The ultimate cultural appropriation

I have a little pendant that I've worn for many years. It's tiny thing, a little gold filigree oval with the word 어머니, omoni, which is Korean for mother, in the center - just like the one in this photo, only gold. I don't remember where I bought it, from an online store I think. But I do remember that I fell in love with it when I saw it. I wore it because it reminded me of the most important role in my life, being a mom to my children.

Never, as I wore it, did it occur to me that I might be crossing the line between cultural respect and appropriation. Believe me, I've crossed that line, mostly unknowingly, but I am sensitive to the issue. I didn't think in cultural terms when I wore it, I thought in terms of the fact that omoni is the Korean word for the most important role of my life.

It goes to show that even when we think we "get it," we may miss the mark by a mile. I certainly did. A post at Sang-Shil's that I read yesterday is what pulled me up short. Go read, and come back.

My husband and and I never have asked our kids to call us appa or umma - I want to make that clear because wearing my pendant was never about that. The point is that it was about me - my thoughts and my ideas on how to respect and honor their culture. In honesty, I didn't question for a moment that my kids or any other Korean adoptees might find it odd, uncomfortable or offensive to see a white woman wearing a pendant proclaiming herself omoni. I wore this little pendant for close to fifteen years because it made me feel good - proud and sentimental, too. I also believed my children would see it as a sign of love and respect for them, as well as their culture, people and language.

I failed, however, to see the obvious, which is that I'm not omoni - my children have omoni in Korea. Those women have missed an entire lifetime of being mom to these amazing kids. While I've had the joy of watching them grow up, they have had to bury their losses and pain in wondering. The very, very least I can do is give them, and my children's aboji, their rightful titles. This changes nothing about the relationship I have with my kids - I'm mom, we love each other as deeply as people can, and I'll be there for them as long as I'm alive. I think, actually, that respecting the people who gave my children life makes our relationship that much stronger.

And so I've put the little pendant away - I won't be wearing it anymore. I thought about sending it to Korea for my son's mother, as I bought it when he was very small. But I think instead I'll give it to my daughter. Perhaps she'll wear it someday, when she's an omoni herself. Or maybe, if she is fortunate enough to find her omoni, she'll choose to give it to her.

Somehow that feels right.


Christina said…
Margie, no one who knows you would think you were trying to erase or replace your children's Korean moms... but I see Sang Shil's point and I think it is a good one. Open any adoption magazine and you'll find lots of ads for this type of thing - tshirts and jewelry with "mom" "dad" "grandma" and "grandpa" in Chinese or Korean or Russian... I always thought it was kind of sweet. Which just shows a lot of us can be rather misguided at times and still have a lot to learn. Thanks for the push in the right direction!
Anonymous said…
I posted on San-Shil's too, but in case it gets pulled, I thought I'd post here too.

I’m a Korean adoptee too and want to offer another perspective. I don’t find it offensive in the least that an adoptive mom or father uses the term omoni or abaji. She writes that “See, to my thinking, kids adopted from Korea already have an umma and an appa” I didn’t. I’ll probably get slammed for this and called “insensitive or cold”, but I had a biological birth mother and father. “Umma” means “mom and “appa” means “dad”. To me, “mom”( in any language) means the woman who raised you and loved you and got up with you when you had a nightmare at 2 am. My biological mother gave birth to me and made sure I was found, that’s it. My (adoptive American) mom is who my “Mom” is and it doesn’t matter what language you use. I find it respectful and very touching when adoptive families learn and use Korean words with their adoptive children. It shows that they care and are trying to incorporate some of their child’s culture in their lives and family.

Families who adopt internationally not only adopt a child, but they adopt an entire country and culture. Their family becomes multicultural and it becomes part of who they are. They are no longer an American family, they are an American/Korean family. So they have just as much right to use the term “umma” and “abba” as they have the right to use “mom” and “dad.”

I believe we all have the right to our own opinion, but I also I strongly believe it is the right of the adoptive family to use any term they chose, be it “umma” or “mom,” and if you are not part of that family, then you have no right to criticize. I see it all the time, adoptive parents trying to do what they think is best for their adopted child (like learn Korean) and unhappy adoptees slamming them and making them feel bad. Would you rather they ignore the Korean culture completely and have their child grow up ignorant or ashamed of their heritage?

I just want adoptive families to know there are other opinions out there.
abebech said…
Thanks Margie.

These were really important points of view to consider, but at the end of the day, I like our family's t-shirts. My son has one that says big brother in the phonetic of the Amharic -- a word he memorized to pronounce to his sister, so she would understand who he would be to her -- and my husband has one that says Abbat.

When my daughter first met her American Daddy, he was introduced as "Abbat, Daddy." So she sang a little song "Abbat, a-Dadda. Abbat, a-Dadda."

Honoring dh as "Abbat" -- as her nannies did, as she rechristened him -- Does this obliterate or even obscure her Ethiopian Abbat? No! No more than I disappear when I call her first mother in English "her mother" or, to her, "your mother." It seems to me that using the language difference "Your emaye" is too convenient, as if everyone had an "umma" or an "emaye" and a "mother" to boot. "Emaye" makes her distant, imaginatively banishes her to Africa, distinguishes between her and me -- Calling her "mother" or me "emaye" emphasized all we share between us -- love for this beautiful child -- when she was trying to figure us all out (which is to say, likely, forever).

Miss I has a complicated life. She has two abbats and emayes, two daddies and mommas, and we are all in her being and her bearing. There's no taking that away (and no one here is trying to).
Deb said…
This is something I hadn't thought much about, Margie. In this situation, where is the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? Who decides which is which? Where does intent play into the distinction? To ask the question differently, is there any way to honor and celebrate another culture without appropriating it, or appearing to? I think you'll agree with me that we adoptive parents have taken the priveledge that by right was someone elses. I get the joy of watching my children grow up, a joy that their first parents will never know. Is it another loss to their other parents, or to my children themselves, that I wear a charm with the Chinese characters for "mother". . . or is it a reminder to me that I represent this other unknown woman, that I have this incredible gift because she had such an incredible loss? In this too, as in everything related to adoption, the question is so much more complex than it first appears. I don't know the "right" answer. I don't honestly think there *is* a right answer. Just different perspectives. I appreciate the thoughts that your anonymous commentor put forth. Is that because I don't want one more thing to feel guilty about? Because I'm very fond of my charm and what it means to me and don't want to give it up? Because when I look at the little photo charms of my children I see my children, and when I look at the character charm or the Chinese flag charm, I'm reminded that it isn't, in fact, that simple?

Very thought provoking, Margie, as always!
MomEtc. said…
I read this post recently as well and it got me thinking. When we were in China (for their adoptions) we definitely used Mandarin words for Mom and Dad. Occasionally we've used them at home, never with the intention of replacing the children's parents, but more to facilitate the use of Mandarin in our home.

I see Sang-Shil's point. I think I would think twice now before, say, buying a necklace with Mom written with the Mandarin character. I also think it would be more respectful to my children's first parents to reserve the use of the Mandarin terms for them. Ultimately, I guess I'll leave it up to my kids though.
Margie said…
Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts.

Anon, no comment pulling on this blog, I'm glad you stopped and offered your thoughts. I hear you - and for over 15 years I honestly and truly felt the same way. Part of me still feels that I acted with no disrespect in wearing my pendant and thinking of myself as "omoni."

But another part of me sees that for some adoptees, perhaps my own children someday, calling myself "omoni" could usurp the one thing my children's mothers can always claim for themselves - the titles of their relationship with their children. My conscious decision not to use the word "omoni" to refer to myself anymore is as much about respect for my children's mothers as it is for my children. And there are other ways to show the same love and the same respect for their language and culture.

Abebech, you make another good point - that the specific circumstances of our children's adoptions have bearing on the language we use, too. That must be taken into consideration.

And all of these good comments point out that this isn't a "one size fits all" issue.
Kahlan said…
I stopped wearing my pendant quite some time ago. I could never place my finger on why; it just felt off to me. Thank you, Margie and Sang-Shil, for so eloquently addressing this topic.
Anonymous said…
Margie, how do your children feel about this right now? I am new to all of this and so I am still trying to sort alot of things out. But I wonder if we might sometimes be forcing on our children feelings and thoughts that we THINK they should feel. Or what someone else feels. Yes, someday your child might not want you to wear it but what if they do want you to wear it now? Where does that put them and their feelings?

Ultimately, as our children's first mother shouldn't it be up to our children to decide where she fits into their lives. Our place is only to make sure that they know she is allowed anywhere they want because it will change so often over the years.

If you feel I should be looking at this differently, please feel free to show me.
Celera said…
Labels are tricky in any language. Who is my "real mom"? In my personal life and experience, that isn't a label that exactly fits anywhere.

As usual Margie, your personal desire to be as fair and as selfless as possible leads to a lot of really interesting thoughts and -- more importantly -- sincere self-examination. That, I think, is what matters. Not so much the decision, as the desire to think it through from multiple perspectives and to do the most kind and honorable thing.

Your kids are very lucky. I hope they know that.
Sarah said…
As always, good food for though Margie.
I am an owner of a Korean Umma pendant. For my Korean born daughter it is a sign that brings her comfort. She knows I am not her First Mommy. She knows her First Mommy loved, loves, and will always be loving her. She is part of our daily conversation and our nightly prayers.
Esther searches for my pendant and touches it nearly every day. If one day she feels it brings disrepect to her Korean Mommy and the relationship they share in our open adoption, it will immediately come off.
abebech said…
"sincere self-examination. That, I think, is what matters."
Mirjam said…
I wear a pendant with the Mandarin character for mother. To honour my daughters first mother, and to remind me and my daughter of her.
If one day we would be able to meet, I'll give it to my daughters first mother.

The Netherlands
Margie said…
Mirjam, thank you for your comment, I appreciate it.

And I know exactly how you feel. What I've tried to express in this post is simply that I'm seeing this through different eyes now.

I stopped by your blog, which is lovely - I just wish I spoke a little Dutch so I could understand more!
Mirjam said…
Ich verstehe :-).

To explain a little better: it's not really my pendant, it's Yan's pendant. Yan is 4yo now, and she doesn't want to wear "die gele ketting" (diese gelbe Halskette)(she's into pink plastic right now), so I wear it for her instead (she asked me to).
Now, if one day she says I should take it off and put it somewhere until we can give it to the rightful owner (fingers crossed): no problem.

And thank you (among a million other things) for directing me to Land of the Not-So-Calm.
Got some new reading to do!
Maureen said…
Ok, this is going to sound kind of harsh and it isn't meant to be that way; I, in fact, respect and admire your feelings. But so many adoptive parents fail to see that their attitudes are what make being adopted so difficult. You acknowledge that there is a difference, but you also dwell on it. You feel that you will never live up to the adoptive mom, for they are the ones that gave life. You think you are missing something so you overcompensate by never letting the adoption go, or giving it any kind of closure, so neither can they.

You are their mother, and their omoni. End of story.
Margie said…
Hi, Maureen, thanks for your comment - and harsh is fine with me. However, I just want to say that the only place I dwell on adoption-related issues is here on this blog. At home, my relationship with my kids IS mom - period.

What I hoped to convey in this post, badly perhaps, is that I have come to believe that BEING mom and literally LABELING myself "omoni" are two different things.

The first is my reality, my kids' realities. We live a life that looks-feels-tastes-smells just like the lives of families of children who are born to their parents.

The second is more subtle, and has as much to do with respecting my children's Korean mothers as it does respecting them. What pushed me to take off my "omoni" pendant is imagining how my children's mothers would feel if I met them wearing it. Maybe they wouldn't care at all - who knows? But my friendships with mothers who have lost children to adoption tell me that they would be hurt. And the last thing I want to do to my children's mothers is hurt them more than the loss of their children has hurt them.

Please read my posts labeled "Kids" and you'll see that I'm definitely mom, period. I can be mom without my little pendant, though, and be more respectful to their mothers in Korea in the process.

Hope this helps understand what I'm trying to say better. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
Seoul Siblings said…
Margie, wonderful post. I posted this on Anti-Racist parent as well.

I don't have one of those beautiful pendants because I never considered myself to be the kids Umma. I will admit that I wanted one since they are very beautiful but after my DS came home and he cried for his Umma for 3 months, I would feel awkward in wearing it.

For my kids, their Umma was the one that they called that in Korea. Their foster mother is Umma and their Appa is their foster father. I don't lay any claim to the title of Umma and my husband doesn't lay any claim to Appa.

My son came home crying for his Umma for several months and that Umma wasn't me. Our first daughter didn't call me that either and neither has our second daughter who still at times cries for hers in Korea. It's a title that I don't want to take away from our children. To them they have a Umma already and she lives in Korea and for them that Umma is their Foster mother.

For me, I honor my children's First Mom by wearing a heart shaped pendant that I picked up while in Seoul in November 2007. It is to remind me of the love that their First Mom still has for them.
mysilly3 said…
I see your point but I don't agree. A mom is a mom. I view wearing this necklace as a way of honoring my dd and Korea. I am saying to the world that I am proud to be the mother of a Korean dd. I don't buy other cutesy stuff. It seems over the top and a bit disrespectful. This is in good taste. I helps that we don't call her birthmother - omma. Instead she is her Korean mommy or birthmom.
Margie said…
I did too, mysilly3 - I wore that pendant for 18 years before reaching this point of view. There's no judgment in my point of view, I've just come to a different place. It's valid for me, but may not be for others.

Thanks for commenting!

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