Thursday, December 19, 2013

Not Only the Things that Have Happened

Several months ago, author Mridula Koshy approached me with her novel, Not Only the Things that Have Happened, and asked me to review it.  Koshy’s book, which was published by Harper Collins, India in 2012, takes on the topic of transnational/transracial adoption from the perspectives of an Indian birthmother and her adult son in the United States, two views we rarely see in fiction that addresses adoption.  From the dust jacket, here is the book’s synopsis:

A woman relinquishes her four-year-old son to tourists passing through town. Losing him, she loses the story of her future. A world away from her, the boy becomes a man without the story of his past. Decades on, the mother struggles on her deathbed to find the story that will release her from life; the son’s struggle is for the story that will allow him to live.  Not Only the Things that Have Happened is a novel about the stories that make us and break us and then remake us.  The novel takes place over a thirty-six hour period, travelling between far-flung places, characters, the past, and the future. Time is a character here, revealing that through the story of our present is always told for us, the story of the past and the future is ours to tell.

While I know very little about the nuances of international adoption practices between India and the United States, the book piqued my interest, not only because of its transnational adoption scope, but because I’ve married into an Indian family whose members have been very supportive of my adoption and reunion journey, and who are also very connected to one another through kinship ties that I am only just beginning to grasp.

Koshy herself told me that adoption policy was not necessarily the driving force that motivated her to write her book, but “to act as a corrective to the highly romanticized vision of adoption gaining currency internationally. While I am sympathetic to the dilemmas of my characters, each a different member of the adoption triad, I am keenly motivated to take a critical look at where power rests in the triad. The novel turns on its head the notion that orphans create adoption, finding instead that often enough adoption creates orphans.”  Indeed, Koshy’s novel is not a shallow pulp read that glosses over the losses that transnational adoption creates.  Within the first pages, Annakutty Verghese, the birthmother protagonist passes from the world, decisively halting any possibility for a “happily ever after” reunion between mother and son.  I certainly appreciate Koshy’s efforts to shed light on the shadows that are cast by the transnational adoption industry.  I do think that sometimes when revealing these darknesses, though, it is easy to victimize the adoptee and even the birthmother as agentless and uninformed, duped by the West’s interests in neocolonialism and manifest destiny, which is a fine line that Koshy treads throughout the book.

It was interesting, reading Koshy’s novel during my free time this semester, as I spent my days working with students on themes of magic, science, and technology in Asian American literature.  Not Only the Things that Have Happened fit very well in my reading list for the semester, in the way the book slides between and through various temporalities unpredictably, and its emphasis on recognizing how events as well as non-events shape us.  One passage on page 112 I think, sums up this certainty in uncertainty nicely:

“She said she never stopped loving her lost son. She said this erased all distinctions of time. Hers was a life lived in the constant. A continuous tense. No grammar for her. She said her past was her present, her present was her present and her future was her present. Don’t you see, Father? Have we ever been called, Father, to anything else? To anything less than immutable love?”

While tracing the storyline through Koshy’s intersecting chronologies and grandiloquent prose is difficult in some places, there is never any doubt that Annakutty’s love for her lost son endures, that she is eternally his mother despite distance and time that separate them.  For bringing that to light, Mridula Koshy, for bringing attention to the love and the people that are erased in sterilized, neoliberal mulituculturalist depictions of adoption, I thank you.

Copies of Not Only the Things that Have Happened are available on For more information on Mridula Koshy and her writing, visit her blog.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Saying Goodbye

I am sitting in the Wood County Hospital in Bowling Green, Ohio, in a gray ICU room, listening to the labored breathing of my grandfather as he slowly leaves us behind.  My grandfather, whom I've always known as "Appa" (Korean for "father") and I have a special relationship.  There is something unique between a grandfather and his first granddaughter, and I've been honored to carry that title.

It is from Appa that I inherited my love of literature, my admiration of academia.  He has fostered within me that transcendental spark, that hunger for enlightenment.

I have brought with me the copy of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson that Appa passed down to me.  It is a worn copy, a 1960 edition, with a front cover barely attached, and the wonderful musty smell of well-thumbed pages.  On the endpaper, he has pasted his own inscription:

I've been reading the well-marked pages, comforted by the bold block script Appa has scrawled in the margins of nearly every page, annotations and notations, ponderances and questions.  And I've been adding my own, side-by-side our pens occupying the same space in different temporal paradigms.

There is one passage, an excerpt of a letter written to Margaret Fuller on December 8, 1839, that I read aloud to Appa, holding his slack hand, my voice quavering.
...I woke this morn with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new. I think no man in the planet has a circle more noble. They have come to me unsought: the great God gave them to me. Will they separate themselves from me again, or some of them? I know not, but I fear it not, for my relation to them is so pure that we hold by simple affinity; and the Genius of my life being thus social, the same affinity will exert its energy on whosoever is as noble as these men and women, wherever I may be.
Later today, I will walk down the street to the house where Appa resided for over twenty-five years.  I will step into his study, that room lined floor-to-ceiling with books, with the old wooden chair
propped in front of his typewriter.  This room smells of him, of old books and aftershave.  I will sit on the porch swing out back, and swing my legs like I did when I was a child.  Will partake of a handful of oyster crackers from his stainless-steel jar that is always full.  I will wander the back yard and stand beneath the pine tree I discovered and made my own when I was nine.  Back then it was little more than a twig, bravely pushing through the brick pavers.  Appa has cared for it for me since, and it has grown past the roofline of his house.  I will run my hands along the porcelain figurines lined up along the shelf, sit in the old cobbler's bench, and crank a tune out of his old penny organ.  I will twirl the spindle on the Shaker spinning wheel that rests in the corner, and pat the heavy brass cat that has eternally guarded the fire grate.

This is how I will say goodbye.  My parents advised me not to make the trip cross-country.  He could have already been gone by the time I arrived.  He certainly wouldn't be the Appa I know and love.  But sitting bedside with him, reading Emerson in the weak morning light, making my way through all the curios of my childhood, this is how I will allow myself to let go of a man who has loved and guided me in all my pursuits.

Yesterday, before he slipped into that place deeper than sleep, he comforted us and said his goodbyes.  "I love you all.  I've lived a good life. I'm not afraid."  Safe journey, dear philosopher.  You are surrounded by love.
Though my soul may set in darkness,
it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night.
-Sarah Williams, "The Old Astronomer to His Pupil" 


Monday, August 19, 2013

Coming Home

Returning home is always bittersweet.  There’s the dog to snuggle, the boy to love, privacy the dorms at Koroot doesn’t accommodate.  But it’s also a return to daily life.  My visits to Korea always feel like a time of suspended reality, and coming home means bills to pay, classes to attend, floors to vacuum, emails to reply to.

My body always seems to so easily adapt to Korean time, but is reluctant to revert to keeping US daylight hours.  Even after several days in a row of successfully sleeping through the night, waking at a decent hour, last night my body went rogue, and I lay tossing and turning next to Amul who slumbered peacefully.

My body craved the comfort of Halmoni’s house.  I crept downstairs and made a nest of quilts on the floor, but the cold wooden floors of my San Francisco apartment aren’t the soft warmth of ondol, the late night city traffic isn’t the soft hum of Korea’s summer cicadas, the throw pillow from my couch isn’t the heavy weight of Halmoni’s buckwheat pillows.  But for a few precious hours, I could pretend that my mother and sister were asleep beside me on the floor, that an ocean and thousands of miles didn't separate us.

I woke at dawn, folded my quilts and erased any evidence of my late-night attempt to return to Halmoni’s house, ready to face the day’s challenges.  Yet the remembered warmth of that summer night spent surrounded by my Korean family remains with me as I return to the reality of daily life.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

할머니의 집

My grandmother’s house sits amid vast stretches of rice paddies in the Geochang countryside.  Less than a mile from her house, a placid mountain reservoir supplies the farms with irrigation, sent along long bridges like Roman aqueducts, and its people with peace, tranquility, and astounding beauty.

We arrive in Geochang at midday, greeted by the aunt who has remained in Geochang all her life, was raised here, and then married and raised her own family here.  Han Sook Imo has a face like Omma’s, though slightly younger and absent of the lines that years of not knowing have formed around Omma’s sparkling eyes.  Like my American mother, my Korean mother always seems to be running late, and so we step into the IMG_3015air conditioned haven the nearby coffee shop affords to wait.  As we sip our iced coffees and teas, Han Sook Imo alternates between studying me intently and looking everywhere but in my eyes.  She checks her watch, checks her phone, makes a call, and is suddenly off, leaving Gayoung and me to finish our drinks.  As we wait, Gayoung glances another aunt out the window and beckons her inside.  This aunt, Kyung Mi Imo, is petite but willowy, with a face more like Imo Halmoni’s, frameless glasses perched on her nose.

Han Sook Imo suddenly reappears, her daughter in tow.  My twenty-six-year-old cousin, Haesung is tall and has delicate hands and kind eyes.  She likes things in their place, and everything just so.  Throughout the day, I watch her fold discarded napkins and place them in the corner of a tray, rearrange chopsticks and spoons so they line up just right, dab water drops from tabletops, and pick invisible specks from the woven sitting mat on the floor, always with her pinky fingers delicately cocked, as if she is having tea with the queen.  She is a dutiful daughter and granddaughter, and plays the model hostess at Halmoni’s house, attending to everyone’s needs.

IMG_3014Gayoung is on the phone with Omma; she is still at least an hour away, on a bus near Daegu, so it is decided that we will have lunch in town while we wait for her bus to arrive.  Shabu shabu is on the menu for lunch today, and all my relatives ensure that I am full of thin slices of beef, fresh octopus and squid, scallops still in their shells, and dumplings.  “많이 먹어!” (eat a lot!) is their chant.
Finished with lunch, we make our way back to the bus terminal to pick up Omma.  She slides into the backseat with me in a cloud of heat and sweet perfume.  Before heading to Halmoni’s house, we stop at the local market to pick up food for our little retreat.  Ginseng, a whole chicken, tofu, bitter melon, steamed red bean bread, all are procured, and then we are finally on our way to Halmoni’s house, navigating the winding country roads in Han Sook’s little sedan.

Halmoni is not at home when we arrive.  At seventy-seven, she has taken it upon herself to learn to read, and IMG_3024is at school where she practices writing her hangul characters.  Gayoung informs me that our grandmother is the best in her class.  I jokingly ask if Halmoni is the only person in the class, but one of my imos assures me there are 9 or 10 other students.

This is a surprising bit of information, that Halmoni never learned to read.  Well, not surprising, as many rural Koreans of her generation didn’t have access to such education, but I find even three years after our reunion, another puzzle piece falls into place, filling in the gaps.  When I first started looking for Omma, with the help of Ma Kyung Hee at Holt, we sent two different telegrams to Halmoni’s house, asking Omma to contact us.  This is standard practice, as it was the original address on file, and sending a telegram to the birthmother’s parents comes with less risk of a husband finding out about such a secret as a relinquished child.  We never heard back from those telegrams, and guessed that perhaps my grandparents had moved away in the 27 years that I had been gone.  Gayoung had told me that we were visiting the same house (though with a few drastic remodels and renovations along the way) that Omma had grown up in.  Halmoni had never moved, yet the telegrams went unanswered because she could not read them.  As a last ditch effort, Kyung Hee sent a telegram to a current address linked to Omma that the police inquiry had found.  Funnily enough, the telegram was received by my youngest sister, Jiyoung (to whom I am still a secret).

And that is where the gaps begin to close, when Omma contacted Holt, and went though the agonizing process of deciding whether or not to reach out to her lost daughter.  But this little sliver of knowledge, that Halmoni didn’t know how to read, reveals how close we could have been to never meeting.  I share my revelation with Gayoung, who informs Omma and the imos.  They, too are startled by this, and it comes back into the conversation several times during the night, as they parse through the what-ifs that have become so familiar to me in navigating this adoption experience.IMG_3033
Halmoni arrives, and she is a spry and sassy old woman with a strong voice and a hearty laugh.  We sit in the bright airy common room of her house, spearing peach and plum slices with tiny forks.  I sit on the straw mat on the floor, listening to the animated chatter.  My heart swells with each burst of laughter and smile, surrounded by these women who all shared Omma’s sorrow and helped her be strong.  The summer heat and belly full of good Korean food makes me sleepy, and Omma encourages me to stretch out and nap.  I rest my head on Halmoni’s buckwheat pillow and drift in and out to the sound of my relatives chatting, catching up on neighborhood gossip.

IMG_3057In honor of my visit, my family decide to prepare samgyetang for dinner.  Also, as it is the hottest day of the year, the traditional chicken soup is fitting, as it’s customarily eaten to beat the hot weather.  Family members scurry about, picking fresh vegetables from Halmoni’s garden, starting a campfire, boiling water in a huge metal pot over the fire, and cooking rice and beans.  And while all the disparate pieces of the meal are being put together, Halmoni’s daughters each take an opportunity to sneak away, to talk with me, with Gayoung’s help.  The afternoon chatter was lighthearted and pointedly ignored the elephant in the middle of the room.  Gayoung tells me that Han Sook Imo confessed to her that she can’t look into my eyes—if she does she will break down in tears.  I suspected that Han Sook Imo’s decision to bring her daughter Haesung along was a strategy to avoid discussing heavier things—Haesung is not privy to the family’s secret.

  But with just the three of us together, Kyung Mi Imo dissolves into tears as she relates through Gayoung the trials our family went through after I went away.  “Thank you,” she says, “Thank you for finding my sister, because she couldn’t find you.”  She tells me that Omma has been so much happier the past three years since we found each other, she has been at peace, knowing that I am safe and sound and happy.  Imo becomes emotional as she talks about her older sister’s sadness, and I realize how much love there is in this family; she is crying relating the pain that is not even hers, she hurts because her sister hurts.  “Thank you for not forgetting me,” I reply.  I am so grateful to my aunts, to my grandmother, to Gayoung, to Gayoung’s father for loving Omma so much, for helping her be strong and remember how to love and laugh  in my absence.

Kyung Mi Imo tells me that she was friends with my birthfather’s sister.  They all grew up together in the same village; my parents had known each other since elementary school.  Apparently, some years ago, my Gomo (paternal aunt) got married, and then divorced (which is big news in a small town in Korea).  At some point, the whole family moved away from the hometown village to the city (which aligns with what I’ve learned about his family’s desire to climb the social ladder at any cost).  My paternal grandmother passed away of stomach cancer, and my grandfather moved in with my birthfather’s family.  Imo tells me that when she was pregnant with her first child, she knitted baby clothes and thought of me.  When she held her baby in her arms, she wondered how my father’s family could give up their child.  When Omma got the letter from Holt, she talked with Imo, and Imo also talked with Ma Kyung Hee. I love being part of this family of beautiful strong women. I love that one woman’s heartache is all the women’s heartache.  And the joy of love and reunion is shared among them (us) as well.IMG_3092IMG_3089
Dinner is served with local Geochang ice wine (which took half an hour to uncork without a corkscrew, and still contains bits of cork that float to the top).  The home cooked samgyetang made by my grandmother and mother and aunts is delicious; I can taste the love in every bite.

After dinner, Halmoni retreats to the bedroom, and the rest of us set out mats in the front yard, lie on our backs gazing at the stars in the clear Geochang night sky.  One by one, we fall asleep, lulled by the night sounds and the comfort of each other’s closeness.  Halmoni wakes us sometime in the middle of the night.  “What the heck are you doing out here?” she cries.  “Get inside! The mosquitoes!”  We all troop inside, dragging blankets and pillows to collapse again on the straw mat in the front room for a few more hours of sleep before daybreak.

The morning dawns hot and humid.  As the women prepare breakfast, they shoo us cousins out the door to take a walk to the reservoir.  One of the Imos chases behind us to hand us all frilly pink parasols to block the sun (they had commented earlier on how “black” my skin was).  And so, with these lacy confections in hand, we hike along the path to Chisan-josuji.  We are silent as we walk, each lost in thought.  I cannot speak for my sister or cousin, but I contemplate this rare opportunity I have been given, to live, even just for a day, as part of the Yoo family.  Gayoung has shown me pictures of family vacations at Halmoni’s house, all the aunts and uncles and cousins in residence, splashing in mountain streams, and lolling lazily on Halmoni’s floor, and I think this must be what it is like to live in this family, surrounded by beauty and love.  I cannot mourn the loss of those whole family retreats that have never included me.  Rather, I am thankful for this glimpse, thrilled that this experience can now be included alongside those Donnell summer vacations on the lake in northern Michigan.  I am so lucky that now both of these are a reality in my life.

IMG_3105When we return from our walk, breakfast is nearly ready.  The table is laden with rice, pork belly, doenjang chiggae, banchan, and a beautifully-fried fish that was caught by Kyung Mi Imo’s husband during a recent vacation by the sea.  Breakfast is eaten with gusto, and I am surprised that the seven of us consume nearly all the food set out.  Ever the perfect hostess, Haesung pulls choice bits of fish from the communal plate and places them delicately on my spoon.  Halmoni slurps at the dregs of the doenjang chiggae and Omma sucks on the fishbones.

Once breakfast is cleared away, we sprawl on the floor to digest.  Halmoni reaches for her knapsack, taking the opportunity to study what she has learned at school.  Her workbook contains the text of well-known old Korean country songs, and with Gayoung pulling up sound files on her smartphone, a singalong commences.  Kyung Mi Imo sits close to Halmoni, tracing the lines with her finger to help Halmoni follow along.
Gayoung asks me what my favorite Korean song is.  “Big Bang? 2NE1?” she teases me.  No, I tell her.  My favorite Korean song is “Sa Rang Hae (Dangshinul),” an old Korean song that was popular before I was even born.  My family members nod in recognition.  While perhaps not nearly as iconic as “Arirang,” I think all Koreans are familiar with this song.  Gayoung finds the music on her phone.  And then the women of my family sing to me. The song is sweet and sad, but most of all, speaks of love.  All the things that have colored my reunion with these women.

After the music fades, it is quiet.  Kyung Mi Imo wipes a tear from her eye and says, “Every time I hear this song now, I will always think of Kyung Joo.”  I am touched, and place my hand upon my heart in thanks.  “Sister, how do you know this song?” Gayoung asks me. “It is a very old song, where did you hear it?”  On my first return to Korea in 2001, our tour group visited an orphanage and spent several hours with the children that lived there.  I remember one little girl that I spent time with—she just wanted to be held, cuddled, loved.  When our time was up, leaving the babies behind was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  The children wailed, and we adoptees along with our adoptive families wept alongside them.  I think it really hit home for us that this legacy of lost children continues even today.  Whether transnational adoption is ethical or not, whether children find loving homes in new families or not, there is sadness in the fact that circumstances have disallowed children’s original families from raising them.  Back on the tour bus, our group sat immobile with our grief.  Our sweet and kind guide, Miss Pak, grasped the bus’s PA microphone and began singing this song to us in a brave, clear voice, simultaneously soothing and affirming  our sorrow.
I tell this story to my family, and then the tears that have been held back for the past day and a half break through.  We are all weeping.  I scoot across the floor to embrace Omma.  “Mianhae,” she sobs. “I am so sorry.”

Once our tears subside, talk again turns to more mundane topics.  We assemble for a quick lunch of cold “noodles” made of seaweed gelatin in a broth of pureed soybeans, and then we all load into Kyung Mi Imo and Han Sook Imo’s cars to return to the bus terminal.  Halmoni and the Imos wave as Omma, Gayoung, and I board our respective buses.  As our bus heads for Seoul, I turn to Gayoung and ask, “Do you think Haesung figured out what was going on?”  Gayoung shrugs.  “Probably,” she replies. “Kyung Mi Imo has already told her daughter, so Haesung will probably find out.”  I am happy that it will no longer be a secret from my cousin.  Not because I feel I deserve to be known and wholly accepted, but because it means that Omma will have one more brave woman to help her be strong.  One more family member has weighed the “shame” of a thirty-year-old past against their love for my mother, and has chosen to embrace her wholly, and make her heartbreaking history a part of their own.  This is family.  This is love.  And I am so blessed to be among such a powerful force.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hard Truths

Wednesday evening, I met up with Gayoung for samgyupsal and soju.  Delicious, as meals always are with my sister, and sometime around our second bottle of soju, our conversation turned to the international adoption industry in Korea.  A favorite topic of mine.  It’s so interesting how little is revealed to the Korean general public about the processes and operations involved in sending its children abroad.  Gayoung was shocked to hear that the adoption agencies here in Korea are run like a business, that 2/3 of the pregnant/single mother support homes are run by adoption agencies where women are coerced into relinquishing their children.  She asked me a number of times, “You’re talking about now, today?  Not thirty years ago?”  Yes, little sister.  Now, today.  In a country that has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, over a thousand children are sent away each year, pulling in a revenue of 15-20 million dollars annually.

I am reminded of something Pastor Kim said the other night, as we chatted seated around the kitchen table at Koroot:  Korea’s economic success is built on the bodies of its people,  Construction workers and low-skill laborers toiled long and hard remodeling Seoul into a major metropolitan center.  Factory workers worked long hours producing products for the international market.  Domestic laborers migrated internationally for work in richer countries in order to send money back to the motherland.  Yet the bodies that bore the brunt of the cost of modernization were those of Korea’s women and children.  And we continue to bear the costs; we have the scars to prove it.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On Swans

We sit cross-legged on the hard linoleum floor, circled about a plate of sweet white peaches.  These women are changing the world, making good use of the overabundance of anger, hurt, and sorrow this life has afforded.  The adoptee beside me has lived in Korea for seven, eight years.  She is a tiny bird of a woman, with flashing eyes and slight fluttering hands.  Her skin is pale along the graceful curve of her neck and jaw.

I feel dark and large and clumsy beside her, my voice unsure with awkward turns of phrase.  There is so much work to be done here, on this peninsula, in the hearts of its people.  I wonder if I spend as much time here in the motherland as the adoptee beside me, if it will transform me into a graceful swan like her.

I count the time I’ve been in Korea.  Five months in the beginning.  A month here, a month there, adding up the weeks and days like loose change.  Nine months.  A mere nine months I’ve breathed the Korean air, walked upon her soil.  And what sort of gestation has this resulted in?  What sort of person have I become?

What has hatched from this period of incubation, surrounded by han?  Not a swan.  Certainly not a stork.  I have not the brash bravery of the blue jay or the magpie, nor the solemn self-assurance of the heron or the snowy egret.  I am small and brown and plain, an ordinary sparrow, but one who greets each day with a new song.

Friday, August 2, 2013

IKAA Gathering 2013

IMG_2723Whew, this past week has been a whirlwind.  The research symposium on Tuesday went well, I think.  It turned out to be a long day of sitting and actively listening, but I was impressed with how many people hung around.  There’s some really fascinating work going on in the field of Korean adoption studies.  It’s really exciting, and I was honored to be included with so many amazing academics doing such important work.  I’m really looking forward to the possibility of collaborating with these scholars, and seeing how my own research and perspective puzzles in to the begger picture.

Afterwards, the presenters and a few other academics attending the conference went out for a huge traditional dinner in Insadong.  Great company, great food.  I swear, there were at least 12 courses.



When we got out of the restaurant, it was nearly ten (I’d been at the conference since 8 am), and pouring rain.  Most everyone else (including Pastor Kim) decided to go out for makgolli (Korean rice wine), but I was exhausted, so I slogged three or four blocks in my dress clothes and high heels to find a cab to head home.  Soaking wet, I made it home to Koroot, and chilled on the couch (once I was dry) with a couple other adoptees.  We decided to watch a DVD (GI Joe), but I fell asleep within ten minutes of it starting.t morn

The next morning, I went to cheer on Team USA in the adoptee World Cup soccer tournament.  At each Gathering, because there are so many Korean adoptees from so many different adoptive countries, one of the events is a soccer tournament with teams of adoptees from different countries playing against each other.  I was actually supposed to play on Team USA (even though I haven’t played soccer since grade school AYSO—I told the team I was expecting Capri Suns and orange slices at halftime), but my shins have been acting up (unfortunately, I suspect another stress fracture), so I put myself on the DL.

Good lord, was it HOT.  Just sitting in the bleachers cheering, I was sweating bullets.  The players themselves were definitely troopers.  Four Round Robin games (half-court, 30 minutes) in a row, followed by the semifinals and finals, and concluding with a 45-minute full-court friendly match against members from the Ministry of Health and Welfare.  All the players looked wrecked after half a day running around in full sun.  Unfortunately, USA didn’t place (an unlucky self-goal), but we contributed several “all-star” members to the team for the game against the MHW in which we tied.


Gah, just got super-sleepy.  Will post another update soon, lots of stuff has been going on and things are churning around and around in my brain.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Membership Training

So the major reason I’m here in Seoul right now is to participate in the International Korean Adoptee Associations’ (IKAA) 2013 Gathering.  Held every three years, the Gathering is the largest Korean adoptee conference in the world.  This year about 450 adoptees are attending the weeklong conference.  I’m presenting at the research symposium portion of the conference on Tuesday.

So yesterday IKAA hosted a membership training event.  Apparently this is an activity most Koreans are familiar with—when starting at a new company, or starting the new college school year, friends or colleagues go out to the country to drink, play games, and get to know each other.  Kind of like corporate retreats, but with more soju.

IMG_2444We went to a traditional music school two hours outside of Seoul that’s run by an ajusshi (who apparently is a famous samulnori musician), his wife, and their daughter.  They were very gracious hosts, even if they were a little overbearing about their own preferred agenda (they wanted to teach us Arirang all night; most of us were there to drink).

MT was fun, I was able to see a lot of familiar faces, and meet new adoptees as well.  I usually feel like an awkward turtle in new social situations, but it was so nice to feel like part of the group at MT.  All the attending adoptees were so friendly, I felt like I was already friends with everyone, and just go to skip the awkward get-to-know you period.  The copious amounts of alcohol may have also helped with that.  It’s a possibility.

We learned a bunch of Korean drinking games, and then expanded out to German drinking games, American drinking games, Danish drinking games, etc.

Last night the sunsaegnim (teacher) and his students performed a samulnori routine for us.  This morning, several of us were interested in trying the drums, and asked the teacher if he would be willing to give us a lesson.  So we ended up having an impromptu samulnori jam session.  We weren’t nearly as impressive as the teacher’s performance last night, but I think we did pretty well for absolute beginners.


We got back to Seoul around 1 pm, and let me tell you, the cold shower I took when I got back to Koroot felt amazing!  I’ve got a couple hours to rest and reorganize before heading back over to Myeongdong for the Gathering’s opening ceremony.  And tomorrow will be the research symposium.  Wish me luck!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Street food discovery

A new Korean street food discovery: the best hot pocket in the world!  Crab cole slaw with thousand island dressing, pickles, and hot dog/spam slices, breaded with croquette batter and deep fried. So delicious!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

War and Women’s Human Rights Museum

IMG_2327This afternoon I found my way to the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum.  It’s a brand-new museum which opened in May of 2012 after nine years of planning and building.  With a mix of art installations, history, and artifacts, the museum tells the story of the thousands of women who were abducted and used as comfort women (though they prefer to be called “Halmoni” rather than the Japanese-created euphemism) or sex slaves during World War II by Japanese soldiers.  Navigating the museum was definitely a powerful experience.  So many of the Halmonis’ stories are heartbreaking. Girls as young as 13 or 14 were kidnapped and raped by 30-50 Japanese soldiers daily.  A quarter of the comfort women died in Japanese “service,” and the surviving women bear scars from their ordeal inside and out.


While the museum certainly makes its visitors aware of the atrocities the Halmonis faced, it does not just paint the women as helpless victims.  The museum does a wonderful job of showing how strong and agentive these women are.  A large part of the museum is dedicated to showcasing the twenty years of efforts and activism the Halmonis have put in to erasing the stigma of hiding the bitter past, seeking reparations from Japan, and raising awareness in the general public on human trafficking and human rights.  Every Wednesday (since 1991, I believe) the Halmonis protest and picket outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul, demanding recognition and reparation from the Japanese government.  In December 2012, the Halmonis celebrated their 1,000th consecutive Wednesday protest.  Though there are only 61 known Hamonis remaining, their force is stronger than ever, and show no signs of stopping until justice has been served.



What I really liked about the museum was that its scope is broader than just the Korean comfort women.  The museum makes a point to acknowledge that comfort women were taken from all over Asia, from Korea, to Indonesia, to Taiwan, to the Philippines.  And while the Halmonis are the main focus of the exhibition, the museum also implores its visitors to consider the fact that today, millions of women are still victims of sexual slavery, human trafficking, and rape all across the world.  I found it fascinating and heartwarming that the Halmonis have personally taken an interest and gotten involved in women’s rights advocacy in Africa.  The Halmonis recognize that all gender violence and inequity is connected and takes many forms.  It makes me hopeful that my own work can contribute to the cause.

Inwang San

Koroot’s located right at the foot of Inwang San, so this morning I took a hike up the mountain, all the way to the top!  It’s really beautiful, with a fortress wall that traces the spine of the mountain like dragon scales.  I usually try and hike in Inwang at least once when I’m in Korea since it’s so near Koroot, but I usually stick to the paths and public exercise machines located about halfway up the mountain.  Today, though, I took a different trail and hiked all the way to the summit.  I didn’t have my camera with me (it was a kind of spur-of-the-moment decision to hike to the top, so I wasn’t really prepared), but I managed to grab a few shots with my handphone.

I also took the opportunity to grab a couple sound bytes.  So you can listen to the sounds of the mountain while scrolling through the photos, and it’ll be just like you’re there with me! (Apologies for the poor sound quality—I just had the internal iPhone mic with me.  Also, sorry for the rather roundabout way of uploading these files--my internet-savvy is apparently not sufficient enough to figure out how to embed sound files on Blogger)

Mountain Spring 


The first sound clip is of the mountain spring.  Apparently, the water from the spring is supposed to have healing/healthful benefits.  It certainly felt wonderfully cool and refreshing when I splashed my face with the water after hiking for three miles!

The second clip is of Korean cicadas.  I love this sound.  Funnily, the American cicada calls in late summer always gave me anxiety when I was growing up.  The harsh jicka-jicka of American cicadas at night meant that summer was almost over, that school would start again, that I would have to navigate new and uncomfortable situations in classrooms full of unfamiliar faces.  The cicadas heralded the looming approach to the time when I would have to once again put all my efforts into being a model student, poised and perfect.  Exhausting.

Korean cicadas, on the other hand, soothe me, with their mem-mem-mem.  Rather than an external façade, Korean cicadas represent self-discovery and a sense of coming home for me.   This summer, I’ve heard just a few here and there, but when I first came back to Korean in 2001, it must have been a transition year for Korean cicadas, because I remember the sound of hundreds of cicadas calling to each other for hours on end being deafening.

That first trip home was definitely a turning point in my life, when being a Korean adoptee because a central and positive self-identity for me.  Since then, I’ve grown and have returned to Korean many times, and the mem-mem-mem has become a sound of self-affirmation for me.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Rainy Day

First of all, overhearing a conversation right now between an adoptee here at Koroot and Pastor Kim, I love the fact that Pastor Kim is referring Korean pastors to Frantz Fanon to understand approaches to adoptee issues.

It’s raining today in Seoul, it’s hot and muggy.  I’m in the second-story sitting room at Koroot, watching the rain drip down the unripe persimmon fruit on the tree out the window.

I’m reminded of my parents’ trip to Korea thirty years ago at just this time.  Apparently, the story goes, it was pouring rain the day they were to pick me up from the adoption agency, which meant that everyone in Seoul crowded into the taxis.  My parents waited and waited in a taxi queue with growing anxiety as Holt Agency’s closing time loomed closer and closer.  My mother, somewhat panicky, afraid that she would be unable to hold the child she had waited so long for, afraid that Holt would close for the weekend before they could get there, turned to my father, and voiced her concerns.  My father was at a loss, having no answers for her, when the Korean behind them spoke up.  “The next taxi, you go!” the stranger ordered.

And so, when the next taxi pulled up to the taxi stand, with the stranger’s blessing, my parents cut the winding line of Seoullites and dove into the backseat of the car, and arrived at the adoption agency in time to take me into their arms.

I always imagine that scene as something out of an action movie, thunder and lightning, my parents diving into a taxi, yelling at the driver to “step on it!” My parents make it with seconds to spare, and the credits scroll over an image of our newly-completed family.  I’m sure it was much more mundane, I’m sure the Koreans waiting in line  grumbled about stupid white tourists cutting in line for a taxi.  I’m sure the adoption agency would have ensured my parents were able to pick me up.  All the same, it’s fun to imagine otherwise sometimes.

Monday, July 15, 2013


A family member scolded me for expressing disappointment with the George Zimmerman trial verdict.  I had posted “It’s a dangerous time to be a person of color in America.”  I was then told that I was racist and sexist for expressing an opinion that deviated from a white male perspective, and should get over it because justice had been served.

This was hurtful to me, not because a white male called me racist and sexist, but because as a person of color, I felt that my voice and opinion was once again being dismissed, ignored, and invalidated.  Someone who has never experienced the daily trials of racism and microaggressions was telling me how I was supposed to feel.

It’s not that George Zimmerman was found not guilty.

For me, that’s beyond the point.  It’s that Trayvon Martin never should have died in the first place.  It’s that he was innocent of anything but being a young man of color in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It’s that racial profiling and vigilantism (official or unofficial) exists and so often result in tragedies like Trayvon’s death.  Had Trayvon been a white teenager dressed in a hoodie walking through the neighborhood, would George Zimmerman have seen him as a threat, confronted him, and shot him?

It’s that while there is a criminal-justice system in place that determines what is right and wrong, it is a system that is flawed.  It’s a system that favors white Americans, or people who can pass as white.  In the United States, approximately 30% of the population is comprised of people of color, yet make up 60% of the nation’s prison population.  It’s a system in which law enforcement agents in urban centers are encouraged to stop and frisk Black and Hispanic men to keep patrol quotas up.

But my statement, “It’s a dangerous time to be a person of color in America” isn’t just about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.  What I mean, is, as a person of color, I confront stereotypes and assumptions on a daily basis that my white family members and friends don’t.  And so often, they take that for granted.
Have they ever been approached on a bus and propositioned for sex because Asian women are stereotyped as subservient and hypersexual?
Do people talk about them as if they’re invisible because it’s assumed they don’t understand English?
Do they need to make sure to shave, dress nicely, and avoid eye-contact with TSA agents while traveling like my husband to avoid being fingered as a terrorist?
Have they been spit on by strangers on the street like my Punjabi family members?
Do people assume their mothers are prostitutes like my fellow adoptees and mixed-race friends?
I would hope they haven’t experienced these, because though I and my brown brothers and sisters face instances like this daily, it’s hurtful every time.

I’m not asking for pity, or sympathy, or a guilt handout.  All I’m asking for is recognition that my life as a person of color is different from those of white Americans, and respect and validation of my experiences, feelings, and opinions, even if they vary from your own.  In return, I will promise the same.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

France/Italy Travel Tips

Amul’s travel tips for France and Italy:


Here's an info dump of stuff about Italy and France:


Here's the link to the champagne tour that we went on.  Definitely reserve in advance as they are highly rated on trip adviser and only take a max of 6 people a day.

Get the Paris museum pass, it lets you bypass the lines at most museums including the Louvre.  You can buy it at any museum (go to a less popular one so you don't have to wait in line)

A few good restaurants in Paris that we went to: - right next door is the Shakespeare book store which is pretty cool (they had a reading the night we were there)


We went to Rome, Florence, and then rented a car from Florence and drove around Tuscany.

One really cool (but sometimes tourist trap-y) thing about Italy is that a lot of bars and restaurants have happy hours (Apertivi) where you get free snacks with your drink. The better happy hour deals actually have a buffet that you can pick from. For the most part its worth it and a good time. We did get slightly burned once by someone telling us the drinks were 8 euros but charged us 10 euros after we were done.  There will be a lot of places like this in Rome and Florence especially in the various piazzas. House wine is always a good (inexpensive choice) with dinner. 


The Roma pass allows you free entrance to two attractions where you can skip the line and then discounts elsewhere (but no line skipping).  Its worth it to skip the line at the Colosseum. You also get to ride public transit for free. You can buy it at the airport or main train stations.  

The coolest place by far was the Galleria Borghese.  It has some of the most amazing sculptures that I've seen.  You must reserve tickets in advance (online or by phone), they sell out about a week or two in advance so plan ahead.  

Like we mentioned, Rome is interesting but sprawling and crowded.  We had much more fun in Florence and Tuscany.


The two biggest tourist attractions are the Academia (where David is) and the Uffizi Gallery.  Both of which have long lines BUT you can also reserve tickets online in advances and save HOURS of waiting time.  Plan ahead and reserve tickets to save time.

Our other favorite attractions in Florence:

- The Galileo Museum of Science History - no lines, easy to get into and really, really cool!

- The central market - greatest food market I've ever been to. Go hungry and get sandwiches, meat samplers, fruit, nuts, truffles etc. The market is actually indoors in a large building surrounded by tourist hawker stalls selling leather, purses, and souvenirs.  A lot of tourists completely miss the indoor food market. Do not miss it!  

Some good restaurants: - Get one of the meat/cheese sampler platters and a few glasses of house wine. So good! - get the truffle gnocchi - the cauliflower flan was amazing and they are really generous with the limoncello 


The towns we visited were: San Gimignano, Siena, and Greve in Chianti. We wanted to see Volterra but didn't get a chance.  San Gimignano and Sienna were the most scenic.  Greve in Chianti was a normal looking town but you really go there for the wine.

If you do visit these towns is best to rent a car and GPS is really helpful.  My Samsung phone didn't work in Europe but Kira's iPhone GPS did work.  Some of the larger cities (Florence and Sienna for sure) have zero traffic zones (ZTL) that you can accidentally drive into and then be sent a $300 ticket.  Let me know if you plan to rent a car, I'll send you our PDF version of lonely planet Italy road trips. Make sure you can drive stick shift or specifically reserve an automatic transmission car.

A few restaurants/places we really liked in the various towns:

The Duomo in Siena was absolutely beautiful. It has a "crypt" and a museum and a panoramic view point worth checking out. - winery tour in Chianti : Self serve wine tasting of more than 140 wines (as well as some Spumanti and Champagnes). - amazing butcher and cheese store in Greve in Chianti 

Regarding money, if you have a Bank of America account you can use BNL and BNP ATMs in both France and Italy with no transaction fee. Way better exchange rate than money exchangers too.  Also Paris was about 15% more expensive than Italy in terms of food and drink. 

Let us know if you want more details on any particular town once you get to more detailed planning.

I hope that helps!



Greece Travel Suggestions

Several friends of ours have recently asked us for travel tips for Greece, Italy, and France.  Amul, the gracious and thorough friend his is, compiled a couple e-mails to our friends giving them info. on some of our favorite places.  Below is his Greece travel tips e-mail, which he generously agreed to share on the blog, for anyone else looking to travel to these destinations.


Here are some of our recommendations for Greece:


We actually didn't make it to Oia but I heard great things about it. We stayed in Fira and spent time there and further south on the island Aside from quality beach time check out the following:

1. Santo Wines.  They have great outdoor seating that overlooks the caldera. I think a tasting of 6 wines with cheese was 11 euros, a great deal.  Its best to go later in afternoon to avoid the tour groups.  They are open until sunset and would be a nice place to watch the sunset one evening.  Definately try the Vinsanto (and we would be greatly indebted to you if you have room to bring a bottle of Vinsanto back for us!  We didn't buy one because it was just the 3rd day of 21 days of travel and we weren't sure if we wanted to lug it all around Europe. We now regret that decision.)

2. Ancient Akrotiri was pretty cool. Its a city that was covered in volcanic ash thousands of years ago (like Pompeii) and is an active archaeological site. 

3. Some of our favorite restaurants in Fira:

O Souvlaros: no view, no fancy setup, but amazing home cooked food (the daughter is the server, the mom is the cook).  You will not be disappointed. The Meatballs and the eggplant saganaki were the stars.

Fanari Restaraunt: great view, great food!


We didn't spend much time here but we really liked it.  Definitely go to Delos one day.  Other than that go get drinks in little venice while the sun sets (they are expensive though, 12 euros a pop!).  


Aside from the acropolis:

1. We really liked the old Olympic stadium. Its worth the money to actually go inside and see it in person. They have free audio guides and there is a hidden exhibit (walk up the athlete's tunnel) that has all the modern Olympic torches. You can even run on the track.

2. Check out the acropolis museum if you need a break from the sun.

3. Our favorite restaurant we went to:

Have a good trip!


And bonus, Amul’s made a “best-of” photo album of our trip that you can check out here:

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


From Amul:
We're back home in the US after an amazing trip.  We didn't have much time to update the blog after Florence so these next few posts will be recaps.  

Following six days of city sight-seeing in Rome and Florence, we were due for some relaxing country-side living.  Fortunately we had planned just for this and spent the next three days in Tuscany.

Our Tuscany adventure started with a trip to the Florence airport to rent a car.  I had specifically reserved a Fiat 500, mostly because it was the only automatic transmission car available but also because I've been seeing this commercial for the last 4 months:

I had to promise that I wouldn't drive our car (that Kira affectionately named "Fifi") into the water. Its a great little car for city driving but I can tell you it was not built for the bumpy unpaved roads of the Tuscan countryside.

We drove 1.5 hours south from Florence to our farm stay at Fattoria Voltrana just outside of the town of San Gimignano.  Voltrana is located a mile off the main road up in the hill.  The farm grows grapes and olives and the owners make their own wine and olive oil.  Additionally, Voltrana breeds and trains Icelandic horses offering riding tours through the surrounding hills and towns.  We were unable to go on the tour because of my lack of riding experience:(

We decided to have dinner at the farm that night. A simple four course Tuscan meal was served with house wine that dangerously "tasted like punch" according to Kira.  We went through a litre of it, needless to say dinner was a fun time.

The next morning we decided to drive to Siena and got lost got driving into town but saved ourselves by simply stopping at the first parking spot we saw and walking the rest of the way.  Kira wrote about Siena in her earlier post: Summer Reading. Despite the rain we had a great time exploring town. In the evening we had dinner in San Gimignano at Trattoria Chiribiri recommended by the farm staff.  Chiribiri has only 8 tables and puts out some great homemade rustic Tuscan dishes. Kira had the homemade pasta with wild boar raghu.  We noticed the pasta itself was the scraps and end pieces from tortellini, they were all different sizes and shapes. My Ossobuco with stewed tomatoes and vegetables fell off the bones at the lightest touch. Oh so rustic and oh so good.

The next day we headed east to the Chianti region for some wine tasting.  We made a reservation to tour Catello di Verrezzano.  The Verrezzano family and their descendants have been making wine here since the year 1150, its oldest winery in Italy.  The most famous member of the Verrazzano family was Giovanni da Verrazzano the explorer that charted much of the east coast of the United States for whom the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in New York City is named after (they left out one of the "Z"s in his name).

After wine tasting we headed into Greve in Chianti the main town in the Chianti region. We swung by the local butcher shop to pick up some salami to bring home as well as a nice prosciutto sandwich for an afternoon snack. We decided some more wine tasting was in order and headed to the Chianti wine museum which just so happens to have the largest wine tasting room in the world.  The 140 wines are self serve controlled by electronic dispensers that read your pre-paid tasting card.  After trying a few desert wines Kira found a sparkling moscato at which point we used out remaining funds to get Kira a full glass of it. She was happy to say the least.  We drove back to San Gimignano to watch the sunset from the top of the city walls before having dinner at Chiribiri for the second night in a row.  Once again it did not disappoint.

Monday, June 10, 2013


Welp, wonderful Amul stayed up till almost one in the morning trying to figure out how to get us to Paris. On a related note, Iberian Air's customer service sucks. As in, it's nonexistent. 

But Air Berlin has come through for us, sort of. I'll be spending the day driving to Florence and then flying from there to a layover in Vienna and then to Paris instead of hanging out with the Icelandic horses who live at our agroturismo farm and wandering the alleys of San Gimignano, but this will get us to Paris at roughly the same time our previous plans would have. 

Our other options were a little ridiculous. Apparently there are no other direct flights from Florence to Paris. So we could have waited to see what Iberian's solution was, which we predict probably was to stay another day or two here in Tuscany, which wouldn't be so bad, but then we'd have to pay out of pocket for another night's lodging here and another day of car rental, to then grab a red-eye (with layovers), which would get us to Paris maybe by the 13th (we leave for home on the 15th).  Or we could wake up early, drive to Florence to grab a 3-4 hour train back to Rome and hope to catch a flight from there. Or pay $1100 each for a Florence-Rome-Paris flight route.

Our tickets on Air Berlin are $350 each--rather steep, but we both agreed it was worth it to cut the hassle of the other options, where the risk of missing a connection were much greater. Plus, we'll be reimbursed by Iberian for the cost of our original ticket, and we won't have to pay for additional nights of lodging or car rental.  Air Berlin will get us to Paris at 8pm (our original time of arrival was 8:30), which will give us enough time to get us to our rental apartment before I turn into a pumpkin. Or a werewolf. I'm not sure which. And we'll still have the same number of days in France before we head home. 

Many kudos to Amul who spent several hours trying to get ahold of Iberian and then searching online for alternative solutions. I was rather incapacitated after an afternoon of wine tasting in Chianti. If this is the worst hiccough in our three weeks of traveling through over seven cities across Europe, I count this honeymoon as a great success. 


And Amul just got an email that our flight tomorrow night from Florence to Paris has been cancelled.

Possibility of being stuck another day on a horse farm (where they also make their own salami, olive oil, and wine) in the Tuscan countryside? Man, life is tough.