From Korean Quarterly

Winner of the Construction Literary Magazine 2019 Non-Fiction Prize

Flying Asiana Airlines for my 19-hour trip in the sky, I was immediately struck by their signature commodity: the gorgeous attendants, replete with winning smiles, trim waistlines, and windswept hair—already in flight. Languishing behind them in line at customs, I marveled at these Asian sirens chatting with our dashing stewards, their slim silhouettes carving out a carefree commercial, beautiful mommies and handsome daddies any abandoned Korean child would want. They made me want to be Korean.

Lisa was surely the holiest among us. Every Sunday she would enter the chapel behind her parents, forming a processional triad of bent heads with eyes cast down. Sitting close to us but still set apart, she remained shrouded in a silence that seemed to shiver off her. Vapors off dry ice. During morning service greetings she would sometimes place a cold, limp hand in yours while you pretended to shake it, like the tail of a dead snake. But her smile captured you, and her overbite, slight and innocent, made her face somehow complete, almost pretty, and so you would stand holding the lead, gelid weight of her hand in yours while facing the warmth of her smile.

It wasn’t until Disciple Now, a long weekend of hardcore youth worship, that the cloud of her enigma began to dissipate. Still new to town, it was my first sleepover with other middle school girls, our sleeping bags aglow with flashlights. We gossiped and called it prayer, and even scanned a dirty magazine someone stole from their older cousin. And I, at long last, learned the lore of Lisa’s story.

When Lisa had turned 11, her only brother vanished. When he went missing the whole town became a lit vigil, praying for his return, swelling with empathy. But eight days later, the news fell. He once was lost, but now was found—stabbed to death. A senseless murder without a single fingerprint in his cold blood…

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"It wasn’t Chinese or Japanese or Vietnamese. It wasn’t an “-ese” at all. In this family of the Orient, it began to sink in: this is Korea."

Finally at the counter, my passport was stamped: August 18, 2017. It was exactly 36 years after my birthmother surrendered me to the orphanage—to the day. It was also my white, adoptive mother’s birthday. The earliest photograph of me: 6 months old, wrapped in a caul of confusion. Happy birthday, Mom.

Passing through a set of enormous double doors…

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