Find Me by Jen Kim
Winner of the first ROAR Story Slam in 2016 sponsored by Council of Korean Americans and produced by Korean American Story
The worst moment of my life came when I was ten years old. My little sister was gone: my little sister who was adopted from Korea after me and after my brother. My little sister who called me Mom.
That day had started normally: church and family luncheon at my Italian grandmother’s house, with the smell of the red sauce simmering on the stove cradling sausages, meatballs, and the neck bones my uncles would playfully fight over. There were piles of spaghetti and the good, sesame- studded semolina bread from Calandra’s bakery. This is the food I grew up with.
My childhood summers were spent at Korean Culture Camp where we dared each other to try kimchi, folded floury dumpling wrappers into mandu, tried to brush paint our names, learned tae kwon do and the fan dance. I couldn’t speak Korean like the teachers, their tones winding up and down in unfamiliar ways. And I couldn’t make myself look like the beautiful dancers, with their kohl-rimmed eyes and jet black hair twisted and coiled to frame their soft, smiling faces.
I wore my hanbok shyly, but it felt stiff, uncomfortable, restrictive. And I wondered why this was supposed to define me.
As with so many moments in life, we lost my sister in an instant. My Mother, my adoptive Mother, my real Mother turned to put her sweater on but she was gone. She was only two but already walking. I didn’t know what it felt like to be drunk or have your life flash before your eyes or any of the other clichéd, room spinning, reality-bending moments. But at that moment all of the life went out of me and a sudden cold crept in. The sights and sounds of the mall faded away until I felt blind and deaf and numb. Paralyzed, even as I spun about wildly, looking in every direction, but seeing nothing. Nothing that was her.
The first time I lost someone it was Krista. My goldfish. When I found her, she had stopped swimming and floated to the top of the bowl. I sobbed and threw myself face down onto the mustard yellow carpet, giving myself a nosebleed. And then there was Rascal. A yellow and brown stuffed puppy wearing a green t-shirt who I lost at Sears where my Father was looking for snow tires. I didn’t know if he was hungry or cold or where he was going to sleep that night or if he needed me. How could anyone give away a child? Or if the child was lost, how could you ever stop looking?
My own recorded history starts the day I turned ten months old. An elderly couple brought me to Angella Orphanage, saying they had found me on their doorstep. My parents always told me: “your birth mother loved you so much that she gave you away to have a better life.” I took this as gospel, just as I did religion and Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, never something palpable and real. One night when I lost a tooth my mother made a stamp out of a potato and planted tiny, tooth fairy footprints onto my bed sheets. Instead of being delighted I was terrified. Somehow this fantastical being had become real. Had she come to take me away? Would my birth mother take me back too? I’d eat my cereal and stare into the eyes of the lost children on the milk carton, wondering what had become of them. Later I found out that the couple at the orphanage could’ve been my relatives, not strangers who had found a baby. So, had my birth mother really given me away? Or had they taken me from her? Everything I thought I’d known felt as lost as I was.
The first Korean movie I saw was Sympathy for Lady Vengeance: the most dreadfully violent, quietly rageful, redemptive story I’d ever seen. The main character is imprisoned for something she didn’t do and her daughter Jenny is given away for adoption. When she finds her years later, she tells her “I knew anyone would be happy to have you, anyone would be able to love you…my sins are too great and too deep to take care of such a sweet child like you.” And Jenny tells her that saying she’s sorry once is not enough, she needs to say “I’m sorry” at least three times. And she does. For the first time I thought that maybe my mother didn’t give me away because she loved me. Maybe she didn’t give me away because she hated me. Maybe she had no other choice. She can find me on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Korea Adoption Services, SeoulSearching.org, the GED Match and 23andme DNA sites, Blogger, WordPress and Squarespace. But is she even looking for me? Is anyone?
In 2008 I reunited with my foster mother who had taken care of me between the orphanage and being adopted. The door to the small room at the agency opened and I saw the same kind face from the photos in my file. She cried and told the translator that I still had my baby face and asked if I would be ok flying on the plane all by myself. She fed me Korean barbecue and made sure I ate a lot. We held hands while she told me that when my plane took off for America she held my blanket and cried, that she’d wanted to keep me but couldn’t afford to, that she couldn’t handle taking care of another child after me. I’d never thought that anyone from Korea remembered me, cared about me, missed me. I wondered if she was my birth mother but didn’t want to tell me. I wondered if she was ashamed.
We found my little sister just minutes – very long minutes, after she’d been lost. She came walking back, smiling, toddling along, no fear at all. I ran to her in a flurry, angry, demanding to know where she’d been and she started to cry. And my mother told me not to be angry, and not to worry about what had happened, but just to be glad that she was back with us. And I was.