Answering intrusive questions about my nationality, ethnicity, and family structure have become so routine that I almost don’t challenge the validity of these interrogations. Being both transracially adopted and Korean in America, somehow signals to people that it’s okay to pry and that I will answer. I found myself in new terrain the other day, when, during a friendly conversation, the person I was speaking with said, “Oh, your family is Korean.” It wasn’t a question or comment of surprise. She was simply confirming what I had just said, which must have been that I was Korean. I don’t remember the exact flow of the conversation. All I remember was the interruption of the dialogue as I zeroed in on her acknowledgement that my family is Korean.
A brief second and time stood still.
Should I clarify that I’m adopted and my family is white? I mean, it’s not incorrect that my family is also Korean. Regardless of if you believe family is what you make it or that love and care defines family, very few would disagree that people immediately related by blood are also ‘family.’ In fact quite the opposite, people often refer to my biologicals as my ‘real’ family. As in, “Have you ever tried to find your ‘real’ parents? Why not?” Whereas, the incredulity is reserved for my (adoptive) parents. “That’s your dad?”
The moment passed.
It was odd to sit in an existence where my family is simply Korean and whatever the concomitant assumptions are about who I am, my experiences, my views. Simply being Korean does not begin to describe me, but similarly being a Korean adopted by a white family doesn’t either. Both obscure more than they reveal.
It was an unfamiliar moment for me. To not clarify. To not be under investigation. To simply respond to the ethnicity question and not the countless others that typically follow. I felt like I, in some way, had engaged in deception, as if I were passing for something other than who I am and who I have been conditioned to believe I am.
These thoughts resurfaced a couple weeks ago when I saw that June is Immigrant Heritage Month. Despite having an alien registration card, then becoming a naturalized citizen, and the general, ever-present knowledge that I was not born in the U.S., I have never self-identified as an immigrant (and research finds that most Korean adoptees don’t). That has never been the story explaining international adoption. In national and familial narratives meant to normalize international (and typically transracial) adoption, the focus has been on accentuating similarity and downplaying difference. It is quite the paradox – difference is what made the family yet once joined that difference is meant to be erased. It is how I can simultaneously be an immigrant and not-quite an immigrant.
But what does it mean when difference is erased, when a simple turn of language changes how children adopted internationally are categorized from eligible orphan to immigrant to simply U.S. citizen’s family member. These elisions do not eradicate questions about perceived differences. While efforts are made to pass transnational transracial adoptees as like the family, like white, like American, the shortcomings of such a ruse are made clear. Passing is predicated on demarcations of insider-outsider. To pass means operating within the logics of those lines in order to quietly cross them.
Was I passing? Passing as what? For what? For whom?
I continue to ruminate on these questions. Unlike the prying questions imposed by family members, strangers, and friends, questions meant to help the asker make sense of something they don’t understand, these query the questions themselves. Yet they are similar. In the end, they are questions about belonging.
So I ask you: Where do you belong?