Category Archives: Korea

Mi Papi

My name reminds me of my heritage. There are palms and beaches. I hear the constant beat of the rhythm of the island. Adobo Pollochon fills my kitchen with smells from my childhood. I am Puertorriqueña. It all began in August of 1968.

Prompted by my introduction letter, my father, recovering from surgery, took early medical leave to fly to Korea to meet me. He would forever wear a long scar, one that started small but stretched upon carrying all the bags for the trip.

Our meeting included several days of me becoming accustom to my parents. I think I was pretty comfortable.

I was instantly “Daddy’s Girl.” I followed my father wherever he went. I was his shadow.

His time in Korea, at the end of the Korean War, helped him acquire a taste for Korean food. When we are together, he often asks if there’s a Korean restaurant, and when he visits our favorite Korean restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee, he texts me to let me know. He cannot have his kimchi without thinking of me.

Tucked away, I have his 1950s Korean/English dictionary. He tried to teach me Korean greetings, but I was more interested in the fun Spanish rhymes he would say.

Of course he had to cuddle me and our dog. She wasn’t going to be replaced by this new walking being.

I was introduced at the age of two to my Puerto Rican relatives. The island welcomed me, and I met mi Abuelita, mi Bisabuelita Ita and mi tio y las titis. The smells of the island kitchens still infiltrate my Wisconsin kitchen … especially in the cold months when I need the comfort of arroz y tostones.

My father’s family has committed the same unconditional love that forgets my biological race. In 2000, I brought my infant son to Puerto Rico to introduce him to the island, a land of abrazos y besos. My cousin, Richie, took us to the City Hall of Guayama and found my great grandfather’s portrait. He was the first Enrique. Richie proudly held my son against the portrait and proclaimed that my son looked just like his great-great grandfather, a former mayor of the town.

Quite a resemblance? ¿Verdad?

Enrique … that name has been passed on to every male in the family, but I broke the tradition. My stubborn will missed the subtle cues from my father in phrases like “What do you think about ‘Enrique’ or ‘Fernando’?” I realized my mistake when all the relatives asked how I came to my son’s name. Luckily, I have gotten some redemption now that my son is taking Spanish in school and has taken on the name “Enrique” for his class.

I speak of my mother often since I cannot see or speak with her, but my father is a constant presence in my life. I feel blessed for every day I have him to cuddle my children.

They are proud to have their Latino names and their Papito. They laugh when he uses his fart machine, they enjoy fishing with him as I did, and they admire his oil painting skills.

I am often reminded of the old audio reels from my father’s years in Vietnam. We were separated. I turned three in Tennessee, but I missed him. I cannot imagine now the pain my mother felt being so far away from her husband, or his pain at leaving us and not knowing if he would return. He tells me that he would often listen to the reel of me saying over and over, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!  I want my daddy!”

He returned safely to later share one of the most treasured days of my adulthood.

I will forever be Daddy’s Girl.

Tomorrow marks the day …

Tomorrow is my birthday … or rather the day that the Korean government gave me as a birthday. On my first birthday, one of the most important of a young Korean baby’s life, I spent it with my foster parents. They were college professors, according to my mother. The man took my photograph to commemorate the day.

According to my Korean friend, the baby is presented with four things: a pencil, a string, chopsticks and money. Which item the child chooses determines her future. A pencil indicates a scholar, the string indicates a long life, the chopsticks insure that the child never will go hungry, and the money indicates a child who will prosper. I have no idea what I chose that day, but I’m still waiting to find out!

Many birthdays followed.  Here you see my first birthday celebrated with my parents in Puerto Rico; I was two.

My next birthday, my third, was spent with my mother’s family in Tennessee. My father was stationed in Vietnam. I recall sending him a taping where I just said, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” My grandmother and my mother made it the most special of days despite my father’s absence.

Each year, my mother worked very hard to make November 15th the most memorable of all. She succeeded. This was one where she made my wishes come true with a cake she fashioned with dancing ballerinas around it.

As I turned six, my mother had been hospitalized for some time. She was carrying my little sister, a pregnancy that the doctors had told her might not make it to term. My father made the best of it and bought me a cake. He also fashioned a sign on posterboard for me. I remember visiting my mother in the hospital, she quickly gave me a wrapped present in the cafeteria. As I left, I remember looking longingly up at her hospital room window from the pavement below. She would tell me later that she cried that evening as she watched my little purple coat wave and walk away.

The next year was a big one. We had just moved to Lawton, Oklahoma. I had made a few friends, but it really was a party for our family. My mother spent late nights cutting the letters for the signage out of pieces of construction paper.

I became older, and birthdays passed. There was my 8th pictured here.

And then … I hit nine. We had once again moved. This time we moved to Tennessee, my mother’s birthplace.

This was a monumental birthday for me, because I started wondering more about myself and my background. Having been a military brat until this point, I had been surrounded by diversity. In Tennessee, it was difficult being a lone Asian in a small, rural Appalachian town. I looked more and more at the paperwork my parents had received, and I realized that I was different in another way. The day I had always celebrated as my birthday, may not have been my birthday after all.

When I had been turned into the police station, I had no papers with me. I was taken to a doctor, where my approximate age was determined. Then, the government gave me a birth date, the middle of November, as an estimated birthday.

So, every year, I wonder if November 15th is in fact my birthday, or if I could have been born on the same day as my sister, the 20th, or on the 11th, or the 17th or so on.

I know nothing about the circumstances of my birth. This never entered my mind until I had given birth to my children. Now, I do wonder at times if my birth was easy for my birth mother, if I was born early in the morning after a long night of labor, or born late in the day after many hours of daylight labor. Was I her first child? Or was I a subsequent one whose labor lasted only a short time?

While I am content with my life now, I still have unanswered questions. But I know that the answers make little difference in the person I am today.

The rich birthday celebrations that I have had were celebrations of not only my birth, but celebrations of my place in a loving family.

Can I adopt a 22-year-old?

The following video was sent to me by a friend almost a month ago. My life lately has been a whirlwind. So, I kept it tucked in my unread mail. Tonight, as I kept feeling badly for myself, I was humbled by this.

Nineteen years ago, when this young man was sold to the orphanage, I was only two years older than he is now. I was self-absorbed. Hanging out in clubs, finishing up a master’s half-heartedly and working in a job that paid my rent, I thought I had it rough. This young man, his life and his determination remind me to be thankful.

Sung-Bong, you deserved so much more. When you were running away from the orphanage, I had met the man of my dreams. We would talk late at night about adopting a young Korean to pass on the fortune I had had. I’m so sorry our paths never crossed, and my intentions were never fulfilled.

If I could adopt you now, I would.