I got through all of last year and I’m…

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…”

Nothing holds all of me

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.

America, you great unfinished symphony

Aside from being just barely twenty-four hours out from running a 102-degree fever while fully medicated, this evening is about as perfect as can be. I’m once again in a rocking chair on the porch, with fireflies starting to glow in the twilight. A neighbor across the street has country music radio playing. As much of a city slicker that I am now, I grew up a moderate country bumpkin, so it does make me feel nostalgically at-home. I was from the sort of area where one could reach a decent level of suburban civilization (for instance, a grocery store) within a half-hour drive in the correct direction, but ten minutes in the other direction would land you in a cornfield. Summer was about county fairs. Autumn was about not getting shot by deer hunters. I was about a generation and a half removed from shooting squirrels in the backyard for dinner. And I could probably count the number of black people I’ve ever observed in town on one hand.

(The Asian population felt more prominent, thanks to a couple just down the road who had both an adopted Korean child and an adopted Vietnamese child, as well as the number of mirrors in our house. I couldn’t have pointed out any other Asians in town, but proximity and frequency can be hella amplifying.)

These days, I feel much more comfortable in non-homogenous spaces. The tyranny of the majority can be truly insidious, having a negative effect even when there is no active malice or ill intent. Nevertheless, I do have great fondness for my hometown. Established in 1772, it was originally envisioned by the eponymous leader of its original settlement as the possible capital of New York state. A bit laughable now, given that it still doesn’t even get cable, but I do believe that growing up in a place with history can affect you.

Pretty much everything I ever dreamed of came together in the musical Hamilton.

Not that Hamilton fever had gone away, but you might have noticed a definitely spike this week. First, a new Prizeo fundraiser sweepstakes was launched, where donations are rewarded with entries to win tickets to the opening night of the U.S. tour’s Los Angeles stop. The #ham4all viral campaign took hold, with people donating and singing their favorite song from the show, then challenging others.

As if that weren’t enough, they also dropped a music video for “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” a track (and my personal favorite, actually) from the Hamilton Mixtape album.

My own Hamilton story risks being yet another tale of my unbelievable good fortune, but that’s pretty much been my life, so why not lean into it?

Colonial and revolutionary U.S. history had always been a favorite of mine. In addition to my general interest in political and revolutionary history, it was also local history to me. It wasn’t until I was older and more exposed to the world that I realized that my awareness of things like the Battle of Saratoga or the intricacies of the French and Indian War were geographically-specific and not general knowledge. I also was, quelle surprise, a huge theatre geek from a very young age. One of the highlights of my amateur theatre career was playing the Anti-Federalist murder victim in a site-specific interactive murder mystery dinner theatre piece called “It Spoiled His Constitution.” (For you fellow Hamilton fans, the specific site was Schuyler Mansion in Albany.) This shit was running through my veins.

So when I heard that Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer and star of the recent In The Heights, was working on a project that was a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton, my favorite founding father?

I immediately refused to get my hopes up so that my heart wouldn’t be broken when the show got mired in development purgatory or, at best, had a critically-acclaimed and very short off-Broadway run, becoming a piece of elitist theatre nerd trivia. Even as the project expanded and each new bit that I heard excited me, I purposefully tried not to get too involved.

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It was surprising and joyful to me, then, when I heard that it was being produced at the Public and selling very well.

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Selling too well for my freelancing ass, in fact. One of the downsides to being a freelancer and working on a gig-to-gig basis is that I generally only know my work schedule a few months ahead of time and don’t have the luxury of being able to take time off. This can make being able to commit to future events, such as buying show tickets, quite difficult. With Hamilton at the Public being sold out months before it even opened, I pretty much gave up hope of ever seeing it.

And then one night in late January, I was alone in my bedroom of my apartment shitting around on the internet like the antisocial millennial that I am, when  friend messaged me, asking me if I was busy tomorrow. Well, I hedged, I was meeting another friend for brunch that day, which was way up on the Upper East Side, so that would take a while, but other than that, I wasn’t doing anything, what was up?

It turns out that her girlfriend had misremembered the dates of when she would be visiting family in California when she had bought them their Hamilton tickets. Her being in California? Now. The date for their Hamilton tickets? Tomorrow.

I threw myself into my computer keyboard to tell my friend that I was actually free as of six hours ago and would be so for the next week.

And so the next day, my friend and I caught dinner at Duck’s Eatery, which I highly recommend for Public-proximity dining, and just barely slid into our seats as the lights dimmed and the now ubiquitous first seven notes played. We didn’t even have time to read our programs or scan the audience around us, which would have told us that we were seeing Javier Muñoz (the current Broadway Hamilton) performing the role for the very first time and that Lin-Manuel Miranda was in the house with us, his first opportunity to see his work from the outside. The show wasn’t yet open – they were still in that preview period where they would rehearse during the day, integrating any changes from the writer or creative team, and perform the updated version of the show that night. So what we saw was not quite the finished version of the show’s off-Broadway incarnation.

Finished or not, it was one of the most moving, electrifying theatrical experiences of my life.

Shortly after seeing it, the production’s third and final extension was announced. My upcoming work schedule miraculously had one performance that I would be able to attend, so I sneakily bought a pair of tickets while at work and later called my mom to inform her that she was coming to see a show.

It was important to me for her to see it. Not just because I knew that it was a brilliant work of theatre that would be historically notable to have seen. But also because in many ways, the show was me.

I had been obsessed with immigrant stories as a child. In my American Girl phase, Felicity’s Revolutionary War and Kirstin’s immigrant stories had been my favorites. I heavily favored historical fiction of tales of coming to America. Fievel was g-ddamn important to me. I would scream that Neil Diamond song at the drop of a hat.

And yet, despite there being the obvious commonality of, you know, coming to America, I had never considered myself an immigrant.

But Hamilton made me realize that maybe I am, and that felt right.

The night that my friend had messaged me had actually been the day after my arrival day, or the anniversary of my arriving to the United States. Maybe making the journey hadn’t been  my decision, but had it been for other young immigrant children? I just hadn’t had anyone in my immediate family who shared that particular experience. In hindsight, now that I’m older and understand more, I wish that I could have spoken more with my maternal great-grandparents, as logically impossible as that would have been. (I was either very young or not yet born when my great-grandmother died; I was still barely more than a toddler when my great-grandfather passed.) They were Armenian and had immigrated in the early 1900s, as one was wont to do. I wish that we could have shared more of that.

And that was a slightly more specific personal epiphany on top of the more general sense of reclamation of American history and identity that has been expressed by many.

Which isn’t to say that I discount criticism of Hamilton or its place within our culture. I can’t blame those who have no wish to claim part of an identity that was violently forced upon them. I understand those who would prefer see the stories that truly are untold (Hercules Mulligan smuggling information? more like his slave, Cato) rather than recasting the ones that are already floating in the American historical consciousness. But I think that Hamilton is just one exceptionally well-crafted show that has never intended to be the one answer. It’s not the show’s fault that the collective culture enjoys seizing upon a singular answer to all of our woes. Hamilton has clearly had a positive impact on many people who haven’t generally been the beneficiaries of such artistic, emotional, cultural bounties. What we need, then, is to treat this as the opening of the door to more stories.

I’ve written before (at great length) about the impact that Les Mis has had on me. Among other things, I recollected how I had unironically imagined a future career for myself in which I graduated through all of the roles in The King & I. Seeing Lea Salonga in the Tenth Anniversary Concert on PBS changed all that and literally changed my life. That was my first huge epiphany of identity, immediately and directly concerning my theatrical pursuits but also seeping into my overall being in more generalized ways. Having a place is something that was neither destined nor has always been expected. With my life of good fortune, I’ve always had that little bit of constant immigrant awareness of gratitude for simply being here. I know that the dice have not rolled so favorably for everyone, including those with originating circumstances similar to mine. But the elements of chance and change involved have left me all the more incredulously thankful for how my story has played out.

And so yes, may America sing for you. It’s a dark time for many who live here or are otherwise impacted by this nation’s actions. And it’s certainly not the first dark time, or even the darkest. But I claim this identity in defiance of those who would challenge my legitimacy, and I am determined to continue to strive toward those ideals that mean so much to me, even when we fall lamentably short of the very words declared by no less than the Statue of Liberty. We’ve always fallen short. We always will. But let’s do so while striving for something higher.

And that’s the story of tonight.

Sent Me Off to a Foreign Land

[tw: suicide]

When I was scrolling through Facebook (which means I was probably on the toilet, quite frankly, because that’s where my attempts to discipline my life by blocking Facebook on my computers have gotten me – you’re welcome, all of my friends whose posts I’ve liked throughout the day) and saw that the Love Life of an Asian Guy had posted the headline “Deported Korean-American Adoptee Found Dead of Apparent Suicide,” my first thought was “Oh no, what a tragic end to Adam Crapser’s ordeal.”

Turns out, this was a different Korean-American adoptee who was deported to a country he’d never known because his U.S. parents had failed to attain their child’s American citizenship. This was a man named Phillip Clay. Crapser attended his funeral. Crapser, just the other guy, in this case. The other guy — of how many others?

Adoption is just another way to create a family. Just as a biological parents can be insufficient in meeting the needs of their children, or even abusive, so, too, can adoptive parents. The idea that adopting a child automatically crowns parents with some sort of unassailable halo is toxic and insulting.

My parents were not great because they adopted me. My parents were great because they surrounded me with books and items from my birth culture, with my Korean-ness always in sight, not just when I looked in the mirror. My parents were great because they threw me a traditional first birthday party, so that I didn’t miss that rite of passage. Because of all of the summers of Korean culture camp, where despite the overwhelming whiteness of the rest of the year, I grew up thinking that I looked normal. Because they supported me in all of my weirdness, whether it was staging fashion shows in the living room or devouring an inordinate number of advanced level books or screlting Broadway showtunes 24/7 or hating to wear skirts or re-enacting the Paris uprising of 1832 in my bedroom (repeatedly).

I grew up with the naivety that being loved and holistically supported was the norm. As a child does, I assumed that my experience was simply the way of the world. It wasn’t until I entered adolescence that I slowly began to learn that even those who dwelt in locations and material conditions very close to mine sometimes  lacked what I appreciated but, nevertheless, took for granted.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been issues, some of them specifically adoption-related and some of them specifically cultural/ racial. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also gradually learned of the full humanity behind the family I grew up thinking could do no wrong (except when I got yelled at for reading after bedtime because it was always abundantly clear to me that I being unjustly persecuted). My political inclinations have been shaped by not only my own convictions but by an externally-sourced experience – how the world reacts to its perception of me — that they haven’t shared, and as I’ve become more active within our increasingly loud society, differences have become more undeniable.

There is so much in one’s life that is outside of one’s control. The family into which one is born and the family into which one is adopted are both games of chance. I bested the house and won big. I know that not everyone has, in families of whatever making.

Still, the notion that parents could fail their child on a matter of paperwork absolutely enrages me.

Beyond that, of course, are many other failures. The system of laws that becomes its own ends rather than the means to a just society that exists to support the well-being of its people. The cultural inflexibility to accept an outsider. The lack of mental health support for someone who needed it. But as far as I’m concerned, at the root of it all, the neglectfulness of those parents is tantamount to murder.

And on top of my anger for that man’s lost life, there is a completely self-centered part of me that is angry at those people for casting a shadow on families like mine, families who were great not for the act of making themselves but for everything that happens from that point onward.

Because apparently being American adopted and raised isn’t going to stop me from getting it on with the Asian family honor. Between that and all of my years in Catholic school, the Game of Thrones Shame Nun better keep one eye open on her job security.

Who Knows Where This Road May Go

I sat on the park bench and dialed the number. It was a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon, the perfect temperature without needing a bit of breeze, people drifting past with their strollers and dogs and not the slightest hint of urgency. But I felt like I was on a conveyor belt approaching a point of no return.

I’ve always been wary of commitment. I don’t have any tattoos, not because of any moral or aesthetic objections – I just can’t imagine making a decision that will be with me for the rest of my life. I am terrible at watching television shows and movies because it just seems so much to make the decision to devote however many hours of my life to focusing on this thing.

The names of my birth parents is something that I would never be able to un-know.

I’d be losing the mystique that had covered my past like the fog had blankets the Hudson on cool, misty morning. The sun would be out forever, and I almost certainly wouldn’t be a wizard.

But when I was a little kid, I wanted to be a detective. Or maybe a bit more glamorous, an international spy, but still solving mysteries. A person whose business was information. Who would find the truth.

My mom was out gardening, but her partner picked up the phone and I chatted with him about inconsequential things while she came inside. She was expecting me to call, so she had the papers ready.

I often get absorbed, in passing, by other people. So many one-time intersections of time and place, with me trying to love them for being lives that exist and being astounded by how much I know that I don’t know about them. At that moment, though, I was bemused by how much everyone around me didn’t know about me. All of those people right next to me with no idea of what was happening for me at that moment.

It felt strangely like starting a research project. She read the information that had been noted for me, names and places, and I copied it down in the notebook that I had brought with me, the one that I use to jot down fragments of song lyrics. Sometimes I would ask her to repeat things or to spell them out. I commented multiple times on the old style of Romanization that was being used and how I’d need to reinterpret the spelling.

And I talked about the midnight brunch event that I had attended over the weekend. The opening night for my friends’ opera company that I was excited to go to in a few days. The delicious pork spare ribs that I’d cooked a few days ago.

When I got off of the phone, I stared at the page. Then, seized by a whim, next to my English-language notes, I wrote their names in Korean. That was when I cried and didn’t know why.

As I did another round of walking through the park, I had, of all things, “Honor to Us All” from Disney’s Mulan stuck in my head. Or sections from near the end of the song, at least. “Ancestors, hear my plea, help me not to make a fool of me, and not to uproot my family tree, keep my father standing tall… Please bring honor to us all.”

Because you know what it included in the information? That my birth father was “university graduated.” Because of Asian-fucking-course. I’m already making plans to print out the rankings from U.S. News & World Report and putting a circle around my top-ranked liberal arts college. And asking someone to ship me some school memorabilia from New Haven, evidence of my graduate degree from Yale, which I feel confident of being relatively universal currency.

That all presumes that any of this information leads anywhere. I’m well aware that this may be a cold case. But I’m glad that I hadn’t asked before I would definitely be taking action of some kind. I wouldn’t have wanted to know just for the sake of knowing. It’s immense to be aware of the extent to which someone can be a stranger to you. I wouldn’t have wanted that awareness without it having anywhere to go.

It was sunny that day when I sat on the park bench to get the wire on the situation. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. For the most part, I did. And as for what I didn’t know – well, you gotta be okay with that if you’re getting yourself into this business.

I was ready.

And now I finally have my mystery.

In My Own Little Corner of the Sky

In t-minus-4-months, it will have been thirty-two years since I first set foot in Korea.

Well, “set foot” isn’t strictly accurate, unless I dropped out of the vagina running. In four months from now, it will have been thirty-two years since I was born in Korea. In a much less hashtaggable period of time (eight months and two weeks), it will have been thirty-two years since I left Korea.

In just under five months, I’m going back.

I think that it’s a pretty common fantasy for kids that they’re secretly royalty or a Jedi or otherwise of some elevated lineage. I was too young to imagine a giant showing up and declaring “YER A WIZARD, ‘OWARD,” but let me tell you, as someone who was adopted, this fantasy was particularly strong. It wasn’t that I was unhappy in the life that I had – much to the contrary. It’s simple that for me, it wasn’t a conspiracy theory that my bloodline was not that of the ordinary life that I lived. It was cold, hard fact. And maybe I read too many books, learned too many myths of heroes who were bigger than their circumstances by virtue of their births, which were unknown to them. Even if I weren’t adopted, I’m sure that I still would have been very vigilante when I turned thirteen, fifteen, sixteen years old, alert for any sign that my powers were manifesting or a secret portal was opening or a messenger from another realm was attempting to reach me.

Looking around now, I’m not entirely certain that it happened without my noticing it.

While not having been completely devoid of low points, I have overall lived an extremely charmed life. I landed into a family that has given me incredible love and support. I was encouraged to develop skills and talents by teacher and mentors. I had the resources to attend amazing schools – both of which were the only schools to which I applied (yes, I am that asshole) — for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. I see myself now in New York City, the city that I have always loved, with a life full of health, a career in the field of my choosing, and amazing friends.

And a little over a month ago, I received an email from a dear colleague inviting me onto a work project that would be traveling to Tokyo.

Having traveled for work a few times before, I jumped immediately to the practicalities: confirming that I would be able to postpone the date of my return flight so that I could extend my stay in the region. For a while. Because I was not going to get so close without making it to Korea.

The next thing I did was swear off drinking for the next four months for the purposes of wealth, health, and vanity.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the only “diet” I’ve ever been able to put myself on is my “don’t be a degenerate lush” diet, which is basically just not drinking alcohol and then being embarrassed by what a noticeably positive impact that has on multiple areas of my life. And for a journey like this, it just struck me as the obvious thing to do. (I did build in a couple of exceptions to my abstinence: it’s waived for anything that was planned before I made the snap decision to hop on the wagon and also if I’m being provided with the libations for free at a special event for work, which is what I like to refer to as “professional drinking.”) The reason that it’s only spanning four months is because I obviously need a month to make sure that my tolerance back to a respectable level. I mean, I’m going to Korea.

I’ve realized that I’m experiencing the emotional equivalent of the stereotypical “I’m going to my high school reunion and need to show everyone just how pretty and successful I am,” except that it’s a 32-year reunion and instead of a high school, it’s an entire nation-state that I need to impress by being aggressively intelligent, aggressively talented, aggressively attractive, and yet also independent and unbowed by conformist norms and thus aggressively interesting.

Which is all to say that I’m really trying to impress myself. To create a reason, to satisfy my narrative-seeking brain, that I have this charmed life, because if there’s a reason, then maybe it won’t all fall through, like part of me is convinced must happen.

Yet despite that, here’s my confession: there is still a part of me that isn’t one-hundred percent convinced that I don’t possess the power to fly.


The category of “In My Own Little Corner of the Sky” will record my exploration of personal history as I embark on a journey to my birth country of South Korea.