As adoptees, we share our stories with each other and that is the burden. That is the work; the remembering, the rephrasing, the reflecting on things that should not be true on lives that could have been different. We reconstruct our stories, retell them to each other; and they seem less tragic, more bearable, because they have been borne. So, we know it can be done, has been done. Tragic, not a tragedy, a phrase that echoes in my mind each time I hear a new story. And as my Korean adoptee portrait participants are all still alive, we do not delve into the tragedy of suicide or death though those thoughts hang in the ether as they have whispered to some of us, much like the lotus eaters with seductive fruits promising emptiness and forgetfulness.
"Butterfly dreams" is the latest drawing portrait in my "Seeds From the East: Korean Adoptee Portrait Project." The drawing is of Lisa Jackson, Han Jung Ja, and her Korean mother, Han Ok Hee. The adoption photo I referenced was likely taken circa 1966. Lisa was relinquished in 1968 and finally adopted in 1969 by a loving African American couple. As a Korean American mixed child, Lisa lived with her birth mother until the age of 5. In those five years, she was loved and cherished. In those five years, Han Ok Hee waited for the man who had spent 11 months with her and impregnated her. He would not return.
In Korea, Han Ok Hee may have been ostracized for having a child with an African American soldier. That is not the catalyst for Lisa’s story. Lisa told me that according to the story, she had been so abused at school by the other students that she would often come home in tears. For that reason, and because of tensions within her own family, Lisa’s personal safety had been in jeopardy.
Lisa’s birth mother believed she had no other choice. She dressed Lisa up and brought her to the orphanage. She also escorted her to the plane that would take her daughter to the United States. Han Ok Hee would wait her whole life for that daughter to return. She knew her name was on her daughter’s adoption file. Her daughter was also registered in her grandfather’s family registry even without a Korean father. She was desired. She was loved.
At the age of 81, Lisa’s birth mother would succumb to Alzheimer’s. Han Ok Hee would regress mentally to the year she surrendered her daughter to the orphanage, 1968. Lisa would not see her adoption document with her birth mother’s name on it, until two years after Han Ok Hee had passed. Lisa unwittingly had the document in her possession. It was filed in her adoptive father’s boxes which she inherited after his passing, two years prior to Ok Hee’s passing.
Lisa knows all this because she is “in reunion” with her birth family. In the adoptee community, this means an adoptee has found someone in their birth family and they are communicating. The level of communication and engagement for adoptees “in reunion” runs the gamut and it can come with a variety of complicated and new emotional hurdles and trauma for some. Lisa has been to Korea and met with her biological aunt and uncle. She also reunited with her birth father, an African American military man. She found him through DNA and connected with him, a multitude of siblings, and an extended family here in the U.S. In addition to her African American siblings, she has a half German sister and a half Vietnamese brother. Lisa is the eldest of six.
I tell the breadth of Lisa’s story because what she knows of her mother so moved me. I was born in Korea in 1968, the same year that Lisa was in an orphanage. Though we were in different parts of the country, we were both in foster care through Holt and could have passed each other, though I was still a baby.
The bravery, or foolishness, of Ok Hee to fall in love with an African American soldier is contrary to the general accusations of racism during the time. There would not have been these babies if everyone were willing to be segregated. She never married and never had any other children. As the story sometimes goes, some women marry and want to keep their past a secret. Some will not reunite with the children they relinquished, now adults, for fear of the repercussions in their current families and lives.
I interpret Lisa’s birth mother’s refusal to build another family as a refusal to wholly relinquish her daughter. This feels tragically sad and beautiful to me. Han Ok Hee lived the rest of her life never knowing the beautiful woman, wife, mother, and grandmother her daughter had become. She would not ever learn of the tribe of 19 great-grandchildren she would have and the beautiful legacy her love had created.
After my two-hour long interview with Lisa, I sat with her story for weeks. I avoided the portrait and then each drawing attempt eluded me, as if I did not truly want to know Han Ok Hee’s face, as she, too, belonged in the picture. Part of my drawing process is memorization. I draw the portrait until I know it from memory, intuitively.
In conversations around adoption, often the spotlight shines on the new adoptive mother and her joy, her grace. With this project, I stand on the other side of the river reflecting on the loss of a birth mother, of a child. In truth, I too am the child, and the loss.
I surprised myself after listening to Lisa’s story. Tracing the footprints of other adoptees’ stories makes me confront unexamined possibilities. The story I was told about my own adoption was that I had been dropped off at the orphanage, and my birth mother had died. I still had not quite forgiven my own birth mother. I understood the sacrifice, but the truth of her possible sorrow I had never allowed to be considered. I thought I had passed through that gate. I had not realized it was a circle. Hearing Lisa’s story woke me to forgiveness, a land far from understanding, and for that I am truly grateful.
As I continue to interview adoptees and draw adoption portraits, my fortune grows with the new friends I am making and the lives I am witnessing. In any story the pieces can be made shiny and romantic, but for many adoptees, the day-to-day work of knowing, not knowing, of being, and accepting continues. I believe the sorrow, the love, and the work intertwined create beauty, not because they are tragic or romantic, but because these acts create and endure hope. It is this hope that has saved so many of us, and if shared, may save or bring peace to many more.
In the spring of 2022, I will kick off my national tour of the "Seeds From the East: Korean Adoptee Portrait Exhibit," at the Phillip Jaisohn Memorial House in Media, PA.
The meaningfulness of this Foundation in Korean American History is profound, and I am honored to be sharing the Korean adoptee experience in this of all places.
Dr. Philip Jaisohn (Soh Jaipil) was the first Korean American immigrant to become a naturalized US citizen in 1890. He was an activist, revolutionary, and during his time living in Korea he printed the first Korean paper typed in Hangul called The Independent (Tongnip Sinmun). He settled in Media, PA, and worked in Philadelphia for 25 years as a surgeon, a medical researcher, and an activist. He was the first Korean American to receive a medical degree in the United States. He is credited with bringing together the first Korean American Congress in 1919 and establishing “21 Chapters of the League of Korean Friends all over the United States.”
Dr. Philip Jaison’s spirit of activism and his belief in cultural freedom were welcomed by America back in 1890. It is a spirit still needed today.
The exhibition will also be exhibited in Virginia at the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University from September 29th to December 10, 2022. With funding and support, the show and accompanying workshops on transracial adoptee issues will travel to Minnesota and Oregon in 2023.
If you are interested in learning more about and supporting the project, click: Seeds From the East Touring Exhibition, or subscribe to A.D. Herzel’s Patreon. All funds will pay for the shipping, travel, framing, and cost of the portrait donations to the Adoptee Participants. You will get access to free swag, and first looks at the new portraits, Limited Edition prints, process, and stories.
You can also join us at the #UniversalAsianVoices: Making Change-Seeds From the East- event
Cover image: Drawing "Butterfly’s dreams" 20 x 24, A.D. Herzel
Image: "Mother Ship" Ordering window opens Nov. 1 – Nov. 30