A Song For My Mother
During the 1970s, only half of the (Korean) children placed for adoption were orphans; most of the remaining children were born out of wedlock (Holt Korea 1999). Because of societal values emphasizing the importance of bloodline, children were adopted domestically only by extended family or blood relatives (Sarri, et al. 1998). By 1976, annual international adoptions of Korean children had reached an all time high of 6,597 children, with approximately 4,000 of these children adopted by families in the U.S. (also-known-as, inc. 1999). Today, there are over 100,000 Korean adoptees in the U.S. and the numbers are growing (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute).
Somewhere in Korea, deep in the heart of Pyuang Chang Kun of Kangwon Province, a young mother stands alone. The sound of her water breaking flows into the rhythmic current of the Dong-gang river miles away, known to be the origins of the Han River and the lifeline of Seoul citizens. Rumor has it that a mysterious woman lives among Tae-baek, one of the more remote mountainous regions in Kangwon—she is with child, an outsider seeking refuge there.
But on this particular night, an unsettling darkness chokes her flawless body as she staggers to a place in her mind where she can no longer force her apologetic legs to continue carrying her burden. Panicky and dazed, she wraps this tiny body in a subconscious remnant of a gracious attempt, a simple pink quilt, and places it neatly along the roadside as though she is selling her diamond at a pawn shop.
As the clock strikes midnight, her magic wears off. She turns back into the young woman she once was. No witness or institution will question the evidence conceived in the womb of these mountains. She kneels beside the Han River, begging it to restore her soul.
Before vanishing into the inconspicuous night air, she leaves a small tender note attached to the child’s heart. It is the only evidence giving written record of both their existence: a birth date reading as heavy as an anchor but carrying with it the perplexity of a blank name tag. She secretly hopes an angel will find this extension of her, saving them both before the sun rises on her guilty conscience and the impartial street sweepers clean up the mess she leaves.
She knows this child, abandoned at birth and without a name, represents an image, an image of inconvenience to her life, an image ultimately betraying her should she take it home. An image so resilient that if kept in Korea, it will forever ruin her ability to have a real family and a good husband.
She does what she can to save herself, her father’s name, and this small child. She offers this life as a sacrifice, pleading that it not bring dishonor to her family name.
She feeds the child to mother Earth and walks away, an abortion she will forever wrestle with in her mind.
Across the sea, a childless couple in Michigan realizes they cannot have biological children. As the doctor forces them to swallow this reality like an un-chewed piece of meat, the woman turns blue. Blue like the house she grows up in. Blue like the apron she wears playing dress up for hours, feeding invisible screaming children lined up like perfectly smiling porcelain dolls at a dinner table. Blue-collar, like the husband she marries and one day dreams of giving a child.
She becomes, not the first woman to go to college in her family, rather, a glorious, wonderful first time mother. She is taught that for lower middle class, high school educated, white women, motherhood is synonymous with the highest calling of God. This is the path of honor, beauty, and success and is something she can do. In fact, it’s the only thing she is raised to do.
And as the doctor explains the whys and hows of her inability to procreate in foreign medical terms, she stands there, letting the words wash over her body in hot humiliation. She shrinks back into a little girl, being teased on playgrounds by young school boys: boys who later become doctors that deliver babies. But today, he delivers a message that says she cannot deliver a baby. One leg stands in the sterile office, teetering on edge. The other stands in the classroom, remembering the jokes she endures behind school brick walls. She is mocked until the miscarriage of hope to be liked is forced from her. It’s school boys like these that makes her feel dumb in math class and insecure of her awkward body as it stops performing in gym. Now, years later, a grown woman old enough to be this doctor’s mother, she is diminished back into the same insignificant, humiliated school girl who can’t make her body perform again.
He tells her, she fails today.
Tears as wide as the Han River flood past the banks of her soul; they carve two jagged streams in the hills of her pale white cheeks. Reservoirs of disappointment nurse the pools of bitterness, softly collecting like morning dew in between the cracks of her face.
She swallows the meat hard and stirs the death of a child in the folds of the flourless cake batter, her mind becoming the mixing bowl and a coffin for a baby not even born yet. Over and over, she beats denial into reality until her hands bleed—reassuring herself the lumps are perfectly gone and this cake will rise from the dead.
What kind of hallmark card will she send to all her family? How will she inform her mother that grandchildren are for ‘those’ kinds of families but not hers? How can she bear witness to a God that betrays her?
She seeks her husband, looking for refuge, but, instead, finds an emasculated shadow standing in his place. The husband is unable to stop this doctor, another man violating her hopes and dreams, ones he cannot translate into the promise of a child either. This news becomes a dangling thread unraveling in their sacred wedding vows.
As her family comes undone, she is completely powerless as a woman to save it. Guilt and shame suffocate any attempts to pacify their pain.
In America, to mourn the inability to produce a biological child is to mourn the loss of an image: an image of a family that cannot complete its photos for the annual church directories or the handmade crafts to decorate the mantel. It is an image that cannot be manufactured nor tolerated in absence for the Christmas cards any longer—it means there is no acceptance by a community of faith that defines itself by its mainstream, conservative, blue-collar family values.
It is all the difference between being blessed and being seen as blessed.
Now, they have no position of power as they stand facing the same mountain in the Kangwon province, begging it to give back their child.
In Korea, the Han River freezes over before the grief in America begins to thaw. Through periods of desperation, the couple remember where they are and begin exploring the possibilities of what a western family will socially accept as a plausible alternative.
Attending seminars and quietly submitting to become another growing statistic, they sit in the crock pot, simmering over tender wounds. They must reopen their hearts instead of a womb and share the possibility of a child in this space.
As they see images of a child—the same child bringing shame to one family but to another, a hope and a future—the rate of exchange for this transaction becomes synonymous with the bond of mutual pain, legal documents, another calling from God and American currency.
The couple sign the papers and wait to get pregnant.
The first time I meet my adopted parents, I fly in on a black and white photo the size of the palm of a hand. I can’t see them, but they see me. They sift through a few other photos as if picking finalists for a competition. It’s hard not to think of it being likened to a casting call. To be chosen based on our physical features and age alone, it’s difficult, for we are all barred from speaking, unable to share our unique culture and individuality.
Instead, we are represented through an American agent who legally owns the rights to translate our image into something more palatably suited for a western appetite.
We are told that in America there is a new life waiting for us. It’s a life with pre-determined roles, for we are completing another family’s script. We are given characters, a brother or sister of some type and a stage with a built in community, school, and house that is primed and waiting. All we have to do is fill it. Our contract assures an audience, also known as family and friends promising safety and welcome. We might even get a director, an acting coach to help us assimilate into the dominant culture and new costumes and makeup so that our look and our clothes match with the setting. But most of all, a plot: we get a story to complete us. One that has a purpose and a new American name.
This is an opportunity of a lifetime. As orphans, we are brought from nothing and redeemed from a symbol of someone else’s rejection. We are told in many ways how perfect we are in the sight of those blessed enough to pay for the opportunity to adopt us. We watch our individual selves literally become created on paper because many of us will have no record of our beginnings. We are told to be forever grateful for a context that now carries value, one that has a chance to shape our existence into something worth far more than what we could have imagined.
The outlines of my father’s calloused thick hands lick the skin of my face. These hands are made from the abuse of manufacturing work, years of physical labor and holding a bitter woman during the long nights. Rough and proud, they tremble as he holds a pen like it is the last daisy on earth. I want to think he has me in mind as he picks it.
I study each bead of sweat as he concentrates on such an important procedure as this.
Who will he save?
Who will he choose?
Who will he bestow his favor and mercy on? As my soul lay wide open with only the rich black truffles of my pupils to catch his guilty confession of being a male chocoholic, I am reduced to a simmer on a stove, a pet behind a glass cage. I hope he’ll see a reflection of my dire situation before it resonates with what some would call a moment from God.
The father holds me up to the light.
He studies my round face.
He searches for the tiniest flaws that might not be most convenient to their lifestyle. He re-reads my anorexic files as if it is the last scrap of meat, but in between the lines, he smells something different.
Am I the right reflection of him?
Will others see him in me?
A daughter who brings joy and pride as I dance in his kitchen and eat the sacred communion of Sunday meat and potatoes the Dutch Tucker way?
Will he see me as a replacement of what could have been?
Will his brother, who fought and killed people in the Vietnam War, be able to sit me on his lap and not equate my image with the enemy?
Will I like pickle and bologna sandwiches made with Wonder Bread and trade fancy vacations for camping trips because there isn’t enough money?
Will I blend in with the church kids, all wearing pink dresses and lace each Sunday and sucking on perfect peppermints, and never question traditions like another mindless game of jump rope?
How many times will I look forward to being introduced to the good old boys at the local hardware store, or succumbing to the awkward silence that will soon resonate with my adolescent years, or dressing up in my Dutch costume for pictures with tulips?
How many shoulder rides will it take for me to see the world through his eyes and completely accept this father—a hero, a hardworking, proud, white, American, God-fearing man earning a day’s wage with values no one can fault?
This man saves me, an orphan.
I will bring honor to his name, yet how many games of chess will he have to teach me before he realizes that even his white privilege cannot protect me completely as his own?
It is I, a helpless child, carrying so much power in this staged moment.
I stand one inch away from fulfilling the image that is needed to reconcile his family being complete, yet I am miles away from ever completing this image in person.
The mother holds her nervous arms as stiff as a corpse. Trying to contain her raw eagerness, she too wants a blind taste of what the father has just savored. Her gaze meditates on the moment he will pass the torch into her hands, coveting the life in this photo. She cradles the picture as though she’s holding her newborn for the first time. Tracing the precious two dimensional face with her finger, she lets her mind race with the possibilities of fat baby cheeks, little brown buns, drooling lips, and hugs from innocent arms that do not know better.
This novelty is the closest she has to feeling pregnant. She quietly thanks another mother half way across the sea for giving her a gift that is best for all, but she forgets it is a loan to be eventually repaid.
As the mother starts to whisper the name of the new song she will sing, she kneels beside the Han River, begging it to restore her soul. Waves of confession spill onto the office floor. She admits to the lack of unconditional love she has always felt growing up and now sees her one chance to fix it all. Through the eyes of this child, she will face her insecurities, fears, her moments of being teased and never being seen as quite good enough. With the adoption of this child, she knows she cannot birth it, but this child will birth a new beginning inside of her. This child will be taught secrets of the Halstead women, but she will fail to tell the child they are only applicable in the margins of a housewife. The mother tenderly squeezes her husband’s balled up, dried out, playdough hand, indicating this is the cake that will rise.
* * *
My descent into the birth canal begins on March 30th, 1978, on an airplane just shy of my 6 month birthday. I will land amongst a people that hold an American President by the name of Jimmy Carter and wake up to newspaper headlines confessing Gypsies being the greatest threat to a small rural town called Holland, Michigan. It is here where I am taught that being adopted is the best thing that could ever happen to me. That in between all of the normal stages of life and becoming a young woman in a home filled with love and safety, there is an undeniable melody of gratitude that I must keep. Not because of what I am given, but because of what I could have been left to. And so it is here, where I learn to quietly exist within the greatest limits of what my adopted parents can emotionally and financially afford while always aware of another whose limits caused her to donate in faith what she could not become.
Robyn Afrik is a compelling platform speaker, national consultant and strategist on issues surrounding reconciliation/diversity, international adoption, multi-cultural families’ and identity formation. With over a decade of community development experience and successful fundraising efforts both in the private and public sectors, Robyn, a Korean adoptee, continues sharing her own unique and personal story, to inspire, teach and challenge those being called to the issues of social change. Robyn continues to be sought after by organizations of all sizes to share her expertise in bridge building on all levels.