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  • Lauren Burke

What the Korean Peninsula Means to Me

I boarded a Northwest Airlines flight from Incheon to Seattle in March 1990. At just six months old, I could not possibly know what kind of life awaited me or where I was going. I left Korea as Jung Mee Na and assumed a new identity as Lauren Burke. The day my U.S. citizenship was established, I would lose all ties to Korea. Adoption became the lens through which my whole life would be defined. It’s no wonder that it took me so long to claim my Korean and Asian American identities; adoption made me believe a completely different story.


I grew up next to my grandfather’s farm; on land homesteaded by my mother’s side of the family decades earlier. I was the only Asian American, and the only adoptee, I knew after we moved to Florida when I was in fifth grade. From what I can remember, I was also the only one with a physical disability, which added to the complexity of explaining my existence to curious classmates. I’m sure I asked my parents questions about these things, but I fail to remember a time where I questioned anything more deeply—until three years ago. I wrote a poem back then that would effectively upend the comfortable existence I had built to keep me safe from dealing with my adoption. So, now, I am flipping the script on the story adoption wrote for me and picking up the pen from here on out.


I thought digging into my Korean roots would be an objective and academic exploration of another country. What do the history books have to say about Korea? That is what I set out to learn. However, what has actually manifested is a much more subjective journey that has led me to discover my own reflection. The more I learn about the culture, language, history, and customs, the more I am able to rewire this rusty connection to a place I have always ached to know. Korea is full of duality: trauma and healing; light and dark times; eras of pain countered by collective resilience; poverty, suffering, comfort women, and an ongoing war met by the voices of Koreans keeping their traditions and telling their stories even today.


Adoption for me feels much the same. There is: love and loss; hope and despair; the me that I experience and the me that was lost somewhere in a hospital in Daejeon. My life in the United States and the short life I lived in Korea are forever intertwined. Korea is a part of me, and I am a part of Korea. We call this the human experience, and as far as I know, there is no instruction manual on how to navigate being adopted.


There are a few things I would like adoptive parents and those with adoptees in their lives to know. It is important to allow your adoptee to determine how much, or how little, they want to engage in their story; for some, this is a really painful subject, and they may not be ready to dive into or disclose feelings. For others, they wish there was a megaphone so everyone else would hear that adoptee voices matter in the triad, even when a child might be too young to speak. Particularly for those adopting transracially, please examine your willingness and awareness of the inevitable cultural barriers that will exist for your child and for your family at large. Ignorance here is not bliss. Try your best to create future pathways for your child to retain, or regain their native citizenship; legally, this is an exhausting, expensive process to go through as an adult. Most of all, love is not an eraser. While it is so important for an adoptee to feel loved and cared for, that will not ever replace the identity that is lost via adoption.


One of the ways I have connected with myself and with the peninsula my heart never really departed from during this time of enlightenment is through writing. I started an email account where I write my first mother letters every now and again. If I ever have the opportunity to meet her, maybe I will translate them, or have them translated for her. I also practice freewriting every day, and I have begun with this very piece, to write and contribute to The Universal Asian. I am in a place where I want to tell my story of adoption, what I know so far…and what I learn along the way. I also hope to use my love for writing to meet some of you and get your stories out there, too.


If you are an adoptee reading this, wherever you are in your journey, I would encourage you by saying, there is no wrong place to be and no pace you must keep. Go your way, in your own time. Do find ways to express your feelings or safe spaces to process as you go, and take breaks for your mental and emotional health. No one needs to be courageous every moment of every day because adoption, no matter the circumstances or outcome, is lifelong. In case no one ever offered it as an option, I would also highly recommend exploring mental health counseling; the adoptee community, despite its general camaraderie, collective belonging, and safety amongst each other, can be an echo chamber. I have found it personally beneficial to have an unbiased third party to help me navigate the muddied waters of adoption through my own lens.

It is okay to rewrite the story of adoption through your own eyes. Take the term “home” for example. It is most commonly defined as: “the place that one lives.” But, it can also be defined as a verb, the action of “returning by instinct to [its] territory after leaving it.” Thirty-one years ago, I was taken from familiar soil, transplanted in a pot, and taken to foreign land. Although I do have a home and a life here in America that I cherish, I am discovering the feeling of comfort you get from being “home” in an entirely new way on my journey back home to Korea, so that’s a term I am redefining for myself. I have learned that living your story is quite possibly the most courageous thing you can ever do and so, this is mine. 저는정미나 입니다. 만나서 반가워요. (I’m Jung Mee Na; nice to meet you).

 

Lauren is on a personal mission to redefine the narrative of her adoption from Korea. She aims to share her own unique perspective in short essays and posts, in hopes that others might be encouraged to do the same. She is passionate about writing on themes like abandonment and loss, connection, identity formation, and self-acceptance within adoption. Lauren is a Korean Adoptee (KAD) from Daejeon, Korea and currently resides in central Florida. She currently works in non-profit finance and taps into her passions for writing and music as creative outlets. Lauren is also learning to communicate fluently in Hangul and hopes to return to Korea for the first time next year. She would love to connect with you and can be found at @itsjungmeena on Instagram.

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