I came to adoption at the age of twenty-four, when I was told by my gynecologist that my chances of getting pregnant and having a live birth were very slim. I’d been married for a few years and my husband and I quickly decided to pursue adoption of an infant from South Korea, having had as young adults the image of the 1973 Saigon Baby Lift burned into our minds. As sad as it was to begin to adjust to the idea that I’d not be likely to make a baby, the prospect of international adoption was an open door we barreled through with gusto.
It was the early eighties in Fairfield county, Connecticut (not too far from where fellow poet and adoption essay writer Michael Snediker grew up) and the only Asians we regularly came into contact with were the owners and servers at the local Chinese restaurant. Thankfully, we were supported without restraint by our families and shared a sense that the world was larger and more diverse than our upbringing had shown us.
We filled out the forms, had our backgrounds checked, opened up our home for a home study, and waited. During this time, we received just one day of counseling from the adoption agency, headquartered in Massachusetts, but this really stuck with me: every person is wounded during his or her life; our adopted children will be aware (as would we) of one of those wounds very early on. In one sense, this helped me feel prepared, in a small way, for some of what was to come.
We picked up our three month old daughter at Logan airport in Boston on a mild May night in 1983. We were hungry on the drive home and I was eager to give Carly her first bottle, so we stopped at a chain restaurant. Our waitress offered to heat the bottle. A few moments later, she handed it to me and asked to see our baby. I turned Carly toward her with great pride. The woman flinched and backed away, unable to cover her shock. I don’t know whether she thought our daughter had Down syndrome (babies with Down have eyes which look vaguely Asian) or if she was simply shocked not to see a white child, but I felt a rush of near-murderous protectiveness I’d come to feel over and over again during Carly’s childhood. Strangers would approach us and ask how much she cost, tell us how cute “they” are when they’re babies, if she was Communist. People wanted to know if my six month old daughter spoke English. People assumed she didn’t speak English until she was in her teens. One of my childhood friends asked me during a phone call why I’d want to adopt a “gook.” Another friend, who’d just given birth to a son, let it be known that she’d let him play with her but that she wasn’t “marriage material.”
I registered every racial insult, real or perceived, conscious or accidental, that came our way. It was exhausting. At some point during her adolescence, I began to realize that my indignation was doing Carly no service at all. She’d developed her own set of defenses, the primary being humor. She told people she was Korean-Irish and replaced the lining of her Catholic school uniform with jaunty green cotton strewn with shamrocks. She’d taunt her younger sister (my biological daughter) “you may look like Mom, but she chose me.” Late one afternoon, I was fed up with my girls’ sniping at each other while we were in the grocery store. I yelled from the front of the line, “Carly, get over here right this minute!” A number of heads turned in her direction. She looked at me blankly and replied in a Japanese B-movie accent “I no know you, white devil. You not my motha!”
It took a few explanations before I was allowed to leave the store with her.
When she was 14, Carly and I took one of the first homeland tours of South Korea with 98 other American families with adopted Korean children. Though we’d been promised access to our children’s birth records at the adoption agency in Seoul, Korean law was changed when our plane was crossing the Atlantic: only the adoptees over the age of 18 would be allowed to obtain information about their birth parents. Most of adoptees in our group were girls; most had been left as infants at police stations, street corners, or other places where they’d be likely to be found. Carly was unusual in that we knew that she’d come from an intact family—the fourth of four girls. It was a blow to get so close to having the means to contact them and have that opportunity lost at the last minute. I promised Carly I’d do everything I could to let her birth family know she was safe and loved.
Once we returned to the U.S., it took a couple of years of phone calls and letters before I was told our adoption agency had made contact with Carly’s birth mother, who indicated she wanted to hear from us. Carly, then seventeen, sent a letter accompanied by a number of photos of her childhood—dressed as a Brownie, wet in a bathing suit, and proudly dandling a sackful of Halloween candy. A month or two later, she received four letters: one from her mother and each of her three older sisters. Once they were translated, we began to learn about the circumstances of her birth and relinquishment. The story we had been told by the agency about the details of her being given up for adoption had been a whitewash of a far more troubling reality, but that’s a story for Carly to tell. What I feel comfortable saying is this: it meant everything to her birth mother to know her daughter was loved.
Carly has visited her birth family in Seoul three times in the last ten years. She speaks only a few words of Korean; they speak only a few words of English. She has a different relationship with each of her birth sisters and is in touch via the internet with her extended family of nieces, nephews and cousins.
Two years ago when she married her husband Jordan, she walked down the aisle in a hanbok, a traditional Korean dress. Her birth mother, who had flown to the U.S. for the first time, tied the mint green jeogori with an intricate single-looped knot, then fastened a small pin at Carly’s neck. She stepped back and looked at her daughter—our daughter—and said “Now I die happy.”
Carly; Carly's biological mother; and Pam (Carly's adoptive stepmother)
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
For me, adoption has been a process of opening. Sometimes it’s a warm sense of having created a bond from sheer love. Family is a thing consciously made and requiring regular upkeep. Sometimes it’s a sense that, by adopting a child of another race, I’ve made a political statement, one which others feel they have the right to weigh in on. The opening continues in other ways as well: my own racial identity as a white person feels fuller, less dissociated from the other races.
In my poetic imagination, the souls who inhabit my poems are not all white, not all happily awash in family. I’m aware of that deep desire to be one with others and of the limits on the reality of truly being “at one.” Adoption is a kind of mortar which attaches one person to another more or less perfectly, more or less eternally, more or less happily.
PLEASE SHARE A POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
It’s funny, I’ve written a few poems about my younger daughter. I’ve written poems referring to both my daughters, but every poem I’ve tried to write about Carly as an adoptee has been unsuccessful. I veer into sentimentality or defensiveness. I worry about leaving the reader with more of a sense of exoticism than of familiarity with her as a person I love. I feel more comfortable writing about how my experience as a mother has changed as my daughters have entered adulthood. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that I wasn’t a poet when Carly was a child. I also want to balance my desire to write what moves me with her desire for privacy. It’s a moving target, though, as all writing about loved ones inevitably is.
ABOUT THE POET:
Leslie McGrath became a mother at 25, when Eun Jin, who she and her husband renamed Carly, arrived on a 13 hour flight from Seoul, Korea. Leslie McGrath’s poems have been widely published, most recently in SLATE, Tiferet, Long Poem magazine (UK) and PANK. Winner of the 2004 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, her first collection of poetry, Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage, was a finalist for the CT Book Award and nominated for The Poet’s Prize. McGrath teaches creative writing and literature part time at Central CT State University and serves on the board of the James Merrill House in Stonington, CT.
Carly is now 28, a graduate of Lesley University, and is in charge of child nutrition at the CT Food Bank. She’s been married for two years to Jordan, who is blonde and blue-eyed, and enjoys speculating about the odds of having a blue-eyed baby—just to get a rise out of her adoptive mother.