I cried when I answered prompts from creative caffeine last week, the ones about photo and letters. Certain parts of my life touches a wellspring of humanity that somehow overflows into tears of sorrow and joy. All I have of my mother is a photograph of her holding me as a baby. A note on the back told my father to look at my eyes, nose and mouth as proof he was the father. Army records showed his re-enlistment to return to us. But in the end, he brought only me to America for his wife to raise. She clung to rumors of my mother being a prostitute. I cried tears of relief when Ancestry DNA, verified my father. It substantiated vague memories of us together as a family in Korea instead of a sordid tale of prostitute and soldier.
As I write my memoir, I’m aware that my story is not new and neither are the tears. It is the sadness of love and babies born among bullets and bombs. The abandonment of soldiers returning to lives away from the insanity of war. It is compounded by racial disparities. It was much easier for soldiers to marry their French sweethearts. I feel the universal pain in Madam Butterfly and Ms. Saigon. My mother, Peh Soon-ja, the Hangook Nabi (Korean butterfly) with her kamdung (darkie) child. Shunned by the villagers as she watched her hope of salvation fly away like ethereal butterflies on a path of migration. He only wanted the child.
My tears are the sadness of letters that arrive to a heartbroken child 37 years later. Riverlets that gushed down the crevices of my face. Letters found in my adoption file, after suffering years an addicted life of drugs and alcohol. What was worse, the flashback of a cruel separation from my mother by unfeeling social workers with names like Ms. Baumgarten and Knickerbocker or the ravages of the drugs needed to suppress them? Tears that transformed into joy as fears, doubts and questions were answered by the letters they wrote. Tears that sparkled with the knowledge of the depth of my mother’s love, how she fought to keep me, the cabs she used to follow social workers to make sure I was safe, of how sick she looked in their last meeting. And finally, the love it takes to let go. Tears, in their saltiness, contain the essence of life; pain and joy, sorrow and exultation, denial and acceptance. Salt that is needed to sustain life, to create cellular diffusion by osmosis to push nutrients in and waste matter out.
I cried tears of joy last week with a young woman in recovery from alcoholism. One of many that I sponsor, as she took steps to heal the breach with her Korean mother. 30 years past my history of war, her army father married his Korean love. She was born in the USA, another Black Korean like me. I can see the hope in the transitional changes made in cultural acceptance. But the pain of racial divide is still there, rifting families as they try to adjust. Korean mothers know war and are harden into the philosophy of survival of the fittest. They push their children to study 6 more hours after school. “Why you accept an A-,” they say, “A- not good enough, you try harder.” An ideal of many undernourished families in the racial divide, pushing their children to success at all cost. Alienating affection for survival. My Black father constantly making me do homework so I could get to college away from the segregated south. My mother sending me America upon the discovery I couldn’t be enrolled into public school in Korea.
I’ve cried with many heartbroken women over the years to release release their pain and learn to live joyous and free of addiction. You are not doomed because of your history, I tell them. You can have joy again after your mistakes or prison, or sexual abuse, or abandonment or foster homes, or even if you have all of these.
“To arrive at joy, you must actively transform the wretched into something magical – into works of service, art, education or empowerment for others and yourself,” wrote Reema Zaman, on surviving trauma. So I volunteer with women to help them recover from alcoholism and sorrow. I write my book, tasting the saltiness of tears, letting them spring naturally, glad for the relief of sorrow and joy encapsulated in each drop. I write to transform the wretched into something magical.