Today is my thirty-second arrival day – i.e., on this day thirty-two years ago, I arrived in the United States from my birth country of South Korea and began my new life. I know other families with adopted kids have their own terms for it – “gotcha day” is a very common one. While I respect the personal, positive meaning that it may hold for some, I’m very uncomfortable that phrasing (and I’m not the only one). It frames the event in terms of the acquiring entity, which strikes me as diminishing of the experience of the actual adoptee and, quite frankly, kind of creepy. (“For Karen Moline, a Parents For Ethical Adoption board member, the word “Gotcha” is deeply insulting, especially in light of unethical international adoption agencies. No matter how pure your dreams of being a parent are, Moline reminds people, “a child just isn’t something to be gotten like a car or a computer.””) I don’t know what led my parents to choose the “arrival” terminology, but I’m very glad that they did.
Arrival day. I traveled from Point A to Point B. On that day, I arrived. Them’s the facts.
I’ve talked about Hamilton before, including how I accidentally saw it for the first time back in previews Off-Broadway when a friend’s travel plans went awry and they graciously offered me their ticket. (Being a freelance stage manager without a set work schedule, I couldn’t buy a ticket as far in advance as the initial availability ended up requiring.) So the tickets to this brand new show, which hadn’t even opened let alone had any sort of cast recording, fell on my head from out of the blue with one day’s notice, and my other friend and I slipped into our seats just as the lights went down and the show started.
To steal words from the show’s mouth: I was blown away. Not only by the amazing writing, the astounding performers, and the unbelievable direction and choreography (I’m still not over how they actually put a war onstage in a breathtakingly effective manner) – but by the claiming of the U.S. mythology.
Just the power of seeing those bodies and faces onstage – it was only comparable to when I was 11 years old and turned on PBS and saw this thing that I subsequently learned was the tenth anniversary concert of this show called Les Miserables. Seeing Lea Salonga as Eponine shook up this Broadway nerd’s world, and for the first time I envisioned myself as doing something other than aging up through the cast of The King & I. Even though I obviously switched to backstage years ago, the change in consciousness was something that extended into all aspects of my life.
Then in ways that I did not expect at all, Hamilton was, on an incredibly personal level, both so relatable and so inspiring to me. And cathartic.
I’ve never seen myself as an orphan – I really won the familial lottery. But biologically and historically, maybe I am or maybe I’m not. That’s what happens when you were adopted from a foreign country when you were too young to know where you physically came from.
And sitting in the Newman Theater, the proverbial light bulb went off over my head, as I witnessed this immigrant’s story. In hindsight, it seems so clear. (I went through a huge Ellis Island phase as a kid, for one thing.) But what it means to always be looking forward because there’s nothing to look back to. To be searching for how to put your roots down. To have something to prove. To have come from somewhere else. To be an immigrant.
It’s not a betrayal of what and whom I’ve found here to acknowledge that I came from another place. It’s a source of strength, not suspicion. Anyone who wants to take it otherwise can fight me, but I don’t need to be fighting myself.
In additional to the national holiday of my arrival to this country, there is also a State of the Union speech happening. The most affecting commentary I’ve seen lately on the state of our union, however, was from a man who has been dead for thirty years: James Baldwin, via the recent documentary film I Am Not Your Negro. PBS had it streaming from mid-January through today, and I watched it last week to take advantage of that availability. While I’m certainly no scholar, I also wasn’t a stranger to Baldwin’s work, so it wasn’t like I was making some huge discovery. But something about the skilled way in which the documentary brought his words to life and set them within such a strong contextual frame reduced me to weeping more than once at that towering intellect, eloquence, and humanity standing in such contrast to the shameful abyss of hatred that he was forced to confront by not just the brute reality of America but also by his own integrity. (It is he, of course, who is the source of the words “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”) I would put this movie on my list of things that I believe should be required reading/watching for Americans. And while the PBS streaming ends today, it is still available to anyone with a New York Public Library card via Kanopy.
Today, on that subject, is also momentous for me because this afternoon, I went out and got my library card. I’ve been living in New York City for nearly four-and-a-half years now, and I’d still yet to have gotten my NYPL card, despite having about a dozen of their fundraising magnets decorating my refrigerator. (If you live in NYC, you know.) But being in between jobs right now, I had absolutely zero excuse to not walk the half-mile to my nearest branch.
It was the first time that I had set foot inside a public library as a patron in approximately a decade.
While that might actually be exceptionally strange for an average citizen of 2010’s American social disconnect, if one guessed that I had been the sort of bookish, nerdy child to grow up among the stacks, one would be correct. I got yelled at for not stopping reading, even when it was mealtime or bedtime. Belle was 100% my favorite, most #relatable Disney princess (aside from the whole “prince” business). But the last time that I had walked out of a public library was such a negative experience for me that I hadn’t been able to bring myself to return.
My hometown library was nothing to write home about. While my memories are faint, it was approximately the size of two small living rooms. And even that was a 15-minute drive away. Sure, I absolutely won the book-reading contest there every summer, but while my consumption rate was impressive, the competition wasn’t exactly stiff. My mother was clearly well aware of the limited resources there and how it would not take much longer for me to begin running up against said limits, so when I got my own library card, it wasn’t to there. Instead, we used my grandparents’ suburban address to make me a member of their library.
Even in its first iteration, it was actually possible to lose a person in there. And it wasn’t long into my childhood that they moved into a new building, even bigger and shinier, one with different rooms for things like music performances and lectures and the like. It wasn’t just a place where I read but where I learned cat’s cradle and studied storytelling, where I borrowed Broadway cast album CDs and discovered new shows.
Going away to college had me out of the area for most of the year, of course, so my use dwindled drastically. Following graduation, I got a local job and was living at home, so I went back to get some books and music. For some reason, though, the self-check-out machine wasn’t reading my card, so I lined up to check out at the desk.
The library scanned my card and handed it back to me. “You can’t check things out,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled and annoyed.
“You’re not in the system.”
What followed was several rounds of back-and-forth between me, holding my library card and nearly twenty years of memories, and the librarian telling me to my face that I had never been there. But what about the children’s story hours that I’d attended, I wanted to say. But what about the garden out in that patio dedicated to my high school best friend’s dead mother, the ceremony for which I’d attended just last year, I wanted to scream.
Instead, I just left the books and CDs sitting on the counter, went out to my car, and broke down in tears.
I had never been there. That was the kicker. At no point did the librarian say that my card was expired or that my address was ineligible. Her words were that I had never been there.
The emotional impact was doubtlessly compounded by the point in my life when it was hitting. Just out of school and in near-disablingly poor health and without a firm idea of where my future was heading, I was feeling the uncertainty of modern American adulthood. If there were to be any sign that childhood was over, having someone tell me that it had literally never existed was rather the hammer to the head.
And so maybe it’s fitting that I claimed this library card on my Arrival Day. A day of being here.
And to everyone else out there: you, too, have been here. You, too, are here, whether “here” is Point A or Point B or Point M or halfway between Point Q and Point K. We’re all still in transit, each one of us. And yet, we’ve also all still arrived… to somewhere.
Let’s just be good to our fellow travelers and respect the journeys.