Sunday, September 28, 2008

Americaversary-Reflecting on adoption

I've been thinking about this post for a week and what to write without boring everyone with endless details of my early life. But then again, maybe you'd be interested? I have tendency to ramble on in posts, so conciseness isn't my forte unless it has to be. I hope you don't mind and read anyway.

America + versary = Americaversary

US Flag
image: flags image: worldatlas

It's a word my parents made up to celebrate the day I became theirs. Today, marks 24 years I've lived in this country! Although sometimes I feel like this day is more important to my parents than to me, it does allow me to reflect on my adoption and how I've dealt with it.

Every year, my parents would get me a small gift, or we would celebrate with a dinner at a nice Asian restaurant. Every year, my father has also sent me flowers. Most of the time, they were red, white, and blue carnations, while at other times, they were roses. Although I loved receiving the flowers, sometimes I felt a little awkward, especially if it was during school. People would come up and ask me why I was receiving flowers, and I had to explain my whole situation. Over the years, however, it really became a tradition which I enjoyed and looked forward to.

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People choose to adopt for different reasons. For some, it is because they are unable to conceive or may have a health condition, preventing them from having their own children. For others, it’s about giving a child a much needed home. For my parents, it was a bit of both. There was the factor that both had a history of depression which sparked fear that their genes might be passed on to any offspring. Then, there was the fact that my mom really wasn’t into babies. She didn’t want to deal with the diapers, sleepless nights, wailing, etc. She much preferred someone who was already “house trained.” My father preferred something that wasn’t a crier. He just couldn’t handle that. Plus, they figured they would have a better shot at adopting an older child versus an infant which had a list a mile long.

The other interesting thing was that both were interested in adopting overseas. Part of this was the likelihood that the adoption would be closed. Therefore, there was less chance that something catastrophic would happen like the birth mother demanding the child back (remember Baby Jessica). They decided on Korea for a few reasons. One was my mother had always wanted a Korean child. My grandfather (her father) who was in the Korean war used to tell her and her sister stories of a little girl he befriended whom he used to give candy bars to. My mom used to secretly wish that he would bring back a Korean child or trade her sister for one. My father just liked cute little Asian kids. Plus, he felt like they were very smart.

So they started their long, arduous journey through the adoption process. This was in the early 1980s, so adoption rates in Korea were very high. Within the last decade, Korean adoptions have dropped dramatically due to Korea's stricter policies and opening up their adoption to more populations, like single mothers, within the country. I don't know all the details, but the main agency was Minnesota's Children's Home Society. There, a social worker named T.B. discovered me at a Korean orphanage. My parents were thrilled to possibly have a daughter soon. During one of the calls with T.B., my dad asked if I was pretty. T.B. apparently said yes, but more than that, "I was a neat kid." More phone calls and photos were exchanged, and two days before September 28, 1984, my parents were notified to come to JFK airport to meet their new daughter, a 4 1/2 year old girl with short, straight, dark brown hair,weighing in at only 35 pounds, and had a physical congenital deformity of her hand. (They already knew about this but didn't care)

After 20+ hours of plane travel, I arrived at JFK airport. There were several children adopted that day, and each family was taken into a private room to meet their child. My parents tell me that I wore a pink and white checkered dress, socks with the number 45, and sneakers. I had a big wad of gum in my mouth (I think this is why I have an affinity for gum), a smooshed up cookie in one hand, and a Korean airline pin in the other. Apparently, I was very calm and silent. I'm sure I was pretty confused at what was going on and seeing all these strange people. Unfortunately, there are no pictures of that day, because my mother forgot to put film in the camera.


this is me and my grandmother the first night


After that, we went to my grandmother's house (my father's side) in NJ where I met a bunch of relatives and did not say a word. My parents recount that wherever someone left me, I just stayed there. The other thing is that I did not speak English and no one spoke Korean.

The first night was very tough. I cried for my "um ma" (mother in Koreans) my foster mother for several hours. I also put all my clothes back on that I had originally arrived in, giving the idea that I was to return to Korea. It took me a little while to understand things, but by the end of the night, I took off my shoes and placed them by my mother. Then, I fell asleep in her lap. Now, it's hard to say what I was thinking when I did this. We like to think that I had "accepted" that I was staying with them. Who knows for sure. I could have easily thought that that was the place where shoes go and put mine there. Or maybe I didn't like things being cluttered?

At any rate, I seemed to adjust better than expected. I met with my cousins the next morning, ate cereal for the first time (one morsel at a time), and spent time with relatives. A few days later, we returned home to our small, conservative town in VA where I grew up and stayed until I left for college.

Since I did not know English, my parents and I communicated through picture books. However, over the next few months, I learned English mostly by watching television--cartoons, "Sesame Street," etc. I spent a lot of time with my dad during this time since my mom went back to work soon after I was adopted. I took her leaving very hard and cried for the first few days until I realized she was coming back.

This new life wasn't easy, but things seemed to fall into place nicely. I met other children my age. I eventually enrolled in gymnastics after learning I really enjoyed being upside down. I excelled at school once it was learned that I was not mentally retarded (a school psychologist thought I was based on some test which was inappropriate for someone who did not know English). So far, I was living an All American life.

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For the most part, I think I understood the significance of my adoption from an early age. I remember in elementary school (maybe fifth grade) having to write an essay on our most special "gift." Many students chose material items, but I chose being adopted. I knew that by living in this country, I had many more opportunities than I would have had back in Korea. This was especially evident due to my hand and arm, macrodactylism, a birth defect in which my nerves and bones in my right arm and hand are larger than my left. It's a rare condition but more prevalent in Asian countries. Unfortunately, in Korea, there is still much stigma regarding those with disabilities. In the back of my mind, I've always wondered if this might have been one reason why my birth mother gave me up or abandoned me. It's not something I think about often, but the truth is, I'll never really know.
Record keeping in Korea is very poor, especially in orphanages. I'm sure by now my paperwork has gotten lost in the shuffle over the years. At one point when I had a real yearning to learn more of my past, I did attempt to contact my foster mother thorough a translated letter. Honestly, I don't know whether she ever received it. She is the only memory I have left of Korea.
At this point in time, I don't have that long, lost wondering about my birth parents that I used to. A number of years ago, I saw a psychic who gave me some interesting information. Whether it was true or not, it's hard to say. However, years later, when I saw this same psychic, she was right on the money about my life and circumstances. Now, I think the only thing I'd really want to know is my medical background. Although I certainly believe that some people are predisposed to eating disorders and other mental illnesses through genetics, at times, it's harder for me to see it in myself simply due to not having that ability. I can't point to my birth mother, birth father or uncle Joe, Aunt Sue to say there is a history of depression, eating disorder, or other mental illness. I can't point to personality traits I have and say my birth mother or birth father were like that. All I know is that I came with certain personality traits that had already developed--perfectionistic, serious, stoic, self-reliant, competitive, confident, hard-working. As a child, my parents would describe me a witty, athletic, cute, and loving.
When I look at pictures of myself from such an early age, it's hard to believe that is me. That girl looks so different. She is happy, care-free, confident, has fire and spunk, and is simply living in the moment. She isn't yet afraid of the future, or that she will fail or succeed, or give food morality. I think that is the part of me that I miss the most. Though I don't dwell on my past, I do wish I had a better memory of myself growing up. There are many stories my parents tell me which I have absolutely no recollection of. The memories I do have are in fragment, bits and pieces with some positive and some negative. It almost becomes like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, seeing where everything fits.

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I've kind of gone off tangent, and there is a lot more I could say (feel free to ask questions if you want), but I want to close with some other thoughts. I'm certainly thankful I was adopted as who knows what my life would be like now. I feel "lucky" to have been chosen out of so many other children. I still ask myself what made me standout, what made me "special." My father believes it was fate that brought us together. Perhaps so. Whatever the case, I would not be here now, in America, or even writing about this without the gift of adoption.

5 comments:

kb said...

Tiptoe,

I want to come back to this post to comment more and re-read it, because there is so much here and it's amazingly moving.
I also love the idea that you celebrate this day in one way or another and that there is an original name for this anniversary!
Thank you for sharing,
Kristina

Gaining Back My Life said...

Tiptoe, thank you for being so transparent and sharing such a private, beautiful part of your life with your readers.

My husband and I are two people who are unable to have children, and pursused adoption through the local foster care system. We have put that on hold due to my illness and relapse.

I too will revisit this post. It was beautiful and honest.

Tiptoe said...

Kristina and GBML, thank you both for your comments. It really means a lot to me. I wasn't sure whether to keep this post up, because yes, it is very personal and allows for a vulnerability. But I like to think it gives a different perspective of life, transitions, adoption, etc.

And GBML, I hope one day you will be able to adopt if you so choose. It truly is rewarding from both ends.

KC Elaine said...

I never knew any of this about you and I'm very happy to learn it. What a beautiful story. Do you remember your birth parents or the Korean language at all? I'm glad it sounds like you've come to see your adoption as a gift - very touching.

Tiptoe said...

Kyla, thanks for reading this epic. As for what I remember, it's a no to both. I know a few Korean words, but that's it. I do hope to relearn it one day.