We all go through it. The evolution of a self proclaimed identity…this is my work in progress…
There’s that obnoxious teen quip I learned late in life, “don’t assume, ‘cause it just makes an ass out of u and me.” I love that!
I haven’t found the right moment or the right amount of guts to say it out loud, but public be warned, I may someday.
I always felt like I was a walking advertisement forinternational adoption. It has taken till now to realize that I don’t have to tell the world that I am adopted. But the assumptions keep coming. As a kid, it was assumed that I didn’t speak English. That may have been true for the first four months I was in this country but that was it. I spoke English quickly, I was diligent about
making sure I didn’t sound like a foreigner. I take great pride in knowing that I speak English well and worked hard to master the language, no surprise that I chose a profession where the value of the spoken word is great. To speak empathetically toward another human being I believe is a gift, and to teach another how to do the same is an even greater gift.
I only wish that my hard work equated to comfort in being in this country. Rather, I wish others were as careful. In every aspect of life, there are the ridiculous and insanely annoying comments that make the listener cringe, but when it comes to race it is particularly so. We try so hard to put people in boxes with labels that we feel should fit them and it becomes a laughable act in
futility. It is as insane as saying that America is a melting pot. I think it’s only because we have many more words to describe the many identities that are out there, but it doesn’t translate to acceptance. My face has been fodder for the harshest of
judgments and I cannot fathom why. It engenders comments as hurtful as, “Chink, go back to your own country!” to “it must be because you were an orphan that makes you work so hard.” I have been left standing in awe of the ignorance of my fellow Americans when they can’t figure out whether I am Chinese, Japanese or something else as if it mattered, as if knowing this would change how they treat me.
As a child, I grew up with the assumption that I should be grateful, that my parents were saviors and that being different was a bad
thing. My parents used to say that I was unique. I grew to hate that word and still refuse to use it in any context. The reality is that we all want to fit somewhere, we all want to know what group we belong to and how to act to be accepted if only by one other
person. For me, to be unique was to be alone. Being the only one made for a very isolated sense of self. There is no frame of reference in being unique. As a child, all I wanted was a welcome hand, someone to bring me into their fold.
The classic American tale is the individual who pulls himself up by his bootstraps and makes a name for himself. I don’t know how helpful that was for me growing up. And, now as an adult I see that no one gets where they are without a helping hand. So, it leaves me to wonder what were all those people meaning when they said to me that I was lucky, that I was saved, that I should be so grateful? In my mind, that meant that being adopted, helped by someone, took away the possibility that I could make my own decisions and create the future that I want.
Growing up, it was assumed I was an orphan, someone left me, l was abandoned, I was unwanted. It was assumed I should be so grateful to be here, given the opportunity I had. That was both from the Caucasian world and my fellow Koreans alike. For some reason, it irked me less when Caucasian people said it. Maybe because my parents were pretty good at deflecting the ignorance
and so did I. Sadly, I expected comments. But what didn’t match was my parents’ insistence that being unique, adopted, Korean, was something to be proud of and the reactions I got from other Koreans.
From the Korean contingency, it was assumed that I was proud of my Korean heritage, that I identified with being Korean. When I was young there was the local Korean church that invited my family for a picnic in the park, a day of “giving back” to the parents who adopted their children. The only thing my sisters and I looked forward to was the food – unlimited amounts of kim chee and rice done right. But I grew to resent these events. Every time the questions and comments were the same: what’s your Korean name, do you know what it means, you should learn how to speak Korean, study hard and be proud of your Korean heritage. And then we were pretty much ignored the rest of the day, save for that Ajuma (Older Korean Auntie) rushing over to give us more food. Funny, she never spoke English, she never spoke to us. None of the kids came over to talk to us either. They just walked around us, or hung out with each other. Part of that was we were not a part of their tight knit group, we didn’t grow up together. The other part was, we were an oddity to them – what do they say? I am trying to be forgiving here. I knew they all spoke English, but they chose to speak only in Korean. I could feel their eyes on us as they tried to look bored being at a church function. I may be assuming here, but I always wanted to know why these good Christian folk never invited us to their house, why the grown ups never encouraged their kids to hang with us. Where was all that great Korean hospitality I heard so much about? So, this whole scene begged the question, why exactly should I be proud of being Korean?
My parents, however, were treated like honored guests – introduced to everyone, thanked by everyone. The good church folk were tripping over themselves to touch my parents, shake their hand, thanks them incessantly. My Dad was patted on the back for having so many daughters. Why so many daughters? I don’t know if my parents ever sensed how much we dreaded these picnics, but we stopped going. For me, I was relieved. It was hard enough getting through adolescence with the Caucasian kids. I was glad to not have to think about the whole Korean thing too. But, for years my assumptions of Korean people were that they did not accept me as one of theirs. If I accepted their teaching role in my life, then that was ok, but I dare not socialize with them and dating their sons was
an absolute no-no.
It’s a funny thing, this issue of race. It never leaves you. After all, your skin never goes away. And just when you think you’ve got the whole thing figured out, something comes up while you are doing the most ordinary things. Like doing work study in school
and getting literally assaulted by a Korean student demanding to know how I learned to walk that way, you know, American! College did not prepare me for the onslaught of demands to claim my Koreanness. It came upon me like water out of a broken dam. I realized that being separated from my parents, I had to figure out this whole issue of looking Korean but feeling completely like a fraud. So I embraced learning about being Korean wholeheartedly. I even started an Asian Sorority on campus and became president of the Asian Student Union. Imagine that, me! This time though, in my quest to learn more, I seem to lose my Caucasian friends.
They could not accept this self-discovery. They assumed I was being someone I wasn’t. And they were sort of right. It took a year in Korea to realize that I could not be completely Korean. It wasn’t truly who I was.
I’m grateful for having that time in my life when I didn’t like other Korean people. It forced me to really examine what it meant to be Korean for myself. It forced me to Korea and experience first hand that wonderful Korean hospitality and absorb the many beautiful aspects of that country and its people. It taught me too, that Koreans were no different than anyone else. I have found my kindred spirit in a couple of them and they remain in my heart and soul forever as family. Perhaps I am stubborn, but I needed to walk among the people who were my reflection to finally see some who resonated with me. I am fuller for that journey. Now I can say with certainty that I am proud to be Korean.
As I got older and more comfortable with sharing my identity as a Korean looking woman with an American last name, the assumptions went in the other direction – was I mixed race, was I married to a Jewish man, how did I get that name, why did it take me so long to sign my name on the UPS delivery pad (wasn’t my name just a few letters long)? Employers gave quizzical looks, I was not who I thought they assumed I would be based on my resume. I look back on those times with mild amusement but while it was happening, it just pissed me off down right. I think about that young girl back then just struggling to make the bills and live while totally
uncomfortable in her own skin. I so wish I could tell her that in ten years, none of it will matter to anyone, least of
all her. Still, I’m grateful for the experience. Some of them knocked me off my feet, but it has made me more resilient and steady now. Those oft declarations of “chink!” doesn’t have the same sting.
One thing I learned along the way however is that the comments never stop coming, just how I react to them. I have to thank my husband (who is Korean American) for finally showing me the humor in all of it. I confess I lack the same confident wit that he has, but have seen it work on the strangest of people. I recall a time once when we walked into a store and a man holding the door said, “nee how ma!” and bowed to us. G just quietly stuck out his hand and smiled and said, “hey, how ya doin’ man, my name is G., thanks.” While I was silently fuming at that impasse, I witnessed this stranger smile back and the two guys exchanged a warm
interaction whereby the greeting was dismissed as a friendly entrée rather than attacked as a racist comment. In a few moments, what could have been a tense exchange, turned out to be nothing. I was taught a valuable lesson, we all make assumptions based on our package. We can choose to make it an issue or make it an opportunity. Sounds cliché I know, but seeing it in action
proves this statement to be true.
I chose to marry in my own race and with that came a Korean last name. Now the assumptions go like this – Do I celebrate Thanksgiving? Are there special holidays I celebrate? In my head, I think “other than New Year’s, Christmas, Hannukkah, St. Patrick’s Day, and the good ol’ 4th of July?” It could make me angry yet again that I am viewed as a foreigner who needs to be taught the American way, but in fact, I am getting better at discerning those questions and answer them less with annoyance and more with humor and a chuckle in my voice. I am no longer plagued to prove my Americanness or Koreanness and I like that my history is so diverse. I have a great story. With my more recent friends, it has been a fun exchange of assumptions while I learn that none of us are truly one thing.
The only thing that continues to trip me up is the whole adoption thing. I was once introduced as, “here is my friend, you know the one who is adopted I told you about?” I was completely caught off guard. This was someone I had in my life for a long time who I thought knew me. I felt naked. How to respond? “Yup, that’s me, I have hidden my scarlet letter A quite well don’t you think?”
That should have been my response. I think that’s why I have been so consciously creating a circle of close friends where being adopted doesn’t make me different. Chasing down a place where I fit, I have grown accustomed to surrounding myself with others who are adopted. It permits me the luxury of not having always to explain. Now that I have a Korean last name, sharing my adoption status doesn’t readily come up anymore. I have been put in a position again to think about whether that is important or not.
Does not bringing it up make me a less complete person, does it matter? I look at it very much like when I started working in adoption, do I tell my clients I am adopted or not? Does it matter? I settled professionally to sharing it. Truth is, I am really proud of being an adopted person in the “adoption profession”. There aren’t too many of us out there doing the work I do and I am honored to do it. But socially, I am not so sure. What I am realizing is that there will always be people for whom my adoption story will bring many questions, stupid assumptions and curiosity. I still struggle to find those who just don’t care. I feel like I am repeating that whole cycle all over again. My twenties revisited. Only this time, I have to think about the next generation. Does my status of being adopted have any bearing on who my kids are, who their friends are, how they are viewed? I hope not. I hope those damn family tree assignments will just be interesting and not much more outstanding than their
peers. Will they make friends or lose friends based on what others might believe they know about someone who is adopted? Again, I hope not. I hope they will be judged on their own merits and not just their biography. Does it even matter? Why does it matter? No, it shouldn’t.
I think this is the first time in my life that being adopted has gone underground. For so long, I have chased that mirrored image and tried to make peace with the Asian in me. But also, for better or worse, our country seems more comfortable talking about race than adoption – there seems to be a universal language. The issues of multiculturalism has been evolving and there are more and more of us in the betwixt-between. But not so much for the adoption part. There is still the perception out there that I am ‘less than’ because I did not grow up in my birth family, that there is something that will permanently make my psyche damaged.
This I do believe. I have come to some rest about being adopted and what it means. I believe the greatest gift I have received
from this whole adoption thing is that I can create what I want. The challenge is that it changes and evolves constantly. Still, the values of diversity, community and understanding have become an integral part of who I am and I hope I can pass that down to my children. I look with pride at the network of friends my children will grow up around. People of all shades, histories,
religions, sexual orientation, social class are intimately connected to me and my little family. It has been a strange
coincidence that my boys will be full ethnically Korean, but I hope that their mother’s quirky life will enhance their world and make them truly without prejudice; that they will look at the humanity in a person. I hope too that they won’t just identify
being Korean and embrace the American and all that comes with being labeled as such. I know too that the concept of identity is ever changing. Who I am now will hopefully be different when I am fifty, time changes everything especially perceptions.