Thursday, January 15, 2015

How It Feels to Be Adopted Korean-American Me

A bibimbap burger (obviously my next food obsession).
A very long article from this weekend's Times Magazine appeared today early, titled "Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea." I was adopted from South Korea in 1990, when I was just a few months old, so it jumped out at me. (I mean, I'm part of that generation, so I was surprised to hear of my apparently impending relocation plans.) I normally try not to news-aggregate here, but this one was important to me.

The article is much more nuanced than its headline would make it seem. It's really about the range of issues and exclusions felt by many international adoptees (especially Korean ones); a little about the history of adoptions from South Korea; a little about the author's feelings about having adopted her own children. But there's also a lot of anger, an anger I was surprised—and occasionally affronted—by. In the top section, one adult adopted Korean woman says, "Accepting diverse families is great... [But] I don't think it's normal adopting a child from another country, of another race and paying a lot of money. I don't think it's normal to put a child on a plane away from all its kin and different smells" (emphasis mine). I got the impression that her feelings, like a lot of others', comes from a childhood dealing with casual racism in a community where she felt out of place, and like she never really fit. But it felt ironic that she should end up saying so in a way that made me, as a Korean-American adoptee who feels utterly "in the right place" with my white American parents, feel upset at being branded "abnormal." Who is she to say?

I've had a lot of friends ask me about whether I feel Asian-American, or how adoption has affected my life; whether I feel white, or whether I'd want to visit Korea someday—and I'm sure that just as many people have wondered but not felt comfortable asking. I don't take offense when people ask—I'd rather they did than didn't—but I also feel like the categories are totally insufficient to lived experience. I feel Asian-American in much the same way that I imagine Barack Obama feels African-American. Yes, I do, but my experience is something totally different from the second-generation experience of my friends—the trips to China/Korea/Vietnam/etc., the sense of straddling two cultures and values, the memories of academic pressure and high expectations. And it's frustrating to hear others recast that as being "not really Asian" (or, in the President's case, not really black), a "Twinkie" (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), or "basically white." Basically white kids don't deal with other kids in middle school saying that they have an accent, having elderly people always ask "But where are you really from?" when they go to Europe, or (on one memorable occasion) being called a tourist at their own university.

The author and his sister, enjoying ice cream in a Michigan summer.
But my heritage is also my grandmother's working-class northern Englishness, my grandfather's German Lutheranism, my other grandfather's having served at Pearl Harbor. ("Which side?" a high-school friend's parent once asked, blithely and meaning well enough.) I didn't grow up speaking a second language in the home, and no one ever expected me to fit into a lawyer/doctor dichotomy. If you dropped me in an airport in Seoul, I'd be lost. But I was raised with an appreciation and awareness of Korean culture, and somehow with a love of kimchi and japchae. I can sound out Korean haltingly, in much the same way as my Reform friends can sound out Hebrew with niqqudot. I cringed when I heard that ABC is airing a sitcom called "Fresh Off the Boat." I feel a sense of personal investment for some reason when I read about the ongoing civil war between North and South Korea. And as a naturalized citizen, I grew up in the minority of Americans that knew that they could never, ever become President. I can't identify with the sense of anger, dispossession, or displacement voiced in the Times article. But it also feels important to me to insist that my experience is a valid part of the Asian-American experience, and also to insist—publicly—that I had a happy childhood, that Paddington Bear and hearing Stille Nacht in German and reading Linda Sue Park's books were all important parts of growing up, that no one could have made me feel more cared for or loved than my parents—who still do.

I hope that everyone in the Times article, especially those who sound most lost and aggrieved, finds peace and happiness eventually—and if South Korea is the place where they can find it, I'm glad for them. There's a part of me, too, that would love to travel to South Korea someday. But lest anyone come away with the wrong impression—and if only to soothe Maggie Jones, the adoptive parent who wrote the article and sounds worried throughout—I feel like I have to insist, as one of the relatively few members of the small community who can speak about this particular identity issue as their own, that a lot of us did grow up happy, healthy, and with a sense that our adoptive families were exactly the place we needed—and were meant—to be. 


  1. Beautifully written! Thank you so much for sharing your response and experiences. Also, that bibimbap burger looks amazing, regardless of any problematic symbolism.

  2. 'fresh off the boat' is based off an autobiography of the same name, do your research