When I was in sixth grade, a girl I knew accosted me in the stairwell, staring up at something on my face. I asked her what she was looking at.
“Don’t you know?” she said. “It’s your nose!” I stared at her uncomprehendingly. “Your nose! It’s flat right here!” She rubbed her own nose bridge with her fingers. “See how mine has a bump? Yours doesn’t.”
I felt the same place on my nose. She was right: Where she had a ridge, sprinkled with freckles, I had none. I never would have noticed the difference if she hadn’t pointed it out.
I was adopted from South Korea in 1986, when I was three months old. That year, 6,150 Korean children were adopted to the United States — 59 percent of all children adopted in the U.S. In the intervening years, the trend in international, often transracial, adoption has continued, with popular adoption destinations changing with the availability of children to be adopted and the willingness of host countries to allow those children to leave the country. After the popularity of Korea as an adoption destination, Americans looked to China, South America, Ethiopia — wherever they could locate children in need of a family. The vast majority of their adoptive American parents were white.
This means a lot of non-white babies have grown up in white communities, with white families, friends, classmates. Essentially, they have grown up culturally white. Given that 100,000 South Koreans have been adopted to the U.S. since 1958, we are the largest group of transracial adoptees in this country. But anyone who has adopted a child of a different race or culture — domestically and internationally — might benefit from learning how adult Korean adoptees, like myself, have adapted to the white culture that was, inevitably, part of our new lives.
In 2009, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute published a study on identity and adoption, the most comprehensive of its kind to date. Of the 179 respondents surveyed who were born in South Korea and adopted by two white parents, 78 percent said they considered themselves to be — or wanted to be — white as children.
This is why, as an 11-year-old growing up in a small, predominantly white Pittsburgh suburb, I couldn’t guess what it was my fellow classmate was staring at. As far as I was concerned, I looked just like her. In the 1980s, the prevailing approach to raising adopted Asian babies was, for the most part, to assimilate them. There are a wealth of good intentions at the heart of this approach, but also a very generous dose of idealism. I had a great upbringing and a wonderful family, in which I never doubted my place, but no matter how determined we are as a society to insist that our nontraditional families are just the same as all other American families, this is true only up to a point. The dynamics and relationships in my family were no different from those of my white peers, but there was one key difference between us and them: My brother and I did not look like our parents. And while that was an easy thing for family to overlook, it wasn’t taken for granted by the rest of society.
“The people who loved me, and my real friends, they didn’t see it,” said Rachel, an old friend, who was adopted at six months and grew up in the same town. “And while I knew I wasn’t white, when you’re in a protective bubble, you almost forget that as easy as it is for loved ones to not see you, it’s just as easy for you to stick out to others. I know that I look different. But when I’m walking around or living life, I don’t even think that I stick out.”
Rachel wanted to be white when she was younger, but now, “I want to be understood as a person. I want to be seen as an individual, and not as part of an entire Asian group. I want to be just another person, like everybody else.”
I felt the same way growing up. I wanted desperately to fit in, to be seen as just another kid and not as one out of the four Asians at my school. Every moment of casual discrimination felt like a betrayal by the culture that I felt I belonged to. The encounter with the girl who pointed out my lack of a nose bridge wasn’t just confusing; it was traumatizing. Eighty percent of Korean adoptees in the Adoption Institute study responded that they had experienced racial discrimination from strangers. Seventy-five percent said they’d experienced it with classmates, and 48 percent reported having negative race-related experiences with childhood friends.
The result is often a sense of identity in crisis. We are, in many ways, people in between cultures, sometimes fondly referred to as Twinkies: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. “My friends often tell me, ‘Caroline, you’re the whitest Asian we know,'” said Caroline, a 24-year-old Korean adoptee from Oklahoma. “It’s true and I’m OK with that.” That’s a sentiment I hear a lot about myself. But being in between cultures often results in feeling out of place in both. In high school, I made light of my being different by keeping up running jokes with my friends about being Asian, but when I got to college and saw so many Asian classmates, I knew I couldn’t make the same jokes, because I had no claim to that culture.
Rachel admits to feeling guilty when other Asians guess her ethnicity, because she “can’t tell them what they are, and I can’t tell them anything about being Korean.” She cops to awkwardness at the hair salon she goes to, where she can’t satisfactorily answer the questions of her Korean hairdresser about whether she likes kimchi or has been to the local Korean church.
There are signs of improvement. As we all grow older, we will likely become more comfortable with our unique place in American society. Most respondents in the Adoption Institute study said that they had developed some comfort with their race/ethnicity as adults.
But a not-insignificant 34 percent responded that they still remain uncomfortable with their race/ethnicity. There’s a long way to go before the Asian adoptee community in the U.S., still a fairly young and scattered group, is entirely comfortable in its own skin, flat nose bridge and all.
Behind the Adult Adoptee Study:
The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute’s study on identity formation provides a number of new insights on a range of issues relating to adoption, particularly across race and culture. The research included survey responses from 468 adult adoptees, though, for purposes of comparison, the study focused on the 179 Korean-born respondents and the 156 American-born Caucasian respondents, the two largest, most homogenous cohorts within the total group.
Based on their extensive examination, the study’s authors made several key findings and recommendations on promoting positive identity formation in adoptees. Among the findings: Adoption becomes increasingly significant for most adoptees — and race/ethnicity grows in importance for adoptees of color — into adulthood, contrary to the notion that these factors diminish in importance after adolescence.
Read the full report, titled “Beyond Culture Camp,” on adoptioninstitute.org.
When Difference Becomes Visible
Adoption is not often discussed, even among adoptees. My brother was adopted two years after me, and until recently, we had never talked about it, not even once. While conducting interviews for this series, I received some responses that were telling — and not just because they were answers to questions I had asked. “I hope this kind of answers your questions. They were very hard to answer,” one interviewee said. Another: “Sorry it took me so long. I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be.” A third person said: “I’m glad I’m not insane, and that there are people who really do feel like there are a thousand issues they need to deal with.”
Rachel feels the key difference between her experience and that of non-adoptee Asian Americans is that she never experienced “‘the struggle’ of parents making it here.” Unlike other groups who established themselves in this country after great struggle, Korean adoptees do not have a well-defined, built-in community to rely on. We are both widely dispersed and thoroughly assimilated, and so, in a way, we are each alone.
According to the Adoption Institute study, it was generally thought that to “support the development of positive identity,” it usually sufficed to have loving adoptive parents and some education in the child’s native culture. But, as the lead authors point out, “[S]ociety’s practice of international and transracial adoption has advanced far more quickly than has the understanding of how to best promote identity development for these individuals and their families.” In other words, America’s participation in the industry of adoption outpaced our ability to deal with the identity-related consequences.
“It isn’t just, ‘My mother gave me up so I have issues,’ and ‘You’re white and I’m yellow, and I have issues.’ It’s layer after layer after layer,” said Rachel. “It’s like my entire identity is stuck in limbo.”
Steve, an adoptee from Nashville, said that, for him, identity wasn’t an issue until he was in seventh grade, when 16 Candles came out. “That’s the year I became Long Duk Dong,” he said. “And Gedde Watanabe became the most hated man in my world.” To him, the mocking of his classmates “felt like complete betrayal.”
“I think I felt like I was the same as everyone around me. I mean, the kids who were suddenly taunting me had been my friends for as long as I could remember,” he said. After his “Great Betrayal,” Steve took on a “punk rock skater kid” persona, going peroxide blonde, dressing strangely, and taking an interest in obscure bands “for the purpose of putting my classmates off.” He started to become more comfortable with his identity as he reached adulthood, but only after “many years and many bad poems,” including poetry addressed to a nonexistent brother. “Longing for a kindred spirit?” I asked him. “For a blood relative,” he said.
Steve isn’t alone in having experienced this kind of longing. Longing seems to be a common characteristic among adoptees. Adoptees may long for a lot of things: sense of belonging, connection with their heritage, connection with their birth mothers. As Caroline said, “It seems to me, that as adoptees, we do a lot of searching. Searching for who we are, searching for ways to fit in, searching for our birth families, and the list can go on and on. I sometimes find myself thinking that maybe I need to stop searching. Maybe I just need to be satisfied with what I have, with who I am.”
And as Rebecca, a 23-year-old adoptee from Wisconsin, pointed out to me, there is also a more specific kind of yearning unique to adoptees: “I had to relearn my culture and am still learning about it. I envy those with Korean parents because the Korean culture is instilled in them from their parents and grandparents. It has been a struggle to find who I am and where exactly I fit in.”
Many were taught, to greater or lesser degrees, about Korean culture as children. And all of the adoptees I spoke with said that they knew from a very young age that they were adopted. But while there are plenty of ways to introduce a child’s birth culture into his upbringing, they often backfire. “I was part of an adoption group when I was younger, but I was maybe seven, and it was just an excuse for the kids to get together and eat ice cream,” Rachel said.
When Rebecca was little, her mother would take her to a Korean church, but that didn’t last, because it was difficult for her mother to attend an all-Korean service.
Steve’s parents took him and his adopted sister to annual adoptee picnics, which he enjoyed. He made friends, saying that “it felt good, in a way that was hard to understand at the time, to be around lots of other adopted Korean kids,” and he appreciated his parents’ efforts to introduce him to his heritage — until 16 Candles. After that, when his mom suggested a Korean language class, Steve balked. “She thought it would be a great idea, probably because it would have been,” he said. “But I said no way. I was at a point where I didn’t want to miss out on my weekend football game to learn a language that none of my friends could speak. Or to differentiate myself from them that way.”
Maybe it’s the idealism of American society that causes us to harbor the implicit belief that adoptees have been assimilated so thoroughly that they won’t have identity issues 20 years or more down the line. Many adoptees don’t feel that their situation is that complex — and others don’t register any complexity until, say, a fellow adoptee comes around asking a bunch of questions.
The phenomenon of assimilation contributed to Barry, an adoptee from central Illinois, choosing the term “domesticated” as the best way to describe the Korean-American adoptee experience, though he recognizes how bad it sounds. “I can’t muster any hostility toward my parents, the adoption system, America, or anyone else,” he said. “Everyone’s intentions were altruistic, and I really can’t complain about the outcome. It’s just so frustrating.” He acknowledged that, compared to the struggles of other ethnic and racial groups in the U.S., the less clearly defined problems of adoptees may seem “minor or superficial,” but even this doubt seems to be the consequence of the blueprint-less nature of the adoptee experience. There are no recent historical precedents with which to compare or validate an individual’s feelings.
In many foreign countries, including South Korea, adoption — even domestic adoption — is very rarely discussed because of the shame attributed to the act. In cultures that place high value on family bloodlines, adoption is frequently hidden and kept secret. In the U.S., it’s often the opposite. Currently, we try to embrace nontraditional families so fully that adoptees become “invisible” in an entirely different way. The impulse to strenuously treat everyone equally can sometimes leave no room for actual discussion.
“I have friends who either say, ‘Who cares? Why does it bother you so much?’ or who simply do not understand how one person could have so many issues,” Rachel said.
Dating: Am I a Stereotype or a Person?
“Most white men either see me as the ‘me so horny’ girl or the ‘cute’ Asian. My white girlfriends say, ‘He thinks you’re cute!’ And I think, ‘No, he wants me in a schoolgirl outfit,'” said Rachel.
Well, this isn’t new. Most Asian-American girls could probably tell you a similar story. Rebecca once had a guy tell her that it’s “every guy’s dream to have sex with an Asian girl.” Rachel knows that “when I go to a bar, and there are 80 white girls, 19 black girls, and me…I’m not surprised that I’m a novelty, I guess.” But this old story comes in some new flavors for the Korean adoptee.
Female Korean adoptees are, more often than not, largely attracted to white men. Most adoptees grew up in very white communities, often isolated from other Asians. “Overall, I’m not attracted to Asian men,” Rachel said. “I’ve seen attractive Asian men, but where I’m located, it’s very rare to see an Asian male in general, let alone one I’d like to hunt down.” When someone in high school asked her why she doesn’t date Asian guys, she responded, “Well, try finding me one who isn’t my brother.”
Growing up feeling more white than Asian, we naturally leaned toward the cute boys we saw around us. It makes sense for a cultural whiteness to carry over in this way, but in doing so, it carries over the same consequences of identity uncertainty. In the same way that many adoptees see themselves as like everyone else, and wish — and often automatically expect — to be perceived that way, plenty of adoptees struggle to have members of the opposite sex like them for who they are, and not for their appearance.
“I wish I could wear a sign above my head,” Rachel said, “that reads, ‘I do not know kung fu, I don’t eat fish, I don’t know how to make sushi, I’m not a horrible driver, I have sex but I’m not a sex slave, I’m not submissive, I failed math, I don’t speak any Asian language, please get to know me for me.'”
Barry told me about the time a woman told him she liked “foreign guys”: “It stopped me in my tracks…my drunken tracks. I realized that she saw me as something different than other guys because of my ethnicity.”
Moments like this make an adoptee suddenly realize that many white people see him or her differently. For each person for whom your ethnicity seems to be as much an afterthought as it is to you, there are a half-dozen others a moment away from blurting out how attracted they are to foreigners just like you.
If an adoptee does find herself attracted to an Asian man, there’s the added hurdle of her not being culturally Asian herself. Rachel pointed out that adoptees are often seen as “too Asian for white guys to [take us] seriously, and too western for Asians.” That can be a pretty unhappy predicament: “You’re bad for being Asian and you’re bad for being American,” she said. “You lose the game of life.”
Rebecca responded that while she’s attracted more often to white guys than Asian guys, she didn’t usually date them in the past because “I always thought that they were too good for me.” And the realization that men you previously thought were interested in you as a person are actually somehow into your Korean-ness can create some serious trust issues. “I always feel like, even if I found this great guy, in the back of my head, I’d never know if he loved me for me,” Rachel said. “If it was a fetish or not.”
After a while, she added, she’d have to trust that he was into her personality, but even with the people in her life now, “[it goes] back to me being adopted, where, while I know people love me, I never really believe them.” It’s not that she’s incapable of loving others, she explained. “But sometimes I don’t buy it.”
She told me: “As much as I know my birth mother gave me a better life by putting me up for adoption, and as much as I’m grateful for my adoptive parents doing so much for me, do you ever feel like, no matter how much someone will love you, there may be a day when the person will just leave?”
For men, there’s an added layer of complication. Barry said that, because the vast majority of women he came into contact with were white, he’s “been mostly attracted to white women.” But, he added, “I had the stereotypical white-guy experience at some point, where I realized, ‘Asian chicks are hot!'”
He added that this was “so predictable,” but, really, it isn’t. The thought had not even occurred to me — I hadn’t considered that the attitudes and intangible science of attraction would be so affected by the environment that Asian men would also, like their white peers, experience an Asian fetish.
Romantic attraction was exceptionally complex for Steve. “There was me, wanting to claim some sort of authentic Korean identity. And also wanting to get it on with hot Korean ladies, and wanting that sense of a tie to the country that was real. Having in-laws who spoke Korean. Belonging.”
So did he end up marrying a Korean American? “Of course not! I met a nice white lady,” Steve said. “But it wasn’t for lack of trying!”
So he’s married. Others are still second-guessing. While Rachel knows that all kinds of men do sometimes leave their wives, relationship security feels even more precarious to her. “I feel like, in my situation, there’s almost two times more of a chance that they will [leave me],” she said. “I know it’s not scientific, but it feels like, ‘Do you really want me? Are you sure? How do you know?'”
Products of an American experiment in altruism, given truly loving, happy families and the fastest track to assimilation, subject to a million small betrayals as children, and harboring a very particular kind of identity crisis as adults, Korean adoptees are in the unusual position of being able to be both justifiably grateful and justifiably doubtful about where we are now. As the poster children of the great American melting pot, we are mostly assumed to require no more attention or concern as adults (or, possibly worse, are pitied because our parents “aren’t our real parents”).
In reality, many of us grapple with the question of our identities and our place in this — or any other — culture, and too many of us do so alone. The idea of a community of Korean adoptees is still, in many ways, a fledgling one; there are many wonderful organizations that have cropped up in recent years to bring together that community. Yet to the outside world, we are the invisible cohort, our gray-area status largely unknown and unrecognized. Perhaps the most important thing to remember, for anyone who has ever had trouble articulating the subtle, complicated layers that being an adoptee can sometimes add to everyday life, is that the more we share with each other, the less alone we seem to feel — and that’s a good place to start.