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They Say It’s Your Birthday

My birthday was this past Sunday, January 29. Each year, I feel less excited about my birthday and less inclined to celebrate in any grand fashion. But, it’s not because I’m getting older; really.

First, my birthday is complicated. How can a birthday be complicated, you ask? Well, I used to think my birthday was December 12. That’s what all my adoption paperwork says, my passport, my license, etc. Everything except one piece of paper in my adoption file that says in red letters that is not to be included in the “regular” paper and it lists my birthday as January 29.

Like I said, it’s complicated, so I’ll give it to you in 4 parts.

Part 1

My parents were told by their American social worker that babies born in Korea after the 1st of the year were not being allowed out of the country, so the agency fudged my birthday a bit so I could be with my forever family. My parents’ social worker also told them that my real birthday was not information that should be shared – not even with me. However, as it is with many lies, I discovered this top secret paper and my real birthday. I was 13-years-old and had no idea how to process my discovery. We (my family and I) ended up treating it like it was a humorous novelty that made me mysterious and continued to celebrate my fake birthday.

I was judicious and cautious with whom I shared this “secret” and feared that if the wrong people found out I would be deported back to Korea. I think my parents thought the same and did not press me to celebrate any other day than my fake birthday. Besides, a 13-year precedent had already been set. But, I never forgot the date of January 29, I always read the horoscope for Aquarius, and for over a decade, only silently acknowledged my real birthday as it came and went.

Part 2

The year of my 29th birthday, I decided to not celebrate my December birthday and only celebrate my real birthday. I had been in therapy for just over a year and felt addressing my birthday “issue” was a step I was ready to take. I broke the news to everyone I knew via email (this was pre-Facebook). Here is what it said:

 Hey Everyone,

I have a very personal message about my birthday to share with this mass email list – very 21st Century of me.

Anyway, as some of you may know or have heard, for a little over a year, I have been seriously thinking about and examining (with a therapist) how my adoption has influenced and molded me and what that means to me in my present life. I have learned a few interesting things so far. The work has been more difficult (but empowering) than I anticipated, but I am glad I am taking this journey.

One of the issues I have explored has been my dual birth dates. Just to remind (or inform) you, my birth date was changed from January 29 to December 12 to facilitate my adoption. When I was adopted, babies born after the first of the year were not being allowed out of the country, so a social worker (presumably) switched my birth date to December 12. In more recent years, I have felt some conflict with having “two” birthdays, since one, although honored by tradition and many fun parties, is fake, and the other, until very recently ignored, is not fake.

So, this year I have decided to celebrate my birthday on the day I was actually born, which is January 29. I will always remember and acknowledged the great years of having a December birthday, but look forward to celebrating a birthday that rings true to me now.

My apologies if this reaches you too late, in that, you have already sent me a fabulous gift. I will still accept such gifts. In fact, I accept gifts at any time. If you didn’t remember or don’t care about my birthday, this just gives you another month-and-a-half to do the same.

Have you ever had to change a fundamental truth (or lie) about yourself? Reader, I will tell you that it wears on your very soul because you have to reshape your most visceral self.

Fortunately, my birthday announcement was well received by my friends and family. Only a few people ignored my wish (so not cool) or just forgot which date was the right date. I actually celebrated my first real birthday with my family. I was home for my grandma’s funeral so the mood was quite somber, but, in retrospect, I am glad for the low key initiation. My cousin beautifully marked the occasion by giving me a hanbok that little Korean’s often wear on their first birthday (First birthdays are a big deal in Korean culture).

There was loss, too. I tucked away my December birthday memories to make room for new January birthday experiences and I had to part ways with my sister, who also has a December birthday, just two days before mine. We spent our whole lives celebrating our birthdays together and I chose to end that connection. That’s a hard thing to do to your sister and is not without consequence.

Part 3

Naively, I thought that celebrating only one birthday would help me feel less melancholy about the whole affair. Turns out, exercising the truth was only one piece of the process.

My real, true birthday still brings me sadness. It is the day I was born and I can see why some want to celebrate that fact (and I welcome that celebration), but it also marks the beginning of great and terrible personal losses that I still feel deeply. First, it was my mother and father, then my foster mother, then a country and people (and the food!), and then a language.

Photo by Raphaël Bourgeois

Did I also gain? Absolutely. I try to celebrate the people and things I gained everyday. But, on my birthday, I can’t help but be reminded of the sad way my life began. Nothing will ever mitigate that sadness and loss. The love of my adoptive family, if I ever found my Korean family, won’t change what I lost – that I lost on the very day my life began.

Part 4

I don’t think that I will always be sad on my birthday. Where I am now is just a resting place on my journey in the adoption experience. 33 birthdays have taught me that the only permanent things in the adoption experience are the losses. In ten years, I’ll be writing something completely different. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, I still love cake, specifically vanilla cupcakes with strawberry icing made by friend Molly, I love gifts and I love being with people I care about on my birthday. So, like I said, my birthday is complicated.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I am alone or unique in this situation. So many adoptees have had their birth dates changed. Right now, there are adoptees in this world who don’t even know that they are celebrating a fake birthday. Surely, this cannot be a practice worth preserving. Agencies, tell me why this happens? Be transparent about your policy, so that I may understand the consequences your choices have bestowed upon me. I don’t think I’m the only one who will be awaiting your answer.

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