“No Feelings, Just Ice Cream: A Memoir”

On the last night in Seoul, a few of us went out to get ice cream, opting out of the optional “Reflection” time that our tour leader so apathetically presented (it says a lot when a whole group opts out, but I digress). There were a few of us who became good friends, so we decided to go out and enjoy what remained of our last night together (it was already 10 pm). On the way there, one of the individuals (aka: my twin who happens to be 4 years older), had remarked that we were skipping all of the mushy feelings– “no feelings, just ice cream.” I laughed and said “that sounds like a book title,” to which she responded with something to the effect of “yeah, for your memoir.” We laughed again because of how fitting and accurate it would be.

When looking to the trip, I envisioned being magically “healed,” or at least closer to a resolution and feeling okay and at peace. Now, at the tail end of the trip, I’ve realized that nothing has been resolved. If anything, more things have been stirred up and I find myself in an emotional limbo, stuck and unable to “join loved ones” on this side due to my inability to be loved and be accepted, both by myself and by others.

Everyone who was able to meet their birth parent(s)/families or foster parent(s)/families have spoken about how they feel ecstatic, happy, healed; how they have been forever changed. They realize that there will still be complications, given the complexity of adoption and its repercussions, however they know that they will be okay. They’ve found it– their past, their identity, love from their birth parents, a way to become whole.

Listening to everyone’s stories was torture, but I am so, so happy for them because I know how much it must mean. Although everyone’s experiences are relative, I can feel how significant it is for them to know about who they are and to finally begin to become whole.

After seeing what’s possible, I’m craving it now more than ever. You hear stories about reunions gone awry, but I’ve just witnessed more than five and know the healing power that even a simple, short meeting can hold. How does one ever move forward knowing that it’s out there? Knowing that their healing has only come from a reunion? Knowing that you’re being forced down a different path that will be “close, but no cigar?”

I can’t fathom anything else, any other way.
It’s just not possible.


Unwelcome Visitor

A couple of days ago I was reading through some of the blogs of people on the tour. It struck me that they were all so excited to be here, regardless of if it met their expectations. Every post was an enthusiastic recount of the day, filled with no shortage of wonder and awe. They’re seizing every opportunity, taking everything in, seeing everything that is new and unfamiliar in the light of fascination and mystery, as something wondrous and exciting.

This is how pre-life fail me would be.

Post-life fail me is exactly the opposite. This self is cowering in a corner, ashamed that this part can’t be found, can’t be summoned from somewhere within, and sad due to being cognizant of the fact that it’s missing out, yet still unable to stay focused and present.

Waking up is hard; getting out of bed harder.
Going through the motions of the day is exhausting; being around people is more exhausting.
Living has become a constant struggle.

Who is this foreigner?
And how long is she planning on staying?

Holt Office, Reception Center, and Kyeong-Dong Children’s Home

5/22/12 Reviewing adoption files (Holt Office)
The day before one of the group guides stated that many adoptees, more often than not, find additional information in their Korean adoption file. The reasoning for this is because their social workers want to explain things in person, in order to prevent important information from getting lost in translation. This makes complete sense. “More often than not” became my mantra, regardless of my futile attempts to block out any hope/excitement. Unfortunately, I generally tend to be an optimistic person, so there’s usually a part of me that finds something to hope for.

But of course, since the universe just really hates me, there was no new information in my file. She showed me the original intake report (written in Hangul), but said that she couldn’t share any of it with me, noting that the parts that were sharable have already been given to me. In hindsight, I’m disappointed that I wasn’t clever enough to find a way to covertly snap a picture on my phone. I’m also surprised that I didn’t grab the paper and begin running, because there was a strong urge pulling me in that direction. I’m confident in my ability to run and certain that they wouldn’t have been able to catch me. Being arrested for wanting to know my birth parents’ names and information about them? That’s something I can live with. I’d love to meet someone who thinks differently.

The only surprising part about reviewing my file was that they had my adoptive parents’ application– their background/histories, reason for adopting, and so forth. When I asked to read through it, the social worker said that I was not allowed to since there may have been confidential information, then said “you probably already know all of this anyway.” I wonder what she would have said if I would have told her “trust me, if you’ve read through this, you already know more than me– I don’t even know what year my parents were born. We’re pretty close.”

5/22/12 Holt Staff (Holt Office)
At the Holt Office we were quickly introduced to the key staff members and then watched a brief overview video of the history of Holt. My feelings throughout were very diverse. One moment I was grateful for the organization, while the next I found myself filled with loathing, wishing that the building would spontaneously combust.

When I saw Director Kim all I could think about was “you talked to my birth mother! you know her voice!” Part of me wanted to run up to her, fall at her feet and beg for information– what did my birth mother sound like? what did she say and how did she say it? did she sound angry, scared or a combination of the two? I was, and am, desperate for something, anything, that can help me begin to imagine my birth parents. While passing people on the street, I can’t help but wonder about things like how my birth parents dress (do they dress casually or business casual and stylish) and what they do for a living (are they street vendors, business people, teachers, servers, hotel staff). Not knowing anything about them makes everything a possibility. This is all information that Director Kim could know, if only she would ask. As such, seeing her in real life, made her more real, made my parents more real. There seems to be a direct correlation between my parents becoming more real and the distance put between us.

Juxtapose that with my response to seeing Molly Holt (the daughter of Harry and Bertha Holt), which was a combination of loathing and compassion, and you can begin to see how this got emotional pretty quickly. Seeing Molly Holt made me want to vomit. It’s not that she disgusted me, but the image of what she represented disgusted me. Watching her was a constant struggle to stay in control and remember that she is probably a very nice and wonderful individual. It’s not fair to blame her for the things her parents did, but given the complex views I hold of adoption I still found myself constantly having to “be her,” to see myself in her, in order to think clearly, objectively, and with compassion. For me, it was the epitome of an empathic, transcendent even, experience. All of this was so unexpected and at the end I found myself hurting a lot, but thinking “Molly, you’re okay, you are.”

The next person to be introduced was Dr. Cho, my pediatrician for the first five months of my life and the only person who I know spent time with me, even though it was to perform routine tests and check-ups. Even though she was the pediatrician for all of the babies, I still felt a strange, emotional attachment to her, mainly because she is the only real link to my beginnings. Upon seeing her, I had the desire to run up and hug her, like you would do upon seeing a good friend after years of being apart. She’s such a beautiful woman and a delight to be around. She’s one of those people who glows, one of the ones who brightens any room, one of the ones you’re always sad to leave.

5/22/12 Holt Reception Center
Visiting the Holt Reception Center (the place where the babies are taken and kept for various durations) made me recall some of the things that people, especially adoptees, cringe upon hearing. The main ones are the following:

“I want an Asian baby!”
“She’d stuff one in a suitcase and bring one back if she knew it would be safe!”
“Bring one back with you!”
“You should take one home!”

Believe it or not, babies at an orphanage really are different than puppies at a pound.

They’re not puppies.
They’re not objects.
They’re not commodities.
They’re humans.

5/24/12 Kyeong-Dong Children’s Home
On the 24th I was able to visit the orphanage that I was in. Although the building wasn’t the original, the director was. She was a really sweet woman and was really happy that myself and another adoptee came back to Korea to visit. I’m not sure how many adoptees have returned because our presence there was really emotional for her (based off of a comparison of another adoptees’ visit to her orphanage).

Although this was emotional for her, I felt pretty disconnected from all of it, given that it wasn’t the original building and not knowing if she had spent time with me or not.

We were able to review the file that the orphanage had for us. Again, no new information (except that I was the 106th baby admitted), but there was a picture of myself that I had never seen before. It was really surprising to see because I didn’t know any others existed. (Note: There was a huge translation error while reviewing the file, which brought me pretty high up and, upon correction, left me plummeting downward again.)

All of that said, it was refreshing to see the orphanage because it was a really nice facility, filled with volunteers who were actively playing with the babies (one of the disconcerting parts about the Reception Center was that a lot of the babies were just slung onto womens’ backs while they worked). The children here seemed like they were well taken care of it.

(After the mistranslation, my ability to feel was replaced with numbness, so the rest of the tour of the orphanage was pretty flat and disconnected for me. Hence, I have very few comments/thoughts on it.)


There are multiple people on the trip who are able to either 1) meet one or both of their birth parents 2) meet their foster mother(s) 3) see the actual place where they were born or 4) talk with a friend of their mothers.

Words cannot express how happy I am for them. Having been denied all of these experiences, I can imagine how wonderful it must feel. Complex, yet great nonetheless. One cannot know the deepness of this happiness until one knows the deepness of the pain. Knowing the latter, I am so grateful that they have these opportunities and a better place to move forward from.

Likewise, words cannot express how envious I am of them and how much it hurts to hear their stories. To be filled with that familiar longing, doing all you can to force yourself to stay focused on the person, to fully share in their joy, while inside you’re dying is quite the struggle. It’s like being at a wedding when you’re 80 and unmarried, your heart breaking again and again and again.

Slowly, then all at once, your will to keep going slips away like a thief in the night, transforming you into an automaton with only basic functions.

5/25/12 (Sigh)

Earlier this evening I saw the couple from earlier this morning, the one where we gave the advice of “don’t be an asshole parent.” They had their son, who is 16 months old, and were busy chasing him around the hotel. Unfortunately, they seemed really annoyed. I’m not sure what gave me this impression, but the “I’m tired of following him around, you do it” had something to do with it.

(The weirdness of seeing a couple who, this morning didn’t have this son, is indescribable. It’s like the fetishism of the commodity, except applied to people. I wonder how long it takes for adoptive parents to feel like their child is “theirs,” especially as children become older.)

Now they are in the guest lounge with me on the next couch over, about five feet away. When they walked into the room I congratulated them and asked when they left for the United States. The wife responded with the following, as their son was crying:

“Not until Tuesday. We weren’t supposed to get him until Monday, but with Buddha’s birthday all of the offices are closed or something. So now we don’t know what to do until we get home.”
(still crying)
(husband to wife) “Walk around with him or something. He should go to sleep soon.”
(5 minutes later: places little boy in front of iPad with a cartoon playing)

My heart sank.

Shouldn’t they be beyond excited that they were able to get their little boy 3 days early?

Watching them with their little boy has been really hard. At 16 months, many children are already pretty attached to their parents. Knowing the amount of volunteers that flow in and out of orphanages, I wonder how this affects adopted children, as they have no one to “attach” to. Maybe that’s the reason all of my relationships seem to dissipate.

Similar to my experiences visiting Holt’s Reception Center and my orphanage, I really empathized with this boy. When I looked at him and the other babies, it felt as if I was looking at a younger me– innocent and completely unaware of the fact that life was about to change so drastically, so permanently. I identified so much with them and felt a world of sadness.

I’ve read that a lot of adopted women really struggle with childbirth because they’ll have a moment when they realize “this is what my mom went through with me” and/or “that was me at one point.” They identify both with their mothers and their babies. Although I could always see how this would be possible, I feel like I’m one step closer to really understanding what this must be like.

And I’m not sure I could handle that, given the question marks that remain.

5/25/12 “Don’t be an asshole parent.”

This morning a fellow tour mate and I had the chance to talk to a couple who were here adopting their second child (their first was also adopted from Korea). They, well mainly the wife, had a lot of questions and concerns and were really interested in hearing our thoughts on adoption. It was good to be able to talk with a couple who are going through the process and get a glimpse as to their intentions and their parenting style. At times they would negate some of the things we would say, but to be fair I believe that it was because they were honestly trying to understand our perspective, while at the same time deflecting their own pains and worries, as well as their child’s. One of the things I’ve learned is that you can’t hide from this kind of pain, not forever at least…it’s there and every turn.

The irony about talking to this couple and sharing our experiences is that we have both had really negative experiences with our adoptive parents, so we are more critical of the adoption system. When asked what our advice would be to them, as parents of Korean adoptees, our response was basically “don’t be an asshole parent.”

How does one not be this type of parent? Well, on a basic level, it’s simple:

  • Don’t threaten to send your child back to the orphanage, where they would be forced to run around naked and go hungry.
  • Don’t tell them that you regret adopting them.
  • Don’t compare them with your biological children or treat them differently, regardless of if the latter is positive or negative.
  • Don’t deny the hardships and discrimination that they will face by saying “you’re just as white (or American) as us” because everyone knows this is a lie. In fact, your child will be reminded of this whenever he/she looks in the mirror, even if sometimes it is only recognized on a subconscious level. Claiming that we are “just as white/American” ignores the fact that we are different, thereby ignoring and discounting our feelings. As an adult, I understand that many individuals probably say this as a coping mechanism, protecting themselves from feeling the pain that we feel (denial of our pain = denial of their pain for us).
  • Don’t tell your children that they should be grateful for “rescuing them.”
  • Likewise, don’t put a monetary price on how thankful they should be (ie: we paid x-amount of dollars for you).

All of these “don’ts” are pretty intuitive tips for both biological and adoptive children. Biological children may hear things like ‘we wish you were never born,’ but adoptive children have a whole new set of cards that can be used against them, given its unnaturalness. For example, a biological child will probably never hear “I wish I could stuff you back in my uterus” or “let me show you the hospital bills!”

Again, as you can probably tell, we are at one extreme of the adoption spectrum. Other individuals have had more positive experiences with their adoptive families. In fact, most people on the trip have had positive experiences– some are even accompanied by their families or a family member.

It’s been really eye-opening to see these families and to hear about how other adoptees were raised.

On the first day of the trip I was talking to the dad of one of the adoptees. He talked about how he always told his son that if he was ever interested in going to Korea, they’d go, regardless of if it was when he was young or old.

I was, and am, so envious of him. This, all of this, would be so much easier if I didn’t feel, on a fundamental level,  like I was alone in the world and on an impossible journey to find that which cannot be found.