how to live with a stranger

When your biological identity is shrouded in mystery, you have an evolving relationship with that missing piece of yourself.

As a baby who was separated by thousands of miles, continents, and language from the flesh and blood people from whom I had received my, well, flesh and blood–I came to understand that I was a character in a story. The creation of my family–my adoptive family and God. My flesh and blood were actually paper and ink. The certificates and naturalization papers that linked me to the people who were responsible for my survival.

The mystery first belongs to others. Like armchair Sherlock Holmes, people relish the speculation. You’re a curiosity. Like a puzzle, they fill in the blanks. Not to really know, but to prove how clever they are. They refuse to allow you to become a cold case. You have the honor of being cast as a character in a fairy tale or ancient Biblical story. Your mystery is others’ sport.

The problem is that it really isn’t. It’s your life.

As you come to understand its significance, you fight to retrieve the mystery from the hacks: Boy meets girl. Boy dumps girl. The inevitable broken heart that leads to nameless, birthday-less baby. Cliche story writers.

You write your own stories. Others label them fantasies. But it was your story that was interrupted. Not theirs. You attempt to find ways to protect the blank page that is you. You understand intuitively all the reflections that others have projected onto your mystery. Desires. Hopes. The rescue motif.

Both the past and future ultimately seem up to you. This both paralyzes and frees.

When you return to the country of the original mystery. Where the deep chasm first started as a tiny crack in two people’s relationship, you peer over the edge. The crevasse is much deeper and wider than you anticipated, but it is also somehow less engulfing in its proximity. You face the mystery. Conquering it by your very presence. Respecting its power.

At the same time, forces beyond your control, continue to prevent you from scaling the depths, really exploring what’s inside. the closer you get, the more you understand the impossibility of truly getting to the bottom. You are faced with the echo-y depths that are beyond reach.

Or if you are able to spelunker down because of a random reason or another, you become more aware of the intricacies of the mystery. The mystery is actually complicated by reality, not made more plain.

Yet, you wrap yourself even tighter in the mystery that has now defined you for so long. You are not willing to give it up. Even for reality.

What does it mean to come to know yourself as having large chunks of identity invisible? Shadowy. Unretrievable.

You embrace the enigma. You guard it. You find others with transparent souls. Holograms. You put your hands through each other.

for Nichole. Thanks.

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cory booker’s affection for newark offers solace for a broken heart

The reasons to love Cory Booker are almost countless. Or I’ve been brainwashed by the documentaries about him–Street Fight and Brick City–or his combination of smart and attractive has overwhelmed my sense of judgment. Cory Booker also has boundless optimism backed by getting it done–pick-up basketball games with Newark children in the summer,  personal “Let’s Move” campaigns,  snow-shoveling, public gratitude for public service, residents’ retweets and responses regarding traffic lights, real-time crime and general shout-outs (Example: Lol! RT @KarenV11: I’m an attorney and I go 2 Court in Nwk almost every wk- how bout I get my own reserved parking space?  #itdoesnthurttoask) . . .  Does Cory Booker sound make-believe? For the uninitiated, he is the mayor of Newark, NJ.

Cory Booker’s dedication to defending his beloved city is kind of like someone defending a girlfriend others just don’t really get. Someone people don’t think is good for him. He could do better. But he believes in her. In this way, his Twitter account is chock full of the kinds of quotes you want to hear when you’re attending to a broken heart or are in a relationship that other people find perperplexing. Some of my favorites include:

  • “The soul would have no rainbow had the eyes no tears.” John Vance Cheney
  • “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.” Dalai Lama
  • “Promise me u’ll always remember U R braver than U believe & stronger than U seem & smarter than U think” C Robin 2 Pooh

Really, you don’t have to mine his account very long to find fresh quotes that apply. 

I just want to say this to Cory Booker, “Message Received.” Keep the faith!

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tigers and tulips: on being a fake asian

I find Asian stereotypes riveting. Specifically, reflected in writings by American Born Asians. They strangely validate and invalidate my experience, because I am a fake Asian.  A trans-racial adoptee. A Korean-Dutch Adopted American. Korean because that is my ethnic identity. Dutch because my family (adopted) is of Dutch heritage.

I just finished Wesley Yang’s Paper Tigers in the New York Magazine. The first quasi-memoir by an ABA I read was American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Yesterday, I consumed, in virtually one sitting (actually 2 because I started at Discount Tire where I was having my tires rotated on my Hyundai Sonata) Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Of course, Amy Tan‘s Joy-Luck Club has always been a favorite.

All books present some kind of alternate universe–a what-if for readers. However, adoptees are often questioned about their “real family.” Outside their white family’s silent explanation for them, transracial adoptees contend with an identity they don’t fully understand. The unanswered question presented by uncontrollable often mysterious events in their lives that left them in the hands of strangers who became family.

Strangely, Yang–who is not adopted–provides a spot-on observation of this alienation from his own Asian features in the first paragraph of Paper Tigers.

“Conversations” with Asian Born American Writers:
How did Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel about being ABC (American Born Chinese) become my “looking glass” into the world of Asian American memoir? Have I experienced Wesley Yang’s bamboo ceiling (The statistics that point to high-achieving Asian Americans among the ranks of the academically elite, but not comparatively represented in the corporate power.)? Do I wish, like Amy Tan, that I possessed the actual details of the generational tragedy that would explain the desire to please everybody perfectly? Will I strive to be a tiger mother, like Amy Chua?

I met Gene Luen Yang at the Festival of Faith and Writing, after he fielded questions from some visiting Chinese scholars who questioned him on the unflattering representations of Chinese stereotypes caricatured in his book. Yang referenced The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as examples of how Americans satirize in an attempt to expose injustice or absurdity. This was met with blank stares. I realized that his brand of Asian American was closer to my own fake Asian than I thought possible. He was explaining America to “real Asians.”

Wesley Yang‘s Paper Tigers focused on Asian men who are just beginning to claim a right to define themselves as alpha males, to be a corporate success and conquer a white girlfriend. Touche since the stereotype for Asian adopted females is that they tend to marry white guys.

What I connected with is that I have a sneaking suspicion that Asian adults have the potential to annoy white people. Because when they speak up, they seem like someone’s younger brother or sister–You’re still talking? 

Also, it goes without question that Asian students are desirable and beloved by teachers and professors for their perceived hard work and respect for authority. These qualities don’t automatically translate into social power. Like aging child actors, puberty divides ethnic minorities from when they were harmless and adorable to when others perceive them as overstaying their welcome.

Why was I so drawn to Amy Tan‘s invitation to enter her family’s secrets? This contrasted with my contention that I was not interested in my birth family. As a loyal adopted person I always denied wanting to return to Korea. Of having any desire to connect to a people or culture that, I was reluctant to admit, had rejected me. So my denial served two purposes: to please my parents and blunt the sting of rejection with apathy.

I carved out my own identity and I didn’t need other Asians to remind me of where I came from. I always had the suspicion that when two Asians were in the room, one of us was redundant. Drawing attention in larger numbers, always made me uncomfortable growing up. Yet, I could safely do so in books. Amy Tan was a safe, distant Asian confidante.

I do not hesitate to dive into the controversy that is Amy Chua. I found her book funny, brave and completely contradictory in the best way. I got her. Like a long-time friend.

Her “motivational speeches” launched at her daughters were undeniably sharp. Possibly wounding. But she didn’t sugar coat them. She included them for others’ review. She reflected on them. She admitted that the tiger mother code is usually secretive, guarded. She exposes it. For that I give her credit. Yet, I am grateful with a complicated pang of regret for my American parents who did not push me into gymnastics after I expressed a fear of the balance beam. Even after a coach had said that I had the potential to be competive.

When it comes to being a fake Asian, these vicarious glimpses into the lives of second generation Asians, specifically writers are like a reflecting pool out of the Harry Potter series.

I attend Tulip Time in my small adopted hometown of Holland. My white parents grew up here and moved to Asia after they got married, which is why there is no picture of me in Dutch costume marching in the Kinder Parade. We moved back to the U.S., but not to Holland when I was six.

Strangely, as an adult I have made their hometown my own. Last night my Dutch-American sister and I attended the traditional dance around Centennial Park. I kept wondering, “What is it like to have your heritage so accessible?” Which is the same question I ask myself among Korean Born Koreans when I visit Busan–the city where I was born.

Thanks to the Slate Culture Gabfest for discussing Wesley Yang’s Paper Tigers. Also to Nina Shen Rastogi for her reaction.

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vienna sausages and ice cream: memories of the trans-siberian railroad

Our family left Japan when I was 6 years old. We first took a ship–the only cruise our family has ever taken together. We’re actually campers–from tent to pop-up to trailer. Our final destination would be Norfolk, VA–a naval port. Later I would associate the metallic smells and loud metallic clangs on board this ship with the navy, rather than a luxury liner.

People threw rolls of streamers from ship to shore. They spooled them out until finally, they broke. Straining. Then snapping back. Floating. Festive. Finally slowly water-logged.

The cramped bunks secured to the walls with heavy nuts and bolts, would be the first of many adventuresome places we would sleep. This scene morphs in memory to the bunks on the Trans-Siberian railroad car that we took, chugging toward Moscow. I believe our mom packed lots of canned goods to feed us along the way, but now that seems implausible due to the weight. Yet, the Vienna sausages from tiny little peel-away tins are inseparable from the soot that settled into our pores from the coal engine that powered the train.

I don’t remember our mother serving us Vienna sausages before or since that trip. But the most vivid food memory involves our dad, our heroic dad, disembarking from the train at random stops to secure ice cream cones for us in the raging heat. It was summer and the burning coal was also a factor.

My sister and I would peer out the train window, intent that if we kept our dad in sight and if he could hear our cries to “Hurry,” we could keep the train from leaving him behind. Of having to sacrifice him for his desire to get us ice cream. Vanilla. Soft serve. I don’t even like it that much.

When we reached Red Square, covered in soot from top to bottom, we all dreamed of the scrubbing our hotel room would offer. Even us kids. But when we got to our room and turned on the tap, the water was not clear. A disturbing rusty transparency. We ran the faucet until the realization set in that the impurity was not going to dissipate. When we attempted to rinse the soot from our skin and hair, it took more than once until the soot-stained water returned to its original tint.

We ate in a spacious dining hall that seemed out of time and space. Chandeliers. Muffled voices. Our parents let us drink all the soda we wanted, as we were not to drink the water. The Russian version of Sprite, was more like a Ginger Ale, but not quite. I have yet to replicate it. It remains specifically Russian.

On a subsequent day, we visited a palace. We walked on a stone path, where we seemed to trigger an underground water fountain when we landed on certain stones. Magical. Or did a timed sprinkler turn on, just as we reached this path? Unknown.

Later our dad would be scolded for taking pictures inside the marbled hallways hung with rich, heavy tapestry.

One night, my sister and I fell asleep at the Ballet where after the traditional tutus, the dance turned into a re-enactment of some kind of war.

In first grade at my new American school, I drew a picture of the changing of the guard at Lenin’s tomb in Red Square. The soldiers marching so precisely. Their legs in perfect unison. Stiff. Choreographed. Like a ballet.

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blog 4 japan: first memories

My very first memories take place in Japan, but not all are specifically Japanese.

The tart salty taste of something pickled in the middle of my favorite sushi roll. Neither knowing what it was nor when I would have it again. Rubbing our hands hard and quickly over our parents’ nubby bedspread and feeling the soft 3D warmth that it generated when you put your hands together. The old man calling out what sounded like, “Yakimo,” selling roasted yams outside our window during a forced Sunday nap. Being lost in a crowd while my blond-haired sister aroused interest.

That feeling I had when translating from Japanese to English and back, that even the simplest phrases like, “I have a sister” did not carry the same meaning in either language.

I knew Japanese because our parents sent my sister and me to yochien–Japanese pre-school. When we got to school, we bowed to our principal sensei, a granny. An honor that I have yet to feel generated in the same way by a teacher in America. If we ever dared to cry at yochien, our tears were collected in a giant vase. On field day we ate shrimp puffs like American kids eat Doritos.

Pocky sticks. Strawberry milk. Tofu. The savory glazed sinbei. Sheets of crinkly seaweed. The salty breakfast seaweed, my favorite.

I loved Hello Kitty, Kerokerokeroppi, and Monchichi before they were popular anywhere else.

When it was time to go to kindergarten, my dad and I went to school together on his motorcycle. He taught at the American School in Japan and I was headed to Mr. Kaufman’s kindergarten. This is where we took field trips every Friday. As an elementary teacher now, I am amazed by how he never left one of us behind. We negotiated our way around the Tokyo subway system to see sumo wrestlers. Really when you’ve set the bar that high, adventures seem ordinary–in the best possible way.

That summer following kindergarten we left for Virginia. But not without trekking across Russia by boat, trans-Siberian railroad and a plane that made a layover in Helsinki.

But as a Korean adopted child whose first memories are of her Caucasian parents being foreigners in a land full of Asians, I did not know then and only intellectually understand now the enmity between the Koreans and Japanese. My first memories of being a gaijin (foreigner) in Japan were as a bi-lingual, third culture kid. I lived in Japan longer than I had in Korea.

I returned to Japan as an English teacher for a summer hoping that my Japanese would be restored from its lock box. Sadly, the best the kind people could offer was that I didn’t seem to have an accent. Shadows of my past return when I take trains into New York City or Chicago. Or when I cover my mouth as I laugh. I might still bow in respect if it were socially acceptable.

I want to thank Lindsay for her post: Blog 4 Japan Memories from my childhood in Japan

Todd’s Wanderings originated Blog 4 Japan and posted some ways you can help. Read the original here:

This page is dedicated to helping the survivors of the Friday 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan by channeling international donations to local efforts.

The earthquake and tsunami have caused extensive and severe damage in Northeastern Japan, over 9,500 people have been confirmed dead and another 16,000 are missing, and millions more affected by lack of electricity, water and transportation.

The images of the destruction and suffering have shocked the world. However, with the World Bank reporting over 300 billion USD in damages and families torn apart there is a need for everyone to help both financially and emotionally.

A few weeks ago I posted about my Experience During the Japan Earthquake and made a plea to my readers to spread the word about helping Japan recover. My wife is from Tokyo and we are both professional aid and recovery workers with the United Nations. We have seen the recovery phase of the 2004 Tsunami up close and we know there is a tremendous need to not only raise donations but to make sure those funds are used responsibly and are in the hands of organizations with not only technical expertise but also local knowledge.

How You Can Help

A lot of people around the world want to help and have been donating to various international organizations (mainly the American Red Cross). I think this is great and with the money being transferred to the Japanese Red Cross this money will be used well. However, we also believe there is a need to donate funds directly to local Japanese organizations and NGOs that don’t have access to this type of fund raising. There are also many scams out there trying to benefit from this horrible disaster. We know that language barriers and lack of knowledge can also prevent people from donating to the right place. As such we have put together a list of Japanese Organizations that we know, trust and recommend to channel your donations to.

If you are unable to donate we ask that you Share this Page with your friends, family and coworkers through e-mail, facebook, twitter or any other outlet you can think of. The more people who see this page the greater the donations will be.

If you are blogger, or have your own website. Please see the Blog4Japan page to learn how you can utilize this appeal on your own site and help us reach even more people.

Japanese Organizations We Trust

Please consider donating to one or more of these organizations. All are local Japanese organizations and we have found the English Pages for you. Even a small amount like $10 is useful, but we hope you donate more!

Peace Winds Japan Tsunami Response

Peace Winds Japan is one of the largest Japanese organizations providing humanitarian relief such as food, clothing, fuel and medical supplies to the affected areas. You canDonate Here.

JEN Tsunami ResponseJEN is a well known NGO dedicated to restoring a self-supporting livelihood both economically and mentally to those who have been stricken with hardship due to conflicts and disasters. They are currently supporting emergency relief items such as food, woman’s hygienic items, clothes and other essentials to the survivors of the Japan Tsunami. You canDonate Here.

Save the Children Tsunami recovery in JapanSave the Children has been working in Japan for over 25 years. Their American partner is now collecting donations for them in English (which eliminates any credit card exchange charges. They have set up multiple child-friendly spaces  in evacuation centers in Sendai City where displaced families are staying. They are also starting their  long-term recovery plans to restore education and child care in communities ravaged by the disasters. You can get information on activities and Donate Here.

ADRA Japan Tsunami Response

Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) is donating food and essential items to the survivors of the tsunami. They also keep a well maintained English blog of their activities in Japan for the tsunami which you can Follow Here. You can Donate Here.

JOICFP Response to the Japanese TsunamiThe Japan Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning is taking donations for their response to the tsunami that will focus on the reproductive health needs of women and mothers in affected areas. You can Donate Here.

AMDA Tsunami ResponseThe Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA Japan) team is delivering essential medical services through mobile clinics and delivering relief goods to the nursing homes and schools (evacuation shelters) in Aoba and Miyagino Wards. You can Donate Here.

Oxfam Japan's Tsunami ResponseOXFAM Japan is working with two partners in Japan on providing support to those on the margins of society who might otherwise have difficulty accessing emergency relief. One group is assisting mothers and babies and the other is providing information to non-Japanese speakers living in Japan. You can Donate Here.

Habitat for Humanity Japan Tsunami ResponseHabitat For Humanity Japan is still assessing the situation but will be involved in the reconstruction of housing once the emergency period ends. This is one of the most vital aspects of recovery and the homeless will need a lot of help to put their lives back together. You can Donate Here.

Institute for Cultural Affairs Tsunami Response

The Institute for Cultural Affairs Japan (ICA) is still assessing the situation but is accepting donations. You can Donate Here.

All of these are worthy organizations to support and  you can match your own personal interests to the organization that you think will work the best on what you want to support. Even if you are unable to donate please pass this on through social media, word of mouth or even in print. I have waived all rights to this post so please feel free to copy and reproduce any part of it for the good of the Japanese people.

If you do want to reproduce this please see the Blog4Japan page where you can find out more details.

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the ring finger on my left hand and other too obvious metaphors

I live for metaphors (and similes). I search for them like other people collect shells. The annoying part is that I find them just as precious, as valuable. If I could put them to my ear and listen for the ocean, I would.

While chopping granny smith apples to paper thin slices, my knife misfired. Later, I nursed the slippery band-aids that inadequately covered my left ring finger stripped of 1/3 of its protective nail. The context was the day after a painful revelation that stung my heart. If I were truthful, that wounded. After spending 30 minutes on the elliiptical immediately following the news captured in a small red heart, I was prepared to bravely accept a bleaker reality. To wake up to a new day. To chop granny smiths and enjoy cheesy apple toasted muffins . . .

The days that followed have been that false sunniness. Where you spend most of your time shivering, because you’re not adequately protected.  Too foolish to wear long-johns. To bundle up. The sun mocks. Happiness strewn about. Sharp. So contemptuously bright.

Then there’s the elimination brackets. Like everyone I always like a good upset. I feel I am that upset. I identify with outside chances. The long shots. The ones that cause the country simultaneously to throw up its collective hands but also root for it. How cliche? That’s why we pay attention to college basketball. I had Penn going all the way.

In a few days it will be April Fools’ Day. I’m hoping that the obvious nature of this holiday will render any metaphor powerless.

I love a solid, cathartic rain storm. Everything soaked. No, scrubbed. A hearty hair wash in an Asian beauty shop. That’s what April promises and I’m holding it to this.

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going up

“Going up,” the elevator voice chirped in a girly electronica voice that sounded just-below-the-surface familiar. The speaker verged on a giggle. The tone flirted with smug.

A flash of my second niece’s smirk seemed to tease my memory as I searched for the connection. It was a voice I had met only recently. Mechanical, yet somehow an odd mix of mocking and absurdly cheerful.

The way you sometimes feel when encountered with the energy and the knowledge that children will possess that you never will in the same way.

Irritatingly directive, but unearned. Deceptively innocent.

You could recreate the voice by tensing your throat muscles tight to talk in the most adorable persona possible. Yet careful to maintain a monotone.

How does an answer materialize? Out of thin air.

Wii. It’s the voice of Wii Fit.

“Step off.”

How does memory work? I seem to store memories in feelings. I can remember a face based on a very specific feeling that same face elicits when I see it again out of context. This is very useful when you don’t have access to imdb.

One of my most difficult “gets” was when I spotted a character from Deadwood in The Blind Side as a teacher. Naturally, I didn’t make that connection for about 50 minutes so I spent the better part of the movie sifting through the emotions that teacher she played seemed to emit. Slightly dangerous. Powerful in an unconventional, scandalous way. Familiar, in the way that t.v. acquaints you with someone, not a movie.

Then out of the sludge–the millions of data sparks, the answer pulls itself out of the chaos. Dusts itself off. Blinking at you. You feel like you have earned a trophy. A nerdy, private trophy for making an obscure memory relevant.

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