When I was younger I don't remember thinking too much about being adopted. Of course it was something that I was always aware of because my parents were Caucasian and there were obvious visible differences. As I entered young adulthood I became more conscious of my identity and struggled to make sense of who I was. Growing up in a predominately white town and attending predominately white schools, it seems as though I was almost startled into the realization at early adolescence that I was myself, in fact, not white. My parents did their best to incorporate Korean culture into our family (my sister is also Korean adopted but not biologically related to me). We attended a summer camp for Korean adopted children and cooked traditional Korean meals at home. We owned Han Boks (traditional Korean dresses) and got our portraits taken in them. We had Asian dolls and books about adoption and Korean identity growing up. We even took Tae Kwon Do until the completion of our black belts. Despite all of this though, Korean culture was never a part of me; it never felt like something I was, it was always just something I did.
In college I joined the Korean American Student Association, hoping to find a community for myself among other Korean Americans. Unfortunately I quickly felt closed out because of my adoptive identity. While I do believe this was more self-imposed than not, it was painful to feel like an outsider to a group that I shared such a visible identity with. I couldn't make sense of their experiences with their "fresh off the boat" parents who were so strict about studying and curfews, and I didn't understand the strange language that rolled so easily of their tongues. I didn't even think that I looked as Asian as they did. I would spend meetings gazing longingly at their high cheekbones and stick-straight hair. At college I also joined GENseng-an Asian American Acting Ensemble. I had never acted before but, again, I was searching for a place to feel at home. I quickly discovered what a welcoming place this acting group was, and how well I fit in. Through the mediums of art and theater I challenged my own beliefs about what it meant to be an Asian American interracial adoptee and experienced a sort of awakening. It was okay to be different than other Asians, from other adoptees. It was okay to express myself and to be frustrated about my identity. A breakthrough experience for me was when I got to contribute to the script of a staged reading called Sex, Lies, Almond Eyes, which was all about the stereotypes that exist for Asian men and women. I wrote a piece from my own perspective and expressed the pain I had felt growing up as an adopted Asian person in a predominately white area. I remembered my ex-boyfriend making a comment about not being attracted to me at first because of my round, Asian face. I remembered going to a Korean restaurant in my hometown and disappointing the owner who tried to speak to me in Korean. I remembered all of these experiences that made me who I am today but that had been repressed out of shame, out of pain.
Fast forward a couple of years to the end of college. I came out as a lesbian and everything I thought I knew about my identity went out the window. I now identified as something that seemed to conflict directly with my Asian identity. As some of the excitement and anxiety about coming out was settling down, I received a letter from my birthmother from the adoption agency in Korea. Apparently the letter was several years late getting to me. I was bitter, heart broken, confused, and incredulous, but not until much later. At first I was only numb. I was in disbelief. My parents and friends were so excited and happy for me. But for me it felt like reading a letter from a stranger. I cried some, wrote a pen-pal like letter in return, describing my likes and dislikes but not much more, and I continued on with my life. My way of thinking about it was that I didn't have my birth mother in my life for twenty-four years. Why start now? I didn't hear back for years and it seemed like I was okay with that.
After attending graduate school at the University of Michigan School of Social Work I found myself back home in Pittsford, job hunting. I got another letter, again arriving late from the adoption agency. Enclosed in the envelope with the letter was a poem, written by my birth mother. As I read this poem, translated loosely into English, I felt a connection to this strange, foreign, woman thousands of miles away, for the first time. I looked for a job for almost 8 months and even after several leads and interviews I was still unemployed. I was visiting my girlfriend in Brooklyn when I got a call from my contact at the adoption agency urging me to apply for a scholarship that would allow me to travel to Korea to participate in a language and culture program. Although I was hesitant and anxious about the experience, I was also excited. I applied to the program and got accepted. It was then that I found out that I had been urged to apply to the program because my birth mother wanted to meet me. I wondered if this was the reason I hadn't gotten a job yet—to allow me the opportunity to make this life changing trip. After a few shorts weeks of hectic preparation for my first trip outside of the U.S. and Canada, I almost didn't go because of my own fears and anxiety. But I did end up going, on my own, to a foreign country where I didn't know the language, to a place where I didn’t really know anything about it. I also didn't know my own potential emotional strength and how much I could flourish. I am so completely grateful and happy that I took the opportunity to go because I am forever changed and humbled by it.
That first meeting with my birth family was so strange, so haunting, and yet, magically and emotionally delicious. My birthmother has my hands—the thin curves of skin, the rounded nail beds, the shape of our slightly thick knuckles. My brother has my dark, tanned skin that certainly does not fit in with the pale, delicate light skin of the women in Korea. My birthmother cried, lowering her eyes away from me after she hugged my frame tightly, with her arms dropped at her sides. She was ashamed for having to give me up. My sisters, all naturally beautiful and adorned simply smiled and nodded encouragingly at me. And I just sat there, staring, taking it all in. I saw resemblance, something I had yearned for from as long back as I could remember. I saw familiarity among strangers, and understood love in a language spoken that I did not know. I spent two different weekends with my birth family and although we did not speak more than 50 words total, we did what all loving families do. We laughed. We ate. We hugged. We were, and we are, a family, completely non-traditional, strange, and beautiful all at once. And although my adoptive parents will always be "mom" and "dad" to me, it's a lovely notion to know I have another family across the seas. There were, of course, tough moments in Korea of doubt, of homesickness, and the feelings of being an outsider. We were thrown out of a restaurant because we didn't know Korean and even though I had memorized the phrase "I'm adopted" to explain to Koreans why I didn't know the language and that I wasn't being disrespectful, it didn’t do us any good. One of the most emotionally challenging experiences of me being in Korea was hiding my sexual orientation and the fact that I was in a relationship with my girlfriend of three years. But as painful as that felt at times it had to take the back seat to the larger journey I was on that humid July in the city of Seoul.
Since the visit nine months ago I have kept in contact with my birth family through occasional letters, care packages, and short emails. I admire my siblings for welcoming me into their family with such open hearts. They did not know about me until a few months before meeting me. I feel loss because I cannot tell them that I’m engaged to my loving fiancé, Cynthia. I am sad that I will never meet my birthfather because he died twenty years ago. But I am mostly happy. I am happy that I had an opportunity that I never knew I wanted, only to find out it was just what I needed. I am happy that I have connected with this beautiful, humble family that I can see that I am a part of. I am happy to have lived my unique, undoubtedly complex, yet simple life because it is the only thing I have ever known. It has made me the woman that I am today.
HOW HAS YOUR ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
I write from my own unique perspective and often incorporate different parts of my identities into my work. My poetry has been affected significantly by my adoption experiences and my pieces focus on themes such as being an outsider, the intersection of identities, loss, and the search for an authentic sense of self. I am inspired by individual sorrow and triumph and seek to write from my heart where loss and joy are experienced in such a similar, beautifully painful and forgiving way. My poetry is an emotional journey that alludes to experiences both real and imagined relating to situations in my own life. Writing has encouraged me to be more introspective about why I search for and seek love, approval, and self-worth from others and how I can begin to find those things within myself.
PLEASE PROVIDE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
This is what happens when you have a heart
tied to another heart,
at an unknown location with an unknown starting point.
Digging into a sentence beginning with I
spaced between an ellipsis… (and her).
Sometimes I find myself unable to navigate.
Standing stuck with the mud;
stirred about like an identity beneath my feet.
Lonely fingertips grasping at hungry bones,
searching for my counterpart of flesh and blood
the beating subdued then silent.
I am a child again in my dreams,
opening door after door
but no one here looks like me—
amidst these fragments of nostalgia and remembering.
I wake up with my heart pushed up against my ribcage
aching (like hers?) for something familiar again.
Between words that blur on a page
I search for a home (not shared by strangers).
A letter becomes my only history
not lost if it was never there to misplace,
better to plunge into the imperfect past tense of loss.
The words are foreign to me
enamored with a language that is not mine,
that is not my (mother) tongue
coming from hundreds of miles and our heartbeats apart.
I stare longer at my reflection to try and find a glimpse of her
My face pressed up against all the ‘whys’.
Past these words there is no more possibility of eyes like mine.
The sentences mourn all of language’s limitations.
Done looking and home for now (without strangers).
With a found heart, it's mine and known again
even though I never did find her.
ABOUT THE POET:
Dana LePage lives in Albany, NY with her partner and fiance Cynthia and their two cats. She is the Program Assistant at the Pride Center of the Capital Region and instructs an undergraduate course part time at SUNY Albany called "Intro to LGBTQ Studies.” She grew up in upstate New York in Pittsford with her mom, dad, and adopted sister and attended SUNY Geneseo where studied Psychology, Sociology, and Women's Studies. Directly after college she attended the University Of Michigan and received her Master's Degree in Social Work. Dana is a Korean adopted woman, a lesbian, a feminist, and a poet.