We’re flying 34,000 feet over Anchorage, headed for Seoul, South Korea, and I’m wondering how this trip will be. I’m traveling with my two 11 year old Korean-born sons and my 14 year old bio son. I look at the dark heads all around us and realize this is literally the first time my Korean boys have been in the midst of so many Koreans since they were tiny babies, flying with me away from Korea.
In the lounge in San Francisco as we wait to board our plane, I sit in a wash of Korean language, wishing I’d reviewed my Korean more diligently. I have a few things down pat: ‘thank you’, ‘thank you very much’, hello, goodbye, ‘my name is…’ and ‘too expensive’. But most
other things have slipped from my head. Ten years ago, before my last trip to Korea, I studied diligently. This trip amid much other busyness, I opted to skip the cramming. But now amid the familiar but oh so foreign lilting Korean– every sentence seems to end in imnida’– I am wishing I knew more, wishing I could really ‘get’ the language. It flutters around me like butterflies. I manage to capture words here and there, but most of the meaning slips away, just beyond my grasp.
On the plane, a 60-ish Korean businessman in a silk suit bullies a flight attendant for a second blanket repeatedly, even though she tells him she has no extra– that in fact some passengers have none. After his third tirade, I come thisclose to just handing him mine, partly because I want him to hush and partly because I think maybe he’d be ashamed of himself. But I decided that his sense of entitlement was too mammoth. I’d be out a blanket and that would be all. A few minutes later a flight attendant walks by and drops a blanket on his lap without even pausing, irritation evident. He subsides.
I think of what I’ve read (and to a certain degree observed)—that in Korea men rule the roost, and some are none too kind about it. The unkindness and condescending attitude is the part of that equation that I have trouble with. I am glad to do things for my hubby, but I am even gladder that he is thankful for my help and doesn’t hesitate to do things for me. I heard that kind of relationship is getting more common with younger Koreans. But the man on the plane was downright rude– I hoped we wouldn’t meet many like him.
A few minutes later a younger Korean man strikes up a conversation in an aisle with a stranger and– sure enough– is a perfect gentleman. I am relieved. I realize that I am feeling very emotionally invested in the behavior of people around me, for the sake of my kids. I want this to be a wonderful experience them—a trip where along with the new and exotic they also observe kindness and beauty. I want the people they meet to be kind, encouraging, and unpitying. I want the boys to come home with memories of good people.
I feel like if they meet good people that they will end up with fewer doubts about the path that their lives took, about the reasons that may have led to them needing a new family in another country. I want their experience to back up what I’ve been telling them all along — that the adults in their lives at every step were doing their best.
But the belligerent man reminded me of a facet of Korea I hadn’t thought about for awhile. For many Korean adoptees, that patriarchal society is the very reason that they did need new families. Men took liberties and walked away from responsibilities. Of course that happens every day in every country. But Korean society is not like American society, where few people bat an eyelash at a single mom. In Korea your father is your identity. If you have no father you have no name. You cannot be enrolled in school. Future options are extremely limited, both for you and for the mother who may very much wish to raise you herself.
I hear that times are slowly changing. I hear that single moms are not as stigmatized as they were in the past, that in-Korea adoption is getting more common, and that fewer kids need to leave Korea to find families. But as I fly over this great ocean with my children, I still wonder what our experience will be. They are flying trustingly with me, excited for this adventure that I’ve offered to them. I hope and pray that it will be a good one.