Monday, August 22, 2011

two of my most vivid memories of first realizing "wow, this 'new' family is going to be really complicated" took place, strangely enough, at the eye doctor's. at our first reunion, omma (korean mom) & appa (korean dad) were extremely concerned about my horrendous vision. they said that i'd inherited that from appa's side of the family and that both he and my younger brother had undergone LASIK surgery to correct their near blindness, with fantastic results. they also informed (not asked!) me that i would be receiving the surgery a month and a half later in november.

one weekend in late october, my brother hyun-bae and i were out for a saturday afternoon of food & shopping in myeong-dong. omma called to tell us (again, not a request!) to stop by the eye doctor's office to get surgery information before we came home. it was within walking distance of where we were, so i didn't mind. we walked in the front door and the nurse was immediately in our faces, offering complimentary beverages and asking how she could help. (i really miss the great customer service in korea!) the conversation went a bit like this...

nurse: (babbling in korean)
hyun-bae: (in korean) sorry, would you mind speaking in english?
nurse: (in english, confused) oh, sure. so which of you will be receiving surgery?
{i timidly raise my hand}
nurse: ok. and he is your boyfriend?
hyun-bae: (in korean) no, she is my sister
nurse: (in english, surprised) oh! umm...ok...

{we complete info session}

nurse: (in english) that's about it. do you have any questions? i'll give you this info packet to take home and review.
me: yes, one thing. could i get 2 info packets? one in english and one in korean?
nurse: (in english) oh sure! can i ask why?
me: oh, i need one to take home and read. and i also need to take one to my mother to read.
nurse: (unable to hide her bewilderment) oh. of course...


i had worked for several weeks with the nurse, asking a million questions about the procedure before finally scheduling my surgery. i was able to work mainly with just her, because her english was much better than anyone else in that office. by the time surgery day arrived, my brother had already returned to china to finish out his semester, so omma was accompanying me to make sure that surgery went well & i got home safely afterwards. as a refresher, omma speaks no english. (by this time, i had studied enough korean to handle basic conversation).

nurse: (in english) hi whitney, can i get you a drink while you wait?
me: i'll have coffee please.
{the korean word for coffee is 커피 or kupee, so similar enough that omma could understand my request in english}
omma: (in korean, to nurse) no, she'll have orange juice.
me: (in korean, to omma) what did you just say? orange juice?
omma: (in korean) yes, you can't have coffee. it's bad for your health and keeps you from sleeping well at night.
me: (in korean, throwing hands up dramatically) what the heck, mom?! i'm not a little kid!
nurse: ummm....
me: (in english, to nurse) i'll have coffee please.
omma: (giving me the stink eye) hmph!
nurse: (standing awkwardly, trying to diffuse the tension) wow whitney, your korean is coming along nicely!

i recall each of these situations with humor now, but remember them being overwhelmingly awkward at the time of occurrence. and i really feel for that nurse, who always seemed to be stuck in the middle of mass confusion.

it's complicated. i understand that, for many adoptees, the first hurdle to overcome in reunion is the birth parents dealing with their immense shame for giving their child away -- an unthinkable, unforgivable sin in many eastern cultures. in a shocking number of cases, birth parents ultimately choose not to reunite when given the choice, because they simply cannot face the humiliation that comes with the public knowledge of, "yes, this is my child. yes, i gave him/her away eons ago. yes, i live with that shame every day." so i try to be understanding in difficult situations with my birth family, and thankful that they are willing to "claim" me.

but in the kopee situation, i just couldn't take it anymore. as much as i try to be understanding and reasonable, i also need my birth family to understand who i am now -- that since the time they gave me up, i've developed into a tough, very independent, very strong-willed woman. no matter what koreans want to tell me about the cultural differences in age between korea and america, i will still affirm that i am an american. and i resent being treated like a child. and at that moment, i resented my omma overstepping her bounds and telling the nurse that instead of coffee, a cup of orange juice with a sippy straw would better suit a child like me.

i think this was the point when i first put my head in hands and thought, "what have i done?!"


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