Beyond Where I Was Born
For my parents and those who choose adoption
Less than twenty-four hours since it was published by the New York Times, several people have reached out to me, wondering about my thoughts regarding, “Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea.” I feel compelled to respond with a piece of my own, as a statistically insignificant sample of one, because I believe that it is important to highlight that there are a diversity of perspectives and experiences when it comes to being a Korean adoptee.
The stories of the adoptees who have returned to South Korea are simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar to me. And while trends arise from any substantial movement (what the article cites as the exodus of more than 200,000 Korean babies to adoptive families over the past six decades), some of the issues highlighted in the article provoke yet do not address the potential dangers of defining identity and belonging, primarily on the basis of national origin. I am a proud and fortunate Korean adoptee, and while being adopted undoubtedly has consciously and subconsciously influenced who I am, ultimately, I believe that just as where I was born does not define the complexity of me, my biological parents do not constitute my sense of familial belonging.
I do not know much about the story of my beginning. My parents were told by the adoption agency that as an infant, I was left at a police station and then taken to an orphanage. I was adopted from the orphanage when I was six months old. What little more I know is that when my parents were initially told about the possibility of adopting me, they were elated. However, a month or so after the initial news, the adoption agency informed them that there was reason to be concerned — I wasn’t responding to sound or tracking light. This information gave them much to consider, as the implication was that I might be significantly mentally impaired. Fortunately, they were not deterred, and in the months that followed, my health improved, and I made the journey from Seoul to America.
I’ve known that I was adopted for as long as I can remember. As a child, my parents explained to me that my biological parents had been unable to care for me, and had left me at the police station so that I might have an opportunity for a better life.
When I tell people that I was born in South Korea, the inevitable question is whether I still have family there. In response, I explain that while I was born in Seoul, I grew up in Seattle, that I don’t have family there as I was adopted when I was a baby.
I would never advocate for a world in which international adoption or the adoption of a child of a different race or ethnicity is extinct.
In reference to ASK’s opposition to international adoption, I strongly believe that families are more than a shared national origin, and that familial differences arise on the basis of a multitude of contributing factors to the development of one’s identity. Yes, it is important for parents to be sensitive to racial and cultural differences, and it is not my intention to minimize the experience of growing up in a family and community that doesn’t look like you, but I adamantly believe that national origin is not the only basis for belonging.
Perhaps different from many Korean adoptees, I grew up in a biracial family. My mom is third generation Japanese from Kauai, and my dad is white. As half of my family is of Asian descent, I didn’t experience the questions about belonging and fitting in to the extent described by adoptees growing up in white families. That said, as a child, I was certainly aware that I bore no resemblance to my dad’s side of the family, and I grew up in a largely white neighborhood. Yet aside from the juvenile teasing from classmates about whether I had ninja powers, my initial experiences with racism were based on exchanges with other Asians. Through adolescence and beyond, I grew frustrated with the recurring theme that in order to connect with my Asian heritage, I needed to reject the part of my identity linked to my dad’s side of my family. The language that accompanied Korean power didn’t sit well with me. This discomfort was further compounded when I came out. As a freshman in college, I had the opportunity to be mentored by a Multicultural Peer Leader. While my “MPL” was a nice woman, it became quickly apparent that my being gay was an issue, and her discomfort led me to seek connections in other communities.
I am deeply proud to have been shaped by the diversity of my family history. My mom’s grandparents immigrated to Hawaii to work on the plantations. My grandma grew up on one of the plantations and told me stories of walking three miles to catch the bus as a child to be able to go to a school. She instilled in me that education is a privilege, likely shaped by the fact that she was not able to continue her studies beyond the eight grade, because she was a girl. My grandfather was an electrician by training, but his passion was fishing which ultimately led to his death when he was lost at sea. My grandma was hard working, entrepreneurial, and a tough no-nonsense kind of a woman. She was also artistic, nurturing, and had a wonderful sense of adventure.
My dad’s side of the family came to Seattle after the great fire of 1889, and my great-great-grandfather helped to rebuild the city. After the death of their six-year-old son, in 1907, his wife founded the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital. I volunteered at Children’s throughout high school, and remember feeling a special sense of connectedness to my great-great-grandmother. My grandmother got married and pregnant when she was still in university and left her studies to raise her family. Later in life, she returned to school and went on to get her master’s degree. My grandfather died before I was adopted. My grandmother was an intellectual, lover of the arts, and world travel. Until she passed away, she would proudly repeat the story of first meeting me, her first grandchild. We were incredibly close, and I came out to her before speaking with my parents, because I found comfort and belonging our relationship.
I am proudly a blend of my parents. My mom is a passionate, loving, creative woman. She is generous, and an amazing convener and organizer of people and events in support of things that matter. My dad is a wonderful blend of businessman and goofiness, entrepreneurial and a rigorous debater, and yet a lover of puns and witty humor. I am an eldest child (yes, my brother was also adopted — no, we are not biologically related) — assertive, conscientious, driven, and a natural leader, inclined to seek affirmation. I was raised to believe that I could do or be anything, independent-minded, and to stand up for what I believed in. When my parents expressed concern regarding my decision to found a gay-straight alliance at my high school, I considered their opinions, and then passionately went ahead with what I believed I needed to do.
Love is what makes a family. Love that transcends national origin, sexual orientation, or other differences — love through life’s challenges and disappointments. My parents have loved and guided me to the best of their abilities with unconditional support and determination. There is much that we don’t share in common, and extrapolating more broadly, there are any number of differences that exist or can arise between parents and their children on the basis of a multitude of factors that contribute to one’s sense of self.
Fundamentally, I believe the notion that parents should not be able to adopt children who are of a different race or national origin is a dangerous one. In the increasingly diverse world in which we live, identity is shaped by not only the biological, but also the environmental or experiential.
My cultural identity is not solely defined by where I was born or the color of my skin.
My parents cannot relate to me as a member of the LGBT community. They are agnostic, whereas I identify as a Christian. They did not attend graduate school. They are neither musicians nor athletes, and I have been both for nearly all of my life. They are not activists, and yet since founding the gay-straight alliance in high school, I have been an active advocate for LGBT equality.
The reality is that people are delightfully multi-faceted and complex. I count myself fortunate to have been adopted. And although there are fundamental differences between me and my mom and dad, it will always be the tough work of parents to help nurture and guide their children through the messy and inevitably difficult journey of self-discovery and identity formation.
Are there specific challenges that arise when there are visible differences in outward appearance within families? Of course there are, and of course parents who adopt children from another country or of another race or ethnicity should be aware, sensitive to, and supportive of the fact that their child may wish and or need to explore the country or culture of his or her origin. But who we are, while influenced by the blood in our veins and the color of our skin, is not limited thereto.
From time to time I have wondered about my biological parents. I readily concede that it would be interesting to know more about my beginning, as I don’t know anything about the circumstances that led to my being left at a police station in Seoul in the 1970s. Truthfully, I can’t even confirm that it was via a police station that I came to be at the orphanage, an element of my story that was called into question when I read the book, “A Single Square Picture.” If there were a way to reconnect with those who gave me life, I would want them to know that I’m okay — that I’m more than okay. I have been incredibly blessed, and I am someone who has conscientiously made the most of the privileges and opportunities afforded to me.
Beyond where I was born, my knowledge of my family spans generations. I am a curious and passionate adventurer. I am a lesbian, a Christian, and an environmentalist. I am an activist, athlete, and a cappella singer. And I am a part of a wonderfully diverse, occasionally dysfunctional, but deeply loving and supportive family.