The adoptee’s journey


Editing has its privileges.  While reading one submission, I came across the following and stopped dead in my tracks:

I’ve spent my entire life running away from my past, and chasing something I could never fully grasp.  Whether it was a new girlfriend, a new circle of friends, a new car, or a new place to live, I never seemed satisfied with the things I had and was looking for something more.  In a way, I guess I was chasing happiness.  I kept thinking that happiness was right around the corner, and when I realized that it wasn’t, I continued my search again and again.  I recently read an article that said some people chase happiness while other people choose happiness.  It hasn’t been easy for me, but I’ve finally decided to choose happiness.

Jeremy Martin, Korean adoptee

If that doesn’t sum up four decades of my life, nothing does.  Thanks, Jeremy, for allowing me to quote that.

I’ve only had the privilege of reading four submissions so far, and will get deluged with submissions next week, yet in each one I recognize a little of myself.  This year I’ve also had the privilege of following my personal friend’s inside reunion stories, and they have been nothing short of tilting the axis of the earth, and for that I can only imagine being in that circumstance.

I tell myself that I would manage my expectations and control the situation by letting my “new” family know from the beginning that I am not/can not be the daughter they expect: that I have been forged by other people with different values from a foreign culture, that we will have to get to know one another slowly, and that relationship will not be easy so they should be realistic about their expectations too.  But that is not how it goes.  Typically, the discovery is a surprise, even after years of search it never happens as planned or hoped for.  And the pressure is huge and instantaneous to  be the child they always imagined would return to them: educated, successful, full of filial piety, ready to assume their station as if nothing amiss had happened.  For that is/was our duty.  We were always just on loan.  It was their sacrifice to make and they were the ones who suffered and finding us is supposed to be the end of their internal torture.  And like little children, they  lash out when it doesn’t happen like some fairy tale.  The returning child is supposed to fix their pain, and they don’t.  The returning adult adoptee faces their adult lives being erased and discounted in the effort to make them the same emotional age as when they left, and they often face rejection when this process is protested against.  (Jane was unusual in that she embraced being infantalized.  Most adoptees want to be acknowledged and loved as the adults they are) The unconditional love one hopes for suddenly seems very much conditional if one asserts ones maturity, and being forced to relive a second adolescence becomes impossibly complicated due to the barriers of a culture you can’t fully comprehend and barely accept, and a language in which with herculean effort nets you only the crudest levels of communication that lead to misunderstandings and possible rejection.

The Korean families can’t understand what it is to have lost your identity.  Nobody can, really, unless you’re one of the minority who have.

My friend Felecia turned to me, angry.  She said she couldn’t put her finger on it but something was wrong/missing in me and that she had issues too but at least she actively worked on them.  She viewed my not taking self-help measures as being irresponsible, and it pissed her off to see me in pain.  Well great, I thought.  You want me to fix a problem but you can’t even give me a clue what the problem is…I thought it was irresponsible to leave me with that as her parting words.  It was like being given an unsolvable riddle, or eviscerating me and telling me to untangle miles of intestines and sew myself back together and not even giving me a needle or thread.  (I realized later that without Felecia’s help I may have never addressed my issues, painful as it was.  I did the same thing to Jane and have mixed feelings about that, but unlike me she knows full well what the problem is but refuses to take responsibility for it, as it’s easier to blame others than do the more difficult process of self reflection) It made me despair to the point I feared my children would end up motherless, so I sought a therapist.  I told the therapist how she’d abandoned me, and the therapist thought that was an interesting choice of words.  Together we talked about incest, relationships and love, but I found no comfort and was given nothing active to work on to feel responsible over for my own care.  Incredibly, it wasn’t until after I left therapy that it dawned on me that I’d been adopted, that maybe being abandoned and losing your identity and your country and your culture and faces that reflect you just might have an effect on a person.  I was 43 at the time.

What does that even mean, to lose ones identity?

If all we knew that identified us to ourselves was taken away then we were left only with our absolute identity.  To have that sense of self disrupted and replaced with new reflections of ourselves meant having to rebuild our self images relative to those new reflections.  Never mind that we couldn’t grasp what we lost or understand how deep the disruption was.  We are many things created by many people and it is especially difficult to find our absolute identities – and comfort – among so many constructed relationships.

As an adoptee, one is often asked to fill out many surveys, and one question that always comes up is, “How do you identify yourself?  Korean-American?  Adopted Korean? American? Korean?”  Such a simple question for most people, but for the adoptee it creates a paralyzing moment of existential angst.

Part of my therapy (yes, it was of great value) was learning to listen to my body.  As an abused person, there are repositories for tension that have never been fully released, and triggers can cause these areas to knot up, the breathing to constrict, the heart-rate to increase and blood pressure rise, the brow to furrow, the jaws clench.  The vulnerable have been forced to internalize their rage against violation in order to survive situations.  But as an adult, awareness must  be acquired in order to recognize danger and advocate for oneself.  And adoptees go through this to a less dramatic degree, but it pervades everything because its depths are existential and the foundation for everything, because losing ones identity is the greatest violation of all. And yet, once we are aware we can not allow ourselves to let that violation rule our lives.  Our personal journey to peace has to evolve from chasing happiness, to awareness, to choosing happiness.

In my time here in Korea, I have learned what that something missing in me was.  And I have learned that correcting history is no fix to the personal, that finding family will not fill that hole, and that my identity is a product of all I’ve been through and reflected by the good friends I have made.   There is no one thing that will solve me or complete me.  I just have to choose happiness.

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2 thoughts on “The adoptee’s journey

  1. All of this is so, very true.

    I’m happy that you’ve reached a point where you’re comfortable choosing happiness.

    I can’t wait for the day when I’m able to do this, however, that day will come only after I’m able to see that nothing else will fill that hole.

  2. To be sure, I will continue to pursue self-fulfillment/actualization in many things, because my arrested development means there is much to make up for. (I also think that is what keeps us progressive as people) But I know through trial and error that it doesn’t fill the big holes and that I must choose happiness now and not AFTER I’ve grasped that elusive thing, because that thing may never be found or completed. That thing is a fun dream, but it’s not peace and contentment.

    I hope your path to that day is shorter than mine. You’re right in that it has to be meaningful to you personally, and that typically comes through exhausting your options. It’s just a journey we all must take. At least you’re aware, so maybe you’ll recognize when you’re spinning your wheels better than I have.

    At some point, one can recognize that the energy for these pursuits is borrowed from a deeper need that the pursuit can never hope to satisfy. At that point it becomes a matter of personal economics. And it’s a great relief to realize you don’t have to expend so much energy anymore, and that everything you need is within grasp.

    It’s kind of like love. One has to be open to it, or it will pass you by.

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