America's Adopted Koreans, Part 1: What's Your Name?

by Sarah Idzik

Trust me, this was impossible to art

When I was in sixth grade, a girl I knew accosted me one day in the stairwell, staring up at something on my face. When I tried to sidestep, she followed. I asked what she was looking at.

“Don’t you know?” she said. I shook my head. “It’s your nose!”

I stared at her uncomprehendingly. “Your nose! It’s flat right here!” She rubbed her own nose bridge with her fingers. “See how mine has a bump? Yours doesn’t.”

I felt the same place on my own nose. She was right: Where she had a ridge, sprinkled with freckles, I had none. I never would have noticed the difference if she hadn’t pointed it out.

I was adopted from South Korea in 1986, when I was three months old. That year, 6,150 Korean children were adopted to the United States-59% of all children adopted in the U.S. that year. Americans had begun their love affair with Korean adoption in 1955, when an Oregon farmer named Harry Holt and his wife first adopted eight South Korean children orphaned by the Korean War. But an increasing number of South Korean infants born out of wedlock to working-class mothers, typically factory workers, and a decreasing number of domestic U.S. adoptions due to socioeconomic factors like the availability of birth control and legalized abortion contributed to an explosion in the numbers of Korean adoptions to the U.S., which hit their peak right around 1986.

The vast majority of the adoptive American parents were white.

This meant a lot of Asian babies growing up in white communities, with white families, friends, and classmates-essentially, a lot of Asian babies growing up culturally white. More than 100,000 South Koreans have been adopted to the U.S. since 1958, making us the largest group of transracial adoptees in this country. But little is commonly known about the unique adult (or nearly adult) Korean adoptee experience in the United States, in particular the effects of growing up in white communities on the identities of Korean adoptees.

Last year, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute published a study on identity and adoption, the most comprehensive of its kind to date. Of the 179 respondents surveyed who were born in South Korea and adopted by two white parents, 78% percent said that they considered themselves to be-or wanted to be-white as children.

This is why, as an eleven-year-old growing up in a smallish, very predominantly white Pittsburgh suburb, I couldn’t guess what it was my fellow classmate was staring at. As far as I was concerned, I looked just like the girl with the freckles. In the 80s, the prevailing approach to raising adopted Asian babies was, for the most part, to assimilate them. There is a wealth of good intentions at the heart of this approach, but also a very generous dose of idealism. I had a great upbringing and a wonderful family in which I never doubted my place, but no matter how determined we are as a society to insist that our nontraditional families are just the same as all other American families, this is only true up to a certain point. The dynamics and relationships in my family were no different from those of my white peers, but there was one key difference between us and them: my brother and I just did not look like our parents. And while that was an easy thing for family to overlook, it isn’t necessarily taken for granted by everyone else.

“The people that loved me, and my real friends, they didn’t see it,” Rachel, an old friend who was adopted at six months old and grew up in the same town, told me. “And while I knew I wasn’t white, when you’re in a protective bubble, you almost forget that as easy it is for loved ones to not see you, it’s just as easy for you to stick out to others… I know that I look different. But when I’m walking around or living life, I don’t even think that I stick out.”

Rachel said that she wanted to be white when she was younger, but now, “I want to be understood as a person… I want to be seen as an individual, and not with an entire ‘Asian’ group. I want to be just another person, just like everybody else.”

I felt the same way growing up. I wanted desperately to fit in, to be seen as just another kid and not as one out of the four Asians at school. Every moment of casual discrimination felt like a betrayal by the culture that I felt I belonged to, or that I longed to belong to. The encounter with the girl who pointed out my lack of a nose bridge wasn’t just confusing and disorienting; it was, in its own way, traumatizing. 80% of adopted Koreans in the Adoption Institute study responded that they had experienced racial discrimination from strangers. 75% said they’d experienced it with classmates, and 48% reported having negative race-related experiences with childhood friends.

The result is often a sense of identity in constant crisis. We are, in many ways, people in between cultures, sometimes fondly referred to as Twinkies: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. “My friends often tell me, ‘Caroline, you’re the whitest Asian we know,’” Caroline, a 24-year-old from Oklahoma who was adopted from Korea when she was three months old, told me. “It’s true and I’m okay with that.” That’s a sentiment I hear a lot too, about myself. But being in between cultures often results in feeling out of place in both. In high school, I made light of my being different by keeping up running jokes with my friends about being Asian, but when I got to college and saw that a large portion of my classmates were Asian, I knew that I couldn’t make the same jokes, because I had no real claim to that culture.

Rachel admits to feeling guilty when other Asians can tell her ethnicity, because she “can’t tell them what they are and I can’t tell them anything about being Korean.” She cops to awkwardness at the hair salon she goes to, where she can’t satisfactorily answer the questions of her Korean hairdresser about whether she likes kimchi or has been to the local Korean church. “Have you ever thought that having an American name hurt you?” she asked me. “White people say, ‘What’s your name?’And I say, ‘Rachel Kaylor.’ And they say, ‘That’s not Asian.’ And then Asian people may ask me and they wonder, ‘That’s not Asian. What was your Asian name and why didn’t you keep it?’”

There are signs of improvement, of course. As we all get older, we will likely become more and more comfortable with who we are, and with our unique place in American society. Most respondents in the Adoption Institute study said that they had developed some comfort with their race/ethnicity as adults.

But a not-insignificant 34% responded that they still remain uncomfortable or only somewhat comfortable with their race/ethnicity. There’s a long way to go yet before the Asian adoptee community in the U.S., still a fairly young, scattered, and in many ways, unknown group, is entirely comfortable in its own skin… flat nose bridge and all.

Sarah Idzik is a writer living in Chicago. She cannot point you to the nearest Korean grocery.