The minority within the minority.
“Look mommy! I’m Chinese!”
I smiled and said this as I pulled the corners of my eyes outward towards the sides of my face. I was three.
Her hands gently lifted me up and we went into the bathroom together to look at ourselves in the mirror.
“See?” my mother said, pointing to my dark, almond-shaped eyes and then back to her round, green eyes. “Your eyes are different because you are Korean. You are not Chinese. Mommy and Daddy are White.”
We stared at each others’ eyes for a minute and my mother continued, “You don’t need to pull your eyes out like that. You are Korean American and you have beautiful eyes.”
Fast forward to now. I grew up in the 80’s and I’m in my mid-thirties.
I am a Korean American adoptee born in Seoul, South Korea. My birth mother wore a corset around her until my birth as to hide her pregnancy since she was unmarried and young which was unacceptable at the time. I was born premature and spent the first 6 months in an orphanage in Seoul so I would “fatten up” before I made the trip overseas to the United States.
I had a fairly decent childhood; the usual family parties, holidays, sleepovers, girl scouts, dance classes, etc., that had their ups and downs. I had dark moments through those times and beyond childhood but besides the experiences I encountered, there was always a missing link.
I wanted a sense of belonging. Sure, I had my folks and eventually a younger brother (also adopted but Caucasian) and a stepfather when my parents divorced (also when I was three) but — it wasn’t the same. There was still that void.
I became good friends with a Korean American family growing up in my father’s neighborhood and learned so much about my culture. I was fascinated by the language, food, family dynamics, history, art, etc. and practically spent every moment I could with them. I was friends with their daughter and brother who were a little older than me. I still am to this day.
I felt, in a way, that I could identify and define the skin that I wore. I felt, in a way, that I wasn’t swimming upstream but falling like a waterfall. Years of growing up in a Caucasian family and here I am feeling more comfortable eating kimchi and bulgogi within weeks of knowing this family.
Skip to my college years. Worked at a retail clothing store. Two Korean girls walk in and with my very limited Korean, could somewhat understand and/or figure out that they were definitely Korean. They checked out and I spoke to them for a little in Korean. Immediately, they started laughing at me and were insulting me in Korean as if I didn’t understand or know. They took their purchases and left. I was stunned. Speechless. Why was I so embraced my by childhood Korean friends and shunned by these girls? Here I am, a college bound woman, with tears welling in my eyes, hardened by the fact that I don’t fit. Not with the Koreans. Not with the Caucasians.
I wanted to identify with something, someone, some culture. I wanted to identify with my own skin. My eyes. My color.
I have a hard time sometimes understanding others’ experiences as a minority. Not just racism, but experiences in general as a person of color in our tossed salad of a culture in the U.S. It’s not that I put myself above anyone else or below — I just cannot relate or understand as I am not part of - or can identify with solely — one race or “category” of people. In a way, being an adopted Asian American breeds another group of people. Not just a racial minority but a minority within the minority; being adopted and layered within another level of society.
I’ve come to accept this and if anything, this adds more depth to our society and American culture. It took me thirty something years to figure out something I had been up hill battling to find the sense of self that I wanted. To identify and know there are others like myself. To know that as an adoptee, there were birth parents and parents carrying out my future to live and be raised and most of all, be loved and accepted.