A wise mentor once told me, “Almost every conflict/frustration/disappointment in life can be traced back to an unmet expectation. If spelled out clearly in the beginning, you can avoid a lot of heartache!” Unfortunately, this key piece of advice that I now live by came a little too late – several years after my birth family reunion!
In my first letter to my birth family, immediately prior to our reunion in the Holt conference room, I was sure to tell them how satisfied and happy I was and that I did not expect a thing from them. In hindsight, I can now see that was not a 100% accurate statement. Because there were certain things that I desired (in the event of a continuing relationship, which of course, could not be predicted). I did not want to “be treated differently,” but in actuality, I did want special consideration and understanding of my not growing up steeped in Korean culture and language. I wanted to be treated as ddal daughter, but I also wanted them to ease me into family life and understand that we were strangers that needed time to get acquainted. I wanted to fit into Korean cultural norms, but I also wanted them to understand American culture and not be so naggy when I wasn’t fitting into the typical Korean mold. Is it any wonder I was perpetually leaving their home feeling frustrated beyond belief?!
Is it any wonder I was perpetually frustrated?!
To be clear, birth family reunion is a huge event. There’s not much time for rest and recuperation. There are a lot of sleepless nights and racing thoughts. There is high emotion, little time for rational processing. A lot of surreal, out-of-body feelings and just trying to “get by;” not too much deliberating on the best decisions to make based on each party’s relational expectations. So I do give myself some grace. But I wish I had been much more self-aware in my consideration of BFS, during the process, and particularly during those first several months of reunion. By saying one thing but expecting another, I was really setting myself up for failure. It is a wonder that things have turned out so remarkably six years later!
The great chasm between what I was saying and what I was expecting can be best illustrated by my early relationship with my birth parents. Omma and Appa were hearing that I wanted to just be ddal daughter. To fit into a normal Korean family structure. So that’s exactly what they did. And I became furious.
- When they called me 428 times a day to check in and see what I was doing/where I was/who I was with/what was for dinner.
- Why couldn’t they understand that back home in the States, I was lucky to talk to my parents once a week? Stop suffocating me!
- When they spoiled me to death, buying me lots of expensive things that I thought unnecessary (as they did for my brothers).
- Gosh dangit, I am an independent adult! I have lived on my own for 5 years already! I don’t need you to coddle me. I don’t care if that’s how you treat Seongbae & Hyunbae!
- When Omma was incessantly so critical of me. Clothes, makeup, weight, height, and on and on and on. Because that’s just what Korean tiger moms do.
- I am AMERICAN! For heaven’s sakes, haven’t you ever been to a Walmart, woman? If I am not wearing pajamas and have showered within the last 24 hours, am I not already in the top 20% of human existence? Excuse me for not fitting the perfect Korean porcelain doll mold.
- When the language barrier felt insurmountable at times.
- Helloooooo I am working my tail off over here, studying for hours every night and sleeping very little. Wanna at least feign an attempt at English?!
- And the list goes on and on…
Obviously, neither me nor my birth family had ever been through a reunion like this, so we were all just taking a stab in the dark and doing the best we knew how. I had researched everywhere I could think of, but found very few resources to use as guide/advice/roadmap (which is largely why this blog now exists).
By saying one thing but expecting another, I was setting myself up for failure.
My best piece of advice I now have for adoptees seeking reunion is: define your expectations for yourself, then clearly express them to the other involved parties. I would argue that part one is much harder than part two! Because reunion is such a flurry of emotion and activity, it is important to sit down and think through this beforehand. Before you even submit your paperwork to initiate search. Because at some point, you have to be honest with yourself about what exactly it is that you are seeking. And it makes a huge difference! If you just want family medical history and not a continuous relationship, how much easier to express that in the very beginning? With the variety of outcomes ranging so widely, it is best for everyone if you define your hopes and expectations in the very beginning.
As far as me and Omma and Appa, the frustrations often resulted in screaming matches. My cousins would normally have to get involved as translators to try to help reconcile the cultural differences we kept running into day after day. They’d beg me to please “try to understand Omma’s mind” and turn to her, asking her to please try to understand how differently things run in America. Ultimately, I think Omma and Appa had to realize on their own, because I was not cognizant enough to verbalize it at that time, that there was a huge disconnect between what I said and what I meant and they really worked to try to act as I actually meant (requiring much guesswork and trial/error on their part).
These days, things are much better. They still drive me crazy and I know that road runs two-ways. But my vision is much clearer now and we have all learned a lot along this complicated, bumpy road of reunion. Normally, all I need to say now when things are getting tense is, “Miguk-ay-so…” or “In America…” and they’ll say “Alasseo” or “Ok, ok, we get it!” without even letting me finish the explanation!
Reunion is messy. Some days it feels so heartbreaking. Others, so life-giving. But the best thing you can do to help things move along smoothly is to know yourself. That simple, basic step will work wonders.
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