On Korean adoption and adoptee identity (again).

Hi. My name is Corey. I am Korean. I am American. I am adopted.

The known facts are simple enough: I was born in Pusan, South Korea, in 1987. I lived in a foster home. When I was four months old, I was flown to Philadelphia, and an Irish-Norwegian man and a woman of English, French, and German descent picked me up. They were my parents. They are my parents. I know nothing of my family history, the situation of my conception, the conditions of my birth. As far as I am concerned, I was born the day I arrived in the United States and was embraced by my parents.

They took me to a town in New Jersey where the vast majority of the population is Irish and/or Italian. Approximately 1% of the students in my high school of 1,800 teenagers were Asian. Probably less than 1%. I never made much of how I looked different from my peers. Being adopted was cool. It was unique. I was part of an adoption group run by the Holt Agency where adopted children would gather for social events and bond with others in situations like theirs. My parents encouraged me to take pride in my personal history: I made a book with hand-drawn pictures and photographs when I was four or five that told the story of how I made a long journey from Korea to my parents, who had so very much wanted a daughter. Every year, we celebrate the day I arrived. It’s great.

It wasn’t until I was in college that it occurred to me that there was something negative to all this. In studying and learning about cultural identity and race, I began to reinterpret seemingly innocent occurrences in my past. In kindergarten, I was never “allowed” to play the Pink Power Ranger because I didn’t look like her – I had to be the Yellow Ranger. Now I think saber-toothed tigers are way cooler than pterodactyls, but that didn’t matter when I was 5. I liked pink. As a teen, I was automatically assumed to be good at math and science because I was Asian. I wanted to be a doctor, right? Wrong. I’m terrible at math and science. Later still, people made racist jokes to me rooted in stereotypes about Asians. That’s why I like photography, right? Will I flash peace signs and giggle for you? “I’m sorry we don’t have the floor cushions your people like, but you can sit on the couch, you know.” (That’s my personal favorite. Makes me laugh every time.) I have a sense of humor about it, truly. I can laugh. But 18-year-old me was much better at laughing than 27-year-old me.

For a long time, I was confused. People seemed to be implying that I should identify as Korean. The women in nail salons who automatically speak to me in Korean. The people whose first question is, “Where are you from?” and aren’t satisfied with the response, “New Jersey.” I never really feel Korean, though. I never feel like a person of color – except for when I am treated like a person of color. I don’t take the jokes as well as I used to, and racism born of ignorance at times seems cruel. The racism against Asians is often very different from the racism against other people of color. The sexism against women of color is often different from the sexism against white women. I feel like I’ve experienced all of those different prejudices at various times, and yes, it’s hard to figure out where I stand, let alone where I fit in. Sometimes I get angry or sad about it, or hurt and isolated. However, one of the most liberating revelations I’ve ever had is that I don’t have to identify as Korean. It’s okay. It’s okay to feel alienated, but it’s also okay to occupy a space between the fixed identity of “Korean” and the fixed identity of “white,” and I can own that space. It’s mine. I don’t have to struggle to be one or the other – I can just be me.

The New York Times published a magazine piece recently on Korean adoptees born in my generation who have been returning to Korea. Many of those interviewed and discussed want to end international adoption, and many seem resentful of the fact that they were taken away as small children and sent to a foreign country to be raised by people of another race, regardless of how much those new people loved them. I understand that. I do. I understand that they feel racism that their white parents haven’t and can never experience or fully relate to. I understand that they have an urgent desire to learn more about where they came from in terms of both blood and culture. I have a harder time understanding those who want to curb the flow of international adoption completely.

Sure, I understand that it would be ideal if the South Korean government provided more support to the mothers and families with no means of supporting their children who are then put up for adoption. I would love for that to happen – I would love for fewer children to be abandoned. I would love if they could weed out the fraudulent papers and “export” fewer babies. One thing that does really encourage me is that they took the time to put in at least some kind of legal framework and procedure for international adoption. It’s sad to read about these displaced children who were sent away from Korea to live with middle-class white parents who love them but can never truly understand them. It’s positively heartbreaking to read about the displaced children whose adoptive parents decide they don’t want them or can’t take care of them and abandon the already abandoned. If you read Reuters’ investigation into the adoption home exchange, which I highly recommend everyone does, you’ll learn that there are very few legal processes that supervise the exchange of guardianship both internationally and domestically, and it is incredibly easy for a child to fall into abusive hands. For me personally, there are so many more problems in regards to adoption outside of Korean international adoptions. I think adoption procedures as a whole need major reform internationally, but I don’t think adoption necessarily has to be a negative experience for the adoptee.

I don’t mean to invalidate or silence those interviewed for the Times or those who share the same views. These are stories rarely told and voices that deserve to and need to be heard. This article, though, doesn’t tell everyone’s stories at the same volume. The hardest thing for me is that the majority of the feature made me feel like there’s something wrong with me for being a Korean adoptee who doesn’t care to get in touch with my cultural roots or ancestry. I feel as though I’m being judged for being untrue to myself, when I don’t believe I’m being untrue to myself. One interviewee said, “My parents are Caucasian. I didn’t identify as Korean. I wasn’t mature enough to realize I could explore that side,” and that before moving to Korea, he never had an Asian girlfriend because, “It was part of my feeling of wanting to be white.” I don’t feel like I want to be white. Is that what I am doing? I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. Am I not “mature” because I don’t want to explore my Korean heritage, because I don’t identify as Korean?

The tone of the piece suggests to me, more often than not, that I’m a bad Korean adoptee. It hurts to read that so many adoptees are angry about their life circumstances and struggling with torn identities because I don’t think it has to be that way. I don’t think the desire to end international adoption has to be motivated by a desire to keep Korean children in Korea, but a desire to give everyone a safe space to grow up where they are loved and taken care of. Towards the end of the article, it is said that adoptees are “not fully American, not fully Korean [and] instead live in a third space: Asian, Western, white, adopted, other. It’s a complicated place but not always a bad one.” An interviewee writes, “I am, maybe, in a way, proud of my in-betweenness.” That’s what I want to hear. That’s where I want to be. I don’t want to be in a rigid box, but in a fluid space where my honest self lives without fear of being judged for not living in a rigid box. For me, that’s what it means to be an adoptee, and I say this sincerely: it’s not a bad place to be.

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