When there was nothing left the world began.
Margaret and Claire
I had coffee with my friend Margaret on Solano Avenue recently and she told me a wonderful story—a stirring account that happens to be the absolute truth.
In a manner both articulate and compelling, Margaret shared the history of how she came to adopt a child.
When she was in her early forties, she explained, the word of a couple’s new baby would trouble Margaret. She was recovering from a serious illness that included chemotherapy, and she realized that as a result her childbearing future held starkly diminished promise.
But listening to Margaret now, I could experience her motivation, her life-oriented drive—a momentum toward parenting that could not be denied and is still to this day very much a part of her life.
She decided that she would adopt a baby and set forth on an adventure as a single mother. And her eyes brightened as she described to me her excitement as she learned about the adoption process, and she discovered that this was, indeed, something she could do.
For the two of us sitting near the parklet outside the Hal’s Place coffee shop—both of us enjoying oat milk lattes—it was as though her enthusiasm was fresh, newly felt, and she spoke to me as though the adoption was recent news that I was lucky to hear.
And that’s exactly how it felt to me this recent peaceful afternoon.
To her surprise many of her friends were less than supportive during the adoption process. “Can I be the friend to persuade you not to adopt,” one acquaintance asked.
I was surprised a so-called friend could say such a thing.
“That’s outrageous,” I heard myself exclaim.
“Yes,” she agreed with a smile without missing a beat.
But Margaret was confident and began to investigate adoption with the same zeal she shows toward her talents as a graphics designer.
“I have an eye,” she says about herself, meaning she has taste and judgement, and a knowing way with layout and imagery, and she applied this talent to styling a future for herself and her still-to-be-discovered child.
Margaret began attending symposiums, and meeting people who had successfully adopted children, and yet much of the research she did diminished her initial enthusiasm until she heard about the possibility of adopting babies in India, Korea, and Vietnam.
She felt a growing certainty that Vietnam was going to be her path to motherhood.
It took her two long years.
Claire was born in Bắc Kạn, a city between Hanoi and the border with China, and it is intriguing to realize today that the newborn baby and the aspiring mother shared the same planet without, at first, knowing each other.
The pilgrimage into motherhood for Margaret with both frustrating and life-affirming. She indicates with her hands the size of the stack of paperwork she had to plow through. A large stack indeed. But to hear Margaret tell the story today, the red tape and bureaucracy amounted endurable trials.
It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. To use Margaret’s own words, “Maybe it was because I had to wait until it was time for a particular baby girl to be born in Vietnam who was meant for me and me for her—my Claire.”
Margaret first met her prospective daughter just a few days after the infant’s birth and like many people encountering a newborn she was puzzled and concerned by the baby’s profoundly infantile nature, so freshly arrived to life and detached from the smiles and voices around her. But when Margaret returned to Claire just weeks later the infant was thriving.
Today Claire is twenty years old and studying Biopsychology, and Margaret and Claire have both traveled to Vietnam together. Claire is proud, as Margaret explains it, to be an Asian American, and Claire’s horizons include a desire to learn real things about real people and a zest for travel. Claire did well at Berkeley High and is enjoying UC Davis and the intellectual rigors of a promising future. She’s an aspiring scientist, as Margaret tells the story, and I have the impression that Margaret’s daughter learned a compelling lesson in her single-parent home.
Our conversation took place on an afternoon with golden shadows, one of those post meridian hours that feel like morning. Margaret taught me a word that fits my life: polytonal, the soul-quickening dissonance I feel so often as I experience delight and sorrow and wonder, all at the same time.
I wonder where they are now, the acquaintances who tried to discourage Margaret early in her quest. One of life’s enduring pleasures is seeing optimists proven right.
Return to Seoul
Davy Chou wrote and directed this movie, with Park Ji-min portraying Freddie, a woman raised in France after her Korean parents put her up for adoption as an infant.
Frédérique Benoit—to use her complete name—uses a French passport, and at the beginning of the movie speaks French like honey off a spoon, along with speaking some practical English, but she can speak no Korean at all. She finds herself in Seoul, Korea, on a more or less spontaneous vacation, and almost against her better wishes decides to participate with the Hammond Institute adoption agency in finding her biological mother and father.
She both wants and does not want to meet her parents, and this push/pull conflict on her part really makes her character come to life. It also makes her hard at times for viewers to understand, emotionally. In her temperamental prickliness, and her needy sophistication, she is probably one of the most realistic characters I’ve seen in a movie for many months.
Freddie does eventually meet her father, and he is a ruggedly handsome man, a former fisherman who now repairs air conditioners. He is a heavy drinker and has an attractive wife who speaks enough English to act as a
translator. In fact one of the themes of the movie is the many ways in which translations leave out certain
meanings or provide cosmetic alternates to what has actually been said.
The movie takes place over eight years and Park Ji-min does an excellent job of portraying her character over this busy period of time. Freddie becomes a rep for a weapons dealer, and is a successful and enterprising business person as she travels to Korea and meets again with her father, who is drinking less and, as Freddie remarks to her boyfriend, does seem to be getting younger. Her birth mother, however, refuses to see Freddie, despite repeated attempts on the part of the adoption agency.
Freddie is a complicated woman—she tells her boyfriend that she could get rid of him with a flick of her finger. And this very good-looking and quite decent and apparently civilized Frenchman is in fact deleted from Freddie’s life. We see her waking up in an alley where she has, we assume, collapsed in solitude from too much liquor. And we never see her boyfriend again.
It seems that Freddie herself is in the process of putting everyone in her life up for adoption. She seems driven to achieve emotional distance from all the human beings she encounters, and yet she is neither obnoxious nor a subject for our pity. We respect her, although we see that she is reckless in her choice of romantic partners, and often clueless regarding her own intentions.
She is also unaware, although we begin to see clearly, that in her zest for music and her need to say hello and goodbye in the same breath, she very much resembles her biological parents.
She does learn Korean well enough to speak the language conversationally, and she does in fact meet her mother at last. The episode is wordless, tearful and extremely well handled. And yet a year passes before Freddie subsequently sends her recently discovered mother an email and—given the unsentimental disconnect constantly portrayed in this movie—the message comes back: addressee unknown.
A viewer needing an uplifting ending will find this movie flat and even melancholy, but a viewer fascinated with real people and their hopes and inner conflicts will find this movie intriguing.
A major plus in the movie is an ample portrayal of Korean street life, ordinary neighborhoods and sea coast scenery that are shown to be both un-pretty and appealing. The movie is a visit to a land that looks both foreign and strangely familiar.