Held by Strangers

The hanbok hung from my four-poster bed. The skirt’s silk worn, age turning white to yellow-tinged-cream. Three coffee-colored stains, the size of pennies, lined up just below the  chima’s bodice. The jeogori, a cropped jacket, a deep blue with scarlet coat strings to fasten it shut, was placed on top. The hanbok traveled from Korea in a tissue paper-lined box, carried by a man I didn’t know—a man who traveled to Seoul with his wife and remembered his friend had a Korean daughter. 

“It was nice of him to think of you,” my mom said. 

I managed a smile and nodded, but something inside my chest sputtered. 

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I was three months old when I arrived in Boston on November 21, 1983. I traveled in the arms of a woman whose name I do not know. The only artifacts I have from Korea are two black-and-white photos and some fragile slips of yellowed paper with notes projecting my ability to thrive: “Appears to be healthy and happily. Adoptable.” 

Below the handwritten “happily” someone typed “happy,” added an arrow to emphasize the correction. I fixate on this edit, let it catch in my throat. Yes, I tell myself, there are many ways to be revised.

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The hanbok smelled like antique books and air aged in a jar. I imagined that was what Korea smelled like. The left sleeve fluttered, caught on a breeze from my open window. I placed a phantom arm in the left sleeve and then the right. I conjured a torso, pelvis bone, leg joints, bare feet. I attached the neck, the jaw, small ears with dark hair tucked behind them. I gave her lips that looked like mine: full. Ah, there you are

“Do you think she would have worn something like this? My biological mother?” 

My mom grazed the wide sleeve of the jeogori with her fingertips. A shudder passed through her, so small I almost missed it. She pulled her hand away. 

“Maybe. Let’s put it in the closet, huh? I have a garment bag somewhere.” 

The lips that looked like mine opened, mouthing words in a language I didn’t understand. 

“Can we leave it out?” 

“Of course, it’s yours. Do whatever you want with it.” 

My mom said this without looking at the dress, her blue eyes falling on a photo above my desk. In the photo I was small and brown against her pale skin. She held me so our cheeks were touching, our smiles attached at the corners. Our smiles almost looked the same. She reached out and squeezed my shoulder; only then did I realize I was holding my breath. 

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In Logan Airport, the babies from Seoul were unloaded at an arrival gate crowded with White faces. The arms and crooks of elbows the babies had known for sixteen hours relinquished them to strangers. The strangers held their babies close and called them by their American names. They kissed foreheads and cheeks and noses and all ten fingers and toes. They wrapped babies in fresh blankets and left behind the ones made in Korea. 

At the arrival gate my mother whispered in my ear: “You’re no different than anyone else.” My black hair twisted into her blonde, brown eyes searched her blue. “You are my child and I’m your mother.” 

My father held my head to his chest, let me listen to his heartbeat. He bounced me on his knee and blew raspberries on my tummy. 

“Peekaboo! Where’s Daddy? Where’s Daddy?” 

I stared blankly at the camera, tiny arm propped to wave at flashing lights. 

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There was a woman in a boat with a long black braid down her back. My mother told me she watched the woman drift in her dinghy, looking out across the harbor at something my mother couldn’t see. She said the woman was Asian. 

The first time my mother told me this story, she called it a sign. She had never seen the woman before. She never saw her after. The woman was a mirage or a ghost or a projection of the future. There was a baby in Korea. My mother imagined the woman in the boat was that baby grown up. She said the woman was beautiful and serene, but if you ask today, my mother will say she can’t remember ever seeing her. 

“Maybe I made it up. I really don’t know.” 

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The night before you were born I dreamt of fish. I stood by a river of singing carp. They sang the songs of my grandmother and jumped into metal pails by my bare feet. The earth was covered in silver scales, the air wet against my swollen stomach. I watched their gills flutter, tails flopping against fins and frenzied eyes. 

You come from a long line of fishermen and women who dream of flying. 

My fingers spread across my stretched skin; I whispered those words one hundred times and hoped that you would remember my voice. 

The day you were born the air was laden with the pungent smell of fermented tofu and boiled prawns. The city of Seoul crept through cracks in the window. Beneath flickering neon signs, old men on dusty stoops, backs bent, argued about the weather. An orange street cat padded across pavement, stopping to lick a paw, to drag it over a wound on its ear. A woman with painted lips and knotted hair, an open robe exposing the tops of her breasts, tossed her burning cigarette in the cat’s direction. It hissed and skulked off into the alley, the tip of the cigarette still burning red on the ground. She laughed, shimmied her hips, and the old men shook their heads and looked away. 

Daughter, these streets are dangerous, Father once told me. I did not believe him. There was a time when I feared nothing. 

The contractions felt like a tremor and then an earthquake. The room was small and smelled of stale cigarettes and American beer. The pain cut through me as I slipped a piece of yeot between my lips, prayed luck would find you in this room rented by the hour. There was no doctor, midwife, or nurse to calm me. I screamed into the sour, sweat-stained pillow as flashes of electric white blinded me. I thought I was dying. And you must have known this, for you came quickly—ink black hair, feet wriggling, fists clenched, punching the air. 

You are a fighter, I said. 

You opened your mouth and wailed. 

We stayed for two days after the money ran out, until the manager threatened to call the police and take you away. Into the night we disappeared, onto streets gone quiet except for the halted shuffle-step of a drunk man, throat coated in soju. I held tightly to you, pressed your face to my breast, and bit my inner cheek to keep from crying. We walked until my heels bled and the muscles in my thighs cramped. We walked until I no longer recognized the storefronts and faces attached to the bodies sweeping sidewalks. We walked until I forgot I was hungry and my spine looked like a collection of river rocks. When we finally stopped, I had no other choice but to leave you. 

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I have rewritten my birth story a thousand times, each time trying to reconcile what I know with how I feel. I have access to a handful of truths gathered from adoption paperwork, snippets of stories I recall someone telling me, although I could not tell you who. 

My birthplace is unknown. My biological mother kept me for a few days. I was small and underweight when she left me. I lived in a room called “Jin Dal Lae” at the Jun Joo Baby Home. I had some undefined “illness.” I liked being held by strangers. The orphanage gave me a name and birth date. 

This is the sum of the things I know. 

And there is nothing wrong with this story. 

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In preschool I snuck off my mat at naptime. I’d crawl on hands and knees, belly low to the ground, wiggling my way to the boy with the stuffed bear named Bunny. In his sleep, the boy smacked his lips together and rubbed his thumb against the nub of his bear’s tail. I’d curl myself into him, feel his breath warm on the back of my neck. I’d tuck his arm over my body, close my eyes, match my breath to his. The first time it happened our teacher tapped me on my shoulder, said I’d have to go back to my own mat. 

“Don’t you like your mat? Everyone has their own, see?” 

I hated my mat. My mat was red and sticky. When I touched it, I had to peel my fingertips off its surface one by one. When I held my fingers to my nose they smelled like rubber bands and strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups. I didn’t like being told when I had to nap. I didn’t like the way the lights turned off row by row. I didn’t like how shadowed the corners of the room got, how I couldn’t make out what was pushed into their darkest parts. But mostly, I didn’t like sleeping alone, a by-product of spending three months in an overcrowded orphanage. 

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At eight o’clock my mother would read me a story, crawl under the covers, gather me under her arm. I liked this best, the time when I had my mother all to myself, when she would smile and kiss the top of my head a hundred times. Under the covers, I’d curl my legs up and press them against my mother’s hip bone. Once upon a time there was a little girl. 

I loved fairy tales—the golden-scaled dragons, enchanted roses, the goose girl and her talking horse head, a crane turned into a wife. But what I loved most was being close enough to feel my mother’s heartbeat. I liked to hear air circulate through lungs. I would spread my fingers wide, let heat radiate off skin and into my open palms. Every night I would ask for one more  story, five more minutes, three more hugs. Sometimes, if I was very lucky, my mother would stay until I fell asleep. 

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I liked that the boy with the bear named Bunny always smelled like graham crackers. Sometimes I would stroke his white-blonde hair. It was soft like the satin ribbons my mother tied into my ponytail. The round of his stomach was warm against the small of my back. We slept spooning. 

Eventually, the teachers stopped asking me to go back to my own mat. They would watch me wiggle my way across the floor like a seal pup, shaking their heads and chuckling. There was no harm in it. The boy didn’t seem to mind and after all we were just children. 

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There’s an alternative story. One relayed to me by my father after too many cocktails at a restaurant on Route 6 that no longer exists. There was a baby before me. A Black baby from New Orleans my parents’ lawyer said looked White. 

When my mother held the baby boy in her arms, she said she instantly fell in love. She knew he was her baby, barely registered how dark his skin was next to hers. It didn’t matter anyway. There was a baby without parents. And they were childless. But all my father could see were obstacles. 

“Obviously, the lawyer lied. And, how could we raise a Black baby? Not with our parents, with our families. We couldn’t. Not then.” 

I do not say this, but I think: Not ever. 

My mother was heartbroken. She said leaving the baby almost killed her. But she did leave. When I asked her if she ever thought about him, she said: “Sometimes. I think about how much I could have loved him.” 

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At night I would cry after my mother put me to bed. In the dark, the room felt larger, the closet deeper, the under-the-bed scarier. I would strain to hear my parents’ voices down the hall. Sometimes they would laugh—loud belly laughs that echoed off walls. My cheeks would burn red. I’d purse my lips together to keep from screaming: Not fair. Not fair. Not fair. Down the hall there was twirling and shuffling of feet. Glasses were being kissed, throats coated with amber liquid. Bruce Springsteen’s voice graveled its way through speakers. They were laughing and I was in bed. What’s so funny? In the dark I never felt like laughing. 

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At six, I had to repeat kindergarten after transferring to a new school. What we learned in the classroom was familiar to me, but outside, on the wide expanse of the playground, I felt a world away from sticky red mats and the white-haired boy who smelled of graham crackers. Here there was a different boy, a boy who pulled his green eyes into thin lines and laughed in my direction. 

“Me Chinese,” he shouted. Giggles popped out of his mouth, multiplied and spread, catching between sticky fingers of the other children who had gathered behind him. 

I stopped and stood under the monkey bars, pulled the corners of my eyes, laughed harder than I meant to. 

“Me no dumb,” he continued. 

The boy pulled his eyelids into slanted lines so tight I could no longer see the green between his lashes. He stomped around in the sandbox, dug his toe deep and kicked grit at my knees. 

“Me Chinese,” the kids shouted. “Ching chong. Ching chong.” 

A girl with pigtails pointed at my chest. I bit the insides of my cheeks, brushed the sand off of my red Keds. I stared at the ground, at a wad of bubblegum smeared on cement. My tongue tasted blood. I tried hard to swallow but couldn’t. I had pulled my eyes. I had sung the song: “Me Chinese. Me no dumb. Me went up my daddy’s bum.” I had thought it was a joke I could join in on because I was Korean. Inside me something began to grow. 

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Pushing my stroller up and down his parents’ street in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, a man approached my father, pointed at me and said: “I used to shoot things that looked like that.” 

My father tells me this story as casually as he says: “We almost had a Black baby.” 

Too often I have no place to hold this. 

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My family claims to be color-blind, indoctrinated in the tradition of normalizing, equalizing, and minimizing. We are a large family, an Irish Catholic family, a family of cousins who grew up more like siblings. We fought over dolls and Hula-Hoops and Skip-Its and a flower girl dress the color of emeralds. To this day, my cousins say with pride: “We never saw you as any different.” I know that they love me, that they believe this is a kindness. I smile to assure them that I understand what they mean, but there are words that are lost in translation. “As any different” is replaced with a period and “you” becomes a pebble I can’t seem to shake out of my shoe. 

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Eighteen years later, in an apartment building in Cranston, Rhode Island, I held a white cotton sheet to my breasts. Lying next to a man I barely knew, I remembered that day on the playground. The memory snaked through me, shook something alive, woke something up. The memory grew teeth and a tongue. It drooled. My body stretched out beside a man who kept golf clubs by his bedside, dirty polo shirts piled on oatmeal-colored carpet, a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model tacked haphazardly to his wall. His nose hooked to the left. His smile lopsided. 

“I broke it when I was ten,” he told me. “Fell off the monkey bars at recess.” 

I had broken a window to get there. Car and house keys left in my bedroom, the front door locked, my cat pawing at a pane of glass by the door. I had broken the kitchen window so I wouldn’t be late for our second date. I had put a hammer through glass, borrowed it from a neighbor who only spoke Spanish, his nephew translating between us: locked out. I taped a garbage bag to the wooden frame, swept up glass, left a note on the fridge to call my landlord. Me Chinese, me no dumb. 

I was only ten minutes late. We watched the end of Star Wars as his roommate smoked a bong on the balcony—a cloud of blue smoke disappearing over the iron railing. After the movie, he led me to his bedroom, pulled my shirt over my head, tugged too hard when a strand of hair got stuck around a small white button. I pressed fingertips to his back as he moved over me. Felt a small mole on his left scapula. I stared at his Adam’s apple bobbing. His lips felt dry against my skin. I tried to smile and he looked away. 

When it was over he rolled off—his hip bone pushing into the soft flesh below my belly button. I watched him run a hand through his short brown hair. He was the second man I had ever slept with. 

“I’ve always wanted to fuck an Asian,” he said. 

The room spun. I clutched the sheets to steady myself. I watched him stretch his arms above his head and yawn. His face elongated like in a fun house mirror. 

“You can stay if you want. I don’t care.” He picked my shirt off the end of the bed and tossed it in my direction. I said nothing. I bit the insides of my cheeks. I clenched my hands to stop them from shaking. I pushed vomit sloshing up my throat back down. I told my legs to run, willed feet to make contact with the floor. The thing inside me buried its canines in the center of my chest, its back legs pounding my ribcage. I said nothing. 

An hour later, crouched in the corner of my bedroom, wet and wrapped in a towel the color of yellow-tinged-cream, water pooling beneath my bare feet, I called my landlord. It was midnight. He didn’t answer. I left a message. 

“I’m so sorry. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to break it.” Eight hours later he called back. I hadn’t slept. I hated lying. I told him some half-truth version of broken glass. He said he believed me. He said he would fix it. 

“Not to worry. It’s no big deal. Happens all the time.”

-—Olivia Worden (from Pigeon Pages)