A beautiful story about the family who chooses us and the ones we choose, Fish Heads & Folktales is a novel that explores the life of Peter and his cross-cultural experience as a Korean-born baby adopted by an American family to live in the U.S., and his journey into adulthood as an Asian adoptee with the Irish name. Though it tells Peter's personal story of growing up in a mixed-race family as his white American parents followed his international adoption with four other siblings adopted from various countries, this novel is more a reflection on the challenges and joy adoptive families everywhere experience.
From curiosity of his birth parents that eventually led to a trip abroad to the children's hospital where he was born in Korea, leading to the discovery of his birth mother's name, to his unexpected marriage into a traditional Korean family who emigrated to the U.S., to his struggle with stereotypes and his ignorance of the language and much of Korean customs and traditions, to his humor and respectful attitude as he navigates the fine line between his heritage and his American upbringing, this novel gives us a glimpse into the maze of adoption and the extended family connections one desperately wanted and much loved child can create throughout a lifetime.
With great insight and advice to adoptees, Moran conveys the ins and outs of a family who gets it right, because of parents who embrace their children's heritage and ensure it isn't forgotten. With great humor he muses on the surprise on his college roommate's face when they meet for the first time, because the white American voice over the phone with the white Irish name does not match the Asian-born face. Affectionately referring to himself as a "twinkie," yellow on the outside, white on the inside, he reflects on the difficulty in his youth of trying to fit in with people who looked just like him as he came to terms with the fact he related more with people who were "all-American."
With a bit of irony, Moran reflects on his marriage and the struggle he and his wife encountered when trying to have their own children, the premature births that resulted in the deaths of three children before their son Jeremy was born, and his own conflicting emotions about whether or not he wants to become an adoptive parent himself, feeling a sense of obligation and duty that leads to guilt for choosing not to, while expressing all joy and gratitude for his son.
The biggest take-away for me are the headlines for each chapter, like "If you're going to rebel, at least do it right," which sums up the story of his wimpy tattoo; "Communication is critical when you marry into a family," especially when the family speaks a different language and has different customs; and "Love can really make you sick," when he suddenly came down with a bout of diverticulitis at the moment he was supposed to fly to New York to ask his father's-in-law permission to marry his daughter. With dry wit and honesty, this is a book that just feels good even when it's sad.
In public relations by profession, Peter Moran puts his communication skills to good use to navigate the cultural divide between his wife's Korean family and his own, as he reminds us that respecting traditions and established hierarchies, even when we don't agree or understand, but simply because it matters to them, goes a long way in maintaining healthy relationships within a family. He talks of his teenage brother who died much too young from an overdose of sleeping pills and the pecking order among him and his siblings, a time honored tradition within every family, that proves just how irrelevant blood really is, because in the end, respect, love, acceptance and shared experiences is what makes a family, and his family opens their arms to every new addition.