If we were to pass each other on the street, would you know who I am?
I tried writing to you a number of years ago. I don’t know if my letter ever made its way to you. That afternoon at the agency was a haze. I remember the social worker handing me the adoption application, and I remember the way my hands shook and my vision blurred when I saw your handwriting on the page. Once upon a time, you held this same paper. Tracing my fingers along the pen marks you made, and the overwhelming feeling that this was the closest physical interaction we’ve had since you gave birth to me on that hot, humid day in July.
They suggested that I write you a letter. I remember fumbling with the pen, and hastily writing what felt like a thoughtful first message. I told you that I had grown up, that I had a family that loved me, that I was doing well in school, and that I was attempting to reconnect with my past by coming to Korea. I told you that I wasn’t angry at you, that I understood that you had to make a difficult decision, that you shouldn’t worry about me because I was doing just fine, and that you shouldn’t doubt the choice you made because I knew you were looking out for me. I told you that even though we didn’t know each other, I still wanted to make you proud.
A little over ten years has passed since I last wrote to you. I’ve gone through rounds of therapy and attempts to unpack how being a transracial adoptee has made me feel. The last therapist I saw was a well intentioned white woman who tried to convince me that the root of my distress was the fear of abandonment, which I hadn’t considered, but latched onto because it was so relieving to have some reason to point to for my grief and frustration.
After all this time, I think I can begin to articulate how I feel. I don’t feel abandoned, but I do feel loss. I’m angry, but I’m not angry at you. I’m sad, but my sadness comes from a place of mourning what neither of us will ever know, or what could have been. I don’t know if you even wanted to become a mother, let alone a single mother, but I’m devastated that the time and place where you lived made it seem like keeping me wasn’t an option. That somewhere along your pregnancy, you came to the conclusion for whatever reason that it wouldn't be possible for us to have a future together. I’m frustrated that being an adoptee means being forced to accept an identity that was given to me, one that I never chose, one that I’ve carried throughout my life. When I looked to my past, I knew that I was adopted, but knew nothing of my family or culture. There was nothing there to latch onto, and I’ve been trying to fill in those gaping holes on my own ever since. The concept of “한” has come to mean something unique and personal to me as a Korean adoptee, and while this idea comes from a place of sorrow, I still find it beautiful because it connects me to you.
As I’ve grown older, holding space for myself has become both easier and more challenging. As a child, I didn’t know the words “trauma” or “traumatized,” and even as a college student, I didn’t understand how trauma could manifest if based upon something that I was too young to remember. As I’ve grown up, I’ve begun to pay attention to what causes these emotions to resurface: When I’m asked, “Where are you from?” even by someone with the best of intentions, why I’ve avoided assigning family tree or timeline projects for my students, and why I shut down during every ice breaker or community builder that asks me to share the origin of my name. I now understand why movie and TV plotlines around memory and family reunification send me spiraling, and even why the preview for “Finding Dory,” a children’s film about a fish who doesn’t know who she is and goes off to seek her family that she can’t remember resulted in me breaking down in a movie theater.
When I look to the future, I think about my own potential journey as a mother. I’m terrified about what I might project, that I’ll be unable to forge a connection with my baby, that I’ll unintentionally use motherhood to process my own trauma. I also think about how exciting it will be to have my first known blood relative be my own child. What it will feel like to see my own personal characteristics reflected in the face and mannerisms of another human for the first time. I wonder what those fleeting moments of motherhood felt like for you. When you gave birth to me, had you already made your choice? Did you hold me long enough to examine my face? 나 한테 작별 인사 했어? Did you tell me you loved me?
So here I am today. I try to remember that mourning is both a celebration and recognizing an absence. Although I don’t know the exact reasons behind your choice, I want to believe that relinquishing a child is an act of love. Even as an adult, I still feel the need to make you proud, to make something out of the cards that were dealt, and to use the life that was given to me. One of my greatest fears is that your sacrifice and our mutual loss will be in vain. After all these years, I still want to protect you. How can I learn to hold space for both of us and sit with both the pain and joy that adoption brings? How can I express gratitude for who you are and what you’ve given me? How can I honor my ancestors and make them proud, if we’ve never met?
엄마, I have so many questions for you, and it’s hard to accept that I’ll most likely never find the answers. Even though our time together was brief, I want you to know that I carry you with me every single day of my life. When I think of you, I imagine that I reflect all of your best qualities. One day, I hope I have the chance to discover if it’s true.