Small gold nuggets and a tiny golden ring were given to my baby Anna for her first birthday. We are not of royalty. Instead, we are a unique family of two cultures-American and Korean.
I was adopted from South Korea by a young Caucasian couple in Iowa. The doctor had told my parents they were unable to bear children, and so in the early 1970s they chose to adopt. They were told that to adopt an American baby meant a wait of three or four years; there was a long waiting list. They were already supporting a young girl child through Christian Children’s Fund (for $12 a month), but when they inquired about her, they were told she had parents. CCF recommended the Holt Adoption Agency [https://www.holtintl.org/]. Through Holt, the paperwork and wait was, appropriately, nine months. I arrived in the United States at the age of five months.
Shortly after my adoption, my mother became pregnant with my brother! Six years later, my parents decided to adopt one more child-another baby girl from Korea. Our father was a milkman; our mother stayed at home. We are a close-knit family. My mom says she forgets she didn’t give birth to me.
Almost 30 years later, while teaching in Des Moines and working on a master’s degree, I met my husband, Jaekeun Cho, who is from South Korea. Jaekeun was studying at Iowa State University. From my good viewpoint as the church pianist, I spotted him in the congregation. I never dreamed I would marry a Korean! I didn’t even eat rice! His father owns a small factory in Korea that makes personalized packaging ribbon for big companies. His mother worked hard in the fields all her life and never received a sufficient education. Supporting their children to get the best education is very important to my husband’s parents. Three out of four of their children have come to the U.S. to study.
Jaekeun and I fell in love, married and now have two children-Anna, 6, and Isaac, 3. Southern California is our home. Many miles separate my children from their Iowa grandparents, whereas the whole Pacific Ocean separates them from their Korean grandparents.
Part of my responsibility is connecting my kids with both sets of grandparents. My kids talk on the phone, use a webcam, write letters and receive packages and visits from Grandma and Grandpa in Iowa.
But how do I keep the communication open between cultures when my children and I do not speak Korean, and their Korean grandparents do not speak English or use a computer? I have found several creative ways.
• The old saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” transfers to any culture or language. I love taking pictures of my kids and often mail photographs to my in-laws.
• New technology allows me to create photo books of my children to send to their Korean grandparents. I upload pictures from my computer and design cool-looking pages by theme. I like to make photo books from the Web site www.shutterfly.com. I recently sent a photo book for their grandfather’s 70th birthday.
• If I really want to express something to their Korean grandparents, I write a short letter and have it translated. We live in an area that has a big Korean community. One of my Korean friends rewrites my letters.
As far as my children go, I want them to know who their halmoni (grandma) and hal-aboji (grandpa) are. Again, pictures are best. My kids love looking through scrapbooks and seeing all their relatives.
In 2003 my husband and I and Anna, who was an infant, lived in Korea for almost a year. I preserved all those memories in a scrapbook. After we moved back to the states, my in-laws visited us in 2006. I captured those memories in photographs and on video camera. Now, the children watch their grandparents “on television.” (However, I still believe the simplest is the best: posting photos on the refrigerator door so the children can see them and think about them every day.)
Although my husband and I have taught them a little, and Anna attended a Korean language school on Saturdays for a while, the children haven’t learned very many Korean words. But, they know the ones that are important! “Hal-mo-ni, sa-rong-hayo” (Grandma, I love you), they say on the phone. And Anna and Isaac have learned quite a bit about the Korean culture. Since my husband eats mainly Korean food, I have learned to cook some of his favorite recipes. (Friends from our Korean church taught me-although I am ethnically Korean, I am still culturally from Iowa!) My children love eating rice and mild-tasting Korean food.
A baby’s first birthday is a huge, costly event for Koreans. As we were in Korea when Anna turned 1, she was given a traditional birthday, celebrated at a fancy restaurant with relatives and friends. Her grandmother bought her the traditional outfit, a brightly colored hanbok. Other relatives and her grandfather gave her gifts of gold and money! Each Korean guest usually gives about $200 minimum to a baby on the baby’s first birthday.
Anna also participated in a fun event to choose her future. Several items were laid in front of her: string to represent long life, a pencil to represent intelligence, money to represent wealth. The tradition says that the first item she chooses will become her destiny. She picked the pencil. Indeed, she is academically advanced!
Since Isaac’s first birthday occurred while we were living in Arizona, the event was a mixture of Korean and American traditions. Neither set of grandparents was able to attend. My husband’s sister and some Korean and American friends helped us celebrate. Isaac wore a hanbok given by his aunt and also chose the pencil for his destiny. Instead of Korean food, we ate at the Old Country Buffet. Isaac received American gifts of toys and clothes, plus money from his Korean grandparents.
Every night Anna and Isaac pray, “Dear God, thank you for halmoni and hal-aboji and Grandma and Grandpa.”
We all pray they can see all their grandparents soon. In the meantime, we’ll keep the memories fresh.