In Korea I could disappear. Not like, “40 year old woman goes missing on vacation and is never seen again,” disappear. But rather, disappear so seamlessly into the masses that I’d never even feel lost. I could be among a dozen people and not even be noticed. Physically fitting in might have been the missing catalyst for my healthy emotional growth. And the relief of not standing out could have opened up the mental space I needed to bloom right through the canopy and up into the sunlight.
In America I did disappear. Like, “infant girl adopted to upper middle class couple on Long Island is never even seen from the start”, disappear. Things that were said in my formative years like, “oh, I don’t see color” or “oh, inside you are basically a white person” and “oh, you are so lucky that you were adopted, you should be so grateful.” These conflicting notions festered inside me and had me convinced that by some mind blowing happenstance I was dropped into the wrong life. Was I possibly living someone else’s life after their unexpected absence? I was in the wrong body. I was in the wrong family. I was the runner up. I was the interloper. The place holder. And everyone around me simply agreed to let me try to perform as the stand in.
But being back in Korea on an Adoptee Homeland Tour, I did not disappear. I was too sun tanned, too teen age rebellion, too feminist, too spaghetti straps, too cigarette smoke. Too American. Stooped over little old Korean women would shuffle up to speak to me and I’d apologetically shrug and slowly annunciate that “I-don’t-speak-Korean”. And, these women would tilt my chin up to inspect my features and approvingly stroke my face, apparently satisfied with the way I looked. Gently muttering words I couldn’t understand through a sad sort of expression that I definitely could. “What a pity, what a shame.” it conveyed. “What a waste of a Korean woman” it echoed.
In Korea they dressed us up in traditional clothes. For the girls, a long dress called a Hanbok. The material was cheap but it was custom fit and I got to pick the colors. Hungover and cigarette in hand, off we traipsed to the President’s house. The First Lady apologized through tears on behalf of our motherland that so many children, the generations of adoptees termed the “Lost Children”, that these children, that we, were surrendered and taken away to foreign countries overseas. I was told that she does this one or two times a month to various groups but still, she reached something deep within me that I suppose I really wanted to hear. It breaks my heart how tenderly I held on to that broadly cast public apology back then, and even now.
I see my soul was so devastatingly malnourished that it would eagerly consume the meagerist of affections to ease the pain of its starvation.
It’s so simple to try to fill your soul with things…that are…things. Over the decades I have tried so many things but it all began with stealing, hoarding, and consuming food. I would walk up to the local grocery store after school to steal food and stuff my backpack full of non-perishable things. Then I’d hide the hoarded snacks away under my bed and in my dresser drawers. Neither my brother or I can recall what we did or what we ate for dinner on a typical evening. Most likely our house keeper, a good intentioned granny-ish sort, reheated something like lasagna or a casserole in the microwave. She was always humming “You are my sunshine”. As I write this I realize that “You are my sunshine” is a song you only hum to children that you love. When our mom got home from work we’d go to our rooms so she could eat “in peace” then she’d shut herself in her bedroom for the night. We would quietly go back downstairs to clean her dishes in the sink. Then wipe the counter and the table and head back to our separate rooms until morning.
In Korea the various components of dinner, called Banchan, are served on numerous small plates. Each dish of the Banchan is placed in the middle of the family table making a modest little kaleidoscope of flavor and textures. The table is low and the family sits on the floor all around it. The food is shared and everyone at the table is reaching over and around each other in a smooth choreography of motions. Snagging their bites of food off the jumble of little plates. Tasting a little bit here, a bit there. Happily chatting through mouthfuls of food. Laughing at fending off others’ chopsticks to get the final morsel. And then, here in my imagination, they even all clean their dishes together.
I have often pined for that family table. That cluster of little everyday plates with familiar flavors. The choreography of habitual dinner movements. I wonder if that is the Meal. The meal that I subconsciously conspired to steal, to compile, to hide away. The meal for which over and over I have meticulously foraged with hopes to fill my soul but only resulted in filling my stomach. The meal. The Banchan.
Could they have pacified this empty longing heart? At that table, I would have disappeared at that family table. Could biological camouflage have protected my hungry soul from ever enduring these sharp pains of starvation? I don’t know. And I resign that I will never know. Here or there, I disappear.
Liz Nelson is in full time law enforcement. She and her husband live on a small farm and raise cows, goats, turkeys, chickens, and guineas. They donate the butchered animals to the local soup kitchen. They have the joy of sharing life with their two witty, barefoot, somewhat feral little boys, 7 and 5. They all love ice cream, road trips, hiking, camping, and dancing to jam bands. Believing she is called to feed the homeless and needy she dreams of starting up a food truck to serve dinners, most likely spaghetti or quesadillas. This year she feels blessed to be recognizing the astounding lengths to which God has gone in order to make her feel His love and understand her purpose. Looking back at her heartbreak and suffering she sees how every step, even the painful and seemingly unimportant ones, were a deliberate part of His plan. She is exactly where she is supposed to be.
Thanks you for sharing this heartfelt story. There is so much grief in the world; I hope writing about yours is healing.
Liz. Thank you for sharing. What a heartfelt insight. Putting words to what I have felt for much of my life…. I am a South Korean adoptee who relates to you very much….
Liz, There is much about this piece I’d love to talk with you about. Your life has not been easy – yet you have survived and feel compassion for others. Our formative years stay with us – they helped shape who we are and those “sharp pains” may never completely leave you but I pray that your “sharp pains of starvation” are being satisfied by your husband and children and friends who circle around you like family.
I find it beautiful and ironic that you grow and give away food to those in need – the same need that you have had all of your life – to be fed – and to know that someone sees your needs and cares deeply. You are an instrument of love – out of your own deprivation has grown a deep need to serve others the Banchan you never experienced.
Blessings to you this day, beautiful Liz.
I echo Barbara’s words. I could not say what I feel in response more beautifully. Thank you for for articulating this story we need to know. And feeding me in the process.
Ooo Barbara, your comments are always heartfelt crafted pieces of humanity. Thank you!
Bringing food to others has been a way for me to be the hands of God. It’s so clear to me, in my life, that it is something I am equipped to do. The irony of being a small woman who happens to be a cop, able to approach a stranger on a city alley to give him a travel lunch…I know I can and should do for this humans.
Even between the lines, I did not read a word of forgiveness for your adoptive mother. I pray you have. It is freeing.
Thank you for writing and sharing your poignant story. I look at your picture and see a beautiful woman. I see you.
Loved your story and the sense of acceptance you wrote with. There was no anger or resentment in your words but a real sense of balance. I pray you know your value in Gods eyes and move forward in your life treasuring those He has placed in your world to love and nurture.
I have an adopted daughter from Korea. She came to us when she was 6 months old, she is now 34. She is lovely and one of the greatest blessings of my life. I always nudged her to seek out info about Korea, she just wasn’t interested. Now grown, she has her own adoption…of Japanese culture, lol. She is almost finished with her Bachelor’s degree in Japanese Studies. She is wonderful and a blessing to her mom for sure. Appreciated your writing and that as others have said, you are not bitter, but choose to bless others. Thanks so much for sharing this. God bless you. ♥
Oh, Liz. Thank you for sharing these images and longings, these realities. The ways you play with the benefits and loss of disappearing are poetic. It strikes me that Banchan seems to be chaotic belonging in the most beautiful sense. No one is singled out, yet the chaos and dance requires the presence of each one. I can’t know how it felt/feels to be in your life, yet your words paint a feeling that I can imagine -the longing for Banchan. Thank you.