I cannot remember the face of the Korean mother who carried me inside her body for nine months and then abandoned me near the steps of Seoul City Hall more than 40 years ago. I can not recall her name, the sound of her voice or the clipped cadence of her native Korean language Hangul.
I tell myself, though I will probably never know for sure, that she watched from afar, through muffled sobs, as police officers found me then carried me into the orphanage founded by Oregon lumberman and farmer Harry Holt.
I've often wished that I had something tangible of hers -- a letter, a necklace, an article of clothing -- that could reconnect me to the three months that I was in her care. The only relic I have from my early life in Korea is a photo that was taken of me shortly after I had been admitted to Nok Bun Ni orphanage.
The focal point of the photo is a square of white paper, resting against my chest with my orphan number (1371) and assigned birth date scrawled in big black English characters. I am wearing only a cloth diaper and a thin white T-shirt, not enough to hide the tiny pools of fresh infection that crowned the oozing sores and boils covering 80 percent of my body. My expression reflects the blunt trauma of being separated from my birth mother just hours before. It is one of stunned submission. Each of my features, forehead to chin, appears to be pulled and twisted by the same determined, half-moon frown. I can see how grief had already folded and curved itself into every tiny muscle and limb.
Childhood Images of My Birth Mother
I would like to tell you that I made an easy peace, as a child, with my birth mother and my early losses. But I did not. Shortly after being admitted to Nok Bun Ni, I was given a new adoptive family, a new name, a new national identity and a new life in America. When I tried to make sense of who my birth mother was and the events that had led her to give me up, I was often overwhelmed by feelings of confusion and helplessness. As a child, I was unable to challenge the fragile sense of safety and normalcy I was beginning to experience in my new homeland by dwelling too much on the birth mother and the country I had left behind.
As a five-year-old, I would lie in my narrow bed on pink-and-yellow-striped sheets, my hands curled into fists and eyes squeezed shut, trying to will a memory of her face and voice into my dreams. Using the limited palette of childhood, I would paint as many images of her as I could. Most of the pictures could trace their origins to American movies rather than actual memories. Sometimes she was a winged devil woman; other times, a fairy princess.
The most haunting picture came to me when I was a teenager as I drifted asleep to the nighttime sounds of the chirping Indiana crickets outside my bedroom window.
In that slice of time between sleep and consciousness, my Korean mother appeared to me as an American actress, a la Jennifer Jones in Love is a Many Splendored Thing, made up to look Asian. Her eyes were ringed with heavy black eyeliner that curved upward to make them appear almond-shaped. She wore a thick black wig that had been piled on top of her head in a topknot and a knee-length, Nehru-collared silk dress. Her body was covered with a pale lemon chiffon-colored powder that shimmered as she beckoned me to come closer, close enough to feel the warmth of her breath spread across my cheeks like sunlight breaking through a closed window. Just as she was about to take my chin in her hand and call me by my Korean name, I awoke with a start. I was gripped by the fear that the more I dreamed of this other mother, in this other country, the harder it would be for me to hold onto who I had become: American, happy and safe.
The day would come when I would be able to envision a different picture of my birth mother and of the circumstances that led to our separation. It would only arrive after I mustered the courage to make the long journey back to Korea.