Adopting Heritage

On parenting as a Korean Adoptee.

2 years ago

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In the beginning, I permitted myself the hope of raising my son to appreciate, without shame, his half-Korean heritage. In the beginning, I purchased Korean wooden toy blocks, etched deeply with unfamiliar lettering, so freshly crafted you could smell the woodworker’s burn marks. In the beginning, I read him books that mixed Korean children’s words with English ones, so my son and I would together learn our mother tongue.

Still, time passes, exposing all of our misguided convictions. I eventually abandoned those early expectations, dismissing them as a new mom’s overeagerness. Instead of urging my son to embrace his Korean heritage, I realized I can’t pass on what I do not know.

But in that early beginning, when they placed my wet, alien son on my chest, the only words I said were Oh my God. I suppose I was expecting an exact physical duplicate of myself, a boy who’d resemble some long-lost biological relative. My son, the missing link between my white family and my Asian past.

That didn’t happen. Instead, as he grew older, I grew wiser. Like a shadowy form emerging from an untrustworthy mist, L’s face and personality grew more unfamiliar. In response to some desperation to know something, anything, I’d scrutinize L’s* features, coldly analyzing his infant’s stare. In those moments when a mother is supposed to be gazing upon her newborn child with loving awe, I was searching this stranger’s eyes for any signs of Me.

I was parenting based on the idea that motherhood meant your child looks just like you. That families resemble each other, confirming their members’ biological relationships. But L’s nose, his eyes, and his mouth were genetically predetermined combinations of my white husband’s DNA and my own Asian contributions, stymying me and, shamefully, disappointing me.

I see him now as a child with characteristics unknown. Was his defiance a family trait, the same inherited personality type that ostracized me throughout my early years? Or did that come from my husband? Why do L’s ears bend that way? He’d forever be a mystery, just like my own self’s characteristics.

All I am is a physical embodiment of a human being, born from a flight from a foreign country. “Being Korean” was a strange and disgraceful concept. But as a parent, this presents an interesting dilemma. What do I raise my child “as” and does he need to “be” anything?

It’s inevitable: L will develop his own sense of personhood, writing his narrative from his parents’ traditions. But like any enormous, yet invisible, undertaking, this process will not be frictionless. One time, my husband received a magnet, displaying the “Reed” coat of arms. Enclosed with it was a small paper explaining the Anglo surname’s origin. I told my husband this isn’t my English ancestry. I am not a Reed, in the ethnic sense of the term, but my husband believes that because I married into his family, the name belongs to me.

And once again, my existence is built on a name that doesn’t fit, eliciting only puzzled looks and uncomfortable giggles. My Korean face has matched none of the white names I’ve been given. When I see my son, I can’t fathom how he would ever identify with his white side; after all, white has always been a source of fear. But careful I must tread as to be fair to him, to allow him the freedom to live between two worlds.

My son’s become a partner on my journey to self-identity. Names and toys and faces shouldn’t be what defines you as a heritaged human being, and yet, as a Korean adoptee and mother, I briefly believed that those things really do make you someone. In the current part of my journey, I see this as a weakness. But later, and I know it’ll happen, I’ll embrace my son’s strength to choose his own identity at the same time I find my own.

*Name abbreviated to protect the (literal) innocent.


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Sunny J. Reed

Published 2 years ago