THE BLOG

My Recognition of Adoption Month: What 'Korean Eyes' Means to Me

11/05/2013 02:38 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Growing up, I always asked my mom, "Why do I have Chinese eyes?"

And my mom would always respond, "You don't. You have Korean eyes." (Apparently, the kids in elementary school were wrong.)

At an early age, my parents made sure that I knew I was adopted -- and, moreover, by a Caucasian family. Every February, we celebrated my "Gotcha Day," the day I was adopted, by looking through photo albums and watching home videos. And, throughout the years, I took Korean classes and learned curse words to whisper to my brothers over dinner. I even fondly recall times standing in front of the mirror with my mom, giggling, while she narrowed her eyes and I widened mine so we could "look the same."

By this point in time, I'm used to the questions like, "Where are you from?" I've gotten that particular one all throughout my life, and I've always answered "Baltimore." I'll never forget one date I went on, though, with a man we'll call Matt. He repeatedly asked why I didn't have an Asian accent and mentioned that it "didn't make sense." I made the most of it though -- I explained that I was adopted and that Korean was not my first language, that English was. Then, instead of ordering a salad like I typically did on first dates, I ate two helpings of meatloaf and mashed potatoes and never called him back.

No matter how many times I'm asked where I'm from, what bothers me the most is when I allow critical, self-conscious thoughts to seep in. Last Friday, I met my 65-year-old father for tacos and sangria, and I looked around the restaurant at the other groupings of people dining together. How do we look to others? Do I look like his much younger mistress? Either way, I noticed the glance or two that came my way.

And, if you think that's bad enough, it gets worse. Once, when I was at the Melting Pot with my mother for her birthday, the hostess asked if we wanted to sit in Lover's Lane. Lover's Lane? To answer her question, I shook my head furiously from side to side and explained that we were not a lesbian couple on a date; we were mother and daughter. Flustered, the hostess led us to our seats while I hung my head, embarrassed. Was that how we looked?

From time to time, I receive criticism from others, who tell me that I should learn about and respect my ethnicity. And, I do respect my ethnicity -- I just have never had a strong desire to learn fluent Korean or visit the country. I do know more about American culture than I do of that of my birthplace, and I'll rightfully admit that. Some call me uncultured and Americanized, but I call myself happy.

All criticism aside, I have plenty of other anecdotes about my adoption that counter any negativity. One of my favorites is told by my mother, who reminds me how my days and nights were on an opposite schedule because I was accustomed to a different time zone. During the day, my mother had to play with me and shake toys in front of my face to keep me awake, all while I remained a miserable, tired baby. Once nightfall rolled around, I wasn't ready for bed; I was ready to play and demanded attention.

Soon, my sleeping habits, in combination with the stress of having a newborn, got to my mother. In the middle of the week, she had to take me to the doctor's office to get my immunization shots, and she buckled me into my carseat but forgot to strap the carseat to the actual seat of the car. On her way to the office, she drove up a small incline where a truck was stopped, just over the edge of the hill, out of her sight. Once she came upon the truck, she slammed on the brakes -- and my carseat went tumbling through a series of 360 degree spins, until I landed facedown on the floor of the car. My mother picked me up, expecting me to be seriously injured, but I was resilient... and still asleep.

To this day, whenever we pass over the small hill, she remarks, "That's where I dumped you on your head. I thought, here I go, killing you within the first three days." Lucky for her, I'm still alive and kicking.

I have other adoption stories, too. My parents first considered my adoption when a woman, whose child went to my mother's preschool, visited my mom one afternoon after school had let out for the summer. The woman, Marie, had a child in another program in the same building where my mother taught. It just so happened on that day, Marie had to drop off papers and stopped by to check in on my mom, who had just experienced a painful miscarriage.

"It was chance, Lisa, that I randomly happened to be there that afternoon," my mother always said. Marie knew that my parents were having a hard time applying for adoption within the U.S., because they already had two biological children. She told them to consider international adoption, which my parents had never considered as an option.

Shortly after, my parents enrolled in basic informational adoption classes. During one class, a social worker named John came in to speak about the process, and my mom approached him after the class to ask more questions. A mere week later, he called my parents to let them know that a couple had backed out of the two-month long Home Study adoption class, which was the required next step to place a child with a particular family.

"There's an opening available, and it's yours if you want to go ahead with it," said John. Immediately, questions arose: Should they adopt? Or should they try again? My parents had simply approached the agency for basic information and never thought that the adoption process would actually jump-start itself, let alone so soon.

The thought of a decision was overwhelming, and my parents had hesitation. "I'm willing to give this a try," my dad told my mom. "But this is all happening so quickly. Why don't you give it time to really think about this, given the recent miscarriage?" But all my mom said was, "If it's meant to be, it will happen. I don't think we would have gotten this phone call if it wasn't meant to be." They went forward and, nine months later, the same timeframe as the natural birth of a child, I was delivered to them.

Many of my friends will often remark how unusually close I am to my family. And, some of them do ask, "Do you ever want to meet your real family?" I'll respond, "I have met my real family; they're the ones who raised me. I have no interest in meeting my birth family, though. It's just a personal preference."

I do know a little about my birth family, primarily that they were poor farmers, and I wonder where I'd be if I hadn't been adopted. Would I be dead? Working in drug cartels or the sex trade industry to survive? All scary thoughts. Would I have had the chance to make something of myself? Who knows.

Truth be told, I don't harbor resentment about being given up for adoption. I don't spend much time fuming on misworded questions most people ask out of curiosity or ignorance, or maybe both. I don't see the point, because constantly questioning my identity would just eat me up. Instead, I'm grateful, and I can't begin to explain how liberating that is.

Whenever I get married and have a family, I will give adoption some serious consideration with my husband. It's a process I have yet to understand as a mother; but, as a child, I understand that I'm loved through and through. To this day, I can recite Fleur Conkling Heyliger's poem, the one that my mom used to say to me all of the time, by heart:

"Not flesh of my flesh,

Nor bone of my bone,

But still miraculously my own.

Never forget for a single minute,

You didn't grow under my heart,

But in it."

In light of adoption month, I'll conclude with this: adoption has changed my entire life, but it's not that big of a part of my life. I don't wake up every morning, and look in the mirror and say, "Hi, my name is Lisa, and I'm adopted." Why would I? Instead, I typically look in the mirror and think, "Kara's right. I need to start brushing my hair." Then, I'll stress over work, eat too much pasta for dinner, and contact my mom multiple times a day. I carry on like everyone else, simply because I've been given the opportunity to do so.

Any more questions about my adoption or the adoption process in general? Send them my way to @LisaCleary3 on Twitter.