For KADs. . . my story
When I first returned from Korea in 2009 a Swiss adoptee asked me if I had “Post-Korea Adoptee Depression.” It was the first time I’d ever heard such a term. He’d made the term up but he told me it was common; another adoptee we knew who was back in France was feeling the same way. (He was still in Korea.) That’s when it dawned on me that this is something that could be very real.
Then, in conversations with Rae Anne, the KAD who is doing the research study with me about this very topic, we tried to coin it as a formal term. It’s when you return from a trip to Korea and feel isolated. Displaced. Confused about your identity, who you are, and how you fit into the world. Unable to relate or care about people and things you could relate to and care about before Korea. Missing Korea dramatically. (Koreans do drama best, you know.) Pining for life/ how you felt when you were there.
We tossed around these names:
Post-Korea trip KAD [syndrome]. Or [depression]. [Disorder]. Or Post-trip KAD (one of the aforementioned).
Since I did so much work trying to become right with everything I thought I’d share what worked for me so maybe it could help you. Or at least get you thinking.
1. Supportive spouse. I realize if you don’t have this there’s not much you can do about it. But it is probably one of the most important things that got me through my funk. (That and good friends.) There were moments when I was really down, when Korea had really f*cked me up. We talked about divorce. I couldn’t get back to things here; back to my life. Jamie was amazing. He was patient. And tolerant. He let me go through my stuff. There was no way he could ever relate so he didn’t even try. Except now, he explained my passion to learn Korean is like his passion to play golf. “So maybe after you get back you can get a full-time job and I can go to golf school for six months?” he rationalized. He makes me feel normal.
2. Talk talk talk. And keep talking. Two friends of mine in particular got an earful. One friend who lives in Wyoming and is getting her PhD in psychology was especially helpful. She never judged. She always kept an open mind. And she listened. Really listened. She also pointed out patterns from my life or observations she made from things I had done, ways I had acted, in the past. It’s important, if you can, to talk to someone who knows you well, who has some perspective on the person you are, the person you have been, and can remind you of that. (And of what you have, ie the supportive spouse, but not in a forceful way.) It also helped she was there whenever I needed to talk, which was often. I don’t think I could have gotten through things without her.
3. Friends. This was what I missed the most about Korea, my friends there. (People are that one thing that just can’t be replicated.) For awhile after I got back I talked to them EVERYDAY. Sometimes for hours! I needed to do that at the time, but it wasn’t at all a healthy way to get adjusted back to life here. (Korean people are intense! Just like me–that’s why we work as friends.) I lamented missing them to friends here, which also must’ve sucked. I’ve since realized I have really amazing friends here that can’t ever be replicated. Also, once I started opening my mind back here there seemed to be a period of time where everywhere I went there was a Korean person wanting to become my friend.
4. Empowered: make the damn food yourself. I just started cooking Korean food. For awhile when cooking Korean or Chinese food I used to observe the teacher, take notes and photos, and write about it later on my blog. But somehow I got enough courage to actually put the ingredients in a pot and try it out all on my own. And with Korean food, unlike Chinese food, my dishes turned out great! If I crave something now I simply hop in the car, drive to the market, buy the ingredients and whip it up myself. There, no missing Korean food.
5. Open-mind. When I first got back from Korea I kept making statements that started with this “In Korea there’s XYZ. . . and that just doesn’t exist here.” But that’s not true. One thing I thought only existed in Korea were were these thin wireless notebooks I wanted to use for studying. I found them at a local (okay, Korean) stationery store I’d never been to before. Things like that kept happening once I was open to it. It’s like playing solitaire; you have to be looking for the opportunities–it’s really easy to let them pass you buy.
6. Professional help. This was one of the best things I did. Like finding the right adoptee community, it took awhile, about a month or so to find the right fit. I had to phone my health insurance and ask them for referrals. Then I phoned those 3-4 people who then referred me to other people. Then finally I found a whole company that specialized in adoption and adoptees. It took another few weeks for them to do an intake interview and then match me with the right therapist. I didn’t like her in our first 2 meetings. But then something clicked. Now I find her expertise and training invaluable. Be persistent. Keep trying.
7. Adopteeland; connect with other adoptees. This was a little harder and took awhile. For almost 10 years I’d purposefully tried to steer clear of the adoptee community. But something told me this time was different. But finding the right adoptee community was for me like finding the right Asian American community. Sometimes they can be too social. Or too political. Just not right. But I kept trying. And eventually I met some really cool interesting fun people. We’re different ages and at different stages in our life but despite these differences there are so many commonalities. It’s invaluable to learn from one another and hear each other’s experiences. There’s so much we can do for one another. Try it; do some research online and find the adoptee community closest to you. Try some of their events and meetings. Talk to people involved in the organization. Give it a chance.
8. Get out! And get a job. Instinct when you are depressed and feeling alienated/isolated, like no one can relate to you, is to stay home with your own thoughts. That’s how I felt. But I realized that no matter how bad I was feeling, after getting together with friends I always felt better. Friends distract you. They make you laugh. They know you well and can offer you a way of seeing things you might not have thought of. And they care. And a job, or a purpose, helps too. Too much time alone with your thoughts can be dangerous, detrimental.
9. Internalize if you need to. There was a period in time where I unconsciously decided I wanted to use Korean products. As many as I could. I bought Korean toothpaste. Shampoo. Lotion. My therapist said I was literally trying to put Korea inside me; in my body, on my teeth, scrubbed into my hair. For some reason, for a short time, these things just made me feel better. Now they seem silly, but if that’s what you need to do temporarily, then do it.
10. Learn the language! After I got back from Korea, for a few months I studied the books I’d gotten at Kyobo bookstore in Seoul and webcammed with a friend in Seoul once/week. That was a good training period; my friend was my set of training wheels. Then I started to connect with Korean people here in the Boston area. And from having an open-mind I found language partners, got back involved with my free Korean class, and started watching dramas more. 공부 열심히 하고 와요! 화이팅!
The most quantifiable part of culture is language. Anyone can celebrate holidays, do dances, and travel to the country. But knowing the language takes real diligence and dedication. And no one can take that away from you. In order to understand a language you have the understand a culture. When I first tried to learn Korean 10 years ago I didn’t know the culture well enough. I wasn’t ready to absorb the language because I didn’t understand the culture. Now I’m more ready.
There were also two things adoptees advised me that seem simple and didn’t resonate at the time but now seem incredibly important.
1. Surround yourself with positive people. If you’re talking to people who can’t relate to your experiences, then why keep talking to them? Feel free to cut them out of your life; do what’s best for you. Instead find people who can relate, who can understand. They don’t necessarily need to be KADs, they can be Korean-Americans, biracial or simply people who have had experience being a minority or traveling in a meaningful way.
2. And I can’t remember what this other thing is. . . but I have realized the adoptees who seem to have the easiest time transitioning back to pre-Korea life are the ones who bring someone with them to Korea. A mother. Sibling. Spouse. That person has seen what you’ve seen. And while they might not grasp the depth of what it’s meant to you, at least they know what you’re talking about when you explain it.
I worked HARD on my self. There were some really low moments. Really low. But now, six months later, I feel more grounded. Realistic. Practical. Righted. Who knows, this time again on my fourth visit I could still be tossed on my ass again. But at least I’ll know I have more people and places I can turn to.
The funny thing is, even though most adoptees seem to experience difficulties adjusting back to life after trips to Korea, about 100% also say they don’t at all regret going. As a Korean adoptee, going “home” changes your life. Completely unexpectedly. Sometimes a week after, sometimes a few years after, but pretty much everyone says it’s impossible to be the same.