A quick search for images of Baby dolls from the 1970s will give you an array of white and some black baby dolls with blond or black curly hair. You will also see a sprinkling of young white women wearing baby doll slips and baby doll pinafore lingerie. Most of the dolls have disproportionately large eyes, tiny hands, chubby bodies, and pink flesh-colored plastic skin. The color is much like the three variations of liquid foundation that Maybelline sold when I was a teenager in the ’80s. The color I used to cover my relentless adolescent acne was a peachy tan that never quite blended with my ochre skin tone. It would not be until I could afford to discover Shishido in my 20’s that I had a foundation that matched my skin.
As a little girl, I loved baby dolls. The last one I had was plastic and filled with gel to give her weight. She was a Caucasian baby and had one dress that I think was white, like a christening gown. The image I have in my memory is of her naked body. She had a pee hole. If I fed her with the water bottle, she would wet her diaper. I recall loving to carry her around and can viscerally feel the weight of her in my arms. She was heavy, squishy though solid, and could most accurately be likened to an infant-shaped medicine ball. I played with and carried her until the end of sixth grade. My adoptive mother encouraged my love of baby dolls until I was able to make real ones.
It never mattered that the baby did not look like me. I did not want an Asian baby. Back then I did not want to be an Asian baby. I was considered, “cute,” as a baby. I did not like being, “cute.” As a novelty, I became a point of attention, a conversation, a mirror for my mother’s generosity. I did not like being talked about like an oddity or shown off like a medal. I would hide behind my mother’s legs when I could and stay silent. When I saw my first organ grinder’s monkey, I felt an immediate kinship.
My adoptive mother had a saying, “it was cute when you were two.” I was adopted at 24 months; my adopted Korean sister was 7 and my adopted Korean brother was 4. The window for cuteness was very narrow if it existed at all. I know my 5 siblings will say that I benefitted from the attention, from the currency of “cuteness.” In a family of 6 kids, where love and affection were competitive and the size of a twinkie; my slice did count for something. Though it was a currency that mostly had value in the public eye. It added to the anxiety of my behavior inside and outside my home. It was a false glamour, much like make-up always feels to me and my Asian face would become in my 20’s. Learning to be a chameleon, I could act and accommodate the society I moved through. How my adoptive mother saw me as a child, never seemed to change. Never told I was pretty, but never told I was ugly either though I felt it. I was a Korean girl.
In my day, there was a “research” based fear and phenomenon that Korean girls born from illegitimate seeds or prostitutes were likely to follow the pattern. As a Korean adoptee raised in a religious community with many other families that also had adopted Koreans there were some teen pregnancies. So, the babies had babies. The girls were never counseled about contraception. Neither was I.
“Don’t you get pregnant. If you do, I will give your child up for adoption.” This was my prophylactic. This was what I was told, repeatedly.
“If I had not adopted you, you would have become a prostitute.” This I was also told when the tears poured out of my body because I had spoken my hate and then had no power to speak more.
I was a Korean girl in America. I was not beautiful. I was not considered a treasure. I may never have been cute. I was a gendered weight filled with the goo of inevitability. I embodied my adoptive mother’s “fear” of being a Korean girl who makes unwanted babies.
Despite my experience, there are many adoptees who are seen as beautiful, as treasured, and loved in the way that I instinctively love the sons born from my body. This feeling, this knowledge is what I offer in my portraits. It is my instinctive reason for this work. Received or not, it is knowledge all children deserve. It is a knowledge that many other adoptees never feel or learn. The condition of love is love. Children love until the condition changes.