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Conceiving Basil

You are going through a workbook. Used to these. The finitude of a heavy hand and your mother’s equivalent joy on a double-checked page. You are careful to print clearly. Careful not to mark up the desk under your paper. The imprint of a mistake has the potential to ruin you. 

You are asked to give your birth father a name. Immediately aware that your imagination is insufficient. You are conscious that the adjectival names you give your stuffed animals will not do. And that he, your very father, only-father, had barely existed until this page accused you of forgetting him. Guilt slams. Later, you realize that this was probably scripted by a white psychotherapist who considered their specialty to be working with international adoptees. You are wondering who existed first for you: your ghostly father or the ghostly psychotherapist.

You are taking down the book of baby names to give your father form. A high shelf and jumping to your mother’s height. There are few ways to conceive that are more lifeless and absurd than looking in a book, but you are determined to follow in the tradition set in your birth certificate. Reading is the only way you know how to reach across the oceans, seven. And if elementary school has taught you anything, you are aware that the only way to find something out is to read about it, because experiments are often unsafe and the main character is always willing to do something loud-stupid for your entertainment. Threat-emptying, you pass page over page. The irony of naming your father is lost on your small frame. 

You are young and yet wildly aware that your father probably doesn’t even speak English. Years of pinyin. And still unprepared. Your father probably doesn’t even speak Mandarin, for heavens’ sake. No book can help you, you realize suddenly, but you try your hand at it anyway.

You are satisfied with your handwriting on the line: B. A. S. I. L. Supposedly an herb. The spelling is right even if the feeling isn’t. You are a child being asked to write a name for someone who is already dead, for all your intents and purposes. The pseudo-eulogy must have crossed t’s and dotted i’s or your mother will correct you. Then you will undoubtedly cry.

You are turning the page on your father’s name. Carelessly and with wreck-less adult precision.


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The Naming

I don’t remember what they look like,
the boys who surround the row where I sit alone on the bus.
I don’t remember how many of them there are
But I know they are all white. Because I am the only kid on the bus who isn’t.
And I remember what they call me.

My house is near the end of the route.
Every afternoon I ride the bus for
nearly 45 minutes,
up and down country roads.
The speed limit tops out at 35 miles per hour,
and there is no yellow line in the center of the pavement
and no street signs at the intersections.

“You,” the boys say, “Are a
Black Fart.”
I say nothing in response. I do nothing. There is nothing for me to do but sit quietly staring ahead and not draw any more attention to myself than my skin is already doing. Willing the bus to go faster so I can get off.

When I get home I tell my mother that some kids on the school bus called me a
Black Fart.
I don’t remember what other words tumble from my mouth
or whether my mother tries to put what happened to me
into some broader context
or whether she tries to console me.
But I think this is the first time my mother tells me that I’m not
Black.
“You’re not
Black,” she says. “You’re part white, You’re not
Black. You’re brown”

At six years old, I hear the implication clearly.
Being brown is better than being
Black
(but not as good as being white
like my adoptive mother and father)
.

I am an adult before either one of us next raises this incident which I can’t forget
Giddy with a nostalgia I don’t share, my mother says
“Remember that time those kids on the bus called you a
Black Fart?”
Her eyes glisten with hilarity
“You were so angry!
You came home and said,
I am not a Fart!

She laughs
and I focus on her sharp teeth

In her laughter, I hear clearly the words she does not say
That I should not have been angry about being called a fart.
I should have been angry about being called
Black.

I say nothing in response. I do nothing. There is nothing for me to do but sit quietly staring ahead and not draw any more attention to myself than my skin is already doing. Willing her to stop laughing
so I can get off of her bus.


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Three Poems | Heather Hauck

Upon Meeting My Mother

In my mind we sit across from each other in a crowded restaurant. The curve of your back reflects against the dark moonlight, a printed silk scarf holds the wisps of your gray hair away from your round face. I slowly memorize the lines around your dark thoughtful eyes, the shape of your delicate olive-skinned hands. I imagine I would see a reflection of myself-a glimpse of my truth revealed in the rhythms of your voice. 

With a tense breath, I hesitantly ask if I clinged to you when you rocked me to sleep. I wonder if I lifted my head when you walked into the room. And did you kiss me before you said goodbye? Maybe you don’t remember but my body never lets me forget. 

Words of forgiveness stay buried deep inside my mouth so instead I chase your shadow in my poems; let the grief shatter like broken glass leaving fragments of myself behind 

while I wait for the answers
I know will never come.


What I Tell Myself: Notes on Being an Asian American Woman

Why again, why another Asian woman
who looks like me
but is not like me
is dead
I am afraid of everything and nothing

my grief has no boundaries 

Internalized messages in every breath
taught me early on
don’t show too much skin
a moving target on display
be vigilant
never walk alone at night
standing by the tracks
my body is disposable

stay guarded
keep myself alive

Cramped in dark alley corners
Korean comfort women
ready for western consumption
an object of desire
six women shot dead
easy prey
a sexual addiction; this is not a hate crime

othered under the
white male gaze 

To whom it may concern:
A legal orphan abandoned by her birth parents
Mother: Unknown
Father: Unknown
Records: Erased
a childhood of silence
a lifetime of coping skills 

invisible
until my trauma is exploited

Why should I have to prove my existence
convince you that my life is valuable
tell me then, will I be worthy enough? 

 

Winter Air

I was born in late summer
across the Yellow Sea
where the damp winds blow inside
the shallow shores
the salt wet on my tongue
abandoned in the street
a motherless daughter
is how the story goes
and I wonder what is the truth.

Did my birth mother name me
after I was born?
Jung Ran 정란 means beautiful orchid
perhaps the sounds of my name
flowed gently from her mouth
like when a mother cradles her baby
and whispers I love you.

What is your mother’s surname?
The birth certificate gripped tightly in my hand
my head throbs against
the echoes
too heavy inside my ears
My daughter, you were not a mistake
I never wanted to give you away. 

Last night, I imagined
I bloomed delicate purple flowers
that leaned into the eastern sun
years of being dormant
the petals turned brown
not ready to leave this world
the roots dug into the muddy earth

I stepped outside
into the cold morning
breathing in the winter air
reborn like a bright moon
in the night sky.


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The Color of My Skin

April 24, 2021

We’re almost home, on the border of Fort Greene and Downtown Brooklyn, coming back from a morning trip to Target. The weather is a perfect, sunny spring Saturday, warm enough to wear t-shirts. The cloth masks that I sewed from their favorite baby onesies are on. Because it’s still the Pandemic. Covid vaccines are rolling out and this feels hopeful. Emmy, my almost 5-year-old daughter, and Rainey, who’s a little over 3 years old, insist on walking. 

Our street is blocked off. Our neighborhood resurrects an outdoor street fair. There’s a cluster of people gathered, several folding chairs out. Two loudspeakers stand tall and high like totem poles. I’ve parked the huge stroller to the side. My daughters stand in front of me, my left hand over Emmy’s heart and my right hand over Rainey’s heart. 

Several African American children ranging in age from 4 to 8 years old are on stage. Feeling the music, they move their legs and arms in sync, skipping, twirling, hopping, and flying. The dancers are in bright yellow leggings, African print skirts, and black sweatshirts with bold yellow lettering that reads BLACK LIVES MATTER. 

They begin their chant. 

I said I love being black.

Tiny fingers reaching to the sky.

I said I love being black.

They wave their fingers like tambourines, which in sign language means praise or applause.

I love the color of my skinnnnn.

Their arms wrap themselves in hugs.

Because it’s the skin that I’m in.

My throat is tight. There’s a tsunami of grief wanting to push out. 

Grief for the 13-year-old little Lynne who hated her ugly yellow skin. 

Who could never sing and dance to such a message. 

I love the color of my skinnnn. 

I love the skin that I’m innnnn. 

Was not available in my lexicon.

*****

At almost 3 years old, my strong, part Irish, Austrian, English, very blond, blue-eyed, 6-foot-tall unmarried mother adopted me from South Korea. 

I came from the “colorblind” and “love is enough” generation of international, transracial adoption.  In the late 1970’s, I imagine my mother marched into Catholic Social Services in Philly and said, “I want a daughter.” They, in return, smiled at her. Like she was an angel. Or a nun in pedestrian clothing. After all, every orphan deserves a family. Love. A true home. 

How that child was born, where that child came from, as well as why, when, and how that child was abandoned are not important. Adoption meant a full erasure of an orphan’s origins—from seeds planted, from the very soil they were birthed, from history and legacy and blood ties. 

*****

Given my interest in interior design, even while standing in front of the wall of paint chips, a rainbow hue of hope, I am astounded by the various shades of white, like those that informed my childhood identity. My adoptive Mother was elegant pearl, my friends were parched doves. We lived in a suburb of Trenton, New Jersey, trapped inside a snow globe of blizzard white conditions.

Surrounded on all sides.

My mother was not a talker, an open or warm person. She was a proper, practical, very private, NJ State Librarian who preferred silence. We never talked about things that made her uncomfortable, like death, sex, and money. But we especially could not discuss race or my adoption, although overtly the bedrock of our family structure.

This silence, this absence of stories, from an orphan who had no family legacy, made me feel like I was in a vacuum of nothingness. That I came from nothing. Not acknowledging my Korean face, my body, and my skin that was not white led me to believe that I was wrong. Anything not white is wrong. And so, to be accepted, to be loved, to be right, I rejected myself. 

I wanted to be white, badly. But not just any white. I wanted to be blonde

When I was little, I’d pull a chair in front of the narrow hallway closet. I’d stretch to the very top and snag my prize. My mother’s full-blown, Sandra Dee-looking, blonde wig. Shoulder length with a curly bounce at the base of the neck. I wore this blond wig consistently as my Halloween costume. Like a nurse, just with blonde hair. Or a nun with blond hair. A ballerina, with blond hair. A bride, with blond hair.

In 7th grade, Eddie Peroni, a tiny little Italian boy, introduced me to the violence of prejudice by shoving my face in the dirt. He used to scream at the top of his lungs, “CHINA CHINA CHINA!” He did this in the hallway, in gym class, and at lunch. He announced it the way you’re supposed to scream FIRE FIRE FIRE. Or DANGER DANGER DANGER. 

I went home crying to my mom, who would calmly say, “Well, Lynne, did you tell him you’re not a country?” 

And yes, logically, my mother was right. I am not a country. If I was, a more accurate announcement would be KOREA KOREA KOREA. But logic was beside the point. The more he screamed, the smaller I became.

The more I wanted to become invisible. Disappear.

If only I could shed off my offensive yellow skin. The way snakes did. I tried to wash it away with my mom’s soft white Noxzema cream. I’d scrub and scrub and scrub. But I couldn’t get rid of the nonwhite ugly.

Looking back, I’m enraged that I had to navigate this bullying and the trauma that resulted. I don’t feel like my mother was there for me to help me through it. I was 13. Technically a teenager but still a child, a wounded child. If only my mom could have had a genuine conversation about racism with me.

Or forget conversations! If only my mom could have hugged me and given me emotional, maternal, squishy, pillowy support. 

Her reasoning and logic were not helpful. Felt more like a careless disregard, a backhand. Was it Eddie Peroni who spit hate in my face? Or was it my mother’s inability to see me and hear my voice that became the ultimate crime?

I remember after getting mad at my mom, I’d slam the door to my bedroom, curl into a fetal position, and bury my head dramatically in my pillow. Usually crying. I’d wish with all my might that my mom would come into the room and just hug me. Just say, “Lynne. I’m sorry you’re hurting. I’m here. You are not alone.”

She never opened my bedroom door. She never comforted me, much less addressed my feelings. Now, as a mom who is in a generation of positive parenting, now as an adult, I’m still that Little Lynne.  

*****

The loud music and cheers bring me back to what matters now. Rainey is twirling in a circle, twirl, twirl, twirl. Her bright pink t-shirt with a rainbow ice cream cone looks like a 4th of July sparkler that knows its worth.

My daughters, who look like me, who match me, who are Asian American girls who will grow up to become Asian American women, will be proud of their slanted eyes. They know about their Chinese and Korean cultures. They will speak about race and grief. They will come to love the color of their skin.

I love the color of my skinnnnn.

Because it’s the skin that I’m in.


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Learning (to be) Korean

My first and worst moment as a parent occurred on the same day. My husband and I waited two and half years to travel halfway around the world to adopt our son from Korea, and yet the day we took custody of him broke us all.

He joined our family speaking only Korean and remained steadfast in its use for a few weeks. However, when his foster mother never came back, no matter how many times he waited by the door, he realized the futility of his hope, and with it, syllable by syllable, his Korean language dropped away.

I saw this same sorrowful sloughing away of a Korean identity with my second son, adopted from Korea a few years later, but these were not the first times I experienced this.

The first time occurred after my own adoption from Korea some thirty years before.

Born in Busan, South Korea, and adopted at six months by a Jewish American family in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I was cut off from the Korean language and culture immediately upon arrival. My childhood exposure to Korean culture began and ended with references to “Radar” and “Hawkeye,” characters from the Korean War comedy MASH, and included exactly one trip to a Korean restaurant, an experience I only remember from its frequent retelling.

“Remember that time we took Cyndy to a Korean restaurant?” my sister, six years older than me and adopted domestically, would say.

“Yep,” my mom would chime in, smiling before the punchline we all knew was coming.

“We gave her a piece of kimchi and she spit it out. We knew then that she wasn’t Korean. She was American,” my sister would say, with laughter erupting around me.

While Korea was a joke, Judaism was a way of life. I became a Bat Mitzvah, worked at the synagogue teaching Sunday School, and learned to read and write Hebrew. Each time I chanted “Baruch atah Adonai,” my brown skin became paler. My black hair spun to sand with each retelling of Moses’ bravery in the Egyptian desert. My narrow eyes reshaped, transfigured by the heat of the Chanukah candles. My Koreanness stood no chance next to the exultation of the whiteness surrounding me. But I was edging through life in perpetual fear of being outed to the world as not being a white American.

My belief in my whiteness required a lot of effort to maintain in a world that defined me by my color. When I found out that I was not accepted to an honors program at my state university, even with a better GPA than several white classmates who were accepted, I called the Dean of Admissions, explaining that I am not really Asian, an absurd and entitled act that sadly worked. In college, a friend tried to set me up with another Asian friend. It enraged me when she told me he was not interested because he did not date Asian people, even though I had told her the same thing. And, when I walked into a law firm interview with an Asian face and a Jewish last name, I laughed along with the white partners at their surprise and promised them my name is more representative of me than my face.

By the time my husband and I agreed to begin a family of our own, I was exhausted from the effort it took to stay in the adoptee “fog” that blanched my entire life. The “fog’” is an adoptee term referring to the low-hanging cloud of denial that obscures an adoptee’s birth identity and feelings of loss associated with adoption. I had to evaporate it, droplet by droplet, to live as my real self. Adopting my sons from Korea forced me to begin that process, to expose myself as Korean, as adopted, and as damaged, and to live in the uncomfortable vulnerability that I had been avoiding.

Even when I felt I was not worthy of being a whole person, my kids were worthy of having a whole mother.

As part of our preparation for our first son, my husband and I signed up for Korean language lessons at the Korean Embassy, trekking into Washington, D.C. every Tuesday evening. We would meet in front of the Embassy, and I would watch my husband striding toward me with a confidence only a white man can have. Despite mispronouncing most of the words, he entered class proudly, with no apparent nerves, ready to learn, eat Korean snacks, and enjoy the culture. For me, my nervous system ignited with adrenaline and my hands would shake the entire class. My brain experienced the simple utterance of the word “annyeonghaseyo” as equal to being chased by a rabid dog.

But no matter how depleted I felt after each class, I kept going. It felt like a penance I had to pay for rejecting my Koreanness all those years. A self-flagellation for my own self-hate. Punishment necessary for me to pay back the universe before I could fully love my son or myself.

Language is the most ardent protector of culture. It creates walls of syntax, moats streaming with vocabulary, and battlements of sounds, forming a barrier of entry that only the most determined knights can surpass. I learned in that class that the Korean language is no exception. The heavy influence of imperial China colonizes the vocabulary. Native Korean words supply a strong counterattack, fighting for independence. The verb endings, duplicitous in their purpose, not only represent the past, present, and future, but reflect Confucian principles of hierarchy, the scaffolding of Korean culture. The surprising discovery of English words, pronounced and spelled in Korean, presents an aural riddle, showing the United States’ presence in Korea after 1945, heavy and awkward.

And then there’s the slang. The slang words reveal clues to how Koreans really view their own culture, a self-reflection, both critical and loving. They are the secret chamber inside the castle, reserved for only the truest Koreans, a safekeeping from global influence. For me, learning Korean meant more than learning the language. It meant tearing down the castle walls to this culture and reclaiming some of what I lost as an adoptee.

By the time our oldest son joined our family, my Korean sounded like a mix between textbook dialogue (“Hello. My name is Cynthia. I am a Korean person”), and baby talk (“Want crackers? Milk yummy?”) And though it was inadequate to help either of my sons maintain their Korean language, it helped make the transition slightly gentler. I continued to study Korean on and off after my sons’ adoption and tried to integrate basic Korean phrases into our lives, knowing full well that my brain, entering its fourth decade of life, is unlikely to become fluent in my first language again.

Not long ago, standing at the base of the Washington Monument with my kids running around, the American flags rippling in the wind, a Korean woman approached me.

“Do you speak Korean?” she asked in Korean.

“A little,” I responded back in our native tongue.

A little was enough. I was able to explain to her, with the help of some creative miming, how to reserve tickets and reach the top of the monument. She thanked me profusely and we bowed goodbye.

“Oh my gosh, mom,” my eldest son said to me. “You can really speak Korean!” He bounded off to tell his little brother of my superpower. I am aware they will figure out the limits of my Korean language soon enough, but at that moment, on that day, I had conquered the castle.

Recently, my family sat down to dinner together to steamy bowls of tangy doenjang jjigae. My fifteen-month-old biological daughter, our pandemic baby, reached for the various banchan peppering the table. “It’s too spicy,” I told her as her whine slowly ascended the musical scale towards a screech at my refusal to give her the kimchi. Her match-like fingers reached again for the fermented cabbage, a small flake of gochugaru attached to her pointer finger, red and vibrant, and I wiped it off quickly. Her back arched in frustration, her sweet smell mixed with the pungent acidity of the kimchi as her head swept by my nose, and I said, “Maewo! Neomu maewo!” The Korean words for “spicy, too spicy” slipped out automatically, a residual default tactic from my desperate attempts to communicate with my sons in their early months.

Unlike my sons and me, my daughter has never heard any other Korean than mine and so she accepts it without question and is learning to respond. She knows to go to the bathtub when I tell her it’s time for her “mogyok” and she points to the snack cabinet when I ask if she wants a “gwaja.” And, when she brings me a family picture book, she excitedly points to the members of our family, identified in Korean.

“Where is kun oppa?” I ask my daughter, and she points to her eldest brother.

“Where is chagun oppa?” I ask, and she points to her second brother.

I smile.

A family, imperfect and woven with loss, but undeniably Korean.

 

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