When our son Bart was only three he voiced emphatic dislike of his handsome Asian face. He wanted to ‘fit in’ to the Caucasian world he’d known since arriving home at age five months. His message was loud and clear, that even at a tender age, his self-esteem was wrapped up with his adoption, Korean heritage and being a “stranger in a strange land”.
For four magical days each summer, Parsons Child and Family Center in Albany was transformed into a Korean village. Pre-teens and teens slept overnight on campus, while younger campers returned home or to hotels each night. Instructors from the Korean community offered classes ranging from folktales and calligraphy to traditional fan dance and martial arts. There were social activities, like bowling, dances, karaoke, and carnival. Staffed mostly by former campers, Mujigae was organized into six separate age groups from infants to 17 year olds, running simultaneously. All of it – food, facilities, dorms, instruction, entertainment and nursing care accomplished by volunteers.
After near-sleepless days and nights of camp, our kids were so wiped out that they’d usually be asleep before the car cleared the camp grounds. I recall arriving home and carrying five year old Cassidy upstairs to her bunk bed. Stirring briefly, she whispered sweetly while drifting off, “Ah, Mujigae….. lots of Korean Kids.”
From age ten to fifteen, Bart and his friends David Kennedy and Dave Rickards returned home after camp to Philadelphia with the Rickards, for what Bart liked to call a weeklong ‘after party.’ Along with the Kennedys we’d drive down to Philly at the end of the week for a huge cookout and post-Mujigae gabfest. Bart came to view Philadelphia as a home away from home.
By age sixteen, Bart’s favorite top was a ‘red-devil’ Korean World Cup Soccer Jersey, his Korean name emblazoned across its back. Never one to be wishy-washy, he had become an overbearing Korean booster. It would be too simple to say this transformation in outlook resulted solely from Korean heritage camp. Other factors played a role, especially the arrival of his adored baby sister Cassidy. For her part Cassidy, now grown up, still considers her Mujigae buddies among her most trusted friends.
Mujigae campers share a special bond, forged by years of happy camping and post- camp “hangin out.” Of course, not every encounter was happy. At fifteen, Bart, Dave Kennedy and Rickards, were stopped in the predominantly white suburb of Drexel Hills PA by a police officer demanding to see IDs. Only Bart was carrying one, but his high school student card, which read “Bart A. Goldstein,” was not a photo-ID. The officer sharply asked Bart, “Who’s this Goldstein guy? Where’s your ID?” Bart angrily insisted that he was himself, but to no avail. Next thing you know, the boys are in the squad car, on their way to the station house on suspicion of loitering. It eventually sorted out, but the boys were plenty steamed up, and there was talk about letters to the police commissioner and mayor. In the end after thorough venting, we hoped they’d learned a sad but necessary object lesson about racial profiling.
Sharing angry hurtful experiences only served to deepen the bonds of friendship and brotherhood forged at Mujigae.
At sixteen Bart suffered a severe traumatic brain injury in a car accident, and soon found his friends moving on with their lives, leaving him alone and adrift. His journey back has been long and bitterly hard, made more bearable by the continued love and support of Mujigae friends. As my wife Dayle wrote in an open letter to Mujigae years after the accident: “What’s different about Mujigae friends is that they view Bart as part of themselves. They understand viscerally, sympathetically at a moment what Bart is going through and identify. They are there for him, no matter what condition he’s in, they accept him fully and lovingly. That experience is immeasurably affirming for Bart.”
Camp sometimes runs an essay contest on the theme “What Mujigae means to me.” Kids focus on friends they’ve made, especially counselors, former campers who are heroes to the younger kids. “We’re finally in the majority!” comes up time and again. To paraphrase a counselor, “We’re not entirely Korean or typically American. We’re unique, our own sub- culture…….Korean Adoptees. As long as we’re comfortable in our own skins, we’re okay.” What makes heritage camp special is not so much cultural literacy, valuable as that is – it’s being part of a peer group throughout one’s childhood, all of whom walk in your shoes – that’s the real magic.
There is no panacea for the many challenges, doubts, hurts and jumbled feelings about racial identity involved in trans-racial and international adoption. But heritage camp is a safe zone where every child – happy and grateful, or angry and ungrateful, finds acceptance, mutual aid, friendship and fun.