The other day my parents told me they had bought their cemetery plots in Zimmerman, Minnesota, side by side. Despite the jolt of morbidity that ran through me, I understood the practicality; my adoptive parents were sensible, well-prepared people. At the ages of seventy-three and seventy-four, they were deciding how to close the last chapters of their life. My parents and I talked awhile at their oak kitchen table with the spray of daffodils in a white creamery pitcher over our cups of lukewarm coffee. I made the proper inquiries about the cemetery location and how they arrived at that decision (my mother’s family grew up on a farm outside the small town of Zimmerman). I commented my approval as they expressed their desires to be buried as they wished, relieving others of the burden. I was struck with how we do not have a choice in how we come into this world, but we have a choice in where we wish to finally be buried.
Later that day I started thinking—where exactly did I want to be buried? Where do I want to die? I have always felt with certainty how I did not want to waste away the remainder of my life, physically or mentally. I wanted to live with all my faculties intact and not a moment more. I figured since I had turned the big four-O this year, I probably had that same amount of time in forty years left if I was lucky, unless unforeseen events claimed me first. I have always been a ‘big picture’ person, and this year especially, mortality has been weighing on my thoughts more than ever. Life is fleeting as we all know, and whether we wrestle with that blindly or with fear, when the youth of invincibility fades we are all the same in how we breathe and die. Thus my increasing vulnerability to how much control we really have in life has motivated me with a sense of urgency some days and left me sadly pessimistic other days. I also realized with the utmost clarity after I talked with my parents, I wanted to die in Korea. I wanted to be buried there.
As a Korean adoptee, how we come into the world carries a different kind of weight fraught with the circumstances in where we end up. I grew up in a Scandinavian family in an orderly home where every worry or possibility was carefully thought out. I grew up on the other side of the world from where I was born and I often feel as if my life here is a second one; how different would I have been had I stayed in Korea and who would I have been. I’m not a fan of “what if” games and I do not wish to belittle the blessings in my life in the least or romanticize the possibilities for an orphan. However, even though I have been given a life in America that has given me the luxury to critically think about these issues, the cost of heritage, identity, language and culture are massive in sorrow and loss. How else can the emerging voices of Korean adoptees be explained? The collective call toward going back whether physically or emotionally, and the truth of our experience is unmistakable.
Since my life has always seemed fragile and tenuous, it made perfect sense. Perfect sense in that I would go back to where I was born and expelled from my birth country of Korea. I did not choose to be abandoned at a Police Station when I was two, left for deaf and mute at the baby hospital then taken into Holt’s care at the orphanage, adopted and flown overseas to wintery Minnesota. Yet I can choose where I want to leave this life and be buried. Even if I live in America the rest of my life or move back to Korea someday, I know a part of me will always be as much American as Korean. And I wonder, what will the imprint be of my life be here in America. That I was given a cloak of identity when I was four and a new American name? Or that I assimilated well… (on the outside, anyway)? Perfecting the art to meet other people’s expectations—that’s what happens when your true self is forgotten and hidden. My new American self was molded and nourished with Scandinavian tastes, American desires, language and Christian faith. Will my Korean adoptee legacy say that my life was a sham of sorts, that all the lives I touched or did not touch never knew the real me? I feel like a fraud most days, an inescapable feeling that is not dramatic, but rather it’s a lonely feeling like an orderly characteristic imprinted on me from my adoptive family. I love my family that raised me here in Minnesota, but it is a complicated love that receives only a partition of me now that I am excavating parts of myself. Sometimes that act feels doggedly masochistic, but ultimately, I know that digging deeper and acknowledging buried parts of me is leading me back to Korea.
For now, I am sifting though my life and realizing there is much to live for even through the unmistakable sorrow of loss. But there is beauty in wreckage and death. I wrestle with the death of certain ideas and beliefs that comes with age and uncovering truth. Perhaps my next forty years will be a culmination of all that I was meant to be and not meant to be, the different roads all tangled and uprooted, creating a life of authentic means. Until then, as I claim my life in full, the hidden, forgotten part of me will surely forge a path back to Korea not only in my heart, but to be buried in my homeland. That is where I want to rest, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, bone and marrow melded deep within Korea.
About Carrie Min Hall
I have often thought that my life takes the shape of an astrological triangle - Korea, America and me in between. I was adopted from Korean when I was four, firmly rooted in America now at age forty, and my heart and senses are torn, my inner vision yearning for Korea. I ama mom to a talented and smart 21 yr old (who towers over me at 6’ 2) and am married to a wonderful Irish man who rivals me in stubbornness.
My sister was also adopted from Korea (we are not blood-related) and we are close. I love taking part in her kids’ life, Ty - 11 and Bella – 8… I strive to be a mirror to magnify their Korean-ess and channel that here in America. I have been back to Korea once in 2008—unforgettable. I look forward to going back and seeing how Korea will change for me as I continue to change and embrace forgotten parts of me. I am currently finishing up a memoir, a labor of necessity. Lastly, I love how Korean American’s are talented & creative, opinionated & stubborn with a uniqueness all their own, and the amazing Korean cuisine, of course!