text © 2013 Aline Giordano
When I was a student and regularly travelling back and forth between England and France I used to get questioned a lot by customs officers. My Korean genes alone were enough to raise suspicion it seemed. I got used to it. It never made it ok but I just got used to it. Since I got married and have been travelling with my husband we never get pulled over or asked questions at border control – he is caucasian.
I recently spent a day in France to visit my mother. This time I was travelling with a friend, and guess what? We got pulled over both sides of the Channel. My Korean genes alone were still raising suspicion, it seemed. Still, I have French nationality, French is my first language and I was educated in the French system to university level. I would have guessed it safe to call myself French.
When I handed over my French passport to the customs officer in Ouistreham, he gave me ‘the look’ and then asked: ‘Are you French?’ To which I replied, ‘well the passport is a bit of a give away…’ Adding insult to injury, the officer commented: ‘Yes, but….’. So I replied: ‘Yes but what?!!!…’. As I muttered these words I visualised myself bending over ready for a full search. Maybe the officer realised how silly his remarks had been, maybe he was keen to finish his shift, but he let me off.
I have a French passport, a French first name, an Italian surname, a place of birth that reads ‘Seoul’ on my passport, I look Korean (or to most Westerners, Chinese, Japanese or whatever), and I drive a car registered in England. Is this too difficult to process for a French customs officer?
A few years ago I asked my adoptive mother to put down on paper anything she could remember about my adoption. She wrote to me straight away: ‘We received a paper envelope. A little Korean girl named Wang’ … [I can imagine the puzzled look on the customs officer’s face if I had this name on my French passport!] … ‘was in an English orphanage in Seoul and was scheduled to be sent to France, to us. We were warned not to get attached to the enclosed photograph as babies often died and could be replaced by another without anyone knowing or perhaps even caring. So many papers had been filled in and cash exchanged by then, death would not prevent another successful international transaction. Imagine our stress! What were you going through during those months?’
I wonder. What was little Wang going through?
It’s funny how sometimes songs can express better things you have barely thought. As I am trying to figure out if I could indeed answer this question, my iTunes has just shuffled to ‘Sinking’ by The Cure. Robert Smith’s voice is filling the room with:
‘The secrets I hide, Twist me inside, They make me weaker, So I trick myself, Like everybody else, I crouch in fear and wait…, If only I could remember, Anything at all’. (Smith, 1985)
That’s that one question answered (or avoided).
‘We prepared your room. Your brothers, given their young age, were as excited as if they had been waiting for Father Christmas. Yet we felt that the unknown was intimidating for them. We explained where you were, what you looked like and told them that you had no daddy or mummy yet. They looked puzzled. How could it be that a baby has no mummy or daddy? They very kindly offered to give you their bed so that you’d feel at home straight away. We hoped so much that you’d be with us to go on our summer holidays, but we received some bad news. There were delays and further delays and we didn’t know why. Finally, we received a phone call. Your arrival had been scheduled for 21st December 1972. On that cold wintery morning we drove to the Paris Orly airport. In the hall we saw hostesses walking one in front of another carrying each an infant in their arms. We were looking for “ours”, for you, and thought that given your age (11 months) you’d be walking already. You arrived last, in the arms of an hostess, warmly wrapped up. You were tiny, very tiny, red with fever, with lips so dry they were bleeding and eyelids stuck. We drove you home and called our doctor in a panic. Your fever had now reached 40 degrees. He said he would come straight away but warned us. He was no expert in Asian tropical disease. I thought ‘one day in France’ but you might not make two. After a prompt and thorough examination the doctor looked relieved and told us that you were only suffering from a rhinopharyngitis and that with antibiotics you would make a prompt recovery, which you did’.
When information about your birth is scarce, every single word counts. I read my mother’s letter regularly. It makes me cry. It makes me smile. This is all I have as my roots. That and an email dated 8th December 2010 from the Post Adoption Service Center at Holt International Children’s Services in which the officer apologises twice for not being able to find much information about me or my blood family. He writes: ‘On vous a trouvée dans la rue le 23-01-1971 à 23h10 dans la ville de Tae-gu’.
That is all that is known about me. No need to apologise.
All these years I had convinced myself that my loving mother, unable to raise a child, had carefully dropped me by the Police Station in Seoul (which my orphanage documents seemed to indicate) so that someone would take care of me. But, life it would seem isn’t like that. Let’s be realistic. I was abandoned in the streets and the conditions in which I was abandoned still haunt me to this day.
Smith, R. (1985), Sinking, The head on the door: Fiction Records Ltd.