Writing by Sarah Gotowka and Carrie Freshour
Sarah Gotowka and I (Carrie Freshour) sat down to talk about the origins of Painting Adoption Weekend #PAW, an initiative that began in April 2017.
Our first encounter, at a Thai restaurant, was important to the creation of PAW. The sort of bond we developed over our own shared origins story grew into a lasting friendship and sisterhood. We hope to build this kind of community for and with other adoptees.
PART 1: CHANCE ENCOUNTER AT TASTE OF THAI EXPRESS
Sarah: At the end of summer ‘13, after finishing grad school, I decided to move to Ithaca and look for a serving job while I started my natural dye business. Taste of Thai Express (TOTEX) was the first place I ever dined and my waitress that day became one of my closest and dearest friends. After I was hired on the spot, it ended up being like a second home.
Carrie: Wait up. This is too simple and glosses over the juicy details of our friendship origin story… I was serving at TOTEX; I think I had been there for a year-ish by that time. Sarah rolls in with a friend, but they don’t order, instead say they’re waiting on a third friend. Okay. I check back on them, 2, 3 more times. Nothing. Still waiting on a friend. I thought they were gonna be the kinda table that just wastes your time. Also, Sarah was kinda rude. She was loud, outgoing, and a little too familiar. Her friend finally arrives, after about 20-30 minutes, which is forever in serving minutes… Then her friend orders an app SALAD. Then homegirl asks for a J-O-B, and because of her beautiful Asian face, she is hired on the spot. Although our first encounter was a little rocky, I am so, so grateful she stuck around, was hired, and became one of the best friends I could ask for, a sister in so many ways.
Sarah: Being an adopted Korean means being confronted by a lot of confused faces pretty much anytime you meet someone new. The last name “Gotowka” (it is of Polish descent and means, literally, cash money) stirs Pollocks into a tizzy, persuades Asians that I am Japanese, and just all around stresses white people out.
Carrie: Yeah, I thought you were Japanese. Take the last name Freshour, nobody gets it, or they try to make it sound “Asian”… it’s pretty hilarious. Imagine that in your head. #FreshMoney
Sarah: Working with a crew of mostly first and second generation Laotian, Thai and Cambodians, I prepared for the worst: the scorn and shame in Asian faces once they realize you were raised by white people. Instead, I was met with excitement, “Ah! You are like Carrie! She’s also adopted Korean! She used to work here! You replace her! Haha!”
Carrie: Yeah they said you were the new version of me! You were! Susan joked that you weren’t as good ;) Moay said you and I should trade ages because you look younger. But that fear of scorn, preemptively, is sooo real. It’s this defense mechanism. I think it sets a real barrier to becoming close to other Asians, at least for me, growing up in the South, no one else looked like my siblings and I. Other Asians were “real” and I felt like an imposter in their midst.
Sarah: One of my close childhood friends and I met at Camp Chin-Gu, a summer day camp for Korean Adoptees in Rochester where I grew up. We are still very close, but we’ve lived in different parts of the world for 15 years. You can imagine the warmth that spread over my heart (#cheesyaf) when I heard there was another female Korean adoptee not only in the same town as me, but we’d actually be working together!?
Carrie: Same same!
Sarah: The first time Carrie and I really met, we both worked under the Taste of Thai Express booth for Ithaca’s Applefest. Like courting any new person that you already know you want to make your best friend, it was a little awkward. We mostly gossiped about boys and music while we snacked on fried crickets and spring rolls, all the while I was admiring her radical tattoos, intelligent banter and no bullshit attitude.
Carrie: I remember I really liked your shoes. We were dressed the same I think, like little boy ninjas, in all black and sweatshirts. That was such an amazing day. We served and ate a bunch of Thai food, kicked it with Moay and her tiny sister. And yes, talked about men, dating, love, lust, and how weird Ithaca can be.
Sarah: At that time I was working about 50 hours a week to make ends meet, and having just moved to the area, and only had a handful of friends. Being the community builder that Carrie is, she invited me to every social gathering she attended, including punk shows, frat parties, and even her own vegan Thanksgiving feast. I, of course, went with probably way too much enthusiasm and eagerness!
Carrie: Hahaha, frat parties?! I don’t know about that. But yes, I remember I wanted you to really really be my friend! I wanted to be able to real talk with you, learn about your art, go dancing, basically I wanted to date you minus the dating… or wait, maybe that’s just wanting a bff. That point in my life was post-meeting Aki, a Japanese American grad student/activist who reached out to me and made a real effort to say I belonged in the Asian American community at Cornell, even if I didn’t always feel like I did. Serving as the grad AA org’s social justice chair, I learned about Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, and the Asian American student movement of the 1960s. Before this I had only considered myself an SJ activist. I didn’t know Asian Americans could be political, could defy anti-Black stereotypes, and be leaders rather than followers. Through Aki and as the social justice chair, I began to see the importance of knowing Asian American history and the solidarity work that these politicized women had committed their lives to. All that is a roundabout way to also say that I was so pumped to meet another adopted Koko for the struggle. So, of course, I invited her to EVERYTHING.
Sarah: After a year of getting to know each other, Carrie moved back down to Athens, Georgia to be closer to her family and to continue her PhD research on undocumented workers in the poultry industry.
Carrie: Undocumented but also Black and refugee workers in the poultry. I went back to do this research, which basically equated to me talking to incredible women workers and following them around as they cared for their families and communities… I wish I could go back. My family also lives there, so I could see them every month at what my mom calls “Second Sundays” where we eat, celebrate birthdays, and chill. It’s especially important because I now have 25 nieces and nephews, and I think while I was away doing yankee book-learnin at Cornell, they forgot who I was! That sucked. While I was happy to be back in GA, I missed Sarah! We would text funny photos every once in awhile or updates on our lackluster love lives…
Sarah: Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, I was working diligently on my natural dye business. At that time, I was growing natural dyes on a friend’s plot of land and teaching workshops around the community on how to harvest and extract color from these plants. My educational background and my passion is in textiles, specifically weaving and natural dyes. Although I had often used this medium to make social critiques, Carrie’s work has inspired me to use textiles for ACTION, for social change.
PART 2: K-TOWN AND NYC ADVENTURES
Sarah: In the beginning of 2016, Carrie and I hadn’t seen each other in probably almost a year, but we met up in New York City for a weekend. We stayed with my childhood friend Nissa who I had met at Camp Chin Gu, an adoptee camp, when I was ten years old. This trip really solidified my friendship with Carrie. (You know how like, you can think you’re friends with someone but then you take a road trip together, or cry together, or see each other through some deep stuff, and you realize that this person will be a lifelong friend? That’s what this NYC trip did for us).
A lot of our time in the city was spent talking openly about our experiences of being adopted, what it was like to be in an interracial family, what we knew or didn’t know about our birth families, the prejudices we suffered from the Asian community, the ways we were discriminated against and stereotyped by the American system, how we longed to meet someone that looked like us — ugh, would we have to wait to have children to fulfill this narcissistic desire?!
Carrie: I don’t know how much of it, for me, was about finding someone who looked like me, but someone who felt at least something similar to what I felt, and could talk about it. I grew up with 11 adopted brothers and sisters. Some of us are close, really close, the kind of closeness where we chill to the same music, or eat-a-bunch-of-pizza-together closeness. But, in my family, we never really talked about our adoption stories in a touchy-feely way. I still am wary of these things, emotions, but with Sarah it was different. I think growing up in the small-town South, in a very religious, Christian family, doesn’t really give you much space to talk about these things. About your own history.
Sarah: We also spent a day in Korea town doing what we imagined were “Korean things,” like sharing the largest bowl of dukkbokki ever (so BIG!), buying facial masks and Korean cosmetics, browsing bedazzled earrings and scrunchies and divulging in the vain conversations of comparing eyelids and hair textures.
Carrie: K TOWN! That was amazing. When we were in the Korean facemask store, I even tried to laugh more “Korean” like in a dainty way or something. The eyelid thing… I bought some of those stickers to see what it would be like, to have a fold… there was a time in my life that I wanted that. SMH (at myself!).
Sarah: There were many differences between the three of us in terms of our identity formation, the most stark difference was that Carrie did not have exposure to a community of Korean adoptees in the way that Nissa and I had had through Camp Chin Gu. She had to learn about Korean culture (e.g. cooking, language, history, art) on her own.
Carrie: Totally, and when I hear your and Nissa’s stories, I long for the ability to go back in time to 7-year-old me, to provide that in some way. I dunno, it’s a sort of validation that I think I could’ve used as a kid. My parents were never denying my Korean-ness, they just didn’t know what that meant. They knew east Tennessee, whiteness, Christianity, the South. I don’t fault them for it. I just wish they would’ve had similar opportunities or outlets of support.
Sarah: At Camp Chin-Gu, Nissa and I had learned about many aspects of Korean culture from first generation Koreans. Not only did we learn about our “native” culture, we were part of and helped to build a large community of adoptees and their families. Both Nissa and my parents were some of the first organizers of this camp in the mid-eighties. We attended, along with our brothers, for over 15 years, then became counselors ourselves. Sooo cool!
During the NYC trip, half-jokingly, but also half-serious, we started making a documentary on what it means to be a Korean Adoptee. [Fade into Nissa and Carrie conversing in a crowd in the subway station. Voice over: “Transnational Adoptees often have a difficult time navigating the world around them… but if they are able to connect with other transnational adoptees, this navigation somehow seems easier.” Fade out as Nissa and Carrie laugh adoringly at each other.]
Carrie: I’m laughing so hard right now!! You were totally creeping for those “candid” shots.
Sarah: This documentary was going to be released with our GoFundMe campaign, to raise money so we could travel to Korea for the Tri-annual Adoptee Conference. These plans quickly faded as life and all its financial woes caught up with us, however, we all knew that this was the beginning of an important and meaningful project.
Carrie: That was such a meaningful trip. Especially the giant dukkbokki.
PART 3: BACK IN ITHACA
Sarah: Carrie moved back to Ithaca later that year (yay!) and we of course started to spend a lot of time together. As we became closer friends, our conversations, specifically about our adoptee identities became more and more complex. (Remember that part about how crying cements bonds? There was A LOT of that!) We recognized how crucial our friendship was to processing and healing much of the emotional wounds and trauma we’ve dealt with as adoptees, and how lucky and grateful we both were for having each other.
Carrie: There was a lot of crying. One time in front of a poor friend, who was sooo sweet and considerate as we were asking existential questions directed at some unknown deity in the air above us, trying to make sense of it all. Although I don’t use the same language of trauma as Sarah, I do think we’ve always grown up with unanswered questions and a lot of confusion that we would sweep under the rug and ignore, to avoid hurting our parents. I was always cognizant of this. When I was younger, people would ask if I wanted to know my real parents. I would always respond in a sort of performative way, “Of course not! These are my real parents!” I would even go as far as saying that I didn’t like using that word “parents” for the man and woman who created me. Their act was biological, and that was it. They gave me up. But with Sarah we could talk about why we may have responded in the ways that we did. Were we really hurt? Confused? Would thinking about the reality of the situation be too difficult? Could there have been other circumstances that forced our birth parents to give us up?
Sarah: Realizing the importance of having another transnational adoptee as a friend, and having that community, we wondered if we could potentially create this for other young adoptees in the area. And thus, PAINTING ADOPTION WEEKEND(PAW) WAS BORN!!!
Carrie: YAYYYY! And we have been really honored to meet local adoptee youth and begin building a broader community here in Ithaca, NY. Knowing Sarah has been such an incredible and lucky gift! I hope we can sincerely share that with others!
Carrie Freshour is a Ph.D. candidate in Development Sociology. Her research interests include the political economy of food work and racialization in the US South. She is currently writing her dissertation from fieldwork conducted in her home state of Georgia, where she learned about the daily experiences and struggles of poultry plant work from women workers and their families. While in GA, she also worked with the Economic Justice Coalition and an immigrant rights group organizing the fight against deportations and the separation of families in the region. Her favorite work was as a mentor at U Lead, a group led by un(der)documented youth fighting against the state's education ban. Carrie hopes to continue social justice work through "love, study, and struggle" with radical youth, comrades, and communities that continue to inspire her work while here at Cornell. She is one of twelve adoptees, and on the organizing team for Painting Adoption Weekend in Tompkins County, NY.
Sarah Gotowka is a practicing textile artist and instructor. She has been weaving since 2005, and has been growing natural dyes since 2010. Since moving to the Ithaca area she has taught workshops at Cornell University, Ithaca College, The Johnson Museum of Art, Wells College, New Roots Charter School, The Trumansburg Conservatory of Fine Arts, The Craftstitute, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and Trumansburg Middle School. She now owns and runs Luna Fiber Studio, a fully equipped weaving studio located in Trumansburg New York with the intention of becoming a larger all-encompassing communal textile studio.