My Korean American Story: Matthew Salesses

By: Matthew Salesses

December 13, 2012

On Adoption, Genes, and the Difficulty of Imaginationmattreadingtograce

I am reading I Wish for You a Beautiful Life right now, for the first time, suggested to me by another Korean adoptee. It is a book of letters from birth mothers to their babies, letters I wish had come packaged with us. I have found that the letters I appreciate are the ones where the mothers say they will not ask for forgiveness. I wonder why this is. After 30 years, 28 with my adoptive parents, I had thought I was less angry than I am. I find myself judging these women, the ones who want forgiveness, or the ones who try to explain that society would not have let them raise the baby alone, or the ones who say life would have been too hard for their child in Korea. I find myself wanting to tell them that they should have known that life would be hard for us, as adopted kids in another country, with parents of another race not guaranteed to love them or raise them well. Adopted children do not lead easy lives. Sometimes the birth mothers explain that they sent the children abroad so that they would have a “fair” chance. I want to tell these mothers how wrong that thought is. This is from a time, these letters, when Koreans must have thought so much of the outside world, to think that people had a fair chance there. Regardless of race or manner of birth. Or, more likely, these were lies they told themselves. I want to tell them these were lies, to make them see that these were lies. And yet I want to be loved.

I was adopted when I was two. I was abandoned as a baby and was lucky that someone found me. Or maybe my birth mother waited and left me there when she thought I would be found. Maybe this is my own lie. I wonder what she was thinking, sure. That is what I do now, an attempt at a career. I wonder what people are thinking. I spend hours each day wondering and writing. But this may not have been caused by my abandonment. My parents are librarians, both of them, and teachers, or were until their retirement. They raised me with books. They raised me with my imagination intact. My fears intact. My doubts. But also my sympathy.

It is hard to guess what my birth mother would have written to me, as one of those mothers delivering their babies up for adoption in I Wish. I wonder if she got any advice, if there was anyone else with a hand in the decision. The letter I most sympathize with is by a woman who loved a man below her social level. She wanted to marry that man, but her parents disapproved. She writes that this was the first time she had seen them cry for her, and she was heartbroken. I understand this, I think, because of what I know about Koreans. I might not have understood before. I went overseas and married a Korean woman, a story ripe with its own insecurities and desires. The mother of the letter found out she was pregnant just after her parents’ disapproval, heartbroken that she could not marry as she wanted and still be a filial daughter. And then she had a baby of her own. She hid the baby from her parents, from the man. She must have cut ties with the man altogether. She cut ties and held onto only the baby inside her, whom eventually she gave away.

I understand how someone can be trapped by love, or I at least believe it. As we say in writing workshops, trying to craft truth, I buy it. I understand heartbroken. I understand the conflicts of family and loyalty. But maybe this is because of adoption.

In truth, I am not sure what parts of me are because I was abandoned and which are not. It is a deep rift. If you shake the earth until it splits, what comes out of the crack was there all along, but also never there until then.

I don’t know how to describe it. I wish for my birth mother a beautiful life, too, and then I don’t. I wish she would search harder, feel more. I wish for her what I need, and needed, a life fully aware of one moment, and yet able to move on.

I am writing a book right now about my experience as an adoptee, a book like a conversation, with a father who adopted a boy from Korea. We trade thoughts, stories, questions. We have not yet gotten to birth mothers. Right now, we are 20 pages or so in and we are still talking about adoption agencies. I wonder if we are avoiding it. We are both fathers, and we talk about our own kids. This is intensely interesting to me, seeing how he is raising a boy with the problems, underneath, that I had and have, which for his son are still hidden.

I was born 30 years ago, an age that is supposed to mean something, to indicate a new stage of life, to a woman I do not know. I have a daughter who will turn one-year-old a week from now, a biological child in whom I can see my wife and me and yet also someone all her own. We have realized, with the baby, how much a baby is born with: an entire personality, a way of living that we never gave her. It is like they have their own philosophies, babies. How would she end up if she never knew us, I wonder.

But what I meant to write about was genes and the known and unknown and the hunt for who I am. When we had our baby, my wife said we would be able to find out a little about me, since if something about the baby was not from her side, it must be from mine.

If the baby had an allergy to something no one in my wife’s family was allergic to, or if the baby had some deficiency or tendency that was not from my wife’s blood, the idea went, it would be something I found out about my ancestry. It is an inconvenient thing, in medicine, and in life, not having a family history.

The story of genes, for us, is a story of subtraction. Baby minus wife equals me.

I wonder how I would have turned out, under other circumstances. For a while, after the birth, when we were having the worst troubles and my parents were giving us advice from another age, we would say, but they couldn’t know. It wasn’t their fault. They didn’t know what it was like, to have a baby so young. Because they adopted.

And this was true. And yet it also was saying: they didn’t know me. They didn’t know me until I was two and a half. Which is so so much not to know.

I think about my first three years of life—the time in which, as my wife often reminds me, the most brain development occurs. When I got to America, I couldn’t walk. I have heard about orphanages that keep children in their cribs, or even tie them in, so that they will be easier to take care of. Is that why I couldn’t walk? Is that what my birth mother imagined?

I wonder what my birth mother would think of my life. Would she do it again, give me up, if she could? Would she keep me longer, at least? I do not understand what she was thinking, it is clear. There are gaps in my imagination.

When I was a child, I used to get so lost in my thoughts that I couldn’t hear anything else. I actually couldn’t hear. I used to see words as pictures. I would read a book and it would be like watching a movie. If you said the name of a character to me, it would bring up a face, not a story.

Maybe this has nothing to do with adoption. Or maybe everything has everything to do with adoption. This is the question I am never and can never be sure about. It is the question my baby is helping to answer, in part. The question who am I? Isn’t that what we’re always endlessly asking?

In the book I am writing with this adoptive father, I have the ability to ask him any question. I can have any answer he can give. What I choose to ask him about is: what were the questions he asked then? What were the questions he should have asked but didn’t? What were the questions he wished he’d asked?

Because I don’t know what to want to know. This is about adoption. Adoption has always been more a question than an answer. That is what I want to tell those birth mothers. Maybe I am trying to write the book I wish I had gotten to ask.


Matthew Salesses was born in Korea and adopted at age two. He lives with his Korean wife and baby and two cats in Boston. He is the author of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying (Civil Coping Mechanisms, Feb 2013) and The Last Repatriate (Nouvella, 2011). He is the Fiction Editor and a Contributing Writer at The Good Men Project. More at, or follow him at @salesses.