At a Loss for Words

My friend JaeRan and I noted yesterday that we both seem to be at a loss for words these days when it comes to the relentless onslaught of racially motivated violence that we have seen in just the past year…let alone, oh, the past several hundred years of our country’s history. 

As a transracial adoptee (and, no, Rachel Dolezal, you don’t get to use that word), I find myself in a unique position of both privilege and loss when it comes to my own racial identity: I am Korean by birth, but taken from my family and culture without my consent to be adopted into a white family who did their best but were given no resources to support their journey as parents of an Asian child. By a series of economic exchanges between disparately privileged countries,  I am now as bound to this country’s history of slavery and segregation as anyone else, even though I exist outside the white/black binary that continues to drive the racial politics and narrative of the United States.

In Korean culture there is this concept that really has no analagous counterpart in western culture, called han. Wikipedia (yeah, I know, but when you’re an adoptee, you generally don’t have first person access to authentic sources) describes it like this:

“Han or Haan is a concept in Korean culture attributed as a unique Korean cultural trait which has resulted from Korea’s more frequent exposure to invasions by overwhelming foreign powers. Han denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of insurmountable odds (the overcoming of which is beyond the nation’s capabilities on its own). It connotes aspects of lament and unavenged injustice.

The minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong describes han as a “feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.”

Another article quotes the West Wing episode of the same name:
“In the TV series “The West Wing,” U.S. President Josiah Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen) voiced his own understanding of the notion. “There is no literal English translation,” he says. “It’s a state of mind. Of soul, really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still there’s hope.” 

I remember the first time I read about han, it was like someone finally understood my soul. A counselor once asked me where she thought my resilience came from. At the time, I had no answer. Now, I can see that resilience, too, in the face of all odds–personal, cultural, historical, economic–is a part of han. Also from the Wikipedia article:

“The Korean poet Ko Eun describes the trait as universal to the Korean experience: “We Koreans were born from the womb of Han and brought up in the womb of Han.”

It is inescapably a part of me, even though my cultural connection to Korea can only generously be called tenuous. For years, I’d harbored inexplicable anger and resentment, a condition I still grapple with. I couldn’t explain why the weight of the world sometimes felt so, impossible heavy. I mean, I’m not a descendant of slaves. I’m not oppressed on a daily level in the same way. I don’t worry about walking down the street and getting shot, nor will I have to worry more than the average white middle-class parent in the United States that my son will be a target of racial violence. 

But still. 

There is an anger, barely contained in the confines of the tidy English word, that seethes, raging up every time yet another black person is killed in this country. Anger doesn’t capture the all-consuming sorrow, the ache in my body, the barely controlled desire to speak hurtful words to those in my life who I feel aren’t doing enough. 

And let’s be honest…this includes myself. 

I have no eloquent words to offer from my so-called unique perspective as a bridge between cultures. Nothing I have to say can offer adequate comfort to those in Charleston who lost family to a racist killer last week. Where could I even possibly begin? Nothing short of a revolution feels like enough.

I imagine that more than any other group in this country, that black mothers would recognize han:

“I asked another friend what it’s like being the mother of a black son. “The condition of black life is one of mourning,” she said bluntly. For her, mourning lived in real time inside her and her son’s reality: At any moment she might lose her reason for living. Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.”

I only have questions. Lots of questions, which continue to form and manifest as I launch into a week of activities at the ACNM Annual Meeting, held in Washington DC. I am struck by how close the meeting is to important historical monuments of African-American history and struggle, and yet, how segregated we are from the day to day reality of the black community in the DC area. The black people here in National Harbor work in the restaurants in bars, serve me drinks and cater to my needs as a tourist. They don’t live here. 

And so I continue to wrestle with the han inside me, allow it to shape me, and try to shape it into something that can fuel action and change, even if I can’t box my anger into words.

What does it mean to be an ally? How can my voice and actions be of service for meaningful change?


What does justice mean in an age when it is still possible to be black and go to church and be killed?


Where do I place my efforts at community-building when groups called Birthworkers of Color make assumptions about what skin color qualifies as colored? Does it matter? Am I brown enough? Is it offensive that I’m asking?


What is my obligation when I am a part of a group deemed “too small to count”? Am I obliged to speak on behalf of our practically non-existent group? Can I even pretend I have a choice?


How am I complicit, every day, in perpetuating the silences that breed inaction, which in turn feed the machine of oppression?

I want to do more than just listen. I agree. Listening is too often used as an excuse for inaction, a conveniently comfortable position from which to perch in relative safety.
As John Raible, a fellow transracial adoptee writes in a recent blog post about white privilege:

“We need far more than symbolic gestures. We need effective leadership and anti-racist education. Allies must step up to lead real discussions to help heal these divisive issues.
We want to believe that love will win over hate. But we must make it so. We say we believe in interracial families and multicultural communities. For those particularly who declare their love for and allegiance to children and youth of color: How are you using your privilege to deflect the coming backlash?”

I don’t know yet, John. What I do know, as a future midwife, is that I have an obligation to use my privilege, my voice and words, and my clinical skill to do everything I can to protect the lives of black children and their families. Black lives matter. 

I don’t yet know the most effective way for me to do that. But I am about to renew my lifelong engagement in that fight, recruiting the han that is my legacy, along with the seemingly inadequate words that I hope will inspire others to do the same. 

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