When I was growing up my friends would ask me, “Do you ever want to find your real mother?” This question was deeply distressing to me. I had always believed that my mother, my adopted mother, was in fact, quite real. This question seemed to suggest that there was something less substantial about our relationship than the ones they had with their mothers, and the matter-of-fact way in which they asked seemed to indicate that from the outside, this was obvious.
I didn’t want these kinds of questions to intrude on my golden childhood. I was raised on Long Island, the youngest of four siblings, in an originally Irish/German/Catholic household. After my adoption at three months of age, my family became part Korean. For a while it was just my older sister and brother (my parents’ natural children) and me, but when I was three, we adopted my older brother Stephen, who was seven at the time, and my family became even more Korean. My childhood was typical of the suburbs. I remember sleepovers, newspaper routes, Girl Scouts, and in the summertime being told not to come back inside the house until dinner. But I also remember Stephen climbing a tree once and crying, deep, heavy sobs for hours. I remember being confused when another child bowed to me speaking an imaginary, Eastern language. I also remember the loneliness and estrangement of high school. No one wanted to date the nerdy, Asian girl, and it didn’t help that the other adopted Korean girls in my grade were considered popular and beautiful.
As I entered my late teens, that question from so long ago, “Do you ever want to find your real mother?” with all its thorny implications, became more pervasive and intrusive in my life. This was partly because my relationship to my mother became love/hate (always returning to love, thankfully). I wanted to go to punk rock shows all night, and like most teens, I felt that my mother was oppressive and didn’t understand me. But I think there was more to it than the normal teenage rebelliousness. I wanted to know why I had to take orders and accept rules from someone slightly unreal, and when I saw the natural closeness of my mother and my sister, who everyone always exclaimed looked exactly like her when she was young, something in me felt uncomfortably sad and lost. It made me think that it wasn’t my mother who was less real, but me.
For a time, adoption felt like some great freedom. I told myself that I came from nowhere, that I was one of a kind, and that I could do and be anything. I thought I was invincible when in reality I felt very small and alienated from other people, even if I was dancing in the middle of a party. College at The New School became about reading James Baldwin, writing poetry, and experimenting with drugs. So while I was living recklessly and giving myself fully to the first man to show an interest in my affection-hungry body, I was simultaneously reading books that made me yearn for a history. I was moved by the scholar Albert Jordy Raboteau’s writing when he said, “To ignore the history of another people whose fate has been intimately bound up with your own is to forgo self-understanding.”
It wasn’t until last year, working on my MFA at CUNY Queens College, that I felt brave enough to write a letter to my adoption agency initiating a birth family search. I believe that the courage came from reading the stories of other adoptees that I first encountered in a wonderful book called, Outsiders Within, and then with the poetry of Jennifer Kwon Dobbs and Lee Herrick. I wrote the letter with very low expectations. By that time, I had settled down from my early college days. I no longer needed empty desires to fill me up. I had a comfortable routine of work and study, as well as a loving boyfriend. I told him, “These people could be dead for all I know.” Needless to say, I was astonished when exactly one month later I received a phone call that my birth family had been found. They were very much alive. My birth parents were separated and lived in neighboring cities, and my three older sisters were thriving in Seoul. Three older sisters!
A few months later, at the age of 25, I traveled back to Korea for the first time since I was an infant. When I met my birth mother, she cried and gripped me tightly while pounding my back, as I looked on with an absurdly comic detachment. Here was my real mother, but the whole situation felt fake, as if we were on a television set. At this first meeting she told me that she had never wanted to give me up and that my birth father had pressured her into it. They had been very poor at the time. My older sisters were there with tears in their eyes as she told her story. Only the oldest had known about me before I’d written, and only five years ago had she been let in on the secret.
As we chatted, I tried to process the idea that my life had been a mistake on so many levels, while at the same time marveling at the beauty of all these women. My sisters were taller and thinner than me. They looked like gorgeous, stylish models when I had been expecting something along the lines of Charlyne Yi, whose awkward comedy I identified with. Here were three examples of the graceful, confident person I could have been, rather than the self-conscious, hyper-aware individual I am. I knew that these young women did not know what it meant to be the Other, and that until now, they had never had to carry the burden of some mysterious, inherited sense of shame. The ironic thing was that despite my family’s poor beginnings that led to my relinquishment, my sisters were now quite well off, due to my birth mother’s hard work through the years, studying hard, and marrying well. When they took me shopping, they knew their way comfortably around the racks of the latest designers. The price tags on the clothes they wanted to buy me made my eyes pop. What to make of this when all along I had been told how lucky and privileged I was to be an American?
Now, a year later, I am still trying to navigate my new ties to Korea. I want to know my birth family with all the intimacy that the word family suggests, but as it stands, we seem more like polite acquaintances. And although my sisters each have a level of comfort with themselves and others that I have always sought, I do not regret being adopted or my struggle to gain control over a concrete reality. I believe that adoption and growing up with a sense of otherness has instilled in me a great sensitivity to the plights of the underrepresented and voiceless that I wouldn’t trade for anything. These adoption-born powers of empathy are the reason I became a vegan, which I consider to be the best decision of my life. I’ve also realized that there is something strange and beautiful that comes out of the turmoil of adoption. I sense it when my adopted family recounts mine and my brother’s adoption stories as if they are legends or when I see Facebook pictures of my sisters’ beautiful children. There is something absolutely amazing about all of this, something to do with pure, poetic wonder.
HOW HAS YOUR ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
I think this question could easily be reversed: How has poetry affected your adoption experience? If we put it this way, poetry taught me the value of the imagination, and the imagination led me to the reunion with my birth family. The greatest human power is not rational thought, but that we can envision and understand what we have not personally experienced. I was able to imagine myself as an individual existing apart from the human race, sprung from nowhere or landed from outer space like Superman, and obversely, I was able to imagine a lineage that existed before my birth and a family on the other side of the world who just might belong to me. If it weren’t for poetry and the poet’s desire to experience the world, then I would have been content to never know.
As for the original question, my writing is filled with adoption. When I said that I am still navigating my relationship to Korea and my new Korean family, I meant that I am doing so through poetry. I write about how different cultures and languages hinder the process of reconnection to the birth family. I write about how instead of open and honest communication, adoption offers only silence and secrets again and again. I also try to write my way into my sister’s lives, imagining their worlds and experiences. One of my sisters is an artist, and before I left Korea, she gave me a book of her gorgeous paintings. I have been writing ekphrastic poems based on these paintings. With this book, it seemed to me that I was given a clue to her identity, one that poetry might be the key to unraveling. When the only words I can understand of my sisters’ is often “I miss you” and “I love you,” but not the common information of the day-to-day that I crave, like what they ate for breakfast or what their kids are learning in school, poetry is a welcome respite of inferred knowledge and connection that I can only hope will one day lead to truth.
PLEASE PROVIDE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
In the photograph
Sung Hwan wears a short skirt with a high waist
to offset her long, shapely, high heeled legs.
Her back is to the camera. Her head
slightly turned to reveal the edge of a smile.
She heads up a flight of stairs
to where, I can only imagine
though probably an art studio—
a dense den, vibrantly dark
plastic stars hanging
charcoal sketches of breasts
on frail paper melting off
the edges of surfaces
huge, wood-framed canvasses
propped against the walls, teeming
with the colors of an entire
ecosystem—paint spatters seeded
in the wrinkles of her brain.
What occupies this lavish ecosystem
I can only imagine
but surely it includes marsh birds
dipping hungry beaks orgiastically
rebelliously, into the mud
utterly unaware of the condominium blueprints
on the architects’ sterile, lamp lit desks
that are the proofs for all our
I, her, the birds, the architects
the people who will occupy
those condominiums, the people
I will never meet
who will keep kimchi pots
on their rooftops alongside
potted ferns that will be tended
worried over, eventually forgotten.
Surely this ecosystem includes
a family’s short bout with poverty
she was too young to remember
and then a flourishing economy
the ease of tailored jackets
blinking lights and airplanes
a grandmother that died of diabetes—
the only hint of tragedy
in a world saturated cotton candy
pink and blue.
She doesn’t allow herself
to paint sadness, only a touch of the macabre—
metamorphosed demons to titillate
when life seems too cute, too cartoon.
But these are demons that ultimately remain caged
within a perfect rectangle
hanging on a high gloss, white, gallery wall.
These are pint-sized demons expressing gladness
leaping with maniacal smiles through chrysanthemums
eating white frosted cupcakes with red cherries
holding court in a sandstone palace on a cloud
allowing immigrants and the lost begotten
to unquestionably, inevitably return
I can only imagine
but it has to do with blood.
ABOUT THE POET:
This May, Dana Collins is graduating from the CUNY Queens College MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation, where she has been studying poetry and teaching undergraduates. She currently lives in Deer Park, NY. Besides being a poet, she is also the parent of two cats and a fish, and a private piano teacher.