A CAGE OF NO ONE'S MAKIN
an adoptee's story
It’s late, and the direct flight from New York to Tel Aviv is unforgiving by any standards—not quite as bad as New York to Japan, but close. My aunt and I stagger up to the passport control booth, handing over our American passports. The agent, a calm Israeli trained in upholding national security, asks us what our relationship is. “She’s my aunt, my great-aunt,” I say.
“Yeah right,” he says, dismissing us with one arch of his brow.
As a Korean adoptee, I flew from Seoul to Boston at four months old. The records of my time in Korea are slimmer than my 1040-EZ tax return; I know less about my biological family than I do about the Lannisters on Game of Thrones.
When I was young, my mother called me her “beautiful China doll,” and was determined to dress me in clothes that I thought were hideous. Our shopping experiences could have been masterclasses in conflict resolution. The problem with being adopted, at its heart, is about appearance. You want to be the pretty blonde white girl, but those clothes don’t fit you, don’t reflect an attainable standard—meanwhile, the world has a kimono that it’s forcing over your head like a kidnapper’s sack.
“You must be good at Starcraft.” I get this a lot, second only to the men who try to pick me up by impressing me with their command of ‘my’ language, Mandarin Chinese. “Ni hao,” they call as I walk past, as though that will get them a score. My 23&Me profile, which tells me I don’t carry any genetic diseases, tells me I am roughly 5.1% Chinese. It’s also where I’ve met all of the few blood relatives I know, fourth and fifth cousins. I am 0.1% ‘broadly southern European,’ and my last name is Picone.
I am 63.7% Korean: a failing grade.
One day in March, 2008, I called my parents to tell them I moving to South Korea. It was the desperate decision of an undergraduate without a life plan. Unfortunately, unlike those myriad other undergraduates, South Korea happened to be the ‘country of birth’ on my passport. My parents took the news poorly, asking me the bluntest questions anyone has ever asked me about my identity. Frightened, unable to answer, I wept and told them that I didn’t know.
I still don’t. It seemed to be—it still does seem—something I needed to resolve, the way a superhero must spend some time ‘dealing’ with his origins before he can save the world. Even if you don’t believe that you are a hero, you can still have faith that you’re born with a fatal flaw.
What worried my parents most was the idea of undoing. My father joked at my graduation party that he was ‘sending me back’ now that he had ‘taken care of me.’ But in his voice I could hear the strain of fear that I would never come back, if not in body, then in spirit. That in a land so far away that it seemed fantastical, I would discover the truth about my origins and then cast my ire upon those who took me away from my rightful place (and if that seems foolish to you, think about Marvel’s Loki, who does exactly this, and Thor’s hand-waving explanation for Loki’s devious ways in the Avengers: “He’s adopted”). I’m not a Loki, but I know they feared that our relationship would never be the same regardless.
Adoption is a phenomenon of self-consciousness, of dislocation, transplantation. One grows up with an awareness that someone who was supposed to be very important to you could not or did not want to be, and so passed you off to another. You’re an exile, a tourist to your own identity. You don’t belong; you never will. One grows up knowing infinite gratitude and resentment all at once. Are your parents nothing more than legal kidnappers? Are there marks in your ancestry and blood that are manifestations of your ‘true’ origins? Should you encourage those things, that interest in your ‘other’ place, like Loki with the frost giants, or should you quash them as tiny seeds of rebellion, of possible ingratitude?
So, in many ways, I still don’t understand why I committed to getting on a plane and going back. But, if you want to know what being adopted is like, know that it’s a cage of no one’s making. You don’t want to disappoint anyone. Make them regret adopting you. So you walk on a tightrope and shame yourself into silence. You long for a childhood home that you can’t remember. You submit to your parents, sometimes, when all you want to do is defy them, lash out, be a kid becoming an adult. But you can’t be a normal kid, so you try your hardest to be perfect instead.
I spent my childhood reminding myself that I should be thankful, that I would never be the person I was without having been shipped off like a care package. But deep inside, I feared being abandoned again most of all, and I imagined that an outward interest in Korea would catalyze that abandonment. I indoctrinated myself in my own destiny; I hated Korea for producing me and the mother that had carried me rather than ending my life in the womb. Most of all, I hated myself, the Asian girl hiding the white girl I wanted to see in the mirror.
In Korea, my friends and I got together and spoke fondly about pizza without corn on it, about macaroni and cheese, about ‘real’ milk and coffee. In between bonding over our collective mourning for our old way of life, we compared notes about working as foreign teachers in Korean schools. I was special, it became clear as we shared experiences. Thanks to my background and my Ivy League degree, my school treated me like a triumphant princess who had returned from war. In short, my looks had put me into a circle of people who were ‘hangook-saram,’ Korean, whereas my friends lingered outside the culture. All was idyllic and wonderful.
What they forgot, and I had to remember, was that my looks belie my inner self. I might appear Korean, but that appearance is an illusion. Furthermore, I’m not good at ‘just keeping your head down and your mouth shut,’ which seems to be a necessary trait to be a foreign teacher in a Korean school. I hated the inefficiency of being trapped in the school long past class time, because Korean teachers aren’t allowed to leave before the principal does—I found ways to dodge this whenever I could, because my lesson plans didn’t leave much room for innovation or prep time.
K.S., my boss, spoke English fluently. She was the first person I saw from my school, and the last. When I was sick, she came to my apartment and held my hand, and cooked me food. Because of the language barrier, I had to confide in her to the point of invasiveness. But she also scared me. Her way of tackling problems, especially with subordinates, involved direct talk and bluntness. Often she would ask me ‘just to fit in, to do what was required.’ When I responded by saying I often had no idea what was required, she seemed puzzled, as though my behavior should have been encoded in the same genes that made me Korean.
I gave up learning Korean. I stopped going out, determined to avoid any unnecessary social encounters.
My students were the most compassionate people with which I interacted and it was always a joy to talk with them. However, I could barely meet their eyes without bitterness. I felt no older than they were, a child in this strange world. Yet, they had the tools to succeed, whereas I had nothing.
2008 was the cusp of internet communication. It was hard to Skype with my friends back home or communicate because of the time difference. If I wanted a book, a movie, or a video game, I had to wait weeks for it to arrive. But escapism was all I had.
I tried to keep up with the gross and contradictory demands of my workload and the culture, but all I did was make myself sick. I knew that I was making things worse, making it look more like I didn’t want to fit in, get along, be successful…but I couldn’t stop the cycle.
Finally, after nine months, K.S. and the principal took me aside and suggested that we mutually part ways. By that time, I had gotten into graduate school and the university wanted me to come for an interview, which would have been impossible while still employed at the school. It was a relief. We agreed on an end date for my contract, and I booked my flight home. K.S. told me that I could continue to stay in the apartment until the end of the month. I felt relief, since I had accumulated some unlikely possessions in Korea in my attempt to make it more like a home.
It’s the resilience of people that makes endings as sweet as beginnings. The teachers felt it was ‘safe’ to talk to me again. The principal and his family took me to a farewell dinner at a fancy restaurant, during which he presented me with a hand-signed book in Korean, citing his desire to have “his daughter read it in her native language.”
One week before I left, while packing, K.S. called me and told me that I had to vacate the apartment earlier than planned because they had unexpectedly hired a new teacher. She said they were coming by to view the apartment. The teacher, a veteran ex-pat, took one look at me and told me to “get over myself and deal with it.” K.S. took a similar line, saying that I would just have to move out within the new time limit.
After a teary bout of egg-throwing, I called an acquaintance, J.H., and told her about my predicament. She came at once to help me get things done, even though we had only met two or three times. Because there was now a gap between my flight home and my involuntary eviction, she offered to let me stay at her house for a couple of nights. We had to arrange for K.S. to meet us and pick up the keys to the apartment. J.H. and I agreed that treating her to dinner would be appropriate.
While J.H. was in the restroom, K.S. leaned over to me and whispered, “I wish you had asked me for help.” How could I explain to her, even if she could understand the words, that I could never have gone to her after what she had done? The one time that I emailed her after my return, she never replied.
So it was easy to pretend that Korea was a fictional, fantastical land not connected to anything real—even if the trip, like the Pevensies’ jaunt to Narnia, had changed me.
As the plane gained speed and lifted off from the shores of my homeland, I thought to myself you never have to go back.
The problem, I think, was twofold: they weren’t ready for me and I wasn’t ready for them. If I had wanted a Korean family, complete with the drama, the personal intrusions, and the conflict, they exceeded my expectations. I had no doubt they loved me all along. K.S. hounded me with the wolfish, predatory devotion of a mother. People say that adolescence is the time when you establish who you are as an individual. But to me, my life in South Korea was the most painful growth period I have ever known—a very late adolescence, if you will.
It took months, after, for me to realize that I could have a healthy relationship with Korea. Maybe I only trimmed back the elaborate vehicle of my doubled self, but it happened, somehow, in tears and failure.
And all of a sudden, it wasn’t deviant or traitorous to want Korean things any more.
In 2014, I volunteered as a teacher in Battambang, Cambodia. On my way back, I planned a three-day layover in South Korea, because of flight schedules and second chances. I had become so sick in Cambodia that food didn’t appeal to me anymore; I had to force myself to chew and swallow. Though I could barely leave the hotel, I was so happy to meander, to feel connected. I was home.
For the first time, I considered trying to find my birth family. Would they receive me much the way the staff of the elementary school had? Would they accept me or turn me away given the circumstances of my birth? My mother has become an advocate for them, urging me to try before it’s too late. When I think of them, I envision a small boat lost in a vast, dark ocean. When I think about ‘searching,’ I imagine combing the waters with a handheld lamp as the waves rock me up and down.
My family is somewhere in the world. But they’re not waiting for me.
So yes, my mother tells jokes about the ignorant things people said to her when she adopted me—“what will you do when she starts speaking in Korean?”—and sometimes, when I go out to eat with my dad, people think I’m his wife, and often, when I present my license or passport to immigration control, they see my last name and arch their eyebrows. And my Asian friends in college called me “the Korean-Italian” and spoke Chinese to each other while laughing as I and my other non-Chinese friends rolled our eyes. And if I had to tell this story in person instead of on paper, I still wouldn’t be able to get through it. But there’s something wonderful I learned, something that is worth tears.
I know what home is.