ONLY NOISE: Living With Ghosts of the Korean Family I Never Knew

Patty Griffin. Photo by Michael Wilson.

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Juli Fraga taps into her unresolved grief with help from Patty Griffin’s 1996 LP Living With Ghosts

As a Korean adoptee who was raised in the Midwest by white parents, I’ve always known what it’s like to stand out. In one of my earliest childhood memories, a classmate refused to give me a birthday treat. Thinking she had forgotten, the teacher kindly said, “Mary, you didn’t give Juli one of your cupcakes.” Instead of apologizing, Mary matter-of-factly declared: “My mom told me not to give her one because she’s different.” That was over thirty years ago, but the rejection still lingers.

Mary’s words were just one example of the many racist comments that followed over the years. Throughout elementary school, junior high, and high school, I was told to “Go back to China,” and often teased for not having ‘real’ parents. Unable to express how those verbal slingshots made me feel sad, rejected, and deeply ashamed; I found comfort in poetry and music. When social rejection, racial slurs, and teasing from my peers increased, Patty Griffin’s first album, Living with Ghosts, became my soundtrack.

Griffin’s debut album was released in 1996, when bands like Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, and Gin Blossoms were all over the radio. As a folk artist, she joined a community of female musicians, such as Sarah McLachlan, Shawn Colvin, and Tracy Chapman, who were popularizing an equally powerful but more introspective genre of music.

I’d found Griffin’s album in the music section of the now defunct Borders Bookstore. Back then, the store served as my own personal Spotify. Searching for new artists, I’d visit the folk section, find a new CD, put on the oversized headphones, and push “play” for a sneak preview.

Before I’d even heard Griffin’s music, the album’s title, Living with Ghosts, grabbed me – the words perfectly reflected how I had always felt as an adoptee. Not knowing anything about my biological family had created a gaping sense of absence that was always present. The opening paragraph of my life story had been lost, buried somewhere in my birth country with no way of being found.

However, my parents never discussed how adoption had made us a family. In fact, talking about feelings at all in my family was like using the F-word – only okay in rare circumstances but generally frowned upon. Because of this, I often swallowed my sadness, anger, and disappointment, not wanting to seem overly sensitive, or disrupt the family peace. To my parents, I was their daughter, period. But failing to talk about it didn’t undo the loss that had originally brought us together, nor did it instill a sense of belonging in me. Living with Ghosts tapped into the unresolved grief I had always felt.

Just like the album’s title, Griffin’s music pulled me in with its angelic vocals, sad melodies, and honest, poetic lyrics. Lines like, “Everywhere is somewhere and nowhere is near,” from her song “Moses” reflected how I felt like an outsider – not just in my family, but also in my community.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape the pain of not fitting in. Dating was painful because most of my crushes weren’t interested in going out with Asian girls. “Your eyes look funny,” “You have an ugly nose,” and “You’ll never be pretty like the ‘popular’ girls,” were some of the mean things I was told. No one seemed to truly empathize with me, because they didn’t understand what it was like to be marginalized. Friends felt like outcasts for not having Guess jeans or the latest Sony Walkman, not because they’d lost their biological roots.

Listening to “Moses,” I imagined Griffin as a therapist, using her lyrics to convey that she knew what I had been through. Hearing her words felt like being given a journal filled with insightful prompts. Lyrics like, “I stay unseen by the light, I stay untold by the truth,” from “Every Little Bit,” caused me to question why those words resonated with me.

The truth was, Griffin’s words provided comfort that I hadn’t found in many of my relationships. Growing up, no one had asked me what it was like to be adopted and raised by white parents. Instead, people often said, “Aren’t you grateful to have a family?” I knew the question wasn’t meant to be shaming or hurtful, but each time I heard it, I felt more lonely and unwanted.

Finding solace in my thoughts helped me weather feelings of isolation. When Griffin sang Can you hear the voice inside you? It calls you back to where you belong,” from “Time Will Do the Talking,” I learned to listen to my own, to really think about the questions I’d always felt too afraid to ask. Questions like, “Was I born at a hospital?” “What happened during my first few months of life in Korea?” and “Did my biological mom say ‘goodbye’ before she relinquished me?”

In many ways, Living with Ghosts was music therapy for me. On songs like “Mad Mission” and “Forgiveness,” Griffin sang about her own difficult upbringing: poverty, trauma, and lost love. Listening to her songs showed me firsthand how storytelling can foster healing. I learned that creative forms of expression like writing and singing could help release painful emotions of grief, anger, and sadness, which sometimes get blocked by shame.

Music has also helped me in my career. In college, I majored in psychology and went to graduate school to earn my doctorate. Now, as a psychologist, I’m honored to witness people’s stories, and when it’s appropriate, I reference song lyrics to convey empathy, understanding, and invite self-reflection in my clients. At times, I’ve even found myself sharing Griffin’s specific words with my clients. For instance, when people grapple with loss and decision-making, I’ve offered one line from her song, “Let Him Fly:” “You must always know how long to stay and when to go.” And when they’re feeling scared or stuck in their own suffering, I recall a line from “Time Will Do the Talking:” “Time will tell you what you can’t hear now.”

As an adult adoptee, I’ve come to understand that asking the right questions can be just as important as finding answers to them. I may never know why my birth mother relinquished me, or if I have siblings. That being said, entertaining these questions has helped me face my feelings of shame, insecurity, and grief. For a long while, these uneasy emotions hampered my ability to even think about my biological family, as well as my adoption. However, being able to imagine the ‘what if’s’ has helped me find closure.

This doesn’t mean that the anguish of losing my first family has vanished. I’ll always mourn the mother I never knew. Like many losses, the grief arises when I feel like an outsider, or when I’m asked to share memories of my childhood. And when those old, familiar feelings of sadness, loneliness, and misunderstanding arise, I still turn to Living with Ghosts to help me feel at home.

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