Juice & cookies with a birth mom
When I was in Korea four years ago, I visited an agency-run home for pregnant women. The agency called it a birth mothers' home.
I found this troubling. First, because the women were pregnant, but not yet birth mothers. Second, because as I pondered why it wasn't called an expectant mothers' home instead, I realized that this was not what the agency wanted the women to be. They weren't supposed to be expecting babies. They were there to become birth mothers. The agency was clear about this.
We were there to console them.
It was one of the most stressful, difficult experiences I've ever had as an adoptee. Here were 15 or 20 very young women — most of them younger than I was — all in varying stages of pregnancy, who were made to sit face-to-face with us, a group of Korean adoptees of varying ages, as well as several white adoptive parents.
Some of the young women were brave enough to look us in the eye and ask us very frank questions. But many of them were honest enough with their uncertainty to admit that they did not want to be there, and instead pretended not to listen to the scripted dialogue.
Of course adoption agency employees were there, engineering "guiding" the encounter, encouraging the young women to talk to us and ask us their questions. Encouraging us to comfort them and reassure them that everything would be all right. There was praying. There were snacks. I wondered when the felt puppets and action songs were coming out. Would I get a sticker?
It was clearly uncomfortable for everyone. The agency ladies wanted all of us to take turns with a microphone, introduce ourselves, and tell about our adoption experience. Five adult adoptees were present. My memory fails me here, but I don't believe I recall a single one of us volunteering to speak. I think most of us were too shell-shocked.
It was blatantly obvious that we had been brought there to act as goodwill ambassadors, public relations representatives for the beauty of international adoption. We all knew it, and I was not willing to step forward and (1) either play their game or (2) cause a national incident by speaking out against the whole scenario. It was just too damn weird.
Instead, the adoptive parents took over the microphone and proceeded to go on about how wonderful adoption is, and how wonderfully Korean adoptees are treated all over the United States, how wonderfully we blend in, and how all the women were doing the right thing by making an adoption plan, that it was noble and brave and that they were giving both Americans and Koreans a wonderful gift. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.
I deeply resented their statements, both for the painted porcelain masks they placed over the sometimes harsher realities of international adoption, as well as for the silence that I hid inside, wanting to escape the situation, flee the room.
No. I wanted to protest. Sometimes we aren't treated well. Sometimes adoptees are abused, sometimes adoptees are ridiculed and harassed, and sometimes we are even rejected by other Koreans to our faces. Some adoptees battle racism and discrimination every day, sometimes within their own families. And sometimes they take their own lives to escape the pain. It's not all wonderful all the time. Bullshit.
It was horrible. As much as I wanted to offer some loose semblance of comfort to those young women for their visible pain and angst, I could not bring myself to paint a rosy picture and just lie to them about how they should have no reservations and no remorse. And in my discomfort, I couldn't bring myself to offer anything in between either.
I will always remember how one of the young women spoke up and said that she was not going to give her baby up for adoption. That she wanted to keep her baby. And I remember looking at the adoption agency ladies who had these tight-lipped smiles on their faces, masking their distress, as if to say, "Disregard this silly girl. She must not have taken her meds."
And I will always remember how at one point, one of the young women was watching me, my friend and J, another adult adoptee in our group. I saw an impossible decision behind her gaze. Was she looking at us and envisioning her baby's future? Was she telepathically entreating us to grab her shoulders and say, "Don't do it! Don't!" Was she waiting for absolution?
Tears welled up in her eyes. Down the table, J couldn't hold it together. Tears flowed. And a waterfall effect ensued. I lost it. My friend followed suit. And there we were, three adoptees and a pregnant Korean girl, dabbing at our eyes with the tissues provided for us at the lunchroom table where we sat, trapped. The whole room turned to gawk at us, to wonder silently what the heck was the matter with us. Maybe we were just happy for our new friend's wonderful decision. Riiiiight.
When the hour was up, and the cookies had all been washed down with paper cups of orange fruit drink and self-doubt, we got up to leave. The agency ladies tapped the microphone once more. "The young ladies are going to line up by the door. They'd like it, as we leave, for us to give each of them a hug as we go."
The pregnant girls looked no more desirous of hugs from the miguk sarams than I was in need of a root canal with a rusty scalpel.
And so as the girls filed out of the lunchroom, cradling their protruding bellies, my friend and I made a beeline for the hwajangshil, where we blew our noses with toilet paper and checked our reddened eyes in the mirror before slipping out quietly, as the others passed around stilted hugs like consolation prizes.