When I was five-years-old my family and I were at an open house for my brother’s new school in a rural White community. The classroom was crowded with excited students and smiling proud parents. Families were busily milling around looking for their child’s desk. A stranger approached me. She bent down and told me that she would help me find my parents. I felt confused. Why did she think I was lost? I was standing next to them. Even though I couldn’t articulate what had happened, it made me feel separate from my family. This was the first time when I felt like I didn’t belong.
Like many transracial Korean American adoptees, I grew up racially and culturally isolated from others who looked like me. My neighborhood, my school, and my friends were White. During family holidays I was the only person of color. My family and I never ate a Korean meal or watched Korean movies together. I was so completely entrenched in White culture that unless I looked in the mirror, I forgot that I was Korean. Even though I knew that I was internationally adopted, my parents never discussed my race. Not talking about it made me feel ashamed. I internalized this silence that me being Korean was something that should be kept hidden away. The feeling of not belonging began to manifest deeply inside me. It felt normal not to belong.
This aching feeling of not belonging followed me to college where I first began to explore my Korean identity. I felt an urgent need to make up for lost time by consuming everything related to Asian American culture. I feverishly read Korean literature, watched K-dramas, and found meaning in anything Korean. Although I was taking back my culture on my own terms, I still felt like I was standing on the peripheral of my truth; straddling two cultures-not Korean enough or too American. I didn’t fit neatly inside either box. During my sophomore year, I befriended a Korean exchange student. I shamefully told her I was adopted and desperately asked her to help me translate my adoption papers. I often felt alone trying to navigate my feelings without any support systems.
Being an adoptee, there is a constant struggle of confronting loss; the daily reminders are present everywhere. Mostly, though, I feel like an imposter who is fronting for a real Korean like when my son asks me to spell a Korean word and I have to use a translation app or when I stumble with the ingredients while cooking bibimbap. I am envious of other Korean Americans who grew up in families where they learned how to speak Korean and inherently understand the cultural nuances. How does it feel to have this cultural knowledge, the ability to move freely without any emotional strings attached?
I grew up believing the common adoption narrative which claims my adoptive parents did the best they could with the resources they had. I understand now how this thinking is problematic because by centering them it dismisses my experiences. I don’t have any doubt that my parents loved me, but that wasn’t enough. By not acknowledging my adoption experiences and denying my racial differences it created a lot of pain that I am still learning how to reconcile.
My identity is still evolving and changing but becoming a mother has helped me redefine what it means to be a transracial adoptee. My son is also a Korean adoptee. I wonder if this is my chance to raise him differently than how my parents raised me. It has been healing to be able to provide him with the cultural and racial mirrors I never had. I am teaching him how to be proud of his identity and in turn I am learning how to do this for myself. Consequently, motherhood has given me the strength to hold space for him so he can ground his fears, and unlike my experiences, he will know that where he is standing is exactly where he belongs.
I had never seen a Black person until I attended a private Christian school in North Minneapolis. I recall looking out the window of my parents’ station wagon driving down West Broadway Avenue. Scattered store fronts and restaurants lined the block. Black people stood highlighted on the street like statues-permanent fixtures in the backdrop of my Whitewashed world. I drove this same route for three years. During that time my family never talked about race. Race didn’t exist.
Like many transracial Korean adoptees, I grew up racially isolated from others who looked like me. My neighborhood, my school, and my friends were white. There was a period of time when I was so entrenched in White culture that unless I looked in the mirror, I forgot that I was Korean. One Halloween my friend and I dressed up as Madonna and I thought, How can I be Madonna? I’m Korean. I realized the color of my skin made me different from my family and if my parents didn’t see race, then how did they see me?
Child development research shows that by six months old infants are able to discriminate the differences in skin color. By two years old they are able to name colors and apply this to skin colors and by five years old children categorize by race and express bias based on race. When people claim they don’t see color or that all lives matter do they think this absolves them from racism? Or if they see it, it has no meaning to them? Being color blind contradicts how we develop as humans and disregards the fact that we live in a racialized world and have been socialized to believe that white skin is better.
When I learned about the murder of George Floyd, like many others, I felt so much rage. But I wonder when the protesting is over and the hashtags have disappeared how will I take my anger and use it to dismantle anti-blackness in my family, in the Asian American community, in my classroom, and in my neighborhood? It’s not enough to be angry. It’s not enough to put a Black Lives Matters sign in my front yard or post Angela Davis quotes on my Instagram. To be an anti-racist I must show up. I must listen. I must continue to do the hard work if I want my son to live in a just, safe, and humane world free of racism and hate.
I haven’t stopped thinking about George Floyd. How must it have felt to have a violent angry knee on his neck. I think about the eight minutes and forty-six seconds of pain he endured before he cried out for his momma. I think about how in that moment his soul summoned all the mothers of the world and I imagine us holding him up chanting in unison, I see you. I hear you. I see you. I hear you. I see you. I hear you.
When the ’Stay-at-Home’ ordinance was first enforced by the governor, I jokingly admitted to my husband that I will be good at this because I’m such an introvert. People exhaust me. I get my energy from being alone. However, I quickly learned that social isolation is hard. When I only interact with my family, the world feels incredibly small. I miss seeing my community of friends and eating leisurely dinners out with my family at Zen Box. It feels weird to stand across the street when I talk to my neighbor. I miss the normalcy of my life: Lake Nokomis trails crowded with runners, laughing faces inside coffee shops, and the bustle of traffic on Cedar Avenue. I want the certainty that my four-year-old son will be able to play at a park with his friends and that my husband will be able to return to work. I want to be able to leave my Minneapolis bungalow without feeling terrified that one misstep in the bread aisle will get me sick. I am grieving the loss of my old life. I want it back. I hate that I am this anxiety filled scared person.
I am truly trying to cope with the uncertainty of this new reality but among the cacophony of confusion there are moments when I can only hear the sounds of my rage. I am pissed off that the federal government is profiting while people are dying. I am tired of Trump spewing his racism by calling it a “Chinese Virus” inciting violence against Asian Americans. When I leave the safety of my home my anxiety spikes because I’m scared that if I cough a stranger might scream at me to take my filthy virus back to China. It’s hard to be anything other than angry.
The other day a friend and I were commiserating about how crazy everything feels. She told me to focus on what is positive in my life. She said at least I’m still healthy. She’s right. I am healthy but that doesn’t separate me from those who are getting sick and have to die alone. I recently read in the news that doctors are having to make decisions about which patient is going to receive a ventilator and ask themselves whose life is worth saving. This magical thinking is not only dangerous but I believe it is complete bullshit.
Am I selfish for sitting in my rage when my life is better than so many others? My inner voice tells me to let go of the rage. You will be okay. But does that matter? People are still dying. I’m sinking deeper into isolation and I’m still terrified that I will get sick. So until I get through to the other side of this reprehensible shitshow, make no mistake-I’m going to stay fucking angry.
But how do I navigate my own life right now? Some mornings I’m exhausted just thinking about what to cook for breakfast. How do I get through another day without breaking down and crying? This morning as I sat next to my son at our dining room table doing schoolwork, my mind was racing with thoughts about how my response to this pandemic is so different from others. I can take a walk with my family without the mental stress of thinking about how I’m going to pay my mortgage. My ambitious son has a functioning computer, numerous books to read, and plenty of food to eat. At the end of all of this, I must trust that I will be okay. That he will be okay. My husband will still have his job and we will all havehealth insurance. Hopefully, what is the best outcome for my family? That my son will have learned how to read and that our family vacation to Florida will only be postponed. My financial security affords me with little discomfort. I’m ashamed that I feel relieved that I don’t work at a restaurant like my friend who lost his job and doesn’t know if he will be hired back.
All of this is brutally unfair. I hate pretending that any of this is normal. I wish that I could predict that what I do right now matters. That my decisions have truth. I can only create space to let in the light. Cling onto hope that we will make it through.
When she speaks, I imagine my Korean name Jung Ran Jo. I see my foster mother’s photograph vanishing into the sky like gray embers from a smoldering fire the smell of burning papers disguised as truth seeps deep inside my lungs. I catch my breath. My thoughts lost in slow motion.
“Why do you distrust me? Of course I wish there was no imminent military threat from North Korea but your adoption file is not here.” I watch her long fingers fumble a thin Manila folder marked United States; her eyes divert from mine. Why are you blaming North Korea? I want to shout, “It’s not 1953!” I want to pound my fists on the table in a fit of rage and scream, “I am more than a fucking paper orphan among an empty family registry!”
I am a wife,
I am a mother,
I am a sister,
I am a missing daughter
a yellow foreigner-”Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees look at these,” a classmate chanting from the swings pulls back the corner of his eyes. I feel my face grow hot with embarrassment. I try to yell but my words are like chalk stuck inside my throat-
No, I’m a Korean adoptee.
Now twenty years later I am sitting in a stiff blue chair across from a new social worker at my adoption agency still trying to reclaim what is mine. Two hundred thousand babies exported overseas and I wonder if she feels any shame. I turn away and look out the small picture window. I can glimpse in the distance black haired strangers who are mirror images of myself hurrying down the crowded streets and I am triggered by an aching feeling of loneliness.
She interrupts my thoughts, “Ah, here is your adoption file. I’m sorry if this caused any misunderstanding.” She acts as if I’m supposed to be grateful because she conveniently found my file; granting me access to understand how I came into this world. I clench my folder like a fist against my chest. Decades of grief turns back into rage. I meet her eyes and I snap. “I refuse to be silent anymore.”