Saturday, August 21, 2010

Beyond the memoir

I just finished reading Mei-Ling Hopgood’s memoir Lucky Girl (2009). It’s a book about a Chinese Taiwan adoptee growing up in Detroit uniting with her Taiwanese birth family and another adopted sister in Switzerland and how it changes her life. Hopgood is also trying to tell the story of her birth family and their poor conditions in Taiwan and how they decided to give away two of their six daughters for adoption at the same time as her birth father’s desire to have a boy almost divides the family. In 1997 when Mei-Ling is living by herself and working, she is contacted by Nurse Maureen who tells her she has good news. Nurse Maureen played a big part in Mei-Lings adoption process back in Taiwan, and her family stayed in touch with her after the adoption. She is the one connection Mei-Ling always had to her birth family, so when Mei-Ling decides to go back to Taiwan for the first time she is accompanied by nurse Maureen. This trip it turns out is just the beginning of the incredible journey of Hopgood and her two families.

The story in Lucky Girl is intriguing and interesting and it captures your attention right away. Hopgood is writing with compassion and embraces her life as an adoptee as well as with her birth family. She mixes matter-of-fact with a crisp sense of observation and she pays a great deal of attention to detail especially food. After visiting Taiwan three times and also uniting with her adopted sister in Switzerland the Hopgood family and her birth family in Taiwan and her adoptive sister from Switzerland with her adoptive mother are all gathered together for a Chinese New Year celebration in Taiwan. Hopgood is trying to give all of her family members the right amount of attention thorough the story and for the most part she does a good job at it. She distinguishes between her adoptive parents as “Mom” and “Dad” and her birth parents as “Ma” and “Pa” and draws parallels between her life with her adoptive family and how her life might have been if she had stayed back in Taiwan. I found this part of the book, the chapter “Through the looking glass” especially as the most intriguing because it deals with a lot of questions and “if’s” which I believe are common to adoptees regardless of background or their relationship to their birth families. What if she has stayed back in Taiwan? What if her adoptive parents had also adopted one of her sisters from Taiwan? Would her birth parents kept her if she was a boy? Her birth father’s desire to have a boy also drives the family to adopt a boy from a farmer’s family in their village, a choice that breaks the heart of Mei-Ling’s birth mother. She wasn’t allowed to keep two of her daughters. But if they had been boys she might have.

A few years back I read another memoir by an adoptee A Single Square Picture (2002) by Kathy Robinson. It’s a similar story to Mei-Ling but with a different twist. Kathy or Kim Ji-yun is adopted when she is 7 years old. She has memories of her birth mother, grandmother and birth father. When she grows up in Utah, USA, she holds on to these memories and as an adult she goes back to South-Korea to search for her birth parents. She finds her father and unites with his new family and her siblings as well as her half-siblings, but even after going back to Korea the second time for an extended period of time, she is not able to find her birth mother. Both Hopgood and Robinson are adoptees that decide to search for their birth families. They blend in with their birth families at the same time as they don’t. They have similar features of their birth family at the same time they could not be more different in terms of language, culture and education. Both these writers and adoptees capture these differences in their memoirs.

In 1991 I travelled back to South-Korea my birth country for the first time since I left it in 1973. Grown and groomed as a Norwegian I was raised not to expect too much. My birth country was a vast, mysterious place we did not know anything about. With the help of my older Norwegian sister who carefully planned and organized our trip, we were able to finance it. During high school I interned at our local newspaper and we made a deal with them to pay us advance for a travel diary I was going to write for them. We even contacted one of the adoption agencies and arranged to be escorts for 4 babies that were going to be adopted to Norway. During my trip to South-Korea I did visited a lot of beautiful places Cheju-do Island especially, but I did not find my birth family. I travelled to Taegu where I was born and I visited a Catholic Church run by a group of nuns who did not speak English. This church was once White Lily Orphanage where I stayed during my first 8 months and was cared for before I was moved to Seoul for adoption. My journey ended there.

But wait. It did not really ended there. Going back to Norway me and my sister picked up four babies at an orphanage in Seoul. Two of the youngest babies came with their foster mothers and they were allowed to say goodbye right before we left for the airport. I must say it was brave on everyone’s part to leave four babies age 3 months, 8 months and 3 years it turns out, in the hands of a 19 year old and 21 year old travelling for the first time from Seoul via London to Norway! I still remember the trip; sleep deprived, confused, excited, curious, wondering what families will meet the babies in Norway? After over 20 hours journey we arrived in Norway early in the morning and we met the adoptive mothers at the airport. I was able to witness the happiness in their faces when they held their babies. It looked very much like any mother seeing their babies for the first time. I think this moment was the most special part of my trip to South-Korea and it did prove to me that although I did not find my birth family, I was loved and happy being adopted.

Hopgood’s book ends with the birth of her daughter. I wonder what journey her daughter will take and how her relationship will be to her two families. It’s been almost 20 years since my first trip to South-Korea and I am now ready to go back in the near future, this time with my own family. I want to give my children some memories of my birth country. I do not wish for them to not know anything about South-Korea. I know they are not adopted. But their mother is and will always be. I have been open about this since my daughter was very small and she has already asked questions about it. I want her and her brother to experience the answers by themselves first hand.

About three years back and a few months after we had returned from a vacation in Japan, we were driving in the Queens area. We were on our way somewhere but got caught in traffic and decided to take a detour which we often do, and ended up in a part of Queens called Flushing. From the moment I stepped out of the car I got a déjà vu: The shop signs and even the bank signs were all in Japanese, Korean and Chinese. The big supermarkets carried imported food from Japan, South-Korea and China and everywhere we saw Korean barbeque restaurants, noodle shops and Chinese dim sum places. We ended up in a relatively small noodle shop that served big bowls of soba noodles and udon noodles. Our search for Japanese food at home was over. Now my kids love noodles, tempura and fresh dumplings. At the Korean barbeque places my husband loves the spicy squid and I like the beef bone soup. We both enjoy the fresh kimchi, a staple Korean dish which is basically marinated cabbage in spicy chili oil. I didn’t like this dish when I first tasted it back in Korea. Over the years, mainly after I moved to US and started going to several Korean restaurants that served it, I re-tasted and tasted kimchi again and finally started to enjoy it.

Now we will always come back to Flushing for food, even after visiting South-Korea or Japan. Food I guess will be the one thing that can bring you closer to home. Even after another visit to South-Korea there will be some many different dishes I never tried or will try, just the same way there are so many secrets in my own history that will perhaps never be revealed.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


This summer my daughter is reading Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart for the first time together with me. I’m revisiting this childhood favorite after nearly 25 years. Written in 1973 it’s nearly as old as me but still a magical and wonderful book to introduce to young readers.

The story tells about Karl/Kalle or Skorpan, a 10 year old sick boy (he probably has tuberculosis) and his 13 year old brother Jonatan who live with their mother in Stockholm, Sweden. Karl (or Scotty in the English translation after biscotti) knows that he is going to die one day. Jonatan tries to console him by telling him that dying is not “lying under the ground somewhere” but instead your soul in the shape of a white pigeon flies to a land called Nangijala where he no longer will be sick and where his brother will join him for adventures in a land of “campfire and storytelling”. One night a fire emerges in the building where the brothers live and Jonatan tries to rescue Karl by jumping out from the third floor. He dies in the attempt but saves his brother. Two months later Karl is visited by a white pigeon by his window sill and he takes it as a sign that Jonatan has come for him. He dies that night and finds himself outside a cottage in the Cherry Valley in Nangijala. Karl and Jonatan go on many adventures and they meet a farmer Mattis who become a father figure for them. But even in Nangijala, on the other side of the mountain in the Thorn Rose Valley the evil Tengil with his dragon Katla holds power. Jonatan and Karl join the resistance force against Tengil and Jonathan kills Katla in the end but is wounded by her fire that will slowly kill him. In a leap of faith Karl decides to carry Jonatan on his back and fly to the land of Nangilima where they will see the light.

The Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (1907-2002) wrote over 100 books since her first publication in 1944, a year before she published her most famous children’s book Pippi Longstocking. Over 50 of her books have been translated into English and you can find Astrid Lindgren’s book in almost 60 languages. Other famous books are Emil from Lønneberga, Ronja The Robber’s Daughter (Ronja Rövardotter) Mio My Mio, Seacrow Island (Vi på Saltkråkan) and Madicken, most of them describing small town family life in Sweden.

The Brothers Lionheart is one of her darker novels. It deals with sickness, death, betrayal and evil and many cautious parents were questioning this at the time of its release. Some critics claimed the author romanticizes death and especially suicide. Astrid Lindgren once said she did get the inspiration for the story at a graveyard where she once saw a gravestone for two brothers. In a response to the critics she writes in a letter from 1975:

"It is clear that children had a great wish for tales and preferably these kinds of exciting tales. Right now I am swamped with letters from children - from several countries - that love the Brothers Lionheart. Never before have I received such a strong and spontaneous reaction on any book."

I was about the same age as Karl when I read this book for the very first time and a few years older than my daughter is today. I didn’t really questioning the fact that both the brothers die. What I related to was Karl’s special bond to his brother and their love for each other. Secondly I loved the land of Nangijala and the adventures and stories of bravery, betrayal, loyalty and evil in this fantasy land, the same way my daughter who is 7, now does. Parts of the story I had to explain to her after we read it, especially the beginning. But then she said, she gets it. She likes the idea that I also used to read this story when I was young.

Many of Lindgren’s books have been adapted into successful movies or TV series. Director Olle Hellbom made the movie version of Brothers Lionheart in 1977 and Astrid Lindgren herself wrote the script. Today, with the CGI effects and technology available Lindgren’s novel could’ve turned into a very good movie the same way JJ Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings were. Unfortunately the 1977 version although it won several prices and is shown regularly on Swedish television even today, did not fulfill the novel’s fantasy element. Personally I was more disappointed by the actor who portrayed Jonatan than I was about the lack of special effects. How could they have selected a 23 year old man to play the brave 13 year old boy? (Years later, through web sites and reviews I found out that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way about this. It was as though a childhood “betrayal” were universally confirmed!)

Today when my daughter and I are reading the novel together, we are looking at the wonderful black and white illustrations by Ilon Wikland, an illustrator Astrid Lindgren worked together with on most of her books. We go back to the story and then look at the detailed page describing Karl’s room, the pigeon outside his window, the garden by their cottage, Jonatan and Karl, the horses, the Thorn Rose valley and the scary monster Katla. We enjoy the story and illustrations and the world it creates for us. I believe we call this the magic of fiction; yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Source: Wikipedia

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Back to the Future

I was watching a movie the other day that plays with the idea of time travelling. What could really happen if you were able to turn back time? A million dollar question, right? This is one thing we humans cannot do physically so we try to imagine how it would be. What would you do? Of course it could turn out to be life-changing because you know what mistakes you’ve done and what people you lost and if you had the ability to correct those actions or to prevent someone from dying, that would be the ultimate glory. By strange coincidence though, it could turn out that you went back and made similar choices and similar mistakes and you didn’t learn from either of them. Why so?

The answer to that question is easier than you think. It’s simply our human nature or human error if you like. Science has come very far in imitating human life and changing it to our benefits. We have eradicated deadly diseases and we have evolved in making technology a part of our lives and we have been able to take pictures of planets beyond the moon. But are we really “there” yet and do we want to be “there”?

My answer to these questions is - yes, we do want to be there. We want to go even further and beyond and sometimes never come back. We do want to turn back time over and over and bring that special person back even if it is only for 1 day. We want to make other choices, better choices, different choices. We want to see different places, different worlds, different views of these worlds and how they change our lives. Through the magic of fiction we are able to do all these things in only 1 hour. In fiction, these mind-blowing time travels really changes a man's life in a few minutes or even less. Our perception of time can disappear or be altered completely.

But what if time travelling could unveil one or two moments in our lives that we don't remember? Or maybe we don't really want to change anything. In most cases I believe, our lives the way we want it will come along anyway by way of our will and our dreams and hopes. My take on this as a writer is that these thoughts exist in the realm between fiction and reality and connects these two worlds even if we don't know it. Sometimes we're so busy pondering about our problems and possibilities or lack of thereof, that we don’t even recognize life when we see it.

And there I have another theme for another blog.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Love, Definitely

Earlier this year Sandra Bullock, an A-list Hollywood actress won the Academy Award for her performance in The Blind Side, a movie about a Southern lady who adopts a black homeless kid. In real life she adopted a baby on her own and kept it secret for months. Several other A-list celebrities such as Madonna, Cheryl Crow, Katherine Heigl, Meg Ryan, Mary Louise Parker and Calistha Flockhart have adopted recently or over the past few years. Adoption, not to mention babies and pregnancy in general, did not use to be a very hot topic in Hollywood, but suddenly it has. Baby pictures, regardless if they are biological or adopted, are not worth a thousand words, more likely a million bucks. I wonder why.

Looking at my own life and my own children I am curious about this process. My son is almost 16 months old now. In general, I do feel like most other mothers at this stage. I am definitely proud of having 'survived' the first year of my son’s life, meaning gone through the first overwhelming feelings of welcoming a new little human being into our lives. Not to mention I have 'survived' those sleep deprived nights with burps and vomit and diaper changes. And yet I know this is perhaps the most precious time with my children, just watching them grow and see them develop into small human beings with so much love to give you that it’s almost impossible not to enjoy this time!

But there are feelings and thoughts that I can only share with a handful of mothers. When I was the same age as my son or maybe a little younger, I left my birth country South-Korea and travelled to Norway where I was adopted by a Norwegian family. I changed my name and identity so to speak and became a Norwegian citizen. I have no idea what I was thinking and if I was thinking at all about any of this when I was 16 months old. The good thing about babies and toddlers and small people as I like to call them, is that they are very forgiving and generous with their affections when they are loved and cared for. In that way I was lucky. I was cared for in the best possible way by a loving family in Norway. I have pictures and memories from my childhood in Norway. But I have no memories of my birth country or my birth parents. Sometimes when my daughter asks me about it, I wished I had. After all, sharing our childhood memories and stories is a part of your own children’s childhood as well.
This made me think of another incident that happened a few months ago here in United States. A 7 year old Russian adopted boy was sent on a flight as a non-accompanying minor on a transatlantic flight heading back to Moscow, Russia. His adoptive mother could not handle his aggressive personality she explained in a letter that was addressed to Russian authorities. Russia replied back by halting all pending adoptions from Russia to the U.S., putting a few hundred families in an emotional turmoil.

I don’t know why my birth parents did not want to keep me. But if my adoptive mother decided that she could no longer care for me and sent me back to South-Korea that would basically mean that as an orphan, I would be rejected twice. I do think that if this boy was given a good home, he would grow up loving his adoptive parents, and not grow up being hateful and angry at the world for rejecting him. I know I did.
I also know that giving love and being loved is not genetic. It’s not something that is inherited, it’s a gift. I know my adoptive mother loved me as much as my other Norwegian siblings and she has really worked hard through all my life to prove that. It takes courage to adopt because in some cases you don’t know if the little person you are adopting is able to love you back. Unfortunately that happened to the Russian boy and I believe it happens to some adoptees around the world as we speak. Some families try to work out these situations, others fight it and some give up. For the adoptee it’s not really a choice to be adopted and so it is also not a choice for us whether or not or family is able to take care of us.

I think it is important that celebrities set an example in these cases, and I think it is important to focus on adoption not as an alternative but as a choice. Adoption is not second-choice or second-hand. Adoption is about the same thing: Having a baby of your own. In some cases I think the media can be deceitful and making the process look easier than it is. After all, not everyone has a lot of help around as well as having access to resources about adoption. If you’re stuck in the process it’s easy to give up.

Looking at my 16 month old son and watching him smile at me as he walks his first steps I know I am going to be there for him all the way when he grows up. It’s a reassurance as a parent I embrace, at the same time as I sometimes think about my birth mother out there and what she has lost. My heart goes out to her and to all birth parents out there. It takes courage to adopt, but it takes tremendous strength and willingness to make the decision to give away your child. Luckily for most of us adoptees we are still able to be loved by our adoptive parents and pass that on to future generations to come.