|I was born in Seoul in 1974. That's the story, anyway. Oh Young-Chan is the name I was given by a group of strangers who took care of me until I came to the U.S. in December, 1976. The rest you've heard before. My parents and nearly everyone around me was white. Or Euro-American. Or Anglo. There are pictures of the party my mother's co-workers threw to wish her farewell and to welcome the new son she was leaving work to care for. In those pictures, you can see me clinging to the only black woman in the entire office. Beside those pictures, in the scrapbook my mother has kept all these years, there are the many welcome cards sent by family and friends. "Welcome," or "Congratulations," they say, nearly all accompanied by a drawing of a sandy-haired child with blue eyes. These small ironies are well-documented.
When asked if I wanted to go to school on Saturday to study Korean, I said no. I wanted to play football. I wanted to be what nearly every kid wants to be: one of the kids; maybe a star running back someday. Eating dinner at my best friend's house, I was called an "alien," jokingly, by his stepfather. Meaning, jokingly, "an illegal." Sensing my embarrassment, he added, "a little green alien." At some point my classmates at school realized, though they had always know, that we were different, and suddenly this difference became irreconcilable. So I turned from my childhood friends to punk music and the skateboarding culture as it was before it became an "extreme sport."
Through high school and college I wrote poetry because I didn't know what else to do. During this time I wrote a lot of self-pitying poems about, directly or indirectly, being adopted. About being homeless, nameless, without a people, without a sense of self that did not depend on a perspective which would always count me as a foreigner, an immigrant, an alien. That there is both novelty and limitation in writing one's life as an ethnic minority has been duly noted elsewhere. That one must come to the conclusion that the sum of one's life and one's work can beÑmust beÑattributed to and culled from more than a difference in phenotype is a harder lesson to learn.
When I read my poems at the KAAN conference in Los Angeles in 1999, I had several adoptive parents talk to me afterward. I was reminded of the first poetry class I'd ever taken, a weekend workshop with Li-Young Lee and Edward Hirsch at Governors State University in Illinois. On the final day of the weekend there was a farewell reading. I read a poem in which I tried to imagine my birth mother (a trope I've grown tired of hearing worked in nearly identical fashionÑbut one which seems necessary to begin writing down the bones). A man came up to me with reddened eyes and asked me what he could do for his adopted son, to keep him from feeling alone, abandoned. I don't remember what I told him. I only remember the look on his face as he walked away, inconsolable.
I've always though that art is not about understanding, but about possibility. What could I have said about my poem that would have made any sense? Everyone is haunted. You go on living and the same question is never quite the same the next time you ask it.
Steven Haruch is currently Acting Instructor in the Department of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. He writes film reviews for the Seattle Weekly, in addition to teaching part-time at a Korean American afterschool program.