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.
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.
“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 whiteperson 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.”