Happy National Adoption Month. Where adoptees everywhere are working on, have stopped trying in, or are flat-out ignoring the shift in adoption narratives. In particular, international and transracial adoption has proven to be problematic for a few reasons. White Savior Complex, Dysfunctional Family Dynamics, and a host of Attachment Disorders and Abandonment Issues are all too common.
Cynicism aside, this poem has been brewing in my head for several years, the phrase “Bah Bah Yellow Sheep” nearly haunting me.
As a kid, into my teenage years, and even my young adulthood, I resented and grieved some of the things I did or did not carry in my hyphenated identity. The school district I attended is 98% white. I am one of two People of Color in my extended family of around 200 members. Asian race, Korea, and being different were ambiguous and triggered some anxiety, self-hate, and confusion.
The repeated phrase in this poem represents a lack of identity and ritual. It sounds like dissonance. It eggs on the imposter syndrome I carry with me. The beauty of my identity is elusive, a work in progress, and has not always shined like it does – mainly because I sometimes I can’t see it.
Bah Bah Yellow Sheep have you any wool. In this story, what’s the difference between the sheep and the wolf.
I grip that yellow label like drawing with yellow colored pencil. A foreign utensil on surface of my reflection in the mirror. Trying my best to emulate almond eyes and latte flavored skin. The tint of my iris a depth of identity I never even asked for but stuck to adjust and discover that I’d never asked for other. It’s a sick twisted fact like a lemon full of lime juice peculiar and unique but still unwanted and wrong. My mom- I’m her everything yet I am loss upon loss like
Bah Bah Yellow Sheep The wool is a wash. They peeled my skin and put some excuse for yellow on top.
Yet I feel everyone asking “Bah bah yellowsheep, have you any wool?” I have none to offer you. My wool my skin my asian-eyed grin. My food and cuisine or idol-clad magazine. Fashion and models, music and bottles. There’s an imperative to be Korean to be something I am not.
Bah Bah Yellow Sheep Have you any wool. An appropriating response because yes sir, yes sir, three bags full. Bah Bah Yellow Sheep I didn’t to begin. Scrape the language from my tongue and take a mother from her son.
What I have is more than gold or trade or weight. It’s real wealth. A real wealth of issues like having parents that don’t want me like asking if I’m even meant to be here not like here-here but existing. like belonging somewhere but not ever knowing where that is like wanting answers that I don’t need like any other adult in their 20s like being dramatic and feel-y and I just need to take a deep breath. What I have is more than gold or trade or weight. And I know it. And even I ask myself still Bah Bah Yellow Sheep have you any wool?
Yes, yes, it’s been way too long. I’m not a professional at this!… Yet.
Where do I even start? I’ve always prided myself on agility in times of growth, change, and transitions. Among the ambiguity of change, there’s an urgency to peer through the fog and arrive at a new, beautiful vista. Fog rolls like thunderclouds these days, and boy do I LOVE the storms.
In my Korea Notes : week 6 post, I wrote about the balance between growth and stability. Looking back at the short time that I’ve been here in Korea, so much has already changed. It’s taken small action steps to create monumental change in my life. Any fog that’s crept in has only been able to swipe at my shadow, and each time I arrive in a new place, it gets easier and easier to breathe. There’s been three big breaths coming out of Winter and into Spring: finishing classes, moving, and getting a teaching job.
Initially, I planned to be here for my Korean language program and then see if working was possible. That three month period came really fast! I was glad to be done with school. That routine and lack of income was getting monotonous for me. I love learning, but the student life is not really for me. That being said, from where I started to where I ended up, I feel really satisfied with what Korean I learned. Being able to at the very least read, listen, and communicate basically eases so much of my inner anxiety about my interactions here.
And of course, when I ask for less monotony, I put my foot in my mouth a little bit. Sure, I wanted some change, but I was not prepared for change that I didn’t expect (anyone relate?). I forget the amount of work it takes to physically move to a new living space.
I also forgot how significant it is emotionally and mentally to move to a new living space. I also forgot how emotionally draining interviewing for jobs is for me. Yes, upon the end of school (from which I was a rocket ship launching… back down to earth). From Feb. 12-20, I interviewed with three recruiters and five different schools all over Seoul. I had five contracts and decided on one on Feb. 21, on a short ski trip with friends. The following week, I had training at my new school, an hour commute from my Goshiwon in Anam, and didn’t move into my new apartment (2 minutes from school) until the end of the week – Feb. 29.
Needless to say, it was indeed a big leap. 😉
Even then, with leaping comes momentum, and I wasn’t going to fall. Turns out the week of classroom supervising and attending the previous year’s graduation ceremony was cut short by something called… Corona Virus. My week training turned into two days of scattered training and three days of half-planning, half-crashing into a classroom. Starting March 1st changed to starting March 16. Starting March 16 changed into starting April 1. “Make sure to wear a mask to school.”, “The US seems to have run out of toilet paper all together.”, and “How much did you get done today? … Get ‘done?” become my everyday.
Okay, backtracking, it is overwhelming, isn’t it? (See why I’ve been behind?)
I’m working at a Canadian English immersion kindergarten and elementary school in Songpa-gu, Seoul. I have a kindergarten class of 10 students that I’ll be teaching. It’s a very Western-style school. If you took a school back home and put it here and turned up the parent pressure three or four notches, that’d be Maple Bear. Each class has a foreign teacher and a Korean co-teacher to help with parent contact and as an extra set of eyes in the classroom. The kids are adorable, we get lunches made for us, and I get off work at 6pm. My commute is a two or three minute walk. I’m very close to Olympic Park, and the area that I’m in is very nice and has pretty much anything I need.
My housing is provided by the school, which is really nice, and I’m extremely glad to be out of my tiny Goshiwon and into a more comfortable living space. I’m pretty low maintenance, but it’s SO NICE to have my own kitchen again.
Things are settled for sure, now. My work schedule is light, I’ve been writing a lot. I’m comfortable, but need essentials at my new place (some chairs, a shelf, a small rug, a food waste bin, etc.). I’ve made good connections with my coworkers and am starting to explore my new area, finding where the best street food kiosks are, which produce stand has the nicest old ladies, and which coffee shops I like best. These days, I’m very present and paying attention to gratitude that I have in my current situation.
Most strikingly, I’m feeling really sensitive to my own and others’ vulnerability right now. Intentional relationships and love for vulnerability are very much at the forefront of what’s happening around me. I’ve been approaching it all with curiosity, tenderness, and openness to the compassion that I have for myself and others.
The new place, situation, and job (income!) are all vital to my success, but to my core, this vulnerability makes me feel very much at home and very much like I am carving out my Belonging once again. Being in a new space to lovingly embrace this part of me in new contexts is new air in my lungs, new rhythms for my heart to beat along with.
I don’t have control issues. do I have control issues? No, no. I mean, I don’t think I have control issues. Do I?
The inevitable truth is that, yes my relationship with control in my life causes problems. On my artist palette, there’s some blend between control, anxiety, and isolation that manages to splatter onto my daily canvas of life. Every time I have the same inner-monologue trying to think about how I feel, being out of control.
Over the last two months or so, the thoughts of being away, not-having, and lacking have drained my spirit. Missing home, changing relationships, losing my last grandparent, two close cousins with fresh cancer diagnoses, and being with six-year olds everyday all weigh very heavy every day. In the background of all this: not connecting with birth family, being in country where I feel profoundly out of place, bitterness, disappointment, and frustration knocking at my processing doors, it all is a disorienting miasma.
I have been so stuck in that. And that’s ok.
As an adoptee, I have a specific relationship with loss and longing. Particularly in the context of ambiguity, I am dually skilled at, yet prone to not knowing and always seeking.
I can always come up with things I lost, do not have, will not have, or can only wonder about. Those are strangely concrete to me. And have easily become foundations for my identity and life. Being given up. Being unwanted. Being a yellow sheep. Unbelonging. And that’s an easy trap to fall into. It’s a battle for my personhood to be around what feels like concrete truths in the ambiguity of life. To be stuck in this narrative is to embrace and accept that my life is one of deficit and to bedefinitively missing.
And for f—‘s sake, to be UNSTUCK from that is a breath of fresh air.
It takes a grand stepping-away-from for me to come out of the miasma and into gratitude. To move to another country, study, find a job, move living spaces, find community, clean my apartment, not drink too much, and look into the future takes tremendous courage. To love children everyday (in a flawed, problematic English Ed. system, yet) is a beautiful thing. I write and perform at a monthly open mic. I have opportunities to work with some of my current kids next year. I still have my empathy. I still have my love. I still have my creativity.
So, we have this dichotomy of growing or not. Sucking or not. Suffering or survival. But I don’t think “Growing” is actually camping in a growth mindset all the time. As a former soccer coach, I truly believe in growth mentality, but I don’t think it’s possible to always have that.
I do think that growing happens in the process between the two, however. It happens in the moment of occupying the space between not-having and I-will-have. That’s a place where we are forced to be vulnerable, to step aside and to remain in “being”, to notice what is true reality for us at that moment.
Growth is hard. Growth takes courage.
For example as a tree grows, it’s inherent that it must push up into the unknown.
Those of you feeling isolated, discouraged, and/or helpless. I see you.
It will be okay. You are amazing. You have so much around and in you worth jumping for joy about. I pray for peace, stillness, and temptation to move within you.
When I think about belonging somewhere, I immediately think about the question “Where is Home for me?”
Where is home for me?
For a lot of people, “Home is where the heart is” rings true. If that’s the case, then I have a LOT of homes. It’s like home for me is a grand listing of people, places, and times.
For me, this sentiment wrestles in the thought of “Well… where is my heart?” I answer that question easily, but the answer itself is pretty hard. I put my heart into so many things. I love people; I love laughing; I love french fries. I am passionate about progress, about injustice, about peace and reflection. My heart goes out to creatives, people hurting, those trying to just make it by everyday. In that case, I bring all of it with me, wherever I go.
So again, where is home?
In my recent vacation to Jeju Island, I got to do some much needed reflection time about my experience in Korea.
Writing this (Sept. 2, 2020), it’s my nine month mark of being here. On paper, that reads like plenty of time. But in living, it’s gone by so fast. I’ve launched in to this time of my life where I feel so uncomfortable. I’m very much away from what I would call my home. I lived in Central Minnesota for 24 years, and I came to a place where I felt I left some “home” behind. The physical location is different. My schedule is different. Whom I spend my time with is different. I miss my MN friends and family SO much. The love I share with those people are the closest thing I can definitively package as “home”.
My learning and growing here is very intentional. I came to be uncomfortable. I came to be somewhere unknown. That was the whole point of it. I think being somewhere completely new has given me opportunity to revisit myself and think about “my home” in a different sense.
That “revisiting” only causes to acknowledge the space there is. Empty spaces we thought we filled, or we once had something that is no longer there. What’s more, I think there is a lot to be said for restoration. Any time we reconcile with ourselves or other people; it means we get to reconnect with home, in a sense. Or perhaps we get to rediscover how we create home for others within ourselves. We rediscover how we create home for ourselves within ourselves.
There’s a Belonging feeling to home in regards to stepping back from being us everyday.
In other words. I don’t fully understand what it feels like to have that “home-y” feeling about myself. I don’t call Karl Johnson home, like others would or like I call my people home as mentioned above. And I think that my journey into Belonging is understanding that.
I wrote a little bit about home here:
As always, thanks for reading/listening and much love,
What do you get when you cross screaming children, rainbow colored everything, stressed out adults, with dinosaurs, pretending to be cats, and snack time?
If you said “Kindergarten!” you’re right! If you said “A nightmare.” You’re probably a kindergarten teacher.
Just kidding, it’s been a blast working at Maple Bear so far. English kindergarten here in Korea is… intriguing. Korean private education institutions, or Hagwons, face a lot of scrutiny for their abysmal hours, dodgy business practices, and aggressively steep learning expectations. All that being said, I love my kids.
The best I can do is acknowledge all the layers to working here. I get to love on some outrageously cute kids, and what more could I ask for? (A vacation?) My team is burnt out by Wednesday, but we’re making it through together. And all of this is happening in a vastly different education system that I’m yet to get a grasp of. It’s hard to take the time and energy to process and observe what I’m taking in from the world around me, but the exhaustion is all part of it.
In my sixth month here, I’m in a routine. I have local hotspots. I ride the Seoul Metro as my main mode of transportation (if you’re from a small town, you’d understand). At the same time, I’m dodging Covid19 like it’s fifth grade dodgeball. I miss my family. I miss my dogs. I miss the Mississippi. I miss a lot.
It’s wild times, but here are some things I learn everyday as a kindergarten teacher – brought to you by the letter “P”.
Curiosity is underrated, under-taught, and underutilized. What would happen if our tests were scored by what kinds of questions we asked instead of the kind of answers we wrote?
Rather than starting with something vague or blurry and narrowing into an exact, specific pinpoint, we’d ask questions, discover, and find out that by gaining a wider perspective, that blurry indefinite view is something beautiful and bigger than what we first started with.
The ability to learn and display proficiency is inherent in children. Not determined or decided by adults. I have so much power as an educator to determine what is and what isn’t for these kids. As my students learn, I remember that they already have what they need to learn. That special stuff called curiosity and joy light up everyday and I need to create an environment that doesn’t snuff them out.
If I used my perspective to say “Joe is bad/Joe is good at English.” then I fail to open any doors for Joe. Instead, I’m only observing Joe through a window without prompting his curiosity or joy to unlock what English is to him.
I love giving hugs. ‘Nuff said.
Having a consistent schedule and structure is tiring, but important. Millennials, would you please stand up.
Children smiling can melt even the hardest of hearts. Please refer to pictures to have your heart turn into goo.
My inner child is starved of creativity, comfort, and sheer goofball-ness. This has been the most significant aspect that I’ve been digging into for myself.
I am a feeler and a thinker. My emotions have always called louder than logic has. Expression and reflection have always benefited me more than execution and getting things done. In times of stress and hair-pulling, the first thing I need is a big bear hug (my cousin Calvin gives the best, no cap)… and THEN I can get to solving the problem.
Kids are the same! Kids liiiive for hugs and positive touch. Physical safety is Maslow’s first layer for a reason. Being in and creating such a childlike, soft, and guiding environment helps me align with the simple and ever-important task that – children (everyone) have a huge need to be comforted. It’s not until after that’s attained, that we can get to building, expanding, learning, and growing.
And let me tell you… when kids go, kids go. So many days, I plop into my chair post-school day and think “I cannot keep up with my kids!” My ten children produce as many drawings, crafts, worksheets, and projects as Leonardo’s Workshop. I love it. Today, we mixed essential oils with paints and painted some scented pictures. I got to sit down and paint some beautiful flowers on a card for my co-teacher and felt so satisfied afterwards. Then, I remembered that I’m the teacher.
But creativity, colors, and energy runs in me just as much as it does them! I absolutely love getting to create, learn, think, and act like a kid sometimes. It’s probably the only job besides a clown where I can be a loud goofball and get paid for it. Any counter-productive idea and non-adult thing I could be only helps me in creating an environment of joy, curiosity, and fun for my kids.
Thanks for reading, as always. Ginormous shoutout to all my teacher friends for all the amazing, and mostly unrecognized work you do.
Mother, I have learned enough now To know I have learned nearly nothing. On this day When mothers are being honored, Let me thank you That my selfishness, ignorance, and mockery Did not bring you to Discard me like a broken doll Which had lost its favor. I thank you that You still find something in me To cherish, to admire and to love.
I thank you, Mother. I love you.”
– Mother, a Cradle to Hold Me, Maya Angelou
How do you know? Do you think she always loved you? Would she change her mind? Do you trust what Eastern says? Did you ever feel like your parents weren’t, you know, your real parents? Would your parents be scared that you would, like, choose your birth family over them? Are you hurt that this happened? What would life would have been like if you stayed in Korea?
I don’t know. Of course. It’s possible. Yes… I think so. Sometimes, in ways that I probably can’t explain. No, I don’t think so, but they’d support me even if I did. I also wouldn’t do that. Definitely it hurts, but I don’t think there’s any mal-intent. That’s not even a fair question, honestly. I have no idea.
These are some questions I commonly get in conversations regarding my birth family and adoption.
Family has always been an interesting thing to me. I love my family, no doubt. But I have friends and chosen-family that I’m closer to than family tree relatives. I have family members that I am not really fond of, I have family members that I’m not close to in the slightest. My best friend Anders is the best brother I have ever had. I have many mothers, aunts, big sisters, and grandmas.
There’s truly a “it takes a village” theme in my life. “I love my family and my family loves me very much” covers a wide, wide swath of people. I cannot begin to describe how grateful I am for the overflowing love and support I receive from many sources. And, I’m a disco ball to this love and support. I absorb love from those sources and blast it out in a million different directions.
The greatest source of that love is my mother.
I miss my mother everyday, if not, then almost everyday. She’s been my rock. She’s made mistakes but has never faltered for me.
When I prepared to leave for Korea, she told me I’d have to send her an emoji or something everyday so she’d know I was doing okay.
My mother, who loves me, says “I honor and respect your journey.”
I didn’t question my mother’s love for me as a child. I knew she was my mother. I questioned my birth mother’s love for me and I also knew she was my mother.
A powerful dynamic has grown in the relationships I have with my adoptive and biological mother.
I wonder about what she would have told me as a child. I wonder how she and my birth father would have talked about strategies to raise me, or who gets the final say in things. Would there be a “go ask your 엄마//go ask your 아빠” kind of thing that happens when I asked if I could climb on the roof or something? Do I look like them? What do they sound like?
There’s this alternative reality that’s always been a shadow for me. I saw it when kids made fun of me for being different. I saw it when all the leaders in my community were white and middle aged. I see it when I hear stories about fellow adoptees having their birthdates changed by adoption agencies. I see here it when I welcome my class of kindergartners in the morning. I see it when I go out for hangover lunches with my coworkers.
There’s this elusive truth-thing that I just can’t really wrap my head around.
It’s this nagging feeling. The voice that tells me “It’s not good enough and you’re not good enough.” It’s the deep insecurity that I’m only an inconvenience and that I mess up whatever I’m a part of anyway, so why even try? It’s the 50 foot stick that sneaks its way between me and my loved ones that I can’t figure out how to get rid of. It’s the doubt that’s always creeping when someone really cares.
And it’s the journey that I’m on.
The imposter’s reality. The yellow-tinted matrix. The elusive truth-thing reflection. I’m just peering into it. Observing and taking notes. Trying to navigate my way through it without losing myself in the process (maybe that’s the point?).
In January, I re-opened my search for my birth family here in Korea. The process was pretty unimpressive. I talked with a social worker on a couch in the hallway outside the worker’s office at Eastern Child Welfare. She asked me to fill some paper work out and we reviewed a file that was 60% Christmas Cards my mom sent to Korea every year and 40% things that I had already been given from the Children’s Home Society in Minnesota.
I met my Foster Mother, which was a really restorative experience. But, of course, I had high hopes for a family search.
After about a month, on February 21st, I heard back that they had found my birth mother.
It’s hard not to have expectations going into a process like this.
I’ve met adoptees whose birthgrandparents told the parents that their baby died, and then gave them to social services. One story about a birthfather who was Korean CIA, and it would have been easier to just give the baby up to “avoid risks.” Plenty of peers have told me that their birth parents plain didn’t want anything to do with them.
I got an email forwarded to me from my social worker back in MN. It went like this:
Dear Ms. Susan Walker, We hope this email finds you well.
We’re writing about Moon, Bo Suk (95C-0614, aka Karl Johnson).
He visited the agency and reviewed a file January 10, 2020 and asked to search for birth parents.
We asked to NCRC (National Center for the Rights of the Child) to find recent address of birth parents.
After we got a reply to NCRC, we sent the birth mother a certified mail and got contact.
According to the birth mother, she got married another man (not the birth father) and no one knows about him.
Her father had stomach cancer and was addicted to alcohol, and she is in the early stage of stomach cancer.
She was too afraid that her family would know about it and was so anxious.
She cried and asked not to contact any more.
It is hard to find the birth mother.
According to NCRC, the birth father is found nowhere as his information is not enough.
It is hard to find the birth father.
short breathing. heavy breathing.
some static-y questions. a lot of questions.
a really big “f*ck!” and then, “what happens now?”
What happens now?
Of course I’m sad. Of course I’m disappointed. And my first reminder to myself is to “be kind to yourself.” and to remember how loved and supported I am by my close family. I think, in regards to my relationship with my birthmother, in the past I’d very much believe that I was not worth knowing. I’d let the “You’re shit and nothing else”-tape continue playing uninterrupted.
My adoption has always built a lot of my identity. It’s in my foundation and much of the pillars that build who I am today. But I’ve come to learn that I constantly need to reconcile the relationship that I have with my birthmom. It’s something that I’ll always have, I’ll always grieve, and always need to heal and re-heal.
The loudest blurt I have is that I want to support her and her father. Of course I do. I’ve had many relatives go through battles with cancer, other diseases, and life-changing medical procedure. If anything, my journey with grief, loss, and healing has put me in a good position to support my family.
I’ve written a letter to leave with Eastern. They’ll tell my birthmother she can pick it up if she chooses. Part of me says “why bother? She doesn’t want to be contacted.” Part of me says “Hey you never know, it’s okay to hope.” And part of me says “at the very least, it’s good for you and your own conscience.” And I really question that and the true purpose of a response letter. She has as much stake in this relationship that I do and of course has healing to do, like me.
At the end of the day, though, this is another step on my way. It’s shining some light on the shadows. It’s looking into the separate reality a little bit deeper. Of course it’s not the end-all-be-all. And it’s not a definitive statement or some ultimatum for me on my narrative with my adoption.
Stress has had my keyboard wrapped up. It’s amazing how many thoughts our brain can become obsessed with at the same time, preventing us from focusing on what is really important. I experience this in a couple different ways: in the moment, when I realize that I’ve been worrying about the same things nonstop, and when I look back on a period of several days, or a week and think “man, where did the time go? I feel like I was all static this week.”
Over the last two weeks I’ve ridden the rollercoaster of hope and despair, wondering when I could move on to the lazy river for a bit, and finally I’ve made the choice to get off. Visiting the immigration office multiple times, receiving different information each time, glancing at my dwindling checking account, fretting at my lack of occupation, and the infamous Corona Virus going around, have all been a lot of plates to spin. On top of it all, or maybe to add a tight-rope balancing act underneath, I’ve have nonstop been thinking about the ambiguity around reconnecting with my birth family.
That has all taken up a majority of my brain density the last week. But, with all that worrying and self-doubt that comes with it, I’ve come through to rely on my perseverance, support from friends and family, and to rest in meditation practice. “Don’t give up” is such a common and light platitude, but amid life’s adversity and challenges, there’s soooo much to be said about it. When things and circumstance are difficult, I find that my own attitude and thoughts prove to be the biggest challenge in overcoming and moving forward.
Author Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, gleans the most from life and finds so much inspiration from simply paying attention to the world around her. She writes that “Survival lies in sanity, and sanity lies in paying attention…the capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.” I think this falls along the lines of taking in what we have, and focusing on what is in our control over what is not – the latter, draining away all our delight in life. My recent times have very much been caught up in things that I don’t have, or wish that I had, rather than focusing on what I am currently able to do, affect, and experience.
In my meditation practice, I’ve been learning and honing different mindfulness tools and general state of mind. In this sense, it’s really boiled down to my choice to let worry occupy my soul. What has me so constricted is important, yes, but it doesn’t need to become an obsession that takes over my life.
My fruitless grasping for my end goals certainly defines the last couple weeks for me. I’ve always excelled at envisioning my future, but have struggled with executing steps 1, 2, and 3. However, I also traveled south to the Busan and Changwon areas to connect with my cousin Weston, celebrated Lunar New Year over barbecue with friends, have grown closer with my classmates, seen so many beautiful people, and have continued to very much so enjoy my time here in Korea.
The pictures below are of the beautiful island of Taejongdae, also a cool park that is an entire island right off the mainland of Korea. It’s very quiet, a much needed change in contrast with the endless buzz of Seoul. Weston and I explored it and caught up on the last couple years of him being here, getting married, family things, and how we’ve grown since college, when we met and found out we were related.
The ocean is breathtaking and so grounding. I felt that I really needed to be away from my apartment and from the stress that I had been putting myself through. So, this was the perfect way to refresh and relax. Thanks Weston!
I am going to try to put out the next posts in a timely matter, so thanks for sticking with it.
A face familiar with passing hands that held my soul. Briefly, but ever steadfast.
like many others, born from loss – so displaced – You were the first to say: You belong, here. And there. I wish you well. I hope you do well. 누구가 보석 입니다? who will you be?
That name, unfamiliar to me and only empty of a person I could have been. But to you, I was. I am.
Jan. 13, 2020
I wrote this shortly after I met my former foster mother at Eastern Child Welfare in Seoul. My birth parents had me for 16 days and then delivered me to the social service office where they placed me in foster care until my adoption in Dec. of 1995. From there, the next five months were spent in the loving care of Mrs. Kim, my foster mother.
I struggle answering the question: “How was it?” that my family and friends ask in response to my story. It was really unlike anything I have ever experienced.
Of course I cried during the meeting. Which elicited “Oh, no stop crying!” Responses from both the woman that translated (could have been a translation, or her own, ha) and Mrs. Kim. How could I really help myself though? I sat before a 70 year old woman that had fostered over 100 children in the 30+ years of foster care that she had dedicated her life to.
Much like one would expect, her first questions were “How are you eating?”, “Are you doing well in Korea?”, and “Do you have a girlfriend?” Even with my basic, elementary level Korean, I could pick out the words “여자 친구” (woman friend, literally) in the last one.
We chatted about school, learning Korean, places in Seoul that we enjoy, our families, and a bit about where we’ve been the last 24 years. I’ve never been close with my grandmas, and this is certainly very much like a grandma-relationship.
This was one of those times in life where I felt that the person sitting across from me is someone that knows me deeply. Or at least cares as so, without really knowing anything about me at all. The most striking thing for me is that Mrs. Kim doesn’t know me as “Karl Johnson” at all. She only knows me as “문보석” (bo seok translates to Jewel, incidentally). This struck me deeply, for until this point, my Korean name had carried empty meaning and was backloaded with grief, unknowing, and loss. In our context, I felt to her that it meant someone worth caring for, even for 5 months. A person very much worth time, energy, and the heart space. A person that is receiving love in times when he does not show it to himself. A person that carries meaningful experience and significant existence.
That’s how I would describe it. In many ways. Since our meeting, I’ve gotten in contact with her daughter and we’re going to all grab lunch in a couple weeks. Mrs. Kim told me that she wants to buy me a huge Korean meal. And if you know me, that’s most certainly the way to my heart, haha.
Beyond that, it’s been a big week in food. I’ve had boiled silk worms, braised pigs feet, a lot of raw seafood, and only some soju 😉 don’t worry, aunties, it’s the Korean experience. Unfortunately, not a single bloody Mary!
Growth always inspires me. New experiences, learning, and self-improvement are things in life that give me life, but the part about growing that especially pushes me forward is overcoming past struggles. Renewing an old, tired mindset or identifying a destructive pattern that no longer holds me is powerful.
An aspect about growth that is somewhat staggering, though, is the rhythm of it. I feel that there are times that I’ve grown at different paces and in different ways in my life. Sometimes, it’s a steep launch upwards, and at other times, it’s a slow, gradual process that can feel painful and sluggish. My maths-senses are telling me that this would be some variation of y=mx + b, if that helps you visualize. Other times growth is irregular, with periods of learning and change, between stagnant times when complacency and comfort seem a bit too familiar.
As I explore this clean slate (tabula rasa) time and grow through it, a couple thoughts regarding this come to mind. They’re as follows:
How do we distinguish between stability and complacency?
What’s a healthy balance of pursuing growth/change and needing stability?
What does that look like for you?
I’ve been arriving at this weird spot of “feeling” like I want stability (namely a ‘stable’ job, simple schedule, and consistent routine… and also a more secure wallet). Every dreamer-bone in my body screams against it. But the safety-logical parts of me are tired of dreaming about starving artist passion-chasing. I think that pull between both, the conflict of it, is important to notice. And a feeling that I don’t have often.
My mother tells me that “everything in life is a balance.” And she’s 100% right (you’re welcome, and hear that Kevin?) I think the interesting part about this is that on either side of this, there’s growth. Stability and growth are not exclusive from each other. Nor is complacency stable. There’s a lot of “nonstop grind” sentiments in entrepreneur, young adult, and career-focused cultures. But I’m finding that rest time, challenging myself to pull inward, and not going 100% of the time is pushing me way further up (and onto way more difficult things emotionally/spiritually) into growth.
Some friends came to visit a couple nights before flying to Thailand. Really great to see familiar faces. And also to flex my new elementary-school-aged-child Korean with them at the market and restaurants. It was nice to show them around. We also got to do somethings that were on my list that I hadn’t gotten to yet! Thanks guys, for being adventurous and curious friends!
I’ve also gotten pretty close with some friends I’ve met through church here. I’ve noticed that I’ve started thinking about my relationships with people here more than nonstop survival thoughts like “how do I get from here to here, how do I say ______,” and “make a mental note about where to buy toilet paper.” My friends and I enjoy our time together, and I particularly like our shared meals.
Eating out and restaurants here are a really important cultural piece. Sharing meals and drinks at a cheap restaurant happens way more than it does at home. Well, for me anyway. I went from liking about five restaurants to liking every restaurant. It’s been fascinating, eye-opening, and refreshing to get to know people on a close, person-to-person level. Especially other Asian-Americans who had grown up in the States or had spent enough time there to have shared middle school phenomenon like Hot Topic or angsty punk music.
At the end of the week, I went to Eastern Child Welfare, the office where my adoption was processed. I’m going to have a second post about this, since this one is getting long. But it was emotional to say the least. And the current day I’m writing this (Monday of week 7), there have been wholly different changes and emotions.
With that, cliffhangers suck, and my life’s not a movie, sometimes I forget.
This is week five, but it feels like two weeks since my last post. ((EDIT: That’s because it has, oops))
I hit my strides like I belong now. I’ve gotten more connected with my church and lifegroup – a small family that meets very regularly and have made some good friends. I started a weekly cooking class at a local 요리학교 (cooking school), maybe am an above average student at language school, and have continued to pursue my high priority of eating moan-inducing foods. Today, I actually had Subway in Eungam and it felt like home.
I got to go to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art last Saturday and was particularly looking forward to the work of Kim Soongui, a poet and multimedia artist. I had read about her work on a blog and was very intrigued. Much of her philosophy rests (no pun intended) in the minimal and calm aspect of being present and simply “paying attention.” In some of her interviews, she expressed some impatience or annoyance at avant garde’s obsession with highly produced, elitist, or bougie culture and attitude.
Her “Lazy Clouds” poem and the calendar she had made where each day is only “yesterday”, “today”, or “tomorrow” were particularly powerful to me because I have come into a real mindset of being present and approaching each day like this. The thesis behind Lazy Clouds is that living slowly, simply noticing, and taking in each moment often connotes laziness. Where much of her art is about being present and just relaying everyday life. In the busy-ness and high paced Seoul culture, I very much appreciate this work.
There is a special power in being present. Our world moves at a pace that will suddenly take you from where you are if you’re not paying attention. And it’s hard. It’s very hard to remain present. Emotionally, spiritually, physically – I’ve found the most significant times are when I’m able to be present with myself. Being able to genuinely and patiently feel my emotions and intuition is a foreign feeling when I’ve been constantly going-going-going for my whole life. It’s ironic, there is a Seoul-speed to things here that’s come up in conversation. In relationships, career, schooling – everywhere, it’s a very high-functioning society.
But the most difficult part in listening to ourselves is that, oftentimes, the truth that comes from that is a hard pill to swallow. It can trigger fear, anxiety, or flat-out anger, sometimes it digs up past things that we try so hard to suppress. How can we build trust with the self? What happens when our true selves shine through? Do we suppress and beat back at what we really see in the mirror? Or do we hang on to growth and wait to see new branches, bark, and fruit? This is something that I’m learning through my actions and taking steps into risk.
My impostor syndrome has been pretty quiet lately. I attribute this to resting in what’s true about me, and by letting what God has blessed me with take root in my heart and head. The clean slate that I’ve found myself in has given me a lot of good soil to play around in.
Lastly, being away from family for the holidays for the first time was really different, of course. My “Airplane day” (gotcha day, adoption day) falls on Dec. 21, Christmas, my parent’s anniversary, and new years all happen in one swoop, so it’s always a heavier time for me. Finding good people to share these times with was a great blessing. Waves of exhaustion, introspection, and exhilaration all sort of carried me through into 2020 and I’m glad to have shared that with newly found friends. Also, my parents were soaking up sunrays in Hawai’i, so I was sure they were perfectly fine ;).
Starting a new decade here is surreal. A couple affirmations that I’ve been using in these times are: “I’m open to God’s direction for my life, relationships, and pursuits”, “Be kind to yourself.”, and “Growth takes time and my creativity is unhindered when I allow it to reflect my emotions and uncensored filter of what’s around me.”