The North Face

About this time, 5 years ago, it was starting to turn frigid in Seoul and the winter was poised to be brutal. I had moved to Korea the previous winter, so I already had the wardrobe to get me through. My birth parents had a different idea in mind.

Whitney + Omma
Whitney + Omma

One weekend, I was visiting them when Omma announced a trip to the mall. I tagged along. She is a big shopper so I figured she just needed to pick something up. When we got there, she walked with purpose towards The North Face store. I was confused. “You need a winter coat,” she proclaimed. “No, no, no,” I said, “I already have one. I lived here last winter.” She replied, “It’s not good enough. You need a better one.”

Generally speaking, I tried to go with the flow in most situations with my birth family, even though many of them wouldn’t best be described as “comfortable.” I decided I was going to take a stand on this one. I didn’t own a North Face jacket stateside because, in my opinion, the prices were (are) ridiculous. No way would I allow my birth family (to whom I’d made it very clear I wanted nothing from – I was not looking for handouts) to spend more than double the price on an imported North Face that I didn’t even need!

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” she countered.

The battle of the wills. I knew it would only be a matter of time.

Omma casually browsed the racks. “This one,” she nodded. “Put this on.”

I took it and looked at the price tag. I tried not to choke. “This is ridiculous! Look how expensive this is!” She had chosen the top of the line. The most expensive jacket in the store.

“Put it on,” she repeated.

I begrudgingly tried it on. Of course, it fit perfectly.

She marched up front to pay. I kept refusing. Finally, before she swiped her credit card, I freaked out.

“Why are you doing this?,” I cried, hot tears streaming down my face, despite my best attempts to keep them in. “I don’t need this! I don’t want it! I have a jacket! I don’t want you to spend this money on me.”

Omma stopped for just a beat, looked at me, and handed the clerk her credit card.

I stormed out of the store. My cousin was with us and she ran behind me. I sat on a bench outside and tried to stop crying.

“Please understand her,” my poor cousin said, stuck in a terribly awkward position. “She wants to buy it for you. She wants you to have a really nice coat.”

“I know, but I don’t even need it! This is silly,” I said. I didn’t want to say anything more because I didn’t want my cousin to feel more uncomfortable than she already did.

On a boat with , wearing THE North Face
On a boat at the East Sea with Omma+Appa, wearing THE North Face

Omma walked out of the store, carrying the bag with my coat, which would easily become one of my top 3 most valuable possessions.


Whitney's parents visit her in Korea, attend Korean church, 2010
Whitney’s parents visit her in Korea, attend Korean church, 2010

“Isn’t that so annoying?!,” I exclaimed, Skyping with my parents in Ohio the next week. “She just went ahead and bought it even after I told her I didn’t want it! She didn’t even care how I felt.”

My parents were silent. I will never forget what my mom said next.

She looked up and said quietly, “Do they think that we don’t take good enough care of you?”

*insert knife, twist repeatedly*

“No, no, that’s not it at all,” I tried to explain. “I’m sorry, that wasn’t what I was saying. I was just frustrated and…”

We changed the topic and ended our Skype call, but I thought about our conversation for weeks afterward.

“Do they think that we don’t take good enough care of you?”

How could I be so stupid? I had, once again, not thought of how my words were being perceived. I was venting my frustration about a silly situation, but my parents were hearing it from a whole different perspective.

Such is the case in so many different situations that arise living life as a post-reunion adoptee. Things you wouldn’t anticipate, things you couldn’t see coming. When different people have different perspectives with so many different emotions tied to them. How do you deal with these things? Where’s the instruction booklet? How can I learn to navigate these waters?

The answer?

It’s complicated.


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© We the Lees, 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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2 thoughts on “The North Face

  1. hi! I was born in the states but grew up with a lot of Korean traditions. Even still sometimes there are times when I find myself asking *why? But one thing I learned about Korean people is that a lot have the love language in the form of giving. I’ve tried to argue my way out of receiving money from aunts and uncles whenever I’d visit Korea bc I feel it’s unnecessary but my mom was the one who would tell me to just take it with a grateful heart bc it is an expression of their heart. I totally get it bc at times i can see they are not in the position at all to give like that but as I grow older and repay these moments to my younger cousins, neices and nephews…I see how everything just comes full circle in the end. I hope this makes sense! Haha hoping the dynamics get easier and easier with time❤️

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  2. Thanks so much for your note, Angelina! Yes, we have really seen and learned a lot about Korean culture and, I think, come a long way in our understanding since the time of this story five years ago. It’s a neverending learning process! 🙂 -Whitney

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