Asianness and Americanness: An Adoptee’s Perspective on Identity
This is a guest post from a Korean American adoptee about his personal experience of growing up and finding his identity as an Asian American adoptee. He is one of thousands of children adopted out of Korea by parents from around the world since the 1950s.
Being an Asian American adoptee in the US means nothing and everything. It means being an unbalanced equation in America’s weird racial math. It means being a completed puzzle with missing pieces. People project their views of race onto you, and you bounce them back distorted, like a fun house mirror.
I was born in Busan and adopted to the US at six months old. I’m told I was born to an unwed mother who gave me up for adoption because of the shame of bringing up a boy without a father in Korea. I’m also told that the adoption agency I came through has a propensity for making up these types of stories. Like the refugee or the prisoner, the soldier or the peace activist, my entire existence has been profoundly human and also couched in rhetoric. The adoptee is both proud and burdened. There are days when I’m not sure who I am.
I grew up in a white family. Among them, I was white most of the time. My dad was born in England, his dad in Italy. We ate spaghetti regularly, drank tea constantly. My mom was born in the US with a Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, a distant descendent of the people who became Amish. I grew up in white suburbs, families loosely connected by quiet roads but more divided by big yards surrounded by trees.
Among my family and their friends, I was, for the most part, white. I listened to country music with my dad and wasn’t subject to the quiet, yet smothering racism that exists in suburban America. For the first 8-10 years of my life, I was actually part of that racism, brought up on the binary of good black people vs. bad black people, taught the nuances of Mexican and Puerto Rican work ethic. This was what growing up in a white family afforded me, the privilege of not having to think about my own otherness and how the system worked for me while neglecting others.
In school, things were different. My school was about half white and half black with Latin@s making up a sizeable portion of the population. Every day, someone would make sure I knew I wasn’t white. Whether it was the boy whose name and face are burned into my memory calling me ‘Chinese boy’ for the entirety of recess nearly every day for two years or kids I didn’t know who threw nonsense syllables at me trying to sound like the language they thought I spoke, I was always aware of my body as other, my flat nose and small eyes, hair dark and straight that no one seemed to be able to cut.
The adoptee is supposed to forget their identity while constantly being reminded of it.
Being the only Asian person with a white family in my school or in my area, I looked to other sources for people I could relate to—TV, music, movies. But who was there? Jet Li, Jackie Chan? I wasn’t interested in martial arts, and I’d come to kind of resent them because of how often people called me their names. Plus, they grew up in a different country, so we had little in common. Their Asianness was authoritative, the thing that made them respected in their field, not othering and alienating like mine. The kid from The Goonies? I hated that movie. Long Duk Dong? With his complete lack of interests and character depth, I don’t think anyone’s supposed to relate to him.
For their part, my parents made efforts to make sure I wasn’t ashamed of my background. We went to Korean heritage festivals, and they encouraged me to research Korea for school projects, but I never saw myself in those things. Korea was a foreign country with a foreign language. It existed in food and on maps, in demographic statistics and facts about history, but not really as a part of me. I wasn’t Korean. But I wasn’t completely American, either. Eating food with names I couldn’t pronounce once a year wasn’t the same as having a family who understood what it felt like to be made fun of for the body I too often felt was a burden that I was stuck with.
In any life, I suppose, the individual subscribes to some kind of mythos, people and pieces of art that resonate with that person, that shape the person’s character and personality, ethics and morals. I couldn’t be bothered to embrace a readily available set of mythos that only represented me in a limited number of ways when it was convenient for them. Because, it seemed, mainstream culture didn’t want me, I had to curate my own version of counterculture.
I became obsessed with Tupac and Bob Dylan. As a teenager, I read WEB DuBois and Langston Hughes. James Baldwin and Anthony Burgess showed me how fiction can influence society. No, these weren’t the Asian American role models that I was looking to admire, but if I couldn’t find an image that reflected me, at least I found words that resonated. There are plenty of Asian writers I could have looked to, but I didn’t know that then. No one ever recommended Jeff Chang or Maxine Hong Kingston to me at the time—you have to remember my family still had dialup internet and one phone line—but I had friends who walked through school, bulky headphones around their necks with “Me Against the World” blasting from their Walkmen.
I ended up clinging to a lot of elements of black culture because I often felt like I didn’t have a culture of my own. While I was not a part of that community, the alienation from mainstream culture spoke to me, a different kind of alienation from that of, say, grunge kids in their worn flannel or the wannabe hippies who seem to crop up with every generation. This wasn’t about generational differences or rhetoric. This was, at its core, the struggle to be recognized as human and recognize the humanity in myself.
Thinking this way freed me from the struggle to define myself. Identity went from a passive signifier to an active perspective. Being an adoptee is still, in many ways, about how others see me and how I see myself, but now it’s also about how my identity allows me to see the world. I could see the grimy underside of whiteness, how a colorblind society silences those not part of the mainstream. I could see how race is something organic and constantly forming, shaped by art and events. And I could recognize my own privilege, how growing up in a white family with a white adoptive name has given me opportunities that others aren’t afforded. Blind privilege is the problem that perpetuates inequalities in our society, and I’m in a position to see and diagnose them. The identity that, at times, made me feel like I had nothing gave me perspective on everything.
In college and beyond, I met professors and friends who introduced me to the Asian American art and literature that I never encountered before. Mira Nair and Li-Young Lee have become formative influences on me as a person. John Cho and Kal Penn blew up in roles where they weren’t Kung Fu masters or convenience store props. I learned that Keanu Reeves is part Asian—who knew, right? While I was never really ashamed of the skin I’m in, I started learning what I had to be proud of. For people of color in the US, being American too often means being questioned as such. It’s a terrible thing to say, but because of this, I am American.
On January 20, 2009, I was in a flat in Leeds for a semester abroad. Barack Obama was on TV, being sworn in for his first presidential inauguration. Here was a guy who went to school in Indonesia, who I’d seen pictures of playing with his Chinese American niece, whose skin color and name were enough to make people question his Americanness. I’d read that growing up, he questioned his own identity. That spring, one of my flatmates gave me the nickname ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’.
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