Like many Korean American adoptees growing up in America, I was curious about my birth country and hoped one day to visit. Many adoptees take advantage of the popular homeland tours that their adoption agencies offer. I never had any real intense interest in doing a birth country tour. I just assumed that one day I would visit Korea on my own. It wasn’t until the adoption of my son that I had the opportunity to return to Korea. How do you emotionally prepare for a reunion trip? There wasn’t a guidebook that told me how to do it. How was I expected to feel? I wasn’t quite sure. The only certainty I had was that I would no doubt feel an extraordinary sense of belonging, but also a profound feeling of loss.
The euphoric sense of belonging happened immediately when I landed and walked into the densely crowded Hongik subway station. Here I was greeted by a sea of black haired and brown eyed chatty high school students who rapidly walked towards me. My initial thought was that everyone looked like me. It felt entirely surreal to be surrounded by people who physically resembled myself.
However, the more time I spent in Korea, the more my sense of belonging started to wane. This was especially evident when I tried to communicate by using my textbook broken Korean. Many times the servers at restaurants handed the English menu only to my white husband or when it was time to order ignored him and talked directly to me. Once while I rode the subway a woman started a conversation with me. I looked at her and replied, “Sorry, I speak English.” I’m sure people thought, She’s Korean. Why can’t she speak it? I felt like a foreigner. I was a foreigner.
There’s a place in Seoul, Korea called Namsan Tower. This tower sits atop a mountain and has spectacular panoramic views of the city. When I reached the observation deck and looked across the vast mountains over my birthplace, the stress from the week overwhelmed me. I started to cry. My husband asked me what was wrong but I didn’t know. Maybe I grieved for the life I could’ve had in Korea. Perhaps I felt regret for being in Korea and not searching for my birth mother or maybe I was disappointed because I realized that Korea would never feel like home.
When I think about my son’s adoption, I have these moments of irrational fear that he will resent me because I was the one who removed him from his birth country. He will be angry with me because he will never fully know his culture and not be Korean enough. The truth is that my son’s birth mother made an adoption plan. If he hadn’t joined my family, he would’ve been adopted by another family. He didn’t choose to leave Korea. The choice was made for him.
I understand that even though I was born in Korea, I will never be Korean. I will always feel like a stranger when I visit Korea. It will never feel like home. Nevertheless, the deep longing to return to the place where I began still remains strong.
Growing up, I remember there were two clearly distinct experiences when I felt noticeably different. One time a stranger in a store commented, “Your skin is so porcelain just like a China doll!” Or another time when a stylist cutting my hair declared, “I thought all Asians had straight hair.” Although these comments weren’t malicious, nevertheless, I remember feeling confused that my appearance should be different than what it was.
I know that early on in my son’s life, he will experience feeling different. He is Korean and will grow up as a minority in America. He will more than likely be teased by his classmates because of his eyes, nose, skin color or simply because he doesn’t look white. I struggle knowing that he may internalize this as him being inadequate and feel ashamed. How can I protect him from this? I know that I can’t. It’s entirely impossible.
As a new parent, maybe I’m naive to think that if I enroll my son in a Korean language immersion school, attend a multiracial church or have playgroups with other Korean adoptees, he will grow up to have a positive self identity. The truth is, that even if I do all of these things to support his connection to his Korean culture, there will still be moments when he will feel conspicuous and compromised because of his race.
I understand that my son doesn’t have a choice. He will leave his Korean culture and gain an American one. These are the losses and gains of being adopted. But maybe throughout his adoption journey, my son will be able to find a new space where he is able to create his own narrative that is completely free from the expectations and definitions of others.
“Where are you from?” “Minnesota.” “No, where are you really from?” “Do you speak Korean?” “No.” “Have you ever met your birth mother?” It seems like everyone from friends, coworkers, and even strangers are intimately curious about my Korean-ness. There have been numerous interactions throughout my life which highlight that yes, in fact, I am Korean. One particular incident I can distinctly remember well. I was five years old attending an open house school event with my parents and brothers. As we walked from classroom to classroom, a teacher saw me and was convinced that I was lost, while the entire time I was standing next to my brothers. I remember feeling confused and not being able to explain what happened. I just knew that I was different. Then, right at the moment when you start to forget that you are Korean, you are abruptly reminded like the time a complete stranger approached me and started to speak to me in Korean. After a few seconds of giving him a look of total bewilderment, he realized that I had no idea what he was saying. Which is more awkward? An absolute stranger speaking to me in Korean. Or a white person who fluently speaks Korean.
Maybe I’m a late bloomer in discovering my Korean-ness because it wasn’t until my twenties when I first began to explore my Korean identity. I felt this relentless need to absorb all things Korean. I read every piece of literature written about being Korean American. I binge watched K-dramas (and you think Days of Our Lives is dramatic) and even sought out friendships with international Korean students because somehow I felt they were more Korean than my Korean adopted peers.
Twenty years later and I’m still exploring my Korean-ness, but with a different purpose. Now my intention is to provide my son with a home where he can see his culture represented. I’m curiously experimenting with cooking Korean foods (you had me at banchans), slowly learning how to speak the Korean language, and carefully researching bilingual books in preparation for our adoption. There are moments though, when I wonder am I Korean enough? One day will my son wake up and say, “Okay, mom, the jig is up.” Whenever these irrational thoughts begin to consume me, I find comfort in the insightful words from the beautiful poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. She says, “In the margins, fertile things happen. When things are fixed, things can’t grow. But in margins, things grow.”