Recently at a KAD event a KAD friend I met in Korea said to me, “Talking to adoptees in the states is weird; it’s like talking to White people.”
At the time her statement struck me but I couldn’t quite figure out why. I was having trouble relating to KADs here in the U.S. I should connect with/fit in with these people; they’re adoptees and I connected with them so meaningfully in Seoul. Advice is always to try and re-create here at home what I had in Korea, right? But it just wasn’t happening. It felt as if I were forcing a round peg into a square hole. And when my friend pointed this out it started to make sense why.
At the party one adoptee heard I was in Korea and started asking me about it. She hasn’t been yet, and I could see curiosity in her face; yearning to know about the place she was born in. I’ve seen it so many times before in the faces of KADs who haven’t been yet. Maybe I recognize it because I used to feel it too.
Then I noticed how after a few questions she caught herself, more specifically she re-gained awareness that her spouse was in the room and she stopped questioning, putting back on her “other” identity; the adopted one. The White one. The safe one.
Maybe it’s learned behavior from experiences with adoptive family; interest in Korea and adoption threatens the idea the adopted family has of this person they raised to be one of them. It’s a familiar expression I’ve seen on other adoptees who’ve married White people; protecting or shielding their adoptive world from the unknown, from the pre-adoption (ie Korean) identity. Knowledge/awareness can be a threat.
Later on, this same adoptee asked me if we could talk sometime. She was especially interested in talking to me about how this Korea discovery stuff might impact your marriage or relationship.
It took me awhile to write back. I have volumes I could say on that topic–where do I start? I wasn’t sure what vein to take with my response . . . She plans to go to Korea this year, with her adopted sister, for the first time. I wanted to tell her a bit about what that experience could be like for her, and I didn’t want to scare her. So I asked around for advice.
The consensus among KADs who have been back was unanimous: tell her that once you go there there’s no going back. Your life will be changed in ways you can’t prepare for. It’s intense. And every KAD’s experience is different and everyone is ready for things (birth family search, learning Korean, etc.) at different times in their lives. But NO ONE–no matter how drastically their life has changed–has ever regretted going.
Kind of like meeting birth family; no matter how bad the meeting or post-meeting relationship goes NOT ONE adoptee I’ve talked to ever regrets the meeting.
Before you go back and before you investigate birth family you are unaware. (Denial?) Unawareness creates a state of perceived happiness; ignorance is bliss, right? How can you long for something you don’t know exists?
It’s like growing up in a cult. Or N. K0rea; you can’t fault people who only receive their information from one source, can you? They don’t know any better. This is how it is with adoptees. If they receive all of their information about the adoption triad from ONLY their adoptive country (no matter how many blogs or news sources they read from other countries) their attitudes will only be shaped by that one source. They will remain ignorant.
As a KAD, going to Korea for the first time is eye-opening. No matter how many 교포 (Korean-foreigner ie Korean-American) friends you have at home in your respective countries. No matter how often you eat Korean food. No matter how connected you think you are to the Korean community.
For the first time you see where you come from. You see the place you were born in as real, not what you’ve read about in books, not fantastical on the other side of the world, but a real place with history and culture and traditions and people with families and interests and lives. And you might even learn that some of what you’ve been told is a lie.
Once you go to Korea you gain historical, political, and social context for your adoption. You meet other adoptees from all over the world and stop thinking about yourself in your own little corner of the world but rather what this thing called Korean adoption means to the world at large. You hear adoptees’ birth family reunion and adoption stories. You may discover that what you’ve been told about your own adoption story has been a lie.
My first time back I fell in love. My second time back I left hating the country and stayed away for eight years. My third time back I fell in love with the country again and had to return a year later then for six months. And then, well that last visit is more complicated.
Once you go to Korea, there’s no going back to the ignorance you lived in before. Going back opens your mind and gives your life has new context; possibly for the first time thinking of yourself as a Korean person. It can make things back at “home” seem foreign, out of context, and confusing. (How is that for drama? Soo Korean.) Typically I think first visits are about being enamoured and pleasantly surprised with this place that had previously been a mystery. For me it felt like the first 23 years of my life I lived with my eyes closed and now they were finally open.
Emotions run high. No matter how well-adjusted you think you are before you go, you will feel the effects. It might not hit you while you’re there, maybe months or years after, but it will hit you. And just know that there are people you can talk to about this stuff; your local Korean Adoptee (KAD) organization or a worldwide one.
When you go to Korea and meet other KADs who have chosen to come back something passes between the two of you. You jump right into conversations about birth family search, learning Korean, visits home, etc. No pretext. No explanation. No “This is what it’s like to be adopted.. .” For the first time you connect with people who “get it” who get you, and maybe for the first time you feel normal. Maybe that’s why so many KADs fall in love. Or maybe it’s why KADs move there after only having visited once.
A friend of mine who has been working for KADs for over a decade compared it to a religious experience. An awakening of sorts; awakening to what it means to be adopted. You finally “get it.” And after you’ve “gotten it” talking to those who don’t get it is strange.
If you are a KAD and you haven’t been to Korea you might not understand. Maybe if you haven’t lived in Korea you won’t understand (because the difference between living there and visiting there is HUGE.) But the underlying message is if you have been to Korea and are a KAD you have a sense of enlightenment that you just won’t have if you’ve never left your adopted country.
Last month I had a conversation with a friend of Jamie’s named Dave grew up in NYC Chinatown and went to NYU. He spent summers growing up at his family’s house in China and speaks Cantonese and Mandarin. He travels to China once/month for work to conduct business in Chinese. He got married around the time we did. His parents live with him and raise his two kids.
Through the course of our conversation I explained to him how the first 23 years of my life I was ignorant. Then I went through an education period where I had to teach myself what it meant to first be a person of color, then Asian American, then Korean.
It was a didactic (and painful) process where I had to reconcile what I was on the outside with what I was on the inside. I read books. Watched movies. Went to lectures. Trying to learn Korean. Joined networking, leadership, and development groups. And talked and talked and talked.
Dave asked me now how I feel and I said, more than anything, now I feel Korean. But it took a long time to get to this point. And it wasn’t at all easy.
This blew his mind. To Dave, someone for whom his ethnic identity is 99% of who he is, my process was just unfathomable.
I wonder, for others, is this the same sort of process you took? For me, I had to first set a broad foundation and then narrow my focus. When I first started, Korean-ness was elusive. Grasping what it meant to be Asian American was much easier and accessible.
And now. . .
A KAD friend asked me when I started to feel comfortable being Asian. I explained to her my evolution, and during our conversation it dawned on me that she was asking me because she didn’t feel Asian.
I asked her if she thought she was Asian. She said no. She thinks of herself as White. (She has been to Korea and reunited with her birth family.)
This made me sad. She is 34 years old. And she talks often about wanting to be seen for who she is rather than who people want her to be. Based on my experience, of the emptiness I felt when I thought I was White, I felt sad for her. This awareness of who she is as an Asian person has been robbed from her.
Her sentiment reminded me of when a KAD friend visited my house for the first time and said, “You have an Asian house!” (Whatever that means–reference was to the food, ingredients, and utensils in my kitchen.) My internal reaction was: well, we are Asian, what do you expect? But it hasn’t always been that way. . .
For me, I had to be told I was an Asian person, a Korean person countless times in order for it to finally sink in. And that was after decades of thinking I was a White person. It took real education (reading and learning Asian American history and Asian American literature) and processing what this identity was to fully be able to grasp it and then own it. Now it’s completely natural.
For the past four years of my life I’ve been hearing the phrase “strong Asian woman” over and over again. I’ve seen countless diverse examples of what this is; what it looks like as a grandmother, as a high school student, women of too many ethnicities to name. I’ve read books, heard speeches, and had tear-jerking and heart-wrenching conversations that have all aided me in figure this stuff out.
Again, every adoptee’s process is different. Every adoptee is an individual. My process is not in any way better than anyone else’s. So I am curious, as a KAD, did you also access Asian American history and culture FIRST and THEN hone in on the your ethnic identity?
The future. . .
A friend asked me what I think will become of the next generation of adoptees whose parents have listened to what we’ve said about identity and have become hyper-active about pushing their children’s birth culture down their children’s throats.
It’s similar to adoptees whose spouses drag them to Korea. I’ve seen it in the expression on their face. The adoptee is silent but the spouse won’t stop spouting off how great Korea is; how different yet the same! How easy and accessible the food is! (Cause you eat it once/day and only stuff that is explained to you.) How nice people are! (Cause you can’t understand what they’re saying.) How excited people become when you speak one word of Korean! (Because you’re visibly NOT Korean.) How crowded it is; how people push you and don’t care. (Not realizing this is how most Asian cities are.) How great it is to be a minority for once! (Cause it only lasts the length of your vacation.)
I hadn’t considered the overdose/over-enthusiasm before; the knowledge not by choice. Maybe that’s what needs to happen. Maybe, as a reaction to ignorance, we need to swing far in the education direction before everything evens out and we figure out a healthy, reconciled, way of handling things.
Again, I am only one person. I have had one experience. In no way do I speak for all KADs nor do I think I know what is right for other KADs. I’m not saying every KAD should go live in Korea, not at all. In fact, most all of my Korean friends have been seeking ways out of the country for as long as I can remember. To anywhere: Singapore, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, USA. A lot of the aspects KADs (and foreigners) love about Korea a lot of Korean people disdain.
For me though, awareness of where I come from, of ethnic identity, has been paramount to my rightness with myself. To my sense of balance. To my sense of purpose in life. It’s been tough. It’s taken 10 years of searching. But it’s brought me to where I am today. And it’ll most definitely bring me to where I am tomorrow.