Korean Adoptees Speak Out
In 1996, Families with Children from China of Greater New York hosted a panel of Korean teenagers and young adults who were adopted by Caucasian families and asked them to discuss their experiences. The following is an edited version of that conversation. Kara, then 19, was adopted when she was 17 months old. She grew up in Manhattan and was attending Syracuse University. Anna was 16 and lived in St. Cloud, Minnesota. She was adopted the month before she turned five. Joy, then 25, was adopted at six and grew up in upstate New York. Jesse was in his senior year at the Pieldston School in the Bronx. He was adopted at 19 months.
Q. What was going to school like? Did you encounter racism?
ANNA: When I got into junior high and high school, I got a lot of teasing. Because I was a girl, it was in sexual terms. I got called a prostitute, a concubine -with a few lewd words added.
JESSE: I encountered racism at the school I went to through eighth grade. The best thing that parents can do is prepare your kids. You can’t say, “If I send my kid to this school he’s not going to get teased.” The teasing is inevitable. No matter what school you send your kids to, you have to prepare them, tell them the things that might happen and give them a way to handle it. Everyone kept asking if I was Chinese. I remember my mom saying to me, “If they say this, tell them you’re Korean and that Chinese people and Korean people do look alike and Asians do look alike, but we are different.” Then if people ask you about why you look different from your mother and your father, you can start explaining about adoption.
KARA: I went to a private all-girls high school in the city from kindergarten through 12th grade. I didn’t have to deal with racism in my class because I had been there forever. Still, I did get comments. The big thing was “Why don’t your parents look like you?” or “Oh, that’s probably her baby-sitter, it can’t be her mom.” My mom told me everything I needed to know, so if anyone has a question I can answer them, but it’s my choice whether I want to. It’s important to know that you don’t have to answer, that you don’t have to explain yourself or your family.
Now that I’m in college, I’m starting all over again. Sometimes people ask, “Is that your real mother?” And then I have to explain the difference between “real” mother and “biological mother.” But there are times when people just get a little too pushy and too rude, and I say, it’s just none of your business.” I’ve learned to just walk away — it’s nothing to get upset about.
No matter how hard you try to protect them, your kids will encounter racism. I think the most important thing is to try and get them to figure out how they can take that and, instead of becoming angry, learn from it. When I hear something racist now, I think ugh. But then I realize whoever is saying it wasn’t blessed with the education I was. Don’t get mad, just learn. I think in the end you will turn out to be a much stronger person.
JOY: One day, my mother and I were walking down the street and a Korean woman came up to her and said, “You know if your husband stopped smoking, you could get pregnant. They’re Korean aren’t they,” she said, pointing to me and my sister. My mother said, “Yes, what does that have to do with you?” And she just walked away. And I was like “Oh, wow. My mom, All right!” She knew what she wanted from the very beginning. She knew that she wanted to adopt a kid and she did it. That was the strength that I learned from.
I think the first time that racism really hit me was when I was in college, dealing with other Asians. They would say “Well how come you can’t speak Korean?” “Don’t you know how to use chopsticks?” They would deliberately speak Korean in front of me so I couldn’t understand what they were saying. They wouldn’t introduce me to their parents.
For a while I only went out with Caucasian friends and then for a while I was only out with Asian friends. For a while I hated Korean men and for a while I loved them. For every situation, for every decision that I thought I knew, inside my heart I was still insecure about who I really was.
KARA: My mom is extremely involved in my culture. I never, up until this past summer, appreciated that. To be really honest, I really resented it. I got annoyed because I got dragged here and there to immerse myself in this culture that just did not interest me at all. I thought, there are so many other things that I am… this is just not important to me. But this summer I realized that having my mom interested in something that was just solely mine and not hers really gave me a feeling that she absolutely loved me and that she would accept this part of me.
ANNA: My mom is exactly the same way. My suggestion to you is, do it. Your kids might kick and scream, but in the long run, they are going to benefit. There are parts of Korean culture that I do not like at all, but I have to accept that. It’s the place where I was born. And I can choose not to like it, but that is still my culture, a part of who I am.
JESSE: My parents incorporated adoption into our everyday life. It’s not just bringing it up in a discussion once a month, it’s something that is part of our lives. Make your kids understand that they’re not a second choice to having biological children, make them feel wanted and that they’re not really that different from a biological child.
ANNA: Know that these are your kids. Don’t think just because they didn’t come from your womb that they’re not yours.
When I was going through hard times in my life it was because I felt I didn’t belong. I have gone to culture camp for a long, long time, 11 or 12 years. And I still keep those friendships even though all of us don’t dress the same or like the same music. Like with me and Kara, we can just talk about things that we cannot talk about with anybody else. And just to have that relationship is very important to me.
KARA: It really took me a long time to come to grips with who I was. I looked at Koreans the way Caucasians see them, and I know that I’m not like that. I went to the other extreme. For example, I know that they’re considered to be quiet, and I am not quiet. I know that they’re considered to be very submissive, so I became very pushy.
Anna was my first Asian friend. Up until her, I had a problem hanging out with Korean people because I would see people look at me and I would see them clump me together with them, like, “Those are the Asian kids.”
Q. When you heard your adoption stories, were you very young? Have you heard them many times? How did you feel? Did you hear them right away? Should we tell our children they were abandoned?
JOY: Don’t tell them that they were abandoned and just leave it at that. But you can tell them that is the beginning of the story. But it goes on: how your child came to be yours. The end of the story is that she came to America and she’s with you.
JESSE: The story can be real painful, but you have to tell them. It’s something they are going to eventually find out, and the sooner, the better. What my mom always told me was how my family, which could be true, was too poor and that they wanted to have me and they loved me.
KARA: I think you should wait for them to ask before you bring up the issue of abandonment. My mom told me my adoption story from the beginning. And when I finally understood what she was talking about I didn’t automatically ask about my biological mother. I would not have wanted to know, and I would not have wanted that information pushed on me. When I was ready to ask, then I asked and they told me.
Q. I struggle with when to show my daughter pictures of her orphanage. When is it appropriate?
(Unknown): My sisters were adopted from an orphanage that was disgusting. We had photos of them there, and they went into their albums. But when they look at the pictures, they see their friends. They don’t say, “Oh, it’s so dirty” or “Their noses are running.”
JESSE: If you have them, show them. We don’t have any pictures of me when I was at the orphanage, but we do have a picture of me looking very sad sitting on the lap of my foster mother. It’s not a great picture, but it’s very important for me. It’s the first picture on the first page of my photo album. I think that all the background stuff should be put in and should be incorporated into the child’s life because it is where they came from.
Q. Was it important for you to have siblings with whom you can share your past?
JESSE: I have a 13-year-old sister, also adopted from Korea. When she came, I was so incredibly happy to have someone in the house who I could be attached to differently from my parents and who I could feel, “Well, she’s Korean, too. She looks like me.” It was wonderful.
Q. None of you have mentioned much about the pain or anger of your early situation. Do you carry that around with you?
JOY: I’m angry, not because I’m adopted, but I’m angry because our society is so un-welcoming to children. I looked at these children at the orphanage I worked at in Korea and they were just children. It wasn’t their fault they were abandoned. I think about my biological mother and all I can say is “I’m so sorry that this happened to you.”
It doesn’t matter that I’m Korean or that my parents are Caucasian. It matters that I was a child and that my parents had the decency to love me. But there are so many other children out there that don’t have that. I feel very fortunate and very grateful about that, but I’m just at the age where I’m saying, “Why? Why does this have to happen? It’s just not right. It’s not fair.”
KARA: A couple of months ago I asked my mom, “What would have happened if I hadn’t been adopted?” Had I not been adopted I would probably right now be working somewhere in some kind of factory or out in some field and not have goals that I have now. I don’t feel guilty or angry. It scares me, it really frightens me to think that I would not have been able to think, ” I want to do this and I want to do that and change the world,” Had I not been adopted, I think my goal would be to get food on the table on a daily basis.
When I think of that, it really frightens me. To think that I could walk around this earth only thinking, “Well tomorrow I have to get up for work and do the same thing day in and day out,” that scares me. The fact that my life could have been so ordinary it really scares me. But now I have this exceptional opportunity. That fear, I hope, will motivate me to take advantage of it.
Reprinted with permission from Families with Children from China of Greater New York newsletter, January 1997