Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I am a bad, bad blogger.

I have tried to be faithful, but too many of life's temptations have lately seduced me away from creation and toward consumption.  I've been reading in a frenzy, taking scarcely a breath to pause between.  When I can't get my nose into a book, I am doggedly studying Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.  Bizarre to say, I am addicted to studying Mandarin!  If there are any other Mandarin speakers/writers/study-ers out there, please let me know!  I have a hanzi vocabulary of about 300 characters, with a total word vocabulary of maybe closer to 400, and can just now begin to understand some very basic readings.

At the moment I am almost finished with War by Sebastian Junger and struggling to gain some traction in the first 100 pages of A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.  Today I head back to the library to pick up a copy of A Visit from the Good Squad they are holding for me.  I have unread library copies of The Satanic Verses and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close at home, and seeking a copy of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to read before the movie comes out (next week!).  Did you see that the two leads are played by South Korean actress Gianna Jun and Chinese actress Li Bingbing?  Yay for authentic casting, and not resorting to Zhang Ziyi yet again.

All of this rambling to say, I haven't written any book reviews in awhile.  It seems like such a vain endeavor - hoisting my opinions into the internet abyss.  To make up for lost time, here are the books I have read since reading Matterhorn, and some brief responses.  If we are friends on Goodreads, then this is redundant.

Still Life With Rice - Holy cow.  Ajummas are badass.

Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging - If you want to see how a book can be completely awesome and still put you to sleep every single time, read this one.  Every sentence was so true and validating, and yet I could barely stay concious to enjoy it. 

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't - My work mentor assigned this to me.  The first few points have the most punch, and about halfway through the book you get the feeling you've read this all before somewhere.  Worth the read, some great insights (mainly in the first 1/4), but certainly not life-changing. 

What is the What - Honest, courageous, and important. I learned so much. My favorite was the last paragraph, reminds me how important storytelling is - especially true storytelling.  There's not a short blurb I could write that would do this one justice.  The description calls it heartrending and astonishing - in my opinion it starts from there and intensifies.

The History of Love - I didn't think I would love this book until the final moments. The narrative dragged on and, though the characters were charming and their voices compelling, they didn't really capture my imagination. About the time Bird began his narrative, I started to really care about the characters, I wanted them to find their answers and have some satisfaction. By the end I was completely smitten with Leo, and cheering Alma Singer on her quest. Well done.

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language - I really enjoyed this book. it is straightforward and relatable - 2 things that Zhongwen and Zhongguo culture are not (at least to Americans). Having visited China and now studying the language, Dreaming is a fun anecdotal look at how one must understand both the people and the culture in order to really grasp the language. Highly recommended to anyone studying Zhongwen or has an interest in Chinese culture. Don't expect it to be an intellectual or literary powerhouse and you won't be disappointed.

A Moveable Feast - I find that, as I get older, I enjoy Hemmingway more and more.  Can't explain it. 

The Snows of Kilimanjaro/The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber - Read comment above.  Hemmingway.

In the Absence of Sun: A Korean American Woman's Promise to Reunite Three Lost Generations of her Family - As much as I loved Still Life with Rice, I really really did want to love this too.  But it was just. so. boring.

Lone Survivor - phenomenal.
Jane Eyre - Bleh.  It is an artifact and, in my opinion, should be treated as such.  There is something to be learned from this novel when viewed in historical context, but has limited relevance or usefulness outside of that purpose.  I found Jane to be nearly intolerable, eclipsed only by Mr. Rochester's repugnance.

The Vision of Emma Blau - Ursula Hegi's storytelling is magical, which I first discovered in Stones from the River.  Unforunately, the epic nature of this novel made the plot a bit tedious for me by the last 1/4 of the novel.  I found myself disengaging, after being saddled with just a few too many characters, a timeline too broad and and a plotline that continually paced up and down.  Hegi's lyrical way with words was the saving grace of this novel.  There were many moments of light clarity, but the overall effect was dark and heavy for me.

Wide Sargasso Sea - Mr. Rochester is an asshole. I didn't like him in Jane Eyre and could never quite understand why. Thankfully Jean Rhys spelled it out for me. Suffering through Jane Eyre was almost worthwhile just to give this novel its context, for it is the context - everything not written in these pages - that makes the tale so much greater than it is alone. The novel is good. As an anecdote to Jane Eyre, it is great. Opposite in every way, and tremendously better in my opinion.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - Read this for my Chinese bookclub. Everyone told me the story is sweet, which should have set off some warning alarms for me. It probably was very sweet, but that is not a quality I value in novels so my review is harsh. In the first 50 pages the author, who is about my age, made two references to technology that didn't exist in 1986 - the internet and mass-produced music CD's. That killed my willful suspension of belief and made drudgery of the rest of the novel for me.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life - I love this type of geekery.  Bryson has a way of plucking cold, dry facts from the history books and retelling them in a human and endearing way. 

Zeitoun - I loved two of Dave Egger's other books (Heartbreaking Work and What is the What), and I have seen the glowing reviews here so I really wanted to love this one too.  Unfortunately, this book was flat for me.  The story is shocking and awful, but I just couldn't bring myself to feel shocked or awed.  Abdulrahman Zeitoun is depicted as too perfect, Kathy is too self-righteous, and I never felt a connection with any part of the story.  It was good, but disappointed when compared with my expectations.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 Review - will the adopted kids be alright?

Spoiler Alert:  This isn't a suspense movie, and I don't believe spoilers would make you enjoy it any less.  However, if you don't want to know what happens, then don't read this review.  So many people I know are wondering if it's a good movie for their adopted children to watch, so this review will hopefully answer that question.

Bottom line up front:  I recommend this one for the adopted kids.  Skip to the penultimate paragraph for why.  I loved this movie.  I loved the first KFP too, and this one was at least as good.  I loved the visuals, the story line, the characters.  The child in me loved it, as did the adult, the adult adoptee, and adoptive mother, and the biological mother.

It was nearly impossible for me not to view the story through the eyes of Po, the adopted child.  I tried hard not to, but his perspective was so clear and compelling - and accurate in my opinion - that I couldn't resist feeling that adoptee connection.  Po is an accomplished, revered warrior.  He has achieved his dreams through Kung Fu, he has his loving father (the goose), and his Furious Five family.  Yet, when he "discovers" that he is adopted, he is immediately reduced to a vulnerable, abandoned baby.  He finds it impossible to deny his desire to learn the truth.  That desire eats at him, it shapes the nature of his Kung Fu, his missions, and his relationships. Boy do I understand this.

We follow Po's journey through the various stages of adoptee grief, acceptance, etc.  It's a pretty quick hop from the shock of discovering his adoptee status to finding inner peace, but this is a kid's movie so I'll let that one slide.  I imagine his journey would not have been so entertaining if he had to live with a lifetime of that inner struggle, plus he wouldn't have been able to save China until he found inner peace so we'll go with that.  Although the storyline zipped right through his adoptee struggle, it did provide some illuminating moments.  There was the stereotypical "your parents didn't love you" line thrown at Po by the bad guy, which hurt until Po learned the truth.  Po had some moments of anger and self-loathing, but they were mild and brief.  In reality, adoptees have quite a bit more time to simmer over these emotions.  There were feelings of alienation and inadequacy that Po experienced through both movies as a result of being a different species and being physically different, and not having the same background as the other kung fu warriors.

I adored the soothsayer, voiced by one of my favorites Michelle Yeoh.  Some viewers may take exception to her policy of not dwelling on the past.  She insists that one must accept the events of the past and choose which path to take forward.  What some viewers may hear is a message that an adopted child's history doesn't matter, but what I understand is that is really the only way that anyone can move beyond tragedy.  We must accept the facts of our history, embrace them, and honor them while at the same time avoid clinging to them.  This of course is quintessentially Eastern and Buddhist philosophy that is written in the story for cultural authenticity, so I don't take it as an insult to adoptees' histories or birth families.  I have come to realize that this is the only way that I can ever find peace with my own unsolved history, because unlike Po I will probably never have the answers to my own questions.

Serendipitously, Po does learn why he was abandoned.  He learns that his parents were persecuted and that he was abandoned in order to save his life.  (His abandonment echoes the story of Moses, and I wonder if such a big deal was made about the adoption themes in Prince of Egypt.  Doubtful, since Moses' adoption was accepted as God's will and part of the Bibilical truth of God's deliverance of His people.  I digress.)  I appreciate that Po's abandonment was a result of political forces, because I believe in most cases this is true.  I believe that most families would not choose to relinquish children if they had the political, cultural, and social support to raise their own children.  Sadly, our world forces some families apart.  I am grateful that Po's family was not portrayed as poor or inferior.  In fact, Po's dad turns out to be badass!  Of course the ending of this movie left plenty of room for a KFP3 - presumably with a bio family reunion and a better look into Tigress' own abandoment story.

Were there triggers?  Of course there were.  Are triggers necessarily a bad thing?  I think no.  On the contrary, more normalizing media such as KFP2 will give our adopted kids some small bites to process and some sense of cultural normalcy.  Is it ever normal to be separated from one's biological family, transported to another country (at least Po got to keep his nationality), placed with a family of a different race (or species), and then expected to just find inner peace without some intense soul searching?  Hell no.  Is it okay to address these things at an early age so that a child does not feel like a freak in their own home and their own skin, to know that asking these questions is not only normal, but healthy?  Certainly.  Were those the longest run-on sentences I've ever written?  Likely.

So I really did adore this movie.  I laughed out loud.  I cried more than a grown woman should.  The abandonment/adoption story was handled with dignity, and hopefully creates context for not only adoption families, but the greater community as well.  BTW, I did have a discussion with my Chinese daughter about her reactions.  But that is private, it is between us.  Let me just say that if the movie had been injurious to her in any way, I would not endorse it one tiny bit.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Matterhorn [It’s not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered]

I have no combat experience.  I never led Marines in a jungle in a war that had no strategic objective.  I have never commanded troops who would die on my watch.  I don’t pretend to have even the remotest grasp of the experiences outlined in Matterhorn, and I don’t assume to be 1/1000th the human that Marlantes (or Mellas, or Hawke, or Fitch, or Goodwin, or Cortell, or Jackson, or Vancouver, or…) are.  Those people (especially Marlantes) make people like me feel like insignificant pukes, and I am grateful for that.  Awhile ago, I had some military training and limited military experience, both of which inform my reading and give me the proper vocabulary to read Matterhorn with a degree of technical ease. 

That said, this book is astonishing.  It is painfully conceived of real war experience, laboriously gestated over 30+ years, and brilliantly executed in its telling of the horrors of battle and the graceless beauty of the warriors who fight.  Upon finishing the book, I wanted to immediately reread it. 

I hate when people ask what a book is about.  A novel is almost never “about” the plotline, but usually about the book’s themes and overarching message.  In this case, Matterhorn is both.  It is about a company of grunts fighting their battles in the Quang-Tri province of Vietnam, during monsoon season.  It is about the people and events of a specific time and place.  It is also about humanity, compassion, race-relations, brotherhood, manhood, ambition, patriotism, war, survival, God, and evil. 

A summary from Sebastian Jungerman, writing for the NYT Book Review:

The story is told from the point of view of a young second lieutenant, Mellas, who joined the Marines for confused and vaguely patriotic reasons that are quickly left in tatters by military incompetence. At great psychic and physical cost, Mellas and the rest of Bravo Company, Fifth Marine Division, climb a steep mountain near the intersection of Laos and the DMZ separating North and South Vietnam, then build an outpost capable of withstanding enemy artillery. As soon as they finish, they are told to abandon it because they are needed for a large operation farther south. There ensues a multiweek stagger through impenetrable jungle, the company plagued by lack of food, lack of ammunition and inadequate resupply. One man is killed by a tiger. Another dies of cerebral malaria. Starving to death and bearing a dead friend on a pole, the men of Bravo Company finish their mission and are allowed a brief rest at one of the main support bases.

Soon enough, however, they are ordered to retake Matterhorn, which has since been occupied by the enemy. It is there, on the flanks of their own outpost, that the horror and absurdity of war are finally played out.
Marlantes unceremoniously drops us into the bush and assaults our senses.  At once we are submerged in monsoon rains, jungle rot, leeches, acrid smoke, fear, hunger, cold, and exhaustion.  In that world, we learn the men around us, we come to love them all. 

I can say from experience, there is no job in the world like platoon leader.  I was a combat bridging platoon leader in Korea, leading 75 soldiers and a fleet of equipment, at the age of 23.  That would have been a ripe old age in the setting of Matterhorn, where platoon commanders are barely drinking age yet leading teenagers with deadly weapons on missions to kill.  A company commander would be about 25 and making decisions that would send teenagers home in body bags, before they could even experience adulthood.  As a platoon leader in the Army, I loved every aspect of the job and the people – I even loved the things I hated.

The descriptions of combat tedium are so real.  I read in an interview where Marlantes scorned Hollywood’s need to make entertainment out of war.  There is nothing entertaining or glorious about war, not tactically, not strategically.  Marlantes takes us into the little routines of the combat Marine’s life.  Readers looking for entertainment might not appreciate these intricacies, but I value truth and this book exudes it. 

I have felt the disorientation of navigating terrain with zero moon illumination.  I have made leadership decisions in the mental cloud of operating 48 hours with no sleep.  I have posted guard in a sandbag bunker, in the rain, cold and hungry, wondering why I wasn’t warm and comfortable with my buddies back home.  I have carried a weapon and full pack over mountainous terrain and desert, with blisters and sprained joints.  I did none of these things in conditions of any real consequence, and I knew they would all soon end with me sleeping, full bellied, freshly showered, in a safe warm bed.   I am thankful to have glimpsed the life of a soldier, but I have never been called upon to make any real sacrifices.  I have never been truly tested, and I will die wondering what I am made of. 

All the trite descriptions work here: harsh, gritty, brilliant, devastating, powerful, riveting, horrifying, phenomenal, staggering, beautiful, intense, heartbreaking, genius.  I highly recommend Matterhorn to everyone. 

Read Karl Marlantes' Navy Cross citation here.  (Reads a lot like a chapter from the novel.  Marlantes also graduated from Yale and was a Rhodes scholar - before serving in Vietnam)

Read Sebastian Jungerman’s NYT  review here. (from which this post title was quoted)

I highlighted too many passages to quote.  Half the book is quotable.  Just go read the book and highlight it yourself.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Lovely Bones [spare no effort]

A friend who turned 43 on my birthday last month was just called home to God.  He leaves a wife and three young daughters to cling to the memory of a husband and father.  I want to take a moment to remind everyone of how precious and fleeting life is.  Trite maybe, but worth repeating.  Our time on earth is a flicker, do not waste it.  Whether in the pursuit of purpose or peace, live a life of meaning and quality.  Some are taken too soon.

“Life’s sun is going to set.  During these brief days that you have strength, be quick and spare no effort of your wings.”  ~Rumi


I am nearly halfway finished with Matterhorn which is rocking my world much that I don’t want to take even a moment to pause and reflect on this novel about a murdered teenage girl.  However, if I don’t develop some thoughts and memorialize The Lovely Bones in my mind, then I might as well have not wasted the few days it took to read.

So here we are.  I jotted down some notes as I was reading, like any terrible blogger/slacker writer, I have misplaced them.  What was meant to be a thorough retrospective is now reduced to a mere summary of impressions.

The book was okay.  The first 50 pages or so were fairly gripping, and Susie’s murder was just awful.  I think the author handled the telling of her murder very well, and I imagine it took quite a few edits to make it convincing without being vulgar.  I appreciated the lack of graphic description.  As the tale unfolded and more characters were wheeled into the plotline, I simply didn’t attach to any of them.  In my opinion, if one has read 1/3 through a novel, one should deeply care about at least some of the characters.  Whether that relationship manifests as adoration or antipathy, the reader must feel emotion and interact with the characters.  Despite have plenty of characters that were meant to summon the reader’s sympathies, I never really engaged.

The premise of the story was excellent.  The execution was mediocre. 

There are, of course, many overarching themes at play in The Lovely Bones.  The first, most obvious theme was that of immortality.  Ironically, Susie gains immortal youth via premature death.  To those on Earth, Susie will always remain frozen as a child of the 70’s.  She will never grow up, grow old, and take on all the roles that her own mother struggled with.  Susie is never changed by the forces of life because she is permanently altered by death. 

On the other hand, Susie’s mother Abigail, struggles under the weight of life’s forces.  Abigail loathes the life she has chosen – husband, family, duty.  She remains in perpetual daydream about the life that could have been – teaching, adventure, freedom.  The life not realized can always be more romantic than the life already lived, and I doubt any mother doesn’t have moments of longing.  Most of us don’t abandon our grieving families to frolic on the opposite end of the continent.  I had no sympathy for this weak woman, and felt a small satisfaction at the end when she admits that Jack (Susie’s father) had always been stronger than she.   

I appreciated the moments when Susie notices that Abigail is a woman beyond her mother.  Susie tells us, "What I remember most is watching things hit my mother while I looked at her, how the life she had wanted and the loss of it reached her in waves."  I wonder when the day will come that my children will make that same discovery.

The best irony of the novel was the contrast of Susie’s truncated life and her mother’s torturously survived one.

I was struck throughout reading at how lonely all the characters were.  I felt as though I were strolling a long corridor and peeking through windows, a momentary glimpse into each character’s solitude though they all dwelled in the same novel.  Maybe that is why I didn’t connect with the characters – because they failed to connect with each other.  At the same time, there was a strange tension between the characters that never quite felt genuine.

Maybe because it was told through the perspective of an immortally dead 14 year old that I couldn’t relate to the narrative.  I really wanted to.  I understood the strands that Alice Sebold attempts to weave together, but for me they just don’t hold.  So much of the story seemed contrived that very little actually resonated.  The Guardian’s Ali Smith wrote “The Lovely Bones is so keen in the end to comfort us and make safe its world that, however well-meaning, it avoids its own ramifications.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Live... Happily Ever Active [and an anti-rant]

I sent my friend H some Tom’s of Maine toothpaste that my kids didn’t like.  In return, H sent me this delightful children’s book featuring real live children interacting with a re-imagined world filled with whimsy, positive thinking, bright colors, and ridiculous amounts of cuteness.   A quick internet search revealed that the book is part of a synergistic enterprise combining the book, a dvd, kid fitness classes, and merchandise.  See the website here.  I’m sounding a little like an infomercial here, but that’s really the only way I can think to describe it. 

I don’t feel too guilty about totally hawking this book because of the overwhelmingly positive and adorable message the author delivers.  The whole “Live Happily Ever Active” operation does not reek of capitalist greed (although I have nothing against capitalism!).  It seems to promote a lifestyle of harmony between mind, body and spirit, and  I really do believe in all that gobbledygook.  The message is aimed at kids but cannot help but spill over to parents.  The brand is a little cutesy cutesy for my taste, but I can imagine it would have great mass appeal.

Anyways, back to the book.  After I stopped expecting it to rhyme, I really enjoyed it.  It felt like a 21st century holistic adaptation of Oh! The Places You’ll Go! – and what self-respecting person doesn’t read that at least once a year?  The real live kids walking amongst animated trees, creatures and sky are precious.  Every kid in the book – quite frankly, every kid in the world – is downright gorgeous.  When we got to the page with the Chinese girl twirling, my oldest daughter asked me if we knew her.  Funny how that works.

My favorite lines, from the first couple pages:
My mom tells me:
Life is a journey.
Take one step at a time, Always bring your body along for the ride.
Pack only what you need, and leave everything else behind.

In summary, I loved the photos, the illustrations, the colors, and the message.  All 4 of my kids aged 4-9 thought the book was pretty great.  Further, I’m thrilled to have such a lovely friend who would send it to me.  Thanks H!

That was quite a love fest.

I have a whole other rant section that I had planned to type out.  I was going to ramble on about parenting, expectations, and developing our children of character while still allowing them to enjoy their youth.  I have spent plenty of mental calories trying to understand my children’s motives in order to inspire/discipline them appropriately.  I have a great many thoughts about education, both on a local and global scale.  I struggle to parent with perspective in a country filled with privilege and plenty.  I meditate on what adult I would have become if so many forces in my own childhood had been different – and how to translate those theories into practical parenting skills.

You might be surprised to know that writing takes an inordinate amount of energy.  Writing is not just a mental exercise.  So much emotional and intellectual energy are bound up in the formation of coherent thoughts that I don’t have the energy to lay them out.  Not today.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Help - a response half-adoption, half-memoir

I am not reading a whole lot right now.  Which is to say, I am reading 4 books simultaneously and not making much quick progress on any single one of them.  Plus, sports season has started so I have 2 soccer players and 1 baseball player to shuttle around to 8 practices and games each week!  So until I can actually get through a new book, let's explore a few of my recent reads. 

We read Kathryn Stockett's The Help for our local FCC Bookclub.  Our FCC Bookclub usually reads something pertaining to adoption or Chinese culture, so this was a refreshing change of pace.  To be honest, one can only commiserate over adoption and China so much before one wants to scratch one's eyes out.  I emailed my thoughts to the group, as well as a few others who I thought might be interested.  I wasn't blogging at the time and just wanted to get my thoughts down before they escaped, so the writing is not as polished as I'd normally like a blogpost to be (like most of my posts, honestly.  Who has time for perfection?).  Here are those initial thoughts, lightly edited:

I think that whomever selected the book must have intended for us to explore race relations and history.  Besides it is a good, fast read.

One simply can’t compare being Asian in America to being black in America.  Even in the most racist pockets of rural Kentucky, I always knew that somehow being black would be so much worse.  Being an Asian adopted into a white family helped to take a little edge off the racism.

That said, there are many parallels between the experiences written in The Help and those of my generation of adoptees.

I keep thinking about the lines that Minny and Abileen talk about.  How the lines aren’t real, they are only taught to us in our heads and we can choose whether to abide by them or not.  Children don’t see the lines, they are taught.  As minority adopted children, we didn’t see those lines between ourselves and our families – we only knew they were who loved us and we loved them back.  When Mae Mobley colors herself black, it felt like a punch in the gut to me.  Of course we see ourselves as likenesses of those we love the most – adopted Asian children see white, Mae Mobley saw black.  Isn’t that why we Christians take such a literal interpretation of being made in God’s likeness?  So we grow up in this world believing we are just like the families whom we love the most, until the world teaches us differently.  One day, yes probably around the age of 8 or 9, we are taught that there are color lines.

And like Abileen in the book, we children of color must swallow our daily humble pie.  The white families are our benefactors.  We are so completely dependent on them for love, security, and validation.  So even when we are treated like saved orphans, we smile and say “thank you ma’am.”  Into adulthood, even as we are marginalized and dismissed, we are expected to say “thank you ma’am.”

What is most resonant, though, is when the help’s stories are told.  The maids see their own stories as mundane, everyday life.  They believe that no one would be interested in their stories, that nothing can be changed.  It is just their lives, and what good does it do to speak out?  As it turns out, the telling of the truth for truth’s sake is their first impetus.  It is addicting.  And then, telling the truth so that future generations may live a different truth, this becomes a very real possibility.  These women, they burn their own houses down around themselves.  They speak the words that are so hard to admit – how they love, how they ache.  Bitterness, joy, rage, it all tumbles out.  Because that is what truth does.

I can’t imagine how hard and cathartic it must have been for these women to tell their long-suppressed truths.  And yet, I can because that is why I wrote the blog.  Truth-telling, thinking you can change something, it becomes addicting.  And while the experiences of internationally, trans-racially adopted children might not belong in the same chapter as the 1960’s civil rights movement in the history books, they take on particular significance when they are the experiences of our own children and ourselves.

The white women.  Of course, the white women.  The Benefactors, the ones in Power.  How telling that a black woman’s story must be told through a white conduit in order to be heard by other whites.  Or that an adult adoptee’s story is typically brought to AP’s through other AP’s.  The maids, and the adult adoptees, seem unable to garner their own credibility without the permission or acquiescence of a white person.  How telling, the range of responses by the white women.  Some were heartened to recognized as the “good ones.”  Some were furious to be called out in truth for their actions.  And some could not even recognize themselves in their own narratives.  How easy it is to superimpose that same template onto the AP community.  How troubling that the white women would be surprised at the complexity and richness of the maid’s experiences.  Troubling that they could not see past their own viewpoints and experiences to understand that completely alternate realities existed right under their own noses.  So much cognitive dissonance, so much justification.  Sounds familiar.

I don’t pretend that the adoptee experience comes even close to being black in America, especially through the long, troubled history of civil rights (or lack thereof).  But there are lines.  There is truth.  There is power.  There must be conduits.  There is oppression, there are untold stories, and there is so much self-deception.

Let me add that around the age of 8-9, I became aware of a great many things.  Before that age, life was bliss.  We had everything we could possibly want.  My parents were like gods.  I was unquestioningly accepted and loved.  My mom says that I have an old soul, and I think it was around 8-9 that I became an old person.  I started to see the little fissures in my perfect little world.  My mom was not perfect, nor was she an impenetrable shelter.  The world could hurt me in the stealthiest ways, adults couldn't be trusted to be kind, I was not like all the other kids.  I began to see and understand the qualities that differentiate people from one another - feelings, responses, actions.  I spent much time contemplating.  I was in the 4th grade trying to make sense of a world whose reality was so unlike my insular early childhood.

This reminds me of something I wrote last year.  One of my earliest memories, because I have so few early memories, is from the 3rd grade.  This was a short-lived attempt at memoir-ing:

I am on the school playground, winding my way from the swings to the monkey bars. The sunlight feels like bathwater on my skin, like steam in my lungs. It is not yet summer, but already the Ohio River Valley is heavy with heat and humidity. My shorts stick to my legs, and my straight black hair clings to my neck.

“Hey Raina!” I hear a classmate calling me. I freeze.

“What happened to your nose? Did you run into a wall? Is that why it’s so flat?” He pushes his nose down with his thumb, turning his hands over upside down to simultaneously pull the corners of his eyes back. “How come you’re a Chink? How did your parents get a Chink baby? Are you adopted?!”

My mind is racing. I am deflecting arrows. I am not there, no one can see me. No one can say things that poke and stab at my fragile 8-year old heart. I summon a retort. “Oh yeah?! At least my parents picked me! Your parents were just stuck with you!”

I run to the monkey bars. There are no tears in my eyes, only the sting of a hot, burning sun.

That afternoon, I ride the bus home in silence. I don’t like talking to the other kids; they are raucous and rowdy. All they want to do is have fun, while all I want is to get to my bedroom, to be alone. Off the bus, I march in my short little steps up the big hill to our house.  I watch my sister race ahead, her long black ponytail flopping in sync with her backpack.  Sweat runs down my temples.  Mommy opens the front door for me while cool, conditioned air rushes across my damp skin.  I toss my backpack into the hallway and beeline for my bed.  Plopping down, squeezing my eyes shut, I push the boy’s jeers aside and try to conjure a very different image.

I create the memory of a woman holding my hand. She is saying goodbye, pinning my name to my shirt. In this fabricated memory, I am 22 months old, watching my mother walk away, down a long dirty street in the middle of a bleak foreign country. What is the name of it again? Oh right, Korea – whatever that means. She is leaving me because she loves me, that is what Mommy said.  I think that is a strange way to love someone.  I am squeezing my eyes harder now, trying to hard to look around in this memory. Where is the scenery? Are there other people, and do they look like me? Do I feel loved, or simply lost?

It is hopeless, there is no remembering. I don’t know anything about Korea, except that it is not China and so it must be a crappy little country in Asia that nobody cares about. I wish Mommy would show it to me on a map. I wish I knew where I came from. I wish I could remember just something, anything, about that last day I had with that other woman. But it is gone, and all that I have now is the memory of a boy calling me Chink. 

At dinner, Mommy asks me how my day at school was. “Fine.” She asks if anything is bothering me. “No.” I am sullen and quiet, as always. No, Mommy, nothing is wrong. Everything is fine.

23 years later, I call Mom on the phone. “I have to tell you something. We didn’t want to tell anyone until we were closer to travel, but we’re ready now. You’re going to have a new granddaughter. We’re adopting a little girl from China!”

Mom is thrilled but a little taken aback. “That’s wonderful! Another grandbaby!” She later asks me, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m just curious. You already have three kids, why are you adopting?”

I hesitate. I don’t know why. What can I say? It’s just another way to have a kid. It’s how I came into my family so it seems natural to build my family through adoption. I don’t know.

How can I not know?

Incidentally, my oldest daughter is 8.  My second daughter turns 8 next month.  I hope their truth is very different than mine was.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Enough with the happy crap. Let's go to North Korea.

I don't know how I stumbled upon this book, or why I chose to download it. It took me several weeks to read, and I concurrently finished 3 other books because I frequently needed to switch this one out.  It is worth noting that I've never had much interest in North Korea. I have a complicated and strange relationship with South Korea, and it was just too far a reach to even consider having an opinion about the northern half of the peninsula.  As a child, I didn't even know what S. Korea was, or where. I knew nothing about its people and could not recognize its language until I was a college graduate. I never knew S. Korea called itself Hanguk, that its language was Hangul, and that the north and south were once the same country. They might as well have been the Dakotas.

My first assignment in the Army was at Camp Laguardia, Uijongbu, Republic of Korea. I had freely chosen that assignment for myself, but as my departure date drew closer I grew increasingly terrified. I called every officer I thought might have a smidge of clout. I begged the branch to reassign me to Ft. Hood with my fiancé. Two weeks after our wedding, with two overstuffed duffel bags and a stomach full of fear, I boarded a plane for Kimpo International Airport, in the heart of Seoul. I envisioned Korea as a black, empty place.  I unleashed a lifetime of suppressed anxiety about a country that had not wanted me.  

When the plane landed, everything changed. The sun was shining. People were busy, happy, and wealthy. The city was shiny and modern.  Little at a time, I began to reclaim my inner Korean, or at least my fully Americanized version of her. This small little blog cannot contain the descriptions of returning to my birth country. There is not enough literary talent on this side of the world to express the range, the depth, the complexities of thought and emotion. Suffice it to say, the experience was staggering.

This is all to say that I have given everything to South Korea. I really had nothing left for North Korea.  Until now.

N. Korea was, and remains, basically a prison.  It is an entire nation imprisoned by the ideology of pure socialism and absolute power.  The regime is so oppressive that a N. Korean citizen could be executed for joking about their dictator's height.  Nothing to Envy is a peek into the lives of typical N. Koreans in the past fifty years.  It neatly narrates the downward spiral of a regime, and the awakening of an ideologue nation.

It is hard to imagine a country so closed off,  isolated, and completely self-absorbed.  It is incomprehensible that N. Koreans would have adored their "Great Marshall" so unwaveringly and swallowed their bitter fate so unflinchingly.  But through the personal narratives given in this book, we begin to see.  We witness how the regime so cleverly envelops each citizen in a shroud of indoctrination, distrust, uncertainty, impotence, and fear.  Kim Il Sung's particular brand of totalitarianism run so deep that the penance of one citizen must be repaid by the next three blood generations.  When fear for one's own life is not convincing enough, the regime threatens the whole house.

The very real, detailed descriptions of famine and survival depict tragedy at the least, and downright evil at the worst.  I never would have realized that N. Korea and Nazi Germany had so much in common, if the tales weren’t right there in undeniable black and white.

But you know what really surprised me?  My reaction to the section on reunification.  The way my eyes would start to burn, my throat close up a little, and the air would suck out of me.  I want reunification for the Koreas, for my first country.  I just want some part of Korea to seem whole, because for me everything there is broken.  The lives of mothers and children, whole families, governments, two entire nations of brokenness.  Even those defectors who manage to reintegrate into S. Korean society never find a wholeness – their hearts are divided across two halves of the same whole.  Maybe it’s a little presumptuous, but I know what that feels like.  Perhaps that is the fate of the Koreas, and of Koreans – to always be a half.  To be living incongruity.

Official Nothing to Envy website

See?  I made it through an entire blog post about Korea without one single mention of the A-word.