In Korea, on your first birthday, you predict your future profession by choosing from a number of different symbols: a stethoscope, a paintbrush, a bow and arrow, a pouch of gold coins, a set of scrolls, etc. What you pick up is what you will do with your life.

When my daughter turned one, my wife placed the stethoscope closest and spread the other objects out around the table. We were dressed formally, my wife and baby in hanboks (traditional Korean clothing) and I in the suit I married in. My family had just eaten a meal we had planned for weeks, mixing ceremonial Korean food with Western food for my parents. My wife had rented decorations, these symbols, the drapery to create the display at which our daughter posed, from a Korean housewife outside the city, who had bought everything for her own child and then had such demand from potential borrowers that she had started a business. The baby didn’t like the feeling of the stiff silk of the hanbok and would only wear it for a short time—we had tested her limit the day before—so we had to move quickly. My mother snapped photos, my brother videotaped, and my daughter reached over the stethoscope for the scrolls (which meant she would be something like a Jill-of-all-trades).

“No, no,” my wife said. “We have to do it again.”

We got everything in place a second time. The baby squirmed and looked displeased. Finally, she chose the gold, and we all clapped.

The next day, we repeated this ceremony for a group of friends. We repositioned the stethoscope with more strategy. But the same thing happened. The baby ignored what was in front of her and grabbed the scrolls. On the do-over, she took the stethoscope. We breathed a sigh of relief.


I tell this story here, in an essay about why I write, not to reinforce the old myth that writing, like priesthood, chooses us. I tell it because the reason I write is something like stubbornness. At a certain point in my life, I chose the pen, and whenever I get the chance to do it over, I choose the pen again. If you keep doing something, I believe (in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way), you can become someone who does that thing.


As a child, I thought the difficult part of growing up was simply finding something you loved enough to do your entire life. Then someone would pay you to do it. Now I recognize the wisdom in starting from a young age on a practical career path, spending an education on skills people will actually pay for. Maybe this recognition is part of becoming a parent. Maybe this is what people mean by growing up? So why don’t I give up writing if I wouldn't wish it on my daughter? Why do I invest our futures in an impossible “profession”?

I wonder if it is fear, or determination, or simple mulishness. I am afraid that it is too late to go back and choose again, but I know it is not too late. I am afraid of failing at what I want. I am afraid of doing something I hate for the rest of my life. But more than that, I am afraid of being defined by some outside force.

I spent my childhood defined by other people. I was the Asian kid. I was the adopted kid. I was the kid who was good at math. I was the kid who x, y, z. I felt as if there were an invisible person standing next to me who always introduced me, or judged me, like a color commentator on TV. When people looked at me, or spoke to me, when they thought they were getting to know me, they were only getting to know the descriptions this invisible person gave them. Of course, the invisible person was theirs, not mine, was less about me than about other people, but I didn’t know that then. I believed that how I was seen was my own problem. That a part of me was responsible, and I needed to get rid of that part.

I think the moment I really thought I could do this—write—was the moment I started to define myself. The moment I took control of how to represent my vulnerabilities. My first story with an adopted narrator, who, though even more screwed up than I was, was there on the page because I let myself be there on the page. It wasn’t that I was writing “me”, but that for once I wasn’t trying so hard to avoid writing me, trying to write like the Dead White Males in the canon.

Why do I write? I write to express who I am. I write about my self-definitions—father, husband, adoptee. I write because this is what I chose and I refuse to give it up. I write because writing is a time when I know what I want, and who I want to be.

I understand my wife’s desire for our daughter to be a doctor, to live a more secure life than ours. Do you have to have deep-seeded problems to write? I wonder how much my feeling of having been voiceless, of not having control over who I was, made me a writer.

Recently, I was talking to a friend about an essay she wrote, in part, about how (white) Americans get to or think they get to define Asia and Asians. One of the quotes she mentioned was from a review of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, something about how Johnson makes the “papier mache” of North Korea "into a real place.” We talked about how strange a statement that is, since North Korea is, of course, real and The Orphan Master’s Son is fiction. A few days later, I came across a quote from 1954, in Newsweek, in which the (white) writer says that what James Michener does is "makes Asia real.” The same basic idea 59 years older, before the Civil Rights Movement, before the Vietnam War, and still. It takes a white writer to make yellow people and countries real (not even getting to a critique of the work).

I want that idea to change—I need it to change—for me and for my daughter. I stubbornly hold onto the belief that we can change it. Why do I write? I write to share my particular truth, what the truth is like for me. I write because I believe in this profession, and in words, and in people who write and read carefully. I write because I believe that writing can change us. I write so my daughter won’t have to feel defined by the outside world, so she’ll be able to define herself and no one will try to make her stop.

Matthew Salesses was adopted from Korea at age two and has written about adoption, race, marriage, and fatherhood for The New York Times Motherlode blog, The Good Men Project (where he is also Fiction Editor), The Rumpus, Hyphen Magazine, and other venues. He is the author of I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying and The Last Repatriate. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, Witness, American Short Fiction, Pleiades, West Branch, and others.