Name? Date of Birth?
Mapping my stars: Reflections on receiving my translated Ho Juk. (Family registration, certificate of orphanhood created by the Republic of Korea.)
The day I learned my birth date was not my own; unknown. The certainty I held walking in the world unpixellated, flickered. The Ho Juk is just a piece of paper, existing or not, that has served its purpose. All witnesses are long gone, not to be reconfigured.
The truth, some of it, exists in microlights floating across my digital screen. This is the day I was, “found.” This is the latter birthdate I was given. The day they named my birth in Korea and the US pertains only to them. This serves them. I was served, being served.
The name I was given, RYU Soon Hwa. The photo of the paper shows handwritten; from the RYU, Mun Hwa clan. One of the great aristocratic lines of the Goryeo and Joseon times, a false script. An aspiration, a joke? Who would send their progeny into exile, to be raised by foreigners, to be forgotten? What desperation would demand such a price, transmutation? Why does the word mute sit inside this change? Is that the pre-condition for anomalous transformation?
I once taught English as a second language to selectively mute children. It could take a year or more to hear their stilted whispers. While other teachers would fume struggling with empathy, I guarded their silence. It is so difficult to give birth to a language. How much harder then to silence one? As my sister and I warily tended petrified forests. A stone; smoothed, worn or broken can only show, not tell, memories only evidenced by reduction.
The Ho Juk, or orphan registry document was created by the Korean government. Names and birth dates like my own were falsified. This has been proven repeatedly by the numbers of adults given access to their files or able to reconnect with their birth families. In a country where patrilineage is paramount, the declaration of an orphan family register purposely and effectively cut the roots off thousands of children who like lotuses were flown to the US, Europe, and Australia. In signed documents as unwanted, abandoned, parentless, orphaned we became the head of our own family lines free to be exorcised from our country like ghosts to inhabit other nations and cultures. But no matter how well some of us costume ourselves in those skins our roots burn at the scars and call to us like phantom limbs.
The Ho Juk was never meant to be a treasure map, not for me, being the treasure. I am given an empty box, a place marker holding air. The air remains relatively the same though slightly shuffled by a visible vacuum. I am now only more certain of what I do not know.
I submit my DNA. That is what we do; adopted bodies, when there is no documented truth. Like a Jane Doe, though not tagged on a slab with a giant Y cut in my corpse, I am alive, walking and talking. Does this make me a zombie? I am someone’s missing person. I am living a second life under a new name in a body taken from another land, another family. I have been accused more than once, though jokingly of being a spy. Why does my origin story parallel tales of alien abduction or clandestine intrigue? If one presumes my removal was involuntary. No, that was never presumed.
“Go back to your country!”
How shall I return to a land from which I was bartered, sold, taken, surrendered for industrialization, GDP, foreign policy, leverage? Like a bride, I was given. There is no return to my father’s house. I never imagined the loss of my father. Until I had sons and imagined him in them.
The DNA from my saliva spit in multiple tubes slice my generations into tarot cards spread across the Asian continent. Predominantly linked to the masses in Seoul the cards intimate my collective history in the geography of the South Korean peninsula. Each card is an absent fortune unified only by the mystery of the collective organisms in me. I play with my ancestry wondering if I will find the high priestess before I turn over the card of Death. Too often others before me have belatedly found their priestess after she has turned her last card. First mothers, birth mothers secretly abound in Korea, pearls hidden in the domesticated oysters buried deep in oceans of forgetting. A nation full of weeping keeps the water level high. I tread water, nameless, tethered to that primordial time before this paper made me.
“So you will need to make your own name.” my firstborn says to me.
“I will make a new name,” I tell my second son.
“That sounds like a cult.” He responds to me.
“Many adopted people feel this way. Many feel the need to name themselves.” I explain. My son noticeably scoffs.
I am rendered childlike by this preoccupation with my own creation. The question of when or from what body I was pushed into this world sits in my throat like a seed that won’t be swallowed. Right, curse, or privilege all float in the air of possibility, all and none. Who are we that will never know the face of our mothers?
We should have a naming ritual I write to the online adoptee ether. I will name myself like others before me who have found themselves covered in tags scribed by other hands.
On an alternate online feed for doptive and foster parents, there are multiple conversations and concerns about birth certificates, how and what to rename children, and celebrating adoption days. What to do about the first birth name, keep it or lose it? The complications of first parents; visitations, desires, cause frustration and rancor. There are children who perpetually act out, steal, will not, can not be settled, or at peace. Children whose circles are broken, like mine was, reignite old scars. It is daunting to stand by. I close the window when it's too difficult to see. I add perspective when I can.
Every child is a secret garden filled with real and mythical beasts. Respect and understand the beasts, nurture the garden. Give space for the walls. Attempts to own, storm, or control will be met with disaster. Engaging in war tactics with any child adopted or not, at best results in maimed refugees and at worst death. The loss of one’s first family is traumatizing regardless of how “good” or “bad” the situation was before or seems to be after. “Empirical research has shown that over 17% of adopted persons are in therapy, which is approximately twice as many as non-adopted individuals (8.67%) (Baden & Wiley, 2007; Hall & Steinberg, 2013).” These are just the ones who may have access to such resources. The attempted suicide rate among adopted people is 4 times higher than the general population. The number of runaways, suicide attempts, domestic and sexual abuse for Korean and transracial adoptees has not been comprehensively tracked.
Adoption agencies and private adoption attorneys are not rated by the percentage of successful adult adoptee outcomes. Nor are they held accountable for the number of rehomed children. Also known as Unregulated Custody Transfers, UCTs, are children rejected by adoptive parents, sold or given to “new parents”, put into foster care, or trafficked. According to a 2017 report made by the Federal Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau, there are only 17 states that have UCT regulations. There are currently no federal regulations on rehoming children. (https://www.childwelfare.gov › pubPDFs › custody_transfers.pdf)
Rehomed children who have not been naturalized by adoptive parents do not have citizenship and are subject to deportation under current laws. Only in this past year has it been reported that Facebook has shut down rehoming sites. The last posting I saw was for an 11-year-old Chinese girl whose adoptive parents no longer felt she fit in the family. Most department stores have a one-year limit on returns. My own naturalization did not occur until I was 9. That is seven years lived in the US as an alien.
In a historic lawsuit, Adam Crasper is suing the Korean Government and Holt Children’s Services for negligence in adoption practices. He was adopted at the age of 3 and was placed and “abandoned by two sets of parents”, where he suffered abuse and was not issued citizenship. As reported by Kim Tong-Hung in the AP, Jan. 20, 2019, Crasper was served deportation papers in 2015 and sent back to South Korea. He like others before and after him are still working to regain their US citizenship, pinning some of thier hopes on the Citizenship Act of 2022, HR1177 recently passed by the House of Representatives. It is estimated that around 35,000 intercountry adoptees lack citizenship.
In retrospect and context, the status of my name and the historical impact of my Ho Juk represent gateways to exploring how intercountry adopted bodies and not human identities are valued on a global scale. The value I and other adopted persons give to naming ourselves is an integral part of cultural reclamation. Once we become autonomous adults like all others, we must make a name for ourselves. My own sons at 16 and 18 struggle with this dilemma. Who are they? Who will they be? Though they know they are rooted in their father and me. Their behavior, looks, and temperaments are traceable. Who are they beyond the patterns? As their mother, I can clearly see each of their uniquely shining entities, the ones they have yet to understand or fully realize. I do my best to nurture these spirits, but they too will need to do the work of naming them. Just as I, after more than 50 years will finally name my own.