Things No One Ever Told Me About Growing Up Korean and Adopted in America

Mountain

My parents likely didn’t know what they were doing, raising me as an adopted Korean kid in the 1980s-90s. There were no internet groups for adoptive parents, few written books or resources on the topic and limited access to social workers specializing in this area. In many ways, this was uncharted territory for them. But one thing I can say is that they did try their best. They tried to socialize me with other adopted kids from Korea (although at the end of the day, we kind of forgot that that was the one big thing we had in common), presented me with the option to attend Korean culture camps (I ended up volunteering as a counselor at one of them, and that’s as far as I was comfortable going), letting me take tae kwan do one summer, cooking white sticky rice for dinner from time-to-time and buying me a subscription to A. Magazine as a teenager (which I think now goes by the name of Hyphen Magazine). Looking back on it all, one can’t help but admire them for trying (and sometimes succeeding) in raising me to have an appreciation for my identity as an adopted Korean American.

But there were of course some things they would never have been able to predict or talk about, and without consistent role models for me to interact with, I had to figure some things out on my own. Here are a few things no one ever told me about growing up Korean and adopted in America:

  1. You will someday blame your Korean genes for everything disappointing that happens to you in life. Sometimes the blame will be legit, and sometimes it won’t be. Didn’t get asked to the Homecoming dance? Must be because no one wants to be seen with a geeky Asian as their date. Didn’t make the Varsity basketball team? Probably because there is no place for a short Korean except on the bench. Didn’t get invited to the party of the year by the popular kids at school? Obviously they didn’t feel Asians were good enough for them. It was an easy trap to fall into growing up, at least for me, and it was often because my adolescent mind could not find any other acceptable reason for the social disappointment I was experiencing except for the fact that I was Asian and everyone else who enjoyed the happiness I wasn’t experiencing wasn’t. I’m pretty sure 80% of the time my ethnicity was not to blame for many of the let-downs I experienced in high school, but that did not stop my brain from (unfairly) placing the blame on my genes.
  2. Some people out there have yellow fever. At first it was kind of exciting. After years of social awkwardness and rejection in high school and college, things turned around for me once I entered “the real world.” For a period in my life, it was suddenly “cool” to not be white, and I will admit, I enjoyed a major social upgrade compared to my days growing up in my Midwestern hometown. But with that new bout of attention I attracted in my 20s came a creepier side of the equation—yellow fever and Asian fetishes. Some of the dates I went on were based on this strange appeal my mostly Caucasian dates had with Asian culture, Asian food, Asian women. It made me uncomfortable, but I was very naive for a portion of my early adult life, and so it took me a long time to figure out what was happening. My instincts told me this was creepy, but my inexperience kept me from being able to really identify what was happening. Sooner or later I figured it out though. Ew.
  3. There are people out there who will never accept you as an American. This has become such a common, well-documented occurrence among adoptees and Asian-Americans that it is almost not even worth mentioning here, but for me, it was never something someone ever told me could possibly happen to me, and therefore worth adding to this list. Almost all of us have had to deal with that question, “Where are you really from?” or comments praising our command of the English language. Hopefully today’s Asian-American adoptees won’t be taken by surprise when such instances of ignorance arise. Then again, I do believe there are pockets of this world where such questions and comments won’t ever go away.
  4. There are people out there who will never accept you as Asian (or Korean). It took me a while to figure this one out as well. It is my opinion (and I stress the word opinion), that the Asian-American community has mostly been reserved for second, third, fourth, etc.-generation Asian-Americans who grew up in Asian households, who experienced things like weekend language class, who spent their childhoods making regular family trips overseas to visit relatives and who have, like adoptees, had to straddle two different worlds and identities here in the United States. It is my opinion that these people have “claimed the right” to this “Asian America” we see in today’s popular culture. I have long asked others, “Where in this Asia America is there room for adoptees?” And I have never heard an acceptable response.
  5. Someday it will get better. Growing up, whoever and wherever you are, can be pretty damn hard. I cannot help but compare my adolescent years to those of my brother, who was not adopted and not a minority in the town we grew up in. The highlight of his years truly were in high school college and shortly after, whereas life for me began the moment I left Minnesota.

    I have an adoptee friend who joined the military at age 17, leaving his Midwestern home town and never looking back. I do think being a Korean adoptee had a lot to do with that decision for him, and it did for me too. I waited a few years to make my move, but did so merely five days after graduating from college, which is when I joined the Peace Corps, taking me as far away from Minnesota as possible to the Chui Valley of Kyrgyzstan, right on the border off Kazakstan. For me, that is when life began, but God, it sure would have been nice to have heard someone assure me earlier in my life that the day would truly come and when it did, it would change my world, because I’m telling you, there were times when I doubted it ever would.

    If you are looking for two completely different “growing up” experiences, my brother and I can serve as that example. I am not too ashamed to admit it now, but I was a total loser in high school and never was able to shake that off in college. My brother, on the other had, was the all-American Wonder bread, Wheaties box champion kid. He always had dates, he never got rejected, he was part of the Homecoming court, he made Varsity sport teams, and in high school, our peers always referred to our parents as “Ben’s parents” whereas my name never managed to make it into that phrase…and yes, I did notice.

    But it’s true, things got better. The world is a big and wonderful place. You will find many kind-spirited people the more you expand your boundaries. You will find people just like you the more you venture out of your comfort zone. There are parts of this world where differences are celebrated. There are parts of this world where you aren’t considered different at all. You might not ever truly “find” yourself, but then again, maybe you will. The point is, when things seem really difficult, it’s worth knowing that life really does get better, but you have to make choices that will put you in those more positive situations. No one who walked in shoes like mine ever really told me that growing up, and I wish they had. So I’m taking it upon myself to say those things now in the hopes that someone out there might read these words and find hope and comfort.

    People don’t have to live in isolation anymore. Let’s take advantage of that fact.

    — jkk

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