Sitting on the driveway, my kids playing around me and my dog lying next to me, my husband calls out, “do you want this GW Law thing?” I look up, mail in his hands, and a thick George Washington University Law Alumni magazine sitting on top. “Sure. I guess. Not really,” I say, taking the magazine from his hand anyway.
That’s kind of how I ended up at GW Law in the first place. Several law schools sent me nice big envelopes of admittance, mostly thanks to my ability to excel on standardized tests, an otherwise useless skill in the actual practice of law. It came down to University of Pennsylvania, GW, and University of Richmond. The admissions officer from UPenn, the ivy league standout, told me that he remembered my essay about being a Korean adoptee. Ironically, my existence as a Korean adoptee was exactly why I could not attend. Surrounded by all these accomplished students who looked so whole and stable, I could not imagine myself coexisting with them when I still had a hard time looking at myself in the mirror without turning away. My imposter syndrome in full force, I rejected the opportunity, the admissions officer seeing something in me that I did not see in myself. I did not want to attend the University of Richmond, having already spent four years in college in Virginia, the spotlight firmly on me as one of a handful of minority students, but a full scholarship was luring me in. The Dean called me personally trying to convince me to attend by saying, “Do you want to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond?” I was not interested in being a Korean Jewish adopted fish in any pond that far South. And so, I ended up at GW with a partial scholarship, not really wanting to be there but doing it anyway, a medium fish in a medium pond.
I begin flipping through the magazine, perusing the bright and inspiring stories of alumni fighting for immigration reform, clerking at the Supreme Court, or working for a prestigious law firm. I think about my own class note, “Cynthia Landesberg, ‘08, has been promoted to Senior Partner of her household, litigating issues as far ranging as Lego trade policy, property rights of a shared bedroom, and attempted fratricide.” In a graduating class of five hundred plus lawyers, completing school mere months before the Great Recession, I wonder where the articles are about the rest of us, the ones the law dismissed, the ones who dismissed the law, and the ones like me who fall somewhere in between.
Giving up my legal career and becoming a homeschool mom, part-time contractor at the local court, and writer on the side was not the plan. However, when entering the law the way I did, incomplete, lost, and with an identity crisis bubbling just under the perfectionist surface, it is no surprise that the veneer would scratch eventually and the law would become a casualty. The scratches came early like when the Chinese woman in my 1L class never talked to me again after an awkward conversation, her looking for camaraderie as one of the few Asian women in our section, and me so nervous to speak to someone who looked like me that I dismissed her as if her Asianness could wipe off on me. Then there was the time I joined the all Jewish, all male law firm, and actually thought I fit there, my black hair and tan skin trying to hide behind a Star of David around my neck and a Jewish last name. And by the time our first son joined our family from Korea through adoption, the veneer already irreparably chipped, I decided to wash myself entirely clean and expose myself completely for the sake of healing so I could parent my son. The law became a vestige of a person who no longer existed.
I wonder what would have happened if I had the tools available to have reconciled my identity earlier. Without the baggage dragging me down, would I have said yes to the admissions officer at UPenn? Would I have had the confidence to exist in places that all other metrics said I belong to, but I denied myself? Would I have joined the Asian Law Student Association, leading Asian American representation in the law school and then out into the world?
This is one of the most painful parts of adoption. We talk about the resilience of adoptees, the strength, how we survived, but what if we did not have to be those things? What if we could have grown up sure of ourselves? What could we have flown off to do? I watch my adopted sons grow and I have done everything in my power to unburden them, to make the weight they carry less. Therapy. Korean culture. Asian friends. Child-directed homeschool. Honoring their birth family. Connection with their foster family. But the weight is still there. I see them drag it along. I know they have to let it go on their own and my biggest fear for them is they never become free.
I look at the glossy pictures in the magazine as I toss it into the recycling bin, the smiling faces, the accomplishments, and my own dream mixed in with cereal boxes, cartons of tofu, and cans of seltzer water. The life I could have had, but not the life I needed. I close the lid and walk away.