According to my paper birthdate, May 12, in the Western zodiac system I am a Taurus. I don’t know my real birthday. My embodied, flesh birthday. What I have is paper. Something “legal.”
In the United States we live in a vast bureaucracy of paper, words, laws, official stamps, and government surveillance — increasingly digitized. Kafka’s dark visions and critiques of bourgeois relations and the structures we build to sanctify, torture, and imprison each other remain as relevant as ever.
I find signing paper documents quaint. I am pleased that one’s signature — written using one’s own bones and muscle and flesh to hold a pen and move it in a pattern depositing ink onto a piece of mashed and flattened wood pulp — is still legally binding. Yes, I sign things digitally as well, and am grateful for the convenience, but anything handmade, including a signature, retains its magic for me; as it does for many of us who want friction in our lives. Those who want to know we are real and the things we interact with have realness, have bodies.
But I am, we are, flesh, not paper (and even paper is tree flesh), and I do not know when I was born, or where, or to whom. I don’t know the woman whose body I was created by and grown in, and whose body I emerged from into the air-breathing world. I have two of my own children, born from my body, and that unknown woman’s body, but they will almost certainly never meet in this world. This absence, this ambiguous loss, has become part of my children’s inheritance and their origin stories, or lack thereof.
In Minnesota, there are more than 10,000 Korean adoptees. I am just one more, but I did not come here from Korea. I arrived at O’Hare airport in Illinois in June 1975 and grew up in a Chicago suburb. I came to Minnesota as an adult, through chance. Little did I know of the Korean adoption en masse to this mostly Lutheran place. Now I am one of many.
Spoiler ahead. In “Terminator 4: Salvation” (2009), Marcus Wright, a death-row convict is resurrected as a cyborg (part-organic, part-biomechatronic being). In an earlier “Terminator” movie, the cyborg Skynet was recreated as a hybrid of computer system and self- aware being.
The protagonist of Terminator 4 has a name with Latin origins. Marcus means dedicated to Mars — the god of war. An appropriate deity for the American proclivity towards endless war.
Marcus’s last name, Wright, means maker or builder. Marcus Wright is a protector who has been rebuilt. When he comes to discover, after being captured and chained like a criminal and a slave, that he has been rebuilt as a human-machine hybrid, he is horrified and traumatized.
One of the pieces of language that is standard in what I will call Adoptionland is the term “biological,” as in, “This woman has two adopted children and one biological child.” Of course, they mean biologically related, or genetically related. Biological has become shorthand for “not adopted.” But I am biological, too. I am alive.
When I was growing up, the lingo was, “their own.” As in, “They have one adopted child, and one of their own.”
By the end of “Terminator 4,” salvation is indeed found for several parties in the narrative, including Marcus Wright, protector and builder. Wright donates his heart to the leader of the resistance, who has been injured in a climactic battle. Without the sacrifice of Wright, he will die.
In the Adoptionland of my youth in the 1970s and 80s, terms such as “sacrifice” were common parlance in regard to our birth mothers. Our Korean mothers “sacrificed,” and these Western women became [our] mothers.
Origins in sacrifice dovetailed nicely with my Roman Catholic upbringing. God sacrificed his only son. Jesus sacrificed his life for us sinners. The priest sacrificed his desire to have a family for his flock. Congregants sacrifice their donations to the church for the less fortunate. Mothers sacrifice their dreams for their children. Fathers sacrifice their days for their families. And onward.
I’m not a cyborg, because they don’t really exist yet, but I feel like one. Not fully human, not fully machine, but not able to function without both systems. I’m biological, but constructed. Transformed. A permanent transformation, with much of my coding erased and lost. Unpredictable, like a computer system that has become self-aware.
The future is uncertain, and the past — my origins — is in shadow.
Sun Yung Shin (she/her) is the editor of “A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota,” three books of poetry including the Minnesota Book Award-winning “Unbearable Splendor,” and one bilingual children’s book. She lives in Minneapolis where she is a freelance writer, equity consultant, and healing practitioner.