Paul Lee Cannon bought his mother a plane ticket to South Korea for her birthday. As he read aloud a short nonfiction story he wrote for “Mixed Korean,” an anthology of stories about what it’s like to be mixed Korean in the U.S. and Korea, he told the story of flying to Korea to reunite his mother with her sister after decades of separation.
When his mother and aunt finally met at the airport and embraced, he recounted how his mother kept repeating, “I can die now. I can die now.”
Cannon’s was just one of several emotional readings from the book “Mixed Korean: Our Stories: An Anthology.” The book is a collection of works from award-winning authors like Alexander Chee, Michael Croley and Heinz Insu Fenkl, as well as many lesser-known writers. The reading in Skyline Commons on Saturday centered around discrimination and reunion. Readers described what it was to be seen as other—not white enough, not black enough or not Korean enough.
Stephanie Blandon, an artist who designed the anthology’s front cover, recounted how she was called racial slurs growing up in California after being adopted by a black military family from Inchon, Korea. She wanted the front cover to represent mixed Koreans, choosing an orange background to represent the blood that unites everyone, and the image of spilling white and black paint to represent mixed Koreans from African and European descent. The paint, which spills outward on the front cover also represents the tree of life, said Blandon.
Blandon was unable to finish the story of her adoption and her experience as a black Korean woman, as she and several audience members began to cry as she spoke. She was the first of many readers that would draw tears from the audience as they learned about food shortages in Korea, family separation through adoption and the racism and discrimination that the readers experienced—sometimes in the form of violence.
The speakers were incredibly moving, and their stories were united by a common experience of not being “enough,” even though they may have grown up in Korea or California. The readers also demonstrated how detrimental more subtle forms of racism can be to children and parents. Each passage, even while hugely different, became a part of the story of what it is like to be mixed Korean.
Lily Lee Lu spoke about the boys who would taunt her and pull her hair at school in Korea. When she complained to her mother, she told Lu to punch them and showed Lu how to curl her fingers into a fist. Kim Einhorn spoke about more subtle forms of racism, sharing an experience of having a blonde daughter and being constantly taken for a nanny, rather than her daughter’s mother.
But one of the most touching parts of the event was watching an uncut, unedited portion of Deann Borshay Liem’s upcoming film, “Relative Strangers.” The documentary follows several mixed race adults who were adopted by U.S. and European families as they search for their biological mothers. The film—despite being completely unedited—was heartbreaking and hopeful. While the adoptees searched for their mothers in Korea, they also learned more about Korean culture and visited historical sights, connecting with a culture they had been separated from for years.
The film showed a woman adopted by a Scottish family find her mother, who was afraid to reach out to her because of the shame and guilt she felt after giving her daughter up. Another woman, after finally finding a photograph of her biological mother, learned that she had passed two years prior. The clip mirrored the experience of the readers’ stories on adoption and loss as they struggled to connect to a culture they had been removed from, sometimes without their mothers’ permission.
One speaker shared the story of a grandmother who had given up her daughter’s child without telling her. The mother spent years trying to find her daughter, appearing on television and contacting the authorities. The mother and her child were finally reunited decades later, after the authorities identified the wrong child as her own.
The event was sponsored by Boston Korean Adoptees and 325Karma-Reuniting families through DNA, and attendees were encouraged to take a DNA test after the event if they were interested. Cerrissa Kim, an editor and contributor to the anthology, encouraged participants to take the free test, to maybe find something out about their culture that they had never connected to before.