The year is 2004.
Outside, the air is crisp in that in-between phase when seasons change. Spring draws near as an eighteen-year-old senior, preparing to graduate from high school, lives her daily life full of the excitement of growing up. These days, it seems as though every other adult with whom she speaks pontificates about how, “This next chapter of life is the best time ever. But be aware; it goes by so fast.” She genially nods and shows the respectable amount of gratefulness for their wise words. Her friends preoccupy themselves with daydreams and fantasies wherein the freedom that exists so close they can all practically taste it will lends itself to all sorts of greatness and fulfillment. Something else entirely, however, looms over her as she deeply considers this graduation from childhood into supposed adulthood.
A package has arrived for her, her mother explains. Her mother, a caucasian woman with light, bright features and her father, a caucasian man with dark, solemn features, eagerly sit and wait with an excitement that makes her feel as though the package contains something they know she will like. Small, a box sits on the coffee table. Of the type wherein the top and bottom halves are essentially the same shape with one of the halves’ dimensions slightly smaller so that one half may fit snugly within the other, the box seems to be of the type within which wallets for men are packaged. Carefully, cautiously, and honestly a bit disappointed at the sight of what she assumes to be something cheap, she picks the box up off the table.
At her school, from the experience of being the younger sibling of someone who has already endured the graduation process, she knows that graduating students command half a page within the yearly yearbook. This extra space allows for a student’s full-color senior photo, along with a senior quote, and a baby photo, typically of the type submitted by mischievous parents in an attempt to sufficiently embarrass an oh-so-cool senior student. Two years prior was when she had learned about such things, but the thought of the picture duo had not really sunk in until she herself began her senior year. Unbeknownst to her, however, was the fact that her own mother had apparently anticipated this thing as something that might be bothersome.
She removes the top portion from the bottom portion of the box. To her surprise, she sees a photo and quickly realizes that the box is full of photos, photos that she has never seen before, photos of a person she has never seen before, photos of a seriously chubby, Asian infant. Slowly, she flips through the surprisingly large stack of baby pictures, pictures of a baby that she soon recognizes as herself.
The year is 1989.
Dressed in navy blue overalls that form into a skirt rather than pants, a white, short-sleeved polo-type shirt with a ruffled collar tucked into the overalls, with a white, child-sized derby hat, along with white and pink tights while shod in black patent-leather Mary Janes, a three-and-a-half year old Asian girl-child clutches a red cone-shaped package of Yan Yan. The girl’s grandmother kindly asks her to stand on the steps right there in front of the door and then encourages her to smile. The grandmother takes a picture of the girl.
The year is 2005.
Hot, sweaty, she’s glad that the weather condones the sweats that she constantly deals with as she travels alone by subway in a large, strange city. Nervous, she’s upset that she’s sweating from the heat, but grateful that it’s so hot that she’s not perceived as a weirdo for sweating. Four Asian strangers sit before her. The translator introduces them; the middle-aged man is her birth father, these are his parents, and his twelve-year-old daughter. Crowded in a room where such meetings may occur within the relative safety of confinement, she cannot maintain eye contact. Her mind wanders with all sorts of nothingness and completely unrelated nonsense. The room feels as though it has been decorated with small children in mind, not full-grown adolescents orbiting the sun for the last time within their teens. She feels oddly curious but slightly disturbed by the twelve-year-old girl. Her supposed “family” feels like a group of strangers, with good reason. They are strangers. This is the first time she is meeting them with any sort of memory. The translator asks if she remembers them. Of course, she responds, she does not. Eventually, the one-word-type questions have all been used up, and so, the grandmother pulls out a small stack of pictures. The translator explains that the grandmother did not send her mother all of her baby pictures because the grandmother wanted to keep some for herself. The translator explains that the grandmother is apologizing. It’s totally fine, she responds to the translator as the translator relays the message to the grandmother. The grandmother looks entirely too relieved.
As the grandmother flips through even more baby pictures she has never seen, the grandmother slowly explains each of the pictures to her as the translator translates the bare essentials. And then, there she is, that small girl in the blue, skirt-type overalls. She stops the grandmother and points to the picture. The grandmother explains. A moment later, the translator translates that this picture was the last picture the grandmother took of her when the grandmother and grandfather dropped her off at the orphanage. She feels as though she misunderstood the translator and so asks for clarity. The grandmother speaks again, and the translator confirms that, “Yes, this was the day they dropped you off. It was the last time they saw you.” She’s shocked at the girl in the photo. The small girl-child is smiling, so happy, probably completely unaware of the situation that is unfolding beyond her. The world is about to exert its cruelty upon her, and there she stands, a small child, smiling, eating a box of chocolates. She wants to cry but does not. These strangers do not deserve to experience any part of her, especially her emotions.
The year is 2004.
When her mother finally asks her which baby photo she would like to use for the yearbook, she responds with mild flippancy that she would rather just use a childhood photo rather than one of the baby pictures to which so many personal emotions are tied, and yet, those same pictures lack so much emotional influence. Of course she does not say all of that to her mother directly, but that is what she is thinking. She opts for a picture at her youngest in this life, the life that she knows, that has an actual connection with the people she calls family, but perhaps does not want to completely ignore the reality of her situation. So, eventually, her mother pulls out a picture of a four-year-old her dressed in a bright red hanbok, the traditional garb of her birth nation, that her mother, who sits across from her now, as they prepare for her high school graduation, snapped a long while back.