Constant Hunger

What would have been the one-year milestone of my (Ultimate Life Fail) ULF recently passed.

In fact, as I’m typing a group of wonderful individuals are together celebrating their mid-point together.

It’s a group that I should be a part of, but because I just couldn’t do it, I’m here, staring blankly at the disappointment of who I’ve become.

All of this led me to reconsider, once again, what happened and what went wrong. I can’t stop thinking about how different my life would be, how different I would be if I were still on that track.

If my circumstances had been different, would I still be there?
Would I be there, celebrating my resiliency, rather than here, wondering if there’s even a shred of resiliency left in me?
Would I still be that strong person that I used to be? That person where bad things could happen and I could take an Eastern perspective and say “that’s life” and move on, unbroken?
Would I still enjoy life?

If I would have stayed and found self-worth through my actions and doing something good, would this hunger that I have for love, acceptance and belonging be as intense? Would finding my biological parents still mean everything to me?

Orphans are always hungry. You can feed them Spam and chocolate bars and poisoned apples all day long and they’ll still complain about emptiness. That’s why the government manufactures cakes made of grass. The cakes have no nutritional value, but they possess a magical property that makes orphans feel full. -Jane Jeong Trenka in Fugitive Visions

I remember how it felt as the plane began its ascent toward Japan; how part of me wanted to do something completely inappropriate so that they would stop the plane and leave me in Korea, or at least buy me more time, because, for as much as I wanted to be anywhere but there, leaving stirred up those familiar feelings of failure and disappointment. You’re leaving. You’re failing your biological parents. You’re failing yourself. Try harder. Why won’t/can’t you try harder?! Do something, dang it! If it’s that important to you, you wouldn’t be leaving, you’d be staying. What don’t you get about this? It’s simple. And yet, you can’t do it. What’s wrong with you? You can’t give them that? You’re a terrible daughter, of course they were right to give you up. What don’t you get about that? You’re humanity has been demeaned; you’re barely human. You’re a monster. And monsters don’t deserve to live.

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.)

“I wish for you a beautiful life.”

Conflict.
Contradiction.

These two words seem to sum up life right now.

As each day creeps by, I find myself more anxious than the last, resulting in doing my best to block everything out. However, the events of the last two days have left me defenseless, confused, and in a continual state of ‘trying to process.’

Yesterday, rather than doing a myriad of other things that needed to be done, I found myself sitting under a tree reading I Wish For You a Beautiful Life: Letters from the Korean Birth Mothers of Ae Rae Won to Their Children.

As I quickly took in the words on the pages, this stream of consciousness occurred:

These birth moms loved their children enough to write them a letter. A lot of them even have hopes of meeting their child in the future –> That means I have a good chance of my mom/dad wanting the same thing, wanting to meet me –> Wait. –> My birth mom didn’t write me a letter. In fact, neither of my parents have even contacted the agency to learn more about me or try to initiate contact –> Hope dwindles, especially with the reminder that after my mom learned she was pregnant, she quit her job and moved from motel to motel, hiding from everyone she knew out of shame –> shame of me; how do you not take that personally? –> Regardless though, how could she not want to meet me now? –> But I get it (thanks, undergrad major) and I get the complexity. –> However, in this case, getting it is not nearly enough to make it easier.

Reading the collection of letters reiterated what I have learned in historical texts and memoirs and helped me understand Korean culture a lot better. During the time period I was born, males were highly valued over females and marriages were often arranged. As such, and given their strong ties to Confucianism, pregnancy outside of marriage was highly stigmatized (way more than in the US during the same time period), and to a large part, still is. So much so that their “family register” (a document equivalent to the US birth certificate) is examined upon entering jobs, schools, and so forth. When you don’t have a male (father) tied to your family register, you are instantly stigmatized and looked down upon. As such, a lot of the women described this in their letters as one of their reasons for relinquishing their baby– they knew how their culture treated illegitimate children and didn’t want their child being exposed to such harshness and inequality. At least in America, their child may be lucky enough to escape these erroneous judgements, albeit in place of another set of judgements.

See?
I really do understand how all of the parts of their culture are interconnected and I’m confident that I could explain the adoption phenomena that occurred in the 80s with a holistic approach. (Someday, I hope to do just that.)

But it’s still not enough to alleviate the hurt of what I’m experiencing.
And it doesn’t even begin to take into account the status of the relationship with my adoptive parents and the accompanying guilt and confusion.

Adoption File

According to Holt’s FAQ page, the adoption records that they have are the same ones that my adoptive parents received.

So, imagine my surprise when I received my file and learned intimate details about my parents; details that finally made them feel real to me, for the first time.

That may sound strange because after all, everyone has someone who created them. However, when you know nothing about those fundamental people, it’s extremely difficult to actually imagine them. But with the information in my adoption file, albeit little, I was able to finally feel like I have parents. That’s huge, in so many ways.

My parents' information

Reason for Relinquishment

Reason for Relinquishment

Upon reading this, my heart starting beating unusually fast and getting a good breath in felt next to impossible. The fact that they were unmarried means that the chances that I’ll be able to find them are slim, due to the cultural stigma toward single women. When all you want out of life is to find your parents and be able to feel that love and connection, the prospect of never being able to is nothing short of heartbreaking.

My emotions rushed from surprised (because remember, this should have all been old information…) to disappointed to really upset.

I was upset with my adoptive parents for never making this information available to me and I was upset with my biological parents for giving me up in the first place, thinking “no ability to bring up a baby?! There’s always an ability, but you didn’t even try to make it work!”

After trying to calm myself down failed, I went out for a walk and ended up collapsing under a tree in exhaustion and sadness. I remember sitting under the tree, not caring that I was sitting on snow and ice, and staring out into space in some weird daze. A good amount of time later, I heard honking horns in the distance and realized I had somehow fallen asleep. Fighting the urge to just stay under the tree, I eventually managed to convince myself to get up and go home.

The next day I was able to look at everything more objectively and gained clarity from a friend who had already begun researching what life would have been like for them, as factory workers. What he found, and what I’m now diving head-first into researching, is that the structural conditions in South Korea in 1986 and the years surrounding were ones that deeply oppressed its citizens.

In fact, the factory conditions at that time were some of the worst in history, with the workers constantly making pleas such as this:

Boss, please, our work is too hard. It’s too cold in our workplace. The machine is running too fast and I’m afraid of getting hurt. Please treat us like human beings rather than always trying to watch over us. […] Dark murky blood comes out of my throat. My arms ache so painfully as if they are being cut off from my body. The smell of poisonous gas gives me a headache. My feet are swollen. I cannot endure it anymore. I’d like to rest. I’d like to rest (Kim Kyong-sook et al. 1986, 183-84).

Instead of wanting higher wages, the Korean factory workers merely wanted to be treated humanely and with justice; many noted how it would be better to be a machine or animal because they got to rest.

Depiction of a rural girl heading to an urban job

After reading Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation by Hagen Koo, I’ve been able to learn a lot about the structural conditions of South Korea during this rapid period of industrialization. Although it’s painful to imagine what my parents must have gone through so that we could drive Hyundais and possess other unnecessary conveniences in the name of globalization, I’ve arrived at a deeper understanding as to who (I imagine) they were and why they gave me up.

Their structure made their choice for them, leaving behind many victims of structural violence.

Given this, I hope they realize that they’re strong, brave people. I also hope that they’re okay with who they are and that they’ve made peace with everything.

And of course, I hope that they can sense that their daughter on the other side of the world loves them and gets it (or at least is doing her best to) and is desperately searching for them.