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Decision-Making & Choosing Our Identity

After my birth family reunion a few years ago, I went through a major identity crisis. Since then, I’ve been working out my own identity: What makes me who I am? I’ve been exploring the concept of decision-making. I wonder how much of who I am and the decisions that I’ve made have been formed by my biological genetic inheritance versus the environment in which I was raised. As adoptees, the question of how much our genes (biology) and our family environment contributed to our identity is brought to the forefront in a more direct way than for other non-adopted people. There’s often a feeling of being split between these two things and straddling the line somehow.

My adoptive mom would be the first to admit that one of her main weaknesses is in the area of communication. She struggles to open up and be vulnerable. She’s introverted as an adult and said she never got involved in any social extracurricular activities growing up. I have wondered if I would be a different type of person if I was raised in a different type of environment. What if I grew up watching really great communicators? What if I had exposure to learning life lessons from stellar-communicators? Would I be less backwards and awkward in social settings? Would I have more confidence to put myself out there and be vulnerable? Would I be better at communicating and therefore receive more of what I wanted? Would I be further in my career? Would I have a different career? Would I make more money? It’s a question that I’ve pondered as I grew up and in my adulthood.

After reuniting with my birth family in 2014, my mind has been blown by the ways in which I am like my birth family. Our dark hair and Asian eyes are a given. But more than just our appearances, we also have a really have similar work-ethic. We are both very driven and extremely hard-working.  We have similar life-outlooks when it comes to careers, how we spend our time, and on religion. It’s uncanny and unbelievable at times how alike we are in the decisions we’ve made. Certain mannerisms are even the same. Even for small habits that one would never think could be genetically-based, like the way my cousin and I straighten out the little section between our nose and our mouth when we speak. I did this little movement so often growing up, that my adoptive family noticed it as a little mannerism of mine. And it’s not a common habit. Growing up, I thought I was the only one who did that, because I never knew anyone else who did that as often as I did. I was shocked when I met my biological cousin to discover that he did that too even though we were raised in completely different environments apart from one another!

It’s interesting to have a daughter of my own to have a different vantage point to reflect on these questions. My little girl, who is 2-and-a-half years old is one of the most driven individuals I’ve ever met. She works so hard at meticulously setting up her things exactly the way she wants them. And when she or my husband accidentally messes with her set-up, she lets us know! So, in that sense she speaks her mind. When she’s unhappy, the entire house knows it. She doesn’t hold back when it comes to letting her dad and I know what she wants. The other day, we were visiting a neighbor’s house who also has small children. They have a small push cart that goes on a track that you can ride down like a mini-roller coaster train. And the children take turns riding the cart down the tracks. In this particular environment while playing with the neighborhood children, my daughter did something surprising. When it was my daughters turn to ride the push-cart, she liked to push the cart up the track herself, and then ride it down the little track. But each time she went to push the cart up the track for her turn to ride it down, her friend would come and take the cart from her and push it up for her. The little girl was so enthusiastic about it and even said, “I help!” to let me daughter know that she was helping her take her turn. Instead of letting the little girl know that she wanted to push the cart up to the top herself, my daughter visibly caved her shoulders and posture inward and backed up– eventually sitting down on the side as the little girl pushed the cart for her. My daughter wasn’t despondent. She was just silent and unsure of what to do. So she stood back and took a backseat role to this more aggressive youngster. After a moment, she smiled brightly after the little girl pushed the cart to the top, stood up and took her turn to ride down the little roller coaster. I could see that my daughter wanted to push the cart. She loves to push things and feel heavy pressure against her joints as she does something daring and gratifying while playing. I was so surprised to watch her take a backseat in these moments and not use her voice to speak out to say that she could do it herself. I was amazed and saddened at how much this behavior reminded me of me. So many times, I too take a backseat when I should speak out. And for so long, I’ve blamed that backwardness on my adoptive mom. My adoptive mom’s incredibly introverted, and that’s where I believe I learned those behaviors. But in that moment, I realized– it was genetic. And I gave it to my daughter! Yikes!

I recently attended a women’s event at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania’s Business school. I mentioned that it’s often hard for me to answer general interview questions. Those that ask about your strengths and weaknesses or those that ask about a time when you had to work on a problem or work as a team. I just freeze in a panic and really struggle with thinking clearly to articulate my thoughts. One of the speakers recommended that I create a spreadsheet with my responses. Write down the questions that were asked of me, my answers, and their responses to what I shared. This is an excellent idea! How profound to take this process and track the outcomes systematically. Similarly, I’m currently reading a great self-help book called, No Hard Feelings, a wonderful book on how to manage and capitalize on emotions at work. The authors recommended readers to create a spreadsheet to record your decisions and your emotions and feelings in each case to then track the outcomes. This can help identify patterns of what your feelings and emotions are telling you, help you to decipher them, and help you to determine how reliable they can be. In a sense, learning how to decode your feelings.

After seeing this spreadsheet idea in two different venues, and loving both of the ideas, I realized that this would be a great idea to do to help my daughter! Rather than to feel paralyzed by this idea that this shyness and fear to speak up was “genetic,” and that this was destined to be her personality, I decided to start a running spreadsheet of areas that need attention that I notice in my daughter. Then, I will compile a list of ways to help her cultivate stronger skills in each area. Rather than let these parts of her personality be the finale, I’m going to apply some agency into helping her build strengths in these areas of need.

I was able to put these ideas into practice recently with our family gatherings. During my daughter’s last interaction with her older male cousin, she became frightened when he approached her with a loud roar and his hands poised for pouncing like he was a lion. She became so frightened that she started cry. We had another family event coming up at a trampoline park. When we entered the space, I could see fear splashed across my daughter’s face. It was dark, and neon lights were flashing across the ceiling, and there were kids making noises on a background of loud music and intercom announcements. She started to make herself small and cowered down in trepidation as we proceeded through the entry way. In that moment, I knew that this would be an opportunity for her to practice using her big voice and making herself known in an intimidating environment. So, I told her that if things get too loud, she can cover her ears. Because some things are too loud. And when we want to be loud, we can use a loud voice. We can practice doing a loud “ROAARRR!” So we did. And then, I said that if she wants to use her loud voice, she can! When she wants, she can use her voice and say words like, “I’M ALIYAH!!!” So we said that together! And she jumped and shouted and lifted her little hands in excitement. And it was one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had as a mom.

We proceeded into the trampoline park, and instead of cowering, my daughter was so big and loud, and I loved every moment of it. She was jumping and having a blast with her cousins, keeping pace with them every step of the way. She wasn’t scared of their big, loud older voices. In fact, she was talking and having fun with them and really standing her ground. At the end of the party, she even gave her cousin a big hug without any prompting from me. It was such a touching moment.

Our own choices are the seat of so much power. This agency is our x-factor. Regardless of what we are comprised of biologically-speaking, and regardless of what our parents were able to teach us, we all have this x-factor: that we get to choose how and what we do with what we’ve been given. It’s a lot of power. And sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the pressure of making the right choices. One reassurance highlighted by the book, No Hard Feelings: when there’s anxiety about making a decision between two choices, usually it’s because both options are good ones. (What a relief!)

I’ve realized a few things: Much more of my behaviors are biologically-based than I initially thought. Areas of my personality that I thought were more generalized into one camp (biologically-based) or the other (behaviorally-based) are actually more nuanced. But, most importantly, no matter where the behavior started–out of a biological response or a learned response, I have the power to decide what to do about it. I can choose to work on enhancing traits that I want to increase within myself and work on diminishing other traits within myself. I can build on my strengths. And I can strengthen my weak areas. And I can help my daughter discover who she is and teach her strategies to choose who she wants to be too. And ultimately, that’s the best all of us can do. To take what we’ve been given and apply our x-factor. I’ve been working with a life coach who really empowered me when he said that the goal is to be the best you you can be. Only you can do it. There’s no other competition as worthy of our time and attention than competing against who you were yesterday to be even better today. No one else can give the unique gifts to the world that you can offer. You are enough. Cherish the moments in your life like gold so that you can give them the respect, thought, and choices they deserve. They are comprising who you are.

I’m looking forward to seeing how you and I apply these ideas in our journey ahead. If you have any stories or thoughts about this topic you’d like to share, please feel free to contact me or leave them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you. I’ve listed a few of my favorite books in Personal Growth Resources. Dive in if you’re looking for some great-reads on how to live your best life. Know that you’re not alone in your search for your identity and your journey of how to live your best life. We are all on that journey together. And I’m rooting for you.

Xoxo 😘

-Rachel

Korean Adoptee Meet up in St. Louis

Within the past year, I joined a couple of Korean adoptee Facebook groups and met the most amazing adoptees from all over the US. It was in one of these groups, that I met April—a really lovely soul. This beautiful girl was abandoned in a marketplace in Korea when she was 5 years old. She still remembers her grandmother releasing her hand for the final time. She can still taste the salt of her tears and feel the grit of the dirt and her hair as the wind blew these across her mouth. April still flashes back to this moment when she hears her own beautiful little daughter cry for her. Such a profound moment in her life. Definitely something that has been a part of her past. But, April has not let the hardships she’s faced define her. She is stronger for her experiences. But she doesn’t dwell on them. She is one of the most incredibly loving, open, funny people I’ve ever met. She is married and has two beautiful children. Her family lives in St. Louis.

Last year, April began opening her home for Korean adoptees to meet up from all over the US. I had the most incredible time meeting up with the best girls and guys last weekend at April’s house. All of whom were Korean adoptees, like me! There were a bunch of Korean adoptees from St. Louis and the midwest, including Michigan and Ohio. A few from Texas, and my friend Gina from LA. It was so much fun to share similar stories of growing up in white families in white neighborhoods and to hear all of their European last names. I told everyone how I recently jokingly told someone she could call me, “Hey you!” and the woman thought I was telling her my Korean name: “Hei Yu.” Others had similar funny stories.

Some girls reunited with their birth families already. Many discovered their entire back stories were wrong. This can definitely shake a person to the core and is something that many adoptees can relate to. One girl reunited with her birth family and decided to spend a couple of years in Korea to get to know more about her Korean heritage. Another girl just started the process of searching for her birth family, so she’s really nervous about how everything will pan out. A few people shared that they never had a strong desire to reunite with their birth families, and they are okay with that.

We went out to a Korean karaoke bar and laughed when only two out of twenty of us knew enough Korean to work the controls. Thankfully, we were all okay singing out to English songs. There was kimchi. There was soju. There were beautiful Asian features. We were as Korean as it gets for Korean adoptees.

april, gina, me

I brought two pairs of shoes with me that I’ve been trying to give away for the past 6 months. They were two sets of gorgeous pumps –one metallic chrome and one bright turquoise. I haven’t had any takers because no one can fit into these gorgeous heels—my feet are very small. I even posted them on an online Facebook yard sale in my area with no luck. I brought them to this gorgeous group, knowing most of my Korean girlfriends would have similar frames. When I brought my shoes out, I immediately found new owners for these bombing shoes. So funny how such little things can make such a difference in normalizing my own petite features.

This meet up was so incredibly meaningful to me in my own personal journey. It’s amazing to think that I’m in such great company in my own personal experiences. So nice to feel the camaraderie and warmth of other Korean adoptees.

It’s amazing to me that in our shared experiences we all had an instant bond. I love getting to know new people and sharing stories. It definitely creates a special community where one can really feel that she belongs. One of my newfound friends described our meet up well by saying, “I have a tribe, a place to belong. It’s something you can’t really explain in words… it’s an experience. One I truly treasure.”

 

#mytribe #adoptees #koreanadoptees #stlouis

Losing the Mystery of my Birth Family

Twenty-fourteen has been the most amazingly incredible year of my entire life. Reuniting with my bio family was extremely joyous as well as incredibly heavy. I had no idea of the identity crisis that would ensue in reconnecting with them. Growing up I was surrounded by a Polish-German loving family that made me feel like I was the center of their entire universe. And this was my family. Even though we weren’t biologically related, and we didn’t look anything alike–this was who I took after. I had my adoptive mom’s somewhat shy personality and my adoptive dad’s love for adventure. My adoptive mom and I loved watching the same chick flicks and listening to the same sappy love songs. Her arms were the ones that held me when I was a child. Her sister-in-law, my aunt, taught me how to tie my shoes. Her brother, my uncle, taught me how to ride a bike. My adoptive dad told me that “I could be anything I wanted to be.” And that the “most important thing is to get an education.” These were the family members who taught me how to view the world; how to understand other people; how to prioritize my time; how to manage finances and other responsibilities; how to believe in spirituality; how to be a friend; how to fall in love; how to be married; and how to be myself.

My adoptive mom and I were bonded from the start. And before I met my biological family, I felt like a whole person. I didn’t feel that anything was necessarily missing from myself. There was a mystery about the first 9 months of my life and there was a mystery about who my biological family was, but I never felt incomplete. In fact, I think I actually felt stronger in myself as a person in the not-knowing. I was who I was– and being adopted and not knowing anything about my past before I was adopted was just part of my story. That was me, and I was okay with that.

After I met my biological family, I was no longer a person with a blank slate for a history. I had stories to correspond with my birth parents– real stories about real people. Weird discovering how new this was to me. As if I was realizing a stork didn’t just drop me off in my adoptive family’s home one day. I was actually born into a biologically-related family. And through the course of a couple of traumatic events, including my birth mom’s passing, I was severed from this family.

Reuniting with my bio family was like a seismic collision of earthquake proportion. The mystery of what my life was like before I was adopted was such a huge part of my identity. So much so that I think I actually grieved losing the person that I was before I reconnected with my bio family after we reunited. Because after this connection happened, there was no going back to that previous person, ever again. There were no take-backs. I can never un-know what I know now. I can never un-meet my biological family. I can never un-face the stories I heard surrounding my birth and my babyhood. I can never be a person without a history, ever again. And any person’s history involving an adoption is often a story of loss and a series of traumatic events.

I don’t mean that I want to un-meet my biological family. What I do mean is that before I met them, my history was like a dark windowless unlit room. Completely black. Nothingness. And this nothingness was the stronghold in which I built my entire identity on. I was a strong person because I had made it despite the fact that I started from nothingness. And now that I have a history, I am learning how to be a strong, powerful, human being with a past– an actual past. Not to mention learning how to incorporate all of these new human beings as part of my new identity. I lost my bearings for a bit. I’m seeing now that I need to gain my strength again with this new foundation– instead of a foundation of nothingness, it’s a foundation of loss and pain and, at times, joy. It’s a foundation of real memories being shared by my bio family members with me. It’s a foundation of details about my life before my adoption being sewn onto my post-adoption babyhood life. This is pretty incredible to think about, because before my reunion last year– I didn’t think I would ever be able to know any of these family members or hear any of these stories!

I’m learning where to go with this information. These new connections. These emotions. It’s like a door has been opened. It can’t be shut. I can only choose to walk through it– facing some of my greatest fears and also my life’s greatest adventures: getting to know my birth family and myself in ways that surpassed the realm of what I thought were possible. I’m really thankful that in this time of my life as I embark on these adventures, I have friends and family who deeply care about me. I’m holding onto them hand in hand as I enter this open door and say, “Let’s go for it.”

Korean Dramas

Watching K-dramas has given me a window into Korean culture that I never had as a transracial adoptee. It’s really neat to be able to learn about Korea and hear the language as an observer through watching these shows. Growing up, I never saw a lot of Koreans on tv or in person. I’ve really loved seeing really attractive, talented, and successful Korean actresses and actors on the shows.

Growing up, I was told was that my biological mom was cut off from her family because she married someone against her parent’s wishes. In American culture, adults generally don’t disown their children. So, it was hard for me to comprehend how this could even happen. Because of this story, I imagined Koreans to be cold and stoic, emotionless. I had no other frame of reference. Last year when I began watching Korean dramas on Netflix, my understanding of Korean people changed. I can honestly say that watching these dramas made me realize that Koreans probably cut off family members because they were actually TOO emotional. Every single Korean drama that I have watched featured some of the most emotional television characters I have ever seen. And it’s not just your typical emotions. These are deep, heavy– cry your eyes out emotions. It’s so interesting to find this out about Koreans. And it’s neat, in a sense, because having the capacity for deep, heavy emotions is definitely a personality trait that I share. Interesting to think that perhaps genes have contributed to this element of my personality.

If you haven’t yet, check out some K dramas. It’s a neat window into K culture! Just have the tissues handy :)

Working Out My Differences

I always knew that I looked different than my family, but I never felt like I didn’t belong. In fact, I always felt like I took after my mom in a lot of ways, including her tendency to over-think everything as well as her unwavering generosity towards those she cared about. My mom’s unconditional love always provided me with a sense of grounding and a strong sense of acceptance. Even though we didn’t look alike, there was never a question that I was her daughter, and she was my mom.

I was raised in a primarily white neighborhood of east Baltimore in a largely Polish-German part of town, a few blocks away from Patterson Park. I have really fond memories of my grandma’s brick rowhome where we spent a lot of our holidays making sauerkraut and kielbasa in her summer kitchen. I also have a lot of really tough memories of cruel white kids in the neighborhood pulling their eyes back, speaking jibberish to me and ignorantly calling me “Chinese.”

Generally, I really valued being different despite the tough experiences. It made me super-independent and free-thinking, which was a good thing. It made me a stronger person. I was really self-aware and able to share my adoption story at the drop of a hat. (And it seemed like mom and I couldn’t even leave a grocery store without having to tell it at least once!) On the flip side, there were times where I felt isolated because of how independent I was.  People can be intimidated by independent people.

Looking back, I see that I had my own contributions to being isolated. I was a little too independent and too strong at times. Maybe because it was easier to put up guards to protect myself so that people couldn’t get close enough to hurt me. Since realizing how isolating being uber-independent could be, I’ve actually spent a lot of my adult life learning how and when to allow these walls to crumble. It’s a work in progress.

 

A New Start

At nine months old, my new family embraced me as their own. My mom Doris has always made me feel like I was the best thing that ever happened to her and that being adopted was something really special. It was never a surprise to find out that I was adopted because my dark Asian features were always a stark contrast to her blonde hair and blue eyes, and being adopted was something we weren’t shy about sharing as our story. Being adopted was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I always felt so lucky to be placed into such an amazingly loving family.

My Story

It’s hard to know where to begin a story that has taken a lifetime to unfold. And even harder is to try to convey a story that isn’t completely finished unfolding. However, I think it is the right time for me to share, so I’m going to try my best. My story begins 28 years ago, where I was born into a series of tragedies– as most adoption stories begin. My adoptive mom (Doris) was unable to have children of her own–and desperately wanted to start a family! So, she started looking into adoption. She knew a woman who took care of children in foster care, and her name was Ms. Pat.

One day a frantic Korean woman by the name of Ms. Young dropped off a baby onto Ms. Pat’s doorstep, saying, “You keep, you keep… the baby.” Ms. Pat was stunned and unsure where this baby came from. She knew this Korean woman from a previous incident where she watched her son in foster care for about 6 months. But taking on child to “keep” was a whole different story.

As things unfolded, it was clear that this baby needed a home. And she knew the perfect woman– my mom, Doris. Ms. Young was reluctant to give any specific information about my biological family, and acted as a liason between social services and my biological family through my adoption. When I was approximately 9 months old, Doris became my legal guardian– and my mom forever.

Ms. Young shared the story that my birth mother married my birth father against her parent’s wishes– when she was a US citizen, and he wasn’t. And in Korean culture, if one doesn’t obey her parents, she is dishonoring them, and she can be shunned from her family. So, when she married him, she was cut off from her family. Then, she tragically died when I was about 3 months old. Still grieving, my birth father felt it would be best for me to be raised by another family.

My mom (Doris) briefly met my birth father at a lawyer’s office to sign the needed documentation. At that time, she said he was very sincere in saying, “I want her to be part of a whole family. Please take good care of her.” He was also worried that he wouldn’t be able to stay in the US, without being a citizen.

After this moment, my life took a completely different turn. I was no longer part of a Korean family. I was no longer surrounded by Korean faces, hearing Korean voices, or smelling Korean food. It was then that my name was changed from Sherry Lee to what it is today– Rachel.