The Weight of the Future, the Emptiness of the Past

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There is a part early in my novel where my protagonist, wracked with not knowing what he wants, says, “You know what I want? I want to be old. I want to rock on the porch with my wife and know that everything has been figured out.”

My former agent pointed to that as a unique desire. Later I had a Korean American friend give me some notes on the novel, and she pointed out this bit of dialogue as well. She said, “That is so Korean.”

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The truth is that I don’t know if it’s Korean or not. I was adopted from Korea when I was two and a half and have no memory of my life before adoption. weightoffuture01Yet I have always wanted to be old, to know that everything will work out okay. For me, it is the idea that what is knowable is safe.

Not that I have zero familiarity with Korea. I have lived in Korea, and am married to a Korean. My wife and I have Korean friends. For a while, every Friday we would have Korean dinner with a church group. One Friday, a friend broke down about her mother’s Alzheimer’s, and I felt a strange relief—that at least I don’t know what genetic disasters might come my way. It is a thought I’ve had before. But this time it was followed by the fear I don’t know what genetic disasters to warn my daughter against.

Fatherhood was when my adoption really hit me, twenty-nine years late. I have been thinking and thinking about why that is. I have plenty of theories that center around seeing genetic influence for the first time, how my daughter was already a miniature version of my wife and me. But when I thought about my daughter at Korean dinner, I wondered if what hit me at her birth was the weight of the future.

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For most people, the weight of the future is the weight of the past—a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s or breast cancer or heart disease. For an adoptee, the weight of the future is the emptiness of the past. Before my daughter’s birth, I had thought of the future as empty too, since it had seemed only mine, a space without ancestors or inheritances.

weightoffuture02Imagine living your whole life without the genetic model of your parents, whether you might get certain diseases, but also whether you might bite your nails, or sleep on your side or your back, or turn from ugly to handsome in your teens or vice versa. There is plenty of anxiety in that lack of foresight, plenty of feeling lost—so much of it. But there is also a kind of freedom. The absence of some beacon of fate, calling the drifting life to an unavoidable harbor.

You know that moment when you think, I’ve become my parents? I know it from books. I’ll never experience it in the same way. That lack might have made me freer, however, to keep up the illusion that I could make myself, a necessary belief for an Asian kid growing up with white parents in a white town.

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When my daughter was born, my adoption was suddenly so clearly influential—as an absence. The future was suddenly so crucial, and what was crucial to the future, I had to learn, was the past I did not know.

For one, there was the medical history. When you take your baby to the doctor for the first time, I learned, they want to know your entire family history, the chances that your kid will grow up to have x or y or z.weightoffuture03 So that they can help prevent x or y or z, can watch out for it. I have no idea, and my daughter has no idea, of half of what to watch out for. She is living a life without warning and with no less danger. Because of me.

The weight of the past, the weight of the future. There is a Korean word for a sort of collective suffering, Han, which is passed on through being Korean, as far as I can tell, where one suffers the many wrongs Korea has suffered over its history. That too claps a heavy chain on the future, the sense that the suffering will go on. Is it in the blood, to share that? Would I know that future by blood?

I am reminded of how we know something is there, sometimes, by its absence, how dark matter is said to exist because of so much missing mass. How we are said to feel cold when a ghost passes. How we can we sense someone’s grief before we know what he is grieving.

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Sometimes adoption is like living with the constant presence of absence. Is it lucky to find out that the emptiness of your past matters to someone other than yourself? Or are you better off if you can believe in the emptiness of freedom?

My desire to meet the future—it isn’t so much that I want to know what awaits. It is that I want to know for sure that that future can and will be met. They say history repeats itself. How does one learn from history when an empty book is heavier than a library’s worth of facts?

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Rumpus original art by Marc Pearson.


Matthew Salesses is the author of The Hundred-Year Flood. He was adopted from Korea and has written about race and adoption for NPR's Code Switch, the New York Times Motherlode, Salon, and The Rumpus, among others. He is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Houston. His previous books include Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity (essays) and I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying (a novel). Follow him @salesses. More from this author →