What are you?
Why is your last name Dobbs?
Where are you from?
Where are you really from?
Where are your parents from?
Where were you born?
Why do you speak English well?
Do you speak Korean?
Have you returned to Korea?
Have you found your real parents?
Do you want to find them?
Until my mid-twenties, I answered nameless strangers who asked me variations of this litany trying to guess my race and to reconcile my name and my face. How I answered the first question— What are you? — determined the next question cascading toward "my adoption story." The stranger leaned in listening for tone. There were only two options, bitterness or contentment, and the stranger’s moral depended on my morale, which he seemingly detected.
Sometimes I would cut to the chase and impatiently say, "I'm adopted." The stranger would nod, as if she understood, or if she was Asian American, she would do the same and look away, as if our conversation ended because I was no longer there.
Why was I constantly explaining? Perhaps I was accustomed to the gaze and the role of polite conversation piece. After returning to Sand Springs from my first year at college, I was stunned to notice how many people were staring at me while my family ate sandwich plates in Denny’s.
During graduate school, I read Trinh T. Minh Ha’s Woman, Native, Other, and I began to slow down the moment between the stranger and me to reflect on what it meant to repeat the same story over and over again to satisfy yet another stranger's insistent curiosity. It was not a conversation between two persons. It was a compulsion—the stranger could not stop herself from asking. And what if I have questions of my own?
Why are you asking me?
What is it you want to know?
What is it you really want to know?
But this isn't about you. It's about this thing between us— your gaze and my narrative exhaustion. Please stop tiring me out. Please stop asking me for my story in variations of the form— multiple choice surveys, oral histories, or IRB approved analyses— because the questions are the same. Please do your research first by reading adoptees who have published prose and poetry for over 50 years and linger over Jane Jeong Trenka, Kim Suneé, Astrid Trotzig, Jackie Kay, Jan Beatty, Thomas Park Clement, Mihee Natalie Lemoine, S.K. Chae, Lee Herrick, Sun Yung Shin, Lisa Marie Rollins, Shannon Gibney, Thomas Marko Blatt, Maja Lee Langvaad, Kevin Minh Allen, Them Averick, Eva Tind Kristensen, Liberty Hultberg, and Katie Leo— just to get you started. You should also look at the critical work of adoptees such as Tobias Hubinette, Marianne Novy, Kim Park Nelson, Jae Ran Kim, Elise Prebin, Kimberly McGee, Liz Raleigh, Nate Kupbal, Kit Myers, Eli Park Sorenson, Kim Su Rasmussen, Kim Langhrer, Tammy Ko Robinson, Boonyoung Han, John Raible, Anders Riel Mueller, Hilbrand Westra, Aino Rinhaug, Daniel Schwekendiek, Jenny Wills, Indigo Willing, Susan Harness, Dominic Golding, and more wonderful writers who are adopted of which this is a partial list. There are so many writing and publishing all over North America, Europe, Korea, and Australia!
Not what but wherefore your questions? I'm tired. Like you, I’m grouchy when I’m tired. Let's chat about something new to refresh the story although— I know, I know—reiteration re-inscribes and signifies a new subjectivity, and adoptive kinship follows blood’s syntax. That's how an adopted child learns how to assimilate among strangers: She is now your mother. Say “mother.” (Mother. Mother.) He is now your father. Say “father.” (Father. Father.) This is a fork. (Fork. Fork. Fork.) The mouth shaping around mother, father, and fork holds them until they become natural/izing. That’s always the story. We've been here before by rote:
She forgets because she is learning a new language and is deprived of the privilege of a mirror.
Six months later, he can recite the grammar that makes her feel like a forever mother and him like a forever son for a charmed life.
What else is possible for us in this moment when you are a stranger to me?
How might adoption not require the shattering of a mouth and the bordering of lives separated by distances? How might privilege be shared with mothers and fathers for a village kinship? How much does a child cost? How might that money preserve families? Why assume my mother was a teenage victim of a rigid Confucian society? Why can't I imagine my father beyond shadow? Why is it more painful to talk about my father? Why can't I have my story? Why aren't my records available as PDF copies, and why do I have to pay over $900 for them in agency post-adoption fees in addition to the cost of airfare, food, and lodging?
What am I? Where am I from? Where are my parents from? Why can't I find them?
If, as Sandra Patton says, “Our struggles for social meaning occur in narrative form,” then what to do when the narrative is stuck? How might we enliven it by rerouting feeling back to lives who have been rendered invisible and so make ourselves visible through conversation with theirs?
How to talk with ghosts? Beyond some awkward dance of identities, to imagine my mother and father is to refuse to participate in their social deaths and to demand meaning for us as a family and for myself as their daughter. Critics have called this imaginative work children's fantasy, but it is more than that. It is a child's attempt at humanizing her own body and the bodies of those to whom she is connected.
Yet why is the adoptee always a child?
An adopted person becomes a poet by necessity when sketching a self-portrait. The struggle that John Ashbery dramatizes resonates with the ghost captured in the glass: "The words are only speculation / (From the Latin speculum, mirror): / They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music. / We see only postures of the dream, / Riders of the motion that swings the face / Into view under evening skies, with no / False disarray as proof of authenticiy. / But it is life englobed."
Even if all I am saying is a convex-shaped dream, it is the shape of the dream that matters and its vector. Why dream in the direction of sawdust, mannequins, or ghosts when I am a ghost to my mother and father in Korea, who speculate on my life over there and in a language that I cannot read just as they cannot read these words in English?
Sash drawn and locked— pane bordering one darkness and another thickened by adoption estrangements. How might we pierce this night?
It is all an experiment in probability: Infants do not remember, and so are more adoptable than toddlers who have learned language. Yet an infant learns language through his body— how a body is touched, how it is abandoned. He instinctively roots for his mother's breast whether she will feed him or not, whether she is constructed or not. This is his first language regardless of blood, milk, ink, bleach, or gasoline.
Then he learns not to root and to be silent despite hunger.
If as Anastassis Vistonitis says, "memory is the mother of us all," then how can erasure be a mother to anyone? This is an injury beyond the metaphorical orphaning of all poets who "seek and cannot find the meaning of the music." What of a commitment to the lives who pulse underneath reiterations of silence (unknown, abandoned, X, ___, n/a) that lead to a forgetting as normal as breathing?
What is this white space beyond racialized symbolism? No more scrim. How can I feel through this erasure the touch of my mother and father who I refuse to forget, even though I cannot find them, because to do so is to give up hope and to reiterate their social deaths?
I am not committed to the elegy, although I am drawn to its belief in simultaneous dimensions figured as heaven and the living. But I am not looking for angels, demons or changelings. I don't need to ask if there is life after social death. After all, I am living it in my mother and father's lives englobed wherever they are and however they are in Seoul, Busan, Wonju, Beijing, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, or somewhere else beyond the charted diaspora.
Where is the horizon? Birth mother. Birth Father. Omoni. Aboji. Omma, Appa. And the names we don't say because it's so natural to be next to each other, to summon one another through our gestures.
I am committed to renewing measure.
엄마, 아빠, my most intimate strangers, we are here in our bodies breathing together, and this too is an uncounted yet life-sustaining prosody.
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
“Maids, matrons, widows, mix their common moans;
Orphans their sires, and sires lament their sons.
All in that universal sorrow share,
And curse the cause of this unhappy war:”
—Virgil, Aeneid (Trans. John Dryden)
for whom others speak and seal treaties
Kicking, cries in hunger, craps standing up
Soot, river clay, yellow turning leaf—
land carved for saints’ missions
Veined knowledge, torque of blood’s whispers
searching and searching
Student passing notes in her native language
anagrams of teacher’s grammar
shard slitting the hand that drew me from the stream
Shackled before Troy’s gates
widows scratching their cheeks
so no Ithacan chief will desire them
New citizens purchased by love—
most effective assimilator
Muffled by tuberculosis
My name is Heathcliff, gypsy and breaker of horses
I tire of the image. I want to forget it
properly buried in the pine forest, reclaimed by grass
I tire of all this seeing
that’s not seeing a head turning on the rifle’s mouth
turning its pus swollen eyes toward the wind
escaping mountain trees, ruffling the soldier’s red hair
As he raises his rifle toward the trees, the head spins in four directions
shock the birds hear. The birds scatter
arching their dark backs, a cry snapping through their necks
lifting up as one to the sky faraway from the forest
where the soldier stares into the sun’s black eye
he can still describe as an old professor smiling at that distance
his hands again cradling the rifle’s head
in the photograph, held up for his students to see
what he remembered that day— mud, the enemy, thirst, this—
no one can identify or bring home to bury. This is his image
the birds, raising their black fiery wings, cannot read
cannot forget the smell of rotting flesh, ricochet
wind from the sun, wind driving them from that tree
flared in the sun’s center to this— his eyes peeled back
blinded by Time’s shuttered lens cutting his chest
lipless grin, hands at attention
holding an act of attention for this—
ABOUT THE POET:
Jennifer Kwon Dobbs is the author of Paper Pavilion (White Pine Press 2007), which received the White Pine Press Poetry Prize and the New England Poetry Club’s Sheila Motton Book Award, and Song of a Mirror, a finalist for the 2009 Tupelo Press Snowbound Chapbook Award. Her poems, essays, and criticism have been published widely in North America, Europe, and Korea. Currently, she is assistant professor of English and directs American Race and Multicultural Studies at St. Olaf College and also serves as education and outreach director for Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK). She is working on a second book of poetry and a book with the Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association about unwed mothers’ realities. www.jkwondobbs.com