Once upon a time, a giant silver bird descended from the clouds. It had flown halfway around the world before finally alighting upon the land of opportunity. From within its silver feathers, a child dropped to the ground on fat legs. The child was new to this land and received a new name, but their title at birth remained as an echo in their mind: shining at the top.
Have you ever wondered if you’re secretly royalty? Or at least been served a targeted ad trying to sell you a genealogy test to find out? Or been nine or twelve or fifteen years old and trying not to get too excited about it but holding open the possibility that your upcoming birthday will reveal that you’re actually a princess or a wizard or a hero of ancient prophecy even though at the current moment you’re stoically enduring the indignities of being ordered to clean your room?
We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves. Psychology gave it a name: the theory of narrative identity that “postulates that individuals form an identity by integrating their life experiences into an internalized, evolving story of the self that provides the individual with a sense of unity and purpose in life. This life narrative integrates one’s reconstructed past, perceived present, and imagined future. Furthermore, this narrative is a story – it has characters, episodes, imagery, a setting, plots, and themes.” And naturally, we’re the protagonists of our own stories.
Of course, not only individual identities are built upon stories. Community identity is also narrative. The largest, most consequential of identities of nations and religions are founded in myth, whether it be “I cannot tell a lie” or “in the beginning there was.”
In my case, being internationally adopted sent this narrative impulse into overdrive.
After all, my past was a mystery, and an abstract one at that. As a child, the concrete realities of motherhood and parenthood – the physical act of childbirth, the labyrinthine logistics of governmental family policies, how issues like systemic sexism and racism and unchecked capitalism have specific impacts on an individual person’s life situation – are difficult enough to grasp even without adding in the layer of never having known the people involved, in a country on the other side of the world of which you have no memory. Emily down the street probably actually should know if there were royal wizards in her ancestry, but me? Anything could be possible!
(And really, what is more quintessentially American than viewing history as a blank slate and identity as something to be shaped anew and claimed as one’s own?)
And then, actual events in my life conspired to signal that I was, in fact, the hero of a grand mythology that was taking shape.
It’s commonly told to writers that there are only two plots: a stranger rides into a town and a man goes on a journey. Both boxes checked there, and again even more so than for a non-adopted child who, while they do definitely make an entrance, has kind of been there for a while. Meanwhile, I had journeyed to literally the other side of the world, as far away as a person could possibly go, before I was four months old.
(As a note, that aphorism about the two plots is given a multitude of attributions but originates with an imprecise paraphrase of John Gardner.)
And who are these journeying strangers? Heroes like Momotarou, the Japanese folk hero who was found as a baby in a peach floating in a river and journeys forth to fight demons, and Kal-L, that alien who was adopted by a couple in literal Smallville who rename him “Clark Kent” and who grows up to be a journalist and the Man of Steel, protecting Metropolis with his superpowers.
For me, I was renamed and immersed in the American Dream. At my baptism, the pastor apparently blared a recording of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” as the closing hymn.
I became a citizen on my second birthday on the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. My citizenship ceremony was onstage in a grand theater with a large U.S. flag flying. There were photos in the local newspaper. To be fair, it wasn’t only my citizenship ceremony, but I arguably stole the show, if only because I reportedly threw my entire container of Cheerios across the stage during said ceremony, then cheerfully declaring “I get them!” and proceeding to do so. For each individual Cheerio.
Growing up in an extremely white area, I was, of course, singled out on the playground early on as being different because that’s what kids do if they aren’t given guidance, but confident in my role as hero, this was not a threat but simply a challenge. My refusal to be cowed was respected as there not being any actual active malice involved, merely small-minded ignorance, and I was clearly not an easy target but rather, someone better to be befriended (or at least allied with).
Being an intelligent, confident over-achiever who believed that sexism was wrong (also don’t waste water and also cigarettes are bad for you etc.) and who also wasn’t old enough know much about jobs beyond things like “firefighter,” “artist,” “teacher,” or “doctor,” naturally an aspiration of mine included becoming President of the United States.
Turns out that there’s a problem there, and it’s called Article II, Section 1: “No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President.”
I remember feeling extremely indignant when I learned this. It wasn’t fair. I didn’t even remember that other place where I’d lived for less than four months of my life. What was being implied about me?
It also activated a specific part of my personality.
If I were a video game character, my catchphrase would be “Now that sounds like a challenge to me!” I start work at a new job and I’m advised that the shop head is extremely ornery and doesn’t like anyone? Now that sounds like a challenge to me! I’m out for a run and find the usual path closed but it’s technically possible to get from Point A to Point B via a snowy hillside with a 50-degree incline? Now that sounds like a challenge to me! Friend offers a selection of cocktail recipes for their online birthday, including one “joke” recipe that includes setting a shot on fire and a warning that nobody should actually do it? Now that sounds like a challenge to me!
Which is all to say that exclusion or rejection doesn’t make me likewise spurn with “Well, I don’t want it anyways!” nor plead with “Please please take me!” Rather, I become defiant with “You’ll wish that you had me!” It’s a positive sort of spite, one might say.
So I grew up as American as apple pie, as the saying goes. Of course I never denied that I was Korean because I have vision, possess multiple mirrors, and am not delusional. But what I would say was that that didn’t matter. I basically melting-potted, “it doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, yellow, purple, or polka-dotted”, color-blinded myself. I was my own hyper-assimilationist first-generation parent.
Over the past decade, however, the narrative began to shift.
Korean culture began exploding into the mainstream across the world. People now knew that Gangnam is a place that exists (and has style). “American” restaurants touted their “bulgogi beef” dishes. You could buy Korean sheet masks at CVS. There was this new group called BTS that began gaining popularity.
I started graduate school for stage management and began to live my life actively and fully immersed in the flowing river of cultural and artistic conversations. I moved to New York City. I found work with Asian American theater companies. Color-blindness was giving way to color-consciousness. The melting pot was replaced with the tossed salad. And I also was introduced to new ways of thinking about identity, including the idea of gender as performance, which helped me to loosen my defensive grip on others’ perception of who I was out of fear of a gap between that and my true self.
Specific works of art also directly pushed me along.
(Blank slate history? In New York you can be a new man, indeed.)
A job to work on an opera for the Japan Society in NYC also sent me to work in Tokyo, where I extended my trip to allow me to spend a little more time in Japan and then, for the first time since my birth, return to Korea.
And Black Panther broke me open by laying in front of me my own experience in a way that resonated so strongly that I couldn’t help but admit that I recognized a certain sense of loss as my own – and more fundamentally, it forced me to admit that there had been a loss.
And then, 2020 and the COVID-19 epidemic happened.
Obviously, this was bad for everyone across the world (except for the billionaires who both stayed alive and got even richer), but it’s been particularly bad for those of us in the U.S., with the situation being mishandled to a deadly degree, both directly (from the disease itself) and indirectly (from the impacts on mental health, financial well-being, etc.). And I’ve felt like there has been a particular flavor of ire specific to those of us who were not born here.
Because it didn’t have to be this way in the U.S.. We’ve seen other countries suffer far less sickness and death. And we’ve seen how keeping the pandemic under control has allowed others to return to that “normal life,” the value of which people use a reason to protest measures such as wearing masks, much sooner than we will be able to here. As a theater worker, it’s particularly harsh salt in the wound as my industry was decimated both immediately and completely with the most optimistic hopes for return looking like this coming fall, a whole year and a half since the shutdown… while The Phantom of the Opera never stopped running in Seoul.
And here I am with Tyra having been living in my head rent-forgiven all year:
One, there was an active buy-in. There was a choice involved. Not as much as an adult immigrant who made the decision to move to a new homeland, but the path has been a conscious one with a heightened awareness of certain decisions that might otherwise be taken for granted. I knew that my life was not a pre-ordained or natural one, in the sense of following the path of least resistance. Recognizing that our “way of life” and national identity was not a universality, I observed what American-ness was in order to become a part of it.
Two, that buy-in, as implied by the terminology, had a cost. While I did have an awareness of a bigger world, I was still a child in a homogenous, mono-cultural locality at a time when a restaurant sprinkling some soy sauce and sesame seeds on something and calling it “Asian” was notably “diverse” (and the idea of something like a band that sings only in Korean being a household name was inconceivable). “American-ness” was equated with “whiteness.” Everyone from the kids on the playground to the faces on (and not on) TV to the Constitution told me that I had something to prove. I felt like I was put in defensive mode and needed to make myself beyond reproach. In the same way that some girls eschewed “girly” things due to internalized misogyny, I was careful about anything that might make me seem “foreign.” Which, when you’re Asian in the U.S., is almost everything.
Three, the alternate reality where my career has not been brought to a complete standstill is tantalizingly conceivable. So many specific things had to happen for me to end up on the opposite side of the world from where I was born. Contemplating what might have been might be a futile thought exercise but it’s not a complete fantasy. It didn’t happen, but it physically could have.
All of that added up to a new sort of fuming indignation: I chose you and gave you all of that, and this is what I get in return?
As a child I had rehearsed my answer to any theoretical person who asked me if I was happy for the South Korean athlete who won the gold in the marathon competition so that there would be no doubt that I was a loyal American. Now, I was researching visa application processes and feeling betrayed that I’d been driven to wanting to do so.
(Seeing tales from friends about how emotional they became seeing Kamala Harris sworn in as Vice President, the first woman to ever, first in the line of succession for the Presidency, I felt a notable lack of anything. While I was glad for them in a vague “I’m happy to see you happy” way and of course intellectually understood the significance, there wasn’t any emotional resonance for me. I wasn’t seeing a door of possibility opened to me or people like me that had previously been blocked due to lack of example. For me, that door remains locked by the law of the land, as it always has been.)
It turns out that 1987, the year that I became a citizen of the U.S., was also the year that South Korean people’s June Democratic Uprising led to the end of the dictatorship and the establishment of the nation’s present-day democratic government. There’s been a whole other story going on all along.
In the fall of 2020, another work of art came along: a workshop of Women and Children by Emma Goidel as part of Page 73’s New Play Conversations playwright residency series, which I’ve been stage managing. Goidel’s amazing writing (as utilized by the talented actors and director) articulated the experience of motherhood to me in a way that I’d not previously understood. And it made real to me, in a newly concrete way, that there was, at least at some point, a very real person who had a relationship to me that I will never know. In the way that theater, and other storytelling, does, I saw this person’s humanity and knew her in a way that I hadn’t before.
And all of that lands me here: my Arrival Day.
As the name implies, this is the anniversary of my arrival in the U.S.. The celebration of this day is not without its controversy, especially regarding what the day is called. In the early 2000s, some started referring to it as “Gotcha Day,” which I am not alone in loathing. While I understand that some adoptees might have positive memories attached to the term, and I’m not going to break down their doors to snatch it away from them, I caution any non-adoptees about using a term commonly used for people acquiring a new puppy when referring to people.
An article that I encourage you to read if you’re interested in learning more about this aspect of the adoptee experience summarizes: “I find the use of ‘gotcha’ to describe the act of adoption both astonishing and offensive. Aside from being parent-centered (‘C’mere, little orphan, I gotcha now!’) it smacks of acquiring a possession, not welcoming a new person into your life… ‘”
What I like about the term “Arrival Day” is that it states an objective fact about something that I did. I arrived. My life changed that day because I arrived, and other people’s lives also changed because I arrived.
What I’ve been coming to accept this year is that I can still celebrate my arrival while acknowledging that it was necessarily a result of my departure. That I don’t need to refuse to recognize what I’ve lost or never had in defense of those things that I’ve gained and appreciate.
Like most of this past year, the writers room for this month continues to be incredibly heavy-handed.
When I was in Seoul, I informed my self-appointed tour guide (a friend of a friend via the theater community whom I’d never met prior) of this dream of mine, and one night, we made it there. We ended up being served by Mr. Ahn himself. We explained how I was an adoptee from NYC and this was my first time back, and he helped us to celebrate. He also grabbed an empty bottle down from a shelf and advised me to seek it out, as he recommended this new brand but it was only available in the U.S..
I did end up finding it when I returned, and I’ve been a Tokki Soju devotee ever since. (And many of my co-workers can attest to my fondness for gifting it on opening nights.) My apartment is never without at least one bottle of Tokki Black, and I’ve made sure to catch their special zodiac themed releases over the past couple years.
Late last year, Tokki revealed the exciting development that they were starting production in Korea. Especially as COVID closed bars here in the U.S., it was gratifying (and a little envy-inducing) to see that they had “escaped.” Recently, they revealed their Year of the Ox special release… available via a Korean online retailer.
My question about whether it will be available in the U.S. has remained unanswered.
On the other hand, it felt like a special Arrival Day present to me that Epik High, the first Korean music group that I began following, released a new album just this month.
“You live in your home, but you never really think about it. It’s just where you come back after work or go to sleep, right? But we’ve had to think about each of our “here”s in a new light. And for me, I think “here” is not a fixed place — it’s an ever-changing place that is both physical and spiritual. Even when you look at the arc of Epik High’s career, “here” has changed so many times, where sometimes “here” is a very good place and we’re flying high, and sometimes “here” is the lowest of lows.
People who are ambitious are always imagining a better “here.” They want that certain job or that certain life, which means that you’re never actually thinking about the “here” that you’re living in now. I think I was probably the same way. I think I’m finally learning that my “here” is going to change day by day or even minute by minute. Sometimes it’s going to be great, and sometimes it’s going to be horrible, but it is my “here,” and I’m OK with that. So when I say, “Epik High is here,” wherever that may be, we’re OK with that. We know it’s ever-changing.”
Ready or not, I’m still here.