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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 

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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Given Name, Taken Name

There is a popular (albeit misguided) belief that BIPOC kids adopted into white families live white-approximate lives and grow up with white privilege. This belief asserts that adoption is beautiful and is one of the purest kinds of love, a love that has the power to transcend racial boundaries, replacing a lost family with one newly gained. But this simplistic vision of adoption is propaganda in service to the multibillion-dollar adoption industry and its paying customers: white, adoptive parents with access to power and privilege.

However, our proximity to white privilege also correlates to our proximity to white violence. Packs of white boys riding their bikes through my neighborhood, shouting anti-Asian slurs as they passed my house. The white woman down the street who perceived me as polluting the neighborhood. Veterans who compulsively told me about their Korean War experiences when I was just a little girl.

Racist nicknames and comments about eating dogs. The erasure and isolation. Fetishism and hyper-sexualization. The rape.

To acknowledge one’s adoption trauma is devastating on its own. Doing so while enduring societal antagonism, with little to no familial support, makes for a lonely existence.

It is no wonder that studies show a 4-times greater chance of suicide attempts than our non-adopted peers. And to make things worse, the most intense hostility often comes from our own families deeply invested in the feel-good story of adoption.

My adoptive mother intensely wanted her own “beautiful” family that, because of infertility, only adoption could provide. Throughout my entire childhood, I was told that when my adoptive mom held me for the first time in the chaotic airport terminal, we both knew she was my “real” mother.

Who wouldn’t want to believe the “adoption is beautiful” narrative? It’s a tidy story of hope and transcendent love. It’s just not that simple. The adoption fairy tale leaves out too much. Put a frame around the right part of any picture, and you can isolate what is beautiful without showing the whole thing.

Recently, in online spaces, I started meeting other transracial adoptees, all of us with vastly different stories and experiences but the same deep truths around adoption trauma—specifically, the problematic underlying dynamics of growing up in white families in white communities throughout their formative years. I found an online community of transracial adoptees with whom I could talk, and could do so with raw honesty, without explanations or caveats, without worrying about being dismissed as a thankless “angry adoptee.”

Online, I started using the Korean name on my adoption paperwork. To my online adoptee community, I am Joon Ae, and only Joon Ae.

Name Origins

In a study about name reclamation, Korean adoptees self-reported that the challenges of using their Korean names included microaggressions about an “ethnic” name and resistance from family and friends. But, for many, “reclaiming one’s birth name was healing, felt more in line with an authentic identity, and was a reflection of personal growth and development.” All of this is true for me.

My name, Joon Ae, could have been given to me by my biological parent(s), but more likely, the adoption agency and government officials that trafficked me to the United States gave it to me to protect not only themselves but my biological parents too.

Yet for adoptees like me, our agency-given names are unattached and separate from the familial traditions of our biological families. We do not appear on family registries. We are excluded from Korean history, while perceived as perpetual foreigners in our new countries. These naming practices are inhumane and dehumanizing, a cruel erasure.

The amount of information I know about my life before I was adopted is so slim that it’s almost nothing, but I do know this: I know I was with my natural mother for the first two months of my life. So, I know I had a name. It was the name I had when she said goodbye.


As a child of the 80s, I begged and begged my working-class parents for my own Cabbage Patch doll. Honestly, I thought they were hideous, and I knew they were out of my family’s budget. But all the girls in my neighborhood had them, and I wanted nothing more than to fit in.

With their birth and adoption certificates, names and birthdates, adoption fees, and more, the “thrill of adoption” is the pinnacle of the experience of having the once-coveted doll (see this excellent Harlow’s Monkey post on Cabbage Patch kids and adoption).

Like the Cabbage Patch dolls, Joon Ae is my product name given to me by the adoption company, printed on my adoption certification. I had branding. I had pamphlets. I came packaged with promises.

I have two biological children. Naming them was a meaningful act, a careful appraisal of significance that they would carry with them for the rest of their lives. We gave both of them four names: first, last, and two middle names, all connected to family history. When my partner and I married, we hyphenated our last names as a symbolic act of joining our families, linking ourselves to one another, and sharing family legacy equitably.

White Families, White Names

Beth is the name my white adoptive parents gave me; it is a name I grew to like for the very reasons I did not like it when I was a child. Growing up feeling invisible most of the time, I didn’t want a name that was so plain. But I grew into the story of it. Beth is simple, with no frills, a simplified version of Elizabeth, meaning pledged to God, a bit old-fashioned and therefore slightly rare.

My adoptive family’s last name, Kaufka (Kafka/Kavka), is a literary name, originally meaning jackdaw in Czech from the region of Bohemia. A jackdaw is a beautiful, black-plumaged bird in the crow family. It is most famously connected to Franz Kafka.

It would’ve been a shame for the adoption agency to have given us carefully chosen names, as our adoptive parents renamed us with “acceptable” names. These names made us theirs. Names like Sara, Kevin, and Bill were supposed to help us belong, to be like everyone else around us. Normal. White.

Our names safeguarded us from some racial profiling, but they also erased our history and confounded our sense of self. We were not like our white peers. Our white peers knew it. And, often, made sure we did, too.

I have a few friendships with deep roots, people who I love so much that I embedded them as a part of who I am; they helped me grow the good parts about me I like. When these friends and I “get going” as we do, when we’re laughing our heads off, when we’re being intense, when we’re just being us, they forget and call me Beth. Sometimes, I don’t notice, but when I do, I feel comfort in our history, in our familiarity, in our decades-long connections. And in those moments, I don’t want to give up Beth.

Neither Beth nor Kaufka reflects my origins and ancestral lineage, but both are a part of me.


In January of 2020, my birth parent search ended with the adoption agency finding and contacting my biological mother, who adamantly insisted never to be contacted again. I learned that I also have two brothers in Korea. Because of Korean law that protects biological parents, I am denied all other information.

George Floyd’s murder was a pivotal event for our nation and my family. I cut ties to my adoptive family. They believe it is they who are truly oppressed—because they are white. Though my adoptive mother was the one who first started our estrangement, she now says that I “cancelled” her, which absolves her of responsibility. My adoptive father has always been distant. My sister follows their lead. And so, we agreed to go our separate ways.

I am unfamilied.

I’m severed from both my biological family and my adoptive family. I have two families out there in the world, both of whom are inaccessible to me. Now, my family history begins with me, and me alone. What shallow offerings I have for my children.


Ten years ago, when I first started a new job, I was getting to know my office mate. I told her I was adopted. She told me her nephew is a Korean adoptee with issues around adoption and family. She asked me if I, too, struggled.

At that time, my answer was basically: Nope. There is no way I could’ve predicted that a decade later, my adoptive family would break apart, but that I would connect with hundreds upon hundreds of adoptees. That I’d be a part of a movement to speak our truth, fight for our rights and the dignity of our natural mothers, and that I’d feel a sense of belonging and community that I didn’t know was possible.

I don’t have a biological family of lineage. I neither have my adoptive family by law, but thankfully, now I have a large family of other adoptees by love.

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Around age 10, I got a bad sunburn on my face. My adoptive mother didn’t really take sunscreen seriously. She, a white woman, was always trying to tan. A cancer survivor, she liked tempting fate.

She admired my skin tone, particularly in the summer months when her skin reddened and mine caramelized. The tanner I became, the more she admired (envied?) my body. “Look at the color of your skin!” she would exclaim, taking a step back to gaze at my bare arms and legs while I played at the pool or the beach, her voice a mix of incredulity and admiration. “You tan so nicely; your skin is the perfect color.”  I did not know then about fetishes and colorism; I just felt proud of my tan skin.

While I never asked, I imagine my adoptive mother’s preoccupation with my skin tone was driven by her hyper-awareness of our biological differences, for these biological differences poked at her insecurity that I was not “really” her daughter. My adoptive mother once admitted that, early in the adoption process, she feared that she could only love a child she had birthed herself.

Perhaps studying my skin tone against hers prompted her to unearth these initial insecurities. Perhaps remarking on these differences was more a monologue with herself than a dialogue with me; she was trying to convince herself that she loved me despite our different skin tones.

My skin was simply my skin. Until it started peeling. I usually wore some sunscreen, but even after playing outside all day and never reapplying, I rarely got burned.

This time, though, my skin started peeling around my nose, as if scales were falling off. What appeared was a tiny, light brown freckle–more like a speck–on my nose. I only had one other freckle on my body. Now I had two. No big deal.

My nose freckle grew and darkened. I also got more freckles, but none as pronounced as the first one. My junior year of high school, my adoptive mom took me to a dermatologist to make sure the freckle, now a mole, wasn’t melanoma. I could understand the desire to check for cancer. The mole was big. It had grown. What I couldn’t understand, though, was why my adoptive mother made this a cosmetic issue. I looked fine.

Intent on removing the mole, my adoptive mother brought me to a plastic surgeon, the same one who had performed her own reconstructive surgery after a bout with breast cancer. With a magnifying mirror in one hand and pen in the other, the surgeon drew dark lines showing how he would cut out the blemish and stitch the delicate skin back up, remarking about the possibility of scar tissue.

I was horrified, staring back at my own reflection with pen marks charting my face as if I were a diagram of cattle getting ready for slaughter. The chance of scar tissue must have scared my adoptive mother enough to get back in our car and drive away. But stubborn as always, she nurtured a quiet hope that her Chinese daughter could have a “flawless” face.

This hope strengthened once she learned that her East Asian pedicurist had a mole on her face removed. My adoptive mother became absolutely convinced she could do the same with mine. Substituting one Asian for another – a middle-aged Vietnamese woman for a Chinese teenager, a racial sleight of hand – my adoptive mother received all the proof she needed to believe that her Chinese daughter could, in fact, become the perfectly beautiful “China doll” she always dreamed of.

With this distorted vision in mind, my adoptive mother brought me to another surgeon. Thankfully, this second surgeon, whom I recall was East Asian herself, asked me if I wanted the mole removed. It was the first time that I was asked about what I wanted to do with my body. I told her that I thought it was fine, and she was glad to hear that I was not self-conscious about it.

The term self-conscious is one that my adoptive father often to describe my adoptive mother. Looking back, I realize that my adoptive mother’s problematizing of my mole was enmeshed within her own body image struggles. As a child, she had a mastectomy to prevent cancer. Then, as a teen, she was extremely self-conscious about her body and had plastic surgery. I suspect she projected her insecurities onto me. She had an image of her daughter as having the “perfect” body, and when the mole arrived to threaten that image, she attacked.

I didn’t really care about the mole, to be honest. It had grown at such a gradual pace that it seemed to grow with me, slowly becoming part of my facial features. But I do remember the time the school photographer edited it out of my photos. How a little kid once pointed it out and asked what happened. Reactions like these prompted me to think that I should be more self-conscious about the mole than I initially was. “Does it make me look ugly?” I wondered. “Is it the first thing people notice when they see me and do they ever see anything else?”

One afternoon, my mother took me to a makeup counter–me having worn nothing but stage makeup for some theater productions–to learn how to conceal it. I absolutely hated every minute of this interaction. My adoptive mother took the lead and spoke for me, problematizing the mole and pleading for help. The makeup artist tried a variety of shades, textures, and products; I grew smaller and more humiliated as she covered up something I never thought was wrong.

My adoptive mother encouraged the makeup artist more than she encouraged me. With brow furrowed and lips pouted, she peered over at me to inspect the artist’s work as if I were a specimen under a microscope. Finally, she applauded the choice of an acceptable shade, remarking with wonder about how the artist’s final technique “might just work” to conceal the dark circle below. When I saw that the circle had disappeared under a cloak of makeup, I did not feel beautiful. I felt alone, confused, and hurt.

While not a true birthmark, this mark will lead me back to my biological family someday. I’d like to learn how my family’s skin behaves in sunlight. Does anyone else in my family have strange moles like me? Will they think I’m ugly, like white folks around me seemed to think? Will they think I am not their own, for I was not born with this mark? Or will it tie me to them more than I could ever imagine?

My biological family quite literally crafted my face. To deliberately alter anything about it would be to betray them. I cannot cut out a piece of them that lives within me. Especially not just to please my adoptive mother.

I’ve already lost enough.

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