Not Just An Angry Adoptee!

So I have decided to expand the scope of my blog to include my ponderings and ruminations on music.  I know you wonderful readers know me only as a Korean adoptee, but that is a very limiting identifier of who I am as a whole.  I am much more known for my music, and I devote much of my waking time to it.  My wife, Carrie, encouraged me to expand the scope of my blog, because we are all more valuable than the sum of our parts.  So I will journal on music…my thoughts on it, my philosophies, my subjective tips and a bit of autobiography.

To start off, a list!  I love lists.  This one lists some of the random tidbits I’ve picked up over the years.  You will need a rudimentary knowledge of music and notation to understand a bit of it.  Either way, here goes:

Jeremy Random Musical Thoughts, Mainly Piano Stuff

  • Music, at its most base level, is sound pushed through time.
  • Music conveys emotions and/or movement that words cannot express.
  • Use rubato, but not too much.
  • Piano is a percussion instrument that can sing.
  • Know what feelings are evoked by playing various intervals or chords (e.g. minor third for sad, augmented fifth for uncertainty, etc.)
  • Want a fuller sound?  Widen your left hand intervals.  Make that C triad (C, E, G) a tenth (C, G, E).  The tenth serves almost an extra tenor voice.
  • For me, the most difficult thing about stride is making it SWING HARD.
  • When improvising, think outside of the standard barlines or phrases, especially if you’re playing a well-worn tune.  You may surprise yourself.
  • When I improvise, I use a TON of grace notes in the right hand.  This is to give the effect of the human voice.  The pitch a human voice has is bendable and changeable.  In piano, it is impossible to bend a pitch.  So I use two to three notes as grace notes leading up to the principal melody note in almost every phrase in order to render a more natural-sounding (human) melody.
  • Use trills to simulate vibrato for sustained pitches.  For dramatic effect sometimes, I start the trill slowly and build speed gradually.
  • Use chromaticism to convey rising or falling.
  • When learning a piece, don’t just dive into it and learn it from the beginning note-for-note.  Step back.  Take stock of the whole piece, learn its form first, and then chord progressions.  Note dynamics.  Listen to other recordings of it.  Then delve into it, for if you don’t understand the macro, there’s no point in the micro.
  • Don’t overpractice.  Once you feel a twinge of pain anywhere in your wrists, hands or fingers, stop immediately and rest your hands accordingly.
  • Practice multiple voices in one hand.  I cannot stress this enough.  Work on making one louder than the other, then vice versa.
  • Never start a number too loudly or softly, unless it calls for it explicitly.  You need room throughout the number to go up or down in volume.
  • GENERALLY speaking, when the melody moves upwards in pitch, the volume should crescendo, and vice versa.  To not vary the dynamics is disastrous.
  • The pedals are the lungs of the piano.  Use the damper pedal to make a slow pretty piece breathe.

More to come!


Killing Me Softly With No Words

In honor of National Adoption Awareness Month, oh, sing me those blues, Ms. Holiday!

“Them that’s got shall have,

Them that’s not shall lose.

So the Bible said and it still is news.

Mama may have, Papa may have

But God bless the child that’s got his own…”

I’m looking out of our kitchen window at the first major snowfall of the season as I’m writing, and though it’s visually beautiful, there’s something about the muffled quiet and the bitter cold of a snowy winter that puts my mind in a state of solitude and melancholic introspection.

This particular day, it reminds me of how alone I am…

Alone, because odds are good that I will never know my original family.

Alone, because my adoptive family does not get me.  At all.

Alone, because I’m an Asian face in a predominantly white world, and I’m reminded of that every day.

Alone, because I still feel like I don’t have a defined identity.

Alone, because I struggle with accepting people’s love.

I have always wondered what I would be like if I didn’t have the albatross of adoption around my neck.  But the state of being adopted is all I’ve known.

I was the first kid to be adopted in my family, in 1975.  Between my immediate and extended family, there are a total of six adoptees.  Two from Korea (me included), two from China, and two local.

A few years ago at a large family gathering, my uncle, who is a Pastor, held court after he and my aunt adopted my cousin from China.  He waxed philosophic, thanking my parents for starting this “tradition of adoption” in our family.  I remember feeling like a human Cabbage Patch Kid with all eyes on me.  I wanted to crawl into a hole and not be the family’s poster child for starting this “tradition.”

But instead, I politely nodded in the appropriate places, and didn’t say anything.

As an adoptee, you feel like you can’t say what you’re really feeling to your adoptive family.  It’s a fear of rejection, of not having your feelings validated.  There’s also a power imbalance; on some level, I do believe most adoptive parents believe they somehow “saved” their child from some unsavory fate.  So as an adoptee, you’re always skating that fine line of “gratitude.”  We were abandoned once, we don’t want to risk having our adoptive families abandon us as well (maybe not physically, but emotionally).  So we generally keep silent so as not to rock the boat. (Sidenote to adoptive parents:  Just because your adopted child may not overtly show any signs of emotional or mental duress does NOT mean that everything is peachy-keen within your child.)

For me, keeping silent has been almost deadly.

I’ve struggled with depression most of my life.  How it relates to adoption is sort of a chicken or egg thing for me; am I depressed because of the adoption issues, or am I a “natural” depressive who happens to be adopted?  I do not know.  I’ve always been creative, emotional, artsy.  So perhaps I have the clichéd “artistic temperament” to begin with, which is a somewhat volatile thing in and of itself.  I recall having inappropriate emotional outbursts around second grade (interestingly around the same time I wanted my teachers and classmates to call me by my Korean name), so I know this stuff has been with me for a long time.

My first suicide attempt came in eighth grade.  I was lonely, and I felt worthless.  My grades were suffering for the first time during my entire schooling.  I remember having crushes on many girls, but every single one of them rejected me.   I was a “nice guy” but only insofar as an arms’ length friendship.   I didn’t understand how I could be considered funny, smart, talented, engaging, yet be rejected by EVERYONE.  Adoptees don’t do well with outright personal rejection.  Looking back, I think my peers sensed something that I didn’t, at least not yet…one of my nicknames was “Fucked Up Genius.”  Talk about a half-compliment!  But home life wasn’t much better; constant fighting with my parents coupled with their increasing religiosity didn’t make things any easier.  One night, I swallowed a bunch of aspirin, but vomited it all up soon after.  I remember weeping and thinking, “You’re such a failure!  You can’t even off yourself!”

I have had two other NEAR suicide attempts in more recent times, but you get the idea.  How can a person do this to themselves over and over?  Well, here are a handful of points that reflect my reality of transracial adoption:

  • Whatever the circumstances of your birth were, you KNOW that at one point in time YOU WERE NOT WANTED OR LOVED.
  • Living in a society that sees you as an outsider or fundamentally “other.”
  • Having an adoptive family that doesn’t really care to know who you are, and doesn’t want to know, for fear that THEY failed as caregivers.
  • Looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing a stranger.
  • NOT being heard…when you try and talk to non-adoptees, they can’t get past their own preconceived notions of what society says adoption should be like.  They will argue with you, like they KNOW what BEING adopted is like.

These are just a few main points…you may say, “Those seem like setbacks, but enough to kill yourself over?”   Well, imagine each of these points as being a cancer cell.  Imagine a lifetime living with these cells, and having each of them root and spread out their poisonous tendrils over the entirety of your very soul and being.  After a while, you will feel like a trapped animal, and you will crash.  Trust me.

Happy National Adoption Awareness Month!!!!


The Outer Layer

           Yours truly in 1983

A Hot Sunday in July, 1983

“Hurry up! We need to get going!”

My cousin and I were scrambling to brush our teeth and get dressed to go to his family’s church one Sunday morning. Every summer during my childhood, I would spend a week with my cousin at my aunt and uncle’s house. On this particular day, we could not watch “Breakfast at Wimbledon” in our PJ’s with our customary Pop Tarts, then go to the basement and pretend to be our favorite tennis players using ping pong balls. (I liked John McEnroe’s fiery competitiveness, and my cousin seemed partial to the cool but intense Ivan Lendl.)

We needed to get to church.

Going to church and being Christian has always comprised a major portion of my immediate and extended family’s identity. Going to church on Sundays was just what you did.

Once in the car, I expressed a little apprehension because I did not know anyone at my cousin’s church.

“It will be fine. There are a ton of other kids our age there,” my cousin said. In many ways, I looked up to my cousin. He was just a year ahead of me in school, but he always had a self-assurance and confidence that I could only dream of having. Even at just eight years old, I had to bottle up a lot of social anxiety, because even then, I knew that I “stuck out” a little more. I hated garnering unwanted attention.

Once we parked and got out of my aunt’s station wagon, she told us to get upstairs to Sunday School. My cousin led the way, running up the dark, echoey staircase.

The classroom was near the top of the stairs. I could hear muffled voices emanating from the room. My cousin went to the door, and opened it.

I walked in behind him. There were no lights on, because the windows afforded enough light. In the middle of the room was a large rectangular table with about a dozen children seated around it. The Sunday School teacher was a tall-ish, slender woman, probably in her early 30’s, and she stood at the far end of the table, reading out of her lesson book. There were bookshelves and cabinets against the walls, and the whole room had that oddly nostalgic smell of Elmer’s paste and Crayola crayons mixed with old musty books.

We found a couple of empty chairs, and sat down at the table.

I was just getting situated, when from my right, I heard, “Hey, Bruce Lee. Do you know karate?”

My heart sank and my anxiety shot through the roof.

“Ching chong!” someone shot at me from across the table.

Another child did the “crane stance” with his arms and went, “Hwaaaaahhh!”

“Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at THESE!”

“Chinky eyes! Go back home, stupid chink!”

I wanted to crawl into a hole.

Soon enough, just about every single kid in that classroom seemed tickled pink to hurl almost every single anti-Asian racial slur or gesture my way.

I was in a state of emotional shock- I felt like a trapped animal. I looked pleadingly at my cousin, who was sitting across from me. But his eyes avoided mine, either looking at the ceiling or the Sunday School teacher. I felt for sure he would defend me, but he did not.

I looked over towards the Sunday School teacher. Though these children were being loud and blatant in their vitriol, she continued on with the lesson as if NOTHING WAS HAPPENING.

I endured this decidedly non-Christian treatment for almost a full hour…

After the service was over, my aunt picked us up from the class. She then dropped me off at my house, for that Sunday was the final day of my stay with them. I didn’t talk to anyone, especially my cousin.

Once I was home in the safe haven of my own room, I broke down and cried. I eventually did tell my parents what happened, and they were very rightly upset. My mom told my aunt, who in turn confronted the Sunday School teacher.

A little over a week later, I received a handwritten letter from that Sunday School teacher, profusely apologizing for what she let transpire under her watch. I remember my mom reading it aloud to me.

Even though I was only eight, I KNEW in my heart of hearts that the apology was a hollow one. My aunt was a prominent member in the church, and the teacher only wrote that because she didn’t want to suffer my aunt’s wrath. If the teacher truly thought what was going on right under her nose was wrong, she would have put a stop to it right then and there.

Flimsy apologies aside, the damage was done. This single incident broke my trust in Christianity, authority figures, family members and peers, all in one devastating blow. The concept of trust is an uneasy one at best in the typical adoptee’s mind…after this event, the level of my personal trust in anyone or anything teetered DEEP into the red.

Being an adoptee is such a complex, multi-layered thing. To deal with attachment, abandonment, trust, bonding, identity, and the myriad assortment of unanswered questions is extremely difficult and emotionally taxing. The aspect of being a transracial/transcultural adoptee adds yet one more layer to the onion. It is my opinion that being a transracial adoptee exacerbates the state of being adopted overall, especially here in the good ol’ U S of A, where society is so racialized.

I am an adoptee. I am a person of color, adopted by a white family. I love my family, but there is a huge disconnect. To an extent, I have been the beneficiary of white privilege, but only because of my family, not due to any inherent traits or qualities I may have. I have heard over and over again from family and friends alike, “We don’t see race or color! You’re just Jeremy!” Sorry, but my ethnicity is something that is inextricable from my very being. By saying you are colorblind is negating a good portion of my identity and experience. You’re literally whitewashing me.

And people like me are privy to see how (many) whites truly view people of other races and ethnicities. It’s not uncommon for me to hear micro-aggressions and outright racist statements towards non-whites from white family members and friends. Do these people outright hate black folks or other people of color? No, not at all. In fact, many of these people will claim to be “enlightened.” But from what I hear, there is a fundamental undertone of “otherness” or depersonalization when talking about non-whites. They completely forget that I AM a person of color, and even though I’m treated as “one of them,” I simultaneously experience overt prejudice and racism from whites outside of the “safe” confines of family or friends. I have inherited my family’s “whiteness,” but that inheritance only goes so far.

This puts folks like me in an awkward position. And yes, this uneasy state of being is yet another complicated aspect of being a transracial adoptee. It makes one feel horribly, painfully alone.

Here’s my advice to white adoptive parents/families. Do NOT deny or play down the experiences that your non-white adopted children go through. Do not say, “Oh, so-and-so is just an idiot,” or “They didn’t mean that!” You MUST understand that racism is alive and well today. It makes me madder than hell when I share experiences, and they are shot down or poo-pooed because they don’t fit into the “colorblind” (white privilege) narrative.

Instead of negating or making excuses for others’ wrong behavior, accept the fact that these ugly things are happening to your child (whether they’re still a kid or an adult), and assure your child of your love for them. Try to empower them with words, encouragement, and action, if needed. If anything, many adoptees feel powerless. The worst thing to do is to sweep it under the rug and not validate your child’s experience. In many cases, the bond formed between parent and adopted child starts out very tenuously…don’t put cracks in an already compromised foundation.

Ariright or Arirang?

What happens if you take a musically-inclined Korean kid and plop him in America?

Many things. Many things not musical.

But in terms of music, you may get a slightly morphed version of “Arirang,” one that may not sound all that Korean…

Sometimes I find that words fail, and the only way I can communicate is via the piano. The following is a free improvisation on the theme…I fish around a couple of times, but hey, a song with an identity crisis and a few panicky moments is not unlike the adoptee making it up, no?

More on music, identity, and the blues (not the musical kind) later. In the meantime, enjoy this aural glimpse into my mind…

Listen To the Children

At one family gathering this past summer, Carrie and I were sitting on the dock of the lake, enjoying the sun. We heard kids’ voices rapidly approaching, and soon enough, Carrie’s young niece and nephew, Lily and Ben scampered up next to us. They engaged us in playful ribbing and conversation.

I cannot recall how the conversation led to this, but at one point, Lily whispered something almost apologetically into my wife’s ear. As Lily was whispering, Carrie glanced at me with a knowing look, broke into a smile, then mock-whispered to her niece, “It’s OKAY. You can ask that!”

Her niece was still too shy though, so Carrie said, “She just wants to know where you were born. They’ve always wondered, but were too afraid to ask! I said it was no big deal!”

I laughed. “Yeah, just ask me! It’s alright. I was born in South Korea…in the city of Seoul.”

I was greeted with a blank, if not quizzical look.

I quickly continued, on autopilot, “…but I came here to America, to Cincinnati, when I was five months old. My parents, here [pointing to the ground], adopted me from Korea [pointing to the horizon].” It’s kind of funny how I say stuff like this, almost like a reflex…it’s as if I’m justifying my reason for even being here, and international adoption gets me a free pass.

I then heard Ben speak up from my left. He’d been silent until now. He’s a bit younger than his sister, and he looked truly confused. “What does ‘adopted’ mean?”

Carrie said, “Oh, it means that when he was born, for whatever reasons, his mom could not keep him. Because of this, his parents from here in Ohio were able to bring him over here and raise him in their family.” Not a bad explanation for an eight-year old to understand.

I looked over at Ben. I was not prepared for what I saw or heard.

He said, “That’s…that’s…STUPID!!!” The look in his eyes was one of pure, startled, empathetic hurt, and damned if I didn’t hear indignation in his little voice when he continued. “Why couldn’t your mom keep you?” His look was of one slapped in the face, and his voice had a slight quiver to it when he asked his question.

I looked at him with what I’m certain was a resigned sadness. “I do not know,” is all I quietly said. I was digesting his response…

It was his facial expressions. The hurt look in his eyes. The angry and bewildered undertones of his voice. It was the pure, un-ADULT-erated reaction of a child being told a story of another child being separated from his mother.

In other words, to me, his reaction was priceless. I’ve never encountered a reaction like his in all my life. Usually I get the typical, “You should be grateful…” reaction or something wrong and glib along those lines. But never this

I had to reflect upon his choice of adjective as well. “Stupid” may have been the only word his child’s mind could come up with, but on many levels, I must agree with his knee-jerk assessment. His gut reaction was completely aimed at the initial tragedy that every single adoption starts with, but is usually and conveniently swept under the rug. His gut reaction had nothing to do with me BEING adopted, but rather, how I BECAME an adoptee.

If more adults had the same empathetic reaction that little Ben did, the notion of adoption would be completely and fundamentally altered. Instead, it has become a worldwide industry, and the voices of adoptive parents have become the most heard, because, well, do we not live in a consumer-driven culture? “The customer is always right” mentality has trickled down into this most sticky of human machinations, drowning out the experiences of the adoptees and the birth families.

I’m here to tell you this. Those cute little adopted babies grow up. Sometimes it’s not pretty, sometimes it is. The spectrum is wide. The point is, if you really think about it, adoption is not natural, and to pretend it is will create uneasy feelings for all parties involved at best, or irreparably broken relationships and a broken self at worse. Hearing out the voices of the ones whose level of influence or power was ZERO at the time of the transaction is only fair, don’t you think?

The time for understanding and dialogue is NOW.

Listen to the children.