When you wake-up in Tokyo, California dreaming… READ THE STORY at Hanako and Jiro in Japan on hanahawley.com.
Josiah and I are sitting in our rental car, A/C blasting to keep the moisture-packed Georgia heat at bay. It must be over one-hundred degrees outside. We’ve parked a few houses down from our intended destination so I can jot a few things down in my journal. I am grateful to my husband for understanding my need to write my feelings, assess the situation, before I leap.
We notice an older Korean gentleman saunter down his driveway with hands crossed behind his back, his face kind, expectant. And I know that he’s looking for us. I duck my head, stare at the mostly blank page, pen poised, emotions flying high in my stomach. I will the man to go back into his house so I can focus.
Last night, navigating what to do after finding out that my birth dad had missed his flight to Atlanta had felt like watching my grandpa do his breathing exercises from his bed at the nursing home; slow, painful.
Three hours after the initial call from Abby, I’d still not called my siblings to tell them the news that our birth dad might not come. I had needed something definitive, something that demonstrated the whole visa thing hadn’t been a willful act of negligence. And I got it late that night, confirmation from Abby that my dad had re-booked his flight for the first week in July. It was the earliest flight he could get.
Today, Josiah and I are to meet at Mr. and Mrs. Lee’s house as planned, even though my birth dad won’t be there and my siblings have delayed their trip. Mr. Lee wants us to meet his family, to know that we hadn’t traveled all this way for no reason, that we are very much wanted…that our dad’s intentions were good. We might be able to get my birth dad on Skype even, and this is what has me feeling like I’m about to embark on my very first job interview.
I try to visualize how this initial greeting would go down. Should I say, “hi, dad,”? Or, would it be more appropriate to say, “Annyeong-haseyo,”? Would I instinctively bow my head a little, or be stiff and “American” caught between my past and my present?
I set my pen down, close my journal. It’s time.
I don’t want her to feel worse than she already does, but the tears seep out of my voice despite my wishes. “Don’t cry, Mira,” Abby* says, and I can tell she’s taking responsibility, her voice, heavy with guilt.
My birth dad never got on the plane.
But I’m already in Atlanta! My brain screams. I’m already here.
Josiah and I arrived a couple of days early, and now, all of my preparation; the extra shifts I’d picked up last week, the new dresses I’d purchased, the family photo albums I’d spent hours making, the hotel and car reservations I’d made for everyone–all seem premature–acts of naivety–of ignorance.
He didn’t get on the plane. That’s all I can hear at first, and it feels to me as though this was a willful act, an act of cowardice or an act that would cause enough pain and disappointment to shut this whole thing down forever.
“He was supposed to meet my mom at the gate, but he never came.” Abby, is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lee, my birth dad’s friends who moved to the U.S. ten years ago. They’ve been friends for twenty years now and Mrs. Lee was to travel back to the U.S. with my dad.
Abby has been bridging the gap for all of us since late February, translating messages between my birth dad and me because no one else speaks English and I don’t speak Korean. The very first message I received from her back then was, “Hello, is your Korean name Mira, Park? I know your dad…”
“Your dad is in chaos, right now,” Abby says, and this refocuses my attention on the problem at hand, the reason my birth dad couldn’t get on the plane that would have brought him to Atlanta to meet me just sixteen hours later.
He didn’t have a visa to travel to the states. No one thought to ask him if he had one. And he didn’t think of it himself because he hasn’t traveled outside of Korea in years. He could have applied for it online, been approved within the hour, but by the time he was apprised of this, it was too late.
He was already on his way home, a four-hour drive from Incheon Airport in Seoul, by the time I was getting the news.
And then I want to call my birth dad’s travel agent, yell at her, ask her how she could let this happen in the first place? Wasn’t it her job? Her duty to get her clients from point a to point b with as little trouble to them as possible? And now, her oversight was ruining our lives. Words like, incompetent! Worthless! Gurgle up in my brain like poison.
How was I going to tell my brother and sister about this?
I realize I dread this task even more than not knowing if my birth dad would get the necessary documentation and re-book his flight. I know that in under eight hours my family plans to board a plane from Minneapolis to Atlanta, and I struggle with how to tell them not to come.
*not her real name
It’s weird to get life-altering information via email.
You read a message that says your birth father wants to meet you in January and you can’t quite believe it because this is the same manner in which you receive coupons to stores you no longer frequent and Twitter notifications for people you don’t know and bills for your water and gas and health insurance.
But there it is anyway. The familiar Korean characters in your inbox signaling another email from Sister Theresa.
You don’t have time to weight the letter in your hands, give yourself a moment to collect your thoughts or squirrel the envelope away for a more private time or place to open. You were only trying to check a map on your phone but what you get slapped with is an email that says, “Dearest Hana, your birth father just called me a few minutes ago! Merciful Lord heard our prayers!”
And the words slam into your eyes like a light that’s too bright.
The skeptic in me, the one who knows that nothing is ever wholly good, that even gifts come tainted, thinks, well, that was a quick turnaround! Didn’t I get an email earlier this week that implies my birth dad wants nothing to do with me? And now he’s calling Sister Theresa back? And he’s crying about how sorry he is for everything. What is this? Some sort of Hallmark special?
I read my birth dad’s words embraced by quotation marks, no more real than the rest of it, lines from a script crafted for maximum emotional punch. I turn them over and over again in my mind, wondering what sad stories must lie in wait behind these vague revelations, squeezing each sentence for more information.
“He said he loves you all.” And the world as I know it crumbles.
I’ve never looked around the supper table and wondered why I didn’t resemble my parents. I never had another sibling tell me that I was “adopted” with a snicker and cruel tilt of the lip. I’ve always known I was a choice my parents made.
People are usually amazed when they realize that I was just a couple of months shy of my seventh birthday when I came to America from South Korea. I was so “old” to have been adopted. Didn’t being older make it rougher for me to adjust? Make it more difficult to assimilate into a comprehensively strange new world? Didn’t my parents have a more challenging time raising me? One would think I’d have more emotional baggage than a baby orphaned at birth. A blank canvas would be easier to embrace than one with seven years-worth of impressions from another world; impressions which might be better off erased.
I see now that I had the advantage of understanding that my circumstances were improving when I was finally adopted, while being young enough to unreservedly shut-up the memories which may have interfered with my ability to fit-in with my new family, in my new country. My subconscious stepped-in and pushed me toward survival and because of this, I’ve never intentionally walked through my life as a victim of tragic circumstance.
But time can change a perspective, plant different desires. I’m older now and standing at the threshold of my past, asking my seven year-old self to let me in, to give me a glimpse of what it is that I do not know.
The closer I become to my best self, the more I realize how important those lost years are to my continued growth as a human being. I can acknowledge now that there are deep wounds rooted in that initial act of abandonment by my birth parents that have caused fractures in the apparently smooth surface of my life. I want to understand the damage it’s done so I don’t inadvertently wound the relationships I care about or pass those same hurts onto my future children.
So I’m writing the story I’ve always told myself I’d write in the hope of understanding my story better and engaging with people like me who’ve never quite felt like they’ve belonged anywhere despite their best efforts and their beautiful lives.
When I see the fog settle over the San Fernando Valley in a misty blend of grays and purples, I imagine that I can see the Korea of my childhood. Three mountain peaks shrouded in mist, crisscrossed by dark power lines and cables. The scene is as dingy and ambiguous as my memory but somehow I’m able to smell the coming rain; feel the perspiring air against my face. I vaguely remember driving by these mountains, sorrow threatening to swallow me up as I sit in the backseat of a car or a bus.
I wonder if this is a real memory or something fuzzy my imagination cooked-up to help me cope with the lack of information I have about my childhood. The first seven scenes in the movie of my life have been redacted yet I’m supposed to have a strong sense of who I am and where I’m going.
Not everything from my past draws a blank. Sometimes a taste of something new becomes something familiar and I know without a doubt it’s my past trying to resurface. I had dinner in Koreatown one night when the flavor of one of the side dishes made my heart leap. I told my friend excitedly that I was sure I’d had it before. She looked underwhelmed as she explained that it was a common dish- sweet red kidney beans simmered in soy sauce and sugar. With each bite I willed the memories to come. Where was I when I tasted this? How old? Is this something I’d eaten at my mother’s kitchen table or a dish I’d had at the orphanage she’d ensured would be a part of my past by her lack of involvement in my future? Even as I write this I can almost taste the sweet kidney beans, feel the mealy texture on my tongue and against my teeth. Still- nothing.
I grasp continually for impressions that are as elusive as the mist that triggers them in the first place.
“I can’t,” I say, loud enough for him to hear but hoping the girls won’t.
“I can’t do it.”
“You can,” he says, equally quiet. “Just try it.”
I shake my head, taking in the sight of the other girls, their tight abs, their perfectly round backsides. Their shapely legs pull in unison against the ropes, their bodies bent in two like the legs of a shiny metal compass completing measurements. I’m flanked by them- out, in, out, in. Their tight bodies strain against the effort but the girls still manage to look like they’re filming a Beach Body DVD.
That would make me the –you can do it too person sweating in the background while the pros glisten and glow up front near the instructor. The sweat from my effort on the treadmill ten minutes ago is still evaporating from my skin and surrounded by these girls who can, I find myself choking on the humiliations of the past.
I see grade school me, shoulders slumped in defeat, eyes cast down and boring holes into my white Reeboks as I toe the blue tape of the shiny gym floor. I’m overwhelmed by a sense of ineptitude, of invisibility. I listen despondently as names are yelled enthusiastically from the team captains standing before me. Will they remember my name this time or will I be the last one called, my name then becoming irrelevant?
Then, as expected, the voices calling the names take on another tone. They deign to divvy up the lesser of the less. I can hear them roll their eyes and sympathize with each other on having to take that girl who plays violin and doesn’t play sports.
I try to lift my body in a similar fashion but land on my hands and knees. I feel as though the Beach Body girls are judging me from the corner of their eyes, already deciding to pick me last.
Before the grade school me becomes paralyzed on the gym floor I pick myself up and leave. I feel bad for the kids facing team captains all over the world but I’m not trapped in those situations anymore. My worth isn’t based on the number of people I can hit with a dodge ball. So I go, marveling that wounds from the past could still hurt in new ways.