briefly introduce yourself

My friends come over and we open a bottle of wine, but barely, among the three of us, make it through. I perch on the coffee table to sit close enough to them, both on the small couch by the window, to whisper when need be. There is no one else in the house, at the beginning, but there are some things that we discuss that require a level of discretion.

The work, our jobs. We always talk about them first, taking up, as they do, so much of our time. T. speaks of people I dont know and occasionally, I will interrupt and say: Now who is Laura? or Joe does what there? and she will tell me who they are and what they do little thumbnail sketches of the roles they play in the grand workplace drama.

T. is quiet, says its been a busy start to the year. Big shifts, she says, running her hand through her hair. Like lots of big things are changing. I nod, yes, I feel that too.

I have the tendency to want to track my state of mind at intervals that are too close together to be meaningful. I liken it to weighing myself every couple hours to see whether I have lost a pound: The constant How are you, really? that we ask each other. Wanting more than the cheerful Fine, good. And you? that our public days require, we have perhaps gone too far in the other direction, wanting more, asking too much, too frequently so that one finds oneself caught up in a loop of compulsive self-concern. How am I really? Am I fine? And what about now? And now?

I assemble the documents and the photos that I have, prepare to send them to the faceless social worker who is on the other side of the world, waiting. Or at least, I like to think of her as waiting. Sitting in front of her glowing screen, refreshing it periodically to see what has arrived. And what then will she see from me? A few photos of a chubby toddler in too-short dresses. A copy of the profile that her own agency sent with me that bore the name they gave me. (The childs name was given by the Oprhans Home as Mi Jin KIM, which means: Mi-beautiful, Jin-true. KIM-a most common family name.)

And the page of unfulfilled desires.

It turns out to be more difficult to introduce myself in my two-inch textbox than to explain what I want them to do. I can guess what they are looking for in the terse Briefly introduce yourself, and I oblige by providing the simplest data points: I am married with two children. I run an agency that gives grants in the humanities. I graduated from college, then graduate school. My parents are deceased.

This is as it should be, I am sure, but I admit that I consider another kind of introduction altogether: There are mornings that I wake from anxious sleep with my jaw aching. At stop lights, I find myself tearful for reasons I cannot explain. I am restless, melancholy. I long for things that I cannot name.

The other night, we watch a movie about a man who has nothing to lose. His character is conveyed primarily through his stony silence and the way in which, when the need arises, he kills man after man with steely-eyed unflinching determination. His jacket still wet with blood, he turns to his love interest wide-eyed, waif-like and tells her he will protect her. We have watched their love develop through a series of slow-motion scenes in which they sit silently in a car, driving; then silently near a stream while her son gathers sticks; then silently as he carries her son to his bed. Their love is all big eyes and wordless gazes. Despite this thinness of character development and motivation, I for my part am utterly taken in. This fantasy of two people knowing each other without speaking is just too delicious not to indulge and I imagine that after the son is put to bed, the two of them make wordless love, throwing themselves together again and again as night shadows give way to early light.

I am looking for a way to understand the fantasy. The imagined life I could have had, the imagined people my parents are. On the form, I say: I would like to meet them, if they are willing. I would like to sit across a table from them, share a meal. I would like to touch their faces. I would like to hold their hands in my own.

My friend asks: How do you picture your mother?  What if she is sick or poor? Or crazy?

I admit this gives me pause. In my fantasy, she is well and beautiful. A sadness about her, perhaps, a weariness. “Or what if she has this whole other family that doesn’t know about you?”

On the form, I write this and it is only as I am writing it that I realize it is true: I am not asking for anything of them. I know they may have families of their own. I don’t want to disrupt their lives.

The fantasy is this: that we will see each other and know each other instantly. That without words, without language, we will recognize something deep in each other - something true and transcendent. That the love will be there, instantly - vibrant, thrilling, alive. That she will say: My whole life, I have waited for you, for this. You are beautiful. You are perfect. You will never be alone again. You will never know longing because I am with you. You belong to me.

But that is as far as the fantasy ever gets. Cue sunset. Cue credits. End scene.

I am standing as I often am, in front of the sink. The endless loading and unloading of the dishwasher. The stacking of plates. The washing of pans, of countertops. M. is at the coffee maker. My daughter at her desk. My son at the kitchen table, drawing scene after scene of his imaginary worlds. Once the coffee is started, M. comes over with a towel. Dries the pans in the dish rack. He puts them away, asks: Do you want some music?

“Yes, please.”

“What do you want?”

“Surprise me.”

He pulls out an old record from the little collection we’re amassing and as it starts up, the low hum of it, I think about what this might look like to my mother, my father. How if they could peer through the window at this moment, could they take comfort in what they see? The love, visible - even when we ourselves don’t see it.

In the washing and drying of dishes, there is love. In the quiet burble of the coffee brewing, there is love. In the small hands of our son, moving his markers across the wide white pages, there is love. And I wonder how it is that I have spent my whole life longing for what has been here, what has always been here, when I stand still long enough to see it.

I would like you to tell them this:

That I am happy. That I have a life that is full and beautiful. 

That I think of them every day.

That I hope they are well, that they are happy. That I want them to be happy. 

That I am so grateful for everything they did and for everything they tried to do, to give me the life that I have.

That I love them.

That even if we never meet, I will always, always love them.

That they are with me, in my heart, and I will hold them there - for the rest of my life.

written on the body

Temperatures dropped overnight and despite my body’s protestations, I throw myself into the cold before the rest of the house begins stirring. I know the route so well, have worn this path into the rhythms of my heart, my breath: the broken pavement in front of the transition home, the honeysuckle now dormant, the bathtub madonnas majestic, the loose gravel at the corner across from the skate park. In front of the double-decker by the high school, a woman in a black parka holds her dog on a leash. She nods, I nod back. The wind stings my eyes. I tug my hat down as far as it will go.

There are steps I could be taking. There are forms I could be filling out, sending across the world. Over the weekend, I get an email from the adoption woman. Have you reached out to___? Was she able to tell you anything? I have not responded. I have not reached out. Several times since I saw her note, I have begun composing the excuses in my head, but I have avoided sitting down, writing it.

In my defense, it has been a busy weekend – a visiting friend, a birthday dinner for M., a hundred tasks that required my attention. But it is also true that I am standing here, staring at the door now ajar and I recognize – as I suppose I always have – that just because a door is open does not mean that I have to walk through it.

“Of course you do,” my friend says over coffee. “Follow this where it leads.”

It’s probably not going to lead anywhere, I hear myself saying. Just a lot of dead ends.

“You don’t know this,” she says. “You can’t possibly know.”

“The language barrier alone,” I begin, “there are no real files… It’s not like it is now.”

She does not respond, lets the whiny sound of my own voice hang there between us.

“I’m very attached to my narrative, you know.”

She nods, reaches her hand out to touch mine. “I know.”

As we are readying to go out for breakfast, I feel something pop out of place in my knee, and the sudden pain causes me to crumple to the ground. I clutch the offending knee and M. rushes over, hovers, reaches for me. I tell him there is nothing he can do except to stand back a bit, as I fight back angry tears. It’s been getting worse, this knee, and M. shakes his head at me as I gradually extend my leg. Whatever had been misaligned has now righted itself and at full extension, my leg is fine again.

Over breakfast, he says: “Now, will you please, please go to the doctor?” I assure him that I will.

“I’ll go, but they’re not going to be able to do anything.”

“Well, why don’t we let the doctor tell us that?”

“It’s either going to be some terrible surgery, or they’ll have to give me some injection that I don’t want.”

He laughs, says, “How about we role play this a bit? You be me, and I’ll be you.” He cocks his head to one side, raises the pitch of his voice: “I don’t want to go to the doctor because the thing that will help me to walk properly is too complicated. So, I’ll just ignore it and keep falling.”

I reach for his hand. “But you’ll carry me around when I can’t walk any more, won’t you?”

He’s done with his impersonation. He shakes his head. “Nope. You’re on your own. It’s a cold cruel world out there, and it’s every man for himself.”

For several years as a child, I danced competitively. Irish stepdancing, of all things. Soft and hard shoe and recently, a friend who had come back from seeing a performance of stepdancing observed: “All that stomping must have been very hard on your knees.” I had not put this together before, blaming my weak right knee on a fall while running decades ago, and later, falling again skiing.

I think about my son, who sits frog-legged, his feet pointing out behind him and how his doctor once told us that position puts undue strain on the knees. It seems hard to imagine that these things we do in childhood can have such lasting consequences in our later years.

“Your body remembers everything you do to it,” the occupational therapist we were seeing for my son once said. “Every bump and bruise, every fall, all those years of wearing high-heeled shoes – all of it.” W. is sitting on a wide swing, suspended a few feet off the ground. She is throwing bean bags at him and he is trying to catch them, giggling. He misses one. She retrieves it from where it has fallen and throws it at him again. She says: “Everything you do leaves its mark.”

When we were growing up, my sister and I shared a small bedroom and for many years, slept on a trundle bed. There was a slightly smaller bed on a wheeled drawer that when not in use, could be rolled beneath the larger bed. We often left this drawer open, though, and one day, we were playing a game that consisted of running from the hallway, bouncing on the lower bed and landing on the top one. I ran but didn’t clear the bottom completely, and banged my shin hard on the edge of the wooden drawer, scraping off several layers of skin. I bled profusely. The scar is still visible.

Years later, readying for a high school winter dance, I was shaving my legs with a pink disposable razor, rushing. I am careless and the blade catches on my ankle bone. I come away with a three-inch long strip of skin hanging. As the blood dries, it adheres my pantyhose to my skin. An angry scar runs along the tendon.

The worst scar, though is on my left shoulder. An immunization gone badly. My mother would examine it periodically, mutter angrily about the imagined incompetence of the doctor in Korea. “How could he have botched it so badly? Did he try to inject you with a chopstick?”

There is a tiny round scar on my right hand where I burned myself with a cigarette. A long scratch just above my left knee from when I insisted on climbing over the chain-link fence of my high school friend M.’s backyard, rather then waiting for him to come open the gate. A crescent moon shape on the first fingertip of my left hand where I sliced a bit of it off once, chopping carrots.

I believe that constitutes – in its entirety – the catalog of my scars. A cautious child, a tentative adolescent, I have never trusted my body to do much. I did not climb trees, or ride bicycles, or jump from the high diving board. I did not hang from monkey bars or sled down the steep hills. I skated when I had to, at grade-school birthday parties, but slowly – hovering near the railing all the time. I know the way recklessness can be marked on the body – the scars and the broken bones – but I wonder how apprehension engraves itself? Where on the body do we carry the traces of the failure to act, of fear?

More than a decade ago, the name of the other woman – the Korean woman who ran the orphans’ home, who facilitated the adoption from there – found its way to me in a news article circulated by some adoptee email list. She was celebrating her eightieth birthday. She was interviewed about the hundreds of placements she had helped to make over so many years. I emailed the newspaper. I got a name and a phone number for her adult son who was caring for her. “Call him,” I was told. “He can help you.”

I cannot explain why I did not call then. Any better than I can explain why I let the form from the agency sit on my desk, untouched. The clock is ticking, I know. None of us is getting any younger.

Maybe today. 

tell us what you would like us to do

For as long as I can remember, I have carried with me the names of the two women who facilitated my adoption one in Korea and one in New York. The other day, I found the New York woman in a search that, according to google, took all of 28 seconds. A brief note of introduction composed and in minutes I had done something that I had chosen not to do, all this time.

Within an hour, a warm response. Some words of encouragement, another name, a phone number. A door that had appeared closed now nudged open just wide enough to let in a sliver of light. Write to the agency, she says. Dont hesitate.

From the agency, I receive an email. I am your social worker, she says, and attaches a form. Please fill this out. A single page. The instructions read: Briefly introduce yourself, and then a two-inch text box. Another text box, about the same size: Tell us what you would like us to do.

The woman tells me about her own daughter, adopted a few years before me. She is now a professor of the humanities at a large prestigious university. Ivy League degrees. Several scholarly books. And she mentions a colleague of hers, who also adopted a child during this time. You could call her, she says, but adds that the woman and her daughter are not on speaking terms. This woman whose name I have known all my life, who is now in her 80s and still working, writes, On my way to work now to be continued. She is a realtor. She sells homes. 

She asks me to send a current photo, so I do. When she responds with another bit of information, she adds at the end of her note, parenthetically, You are beautiful. Accustomed as I have become to exclamation points and emoticons and symbols, the simplicity and directness of the words on my screen seem less like a compliment than a reproach. I cannot explain this reaction.

What will you find out, my friend asks. What do you want to learn?

It seems worthy of note that these questions are asked of me as if I were limited only by my own desires. Tell us what you would like us to do.

What I would like you to do? I have forty years worth of unmet desires. I may need a larger text box.

Stopped at the light downtown after dropping my daughter off at the train station, I recognize a man crossing the street, wearing a backpack. It takes me several moments to place where I have seen him before and then I remember that he works at one of the office buildings nearby. I see him when I am there for meetings and we smile, nod at each other in the hallway or coming in or out of the elevator. Me, carrying notebooks and folders, him with the tools of building maintenance a trolley cart piled with keys and electrical cords, or a trash bin on wheels. I watch as he crosses and heads toward the office building and wonder where he is coming from, on foot? The building has its own parking lot, so its hard to imagine he has left his car somewhere. The bus stop is not in the direction from which he is walking. Its possible he lives downtown, in the apartments that were built behind the mall. Perhaps he lets his dog run in the narrow fenced-in strip of grass alongside the parking lot.

I decide that no, I dont see him living downtown, but rather I picture a modest ranch house in the suburbs perhaps in Lincoln or Smithfield or North Providence a few blocks from a small park where on Saturday mornings when it is not raining, he takes his young daughter for a walk after breakfast.  

The light changes and I move forward with the rest of the traffic. I hold this image the man, his ranch house; his walks with his daughter, her hair in long braids down her back, the two holding hands until I park my car, ready myself for the day.

Tell us what you would like us to do.

There is a photograph of me, in Korea. I am sitting cross-legged on the ground next to a shallow basin of water. There is a white toy boat floating in it. Nearby, a woman in a blue hanbok squats. Her hair is pulled up in a bun. She is wearing black-rimmed glasses. She is facing me, away from the camera. She is wearing flat black shoes. Her left hand is extended, offering me a cracker. I would like you to tell me the name of this woman.

Another photograph: I am sitting in a small wicker chair. One of its legs is broken. I am holding my ear with my right hand. To my left, there is a young girl. She looks like perhaps she could be six or seven. She is wearing a light blue sleeveless dress that seems like it could be too small for her too short at least, but she is kneeling, so it is difficult to know for sure. A barrette above her left ear. Her right hand is resting on the back of the chair that I am sitting in. I would like you to find this girl and tell me, is she well? Is she happy? Does she remember me?

At the end of the day, I wander up and down the street, waiting for M. and my son and our friend, E., visiting from out of town. We’ll have dinner at the brightly-lit Korean restaurant where we’ll eat from hot stone pots. W. will draw in a notebook that we have brought for him. We will hold small bowls of soup in our hands and let the steam rise to warm our faces. E. will tell us about his children, his work. M. will smile at me across the table. Outside, people will walk up and down the street in twos and threes, peering in the restaurant windows, making their choices.

Night will fall here as the sun rises in Korea. And eventually, we will all make our way home.

of one thing, I am certain

I am thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The way we construct ourselves with our language. How we say: I am sad or I am happy or I am fearful.

And: I am worthy or unworthy. I am lonely. I am alone.

My aunt tells me this: Your parents were young. They were killed in an accident. You lived with a woman and her son. You were old enough to remember.

And she says: We have no way of knowing whether or not this is true. This is the story your mother was told.

I worked for a time at an organization that helped place children for adoption. That is the term: placement. They were careful to call the book with the photos and descriptions of the children who were available for adoption a “photobook,” and not a “catalogue,” though the effect of course, is the same. This is not a criticism. There are no delicate ways to talk about this.

I heard stories there that haunt my dreams. About children being moved from placement to placement, carrying their belongings in black plastic trash bags. About a boy found sleeping in an abandoned car. About a girl who got off the bus from school one day only to find that her family had moved from their home without telling her. The door was locked. The house was empty. She had only her backpack and her jacket.

Is it possible to think that one can recover from trauma like that? Perhaps recover is the wrong goal. Perhaps this is yet another thing to be managed.

My son is five now. Occasionally, we will be getting ready to go out and one of us – M. or me – will need to run outside to get something from the car. My son will hear us at the door and start crying. We will rush up to him: What, sweetheart, what is it? What’s wrong?

I was afraid you were going to leave me, he will say through tears.

I was a little older than he is now in a story that my mother told me. I don’t remember it, except in her telling. We were going to the library and it was pouring. There was an overhang in front of the library, sheltering the front door. She dropped me there at the entrance and drove off to park the car. By the time I got to the door, you were inconsolable. Just standing there in front of the entrance, sobbing. She says: I asked you what was wrong and you could barely speak you were crying so hard. You said, “I thought you left me. I thought you weren’t coming back.”

I take my aunt to breakfast before she leaves Providence. She has stayed here for a few days with the kids, while we M. and I were away. We linger over coffee. It’s a slow morning and we are both a bit down. She tells me about the trips she is planning to take: San Francisco to her cousins for Thanksgiving, somewhere in Florida over the winter, if her friends with the house there invite her. Perhaps she will go back to Italy next year. Or maybe it will be the year after that.

We drive back home past the Planned Parenthood on Point Street. A handful of protestors are out in front already, setting up their sandwich boards and their signs. A woman paces in front of the entrance with a stack of handmade flyers. I look away.

How are you doing, my aunt asks, tentatively. How are you feeling, now that the big day has past?

I am not sure how best to answer this. I want to be truthful, but don’t want to cause her worry. Finally, I say: I guess I’ve been struggling a bit, this year, you know. It has been a difficult year.

She listens as I tell her a bit about my searching, a bit about my longing. She is quiet for a long time.

As we pull in the driveway in front of the house, she says: Maybe what haunts you is not that you were unloved, not that you were abandoned. Maybe it’s the memory of having been loved so well.

My mother takes me back to Korea when I am four years old. She is going back to adopt another child. The woman who arranges things in Seoul is an older woman. When she doesn’t want to answer a question my mother has asked, she acts as though she does not understand. My mother thinks she understands it all.

She asks whether I have siblings. The woman does not answer. My mother says if there are others in my family, other children, she would like to keep us together, if she can. The woman does not answer. One last time, she tries: I will do whatever I can to keep the children together, if there are more children. The woman shuffles papers on her desk.

The woman tells my mother in stilted English: The foster mother has asked to see your daughter. You should not go see her. You should give me a photograph and I will take this to her. You should be careful when you are walking around in the city. You should watch your daughter very careful when you are out in the street.

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if we had gone to see this woman. And I don’t know why I have not heard this story before. Or perhaps I have, but it has not fit into my narrative, and so I have chosen not to let it in.

To have been unwanted, to have been unloved, to have been left on the steps of an orphanage wrapped in blankets. This is a different story, is it not, than to have been taken from a loving home?

It means everything and it means nothing at all.

I am here, today. Of this I am certain.  

how to be found

Early this year, I did something that for many years, I said I would not do. I registered with an online adoptee search database.

I looked through the slim file of paperwork that my mother left me and composed my query text, following the template of the other entries I had browsed:

Searching for my birth parents. Was found abandoned at Dongdoochun Home for Babies in Seoul. Birthdate was estimated to be October 12, 1971. Adopted by American family in New York in March of 1973. Adoption facilitated by Mrs. On Soon Whang in Korea and Mrs. Berneice Gottlieb in New York, USA.

After that, nothing to do but wait.

I have had several opportunities to do a birthparent search – an active one – but I have not been able, even when I have seriously considered it – to bring myself to take the necessary steps. I am resistant, I think, for reasons too deeply-seated for me to put words to. The reasons are still a mystery to me, may always be.

There is a way in which I’ve viewed the search as too much looking back. After all, I had parents who loved me, provided for me as best they could. I lost them young, yes, but the privileges of my life so far outweigh the challenges that I am embarrassed and a bit ashamed to linger there too long. And yet.

The fear is this: That this is the one question, so large and so deep, which so overshadows everything else that I think and that I do and that I want and fear and love that unless I can put something around it – some kind of resolution – that I will never be free of it. That I will carry it to the end of my days.

That this is what gets in the way of any progress as a writer. As a mother, as a lover. As a friend, even.

Once I was asked if I had forgiven my birth mother. The answer came so quickly that it surprised me. It was as if I had rehearsed it for years:

My heart is not big enough for that. My heart is still a child’s heart.

Forgiveness, though, is a complicated thing, no? There are days when I feel no anger, only empathy, only sadness, only longing. Is that, in itself, a kind of forgiveness?

Often, people are surprised about how little information I have about my adoption, about my birth.

You don’t know anything about your birth parents?

Do you have any memories of Korea?

There are no records of the circumstances?

In the slim blue folder, I have:

1. A 3-page document called a “Social Study” provided by Social Welfare Society in Seoul:

The child’s name was given by the Orphan’s Home as Mi Jin Kim, which means: Mi-beautiful, Jin-true, Kim-a most common family name.

The child looks cute with round face, less and dark brown hair, ordinary back of head, thin eyebrows, black eyes, low nose, small mouth, round cheeks, olive-colored complexion. Her body has balance. She has 8 teeth on both sides.

2. A booklet called “Guideline for Adoptive Parents” also from Social Welfare Society:

Now your beloved adoptive child is at your hand, whom all your family has been eagerly waiting so long time. However, your adoptive child may be uneasy at your home for the time being because everything including your different appearances is seen strange enough to your adoptive child and each other, that is, your family and your adoptive child, can not understand each other owing to the different languages. 

3. A 6-page document called: “Notes Concerning Arrival and Early Adjustment of Children” (source unknown):

The children usually arrive with colds which spread to the inner ear due to the long flying time (24-26 hours) in the pressurized airplane cabin.

 We urge that the children be tested for worms. The children have been found to have pin worms, round worms and whip worms.

And also a few pages of English phrases, with the Korean translation, presented phonetically: 

I am your mother: Nai ka nay maw ni da

He is your father: E pun e nay vaw ji da

You are my daughter: Nay ka nai dolle da

There are some letters between my (adoptive) mother and the woman who assisted in the facilitation of the adoption from Korea. Holiday cards, mostly, and a handful of photos. I also have a gallon-sized ziploc bag with a shirt, a pair of tights and the shoes I wore when I arrived.

I know people who have searched and found relatives. Some who have searched and found nothing. I know stories, certainly, of some who have searched and been rejected. Even some who have themselves been found. It is hard to know, really, what I would hope for. Which I think, is what has kept me from searching. In the best possible outcome, or at least, the best possible one my limited imagination can conjure – where I find my parents, who want to be found, and who are loving and good and kind – what kind of life can we have, separated by 7,000 miles and a vast wide ocean? How much can my small heart be expected to hold?


Now, night has fallen in Seoul. I begin my day as the day there ends, and I think that maybe my mother is there, busying herself with her evening rituals. Perhaps she is changing into her night clothes as I lace up my sneakers for a run.

Is it strange to say that I miss her, although we have never met? Or at least, not in a way that I can remember. She is there, of course, in dreams.

In dreams, she is beautiful, but weary. In dreams, she is kind, but she has seen much suffering. In dreams, she is looking for me, searching – always searching. And I am here, just out of reach.