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Korean. I’m Korean. Did she speak Korean? Anyoung haseyo? A shake of the head. “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Korean, either.”
Sometimes, she couldn’t help but say, “sad, I know. Pathetic, really,” depending on how insecure she felt about it at the moment. (READ the rest of the chapter at my website.
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.