Like many people who were adopted internationally as children, I’ve sometimes wondered what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been adopted. The result is a life so different from my own that it’s hardly recognizable. I would have been raised by a young single mother in Seoul, in a society that I have only ever heard described as—at best—opprobrious toward unmarried women and their children. (My biological father vanished overnight when my mother found out she was pregnant—at least, that’s what my records say.) Means would probably have been tight. I’d have been raised in Korean culture—known different songs and holidays, learned different etiquette and facial expressions. How would I have fared in Korean schools? Would I have loved learning in the same way, or come to love it at all? Would I still have been drawn toward literature and history, or would I have been steered elsewhere? It’s impossible to say. That person—my shadow, my imaginary twin—would have been completely different from me; if I met him now, it would be like encountering a stranger. And in point of fact, he never existed at all. There is only me.
I’m studying Korean seriously now for the first time in my life. It’s a challenging language—harder in certain respects than Chinese and Japanese, to which it is inevitably compared. I know that, had I grown up in Korea, it would have been, simply, my native tongue. Yet sometimes a nervous shudder grips me when I study Korean, this web of affixes and formalities; as I haltingly rehearse the syllables and internalize the grammar, I feel like I’m brushing up against my alternate self—like I’m staring at him in a mirror through a fine linguistic scrim, and the more I learn, the higher the curtain rises.
Everyone sees moments in their lives when their paths irrevocably branched: How would my life have been different if I had married someone else; gone to a different college; not been in that accident? “What would my life have been like if I hadn’t been adopted?” is the most fundamental counterfactual in the lives of many adoptees, and the answers we craft to the question often serve as both premise and symptom of our feelings about our own adoptions and the institution of adoption itself. We feel the way we do because of our answer, and yet our answer grows out of the feelings we have. (None of us ever claimed it was perfect logic.) Since beginning to delve seriously into the stories of other adoptees a little more than a year ago, I have encountered so many that are shaped by pain and concomitant anger that I have sometimes felt guilty that my own life has been so happy—almost entirely devoid of the ills of racism, abuse, abandonment anxiety, and other traumas that have poisoned others’. My own life has turned out in such a way that I experience a vertiginous sense of dread whenever I think about what would have happened if I hadn’t been adopted, because in every situation I can conceive, I worry my life ends up less happy than it is now.
My life has been filled with so many things to love that I fear any version of it where I lose those things, even if I could imagine the void being filled with other, comparable things. I contemplate what life would have been like never knowing my parents and sister, and the bereavement is unbearable. Stripping away the Anglophilia I inherited from my English grandmother, the Lutheranism from my German grandfather—these elements are like the keystones in the arch of my life. I might have taken piano lessons, but I never would have known my beloved high school piano teacher. I would have made other friends, had other mentors—but I love the particular friends I have, and there is something vile about the notion that you can seamlessly replace your friends with comparable others. Could I have been made as happy by wandering Seoul backstreets as I was by cycling the hills of rural Michigan? Would I have developed the same love of Coltrane, Mingus, or Monk?
It’s the books that I wonder about most of all—those formative years of reading, when it felt like any new book might well change my life. How much poorer would I have been if works like Paradise Lost or Their Eyes Were Watching God hadn’t come into my life at the exact moment when they did, when it now seems like I needed them the most? Could I have loved them the same, coming to them at a remove, through a second language? I can imagine Austen or Mill translated, but have my doubts that Keats or Auden could have spoken to me in Korean. I would probably have learned English, but wonder whether I’d ever have loved the language in the same way. None of this is to say there isn’t great literature in Korean, of course—Park Jiweol’s Herodotean Yeolha Ilgi, the Memoirs Written in Silence of Lady Hyegyeong—but my favorite authors are as irreplaceable as my friends. Even if his life was changed by something else, I feel bad for my shadow self if his life wasn’t transformed by reading Virginia Woolf as a teenager.
I’ve been learning various languages since I was twelve, which is both a privilege and a pleasure, but Korean is unique in that I know I wouldn’t be learning it now if not for my personal history. People, including my parents, have asked me why I wasn’t interested in it sooner. For a long time, I avoided it—didn’t want it to take over my life, or worse, to make me into a pat cliché of the adoptee drawn inexorably toward his point of origin. I resisted the belief of others that I should needto know or be curious. I recently saw one prominent Korean-American adoptee and writer tweet to another that he felt bad whenever he saw young adoptees, because he knew they had a long road of questioning and loss ahead. I sympathize—his intentions were good—and yet it’s exactly that kind of pitying assumption that kept me away from Korea for years. I know that many adoptees, especially international adoptees, do experience a kind of gnawing incompleteness, lack, or loss that they feel they can only address through return. But I never felt that myself, and never wanted to be perceived that way by others.
I took every chance my parents offered to learn what Korean I could—I knew how to sound out the alphabet and say some simple words and phrases—but I never pressed it. I went through phases of interest in Italian and Japanese in middle school; in high school, I grew enamored with Latin and French. But Korean always felt like a language that other people expected me to be interested in, and the kernels of independence and contrarianism in me rebelled at that. I did not want to be defined by what other people have presumed would shape my life—this series of events that happened to me before I could even remember. I wanted my self to be the product of my own choices. While in most ways, I was a preternaturally compliant kid, I refused to conform to others’ notions of the searching, questioning, victimized adoptee. And that meant, for a while, putting myself as far away from my shadow as possible.
But lately, I have been getting closer to him than ever before. I don’t think I was mistaken to avoid him when I was younger: I have no regrets about taking Latin rather than Korean, or getting interested in the Nouvelle Vague rather than K-dramas. I certainly don’t feel like the culture should have been pressed on me with greater insistence, or that I lacked opportunities to explore it if I’d wanted. Now, however, at twenty-five and finally out of school, I feel that I have enough of an independently developed self that I can claim as mine a heritage whose full richness and value I have finally come to see, without caring if anyone thinks I am taking an adoptee’s typical path. Korea and its language and culture are more interesting and meaningful to me now, having come the long way around—through other languages and cultures and histories—than they would have been to me on their own when I was a teenager. All those years, I was developing the faculties that I’d need to make sense of that shadow life I might have lived half a world away. But I could only do it by building my own life first.
What I feel now is that are so many other things in my life to love—people, culture, words—that I can finally approach Korea and its language and culture as a matter of choice, without the risk of being seen as someone trying to fill a lacuna in my past. It is instead a matter of will: I want to learn these things, not because I am haunted by a shadow of myself or what might have been, but because they are interesting in their own right, and because I want to claim a cultural inheritance that I finally have the tools to engage in a way that is more than superficial. And I can search for either or both of my biological parents out of the desire to share a life of tremendous happiness, instead of anger or grief. The gifts that the best adoptions—and indeed, all good upbringings—impart in adulthood are the twinned abilities to reconcile the selves you might have been with the self you actually are, without longing or distress, and to have a story about your life beyond needing to address formative traumas or gaps in the past. I’m not sure my own life is immaculate to that degree. But I count myself remarkably lucky to have come so close.
Spencer Lenfield has written for Slate, Harvard Magazine, the Colorado Review, and Open Letters Monthly. He grew up in west Michigan, and currently lives in Washington, D.C. He tends a small blog on Korean-American adoptee news and resources at yangjastuff.blogspot.com.