What “Privileged” Looks Like

5:15 AM. Asad wakes up, dresses in the same jeans and polo shirt he wore yesterday, and goes out to wipe the Pajero clean of any sand that’s accumulated on its windows during the night. By 5:45 he’s on the road from his employer-provided accommodation in Mussafah – a dusty old district on the mainland  – to pick up my father-in-law from his breezy luxury residence on Abu Dhabi island.

07:00. Today is Sunday, the first day of the work week in the Arab world, but Penelope will not attend nursery school today. She’s a three-day-per-week kid, which leaves Sundays free for Pony Club. We dress, eat breakfast, and leave our spacious three-bedroom at 8:15 a.m. I dial Asad then hang up quickly.

8:15 AM. My call jolts Asad from his nap in the driver’s seat. He sees my missed call and knows that we’re waiting for him, so he starts the Pajero and drives from a parking space on the street, up the stone driveway of our closed community, and coasts to a stop in front of our building. We have to be ready because security won’t let him park and wait for long – drivers are service workers, you see, and workers must wait outside, neither seen nor heard.

8:20 AM. Penelope sees the white Pajero and exclaims, “Tee! Tee!” She’s given Asad this nickname because his Pakistani name is too unfamiliar on her tongue. Asad jumps out of his seat and holds his arms wide. P runs to him, and he scoops her up, kisses her cheek, and puts her in her car seat. “Hi, Asad!” I say. “Hello, Ma’am,” he says. Then we’re on our way to Pony Club. I ask him, “Whatcha do last night?” He says, “Just playing the cards with friends, watching the movie on YouTube.” I ask him which movie and he says, “Chuck Norris movie.” He punches the air with his right fist and adds, “Action movie.” I laugh and say, “Good one!”

8:45 AM. Asad pulls up to the gates of the Royal Stables. The guard in the booth eyes him suspiciously, then relaxes when he sees us sitting in the back. He opens the gate and motions us through. Asad stops the jeep in the parking area and says he’ll be back for us at 11:00. “Be a good girl, Penelope,” he says. She blows him a kiss.

9:00 AM. We walk through the grounds to the pony rings. The lush greenery, perfectly manicured bushes, vibrant flowers, and bright white fences always take my breath away. I glance at Sheikh Zayed’s majlis and imagine him sitting there 30 years ago. Penelope runs to the table of riding helmets and makes a production of choosing the right one, even though they’re all the same. I pay 50 dirhams (about $13) for her to ride for her scheduled hour.

9:20 AM. Asad’s been up for four hours but is just now eating breakfast. He’s never hungry when he first wakes, and then our morning schedules prevent him from eating until much later. He goes to one of many small shops where migrant workers take tea and buys himself a steaming cup of chai and two pieces of paratha for 3 dirhams ($1). He chats with other guys – Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Indian – who represent the best and worst of this life. Jamil has just gone into the curtain business, a step up from his job stenciling designs on furniture. Kumar complains for the hundredth time about the condition of the old rickety bus he drives to and from a labor camp in the desert every day: “Those men build this city but aren’t worth the life of an animal!” he exclaims. Asad says, “But here, you are guaranteed money! No problem, no headache, no fighting with your brothers for food.” Then he leaves – it’s time to pick us up.

11:00 AM. By this time, Penelope’s ridden her favorite ponies – all of the white ones – and has slurped down a 15-dirham smoothie from the cafe. Asad is waiting; he’s always early, never late. On the ride home, I ask him about his sister who just got married, which leads him to comment on his own wife: “You know, I marry for 14 years. My wife, she never give me any problem, no headache. Many Pakistani women, they love gold too much. But my wife, she love me. After I marry, my life is paradise.” I tear up.

11:20 AM. Asad is on his way back to Mussafah; I rarely need him in the afternoons. He’ll stay at the tiny apartment he shares with four other men until 5 or 6:00 when he’ll drive back to the city and wait for my husband’s call to pick him up from work. Asad knows he could be waiting for hours, but he wants to beat the rush-hour traffic and, even more, he feels it’s better to wait for hours in the car than make Mr. Adam wait for even 10 minutes.

6:00 PM. I’m antsy. Penelope’s pissing me off with her incessant whining, and those old resentful feelings about my husband’s work schedule rear their ugly heads. I text him to see when he thinks he might be home. Today he says 7:00; I automatically add an hour and decide he’ll be home between 8 and 8:30. I think about how I always have to eat dinner alone, contemplate what to make, then think, “Fuck it. I’ll eat cereal.”

9:00 PM. Asad is finally home again after driving Mr. Adam from his office. He tries to Skype his family, but the poor connection won’t let him tonight. He calls instead. He chats with each one of his four children, then talks to his wife late into the night. She gives him updates: his oldest, a 13-year-old daughter and an exceptional student, had one of the highest scores in her class on the latest round of exams… but what prospects are there for her in Pakistan? Asad’s son, 11, got into another fistfight with a neighbor kid – in Asad’s absence, his brother-in-law has been trying to father the son but is worried he’s losing control; his 8-year-old daughter, the sassy one, wants Asad to send money for a new dress or else she’s not speaking to him for a month; and his youngest, a 3-year-old girl, just started pre-K and loves being grown-up like her siblings. This is how Asad must be a husband and father: as a face on a screen or a voice on a phone, 335 days of the year. 

10:00 PM. I clean up the remainder of the sushi we ended up ordering. Adam flirts with his Blackberry – connection’s never a problem – while I stare out the floor-to-ceiling windows of our living room at the second-largest mosque in the Middle East, then I step onto the balcony to stare at Abu Dhabi’s downtown area glittering in the distance. I think about Asad and all the people he embodies, what he represents to me. I furrow my brows and wonder how and why we get dealt what we do, and I feel both deeply thankful and undeserving of my own hand.


Note: All of the insight I posted with Asad’s permission came from actual conversations and things he’s relayed to me about his schedule, friends, family, and his opinion on being a migrant worker in the UAE. I did not invent any details for the sake of this piece.

Two-Year Anniversary

This post was inspired by the writing of David Amarel (adoptive parent, psychotherapist and writer) and Rosita Gonzalez (blogger behind mothermade and a member of the Lost Daughters collective) whose upcoming piece for GV reminds me of how far I’ve traveled on my own adoptee journey.

I took the knife in my hand; its long silver blade glinted in the candlelight. Penelope screamed, not wanting me to do what absolutely had to be done. People were waiting. “No!” she wailed. “No, no!” She waved her hand in front of my face; tears streamed down her cheeks.

“But Mommy has to cut the cake!” I said. “It’s not all for you!” The nine-inch round double-layer cake with neon pink frosting and rainbow sprinkles sat in front of my daughter. I sank the knife into the middle and she screamed again, as though she and the cake shared some physical connection that I couldn’t see but she could most definitely feel. I sighed. My husband turned on the lights and took P, kicking and still screaming, into another room to calm her down.

Happy Birthday, P! Note to self: next year, cupcakes.

Two years. Two years ago, I became a parent. Two and a half years ago, feisty even then, P kicked my dirty little secret right out of me, and I “came out” as a Korean adoptee. Having been a writer for most of my life, I started this blog as a way to vent the feelings I’d kept inside for over 30 years, and as a way to organize my thoughts, articulate my opinions, and question my future.

If and when adult adoptees confront their histories — or their lack of histories — they often go through a grieving process, and I was no different. I had lived in denial and isolation for my whole life; I couldn’t bring myself to have an Asian friend or role model until I was in college, because — having grown up in white, rural farm country — I was too humiliated by my own face to even acknowledge another who looked like me.

Soon after “coming out,” I grew incredibly angry with my adoptive parents for many reasons, some justifiable and rational, others quite irrational and far-fetched. While my rage ebbed and flowed, I befriended other adoptees, both in real life and online. Listening to their stories distracted me from my anger, which soon subsided altogether but left me in a deep, dark depression. I felt all of the emotions one usually links to the word depression: helpless, vulnerable, and incredibly sad, yet very, very numb.

During my depression phase, I had a newborn (and a dog) that I was taking care of almost completely alone, as we were new to New York at that time and hadn’t made many friends. Our families lived hours away. My husband worked 14-16 hour days and many weekends, but we couldn’t afford regular help or childcare at Manhattan rates. I cry now, just thinking about how difficult those long winter months were for both of us.

But with the friendship of the few people I did know — namely adoptees Kristin Jordan, the late Aimee Bang, and adoptee ally Heidi Jackson — spring and summer both arrived. My husband and I made some changes in our outward life, and my internal grieving process gave way to acceptance for my whole life experience and how it had shaped me, for my adoptive family and all their quirks and antics, for my new role as a mother, for having a husband who couldn’t possibly understand the true depths of my tumultuous emotions and shouldn’t be expected to, and for me, myself… the person I am, someone with inconsistencies and unknowns, someone who has pieces of her that will always beg for explanation by others. I stopped being angry, sad, and sorry for who I was, and started to feel happy, confident, and thankful for who I am.

I still have moments in which I feel angry, sad, or sorry (and I often write about them here because writing is my release, my therapy) but they no longer form the undercurrent of my daily life.

I still flinch when my husband or his family speculate about which of Penelope’s traits come from their side — because of course, it reminds me that I may never know which of her traits are from the Shim side (although I suspect that her affinity for hats and plastic bags is a Shim thing — I’d bet our savings on the fact that my omma, wherever she is, wears a visor and carries loads of groceries in plastic bags).

I still suffer the consequences of a childhood that was rife with racism. When my husband tells me I look pretty, I think, But do you see my eyes and lips? I can’t help it — it’s an instinctual thought that’s borne from the scars of my small-town upbringing.

But marriage has taught me that, thankfully, there are no absolutes: life doesn’t have to be all bad or all good. It is a constant negotiation in which you must — and will — rid in order to gain. Motherhood has taught me that, contrary to my previous thinking, there are no perfectly completed experiences: people. screw. up. (Sh)it happens.

An adoptee’s life will always be emotional — something as simple as introducing ourselves can be a dreadful experience (the face-does-not-match-name complex). Birthdays, family events, reminiscing, travel… these can be challenging things for us too. Our struggles are never really over, our questions never fully resolved, although to varying, individual degrees.

So our journeys continue; my journey continues. But I see myself now as having just cleared the half-way point on my own circle of life (damn the Lion King which made that phrase sound so stupid to use) so that continuing forward is actually taking me back to the beginning, forming a more complete and whole version of me — a version that may never be fully complete but is way damn better than what existed before.