Omma

“Are you dumb?”

엄마 Omma was shaking her head, tsking at me, rearranging the laundry I’d so “incorrectly” hung on the drying rack.

I sighed loudly, exasperated.

“No, I’m not dumb,” I snapped back in Korean. “We don’t use this rack at home! Most Americans have their own drying machines.”

She paused. “Oh really?,” considering that possibility for a second. “Well, that costs too much money. This way is better.”

I stomped to my room and slammed the door shut.


Above is a perfect example of my relationship with 엄마 Omma. It has been this way since we were reunited in 2010, some 20+ years after my relinquishment and subsequent adoption to the U.S.

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When we reunited in the conference room at Holt Post-Adoption Services, she didn’t cry. She didn’t hold my hand and apologize over and over. Her hug was more like a barely-discernible pat on the back.

I have thought of this often over the past 6 six years, as I tried to figure out my place in this new relationship. “Was she unhappy that I found them?,” I would wonder. “Was she still in shock?” As more time passed and things remained unchanged, I figured that couldn’t be the answer.

The awkward and frustrating encounters with 엄마 Omma continued. They are now too many to count.

  • When she tells me to change my clothes because my style is not good.
  • When she presents an expensive haul of cosmetics because my “skin is bad” and I need to make my face more presentable.
  • When she repeatedly shakes her head and calls me an idiot for doing things a different way than she is used to.
  • When she is so vocal about my poor Korean language, which I’ve worked so hard on for years.
  • When she tells me I really need to lose weight and how ugly fat Americans are.
  • When she nags me incessantly about minor things that seem so unimportant.

And the list goes on and on…

Here’s the thing: despite how this may sound, and how horrible it makes 엄마 Omma seem, she is not evil. She is not even abnormal. She is a Korean tiger mom. And as much as I hate to admit it, I am her!

I have long been poked fun at for my general lack of emotion, and to a certain extent, lack of a mouth filter. I would sometimes wonder if there was something wrong with me, like maybe I was missing a few internal “emotional” parts that other normal humans all had. A lot of this was cleared up for me when I finally met 엄마 Omma. The things I most disliked about her, I had to recognize within myself. Certainly, my “nurture” environment and social norms had shaped me much differently than her Korean environment, but inside, the same genetic make-up was there.

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Even so, it has taken me a long time (and a lot of counseling) to begin to understand that 엄마 Omma doesn’t hate or resent me. To not get my feelings hurt when she bluntly tells me exactly what she is thinking, no holds barred. To understand when she doesn’t squeeze me ’til I am blue in the face when we meet after a 2 year absence.

She shows her love to me differently. In working hard and being extremely generous. In shoving cash in my pocket to help pay for a trans-Pacific airplane ticket. In waking up at 4am to cook huge, fresh batches of my favorite Korean foods.

But she does show her love to my Korean adoptee husband in ways more conventional, and that sometimes makes me jealous. On our last visit to the Motherland, she hugged Lee often. She more than once blurted out loudly, in English, “Lee, I love you!” – words which she has never spoken to me in any language.

I have had to understand two things in this:

  1. There is a different type of son-in-law relationship in Korea. I think this is further emphasized in Lee’s being a KAD like me (who has not reunited with his birth family). In addition, he has no Korean language skill by which to communicate with my birth family.
  2. I am allowed to have feelings about 엄마 Omma/Lee’s relationship and to express them. Lee and I discuss it often, very openly.

I have come to realize this: 엄마 Omma no longer sees me as a long-lost daughter who has come home to re-join the family after a dramatic relinquishment, overseas adoption, and eventual reunion. She sees me simply as her daughter. So she treats me as such. The relationship between 엄마 Omma and me is no different from that which I observe in other Korean families and their mother/daughter roles. A complicated dance in which the mother fluctuates between being chastiser/friend/nagger/enemy/annoyance and everything in between. And isn’t that actually what I signed up for? When I wrote my first letter to my birth family and when I spoke to them in our first meeting through a translator? The most important point I felt I needed to get across was this: I am not here to mess up your life, to change the way anything operates in your family, to barge my way in and upset the fruit basket. I said it over and over. I don’t expect anything from you. I don’t want you to change anything for me.

And that is exactly what 엄마 Omma has done. She has respected my wishes exactly as I expressed them.

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In a visit to Korea a few years back, Lee and I had a chance to talk very candidly with 엄마 Omma and 아빠 Appa about my adoption. It was an honest, everything-out-in-the-open conversation. I asked, “Do you still feel badly about my relinquishment? Does it keep you up at night? Do you regret your decision? Because I want you to know – and you have now seen with your own eyes – how happy I am. You should know I have no resentment. I don’t want you to feel badly because everything is just fine.”

아빠 Appa was the first to answer and his reply was exactly what I would expect from him: “Yes, I regret it everyday. I’m still so sorry. I shouldn’t have sent you away.”

엄마 Omma piped up: “No.”

Ugh,” I thought. “You don’t have to be so freaking honest. At least pretend like you feel bad!”

“I don’t regret it,” she explained. “Everything worked out exactly as it was supposed to. You have a great family in America. You met Lee. You two are perfect for each other and you have a happy marriage. This was how it was supposed to happen.”

I have thought about this the last few years and I can’t help but wonder if 엄마 Omma is right. Our lives are complicated and we sometimes feel so stretched between our families in the North and the Midwest and Seoul, South Korea. The range of personalities and interpersonal dynamics and cultural pressures can wear us out. But at the end of the day, we are happy, contented, utterly satisfied.

So maybe 엄마 Omma knows best.
Maybe everything really is exactly as it is supposed to be.


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© We the Lees, 2016. All Rights Reserved

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