“Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.”
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
The instant I emerge from her body at 1:05AM, my Korean mother begins the process of my dismemberment. She averts her eyes to avoid seeing my face and makes no attempt to hold me, the newborn she just birthed in Je Il Obstetric Clinic in Daegu City. Without these maternal gestures, I begin to disappear, still warm and wet from her body. Starting at the tips of my fingers and slowly running up to my shoulder, my tiny arms evaporate. I never have a chance to grasp my mother’s finger, pick a doljabi on my first birthday, or spoon warm miyeok gook into my mouth. In those early moments, I lose a part of myself without having a chance to know who that person was. My mother, too, loses a part of herself in that hour and in the days and weeks after, when she tells my sisters that I am dead.
Five days later, I am “transferred'' 200 miles north from Daegu to Seoul, possibly by train, although I can’t be sure. It goes unnoticed that, on the trip, one by one, 10 pudgy toes, and gradually my dimpled knees, vanish. I no longer own the legs that, in the womb, tickled my mother gently at first, then, in the final weeks of pregnancy, kicked her so violently she wondered if a foot might punch through her skin. Without my legs, I won’t chase my five older sisters in the fields or learn to crawl on the floor of our family’s one-room shack.
At four months old, I am flown fourteen hours across continents and the ocean on a plane full of female social workers and screaming Korean infants, all of us barreling toward new families and shiny American futures. As I pass through time zones and move further and further from the origin of me, the center of who I could have been, more of my infant body dematerializes into the clouds. First, my abdomen, full of warm formula, along with my newly formed belly button, the birthmark on my lower back, and finally, my tiny beating heart.
We touch down in a foreign country on May 19, 1983. By the time my adoptive parents receive me at the airport gate, I am reduced to little more than a head full of lice-infested black hair. My new parents take me as I am, not understanding they are getting only a scrap of who I once had been. They tell themselves I don’t sleep well those early nights with them because I’m jet lagged. I don’t sleep because, in the four short months of my life, I’ve lost large portions of myself, not only body parts, but my language, family, and culture. I have been erased by the racist, capitalist systems and institutions that moved me fiercely along the transcontinental adoption pipeline.
Even though I still have a face, it is one I do not recognize, a stranger’s face. As I grow older, I will wish I had been graced its removal, too. She makes me uncomfortable with her thin, monolidded eyes, wide cheeks, and thick, dirty lips. I train myself to avoid looking in mirrors, or to scrutinize the person I see in them, often digging down bitten nails into her cheeks to create freckles and pinching her flat nose to make it perky. It is a face that belongs to no one I know. I don’t see her in my white family or in the various white spaces I find myself in. The more I fail to see her, the more I forget I’m Korean. The erasure metastasizes to my mind, convincing me I’m white and flattening my Korean history into a quaint footnote.
I try to recall who I was before I was deleted. Parts of me have begun to reappear in strange and painful ways. An index finger with dry cuticles here, a droopy breast there, the pair of flat feet size 6.5. What do I do with these body parts when they show up unexpectedly and don’t fit together? How do I make sense of a crime 39 years ago?
I’m not sure I will ever be whole again like I was in those first innocent moments of my life. Most of the time, it’s probably easier and less painful to exist in these manageable parts and pieces. That way, I can be tucked into tidy boxes and pushed conveniently under the bed. Having a whole body attracts attention. It elicits questions, stares, awkward moments of pretending I’ve always had a body, that I know who I am.
Instead, I prefer to fill in my missing limbs with words—English words, of course. I string words together to explain the suspension I feel in my life, caught between who I am and who I could have been. With those words and the words of fellow adoptees, I rebuild myself into something completely new, not Korean, not American. I’m molded by the strength of the adoptee community. Now, when I bleed, I bleed streams of our stories from my veins, the fear, the shame, and the grief and grace we carry with us daily.