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.Continue reading “I got through all of last year and I’m…”