Birth Luxury

25 May

There is a luxury for people who are born and raised by the same parents that I cannot share. Their parents can tell the story together about how they met and why they fell in love with each other. Then came to think about having children and want to give birth to them. Then pictures of their mother pregnant with not just any child, but with them, growing larger. Then perhaps a story about the worries about a C-section, labor, where they were, what they were doing, and how the that person was born. There is a picture–maybe many of their mother holding them in their arms. And then again, with them in their cribs in the hospital.

And then, again, more stories about what the first word they learned was. What their favorite toy was, how they came to walk. Who exactly taught them to brush their teeth. How much trouble they were when they were little. Who was at their first birthday party.

Stories within stories, told over and over again, supported by images, touch, tastes, sound and smells flashing in their minds. Voices outside of themselves confirming what they experienced, as a comforting echo.

By the end of three months, after my arrival to the United States I had none of that. I’d deliberately burnt all the memories with the word Korea in them. Half a memory gone because the word Korea was left in it. The edges of memories burnt selecting for the word or the memory. Perhaps they were burnt with pain, with sorrow, with joy, with grief. All burnt in my mind though I couldn’t remember afterwards why I’d burnt them.

As the bonfire erupted I told people what I did know of Korea as the flames licked higher. And when the ashes settled, I spent a lifetime trying to piece together things from those ashes.

What I wouldn’t give for one photo to survive. A picture of my extended family surrounding me for my first birthday cake. A picture of my Korean mother holding me in her arms. One solid echo in the distance that wasn’t my own voice coming back to me from another person. These things people who are born from their parents and raised by them take for granted and don’t think as important anymore. But the echo comforts that heart because they know it’s true without people questioning or doubting them.

So I pasted the leftover photographs and the echoes from my own mouth on a wall in my mind. The wall had doors that would not open no matter how hard I tried, so the only glimpses inside were my wrecked memories. Everything from the age of four and before were gone. Voice accounts left of what I said about Korea, but they do not echo in my own memory because I’d already burnt them. As if the word “Korea” was a cue to the editor to cut the film reel short. And because it’s memories from my own mouth, there was no echo back to tell me that it was true. How did I know I wasn’t lying at the time? And there are no photographs to support my claims. These memories could be false, but I held onto them tightly as if they too would burn.

My parents bought for us Momotaro, the Japanese folktale about a boy that comes from a peach pit. I said something about that book too that it was like Korea, but it blanks from my memory.

I do not remember wanting to forget.

My brother and I used to sing loudly in Korean various songs. Some of them were Christian and taught to us in the orphanage. We often liked singing together. I liked making up songs when I was five, often singing off pitch and recorded them. I remember recording songs, but it is my Mom that fills in the fact we liked singing in Korean together.

I do not remember wanting to forget.

My maternal grandparents came to stay at our house to get to know me and my brother. My parents were going to go out on a date together for a concert. I thought they were not going to come back, so I cried and cried, not sure what was happening. My parents did their best to explain what was happening. I thought they wouldn’t return at all. As I complained, I must have thought of Korea because soon after I forgot the story. My parents told me this story to me three times before I could remember that they told me.

I do not remember wanting to forget.

My paternal grandmother gave me a doll which had a knit cap and a fluffy pink dress and spiky hair. I loved the doll because it had blinking eyes. She lost the cap because the cap caught on my hangnails during the winter. She lost the dress, because I put other dresses on her or I simply didn’t feel like dressing her. I named it Tuta. For years I didn’t understand why I named the doll Tuta, but I remembered her name anyway. She was my absolute favorite white doll with brown spiky hair and chubby cheeks. If I lost her, I cried. If I didn’t have her to hold at night, I spent hours searching for her. If I lost her under my bed, I would go and fetch her before I fell asleep.

The first thing I did with Tuta, according to my grandmother was take her, take a large stretchy cloth and wrap her up in a bundle. I remember fussing with the knots to try to get her to be bundled up tight.

I took her and strapped her to my back. And though I no longer remember saying the words, I said this was a thing that I did in Korea for my brother. A picture commemorates the event. My memory blanks once my past self mentions Korea.

I do not remember wanting to forget.

We went to a Korean Church for an adoption cultural event. These events were held out in the suburbs which was a long drive. My paternal grandmother had come with us. In the basement of the church they sold Korean fans, Korean candy and Korean snacks. As part of the event they also sold substandard Korean food. To me, it never tasted right.

This lasted a good three months. A woman, who must have been in her 30′s came to greet us and said something to me in Korean. I cried so loud, though I don’t think she said anything mean. My grandmother commented that she had no idea what I was crying about. I don’t either. I can only guess. Maybe that was the point where I understood I had lost something important and I no longer understood anything about Korea. Perhaps that was the point that I realized Korea was filled with pain and I wanted to forget. Since I cannot remember the event, and because it had to do with Korea, I cannot remember.

These previous events became foreign to me. I forgot how to write my Korean name. I forgot my Korean father’s name. I forgot my brother’s Korean name though I used to call it constantly. I forgot the language. Anything associated with Korea got wiped out. As soon as I forgot, I wanted to remember more fiercely than I wanted to forget. But too, as I forgot and my mom realized we had forgotten, she constantly told us after that point that any memories we had were lies we fabricated.

What I knew became blank again as English and a new culture struggled to replace them in my mind. Images blurred and faded from my mind. I became deaf to the sounds in my memories. Feelings were the only thing left.

I kept secret the impression I had of my Korean father, Appa. And my Korean mother, Eomma. Both words I had to relearn and memorize as if remembering the words would bring back their images to my mind.

Appa was a man holding my hand, his face blurring as the days went by, his hair, though black, also fading from my mind. His expression remained. A sadness and a seriousness I did not understand. I wanted to help him so much, but I couldn’t.

The image of Eomma faded faster, and faster until the only way I could remember was to a time when I was trying to remember her, as if I were hanging onto an image out of focus. All I knew was that she was pretty and how much I desired to be pretty too, like her, but I no longer remember what that ideal was that I was trying so hard to remember.

These feelings of people I once knew struggled against my mom’s voice as she told me that feelings were not provable fact. I could not prove any of the things I felt, so they were not real unless I could see them.

Psychologists call these repressed memories. Elizabeth Loftus staked her career on telling people that any memories once you’ve forgotten them cannot be recovered. You cannot prove them and that they are mutable. My mom leveraged psychologists like her to say that after three months all memories and feelings from Korea were not real. But left behind in the place of these memories was an unexplained empty hole. I often did actions that I could not understand or explain because I had no memories to explain them.

The sounds, tastes, smells, and sights of the images faded in my mind, but the feelings were left behind, but even those feelings did not count. So any memories left over from the ashes I pieced together I kept secret from the voices that said that I could not prove them. I was afraid they, too, would fade in the torrent of denial.

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Posted in Adoption Politics, Childhood


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