“I glide across the bridge on the bus and look out. I see the enormous glistening river. I look at the shiny buildings. I look at the old rickety buildings. I see clothes hanging up to dry and walls lined with black mold. I wonder what memories these walls hold. I peek inside.
I am living in Seoul, South Korea and I am on the inside looking out.
I recognize a couple of words in English on buildings as I cross the street with the crowd. Coffee. Pizza. Plastic Surgery. I hear the buzz of a language foreign to me. For the first time in my lifetime, everyone around me has black hair. And black eyes.
I am on the inside looking out.
I sit down at the restaurant. I’m sweating and it’s humid and there is no air conditioner. I look down at the six little silver dishes in front of me, each filled with different foods. I marvel at the bright colors and the pungent aromas and tastes. Red, green, pink, yellow. I’m struck by how different these are from the foods I grew up with when I was having homemade pancakes on Saturday mornings or nachos, my favorite choice, with bright yellow processed cheese sauce at baseball games in my hometown of St. Louis.
I think back to the carefree summer days of my childhood…swimming in the backyard followed with BBQ by dad and casserole and green beans by mom. Later we’d watch a movie and eat orange sherbet. The air conditioner would be blasting so I’d cover up with a bunch of cozy blankets. All was right in my world.
I blink. I am present in the tiny Korean restaurant with the sweet lady owner scurrying around, just three tables, and no bathroom inside. I eat some radishes and rice. Some sprouts, possibly. I don’t know what some of these foods are. And it no longer matters.
This is such freedom. When I was younger, I had a quiet and sneaky self-induced pressure that made me believe I was somehow inherently supposed to know all about Korea even though I spent my entire life since infancy in a small town in the middle of Missouri with my white family. This pressure inconsistently lingered as if there were some sort of genetic ability I should innately possess simply because I knew I was born in Korea.
This pressure grew when I moved from St. Louis to Washington, DC, and met other Asian Americans. Some questioned me. Some were welcoming and kind and taught me little and big things I did not know about Asia. Others were not. Both served a purpose. I realized how unrealistic this pressure was. I let it go. And I never looked back. I was proud to be American and of the unique journey life gave me.
I look around at the people surrounding me. I see a little girl twirl around and giggle. I see a young woman applying makeup as she is walking down the street. That’s certainly not something I was ever taught in all my years of dance classes in Missouri. I hear middle school students tell me they want plastic surgery. I cringe. My eyes fill up with tears as I listen. I want to hug them for a very long time. I take a deep big breath despite the air pollution. I smile and tell them they are great just as they are. I see their disbelief in their precious little eyes.
I look around again. I walk by an older woman selling fruit on the street. I see the same black shirt with black pants on, too many to count. The same dress. The same shoes. While I sip my vanilla latte and savor every bite of my bagel, I see a woman sitting nearby applying makeup and take selfies for the next hour. I don’t feel comforted. I look at my bright clothes. I feel like an outsider. I feel confident. I feel secure. I feel unique. I am an outsider. I am different. And I am on the inside looking out.
I wander around the shopping mall. I see lots of tan clothes. Beige. Brown. Beige again. Black. Lace. And very, very small sizes. I am transported back in time to when I’m 12 years old. I think back to shopping with my mom and how I loved bright colorful clothes. I remember begging my mom to buy me some pink lip gloss. She said no, because, ‘You don’t need it.’ Not once did I ask my parents for plastic surgery as a graduation gift. Or for any gift. They told me they loved me just as I was. There was nothing I needed to ‘fix,’ even though I knew by looking at them that I was different. Sometimes, I forgot.
My parents gave me creative freedom to express myself in healthy ways that encouraged being unafraid to stand out. I could do all the things I wanted to such as swimming, soccer, softball, and dance lessons. Spanish classes too. I have a flashback of eating dinner with my mom and dad at the Mexican restaurant we went to frequently. I remember feeling like the most loved girl in the whole big world. My world felt small, yet I knew it was bigger, but it did not matter. I am instantly jolted because someone has bumped into me.
I blink and see I’m still standing on the crowded bus where 98 percent of everyone surrounding me can’t understand me and I can’t understand them. I hear ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ by Bette Midler playing on the bus. Ah, just for me. I smile. I start singing along quietly even knowing and not caring at all that someone on this bus might stare me down. I can stare right back. I get off the bus. I see an old woman yelling and waving her arms frantically. She’s not yelling at me. A scooter rushes by. I see someone spit. I turn the corner and see the man who owns a Mexican restaurant. I say hello to him in English, Korean, and Spanish. We smile at each other and we laugh. And it is nice. I am on the inside looking out.
Life has given me many opportunities to find the silver lining in the darkest of clouds. Finding the silver lining of all of life’s twists and turns is a powerful yet often difficult habit. And it is one we all have the power to do. It is, of course, often more difficult when we are outside of our comfort zone. And really, really difficult when we are surrounded by people who do things much differently than we do, in ways we do not, and in ways in which we don’t agree. I’ve found myself wandering these streets, sometimes lost or on the bus in the wrong direction, deflated yet feeling proud to be an American and proud to be raised by my mom and dad, even as the United States of America experiences more disease and disruption than I’ve ever seen. When that life has given me so much, it’s difficult to not feel gratitude.
It has been relatively easy to complain about many aspects of living in Seoul, the largest and highest populated city of South Korea with 9.8 million people in a country of 51.6 million people. When I ask myself why, I always come back to the answer. I have been loved by two people who loved me before they ever met me. I have been taught values of acceptance, empathy, and the Golden Rule. By two people of a different race than mine who decided to willingly and openly accept me as their own. I, too, intimately know dark rainy days so am always eager to spot a rainbow or a sunny day. I’ve had great liberties, opportunities, and conveniences as an American both large and small. And I appreciate all of these in newfound ways after living here without.
Looking on the bright side of life does not mean pretending monsoons, typhoons, and viruses do not exist. During my past year living abroad in South Korea, these have all very much existed, both literally and figuratively.
To most people I have encountered here, America symbolizes independence, freedom, and fun. Plus other things we Americans often take for granted like dishwashers, dryers for laundry, and air conditioning. And having opinions that we can freely express despite the outcomes. And really, really nice things like not having to go to school until 9 p.m. when you’re 9 years old and work schedules that are only 9 hours a day as an adult.
As such, it’s been easy for me to be haughty about my journey that gave me this American life. And I know that’s not the purpose of my journey.
‘Look at the people you don’t love and use it as an exercise to open your heart.’ -unknown
I remind myself again and again that everything Korea was and is precisely what gave me my life as I know it. I certainly do not like everything I have experienced here, but I better understand the reality of Korea is also what gave me the American life I know. I am often frustrated and bewildered with some of Korea’s realities — but that is only because of the great, albeit imperfect, life I’ve lived in the US. So, I can only thank Korea. If Korea was not exactly as it is, I would not be exactly as I am.
There are many, many Korean-born adoptees who embarked on a new life in a different country, each with often varying nuanced influences and individual perspectives. Collectively, our experiences are not limited to adoption as an infant then seamlessly engaging in American life. Reality is many other journeys, all beginning in this country of ours destroyed after the war. These journeys are different from the lives of children who begin life with homes, food to eat, and trust in the presence of love. This country has rebuilt and we have too.
These realities have often been bypassed due to many factors including one concept I happen to love called ‘gratitude.’ Adoption is not either being grateful or ungrateful. It is multi-dimensional. It is both being chosen and not chosen. It is embracing both countries and oneself, plus the perseverance to do this unique personal emotional work, even when one or both countries do not embrace you. It is many, many unanswered questions both simple and complex, and many more unanswered questions. It is too, hopefully, the wisdom of knowing the answers are not what brings freedom, but instead knowing that freedom and peace are possible with or without those answers. It is a marathon all will not finish. It is a gain for some and not all. And all gains do not come without loss.
Everyone in the world has a journey we know or may not know. Everyone in the world is living out the effects of both the scars and triumphs of these in various and diversified ways.
I am living in Seoul being who I am regardless of where I am, claiming the land of the whole universe. I am here because I choose to be. I affirm my life exactly as it is. I am here to be uncomfortable, real, and honest. Even when it makes others uncomfortable.
So far it is a success.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Kate Powers. You can follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more from adoptees:
‘They bluntly asked, ‘So, where is your real Mom? She didn’t want you? Is there something wrong with you?’ Everywhere I went, I stuck out like a sore thumb.’: Transracial adoptee says ‘it’s okay to grieve the loss of your birth family’
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