By Scarlett Hester
May 16 is the anniversary of the day I was escorted and flown from Seoul, South Korea to Philadelphia, PA to meet my adoptive family. I don’t remember that day, the day I was relinquished (allegedly from birth), or the days in-between with my foster family. I’ve been learning, though, that my body does. My body remembers what it felt like to be separated from my birth mother. My body also remembers what it felt like when my (adoptive) mother left this world. I keep thinking about all the trauma my body has endured in my 34 years of life and it is overwhelming.
I just recently drew the connection between my a-day (what my family and I call my arrival day) and AAPI Heritage Month. It seems ironic that I was brought to the U.S. and separated from my birth culture on the same month that is intended to celebrate and uplift AAPI heritage.
I’ve been diving headfirst into discovering my identity as a Korean American adoptee for the past two years. I’m a bit of a “balls to the wall” kind of person. I volunteer with adoptee organizations. I read books and articles and watch documentaries. I need to know everything I can as quickly as possible. I also tend to over-intellectualize my experiences. It’s a defense mechanism. If I turn a scholarly eye to my personal experiences, it’s easier for me to distance myself from feelings and emotions. I don’t have to confront the trauma I experience(d). Instead, I can take a step back and view the adoptee community from a bird’s eye perspective. I empathize with friends and community members when they share aspects of their journeys. I listen. I read. I nod along and send virtual hugs and support to those who need it. I theorize and observe. I think about how everything marginally applies to me and my life, but I keep my trauma at a distance.
However, this distance is starting to catch up to me. My trauma is catching up to me. I can no longer intellectualize as if my body isn’t, like Bessel van der Kolk (2014) says, keeping the score. The Atlanta spa shootings, the rise in anti-AAPI sentiment, the murder of Asian women in New York (Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Go), and most recently the salon shootings in Dallas, TX, and the church shootings in Southern California, AND the grocery store shooting in Buffalo, NY have rendered my body immobile.
Intellectualization has no space here. Who does that benefit? It’s not like we, as a culture and community, don't know that these things happen, have happened, and unfortunately, will continue to happen. Who does theorizing help?
Instead, I'm left to confront my feelings and trace them back to the trauma of relinquishment. The loss of my culture. The constant feeling of being an imposter while trying to reclaim and celebrate my heritage during May. The trauma sits and tightens in my throat. It manifests itself as fear and anxiety about upcoming travel. The question of “Will I be safe” while moving through crowded spaces knowing my body will be marked as Asian takes up space in my mind and refuses to leave.
May 16 marks my arrival in the U.S. May is AAPI Heritage month. May 2022 also seems to mark my acknowledgment of my adoptee-related anxiety and trauma. The cynic in me wants to be done with the month of May. To block it out and ignore it. Keep the month and all it symbolizes at a distance. However, if history repeats itself then I know that is not a long-lasting strategy. May will eventually catch up to me.
If I've learned anything from my short time in the adoptee community, it’s that we’re resilient. We must be. We were given no other options but to survive. And so, instead of May symbolizing trauma and loss, I’d like to think that moving forward May will represent resilience and connection.
Scarlett Hester (she/her) is a Korean American adoptee who currently resides in Muncie, IN. She is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies and spends too much time watching Bravo. Sh