Leading up to Mother’s Day, I wanted to share this heart-warming interview with Joel L.A. Peterson, author of Dreams of My Mothers. Instead of all the gift ideas floating around out there, I’m hoping that this will inspire us all to take time this year to remember our moms. As a mom, I can tell you that you are the greatest gift of all.
Joel was adopted by a middle-class average American Family when he was 9 years old. He was born to a Korean woman and an American G.I. and this is his story. In writing his new biographical fiction book, Joel reflects on some very unique circumstances and experiences, at extreme ends of the human condition, he has been privileged to bear witness to, during a time when American struggles to find a shared identity – with race, culture, and what it means to be American. And, through his unique upbringing, he has realized the incredible influence our mothers can have on building that identity, no matter our race. Here is my conversation with Joel….
Your biological mother had decided to give another family the opportunity to adopt you and give you a better life. When did you learn that this was all in her best intentions?
I was old enough that I not only remember her telling me about the adoption process, but also that I could grasp that this was for my benefit. Children at six or seven years of age can grasp that even painful things, like inoculations or visits to the dentists are ultimately for their benefit, despite the immediate pain or their personal desire against it. I was also old enough to comprehend how desperately poor my mother and I were, how hungry I was every day, and how outcast and shunned we were. Having more than once been reduced to begging and sleeping on the streets, I was very aware that there were few options and opportunities for me, so I knew at the time of my adoption that my mother had done this for me and my future.
You had mentioned that you’ve gone back to visit your mother. What did she say to you that will stick with you forever?
She repeatedly stressed to me that her putting me up for adoption was the strongest sign of her love – that she had given me life, that she had given me love, but that she had never given me up. Instead she had given me a future beyond her wildest imagining.Many adopted children have the urge to find their biological parents.
What was the process like for you?
This is a complex question. I think that, just as every adoption story is unique, so too adoptees vary widely in their desire and reasons for seeking their biological parents. For me, it was simple. I had lived with my birth mother until nearly seven years old. She had been my world until then. It was only normal and fitting that I would want to go and find her later. I was not seeking a fiction, a fantasy, or a phantom as many who were adopted as infants may be having never known their birth mothers. I knew mine and simply followed the very human urge to reunite with any loved, important person in one’s life.
In contrast, I never knew my biological father and never had and still do not have any thought to seek him out. I have a father who raised me and set the best example of what a man, a father, and a husband should be. And I’m blessed that I had two mothers who equally set the highest standards of love and sacrifice.
When you were adopted at the age of 7, you already were aware of cultural differences – you’ve sited oatmeal. Anything else funny stood out?
I was flabbergasted and disgusted that people would track their dirty shoes – shoes they had worn into public bathrooms and next to dumpsters – into their homes, onto carpets that they would then sometime lay upon! In Korea and most of Asia, people leave their shoes, which by definition are highly unclean, outside their clean homes.
What would you want to say to your mothers on Mother’s Day?
Unfortunately, they have both passed so I can only say it in my heart: Thank you and I hope someday to be worthy of their love and sacrifice on my behalf.
Here’s an excerpt from Joel’s book…
Mom’s Love in a Breakfast Bowl
by Joel L.A. Peterson
My mother – the wonderful woman who adopted me despite already having four biological children of her own – was a bright, educated, and deeply thoughtful person. So she had been planning for my arrival from the orphanage in many ways. When I arrived from Korea as her new son, I was nearly seven years old, and my mother knew that Koreans did not eat the same breakfast that Americans typically ate.She reasoned that I was used to eating rice, not cold cereal with milk. But she didn’t want to serve me rice, which she thought could reinforce a sense of not belonging; being treated as a foreigner, given non-typical America food. So she had a plan. She would ease me through the transition from steamed rice.The very first day, I was seated at the breakfast table surrounded by my new parents, brother, and three sisters. Mother put her plan into action as all the pairs of blue eyes and faces framed by blonde hair looked on.I didn’t speak any English. I couldn’t understand anything that anyone was saying to me. It was just so much noise. But I was old enough that I had internalized Korean customs and manners. Even though I knew that this was my new family, my Korean socialization urged me to remember that I needed to act like a guest in their house.In Korea, there are many social rules covering all manner of situations and social settings. Everyone has a specific role. Two of the most important roles were host and guest. Other important roles were adult and child. As a child guest in a strange adult host’s home, Korean custom demanded that I not complain, not refuse any offered food or gift, and that I not leave any food unfinished.My mother set down a small bowl of steaming hot oatmeal in front of me and placed a small spoon into it and stirred. She sat down and the entire family looked on expectantly. I looked from one set of blue eyes to the next around the table. I looked down at the bowl. There was nothing about the bowl of oatmeal that was remotely like rice. But to my mother’s Midwestern way of thinking, it was similar.I took a spoonful and put it in my mouth. It was awful. Horrible. The texture, the taste, the stickiness of it were like nothing I had ever eaten. I wanted to spit it out. But I was a guest and the youngest child. I swallowed and almost threw up. I gagged and forced it down my esophagus. I took another spoonful and forced myself to swallow it too. I did this until it was all gone. I’d done my duty as a guest. Everyone around the table was smiling and making their weird English noises at me.My life in America was off to a distasteful start.But I had spent most of my life in Korea in near starvation. I lived with my Korean mother until she sent me to Korea Social Services to put me up for adoption when I was six. She had little choice. As a single mother of a mixed race child, she was stigmatized and outcast and could find no other work than in American GI clubs. At times, we were reduced to begging on the streets. She knew she could not support me and that I had little hope for a future in Korean society.
So I had learned never to refuse food. No matter what.
The next day, the same thing happened. And the next. And the next. But the servings of oatmeal grew larger over time, eventually needing a bigger bowl. I somehow managed to choke down every bowl, leaving each clean of any leftovers. I thought this was some sort of American torture ritual that the youngest in a family must endure.
In Korea, there were customs that didn’t allow children certain adult foods or to use adult terms for things until they had reached a certain age. I thought maybe it was similar in America. While everyone else in the family got to eat delicious looking cereal with milk, I thought I must be too young, and was relegated to this God awful, goopy oatmeal stuff. I endured this torture for six months. One day, my mother asked me if I wanted to try some cereal, pointing to a box of raisin bran on the table. By now, I could speak English and I understood her offer fully. I leaped at the chance and grabbed the Raisin Bran box and poured myself a bowl full of it. Dad poured the milk, since I was too small to safely hold the heavy, large pitcher.
The first spoonful of raisin bran was pure heaven! The taste was nutty but sweet, the texture crunchy and the milk cool and quenching. I loved it! I must have eaten Raisin Bran for the next two years. To this day, it’s my favorite cereal.
Years later, I came home for the first time from college. It was Christmas time and I came down for my first home cooked breakfast since going out of state for school. And there at my table place was a big steaming bowl of oatmeal.
“I thought I would make you a treat,” Mom said. “You used to just love oatmeal when you first came from Korea! You would always clean your bowl and we kept having to give you bigger and bigger servings, because you would always eat it up.” She smiled and gave one of her musical laughs. “I finally had to force you to try something different! But it’s good to have you home for the Holidays. So I made this special, just for you.” She beamed.
My mother is a wonderful woman – bright and well educated. And deeply thoughtful and giving.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth. I sat down and ate, cleaning the bowl while my mother smiled.
For more information and where to get a copy of this beautiful story, visit www.dreamsofmymothers.com