Too often when discussing adoption, discourse attempts to highlight what has been gained and who has benefited. A child “finds” a family. A couple “gains” a child. Lives are “fulfilled.” Everyone is “grateful.” I can’t begin to count how many times this narrative has been told, especially by others about my own adoption story. While it has been a never-ending song played over the course of my life, what hasn’t been openly discussed is the loss and erasure of culture that I have felt as a transracial adoptee. Many are quick to point out (and gleefully so) what I have gained. What hasn’t been discussed is what has been lost.

The loss is multi-faceted, with it being tied into much of how I have identified myself. It also ties into how others have identified me in the past and how they continue to identify me. As a child it was incredibly difficult navigating through this, being the only transracial adoptee in my family and also growing up in a “colorblind” household. There’s been a lack of accountability from my adoptive parents with respect to acknowledging and accepting the difficulties in raising a Korean child among the whiteness of Minnesota. Even as an adult, it’s very difficult for them to acknowledge that there are many aspects of my life (being a woman of color, being an adoptee) that they will never understand.

Many of my stories and experiences have been internalized due in part to this disconnect. It’s not that I don’t think they will listen, because I know they will. It’s that I don’t believe they truly understand how difficult it has been and how much the loss of culture (tied through identity) has affected me throughout my life.

Well, you’re not really Asian

I remember all too well when I was in college and someone started chatting me up. “Wow! Your English is really good” is one of the first things that came out of their mouth. It was then followed by “I bet your mom makes really good food” (alluding to the assumption that my mother is Chinese and that I am as well). I’m sorry, what? I was a little surprised at how brazen this individual was, never having had someone say this type of thing to my face. I had been mocked as a child for being Asian, however as an older individual, I had never come across this type of interaction. Now, I have come to learn that these types of incidents are not isolated. There has been a consistent shock that I know more about Norwegian food and culture than I do Korean. The cherry on top of the shit cake of that particular conversation in college was that it ended with, “well, you’re not really Asian.” I guess in their eyes because I didn’t have an Asian name or Asian parents, I wasn’t really Asian.

Pray tell, if I am not Asian, then what exactly am I?

What’s in a Name

In addition to not having an accent (many individuals are surprised by this), I also have a very Scandinavian name. I was at a funeral last summer when an extended family member of my husband came up to me and asked what I called myself. I told them, to which they replied, “oh no, I mean what is YOUR NAME?” as if my actual name was not good enough. They continued to press on, then asking “well how is that possible?” to which my husband then told them I grew up in Minnesota. “You mean you were born and raised in Minnesota?” they continued on. They were in disbelief because their son-in-law is Vietnamese and he had a different “American” name. Utterly dumbfounded,they were aghast that the Asian woman standing in front of them didn’t have a god damned Asian name too. At that point because it was a family funeral and I didn’t want to cause a scene, I disengaged from the conversation and excused myself to the restroom.

As a child there were countless times where adults laughed at my name, leaving me to feel awkward and harshly judged. Yes, I am Korean-American and yes, I have a very Scandinavian name. I still don’t see the humor now, much less see how laughing at a child because of their name could be warranted in any way. As I have grown older, the name issue has not lessened although the laughter has dissipated. Replacing the laughter, I am now on the receiving end of quizzical looks during interviews when the interviewer realizes that I am not the White woman they expected to see.

Korean Culture Camp

From grades 3-6 I attended Korean Culture Camp in Minnesota. From an outside perspective it seemed like a great way for a Korean adoptee to learn about their birth country and culture. I enjoyed learning about Korean culture but I also felt extremely detached from everything. We were learning about a culture that we should have already known, learning a language that was now foreign to us. The teachers were Korean with Korean names and it just made me realize how disconnected I was from Korea as a whole. The culture, the language, everything. As much as I wanted to like the camp as much as other students seemed to, there was an immense amount of sadness that I could never shake. I longed to feel as though I was culturally Korean and the camp just reinforced the feeling that I would never be, no matter how hard I tried.

I think there is value with culture camps, but it’s very individualistic and personal to adoptees. As with many things connected to adoption, every adoptee will have a different feeling and thoughts on attending culture camps. I know some KADs that really enjoyed the camps and still look back at them fondly, as an integral part of their childhood. I also know others that thought they were weird camps, never attended them, and don’t regret it.

Finding a Way Back “Home”

Introspection has played a large role in my life, with it offering a level of peace that is immeasurable to me. It has taken many years to get to a point where I am comfortable with who I am (more or less), accepting that I will most likely be an outlier in many situations. Perhaps the acceptance is due to lived experiences, learning from them and growing from them. Perhaps it’s because I refuse to be defined by others. I will continue to defy and break the mold of how others view me and that’s something that I have come to acknowledge and value.

As far as connecting more with Korea, I’ve come to find that my connection comes and goes. There are times when I feel really connected (oddly enough that connection became stronger when I started watching K dramas) and other times when I still feel very disconnected. It’s a new normal for me, something that I think will always ebb and flow. While I no longer feel completely disconnected, I also can’t deny that the loss of culture will always be there. Like a wound that eventually heals but leaves a scar, the loss will always be with me. It is now a part of me, it is a part of who I am.

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One thought on “Loss and Erasure of Culture as a Transracial Adoptee”

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s important your voice is heard. I think you’ll find those of us in international, interracial marriages that have adopted to be validating. We see how much transracial adoptees have lost and the challenges you’ve faced alone. It’s heat breaking. I started learning about transracial adoptees’ experiences after we found ourselves on a list that didn’t give any priority to who was adopting. Despite adopting from my wife’s own country and race, we had to wait behind mostly white couples. It was horrible watching baby-after-baby have their identities erased by “loving, colorblind families…” We’ve been together almost twenty years and have lived in both countries. On paper, I’m the ideal transracial adopting parent, but the cold, hard reality is my wife gives our kids things that I never can, so it’s my roll to support her. Frankly, I treasure raising our kids in her and her family’s image and I cherish the fact English is the second language in our house. It’s also my roll to manage my “colorblind” side of the family. Again, thank you for sharing. I’m sure it’s difficult putting yourself out there. Lastly, please continue to explore your Korean identity and most importantly pursue whatever brings you peace.

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