My relationship with my identity, like so many Korean adoptees and people of color raised in the Pantone promise of American Whiteness, was fraught with contradiction. I usually felt white until someone reminded me that I wasn’t—often some asshole yelling, “Love you long time!” or something much worse—as I sped by in my wheelchair with my special joystick, only able to flip him off in my soul. Even in the bluest of neighborhoods in the bluest of states, I realized it was inescapable: no matter what, people would never see me as background, as white noise, as part of the blank canvas. Unless I was in my past life as a marketing coordinator at Coldwell Banker and an agent was courting a white, high-end client, or I was attending a meeting at Harvard and no one needed more napkins, I would never have the privilege of being invisible.
As an undergrad at Boston University I was called the “gaysian,” and once in line at Espresso Royale, I met a butch woman who introduced herself as the “kyke dyke” while I was waiting for my Americano. We laughed, but I never saw her again. My first roommate in the Philosophy House, Liesl, who was smarter than me, complained that she was always second chair to some Asian kid. “Was I an amazing clarinetist like Lindsay Liu? Nooooo. And why not? Because my white-ass parents were like”—her voice changed like they were grounding her—“‘We want you to be happy.’ Maybe if they were Nazi Asian parents I’d be at Harvard right now.” We laughed. After all, I was always second chair to a white kid who had Nazi white parents. Maybe the flaw was having white non-Nazi parents? Perhaps this was why we were philosophy majors.
My race was never real, just an absurd aside that only the people closest to me understood. Back in Arkansas where I grew up, my friend Jen would poke me and point to the calligraphy on the wall, “Hey Mandy, what’s that say?” when a group of us would go to a Chinese restaurant, making us laugh so hard we couldn’t even tell the hostess how many people were in our party. And when the sappy Cantopop songs crooned over the speakers, her twin sister Jessica would ask, “Hey Mandy, what’s she sayin’?” and we’d cover our mouths, trying not to choke on our Kung Pao chicken and make a scene. It was absurd that I, the person who spoke some of the best English in Crawford County, would be expected to know every Asian language. The people closest to me got it, but the world never seemed to be in on the joke: I was an Asian character written by a white author.
My feelings about race surfaced in their strangeness as I began to interact more with my caretaker, Shreya. Now that my health was improving and each day was not a breathless rush to save my life, there was room for conversations that, with time, became lighter, friendlier. I hadn’t realized that she had been coming to work for a mystery woman this whole time: me. For months, almost a year, she had been taking care of someone who didn’t speak, a sick body without the privilege of a personality, soon to die of a fatal autoimmune disease she couldn’t pronounce: scleroderma.
When I did say something, it was in the sparing language of someone’s parting words, each syllable sounding like my last. I was someone she knew the way a detective might, through the lens of my uncomplicated monthly bills, rare package deliveries, the occasional friend who dropped in, my bookshelves, and the movies she retrieved from the library, from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Blazing Saddles to Amélie. But now that we could talk about things that weren’t of the gravest importance, she could start to unravel me and I, her. As I became less of a patient and more of a human being, she began to show me myself in a way I had never seen before.
“You not really Asian. You look Asian, but act American,” she observed one day, eyeing me suspiciously, like a parcel sent to the wrong address.
“Well, I mean, I was raised here,” I responded, stating what I thought was obvious.
“Many Asian people grow up in America, but still they are Asian,” she pointed out. It was true. My ex-girlfriend who wasn’t even full Taiwanese introduced me to fish cakes and took me to the Asian markets around town, where I saw weird shit like vegetables that looked like overgrown garnish and noodles that weren’t Italian.
“Those people have Asian parents, Shreya,” I explained. “My family was American. I wasn’t ever taught anything Asian.” I didn’t tell her that it was actually the opposite: that when I was a little girl and brought home the Upanishads, a sacred Hindu text from India, I was immediately instructed to return it to my neighbor’s house because it wasn’t the Bible. I didn’t tell Shreya I was taken out of Taekwondo when my parents found out they were teaching us how to meditate, because sitting quietly and imagining the sky was the devil’s prayer. “I was raised as a Christian, not as a Buddhist or Hindu,” I told her. “I grew up with a fork and knife. And Girl Scout cookies.”
“Oh,” she nodded, looking at me the same way I once looked at Windows running on an Apple computer.
In a way, spending time with Shreya was the most Asian thing I had ever done. Still, she’d insist that I was Asian, and, in turn, I would argue how white I was. “I just look like this,” I once said. “Like someone who looks smart because they wear glasses or something, but is actually stupid.” We sat in silence, turning over my flawed analogy.
“But you smart,” she threw back. “Like Korean.”
I was stumped. How do you argue with that?—No, I’m an idiot!
“Don’t you want to find your family?” she sometimes asked.
“Not really,” was my answer—to everyone, every time. Why would I want another one of those? Plus, I’d tried to find them once. Kind of.
In 1999 during the winter of my freshman year of college in the murkiest dredges of my parents’ divorce, I asked Holt International, my adoption agency, to perform a birth-family search. But they demanded that I write a check for an amount I couldn’t imagine ever being able to afford, hundreds of dollars that could snowball into thousands, all with the fine-print guarantee that there was no guarantee. Anyway it sounded like a scam, and I doubted they would even look.
But thirteen years later—alone, bedridden, and diagnosed with an incurable disease that promised an early, agonizing death—I checked in with Holt again, desperate enough to sell what little I had left and give them, literally, all I had. To my surprise, at some point during those passing years, Holt had ended requiring payments to perform birth-family searches. I wasn’t sure why the change of heart and didn’t think too much about it, though later I learned that they’d been accused of extortion and were publicly shamed for charging adoptees reunification fees after profiting from our separation. At the time, all I knew was that I could search without having to make a down payment for something that would probably never materialize—I could get my birth records for free.
Unlike most adoptees, I actually had birth records that weren’t burnt up in one of the many mysterious fires South Korea claimed ravaged hospitals in the early 1980s—fires that conveniently only destroyed the rooms where our records were held. I had received them while I was in the nursing home and paperwork was still a way of life, when people with hands that could hold a pen were constantly around. But my birth records sat unattended for months, printed and stowed away in some out-of-reach place with my other belongings, put on hold with everything else in the constant crush of more pressing matters. I would finally look them over far outside of Boston in the home of Korean strangers, months before I met Shreya.
For a few months after my time at the nursing home, I stayed with random acquaintances, mostly people I didn’t know very well. The only ones who welcomed me into their homes without charging me rent were evangelicals or another denomination of Christian my evangelical parents would have side-eyed. One home was with the devout parents of a South Korean friend of mine, Frances, whom I had met at a Gay Harvard happy hour.
At Harvard, the staff and students frequently complained about how hard it was to find community: it was nearly impossible to meet people outside your department. There were Asian clubs, even a Korean one, but they were of no use to me, given that the members were all, to my mind, math and science geniuses, with some Harvard Medical/Law/Business Schoolers in the mix. I felt more at home in the pasty white Deutsch clubs—my poor Kaffeeklatsch skills were somehow less limiting. I often felt like the first gay person any of the Asian international students had ever met and the only Asian in the world who wasn’t trying to become a doctor or an engineer.
On the other hand, the LGBT community at Harvard cut across everything. Every demographic—rich or poor, brainy or beautiful—every department, country, political bent, and religion eventually popped out a gay kid who would grow up to be someone’s aunt, uncle, or, in some cases, aunt-turned-uncle. Homosexuality showed up unannounced at all parties, including the ones it wasn’t invited to. In the gay Harvard clubs, the Asians were different too. Being scandalously different shook them loose from their conservative culture and forced them to think critically, unlike those who mindlessly shimmied into the margins of comfort and security, like a straitjacket that fit perfectly, right off-the-rack.
My new gay Harvard buddy Frances had passed one of my emails along to his father, Mr. Cho, in which I had detailed my repeated near misses of landing an apartment with my Section 8 voucher. At the time I was trying to move to California for the mild weather, but there wasn’t enough support for me to do it. No co-workers to push a mattress into the corner of my bedroom. No one to take off work to help me drive across the country with my things. It was too big an ask for non-family, people who don’t have to pretend to love you.
Mr. Cho’s thoughtful email offered a way we could help each other: he needed a website and I needed a place to stay and money for moving costs. I could even bring my little dachshund Dim Sum. It also came with an added bonus: I could get a taste of Korean culture—his wife cooked Korean food every day.
While there, I made my one agonizing trip down the stairs each morning to sit in the large open dining room. Mr. Cho was a veterinarian with no pets and appeared lost when presented with a fully conscious dog for more than a few minutes. He’d say hello to Dim Sum, then stand there as if it was Dimmy’s turn to say something. Whenever he left for another long day at the clinic, his wife would disappear somewhere too, running errands or out in the garden, so I was usually alone, with the place mostly to myself.
I would eat just enough to be able to take my millions of pills without getting nauseous—pills that made my body hurt differently, giving me a synthetic strength that enabled me to use limbs in ways I would later regret, requiring more pills. Then I would sit at the table, revved up and sick from the steroids, and try to type for a while before needing to lie down.
It was at the Chos’ dining room table that I read my birth records for the first time. I hadn’t seen them since I was too young to understand. My last memory of them was of sitting on my parent’s bedroom floor, my mother showing me my Korean name printed in Hangul. When I was eight, she sewed these strange symbols on the back of my Taekwondo uniform, or dobok, which my white Northern California sobom called a gi, because apparently Japanese and Korean words look alike.
Now I was at the Chos’ long cherry table, my body small in the expanse of the open kitchen and dining area, the midday light streaming through the glass doors and wall of windows facing the garden. Pulling out the set of birth records sent months ago by Holt, I pored over them, surprised at how powerfully the information struck me, reading about my birth so close to my death. Even though my mother had always been encouraging—buying me Korean books and trying to get me excited about returning to maybe, someday, reunite with my birth mother—I had always been content with the story that we just didn’t know much. But now I wondered if my parents had known everything.
The documents themselves felt like they were recently exhumed from an archaeological site, a mix of handwriting and letters from an old typewriter, the sheets official and governmental with duplicate documents in Hangul and English like it was a Korean Rosetta Stone—all stained with ink from official rubber stamps. There were two versions, one American and one Korean, the latter with additional photos, including an earlier baby picture I’d never seen, which looked like a perfect prototype of me. There was a mix of medical documents and reports covered with signatures, dates, and the word “confidential.”
As I read through the fleshed-out file, details that had remained a mystery my whole life, questions my mom had—that a mother would have—were answered. It made me miss her. She, too, was now a maternal absence in my life, her mental illness having disappeared her.
Spread out before me lay the first fourteen months of my life, a reality of myself that had always existed somewhere else, faraway, as if I were my own dead relative I had never been fortunate enough to meet. The file began, “Need for Protection: Abandoned Child,” dated Oct 15, 1980. But my birthday was in February—I was given up at six months old, not eight. That’s what my mom had always told me. Where were the missing two months?
I scanned the next few pages: old handwritten xeroxes stamped in official Korean.
Then another page in English. “Father: No Record. Mother: No record.” Breaking news, I thought to myself, scrolling past a few more pages filled with Hangul. Then, bingo: Child’s Progress Report. Admission date 8/18/80, the day after my mom’s birthday. Given that Korea is one day ahead, I realized that I had actually been surrendered to the agency on her birthday. Amazing, I thought before feeling my heart drop. I wish I could tell her. I kept reading. “Birthplace: Miryang. Present location: Busan Foster Home.” I was in a foster home? “Has a scar 6cm long on the middle of her right head.” Great translation, guys.
I did have a massive scar on the back of my head that hairdressers had to cut around. My mother always sensed that I had been in a serious accident that set into motion my birth mother giving me away. It was a scar that could have killed a grown adult, much less an infant. Growing up, our family always joked that I had been dropped on my head as a baby.
Child’s Development. “Takes 250cc of milk every 4 hours. Enjoys crackers. Has 1-2 normal bowel movements daily. Sleeps from 8pm until 10am.” Oh, how little things change. “Can say, ‘Umma, ab-bu-ba’ (‘Mama, carry me piggyback!’). Plays, crawls, can stand up and sit down by herself. Pulls to standing position with object.” I’m afraid things have gone slightly downhill since then. “Has one lower tooth.” I remembered my earliest photograph at eight months old, looking like the Korean Gerber baby. Aw.
Social Relationships. “Looks at her bomo with a smile and is well attached to her.” Bomo. Wet nurse. But I thought I was scared of women when I arrived? “Is fond of one who holds her in arms or gives her cookies.” Mmm… cookies. “Takes toy away from same aged children.” That’s me! “Is fond of elder children. Is well held in their arms.” I sat, stunned. I once liked being touched.
Location. “Is doing well with her foster father and mother in their fifties, and their three children.”
“Somebody loved you,” I heard my mom say.
“How could you tell?” I ask. I am five, maybe six.
“Because you weren’t like the other babies,” she says. “You knew how to be held.” Then why didn’t they keep me?
Medical Examination. “No defect, disease, or disability.”
A list of boxes: “Chest X-ray, blood serological report, nose, lips, lungs, liver, speech development; no specific finding, negative, normal, normal, clear, not enlarged, moderate.” Normal. I was normal. I was healthy.
Summary and Recommendations:
Mee Ok is a lovely looking baby with large and dark eyes. She dimples whenever she smiles. She is normally developed physically, mentally, and emotionally with no problems for her age. Should grow into a fine girl in good health if given good care.
Next up in the portfolio: “What Youth” by Mark Kyungsoo Bias
Mee Ok Icaro’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, AGNI, River Teeth, Bennington Review, and elsewhere, and is featured in [Un]well, a documentary, on Netflix. Winner of the inaugural Prufer Poetry Prize, she was runner-up in the Prairie Schooner Creative Nonfiction Contest and a finalist for both the Scott Merrill Award for poetry and the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. mee-ok.com (updated 10/2023)