The Perfect Dress

by TRACY HARRIS[easy-media med=”8382″ mark=”gallery-VamVlX”]

My advice to adoptive parents: buy the hanbok. A hanbok is a traditional Korean dress. If you adopted your child from China, or Russia, or Guatemala, there will be an equivalent. The point is, you will one day find yourself in a position where the opportunity arises to buy one, and you may think that spending $50, or more, on a cheaply made costume for your five-year-old daughter to wear in a performance that will last approximately two minutes and that she will then quickly outgrow, or kick to the bottom of her closet along with her suitcase and failed art projects and the uglier, rejected, stuffed animals, is not really worth it. And maybe it isn’t. But years later – when your beautiful now-nineteen-year-old daughter writes you from college that she is going to contact the adoption agency, again, and beg them to contact her Korean birth mother, again, to ask her if this time she is ready simply to respond to your daughter’s letters, and you cry not because you are jealous of the unknown Korean woman who gave birth to your daughter, but because your daughter is aching to know this woman and the hole in your daughter’s heart is one you will never be able to fill, at least you won’t have to wonder: would Lydia be feeling any less pain if I’d bought her the hanbok?

We adopted Lydia as an infant. I still have the outfit she was wearing that November afternoon at the airport, when someone put her in my arms. I don’t remember if it was the agency volunteer who did the hand-off, or if it was Mike, the young marine who earned a free ticket home by carrying Lydia and another infant adoptee on the long flight from Seoul to Minnesota. But I have the frog-shaped clips that Lydia wore in her hair, and the little diaper bag, and bottle that, along with Lydia’s white cotton pajamas and bib, were all she carried with her from Korea.

I didn’t think much about what Lydia had left behind in the country where she was born. Obviously there were birth parents, and the agency had given us a little information about Lydia’s backstory. I had the file stored safely at home, and I imagined the day when Lydia would ask, and I’d pull out the paperwork and say, “This is what we know.”

Will and I had chosen to adopt a child from Korea because they had healthy babies and, if not easy, at least reliable procedures. The wait for a child was not too long, and you did not have to travel there to adopt your child. This was an advantage because we already had one child, our biological son, Anthony; the logistics of making a trip to the other side of the world seemed daunting. Besides, I had a lifelong affinity for Asia. I had spent a summer in Japan as a high school student, studied Chinese in college, and was generally familiar with the ideas, such as Confucianism, that influence that part of the world. I didn’t know much about Korea, but I was confident I could pick up what I needed.

When you adopt a child, at least when we went through the process about twenty years ago, you sit through a lot of panel discussions. Agency representatives explain the process and the choices available for domestic and international adoption; adult adoptees talk about growing up with parents of a different race; American birth mothers talk about their gut-wrenching decisions to “make an adoption plan” for their babies.  You learn not to say “give a child up” for adoption.  You learn that boys tend to carry more anger about being adopted than girls, who can perhaps more easily identify with a birth mother’s dilemma. And you learn, from the adoptive parents’ panel, that if you adopt internationally, it is important to teach your child about the culture of his or her birth.

The adoptive parents were earnest and the tiniest bit condescending. They spoke as if no one in the audience had ever traveled to a foreign country or eaten in an Ethiopian restaurant. The more they boasted of festooning their homes with Guatemalan textiles or singing “Happy Birthday” in Korean to their adopted three-year-olds, the more I questioned the benefits to be gained by turning our home into some sort of Seoul-on-the-Mississippi. The children soon to be adopted by the prospective parents in that meeting room would not grow up in cultures of their birth; there was no Guatemalan huipil large enough to cover that truth. Adoption, we learned that weekend, was built on “a triad of loss.” Could I make enough kimchee to atone for the pain Lydia’s birth mother, and Lydia, would eventually feel? I didn’t think so.

And how much did it matter? Sure, we would have to help our daughter (we were asking for a girl) come to terms with the fact of being adopted and, sure, we’d be raising an Asian child in a white family. But Minnesota was full of mixed-race families.  Will and I had noticed that when we first moved here, long before we were even thinking of having children. And we lived in the city, St. Paul, which was far more diverse than I’d expected for this famously Scandinavian state. Parenting was never easy, but we’d manage.

The volunteer at the airport showed us a Korean patty-cake game while we waited at the gate and tried to play it with Lydia once she had emerged with Mike from the plane. But Lydia, six months old, was more interested in staring, silent and wide-eyed at the lights and hubbub all around her. She didn’t start crying until we tried to put her into her new snowsuit. We felt guilty welcoming her on such a cold and gloomy day, but it was November in Minnesota. We consoled ourselves by remembering that it gets cold in Korea, too.

We brought Lydia home, and she became our daughter. It was not exactly the same as when we’d brought Anthony home from the hospital. For the first day or two, Lydia was a stranger. She was not our biological child, but more significantly, she was already six months old. My new baby was already heavy in my arms, able to sit up, with a full head of shiny black hair. Anthony had been bald, tiny, helpless, when we brought him home; all he’d known was me, my womb, and the inside of the hospital. Lydia had had a tiny lifetime of experiences already: a birth mother, a foster family, a long flight across the ocean that had taken her farther than most adults ever travel. There was already so much about her that I would never know.

Maybe that’s why it took me so long to wash her hair. Lydia had arrived with her hair tied up in a rubber band, forming a little sprout on the top of her head. We’d taken out the rubber band so she could sleep, but her hair was thick, and greasy from her long trip, and it stayed remarkably upright. All she needed was a shampoo to make her hair lie flat, but I waited, not ready for the intimacy of bathing my daughter. We both needed to catch our breath, to get used to the feel of one another, to recognize in each other’s faces that we were mother, daughter.

Lydia had her bath, of course, after a day or two, and her hair over the years has grown shiny and long. When she was older we were surprised to notice that in the sun, her dark hair has red highlights, just like mine.

A child that comes from your body has to be yours. A child you adopt does not. I have always told Lydia that it’s more magical to adopt a child even than to give birth, and it’s true. Lydia could have ended up anywhere; fate and bureaucracy conspired to bring us together, but she did not inevitably have to be mine. And yet, after the first day or two, she was.

So Lydia grew up. I did not cook kimchee, we did not celebrate Korean New Year or sing “Happy Birthday” in Korean. I was not planning to prevent Lydia from learning about Korea, but I honestly didn’t think of it as “her culture.” She was living here, in Minnesota. That would be her experience and her frame of reference. The fact that she’d been born in Korea didn’t mean a whole lot, other than the obvious fact that Lydia didn’t look like the rest of us. She was, still is, beautiful. That was a fact of her birth.  But her “culture” would be the life she lived, the people she knew, and I was certain that over time it would take care of itself.

Maybe it didn’t help that Will and I, from Texas and Massachusetts, respectively, were both outsiders in Minnesota. Or that neither of us had grown up with any particular religious or ethnic ties. In truth, if I had any conception of culture it was a negative one. I am Jewish, and the minute people start talking about national heritage or cultural values I get nervous. To me, there’s not much difference between saying Jews value education and saying Jews are cheap, greedy, and responsible for the downfall of the Weimar Republic. Either way you are assigning individual traits based on membership in a genetic or cultural group, and in my mind all that gets you are prejudice, tribalism, and trouble. I realize that for an adopted child to learn about the country of his or her birth is not the same as Hitler claiming the Aryans were born to be a master race; but I was reluctant to concede that Lydia’s biologically Korean ancestry meant I needed to buy a hanbok for my little girl, who had shown no interest in dressing up or doing Korean dances.

The issue arose the summer that Lydia was five and attended Korean Culture Camp. Despite my reservations, I had signed her up because at some level I knew I might be a little off-kilter on the whole culture and heritage issue, and because the camp was five minutes from our house, and something for Lydia to do during the summer. That first day, when I walked her in to meet her teacher, the parking lot and hallways were mobbed with a couple hundred Korean adoptees, from Lydia’s age up through high school. For the first time, I saw Lydia surrounded by people who looked like her. This is what her life would have looked like, I thought, if she’d stayed in Korea. The tears in my eyes took me by surprise.

Turned out, Lydia hated the camp. She complained about it every day. The only upside was the Korean candy store they funneled us through each afternoon on the way out. Despite my mixed feelings about the whole enterprise, I wanted Lydia to connect Korea with something positive. I bought her candy every day.

But no amount of candy could make up for the final performance at the end of camp, when the parents were invited. There was lunch (Korean barbeque, of course); the children’s art was exhibited; and at the end, the boys demonstrated Tae Kwon Do, and the girls performed a Korean dance.

I had known I could buy a hanbok at the camp store, but I had not yet returned to work, and it seemed preposterous to spend a lot of money on a costume I knew Lydia would never wear again. She was not a dress-up girl. She was only five and growing so fast that it was foolish to buy her expensive clothes of any type. And Lydia hated this camp. It seemed unlikely she’d be returning any time soon, she never asked for the dress and, in my own defense, no one ever said it was required.

But when the girls came out to perform, Lydia was the only one in shorts and a t-shirt. Not even a nice t-shirt, but a faded blue leftover from the previous summer’s T-ball team. All the other girls wore traditional Korean dress. Cut close and straight at the top, the hanboks billowed into enormous triangle skirts that floated all the way to the floor, and masked a good deal of the awkwardness as the girls tromped through the steps of their Korean dance. Lydia’s awkwardness, her legs naked and on display beneath her khaki, pull-on shorts, was there for everyone to see. I knew the other parents weren’t actually looking at Lydia. They were doubtless blinded by the satiny gleam of the dresses—dazzling rows of red, blue, pink, and yellow that sparkled all the more in contrast with the dancing girls’ shiny black hair. But my eyes were fixed on my daughter, as she grimly went through the paces.

I take full responsibility for Lydia’s failure to be dressed properly for the performance. But as I sat in the gymnasium filled with white parents watching their Asian daughters perform like little traditional dolls, I still didn’t get it. It was as if the desire to wear the outfit and perform the dances was an inescapable part of the girls’ genetic destiny, predetermined at birth. That could not be true. Hadn’t the Holocaust and all the other genocides taught us not to categorize people by race or ethnicity?  How often in history had “culture” been used as an excuse for prejudice and segregation and worse?

“Were you supposed to buy her that dress?” Will asked, surprised that I’d let that detail fall through the cracks.

“Are you as bothered as I am by the fascist overtones of this whole thing?” I replied, in what was, in retrospect, something of an over-reaction.

Years later Lydia doesn’t remember much about the dance and the hanbok. What she does remember is that on the first day of camp, the kindergarten group colored Korean flags and the teacher had criticized Lydia’s flag in front of the whole class.

“Why you make long lines?” Lydia quoted with an angry face, imitating the teacher’s Korean accent as she related her story of injustice. “Is ugly. All wrong. Lines on Korean flag should be short.” It was okay if she made fun of Asian accents, Lydia assured me, because she was herself Asian, and she was studying Chinese and loved Chinese people. I did not take the time to deal with Lydia’s linguistic racism, because I was so stunned that she was hanging on to this bitterness from so many years ago.

Lydia had just come back from a summer in China and was about to start her senior year in high school. The summer had been the first time, since culture camp, that she had been surrounded by Asians and this time, without the dragon-lady art teacher, she had liked it.

“The feeling of finally fitting in was probably the most poignant experience we have both had so far,” she had written on a blog post that summer. Her co-writer was another adopted Asian girl, part of Lydia’s 13-member travel group. “Although neither of us actually is Chinese, we feel as close to this culture as to the country of our birth,” Lydia and her friend wrote—which was interesting because Lydia loved China but did not outwardly show much affinity for Korea.

I had tried. After the disaster of that week at Korean Culture Camp I’d begun to think that I should make more of an effort, but Lydia resisted. She said no to Korean restaurants. No to Korean Saturday school. She let me drag her to the occasional Korean dance or music performance that came through town, but the adoption agency “birthland” trip to Korea was another, absolute “No.”

But then she’d met this new friend, the other blogger. Lydia’s friend had been in contact with her birth mother. A few months after she returned from China, Lydia confided that she was ready to begin a search for hers.

It’s been almost two years since that night when Lydia and I sat in her room, both of us crying, Lydia because she’d been afraid to tell me she wanted to search, me because I so wanted Lydia to find what she needed and because I knew the chances were so slim. But it was easy enough to start. Lydia’s birth parents were not unknown; we had their names and some information in that file. But what we thought we knew about Lydia’s origins was not completely accurate. We learned right away that the agency in Korea often doctored the truth in the dossiers of the babies they sent overseas.

“They want the children to have a good start,” the Children’s Home social worker explained to Lydia and me. We were both at the meeting because Lydia was only seventeen and not allowed to initiate the search without parental consent. “They change the information in the file some times,” the social worker continued, “so the children can grow up with a happier story.”

That Orwellian approach to Lydia’s history was disconcerting, and it turned out her story had indeed undergone a rewrite. In the process called “file review,” we learned more details about her birth parents’ relationship, and we learned that there is an older half-brother in Korea. Then, several months after the search began, the social worker called to tell me that her counterparts in Korea had located Lydia’s birth mother.

By the time this call came in, Lydia was at college, thousands of miles away, in Tacoma, Washington, majoring in Chinese. Lydia had started studying Chinese in seventh grade, drawn to it initially because she loved the artwork of the characters. But as time went on, she realized it was a way to connect to her culture, sort of. Asian, but not Korean. Close, but keeping the truth at a safe distance.

In truth, with regard to her identity, Lydia was a mess, and not just because well-meaning social workers in Korea had rewritten her personal history. In the social structure of her urban schools, Lydia was effectively one of the white kids. But of course she wasn’t white. When she’d started Chinese in junior high almost all of her classmates were Hmong, from Laos, the dominant group within St. Paul’s Asian community. Lots of students thought Lydia was Hmong because she was taking Chinese.

Then one day, the white boy in her class was absent. Lydia told us that evening that she’d looked around the classroom and thought, “Hey, I’m the only white kid in here.” She was obviously confused and so were we: at the time we all laughed but maybe it wasn’t funny. And the fact that Lydia also identified herself as Jewish, or at least as part of a Jewish family, didn’t help her, especially not in Minnesota.

“Honey, you know that, of all things, you’re not actually Jewish,” I reminded her.  This was an unarguable fact. We’d long ago been told by the rabbis that if Lydia wanted to attend Jewish religious school, she would have to convert. Jewish identity is transmitted through the mother, but only by birth, not by adoption.

“You just don’t have to take that on,” I advised. Being Jewish had never been comfortable for me. The last thing I wanted was to foist any more identity issues upon my Korean-born, Midwest American bred, Chinese speaking adopted daughter, especially when the Jews had specifically excluded her from the tribe.

Lydia was drowning in a sea of mixed up and mistaken identities, and I’d given her no Korean culture to hang on to. Chinese ended up being her lifeline. Funny thing is, that was a lifeline I could help anchor. My long-dormant Chinese skills came back, to a degree, as I helped Lydia with her homework, and as she got deeper into Chinese people, history and culture, I was right there beside her. We were exploring the culture together, and no, it wasn’t exactly connected to Lydia’s birth but at least we were getting close.

“People always think I’m Chinese,” Lydia said, and, unlike her response to being mistaken for Hmong, or called white, that mistake pleased her. Again, I was right there beside her. I used to love it when people thought I was Italian instead of Jewish. We’d hired a Chinese student from the nearby college as a weekly tutor once Lydia got serious about learning the language. Lydia learned a lot from Jingjiao; but it took her two years to reveal to Jingjiao that she was Korean.

By the time she was looking at colleges, Lydia knew that she needed to be around Asians. The west coast was a good place. The birth family search was still underway, and Lydia was thinking she would start studying Korean, so that she’d be able to talk directly with her birth mother.

So when the call came from the social worker, saying they had found her, I was hopeful. But the news wasn’t good.

“She’s just not ready for contact,” the social worker explained. Lydia’s birth mother was alive, healthy, but would not even correspond with my daughter. “She’s afraid. But she didn’t close the door,” the social worker went on. “She just said, ‘not now.’  But she let the Korean social worker read her Lydia’s letter.  That’s a good sign.”

So I could tell Lydia that. The agency requires adoptees to write to their birth parents before they initiate the search. Lydia’s birth mother, thousands of miles away, had heard the letter that Lydia had written, but would not reply.

“Did you get to see me?” Lydia had asked her birth mother. “Did you ever hold me?” This wasn’t about being Korean.

Lydia is nineteen now, old enough that the agency no longer requires me to serve as the intermediary in the search. She’s a sophomore in college, and she’s spent a second summer in China. Her Chinese skills far surpass mine; and this year she is tutoring two adopted Asian girls who are studying the language. She hopes the girls will look up to her the way she looked up to Jingjiao.

I have watched Lydia grow for all but the first six months of her life. She is still struggling to know who she is, and even if she some day meets her birth mother, there will be questions that have no answer. Who would Lydia have been if she had grown up in Korea? There is no way to know. But as little as she brought with her years ago, on that long plane ride, and as little as she knows about the place from which she came, she ended up bringing with her everything she needed to be herself.

Here is my favorite story about Lydia. We live in Minnesota, where boys and girls play hockey, and where ice-skating is a fundamental skill. Lydia was four and had been through one eight-week session of lessons at our local rink. It was the first night of the second session. She was out on the ice, lined up with her class.  The other children were taking wobbly steps forward, but Lydia was standing firm, shaking her head and pointing across the rink at the group of children being led by the red-haired teacher she’d had in the previous session.

I knew Lydia could walk, and even glide a bit on the ice. Why wasn’t she moving?  The teacher, blonde pony-tail bobbing, tried to coax Lydia forward. I couldn’t hear but I imagined her, assuming Lydia was afraid of the ice, calling out encouragement. “Come on, Lydia, just lift your foot a little.” Lydia didn’t budge. I watched, mortified, as Lydia stood her ground, shaking her head and pointing at the red-haired teacher.

I waited for the call to come take my stubborn child off the ice.  But after about ten minutes, the pony-tailed teacher skated across the rink, where the other class was already starting their exercises. The two teachers talked for a minute, then the red-haired teacher skated over to Lydia’s group, and began teaching the class. Lydia skated right to her. The red-haired woman taught Lydia’s class for the entire eight-week session. Lydia had won a battle I didn’t even realize she was fighting.

You can’t teach that kind of resolve; you have to be born with it. And although I’d been embarrassed by Lydia’s behavior, by the end of the lesson, I was proud. That was my daughter. Strong. Persistent. Able to get what she wanted.

“It’s no problem,” the red-haired teacher responded to my apologies. “I’m totally happy to teach Lydia’s class.”

I loved Lydia so much, at that moment. And it breaks my heart that all her persistence and resolve may not be enough to get her birth mother to respond, and that without that response, Lydia may never feel whole. There is a part of her identity that she may never understand, and I can’t fix that.  And I can’t pretend to know what it feels like to be adopted, or to grow up a different race from the rest of your family.

But I do know what it is to question your identity. I spent a lifetime fighting the fact that I am Jewish. I didn’t want the ethnicity I was born into, and I didn’t want to force an ethnic identity on to my daughter. Maybe that’s why I never bought the hanbok. It’s a dress, after all, just something to wear; but in my heart I knew it would never really fit.

5 thoughts on “The Perfect Dress

  1. susan says:

    what a beautiful and engaging story, stories. i just read something i had scribbled on an old bus schedule long ago, and this essay matches the spirit: passion has an iron will.


  2. Julie Farrar says:

    This story struck my heart because I’m the mother of two children adopted from Russia when they were eight years old. That was almost 20 years ago. So many of the emotions in your story rang true for me even if the details don’t. My children (now in their mid-20s) don’t question their identity – at least not aloud. I have so many “hanbok” moments in the raising of my children. And now I, myself, are trying to come to grips with my issues from this experience in a memoir. You told a beautiful story.


  3. roslye ultan says:

    It is fascinating to read this story of how one who knows all there is from birth about who they are and where they come from chooses to not identify into that ethnic community while seeking the origins of an adopted daughter to know in order to fully identify herself. Your assumption that the hanbok would probably never fit is based more on who the story teller is than on whether that dress would actually fit.

    I am moved to follow the evolution of these identities.


  4. njwaldron says:

    You are a beautiful, thoughtful, loving mother — all that counts. You did more than your best. You’ve shared with your daughter that life is complicated but that we get through. Thanks for this lovely story.


  5. Susan Anderson says:

    Very courageous. We as parents try to give our children identity. We do this through clothing, culture, talents, and religion. We can only offer and expose them to all these gifts. I think it is brilliant that you didn’t force what was unnatural to Lydia. I love the part about you bathing her for the first time. I think that in many ways, with birth children, it is the same. We really can’t force an identity on them. They are drawn to favorites on their own: colors, music, stories, memories…


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