Mother’s Day Smells Like Bacon
If I had a dime for every time someone asked prying questions about my adoption, I’d be well out of debt and on my way to owning multiple homes. It goes like this:
“So your mom’s Asian and your dad’s Irish?”
“The other way around?”
No. I’m adopted.
At this point, people usually stop making eye contact, fidget a little, and always preface the next question with, “I don’t mean to be too personal, but…”
…”What about your birthmother? Have you tried to find her?”
I am always more than willing to answer. However, this is, in fact, a deeply personal inquiry. The answer is no, I have not tried to find her and don’t plan on it.
Trepidation over crossing a personal boundary completely disappears at this point. My response is never enough.
“But why? Aren’t you even curious?”
If it seems like my interlocutor has a bit of time to spare, I explain the following:
In the 80’s, not only was abortion illegal but the social shame of pregnancy for unwed South Korean women was pretty much irreversibly devastating. Abortion remained illegal until 2013, and even today, as I am told by several friends from Seoul, the same social consequences apply. Basically, any combination of the following likely occurs: Your family disowns you, you are blacklisted from living-wage employment, if still school-age, you will be barred from the testing and enrollment system that places young people into high schools, universities, and presumably, careers.
So…just say it’s 1986. You’re a 16-year-old girl living in rural poverty who hitches a ride to Seoul and gets knocked up by her boss. You haul your pregnant self back to your hometown and find refuge in a Catholic convent. You give birth in secret and the nuns take your daughter to an adoption agency. She will be matched with a family from the United States who will provide 8000000000000 opportunities, a good Christian upbringing, etc etc etc.
You don’t really want to be found. You probably never want to be found. You might get back on your feet and keep living. Maybe go to school. Get new work. Find a partner. Maybe start a new family.
The success rate of South Korean adoptees’ attempts to find their birthmothers is incredibly low. Of the fruitful searches, very few end in a birthmother even willing to speak with, let alone meet the earnest seeker.
I’m sure that somewhere in the world on Mother’s Day (Parent’s Day in South Korea) and on June 2 (my birthday), a 46-year-old woman who looks like me pauses for a moment and hears some echoes. I do not need to physically track this woman down to understand my life.
If it seems like my interrogator is pressed for time, I respond:
Nope. My mom lives in upstate NY and is texting me right now.
My mom, who lives in upstate New York and is (for real) texting me right now, is my best friend. In addition to the challenges facing South Korean women, we might also consider the context of a young white woman in the U.S. adopting a non-white child in 1986.
Mom is selfless, patient and hilarious. She’s also beautiful (Did you know she won a college scholarship in a beauty pageant? We still have the clipping.). Mom didn’t teach me to be selfless, patient, or funny. She showed me these things. It is because of mom that I know how to laugh—at myself, as a way to bring people together, and sometimes as a way to cope with pain.
As a child, I often got off the bus with tears streaming down my face. School-age children, ‘tweens, and teens are brutal. When I was very little, mom would “hug and kiss [me] until it’s all better”…”Your lunchbox isn’t stupid”…”It’s a special talent that you can read, not an embarrassment.” I got older and more awkward, teasing got sharper. On one occasion mom helped me decide that instead of lashing out, I would bring my torturess a seashell from my collection. The token was successfully disarming. Everyone deserves kindness. When starved of it, we ask in different ways. Mom is smart.
As a teenager, I ran cross country—the only sport that didn’t involve obligatory “teamwork” with some of the meanest girls in high school. Every single weekend, mom commuted to some unremarkable hill in the Northeast to watch me run 5Ks in the mud and freezing rain. To set the scene here: Long distance running is not a spectator sport. Mom didn’t get to be the booster club president in the bleachers who led The Wave and “We Will Rock You” chants. For four years, she’d wait outside for hours to see me pant and heave in the last 60 seconds of a race. I’d collapse on the ground with a water bottle, then get on the bus back to school. She got in the car and drove all the way back to pick me up on time.
When I was 21, mom got thyroid cancer. A scratchy throat, an MRI, and suddenly we’re at the Hospital of The University of Pennsylvania consulting with a surgeon and endocrinology team. Shit happens, but this kind of shit couldn’t happen to my mom, right? Everything really explodes in that inevitable moment when mom becomes a mere human.
She didn’t get out of surgery until 3am. I was the last family member left waiting. I got to peek in the window before getting sent away by the nurses. I returned every night after that and slept in the hospital bed. She would sometimes get up at night, pull out her IVs and try to walk around. Nothing could keep her down.
Mom is kicking ass and taking names. The weird blue light of the hospital television is a distant memory. Six years ago, she moved to the 1000 Islands, a region along the St. Lawrence River on the Canadian Border. Having spent summers there with family for over 30 years, mom dreamed of becoming a year-round resident and writing for the local paper. This is exactly what she is doing now. I read the clippings she sends me in the mail. I think she should have every single thing she wants.
I decided to live with mom for a little while this summer. In the morning, I wait tables at a bakery down the street. At night, I write about New Orleans history and racial and economic justice. I do not feel that this is a compromise. This is a real honor and a real privilege. Not only are children and teenagers brutal…the whole world is brutal. Living and loving like my mom does may be one of the most radical things I can do. Tonight, the smell of bacon underneath my nails made me laugh—payback for all those muddy weekends.