Home in the Tension

I miss Nashville everyday.

I am much more vocal about this at home to Lee than I am elsewhere, but our move has been a tough transition. Tennessee was the single place I’ve lived the longest in my life by far. I grew from child to adult there in college. I had my first real professional job there. I took the first (hardest) steps of my therapy journey there. We bought our first home there. We organized the first ever TN group of Korean adoptees. It’s the closest definition I have of “home.” Then one day, almost literally, it was gone.

We had a whirlwind move. We were out of our house in 3 weeks and up to Lee’s new job in Baltimore. “Disorienting” doesn’t begin to describe it. Requiring the GPS to get to the grocery store, not a single friendly, known face for hundreds of miles. It was harder for me than I expected, as I was operating under a long-held theory I have of adoptees living as adaptable chameleons (a whole separate post!). I thought I just needed to strap on my big girl pants and get through. But then Northern winter happens and you’re stranded in a whole new place and the depression creeps in. My journey alongside that familiar monster has been well documented here, and just when you think you’ve finally got it figured out, it rears its ugly head again. Thank God for an understanding, supportive husband and my always faithful Zoloft. With Spring now sprung, I am finally waking from my stupor and trying to take back charge, beginning with the trite but necessary basics like eating right and exercising (those 25 depression pounds aren’t going to lose themselves!). But those are also processes that take time and I felt like I needed an appointment for a quick fix – an official date on the calendar for the “taking of my life back”.

So I called – who else? – the hair salon.

Baltimore has a large Korean population – not of LA or NYC proportions, but enough to call one particular area “Koreatown.” It’s been one of the (few) things I have really enjoyed being here – very different from the TN that we recently departed. I’ve always had white hairstylists – it is what I’ve always been surrounded by, my only choices. Now I have options. A Korean salon with a Korean hairstylist who knows how to care for Korean hair – what a novel idea! I called for my appointment and the halmoni greeted me brightly in Korean, “Yopusayo?” I smiled. I set my appointment for the end of the week and she enthusiastically said she’d see me soon.

The morning of, I almost cancelled. I’ve been on some new medications that are really upsetting my balance and I had slept a combined 3 hours in 3 nights. The last thing I felt like doing was getting my hair done. But I felt too bad to call and cancel on the smiley halmoni so I begrudgingly dragged myself out of bed and barely made it to my appointment in town on time. As soon as I walked in the door, I was struck. It was visceral. I’m not sure which element it was – I guess the combination of it all. The K-pop on the speakers. The full room of Korean faces. The humdrum of the Korean chatter. The Gosomi and butter cookies next to the latte machine. It took my breath for a moment. “Annyeonghaseyo!” – my stylist greeted me. “Whitney?” Oh, we are speaking English, OK! “Right this way, let’s get you shampooed.”

Since returning from my year living in Korea in 2010, I have not felt comfortable in my own skin. I’m not “American” enough (whatever that is) here, but not Korean enough in Korea. I live in the in-between – all KADs do – not being quite fully home in either place, but somehow with pieces of you scattered about. Betwixt and between. It makes me uncomfortable to not fit neatly into one box or another – I like tidy absolutes. It’s why I went to business school. I’m self-conscious of my lacking Korean proficiency and shy to speak up. But as I sat in the chair with my stylist snipping away (a young professional, not the smiley halmoni, by the way), I don’t know who I was. We laughed and chatted and shared pictures. We talked about my last haircut in Hongdae and what I like to do when visiting Seoul. We must have switched languages dozens of times, mostly her asking me questions in Korean and my answering in English. There were no tsks or sighs about how thick my hair is and what to do with it and how long it takes to dry. She mindlessly cut away, so easily, so effortlessly, she could have done it in her sleep.

Walking out, it suddenly dawned on me.

My new home – where I truly feel the most at home – is now in the in-between.

For so many years I have been searching for which place I belong in, following my incessant pattern of black-and-white thinking, assuming my options were either “Korea” or “America.”

Sitting in a salon in the middle of K-town in Baltimore, I finally understood.

I don’t have to choose. There is no requirement of accepting one and rejecting the other. Rather, I get to embrace the best of both worlds.

The middle is an option, too.

And a fine one at that.

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Home is both where you choose to make it and what you make of it.


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© We the Lees, 2019. All Rights Reserved.

3 thoughts on “Home in the Tension

  1. Hi you two, appreciate your “twix and between” feeling. In our daughter’s case, she has her US citizen papers, but she is and will always be Korean. She is proud of her ethnicity and has learned to enjoy her place in American culture. We have always stressed her Asian roots and she is a proud Korean, serving in the Army reserve as a nurse practitioner. Her three children have done well and she has been a fine mother. As Army kids,our four were always being uprooted every two or three years, having to find new friends and new schools. Tho painful, it has been good for them in the long run. Kim Su has always enjoyed finding Korean shops, laundry’s and grocery stores. Best regards, Bill and Jane in Maine

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