So on my last day teaching small group discussion with my only student, 18 year old Dae-won, we were contrasting the lack of respect young people have for adults vs. the traditional Korean values of respecting elders which is a core tenet of Confucianism. He told me the lack of respect was wrong and that he liked that aspect of being Korean.
We talked about different aspects of the Korean value system. We talked about race, and he felt racial discrimination was wrong. What about ugly people? fat people? “To be honest, I don’t like ugly people. If they are nice, I will tolerate them, but I would never let one be my friend.” (Huh? Koreans are very candid, I’ll grant them that…) What about working for a woman boss? He felt gender discrimination was wrong but didn’t think that a female boss would ever be common, but that it might be a problem in the office, and I suspect that maybe he wouldn’t work in an office with problems… I told him how women are still not equal in America, but that we are almost equal in the workplace now, that we are close. What about the hagwon system? He felt it was necessary, because the public schools’ education was not good. But wasn’t that elitist? Doesn’t that mean the poor can never climb up in society? Yes, it was unfair, but that’s just the way it’s always been and it won’t change. But what if all that money spent at hagwons was spent improving public education? “That’ll never happen.” What about corporal punishment? He felt it was harmful to both student and teacher. So if it’s harmful, how should students learn right from wrong? Corporal punishment. But didn’t you just say it was harmful? Harmful but necessary.
I asked him what about Korea needs to be fixed, and he started a really long list: racial discrimination, gender discrimination, age discrimination, class discrimination, civil rights, university entrance exams, etc., etc., and more etc. Then I asked him what about Korea should stay the same? Immediately he talked about respecting elders, and then, then there was a long pause, followed by a longer pause, followed by a still longer pause, followed by I-can’t-think-of-anything-more. We kind of had a shared moment of silence surveying the imbalance of his lists, and I think he had sort of a revelation at that moment.
I gave him a short article about adoption. It offered two opinions about finding birth families. One talked about how noble it was to save children but that it was understandable if those children longed to search for more information about their original identity at some point. The other was from one of those happy adoptees who think anyone who searches is damaged and angry, and belittled them for selfishly hurting their real parents, the ones who raised them. I told him to ask me any questions he wanted to, and he came up with, “Why would someone adopted care whether another adopted person wanted to search or not? If I were adopted I would have to search. Isn’t that human nature?” I explained how complicated it was for us adoptees and how we are made to feel grateful, how dealing with adoption is a life-long process, and how threatening it can be to find the path they have chosen is rejected as harmful by other adoptees. But that I agreed with him: wanting to know is probably human nature.
I asked him if he became a father suddenly, what would he do? He kind of short-circuited and so I asked him if he had seen the movie, “Jenny and Juno.” He told me that yes, he had seen it and that actually it made a huge impression on him and his friends because they were also in middle school at the time. “We thought: THAT COULD HAPPEN TO US!” Did he agree with Jenny and Juno’s decision to keep their baby? He told me that it was great, but that it wasn’t real, because actually Jenny and Juno didn’t raise their baby: their parents did, which didn’t seem likely. He wasn’t sure. He just wasn’t sure what he would do.
After more talking, I told him how really rewarding it was for me to hear the opinions of Korean students. He asked if I was going to be there next year, and I told him that I had wanted to be, but that because of politics I had to find a new job. He asked how it was going and I told him not well, because of the discrimination. He asked if I was going to be okay and I told him I wasn’t sure. He told me he wished he was in grade 1 so he could have had me as a teacher for a full year. I told him that it was better this way, that the grade 1 boys weren’t mature and didn’t appreciate the opportunity. He told me that it was a great, great opportunity. I told him to contact me any time he wanted to.
In a previous discussion class with the Korean English teachers, I had given them Stories from Korean Unwed Mothers to read, from (I think) the Korean Women’s Development Institute. The teachers were really moved and couldn’t thank me enough for the really provocative reading. “Good. VERY good. Very Interesting.”
As we discussed the different narratives, it was interesting to see how divergent the opinions on them were. The male teacher stated, “I am not convinced. These women complain but it is their fault they are in these situations.” The female teachers had less blanket judgments, depending on the circumstances. (most of these stories defied the stereotype of the teenage mom who gets in trouble. In each of these stories the father was totally not culpable for anything. The women were duped, abused, or robbed, etc., and left with huge bills, no means of monetary support, and excommunication from their families.)
The first story especially upset the women. One of the female teachers just shook her head and said, “That girl. She did everything she was supposed to do! She was a really good person, had worked hard and had her whole life ahead of her, and the only thing she did wrong was make a mistake in judging her fiance’s character! (as did her entire family – their relationship was condoned, the father was already part of the household, and he even took on the husband role after the baby was born – but ultimately ran away from his responsibilities) I could be that girl! What is a girl supposed to do? One mistake and her life is ruined! How can we know? All it takes is one wrong man.” (And there are so many here)
In the end, all of the teachers, even the male teacher, felt great sympathy for the plight of the unwed moms. I asked the teachers, what would you do if your daughter was in such a situation? Even with all they had learned and all they had felt, one of them pretty much spoke for all of them and told me, ” I would make her give the child up for adoption.”
Wtf? How could they say that after displaying an outpouring of sympathy and sometimes admiration for these women?
In the land of the morning calm there is a deadly fatalism that nothing can be changed. In this fatalistic land, alternative options are not considered.
We adoptees make our appeals on t.v. and are exploited. We are the day’s drama. Today’s tear. Forgotten tomorrow. The search for things to cry about is unrelenting here. It is cathartic to shed tears, but working towards change is too dangerous. Let others take those risks. The tears are cheap. This human drama happens to others: not our family. If it does happen in our family: deny, deny, deny. Preserve the image at all cost: That baby never happened.
Just below the surface in the land of the morning calm is an hysteria, an illness so chronic yet also acute no one can remember a day without it. Fear of hunger, fear of having the individual beat out of you, fear of violation by invaders, and fear of social isolation has been replaced by keeping up with the Kims. Image is everything here. Your judgment by society is everything here. The Confucian hierarchy and class consciousness has never disappeared: it’s just shape-shifted.
The mudang mediates between the living and the dead who don’t rest. She has the haunted living untie knots in cloth to release bondage from the disturbed spirits of the dead. The adoptees visit fortune tellers and challenge them without birthdays or history to go by. They talk of exorcism ceremonies by mudangs. But is it to release us from the bondage of the dead, or from bondage by the living? Maybe instead of exorcism we need to call the dead. Oh honorable great great great great grandfather, your blood has been cast aside as worthless. How do you feel about that?
What does Korea do with us? We the children that never happened. Deny, deny, deny. We haunt Korea like the dead that don’t rest. Our drama provides momentary release. But we’re supposed to go away again, not continue to disturb with our nagging presence. Korea wants to exorcise us but untie nothing. They keep creating more of us, casting us as far away as possible, killing us off. What tangle of knots does that create? What kind of passive aggressive violent knot does everything challenging Confucius make? What if Confucius was wrong? Have they suffered more by their own hand than all the conquering forces combined? When will the fallacy of “harmful but necessary” sink in? When will suffering stop being romanticized as noble? There is a knot for every baby sent away. The cloth stretches around the globe. How can a whole nation untie something that big?