We took our family out for Korean food tonight, in honor of our youngest kiddo's birthday. Our waitress was a native Korean speaker, and at some point in the conversation it came out that my husband and I are toying around with learning the language. (We hope to visit Korea in the next couple of years and want to be able to communicate!)
In the course of standard restaurant conversatio)n we were asked how our food was, to which I responded “masshissoyo?” You don’t have to read Korean to understand that my intonation was very much that of a question. I was telling her that the food was delicious, but because even that little smattering of language is new on my tongue, I didn’t tell, I asked. Is this the right word?
We get cozy in America. We’re suspicious of “foreigners” and comfortable with fellow insiders. But its easy to forget that many adopted children spend their entire lives being outsiders both to their birth culture (whose language they no longer understand, customs they never learned) and to their adoptive culture (whose language and customs come naturally, but the bodies so often do not match the body language). At five, our son is already intensely shy about Korean words; he refuses to try the words out. His native shyness and serious personality outweigh his sense of adventure in this area. And while he doesn’t like to speak to strangers at all, he physically shrinks at repeating the sounds of Korean (mangled, no doubt by my American tongue).
It is good for adoptive parents to go back and be the outsiders. As I struggled to make sense of a little Korean, an unfamiliar accent, hangul letters, and the entire concept of kimchi; my little guy was struggling right alongside me. There is nothing genetic in language (or kimchi). And yet, if it weren’t a few events in the spring of 2006, this would be his native tongue, his native food, his native customs. This would be the water in which he would swim.
Am I sorry to have taken my little fish out of his water? no. He’s healthy and happy, active and well adjusted. Korean kids come to America because there is no alternative for them in Korea, a culture which only now has just barely begun to value adoption, especially the adoption of boys. His place in our family is solid, built clearly upon God’s will, and has been a tool for growing and enriching us all. But little moments like these remind me how much he’s lost and how far we have been insulated even from a culture which we embrace as part of our own family heritage.
Bridging the gap is more than a few words, a dinner out, tae kwon do lessons. Its about teaching a child to flourish as an outsider, to have one foot in either culture without being shattered by one side or the other. And most of all, it is about modelling what it means to be the joyful outsider.
In honor of his birthday, here's my little guy in his hanbok (Korean formal wear) which he was thankful not to wear to dinner.