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.

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