoes zero in on those with this blood type, while others in the company of the person with “sweet blood” are undisturbed. They are able to live peaceably in an alternate reality where mosquitoes don’t exist. A common sight includes me swinging my arms wildly before running to shellack myself in deet. Meanwhile, others are enjoying the woods in peace, with an occasional slap at a random buzz near their ears.
Another body related issue involves the showcasing of parts that are normally in cozy socks, corduroys or chunky sweaters. Mercilessly, summer fashion showcases the body. On the preteen inventory of most the most self conscious items:
All of these body concerns have been addressed by the realization that being your harshest critic is a state of mind, not reality. Even “sweet blood” has been reduced to manageable condition by a recent discovery that I probably have the ABCC11 gene that most Koreans carry.
Brace yourself for some real talk. This gene involves having “dry earwax” and “special sweat” that doesn’t require deodorant.
Sweat rewards hard work. Sweat exposes pain and nerves. Sweat hydrates in stickiness. Sweat darkens clothes. Sweat regulates temperatures.
I decided to take this post in a cliche direction by editing it a day later to include tears. Famously a non-cryer, I have shed some tears this summer. Not, as expected by my family, because of low pain tolerance on my part due to surgery on my foot. No, no, no. The cause was devastatingly beautiful songs. I didn’t want to do it, but I must once again, mention BTS. ::shaking fist at their incredible hold on fans::
Very little else, besides posting this song (the most recent cause of weeping) is necessary. When people say, “Try not to cry. If you succeed in remaining dry eyed, you are not human,” I usually fail this test. However, I succumbed to tears. The English! The Hangul! The earnestness! I’ll stop talking . . .
More Blood Sweat and Tears, BTS related
A Korean band, 6Band covered, BTS’s, “Blood, Sweat and Tears.” Jungkook’s reaction to a mellow band covering this edgy song will turn sentimental tears to 😂. These screenshots are from the KBS Kpop interview with the group regarding Immortal Songs.
I’ve been having conversations where I reference the fact that Asians were set up to be weaponized against Black people in the USA. This feels like an intellectual dodge in order to make a case for solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
As an Asian American, I’m starting to get a grasp on my privilege as the “model minority” while simultaneously having conversations about my original culture being erased. These conversations take place within the community of those adopted transracially. Once I acknowledged this loss of Korean culture, many emotions were let loose: heart-break, shame (at being fraudulent), crush-like love (for homeland), betrayal–and rage.
The rage component is the most dangerous. It has been oddly channeled toward “injustice” caused by racism in my adopted country. The Korean “han,” deep melancholy and resentment, coded in Korean DNA before birth, could have latched onto my original family’s rejection (relinquishment) into the arms of strangers.
However, to target the adoption directly, jeopardized the means of survival: my status as a “good adoptee.” Good adoptees aren’t angry. They are fully assimilated and prove their gratitude daily. The constant affirmation of your US parents does not spoil you. Instead, you become your own “tiger mother,” demanding payment for this level of devotion.
How did and do you earn this level of luck?
You fight for social justice!
Teaching in an “under resourced district” where 2/3 of your class constantly experience Adverse Childhood Experiences, while you only ever attended orderly private schools is one way to discover quickly that you were not “saved” in order to “save others.”
This is patronizing and part of how model minorities are weaponized. The following observations are not true of all majority culture, but can lurk beneath the surface. Asian “success” is used to absolve the majority culture of racism. Asians become “indebted” to the majority culture for success to the point of losing any credibility when acknowledging injustice. This perceived success also breeds resentment. We are perceived to be innately hard working and “smart” so that our achievements seem inevitable and extra work is expected.
This is insulting when compared with the stereotypes of Black people and the underlying shame the majority culture has for the history that systematically tore Black people’s bodies, dignity and overall well-being apart in ways that are still present. Tragedy is another stereotype of Blackness so the resistance of Black people continues to threaten the power that is held in place by tragic circumstances within the criminal justice system, education, housing, access to quality healthcare, etc.
Am I even the “Brown” in the phrase, “black and brown” communities of color? Am I assuming too much? Am I wedging in with the Latinos in an attempt at solidarity?
As I come to understand that I am a person with multiple truths: US and Korean, I offer now my understanding that we contain multiple identities and truths. Listening while offering my own vulnerabilities and questions, is my only chance of finding what is there for me to do. As I better understand my Korean “han,” I offer it to my fellow Americans of color with whom I feel a brand of US “jeong” or a kinship (the original meaning intended only among Koreans).
“Jeong” is the only way to dismantle the weapon my Asian body has been used to subjugate others. This embrace of a distinctly Korean concept may be a form of cultural appropriation only a transracial adoptee can attempt to claim.
This medical boot has an athletic vibe. NOTE: Although I legitimately have hardware in my body from a skiing accident, this boot is part of my recovery from a bunion removal. 🦶🏽
This rose gold watch band matches my skin tone and has the unintended effect of looking like a bandaid. I justified this purchase 2 ways: 1) Get well gift card contribution 2) Previously owned item.
Unfortunately for the manufacturer (who has amazing customer service), summer allows me to stay on hold to speak to a person. For this reason, I was able to have the bluetooth repaired and a faulty charger addressed via a return label and a replacement delivery.
The headband began as a solution to the humidity and morphed into a new aesthetic. It was a discovery made possible by organizing shelves. I thought I couldn’t pull off when I first received it as a gift.
This pair of overalls survived several closet sweeps over the years. Comeback!
This sunhat was a gift from someone concerned about protecting necks from the sun. The rare combination: functional and fashionable. 😉
Growing up, I thought I was from Seoul, South Korea.
To find out that I was from Busan, was even more niche than being from Korea (As many Asian Americans have observed, China and then possibly Japan, were at one time the go-to “oriental” countries best known in the US. Although due to K-Pop, this is changing.). Niche, not in the cool, NOT basic way. In the inscrutable, “I’ve lost interest so please stop talking” way that makes people’s eyes glaze over when you spend too much time discussing a dream.
I was an adult when I learned that my existence was first documented in a Busan police station. The name of the city was communicated as Pusan. The hangul character ㅂ can go either B or P.
Busan is a South Korean seaside city known for umbrella covered beaches, its lively fish market and southern accent. How I was transported to Seoul where I was adopted by my US family is either unknown or too indiscreet for an agency worker to reveal.
To discover that Jungkook and Jimin of BTS are from Busan sparked regional pride at its most basic–that is to say, its fiercest. Like discovering someone has the exact same birthday. In fact, I have met 3 people with the same “fake birthday” as mine. Adopted people are sometimes given made-up birthdays by their agencies. My birthday “twins” are also adopted from Korea. When you’re uncertain of the basic facts of your life, this connection is a kind of euphoria, but a specific brand which comes from a connection forged by shared loss. Abandonment triggers the sensation that you are a mote of dust, floating through space and time.
As a result, my first reconnection to Busan was intense. I wrote about this experience in a painfully raw journal. I wondered why I had returned to Korea at all. Yet, irresistibly, an affection for Busan has grown each time I have returned.
The “정 jeong” or unique Korean goodwill I feel for Busan people is decidedly intertwined with “한 恨 han”–the fierce rage or melancholy that is also uniquely part of Korean DNA. The initial return to Korea set fire to whatever information about my birth name, birthday, foster mom, etc. that my US family had been given. I returned to the US with No More Dream. Processing this pain is a unique part of my life’s work, but facing pain is also the work of so many others. 가져와 (On).
What is my current answer to a question constantly asked of people adopted internationally?
I have returned to Korea several times.
Asking a person adopted internationally if they have returned to the country of their birth is the equivalent of asking someone whose parents were killed tragically how often he or she visits the scene of the crime. I was not ready when my US parents first offered a return trip to Korea as a high school graduation gift.
The first time I returned to Korea and each time since, there is pressure to solve a mystery–perhaps the homicide of your true Korean self. The self you had to kill in order to survive in the US. Your mind is the scene of the crime.
For this reason, you are driven to collect clues with all 5 senses. Clues that will unravel the gauzy, sticky material that you wrapped around your soul. The mummy-like strips forming a mold that is both protective and restrictive. You’re also deeply traumatized by what you might discover.
At the same time, in Korea, you are driven to solve this case. If only you observe hard enough, don’t want it too badly; or conversely, you pursue answers with unrelenting focus.
eat all the banchan (push past your US craving for burrito bowls with extra guac)
try beondegi, octopus and / or uni
can smell the difference between fresh and more fermented kimchi
don’t look uncomfortable as ajumas push past you in crowds
can hear the difference between the way you say “Insa-dong” and the way the taxi driver says 인사동l
These aspects of Korean cultural heritage are not only clues to a mystery but also a map to buried treasure. This is a treasure you resisted pursuing because it felt buried for a reason.
At the same time, the ability to spot references to Korean culture you now claim as your own in the BTS Idol video is evidence that your detective notebook is filling up. You’re on the way either to the location of the hidden treasure or the unraveling of the body: unearthing your true self: I’m proud of it! 난 자유롭네 (nan jayulobne / I’m free!)
Hangook 한국어 or the Korean language is the language we first heard in the womb that we more than likely no longer hear in our adopted country of citizenship.
My first word was 엄마, Omma. When our family lived in Japan for awhile, I learned it sounded like the word for horse うま. This was my first language lesson as a toddler. Also 엄마 is close to the name BTS gave their fanbase, 아미, which is the English word army spelled out in Korean. This sounds like the French word, “ami” or friend. My US family name is Frens: friends without ID. “Friends” is the show that reportedly taught BTS leader, RM (Kim NamJoon), how to speak English.
Speaking of family, the Korean way of addressing family siblings is by age order, not by first names. 누나 (nuna) and 언니 (oenni) hold special meaning, because they are the ways that significant friends address me at times. The family of 입양아 (ib-yang-a). BTS address the older members of the group as “hyung 형.” This sibling relationship is distinctly captured in language not found in English
As language forms thought, Korean lyrics from BTS songs feel immersive in a way that English does not. The loss of original family and culture occured before language development. The resonance of the following phrases in BTS songs seeped into the unconscious and would not let go. The sounds felt visceral prior to the Google translate revelation:
On the flip side, I heard these lyrics to Mic Drop as these English words, which sounded like an endearing brag: Me and my Billboard Me and my Worldwide ??????? me and my Omma!
미안해 Billboard 미안해 worldwide 아들이 넘 잘나가서 미안해 엄마
King Kong, Kick the Drum: BTS in English
BTS, native Korean speakers, have recently released 3 songs entirely in English. BTS is jumping into Korean adoptee space. The transition is parallel to, but in reverse of what Korean adoptees experience when listening to BTS Korean lyrics:
Another significance of language involves names. I have had at least 3 names in my life. My unknown birth name. A name given by an adoption agency. My US name.
That BTS members have several names is one of many ways their identity and language contain powerful significance.
RM (Rap Monster, Rap Master, Rap Man, Real Me) | Kim NamJoon 김남준
Jin | Kim Soekjin 김석진
Suga | Min Yoongi 민윤기 | Agust D Suga is from “shooting guard”–a position this rapper played and Agust D is Suga backwards plus DT for Yoongi’s hometown: Daegu Town)
J-Hope | Jung Hoseok 정호석| Hobie
V (There is no letter “V” in the Korean alphabet) 뷔 | 김태형 Kim Taehyung | 추윤탄
Jyungkook 전정국 | Kookie
Does being known by more than one name allow BTS members to sort various identities? BTS members are relentlessly in front of the camera, which leaves fans to speculate about dual personal and celebrity identities.
The members’ lives have been micromanaged by producers and agencies. This submission to leadership is part of Asian culture which values both the good of the collective and a deference for elders. Sacrificial commitment is the hallmark of K-pop, a powerful Korean export fueled by human capital, specifically youth.
The sacrifice of youth to a national goal parallels Korean adoptees whose lives were determined by a society which carefully curates its image. The adopted person’s survival depends on taking on an identity and performing it convincingly, genuinely embracing a US identity.
Is there an identity that exists beneath the surface, not captured on camera in the K-pop case or not 100% embodied by a US family name? Are separate identities rivals or in coexistence?
I wrote this essay because I wanted to explore why I’m a BTS fan.
I fully understand that a certain level of fandom is cringy! Alternatively, I truly wanted to be that indulgent Korean American mentor when teens were excited to learn of my connection to the country from which their BTS idols came.
I didn’t want to be a 50 year old K-pop fan. It’s not a good look to be able to identify all of the references to the MVs represented in the band’s fan tribute. Alternatively can anyone resist the charm of this video?
I’ve been a part of a fandom before in which I came to embrace an irrational level of affection. This previous fandom included backstage passes from the band’s manager, attending concerts in 5 states and contributing to a fan blog.
I went to therapy about this devotion and concluded that the genetic bond of the band, Hanson, idealized what I hoped for in a family where the closeness is there but the genetic bond is not. Also, MMMBop includes the Korean word for rice (밥). What 뭐? Really 그래요?
My hope is that again with BTS, I’ve made the case for the unique delight the band’s music offers, specifically to a Korean adoptee. Yet, it feels dirty. The consumption of youth feels gross. The relentless entertainment feels like an addiction.
I assemble the red strings on the corkboard. Am I a criminal?