Three Dreams of Korea: Notes on Adoption by Lee Herrick

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1.

This one happens in the morning

as a nearby crow wakes me,

calling God, God, look at this:

I am on the steps of a church,

wrapped in Monday’s Korea Times

telling of the drought in Pusan.

You can live by the water

and still die of thirst, and I,

there on the cold brick steps,

am dying. But dying

means the presence of breath.

This one happens on Hangul Day,

Independence Day in Seoul,

where girls in purple satin

hanboks parade through

downtown streets. In this dream

I make eye contact with

every single one of them.

Another boy, a few years

older than I, rides

a tricycle in the streets

trailing the girls.

He sees me. He winks,

as if he knows how

everything will end.

2.

This one happens in the evening

just as daylight surrenders to the moon,

and the flute of dusk arrives.

It is cool.

I am wrapped in a sky blue blanket,

so whoever finds me thinks kindly

of whoever left me.

The one one finds me is a nun.

She opens the door, looking

beyond me

into the tired night,

then looks down.

She gasps softly.

She says, ahneyong, you sweet

beautiful child. She bends

down like an angel

and takes me

into her arms.

3.

This one happens in the cruelest moment

of the day, as heat curls flowers

into dirt. A man, drunk

with despair, screams at the sun.

His sorrow is a collage of

moths and ants, crawling

from his face to his chest.

I watch from the steps.

It is the year of the dog

and I am a part of it:

unable to speak

but an expert at listening:

to the old man from Laos who sits

on the steps two buildings down:

he is telling another man

how Hmong children become human

on the third day of life,

after the soul calling ceremony

and the burning of animal flesh.

He smokes from a pipe

and closes his eyes as he inhales.

I can hear all of his.

I can hear a woman rustling inside the church.

She is a dancer, so she speaks with her hands.

I hear her rise, sweetly

from her knees to her feet.

This means she believes

in dreams. I hear her

slide her hand, sweetly

along her hair. This means

she believes in the sun.

I hear her move towards me

and place her open palm on the door.

This means she welcomes me.

This means she believes

in the miracle of possibility.

Golden Rule #1: Love Thy Neighbour as Yourself

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Do you consider yourself a religious person? How significant is religion in your life? Religion has always been a fundamental part of my life. I grew up in a Christian home and identify as a Christian. As a young girl, I was deeply involved with my church. I regularly attended Sunday School, eagerly participated in AWANA, and eventually found like minded friends through my youth group. Church was my community. It was where I first learned the popular Golden Rules: Love thy neighbour as thyself and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. These formative lessons helped me navigate my small protected world.

Bible Camp was also a place where I learned about God. I can remember  fondly singing a song with the lyrics, “There’s only one way to heaven and it’s Jesus.” I sang that song with such conviction. But now as an adult, I question how having faith in God secures me a place in heaven. It seems to defy reason. And what if I believe in a different deity like Buddha or Allah then am I automatically doomed? Why is Jesus the only way?

I understand that my son will first begin to construct his worldview from the beliefs and truths that I teach him at home. Even though I was raised a Christian, maybe Christianity isn’t something he will prescribe to. How would I feel if he decided to practice Buddhism or even Islam? Would I be fearful or feel disappointed that he doesn’t believe in my God?

Maybe it’s equally important that my son learns how to be empathetic towards others who are different from him or that he is able to be objective when others challenge his perspectives, or even critically question the status quo, rather than what religion he practices. I’d like to think that he can make his own decision similar to who he will choose to befriend at school or which college he wants to attend. Perhaps in this moment, it really is as simple as loving my neighbor as myself.

Salvation by Lee Herrick

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The blues is what mothers do not tell their loved sons,

in church or otherwise, how their bodies forgave

them when their spirits gave in, how you salvage love

by praying for something acoustic, something clean

and simple like the ideal room, one with a shelf

with your three favorite books and a photo

from your childhood, the one of you with the

big grin before your knew about the blues.

I wonder what songs my birth mother sang in

the five months she fed me before she left me

on the steps of a church in South Korea.

I wonder if they sounded like Sarah Chang’s

quivering bow, that deep chant of a mother

saying goodbye to her son. Who can really say?

Sometimes all we have is the blues. The blues means

finding a song in the abandonment, one

you can sing in the middle of the night when

you remember that your Korean name, Kwang Soo

Lee, means bright light, something that can illuminate

or shine, like tears, little drops of liquefied God,

glistening down your brown face. I wonder

what songs my birth mother sings and if she sings

them for me, what stories her body might tell.

I have come to believe that the blues is the body’s

salvation, a chorus of scars to remind you

that you are here, not where you feared you would be,

but here, flawed, angelic, and full of light.

I believe the blues is the spirit’s wreckage,

examined and damaged but whole again, more full

and prepared then it’s ever been, quiet and still,

just as it was always meant to be.

The Realities of Race and Adoption

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How do you talk about race with your child? How early do children start to recognize that not everyone has the same skin color? Is race one of those topics you should discuss openly and honestly with your child like how to safely cross the street, or why you shouldn’t talk to strangers, or the dreaded “Birds and the Bees talk”?

I’d like to think that as a person of color I have some extraordinary insight about how to talk about race, but the truth is, I don’t. Talking about race is simply uncomfortable. Is it because if you’re white it conjures up a great deal of emotions like uneasiness, defensiveness, and possibly even anger? And if you are the person of color, undoubtedly, there are feelings of shame, hurt, and at times isolation.

I understand and accept the fact that by adopting my son and bringing him to live in America, he will be judged by his skin color. There will be school playground incidents where kids will make fun of him because of his physical differences-his eyes, his nose. More than likely I will have to explain to him the hurtful name calling and navigate the tricky questions he will ask about not being white. Others will try to pigeonhole him because he is conspicuous and he will feel vulnerable living in a mostly white world.

Maybe the platitude, “Love is all you need” doesn’t apply in this situation. I can’t love away my son’s pain and grief, but what I can do is help prepare him for the messy complicated reality. As his parent, I do need to be honest about the hurt he will experience when kids ridicule him for the first time because of his eyes and skin color. I do need to be candid and tell him that his race does matter. But mostly, I need to be empathetic about how he feels because when that inevitable day arrives where he realizes for the first time that he’s not white, then my only choice is to quietly listen.

I Love You 사랑해

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As the months and weeks move closer to the travel date when I finally get to meet my son and begin parenting, the self doubt and worry seem to be looming now more than ever. My thoughts have begun to take on new worries like, “What if my son’s not ready?” “What if he doesn’t like me?” “What if he later resents me because I adopted him?” I understand that these are natural fears and doubts for any parent who’s adopting. Nonetheless, these fears feel incredibly big and too real.

There is a considerable amount of adoptive parenting research about how to ease the transition from when my son leaves his foster home and begins his transition with me. One recommended strategy is to “cocoon” which is a critical time for my son and I because during this period we will begin to learn everything we can about each other in order to bond and create healthy attachments. Likewise, my son will also be experiencing a great deal of loss and grief. He will more than likely be inconsolable as he grieves for his foster mother. Will he even accept my attempts to comfort him during his time of grief? I’m not sure. Everything that is familiar and comfortable will no longer be a part of his world. I am reminded that my son didn’t choose adoption. Adoption happened to him.

As I prepare to transition into parenthood, the truth is, I’m entirely scared. I have no idea how my son will respond to me or how long it will take him to love me. I know there will be significantly long and challenging days ahead. Maybe all I can do is quietly wait for the moment when he wraps his warm little arms around me and says, “I love you.”

The Bigness of Love

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It’s been one week since the election and my feelings of anger, disappointment, sadness, and hopelessness have emotionally exhausted me. As a female and a person of color, this campaign has felt entirely personal because so much of the hate filled rhetoric was targeted at people who like myself have been marginalized due to my race and gender. Opportunities and entitlements belong only to those who fit into the Trump version of America. If you are labeled different, then you excluded. But I see you. I understand you. I am with you in your anger.

This week was also a difficult teaching week. I took the easy way out and avoided any election discussions with my students because I didn’t have the emotional capacity. How could I remain neutral when all I wanted to do was unleash my own anger and sadness? I wonder what words I would say to my son if he was here and old enough to understand. I’d like to think that I would tell him the truth no matter how hurtful it is, but honestly, I don’t know.

Eventually, I will have to stop grieving and crawl up off the floor. There are small moments when I feel myself moving forward, but then I learn about yet another racial graffiti hate crime or I overhear a student chanting, “Build the wall!” and I’m right back where I started. The truth is that no matter how stifling and confusing the world feels right now, I have to find a way to acceptance. I didn’t choose to elect this president, but I do have choices. I can choose to listen. I can choose to show empathy to others. And I can choose to be inclusive with those who are different from me. Now more than ever I want to stretch myself in the direction of kindness and forgiveness. I choose to be filled with the bigness of love.

The Other

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Growing up, I remember there were two clearly distinct experiences when I felt noticeably different. One time a stranger in a store commented, “Your skin is so porcelain just like a China doll!” Or another time when a stylist cutting my hair declared, “I thought all Asians had straight hair.” Although these comments weren’t malicious, nevertheless, I remember feeling confused that my appearance should be different than what it was.

I know that early on in my son’s life, he will experience feeling different. He is Korean and will grow up as a minority in America. He will more than likely be teased by his classmates because of his eyes, nose, skin color or simply because he doesn’t look white. I struggle knowing that he may internalize this as him being inadequate and feel ashamed. How can I protect him from this? I know that I can’t. It’s entirely impossible.  

As a new parent, maybe I’m naive to think that if I enroll my son in a Korean language immersion school, attend a multiracial church or have playgroups with other Korean adoptees, he will grow up to have a positive self identity. The truth is, that even if I do all of these things to support his connection to his Korean culture, there will still be moments when he will feel conspicuous and compromised because of his race.

I understand that my son doesn’t have a choice. He will leave his Korean culture and gain an American one. These are the losses and gains of being adopted. But maybe throughout his adoption journey, my son will be able to find a new space where he is able to create his own narrative that is completely free from the expectations and definitions of others.

Thank You 고맙습니다

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As I get closer to “Family Day,” I can’t stop replaying the dreadful scene of my son sobbing with confusion and grief when his foster mother puts him in my arms, says good bye, and I walk away from her. There is no way to prepare for this day. I’m trying to manage my expectations by accepting the fact that this will be an extremely traumatic experience for my son and an incredibly sad day for his foster family.

My son’s foster mother is an incredibly strong woman who for now fourteen months, out of a selfless act of love, chose to foster my son. She knows that as a foster mother, she may never have the opportunity to hold him or even see him again. I have a beautiful picture of my son with his foster mother where she is adoringly looking at him with intense pride and playful wonderment. I cry every time I look at this picture but I know that my grief is nothing compared to hers. While I’m busily enjoying my new mom life where now I am the one who gets to comfort him, celebrate his small triumphs, and watch him grow; she is on the other side of the world quietly grieving for a son whom she cared for and loved deeply. How can this be the only way?

Every six weeks I mail a care package to my son where I am able to include a half page note to his foster mother. Each letter gets increasingly more difficult to write as I get closer to “Family Day.” Are there even strong enough words to describe the incredible gratitude that I feel for her? Maybe all I need to say is simply, “Thank you.”

The House with the Mezzanine

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What is your earliest childhood memory? Why are certain experiences easily remembered and others not? Do my memories impact me later into adulthood? Lately, I’ve been thinking about what my life was like in Korea. Understandably, I don’t have any conscious memories of Korea because I was an infant when I lived there. However, I still wonder how will I feel when I first walk into the streets of Seoul? Will I be able to recognize any of the sights, smells or sounds of my birth place? What, if anything will I be able to remember?

Like any new parent, I am excited about creating memories with my son. Similar to a baby book, my adoption agency suggests creating a Life Book in order to help fill in the gaps of my son’s past, specifically his life before me. My son is 14 months old and I wonder if he has already started to collect memories of his life. When he asks, “What was my life like in Korea?” How do I begin to help him sort through yet another loss?

A few years ago, I was introduced to a brilliant 20th century Russian artist, Oleg Vassiliev. Most of his paintings explore the idea of how memories get assimilated into our mind’s consciousness. What I like about his work is that he invites the viewer to analyze the past from a different perspective. During the time when he created The House with the Mezzanine series, he said, “The light of the past fades away if you approach it carelessly and look at it directly. It is very hard to touch the past without destroying at least something in it. Chasing the past is similar to chasing a ghost. But chasing the past is not merely the hunter’s passionate pursuit of his ever-vanishing game; to a greater extent it is a search for foundations and an attempt to turn back to the home you left long ago.”

Maybe I’m starting to understand that as an adoptee, there is perpetual loss. But inside that loss there’s a space where past and present intersect; a place where I  begin again.

Hide-and-Seek

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“Be prepared for travel to Korea within the next four to eight months.” When I first read the email, I felt queasy, anxious, and utterly excited because at that very moment, time felt like it was happening at warp speed. Once my panic settled and reality set in, I thought, “This is definitely happening and I’m not even close to being ready.”

In order to prepare parents for travel, my adoption agency gave me a 47 page handbook. The purpose of the packet is to provide suggestions on how to best prepare myself for meeting my son. One section provides expectations for the first meeting. It clearly states, “It’s hard not to cry at the first meeting, but try to do as little as possible to create loud noises and anxiety in the room for the child.” After waiting nearly five years to finally become a mother, rest assured, there will be tears. How will I feel on the day when I’m actually able to bring him home? This is the same day when his foster mother, who has loved and cared for him, says good bye and hands him over to me, a complete stranger. This should seemingly be a joyful day filled with happiness, yet my son will be experiencing an incredibly traumatic experience filled with confusion and loss.

As I begin to prepare for travel, the logistical preparations of what to pack, where to stay, and what to bring on a 14 hour flight are necessary, but feel entirely insignificant. Now my thoughts turn to bigger questions like, “How will my son respond to me the first time I hold him?” “Will his foster mother want to meet him again one day?” “How will I be able to comfort him when he is grieving for her?” I’m beginning to understand that it’s naive to think I can be fully prepared to parent. Maybe parenting is like the game Hide-and-Seek. My son is “It” and he turns and calls out, “Ready or not, mom here I come.” I have no other choice than to begin and hope that sooner than later I am able to find my way to home base.