February 22, 2012

What Korea Means to Me.

In the latest installment of “Love, Recorded,” Matt talks about his adoption, returning to Korea, and how parenting is culture shock.



My brother, right now, is in Korea for the first time since his adoption. He is WWOOFing on an organic farm somewhere in the mountains of Jeolla-do, Korea’s southeastern province. He reports that it is too cold to work. It sounds as if he is the only worker there. The owners have taken a trip to Seoul and left him in charge of their house. I find most of this out from my mother. My brother emails me with a one-sentence question, asking to recommend Korean dramas.

I have been to those mountains—Cathreen took me to see a friend of hers who is in love with her. I always say this as a way to distinguish him, but really all of her male friends seem to be in love with her. She always shrugs this comment off.

To my brother, I recommend “My Girlfriend Is a Nine-Tailed Fox.” I’ve only seen three Korean dramas. This one, about a girl who is the legendary man-eating fox, was perhaps the most endearing. All three dramas felt similar to me, though two were written by the same sister team. A strong hook, two or three solid episodes, flat line, something weird (or weirder), then a quick crash to the ending. Everything done in service to plot.

We wonder whether, in Korea, my brother will fall in love. Whether he, too, will come back with a Korean wife. We wonder how and in which ways he will be shaken up.

Before he got to the farm, he spent a couple of days in Seoul, and we Facetimed twice daily. He has friends in the city but was unable to get hold of them. I could see the culture shock written on his face. We let him see his goddaughter, so that she would not forget him. We asked him about Korea as if it were an old friend. We talked about what to eat. Nearly as much as anything, we miss the food, but somehow the hardest thing to do in the grip of culture shock is to work up the courage to order in English.

Or perhaps this has something more to do with being visibly Korean and not being able to speak the language. Perhaps it has to do with shame. Maybe it is unique to the prodigal adoptee. I remember, when thinking about getting something to eat, being paralyzed with fear and making excuses—that what I was afraid of was not a part of myself.



My brother’s non-presence here makes us even more aware of where he is. Not that we hung out that often before. I think, sometimes, that his non-presence is making us feel as if we are not truly here either. Or as if where we are supposed to be is over there.

Each day, Cathreen grows more homesick. The baby has never seen Korea. Our nephews are growing up. Cathreen’s grandmother is in her nineties and riddled with various cancers. She wants to go back to visit, but when, how, for how long?

Part of me is afraid of missing the first time my daughter walks, or puts together a sentence, or asks a question. I wouldn’t be there to answer her. I would be over here, in a place that might as well not exist.

We imagine for my brother an ideal life, doing as he pleases. Able to taste and experience his birth land for the first time in 24 years. The opening up, and the openness, like entering a door into a wide field where the past and future mix. We ignore the freezing temperature and his clear boredom. WWOOF, the internet tells me, stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. My brother uses it as a verb.

Sometimes we think, we could move back and teach English again, be around Cathreen’s family, let Grace have her cousins as oppas. But we have two cats. We have all this detritus of living. The baby stuff alone. Then I think, and what about my career? Which, in fact, does not exist.

My mother says my brother is looking for a job in the city now, something else to do, some way to move on.



Grace is teething. She has two sharp teeth sitting up now like gravestones in her bottom gums. They hurt when she bites. She’s getting ever more curious, pulling herself to her feet and trying to walk, but also more attached. If she doesn’t see her mother for an hour, even with me, she screams. Without me, she won’t leave Cathreen’s side.

Online, Cathreen finds information about “high needs” babies. Babies who must constantly have something in their mouth, who don’t sleep well, who, when they do sleep, must always be in physical contact, who are inconsolable if their cries are not immediately met.

Grace has been sleeping at 6 a.m., at 4 a.m., or pretending to sleep at midnight and then waking up again at 2 and playing until 6. She says two words, we think, with meaning: umma (Mom) and mama (a baby word for food, which she uses for anything she can put in her mouth—milk, solid food, water, pacifiers). She is well-behaved around strangers but then seems to take it out on us when we get home. She will not stay asleep longer than a half hour without someone holding her hand or a pacifier in her mouth, and if she is alone, she senses it and immediately wakes up.

I can tell, sometimes, when I am taking care of her, that her gums are bothering her. She drools and smacks her lips together and says mama, but the pacifier is not enough. Sometimes it seems like she wants to go back to before, when her mouth was empty. We want to speed her up, get her eating and talking and pooping on her own.

It is hard to live in the moment. Even when we know how transformative each moment can be. We want to hold onto each second and yet skip ahead. Is this why people have second children?



Steve Barringer

Korea lingers. We want our daughter to know where she is from. I have had a terrible time of this. Korea is still a looming symbol to me, more than a home lost or found. We want Grace to grow up bilingual and bicultural. We hear story after story of second-generation kids who speak only English though their parents never speak anything to them but Korean. One of us will always be speaking English with Grace. Our conversations with each other will always be in English.

My brother is in Korea but I know from experience that he doesn’t know what it means to be there. It is so hard to get a grasp on the rope between yourself and your birth land, that first time, as an adoptee. You see yourself and that land in which your mother left you, but you can’t begin to understand just how much connects you, how far you can go away from it, how close you should get.

I guess that is something different than culture shock.

Parenting is culture shock. Maybe it is similar for the baby, one instant alone with its mother, the next discovering that Mom is just one of many bigger people. Being a parent, being an adult, you think you can prepare. You think you are just one of those bigger people, and then you are someone else. Even as other people go through the same process, you are alone. And yet if someone encroaches on that loneliness, you get protective of it. There is a bubble around you and your wife and your baby that you will never let anyone else touch. Maybe this is why parents can be so disapproving of dates.

I understand fathers who never think their sons-in-law are good enough. Sorry, future son-in-law. But that feeling comes out of never feeling as if you yourself are a good enough parent. How do you show your child where she came from, and where to go from there?



When I first got to Korea, I wanted to leave as soon as I could save enough for a ticket home. I lost 20 pounds in a week, eating nothing but frosted flakes, drinking milk from the carton. And then I met Cathreen, and I stayed.

I had felt, before leaving the States, that something latent in me would come out as soon as I was back in the land of my birth. I was adopted when I was two and a half, so I had years there. I had years that I thought hid deep within me. But when I got to Korea, I was only confused. Maybe even more so because of this belief.

I told my brother, before he left, that it would be far more difficult than he thought. That it would be different from his visit to Taiwan, or visits to Europe. I wish I had explained it better, how deeply lost you can feel. How you feel as if a piece of you that is lost is even more lost now, now that you know you cannot recover it. How you realize you didn’t think it was lost, before.

What can we do, when the world changes for us but we know it remains the same for everyone else? This is what I would tell my daughter, if I could go back to her birth and whisper in a language she could understand: you have to hold on. There are things you can protect. There are some things about you, like who you come from, or like how hard you fought to get to where you are, that nobody else and no change can ever touch.

photo Flickr/Camera on autopilot


* This essay originally appeared on The Good Men Project on 02/18/12


Editor: Brianna Bemel



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