Writer's Note: Sorry for the delay, I was in a 4-day trial as a juror. I will write about that momentarily. There have been a ton of things on my mind, but I have not had the ability to properly express them in a manner that I think you all would find enjoyable. The good news is that there are several nuggets of what I think are very amusing posts that just need some more thought to properly flesh out. This post is not one of those funny ones. But it is the one that shouted the loudest in my head to be selected. So here we are.
I got a note of encouragement recently from someone who seems to know just when to say something that will make a big difference. There was an attached request, which was that I write about my parents, Rod and Sandi. I will do so in the future, but I do believe what I am about to write is solidly influenced by them.
One of the most indelible memories of my childhood growing up in rural Pennsylvania Dutch country was the dreaded recess period of elementary school. It was at those moments, along with gym class, where the tortuous process of selecting teams occurred. Looking back on it, because of these experiences, I suppose I can understand a parent's desire for their child to receive some sort of validation. I think this may have caused the "participation trophy" generation that is now facing monumental struggles regarding what their place is in society. I had no confusion as to where my place was. It was dead. Stinking. Last. I am sure at some point in my life that I was one of the two people that got to select teams, but for the most part, I was part of the remaining group, waiting to be selected. Waiting to know their place in the pecking order. Some of the kids, like Marlowe, Chad, and Josh all knew where they lie. If they weren't first, they were very close behind. Coveted, valued, and recognized for their ability, they had the cocksure confidence of people that were going to be future leaders of our world. The remaining kids had the consolation that while they weren't first, at least they weren't last, and they nonchalantly went to their selected teams and were relieved that they didn't have to endure the agonizing process that was left to the remaining individuals. I remember looking around and that knot in my stomach growing ever tighter as I knew that the moment of validation and recognition as someone worthy would not be occurring that day, or most likely, any day near that moment. And sure enough, it fell down to me and another kid. I was picked last more times than second last, and I suppose that looking back on it, I am glad that I at least got to give some small amount of mercy to the poor kids that weren't selected dead, stinking, last. I was the unavoidable selection. The individual that no one really wanted on their team.
I've been thinking a lot about moments like that and how they shape a person. I've been thinking about it even more since I came back from Korea. I wrote that I am not a very good Korean. I started to think if they had a recess selection process for best Koreans, I would in all likelihood fill a very familiar role - being selected dead last. Through the adoption process, it can often feel like those of use who were given up for adoption finished dead last. We lost to societal shame, alcohol, poverty, inconvenience, minimal support. All of those elements transpired for us to finish dead last in our families, or even worse, to not be selected at all and taken away from the recess of life. Too burdensome to even be allowed to be with the rest of the community, we were shunted off to a new environment, where the process of finishing last can start all over again.
One of the things that society likes to remind us adoptees is just how lucky we were to be adopted. I know that many people enjoyed consistently telling me as a youth just how fortunate I was. The tricky thing is that they were preaching to the choir. I knew how lucky I was. I knew better than the large majority of adoptees. Why? Because of my age when I was adopted. Fortunately, most adoptees are selected as infants. They have no memories of their time in Korea, as they were so young and that time is a tiny fraction of their overall lives. I was not an infant. I was not a toddler. I was a solid child. Almost six years old when I came to the US. According the adoption reports, a child that could fully read, write, and speak Korean in full sentences. I had already experienced the burdens of taking care of others for quite some time and had the ability to engage in transactions for goods, both legally and illegally.
The knowledge that I was removed from a very, very bad situation was not lost on me. I didn't communicate it at all when I was a child. I didn't display overwhelming gratitude. I wasn't a model child for my parents. I was the exact opposite. I created more issues, caused more problems, was the source of more rebellion and flagrant disrespect than our family was really prepared for. Why was I so difficult? Because even in the greatest defining moment of my life, I was not the first one selected. I was the clearance kid, the get one free of the buy one portion. I came with a much younger, much cuter, and much more malleable brother. They just didn't want to split us up, so if you wanted the cute little toddler, the older kid had to come along as well.
For those of you that aren't familiar with the adoption process, it's a little bit more difficult than just jizzing in some chick and knocking her up. There is a ton of paperwork, fees, interviews, etc. It is a far more deliberate process. There is no "Surprise! You're going to be a parent!" Every adoptive parent knows that they are going to be a parent. They know they will be a parent before that child ever arrives. Because as heartless as many Koreans are, even they aren't terrible enough to just put kids on a plane and hope someone is on the other side to take care of them. Every child that left Korea's shores had a destination to go to. They had people waiting to receive them. And the problem for me is that I knew that. It clearly is typed out in my adoption records that I was aware of the United States and that I was eager for my brother and I to start a new life there. Sometimes I wonder if my memories are congruent with what really happened in life. Sometimes I wonder if I was truly as coherent about my situation as I think I was. That report struck me like a jackhammer. It was ancient proof that no, I was not overestimating what I remembered. I knew exactly where I was going, and I knew that it would be a better chance for my brother. And I was determined to make sure of that.
The primary reason why I was such a lousy kid was because I was so frustrated that I couldn't deliver the kind of child that two parents who decided to not split up brothers and to take them both into their family really deserved. The new sister that just wanted a sibling to play with (ideally another sister, but she adjusted really well to two new brothers, because it meant that she could boss TWO people around instead of just one). The grandparents who would be so integral in the development and education of these children. No, my family weren't the Cleavers. But they sure as shit weren't the Bundy's either. And a stable and well-intentioned family deserved the best kids that they could get. I often felt that my sister and brother fell into the category of model kids that make the whole process worth it. Maybe they had less pressure to be exceptional. Because I was so much older, I came here with the knowledge that I needed to be better. I needed to make the whole thing worth it. And in my attempts to be better, I actually made it worse. And the whole vicious circle spiraled in to a very unhappy childhood.
I have never voiced this before. I suppose this blog forces me to a new honesty where I have to express the feelings that have been repressed in me for so long. What I wanted most growing up was to be the kid that my parents were most glad they selected. I just wanted to be picked first for once in my life. I didn't want to be picked first out of pity. I wanted to earn that. I wanted to be the Marlowe, Chad, and Josh of life. And how I failed. And failed. And failed. And then at school, it was just consistently reinforced that I was never going to be a winner. I was, at the core of things, a loser. And the quicker I accepted it, the easier life would be for me. But I had a duty to these people who removed me from a terrible situation to NOT BE A LOSER. I had an opportunity that other kids at the orphanage would have jumped at. I got to be with my brother in a country that every person in the world recognized as the ideal place to live for so many reasons. And I was messing it up. I was blowing it. I was the kid that if my parents were asked "Is adoption worth it?", in all likelihood they would have probably paused before answering that it has its moments. Because for two out of three kids, the answer is a resounding "yes."
I used to tell my parents frequently that I wanted to go back to Korea. Why would I say that? Because I knew that I wasn't good enough to be in the US and in their family. I wasn't the qualities that they were looking for. I couldn't fit the mold. I was losing at how to just be a kid. I seemed to be getting constantly lectured by everybody on how I didn't understand what my opportunities were and how I wasn't taking advantage of them. I think most of them didn't understand that I knew EXACTLY what my opportunities were, but that I just couldn't figure out how to win at this whole being a good kid thing. It wasn't for a lack of effort. I tried to be someone that others valued and wanted to pick first. For most of my life, I have been obsessed with fitting in and being valued. It has been the absolute worst pursuit I could have ever chosen. I have made so many poor decisions because I thought for once, it would allow me to bask in the light of being wanted and valued.
I'm now in a place where winning and approval matter to me not at all. And now I have the best relationship with my parents that I've ever had. Why is that? A large part has to do with the Sane One, but there is a more important reason than that. They have, in subtle ways and obvious ones as well, made me believe that I am the one that they would pick first. And so, at 44 years of age, I finally have reached the finish line. I have finally won at the contest that I have struggled and agonized over. And this feeling is worth all of those years of being selected last and not being wanted. It smacks of ingratitude that I wish this moment had come sooner, because I should be happy that it came at all. But I mourn and regret the years lost in my quixotic quest as a kid to be someone worthy of the greatest opportunity a Korean child in 1980 could ever hope for.